The Night Counter

( 4 )

Overview

After 85 long years, Fatimah Abdullah is dying, and she knows when her time will come. In fact, it should come just nine days from tonight, the 992nd nightly visit of Scheherazade, the beautiful and immortal storyteller from the epic The Arabian Nights.

Just as Scheherazade spun magical stories for 1,001 nights to save her own life, Fatima has spent each night telling Scheherazade her life stories, all the while knowing that on the 1,001st night, her storytelling will end ...

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The Night Counter

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Overview

After 85 long years, Fatimah Abdullah is dying, and she knows when her time will come. In fact, it should come just nine days from tonight, the 992nd nightly visit of Scheherazade, the beautiful and immortal storyteller from the epic The Arabian Nights.

Just as Scheherazade spun magical stories for 1,001 nights to save her own life, Fatima has spent each night telling Scheherazade her life stories, all the while knowing that on the 1,001st night, her storytelling will end forever. But between tonight and night 1,001, Fatima has a few loose ends to tie up. She must find a wife for her openly gay grandson, teach Arabic (and birth control) to her 17-year-old great-granddaughter, make amends with her estranged husband, and decide which of her troublesome children should inherit her family's home in Lebanon—a house she herself has not seen in nearly 70 years. All this while under the surveillance of two bumbling FBI agents eager to uncover Al Qaeda in Los Angeles.

But Fatima’s children are wrapped up in their own chaotic lives and disinterested in their mother or their inheritances. As Fatima weaves the stories of her husband, children, and grandchildren, we meet a visionless psychic, a conflicted U.S. soldier, a gynecologist who has a daughter with a love of shoplifting and a tendency to get unexpectedly pregnant, a Harvard-educated alcoholic cab driver edging towards his fifth marriage, a lovelorn matchmaker, and a Texas homecoming queen. Taken in parts, Fatima’s relations are capricious and steadfast, affectionate and smothering, connected yet terribly alone. Taken all together, they present a striking and surprising tapestry of modern Arab American life.

Shifting between the U.S. and Lebanon over the last hundred years, Alia Yunis crafts a bewitching novel imbued with great humanity, imagination, and a touch of magic realism. Be prepared to be utterly charmed.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Wonderfully imaginative…poignant, hilarious…The branches of this family tree support four generations of achievement, assimilation, disappointment, and dysfunction…Their stories form an affectionate, amusing, intensely human portrait of one family."
Boston Globe

"The Abdullahs are anything but a Norman Rockwell painting, but in their own way, they are a very typical American family. They may have their differences but they also have their stories. And, as Scheherazade points out, in the end, that's what holds a family (much like a nation) together."
Christian Science Monitor

"THE NIGHT COUNTER, Alia Yunis' first novel, mixes equal parts of magical realism, social commentary, family drama and lighthearted humor to create a delicious and intriguing indulgence worth savoring."
Minneapolis Star Tribune

"Yunis, a Chicago-born professor living in Abu Dhabi, weaves a colorful tapestry…rich in character and spirit."
Entertainment Weekly

"Little pigs and lost siblings make for decent bedtime story fodder. But the life and times of Fatima Abdullah, the madcap matriarch of Alia Yunis's charming debut, THE NIGHT COUNTER, is even better."
–Daily Candy

"In this captivating debut, Yunis takes readers on a magic carpet ride….[A] sometimes serious, sometimes funny, but always touching tale of a Middle Eastern family putting down deep roots on U.S. soil."
Publishers Weekly

"Yunis' book club-ready debut uses The Arabian Nights as a departure point for an immigrant-assimilation story....Emotionally rewarding reading that builds to a poignant and thoroughly satisfying climax."
Kirkus Reviews, starred review

"Yunis' debut is a magical, whimsical read with plenty of humor and heart."
Booklist

"A vibrant, moving story that blurs the boundaries of dream and reality, past and present, innocence and wisdom."
–Laila Lalami, author of Secret Son

"An enchanting debut that winks and glitters like the bangles that line Scheherazade's arms. THE NIGHT COUNTER is funny, sly, charming, delicious, madcap — and a gorgeous celebration of the way stories weave and shape our lives."
–Carolyn Turgeon, author of Godmother

