CHICAGO: It is the day after September 11, 2001 and Hunayn is certain that the very troubles that once chased him around Lebanon have followed him to central Florida.
In Rayyan Al-Shawaf’s debut novel “When all Else Fails,” protagonist Hunayn attempts to navigate life after the 9/11 terrorist attack that rocked the US.
As an Iraqi, he fears his identity will cause him problems — and he is not wrong. He is Chaldean, however, and he often debates whether convincing those around him that he is like them — in other words, not a Muslim — will stop him from being harassed. It does not. The story takes tumbles and turns as the world changes shape around Hunayn.
Born in Baghdad, Hunayn grows up in Abu Dhabi, Rome and Lebanon before he is accepted to the University of Central Florida.
His identity and his foreignness have always played a part in his life, with some moments proving more tragic than others, but he has always moves forward.
Following the September attack, however, the America he knows begins to transform to the extent that it nearly squeezes him out.
Politics play a large role in Hunayn’s life, making and breaking his relationships with friends and lovers.
With a history rooted in Iraq and in the larger Arab world, Hunayn intricate identity is something he constantly thinks about. He is faced with a decision: He can either distance himself from Muslim Arabs so that he is not discriminated against, or he can refuse to play the games that pit him against those of his same heritage.
Hunayn is placed in multiple difficult situations as his identity repeatedly comes under attack. As the years pass by and the invasion of Iraq begins, Hunayn’s life in the US becomes increasingly precarious.
The novel explores the various aspects of the Arab world and its diaspora, and Al-Shawaf dexterously brings together the politics of Iraq, Lebanon and the US with all their clashing and overlapping interests, which reflect the complexity of the main character’s own identity.