Essays, Memoirs, & True Stories  March 2016 | issue 483


by Randa Jarrar

Randa Jarrar’s sister is a composer, her mother is a pianist, and her son is a musician. Jarrar, meanwhile, considers it an accomplishment that she sang “Material Girl” and “Push It” at karaoke and was not asked to leave the stage. Her second book, Him, Me, Muhammad Ali, will be out in October. She is a professor at Fresno State’s MFA program and lives in Fresno, California.


My father. He wanted me to become a writer, but when I did, he didn’t like what I wrote.

He hated my first novel and called it pornography: it features lots of teenage sex and masturbation, as well as an unsavory portrayal of a narcissistic and selfish patriarch. He insisted it was the sex scenes that offended him and not the depiction of the father character, whom I had based loosely on him. Finally my father stopped speaking to me and said he would start again only if I publicly burned every single copy of my book.

I love to imagine myself doing this: my transformation from rejected pornographer to redeemed daughter and biblioclast.


Most burned texts are destroyed because they’ve been deemed heretical by one religious group or another. Torah scrolls were burned by the ancient Romans. The Talmud was burned in medieval France. In 2010 an American pastor named Terry Jones threatened to burn two hundred Qurans on the ninth anniversary of 9/11. He didn’t do it, but dozens of Qurans were set on fire by other people.

My novel was a blasphemous text in our household, where my father was God, and his word was Truth, and anyone who talked back to him, or even just interrupted him during breakfast, was a heretic.


I’ve started indulging in this fantasy of myself as a biblioclast. Here is how I imagine it:

I round up all the copies of my book in my house. I have two paperbacks in my office, six hardcovers in an old chest, and two advance-reader copies on a shelf in the dining room. I burn them all in my backyard barbecue pit.

Next I begin to contact people I know who might have copies and ask them to mail the books to a post-office box in Kyle, Texas — the town in which I began writing the novel, where I rented a trailer for three hundred dollars a month (including utilities). Baffled, they comply nonetheless, because I explicitly state how important it is to my father that they do this. Friends who have heard my complaints about my father — that he was so strict I wasn’t allowed to socialize; that he struck me; that he often made me feel as if my large body were unworthy of love — don’t understand why I would burn my book for him. I tell them that my father did his best to love me; that he praised my early writing; that he took me on a trip to New York City when I was thirteen; that he used to sing with me and laugh at my jokes. I tell my friends that, as I near the age of forty, my empathy for my father has deepened. I work in a place where I am a minority, and I can finally imagine what it must have been like for him, a Palestinian, to immigrate to the U.S. and work at a place where he was the only Arab, perhaps the only person of color. I tell them that I miss my father. This makes it a bit easier for them to understand.


The Quran was orally passed on in the years after the prophet Muhammad’s death, and it was not written down until two decades later, between 650 and 656 CE. In Arabic the slightest mispronunciation can change the meaning of a word entirely. (When my father was a boy and heard the muezzin’s call to prayer — “Hayaa ala salaa” — he thought the word hayaa, which means “come,” was actually the word haya, which means “snake,” and so he would imagine a snake on a prayer rug, which confused him greatly.)

After the Quran was fully transcribed, the caliph ordered that all manuscripts containing any excerpts from the Quran be burned, so that there would be only one official version.

But many people had learned verses by heart, and those may have differed from the official Quran. I always wondered how those versions could be destroyed. How do you erase a memory?

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