Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Night Counter: Every life has 1,001 stories to tell

Scheherazade had to get her stories from somewhere, didn’t she? In Alia Yunis’ The Night Counter, we meet the immortal storyteller as she is winding down the end of her 1,001 nights of stories from Fatima Abdullah, matriarch of a large and scattered clan of Lebanese Americans. Now in her mid-80s, Fatima is counting down the nights of her life, and we meet her as she is finally getting to her most personal stories – the ones that are hardest to tell, because they are about her adult life.

Fatima’s experience mirrors that of many Lebanese-Americans. Fatima’s marriage to her first husband, Marwan, was arranged. Marwan had grown up in the United States and had traveled back to Lebanon to find a bride. The couple arrives back in Detroit, where Marwan is a union organizer, during the Great Depression. After Marwan’s untimely death, a pregnant Fatima marries her husband’s best friend, and together they raise a typical first generation American family in the suburbs of Detroit.

The book spans both Fatima’s early life in Lebanon and her life in the United States. But not surprisingly, it’s the relationships between Fatima, her husbands, her children and her numerous grandchildren that are the heart of the novel – these are the stories Scheherazade is dying to hear, because they illustrate the immutable (love, betrayal, anger, forgiveness) and the current moment in time (higher education, anti-Islam, interfaith marriage, even computer dating).

"We have memories so that we can share them." Scheherazade sighed for the second time that night. "Otherwise God wouldn't have given us the ability to remember."

Without giving anything away, the large clan allows Yunis to cover the breadth and depth of the first generation American experience, from those who embrace their roots to those who would do anything to bury them deeper.

I really enjoyed this book, because it delivered not only a range of characters but a range of emotions. It was like a family gathering in novel form, with some laughs, some tears, some unpleasant memories, and a shared history that can only be understood by having lived it. Fatima, in particular, reminded me of my own grandmother, who was herself the wife of a teamster organizer – she was cranky and blunt and protective and loyal. Fatima is not a warm and fuzzy, baking-cookies kind of grandma, but she is still motivated by her great love for her family. And she is constrained by the time she was born in and the culture she was raised in; throughout the novel we see her difficulties in understanding and accepting her children’s very different realities.

I thank Marie at Boston Bibliophile for this recommendation, and highly recommend it myself. In the post-September 11 era, I think it’s especially worth considering how very typical of the American experience the story of the Abdullah clan truly is.


  1. Oh I haven't heard of this one before but it sounds fabulous! I love books set in other countries and I think this one sounds perfect to add to my list.

  2. Great review, thank you! I hadn't heard of this one before, but it sounds so interesting. Any book that can run the emotional gamut has got to be a good one!


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