"A gracefully-written multi-generational tale—warm, wise, and often funny—that reveals the inevitable illusions that push families apart, and hold them together."
–Will North, author of Water, Stone, Heart and The Long Walk Home

Carolyn See
Some people write about death, dying and tragedy as if they were death, dying and tragedy. Others—God bless them—just don't carry the genes for drama or melodrama; they look at the world with all its flaws and suffering, and something about the situation strikes them funny…This is a plot-heavy book…But The Night Counter is also lighthearted, full of silly plays on words and comedic errors. In this easy-seeming way, the author aims, without being in any way preachy about it, to give us a short history of the Middle East and the Muslim faith in America—to say: Don't be so quick to misunderstand us; we are, in so many of the ways detailed here, the same as you. She succeeds, very gracefully.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

In this captivating debut, Yunis takes readers on a magic carpet ride examining the lives of Fatima Abdullah and her huge dysfunctional family. Imitating Scheherazade, Fatima-in a clever twist-spins her own tales to the legendary storyteller. And she has plenty of material: Fatima is dying, and more interested in her prized possessions-including a house in Lebanon-than in reuniting her splintered offspring and her estranged husband, Ibraham, whose enduring love is proved in a neat twist at the end of the novel. Fatima's family is all over the country, all with issues, including daughter Laila battling breast cancer in Detroit, openly gay actor grandson Amir in Los Angeles and pregnant great-granddaughter Aisha in Minneapolis. Gradually, Fatima learns that her true treasure isn't the house in Lebanon that she's pined after for decades, but her imperfect, loving family. Add in a bumbling neophyte FBI agent seeing al-Qaeda smoke where there is no fire and the result is a sometimes serious, sometimes funny, but always touching tale of a Middle Eastern family putting down deep roots on U.S. soil. (July)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Fatima Abdullah is 85 and expects to depart this life soon. In fact, she thinks it will be after she has her last nightly visit from Scheherazade, the legendary storyteller from The Arabian Nights. Fatima has been telling her stories to her nightly visitor for 992 nights now, so there's just a few more to go. Fatima herself is not at a loss for stories since she immigrated to Detroit from a village in Lebanon when she was 15, married twice and raised ten children, all but one of whom have left Detroit. Her children and grandchildren live all over the place, and the stories bounce from Los Angeles to Houston to Minneapolis to Beirut and back to Detroit again. VERDICT This first novel by a journalist and filmmaker with Middle Eastern roots is a warm, feel-good story of complicated family ties, long-buried secrets, and last-minute surprises. It gives insight into the lives of Lebanese immigrants in America and would be a good selection for book clubs. [See Prepub Alert, LJ3/15/09.]—Leslie Patterson, Brown Univ. Lib., Providence, RI


—Leslie Patterson
Kirkus Reviews
Yunis' book club-ready debut uses The Arabian Nights as a departure point for an immigrant-assimilation story. The central character, around whom a cast of dozens revolves like a time piece, is Fatima Abdullah: purple-haired mother, grandmother and Lebanese migrant who settled in Detroit in the 1930s. The book opens, however, with an older Fatima in contemporary West Hollywood; the conservative but flexible matron moved there 992 nights ago to live with her gay grandson Amir. On that first night, she had a visit from none other than Scheherazade herself. The Arab beauty with 1,001 tales demanded stories from Fatima's past, and when asked "What if I don't tell you a story?" she replied, "When our tales are over, so are our lives." Now Fatima is counting down to night No. 1,001, believing it will bring her death at the age of 85. Yunis' gifted handling of character and environment forestalls the question of whether Fatima is insane or gifted with magical thinking as she debates and ruminates with Scheherazade about life, family and America. The only relative willing to tolerate her unintentionally hilarious outbursts is Amir, an aspiring actor struggling against typecasting as a terrorist (his dream role is the lead in an Omar Sharif biopic). He's bitter over his breakup with a sexy soap-opera star-whose driveway, we learn, has been conscripted for spying purposes by the FBI, which has mistaken the Abdullahs' family dramas for national-security concerns. Yunis cleverly weaves a vast social web containing Fatima's ten offspring, beginning each vignette with the matriarch's musings about her kids, which lead Scheherazade to fly around America eavesdropping on the wildly diverse clan. Readersmay occasionally get lost in the rain of names and details, but the characters' grounded humanity and emotional clarity always provide orientation. Emotionally rewarding reading that builds to a poignant and thoroughly satisfying climax. Author events in Los Angeles. Agent: Jennifer Carlson/Dunow, Carlson & Lerner
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307453624
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 7/14/2009
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 6.60 (w) x 9.58 (h) x 1.42 (d)

