The New Belly Dancer Of The Galaxy

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

In her first novel, THE NEW BELLY DANCER OF THE GALAXY, Frances Khirallah Noble continues the investigation of Arab-American life she launched with her 2005 book of short fiction, The Situe Stories. This time around she goes on a deeper, more imaginative journey, using myth, magical realism and the quest for identity as narrative stepping-stones. The result is a novel of uncommon freshness and originality.

Kahlil Gibran Hourani, a 53-year-old optician of Syrian descent, is the flawed hero of THE NEW BELLY DANCER, a man

approaching despair. "He felt like a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders. He became out of sorts, moody. He kept to himself. He could barely tolerate being in his own store," is how the author introduces him. "You're healthy in body, not spirit," his wife Sophie points out, ruefully.

Kali, as the Americans call him, is so tortured by life, so obsessed with cosmic problems, that he finally runs away from his conventional middleclass existence, first in pursuit of a beautiful young girl (the wanna-be bellydancer of the book's title), then to elude the Las Vegas law-enforcement officers who mistake him for a Muslim terrorist. When they finally catch up with him, Kali is tossed into a Guantanamo-like cell, interrogated and tortured mercilessly.

Kali manages to escape into the desert where, in picaresque fashion, he meets some raffish and offbeat characters--con men, a transexual truck driver, a one-armed Vietnam vet trying to live off the land. During it all, Kali keeps asking himself the big questions about life, his place in the world, the evil he keeps encountering. Keeping him reasonably sane is the imagined presence of his dead grandmother, Situe, who counsels and calms him as best she can, all the while chain-smoking Oriental cigarettes and dispensing cryptic advice. Situe hopes Kali will finally comprehend the lessons she's trying to teach him: "that the only thing certain is change itself; that tradition counts for everything; tradition counts for nothing; that individual courage and prowess matter; that community matters."

Like Christ, who also wandered in the desert in search of enlightenment and solace, Kali finally manages to reintegrate himself with life and make peace with its "possibilities and sorrows." The infinite love that Situe has offered him is the key to Kali's acceptance of his splintered self. It also helps that she is quick to remind him that "it's a cruel world, Kali. Enjoy."

(Published by Syracuse University Press as part of its Arab American Writing Series).