Traveling Against the Sun: A Coming-of-age from West to East

This appeared in the Egypt Independent:

girlSophia al-Maria’s story begins at night, 80 miles outside of al-Hasa oasis in eastern Saudi Arabia. It begins decades before her birth, and thousands of miles away from the city where she will be born. Her young father, Matar, is from al-Dafira, and his community moves between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. As the book opens, he is watching the legendary Samira Tawfiq perform on a communal television.

Ten-year-old Matar doesn’t save all his admiration for Lebanese songstresses; he watches plenty of American television, too: Lost in Space, Popeye, Mr. Ed, Perry Mason, Star Trek. Among all the children, Sophia’s father is the one who remains by the television long after the shows are over, making notes in an old graph paper notebook. Matar learned about the night sky from his mother, about tracking things from his father, and about many other things from TV. At sixteen, Matar’s brother joined the Qatari air force. Matar tried to join the navy, but, since he hated the water, he lasted only five days.

Here, “The Girl Who Fell to Earth” (Harper Perennial, 2012) seems to walk a familiar path: Matar goes to Doha, gets a scholarship, and is sent to Seattle to learn English. Almost immediately, he meets a woman in working-class Tacoma who is stunningly, generously open. The opening segments of the memoir are beautiful, as we watch the gently drawn love story of the narrator’s parents.

They meet in a bar, and Matar — unable to speak much English — is content to gaze with Gale at the pictures in a magazine. Here, Gale is at her strongest and most open. Despite Matar’s odd attire and fragmented English, she welcomes this young man from, “Only. Just. Arabia.” She takes him up into the mountains and creates a space for him in her world.

Over the next few years, Matar and Gale grow closer: Gale gets pregnant, they marry, and she converts to Islam. But, although their union brings forth two daughters and a great deal of love, their pasts and cultures germinate other seeds. Gale is affected by the popular stories about kidnappers and Arab “child-snatchers,” such as Betty Mahmoudy’s “Not Without My Daughter.” Matar is drawn back toward his family.

Still, in the early days, we see a young couple who are bold, original, and willing to make concessions. Despite his hatred of water, Matar agrees to learn to swim. Gale learns how to pray. Matar tries long-distance trucking. Gale starts wearing the hijab.

These compromises eventually take them back to Qatar, where Gale lives mostly alone with her daughters and Matar works out on an oil rig. Here, the young narrator begins to take center stage. She comes into contact with her Dafira family, and is “so emancipated by the chaos” that she feels her world shift.

This is also where the book takes a very different turn from most Arab-American memoirs, a genre where “roots” and “family” are typically in the East while “emancipation” is Western. In its most caricatured form, the genre is represented by Nonie Darwish’s best-selling “Now They Call Me Infidel; Why I Renounced Jihad for America, Israel and the War on Terror.”

Recently, however, a few English-language narratives have pointed in another direction. G. Willow Wilson’s 2011 memoir “The Butterfly Mosque” moves from the US to Cairo, and her debut prose novel, “Alif the Unseen” (2012), has characters who make their core realizations by moving to an Arab country rather than away from one.

But “The Girl Who Fell to Earth” strikes out yet further. It is an Arab-American woman’s memoir where roots are in two places, but emancipation is found mostly in Qatar and Egypt. Keep reading.