Meet the Author

Raised in Chicago, ALIA YUNIS has worked as a journalist and filmmaker in Los Angeles and the Middle East. Currently a professor of communications at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, Yunis is a PEN Emerging Voices fellow. This is her first novel.

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Reading Group Guide

1. The granddaughter of one of Lebanon’s greatest matchmakers, Fatima tries her hand at traditional matchmaking with disastrous results. How do Fatima’s methods compare to those of her grandson Zade, who runs a professional matchmaking service for Arabs? Is modern matchmaking any more of a business transaction than traditional matchmaking? Why are so many of the family members unable to find a match? Why does it prove difficult to find or recognize love? Is Ibrahim correct when he says, “It takes confidence to love a woman,”and how does that apply to the issues of identity in this novel?

2. On the surface, Fatima’s stories about the house in Lebanon are a way of passing on her heritage to the next generation. Is that their only function? In what ways do Fatima’s memories of the house serve as a hiding place or a coping mechanism? Why does Scheherazade push Fatima to stop talking about the house and instead tell a passionate love story?

3. How do Fatima’s descendents navigate their identities as Arab Americans? What impact do the terrorist attacks of 9/11 have on the members of the Abdullah family? Which characters present themselves as either more traditionally American or more traditionally Arab, depending on who they are trying to impress? Which characters are the most honest about who they are? How do you feel about Randa, who goes to the greatest lengths to assimilate? Do you feel her efforts to erase her Arab identity are any better or worse than Amir’s efforts to exploit his Arab identity by playing to stereotypes? What does it mean to be a normal or typical American?

4. From Scheherazade’s impudent banter to a cheeky matchmaking questionnaire to inept FBI agents reaching outlandish conclusions, the novel is loaded with humor. Why do you think the author decided to take a comedic approach to a novel about the Arab American experience? Does the use of humor help to defuse the stereotypes associated with Arab Americans? The author also deals with weighty issues including love, identity, and loss. Do you find the comedic element adds to the poignancy of these themes? Would the novel have the same emotional impact if the writing had been more solemn?

5. Were you familiar with Scheherazade as the narrator of The Arabian Nights before you read this book? How would you describe Scheherazade? Did the depiction of Scheherazade and other female characters change your impression of Arab and Arab American women? If yes, how so?

6. Scheherazade flies all over the United States and to the Middle East on her magic carpet in order to observe the members of the Abdullah clan. Why did the author choose this narrative technique? Would the novel have been as effective if the story had been told entirely from Fatima’s point of view?

7. Discuss the use of inshallah or “God willing.” Do you agree with Ibrahim when he says, “No need to regret the past. He could not have changed it even before it started”? How much control do you think we have over our own destinies?

8. The traditional dish kibbe brings the characters together in surprising ways. Think back on the scenes that involve kibbe. What role does food and the making of food play?

9. Why does Laila serve pork to her husband and his friends as a “secret revenge?” What point is she making about religion, faith, and her disease?

10. Even though Amir sends out an e-mail telling Fatima’s children that she spends her time attending funerals and talking to herself, none of them are concerned enough to visit until she cuts off her trademark purple hair. Why is this cause for alarm? What does the cutting of her hair represent?

11. What does the fig tree symbolize? What conditions allow the fig tree to bloom? Why does Fatima want to call Ibrahim to share the news that the tree has fruited?

12. Fatima can’t read, but her math is “never wrong.” Many of her offspring also have an affinity for numbers. What do they find comforting about numbers and math problems? When Decimal calculates that her baby will be “three-eighths more Arab than me and just three-eighths less Arab than you,” why does Fatima say “it just didn’t make her happy what it equaled her family to be”? What do numbers fail to take into account?

