Randa Jarrar’s A Map of Home is a beautifully achieved coming of age novel which follows a clever girl through a war, a domestic battlefield, and repeated forced migrations. For our heroine, these events are aspects of normal everyday life (because everything’s normal when it happens to you), like school, friends, family and shopping. Despite the geographical and cultural particularities of the story, the themes — of awakening sexually, of learning how to love a parent yet firmly say no, and of struggling for independence and a place in the world — are universal, and the book will appeal to all but the most easily shocked readers.
At the novel’s center is a family. The father, Waheed, is a Palestinian from Jenin exiled to a string of temporary residences. Resentful of his failure to develop a career as a poet, he projects his ambition onto his daughter, about whom Waheed is convincingly self-conflicted: he wants her to be a famous professor, but doesn’t want her to study away from home.
The mother, Fairuza, is a Greek-Egyptian mixture who owns a piano and a prodigiously large backside. Waheed and Fairuza’s fights are frequent and sometimes ugly.
Nidali — the name means “my struggle” — is the product of this complex marriage, a traveling Greek-Egyptian-Palestinian, and born in Boston for good measure. In America, “people would have assumed that Mama was a Latina, and that I, a cracker-looking girl, was her daughter from a union with a gringo, and that would have been that.” But it’s not.
The plot follows Nidali from place to place, the narrative voice seamlessly modulating as she grows from a Persian Gulf schoolgirl to sassy Arab-Texan chica. At first she considers cosmopolitan Kuwait home. This section of the novel delivers situational comedy at its funniest and most delicate, with an added dash of hyperrealism, as it offers closely observed descriptions of everyday, normal life.
For instance, a seven-year-old Nidali wonders who this “people of Ibrahim” her father asks God to bless at prayer time is, so her friend Zainab informs her that the Ibrahims are “a family that throws big barbecues at Eid.” Later, Nidali’s excessively religious cousin Essam comes to stay. He destroys her Wonder Woman (Nidali translates it “Woman of Wonders”) stickers, and when challenged declares that the superhero “is a shameless prostitute.”
Nidali wins a Quran competition and kisses her first boyfriend Fakhr who, like a low-brow version of Saul Bellow’s Herzog, writes letters to “presidents, actors, dead singers.” Soon Nidali herself has occasion to write an amusing letter to Saddam Hussein. The occasion is the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait. Bombs, bodies in the streets, and the mysterious presence of a black cat in the toilet won’t move her father to flee, but a shortage of za’tar will. The family moves through Iraq and Jordan to Egypt, where Nidali begins a new, less naive life chapter. Alexandria is certainly full of life — they arrive during an Ahli-Zamalek football match, men watching dashboard-mounted TVs as they drive — but the family is in extended and uncomfortable transition, until their move to Texas.
The absent home of the novel is of course Palestine, known from maps and snatched glimpses. Nidali remembers her grandmother’s stories, and being strip-searched at the Allenby bridge between Jordan and the West Bank. Beyond that, Palestinian identity is migration — “moving was part of being Palestinian” — and return denied. “I’d never see them again,” becomes a refrain.
It’s also obstruction. In airports, mother, father and child have to stand in different queues. Waheed can’t enter Saudi Arabia with his Jordanian “pity passport.” His wife’s Egyptian passport, and Nidali’s American, won’t work for Saddam’s Iraq. After the liberation, Waheed — because Palestinians were collectively punished for Yasser Arafat’s support of Saddam Hussein — is forbidden to return to Kuwait.
There’s a wonderful moment when Nidali erases the borders she’s drawn on her map of Palestine. “I stared at the whiteness of the paper’s edges for a long, long time. The whiteness of the page blended with the whiteness of my sheets. ‘You are here,’ I thought as I looked at the page and all around me. And oddly, I felt free.” Another advantage of homelessness is that the homeland becomes portable. “Our people carry the homeland in their souls,” says Waheed.
A Map of Home has a cartoon quality, so comparisons with Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis are valid. The novel form, however, provides it with extra dimensions of style and word play, and Jarrar’s writing contains unabashed metaphors reminiscent of Franz Kafka or Andrei Bely. Its exuberance is on display in such lovely sentences as: “Guilt descended like a fat mosquito and sucked out all our blood.” When Waheed rushes down a hospital corridor, patients and nurses see only “an enormous moustache with limping legs.” Fairuza’s hair is “a thought balloon hanging above her face.”
The book bulges with translated Arabic phrases, including lots of warm-hearted profanity. People curse each other’s religions, and worse, and exclaim “O eye!” mid-sentence. Hearing some of these expressions defamiliarized in English reminds you just how expressive they are — phrases like, “May God brighten the world for you.” A Map of Home is not just playing with language — it’s about language. Jarrar explores the condition of homelessness and cultural transplantation through the somersaults made by words. In Kuwait, for instance, she reads “an Egyptian comic called Meeky.” This eye for traveling words is reminiscent of Ahmed Alaidy.
As lyrical as Arundhati Roy or Mourid Barghouti, Jarrar’s pacing is tight and her dialogue approaches perfection. With light and loving characterizations that are entirely free of false romance, her tone is wry, sunny, very feminine and very powerful. A Map of Home is addictive reading.
Robin Yassin-Kassab has been a journalist in Pakistan and an English teacher around the Arab world. His first novel, The Road from Damascus, is published by Hamish Hamilton and Penguin. He blogs on politics, culture, religion and books at qunfuz.com.