This memoir has a stranger-than-fiction appeal made all the more delectable by Al-Maria’s matter-of-fact, breezy delivery. She deploys language with a spring in its step and whimsy in its heart. The glossary alone made me feel I was drinking coffee and catching up with a friend I loved the space/sci-fi theme, which dissolved alienating boundaries between urban and traditional Beduin, Cairene and rural USian lifestyles, but left their quirks and contrasts intact. I felt Al-Maria’s relish and resentment in each setting, both longing for and recoiling from aspects of them all.
I was struck by Al-Maria’s observations of her Bedu grandmother’s lifestyle and the contrast between relaxed, communal, active and autonomous nomad living and the compressed, fractious, rigidly controlled and stultifying indoor life of the same people transferred to city apartments. I myself felt horribly trapped as she narrated her travails. I felt the weight, the intolerable weight of boredom, and the amused horror at garish, frilled and flounced ballgowns for the wedding, bought for the pleasure of self-adornment but also to display femme charms to potential mothers in law, since potential husbands are forbidden to see them. I would escape by any means necessary!
Yet this airless world was at least far less threatening than USian high school, high bastion of rape culture. I couldn’t stand that either. And although I believe I have the mad courage and the battle-scar badges to survive against the grain of conformity in that cruel culture, I hate its junk food-rotted guts.
It amused me that Sophia’s father upset his mother in law by slaughtering a lamb in her honour, but in the very next scene she is buying meat in the supermarket with him, making no connection between the unacceptable death of the cute lamb she’d loved and admired before it was killed and the less fresh pieces of flesh in her shopping basket.
As well as cracklingly contemporary vernacular, all splice and spice, that makes me love some new writing, the easy flowing prose has texture, sonority, chiaroscuro. The book is filmic, flowing from one carefully realised, richly visual scene to the next. Al-Maria painted images that sank into my memory, drawing life force from her tale’s veracity.
The Cairene part of the story broke my heart, and the final section left me stranded, longing to know where Sophia would go now, what she would do, who would help her and love her. Yet she had gone, I felt, back into the pathless desert, where all directions are open and the gleam and glitter of the stars, silver and gold, adorn the future with magical light. Where next is the sweetest dilemma…