13. Fatima says her children “do not often tell the truth about anything but the weather.” Why do they talk so much about the weather? How does your understanding of all of the siblings change once you learn about the twins’ deaths? What secrets are being kept and why? Why do the Abdullahs feel compelled to protect each other from the truth? Would their lives have been different if they had told the truth and how?

14. Fatima learns two family secrets through letters. Why is it significant that hidden truths are revealed in letters? How are the letters and the larger theme of storytelling connected? What is the purpose of memories, according to Scheherazade? What does she mean when she says, “To deal with one’s stories alone would be too much for any soul”?

15. Inheritances are a central preoccupation of this novel. What legacies, passed down from generation to generation, tie the Abdullah family together? Discuss the keepsakes that Fatima sets aside for her children and the meaning behind them. Why is Hala the only child who is not assigned a keepsake? Does Hala receive another kind of gift?

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Customer Reviews

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( 4 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 3, 2013

    Excellent Book

    I love this book! If you are lucky enough to still have an elder relative living and better yet, one from another country, you will definitely relate. It's very funny (although there are a few sad parts)and such a great read. I can't say enough good things about it. I highly recommend it.

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  • Posted December 5, 2009

    The Night Counter

    As I began my read I thought "Oh well at least it isn't terrible". By the time I finished I was thinking "WOW! What an amazing, quirky, interesting book." Found myself learning a wee bit about another culture, interested in ALL the characters, turning page after page in anticipation of the next turn of plot.

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  • Posted June 27, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    This is a terrific tale that keeps the audience wondering whether Fatima suffers from dementia or is a clever modern day fantasy

    Lebanese immigrant Fatima Abdullah is dying, but shows no interest in a reconciliation with her estranged husband Ibraham or for that matter with her children sprawled all over the country as she prefers to ignore their issues. She has no desire to see any of her ten offspring; their children except Amir or even her pregnant great-granddaughter; they did not want to hear her prattle about her 1001 Arabian Nights countdown.

    Instead she stays with her gay grandson Amir, who welcomes her insanity in Los Angeles as an actor who knows his town is filled with crazies so his attitude is why not one more with his blood. For the last 992 nights ever since Scheherazade visited her demanding she tells her stories, Fatima has complied. When her tales end, Scheherazade insists so does her life; as happens with everyone. With nine to go, the octogenarian expects to be dead next week even as Ibraham wants to be there for her; as does the FBI who believe the Abdullah family are a sleeper terrorist cell because of Amir's name and his association with a former lover under federal surveillance due to his former lover Amir being under federal surveillance.

    This is a terrific tale that keeps the audience wondering whether Fatima suffers from dementia or is a clever modern day fantasy. Fatima obviously owns the fast-paced novel as she begins her final countdown to what she expects is her death. Her family especially heartbroken Amir, whose lover dumped him during the countdown, provide solid support as all of them except her host assumes she is certifiable; whereas her host thinks she is an eccentric lovable kook. Sherazade plays a key role, but like the Memorex commercial one will ponder is she real or imagined as does the circular logical FBI finding perceived terrorists under any Arab sounding rock. Alia Yunis provides a powerful modern day family thriller with the twist of the FBI "interrogates" Sherazade.

    Harriet Klausner

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  • Posted June 6, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Non-stop entertainment!

    I was fortunate to read the un-proofed galley of the Night Counter and am so excited I need to review it.

    This book is so much fun to read and entertaining on so many levels, the Night Counter is a wonderful blend of fantasy and family that is worthy of Scheherazade herself. In a twist on the classic story, Scheherazade visits Fatima nightly, to hear her stories. Fatima realizes that her last night of storytelling is quickly on the horizon and she has lots to do and decide before her story comes to an end. As we travel with Fatima (and Scheherazade) through her life past and present in Lebanon and throughout the U.S.A., we find ourselves fascinated observers of lives filled with misery, foolishness, yearning and love. The Night Counter is a delightful journey through the lives of a big family, who are separated by more than distance and will touch that piece in each of us that is forever bound to and by family.

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