Coming to Astoria is an auto-biography by an Arab immigrant whose family was displaced as the result of the creation of the modern borders of Israel in 1948. The author's family and many like them, who had lived peacefully alongside their Jewish neighbors for centuries, chose to leave Palestine and, in this case, move to Jordan due to the violence between the surrounding Arab nations and the new Jewish State.
Please note: I am not an expert on the history of the many wars and the culture of terror and exploitation in the Middle East, so I am not going to properly set the stage for this story. I do not want to be disrespectful to the real human crises in this region by misrepresenting them. However, I encourage *all* readers from around the world to look closely at the past 80 years (well, actually, 3000 or so) in the Middle East. Avoid popular media because each journalist and news outlet has a rooting interest in their writing. Read the history books and the documents from the times, and learn. The "conflict in the Middle East," as we Westerners like to sanitize and call it, is unresolved for very complicated, very violent, very ugly reasons.
Kiam's Coming to Astoria is wonderful because it gives us a first-person account of what happens to the average family caught in the borders and within Arab cultural traditions. We don't often have the chance to listen to the common man's story. We hear what the governments do not censor or what Al Jazeera or CNN chose to report. We listen to stories of celebrities who have overcome humble beginnings and so on. Those stories are all slanted, and not representative of the more average experience. Coming to Astoria is the story of a typical person trying to live within and around these conflicts.
For its universality, Coming to Astoria is worth the read. However, as a work of writing, it is clearly the result of someone not well-practiced in the skill and art of story-telling. The narrative often rambles. Scenes from the author's memory are given great detail, and then years are glossed over, with no connecting tissue between them. There is no unifying theme. Kiam occasionally wanders into the realm of political rant, and spends pages blasting Arab governments and family customs, particularly pertaining to the treatment of women, and then returns to a catalog-like listing of events from his life. Approximately half of the book is spent bitterly detailing the abusiveness of family members, with no resolution other than "eventually I met and married a nice American girl and raised great kids." Overcoming a history of domestic violence is no small accomplishment - I would have liked to hear that story.
In summary, the story would benefit from a ghost writer, or a very strong editor, who can connect Kiam's dots and present a complete tale rather than a set of scenes. One wants to enjoy the book for its unique perspective and first person narrative, but the writing gets in the way. Hopefully, this author will continue to work on his craft, and retell the story again in more polished form.
This review first appeared on irevuo.com
(reviewed 31 days after purchase)