x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

The migration artist

Books Andrea Walker reads Randa Jarrar's debut novel, which follows a Palestinian girl across the world and into young adulthood.

Fleeing Kuwait, Nidali "could imagine, from the sparse agricultural surroundings and the smell of sheep and gasoline and burning rubbish that had been following us, that there would be no walled 'rest stops'."
Fleeing Kuwait, Nidali "could imagine, from the sparse agricultural surroundings and the smell of sheep and gasoline and burning rubbish that had been following us, that there would be no walled 'rest stops'."

Andrea Walker reads Randa Jarrar's debut novel, which follows a Palestinian girl across the world and into young adulthood.

A Map Of Home Randa Jarrar Other Press Dh115

According to the American Library Association, JD Salinger's coming-of-age novel The Catcher in the Rye is one of the most banned books of the 20th century. Among the book's aspects that parents and school boards have objected to are its profanity, violence, explicit sexual references and focus on "negative activity" in Holden Caulfield's character. One hopes these same individuals don't learn about Randa Jarrar's A Map of Home, a peripatetic Arab-American bildungsroman that includes the following letter from its then-13-year-old narrator to Saddam Hussein: "I hate your f****** guts ... I hope that you, too, will be expelled from your home and forever cut off from your crush and sentenced by almighty Allah to eternity in the final circle of hell where ... the skin of [your left hand] will burn off and regrow for all of eternity."

The author of this missive is Nidali Amman, the heroine of Jarrar's debut novel, and the occasion is her family's departure from Kuwait to Egypt in the wake of the Iraqi invasion. As the daughter of a Palestinian father, Waheed, and a Greek-Egyptian mother, Fairuza, Nidali's identity is shaped against a complex web of cultures and events, in settings that range from Alexandria to Jenin to Texas. By tracing Nidali's development as an Arab, an immigrant, a female and the daughter of two ex-artists, Jarrar simultaneously covers several universals of adolescence (fighting with one's parents for an extended curfew, for instance) and those particularities that make Nidali's situation unique (being chased around the house by her knife-wielding father because he suspects her of being sexually active).

Nidali is born in Boston, where Waheed is doing an internship at an architecture firm. But she moves to Kuwait at a young age when her father accepts a job there. Her childhood is happy but tempestuous; affectionate moments between her parents are frequently interrupted by hair-raising arguments. Both Waheed and Fairuza are creative types who set aside their ambitions - she wanted to be a classical musician, he a poet - in order to raise a family. Their old dreams haunt their new lives in the form of a piano that Fairuza buys without consulting her husband. A glass-breaking, table-slapping outburst ensues when Waheed finds his wife playing her purchase rather than making his dinner. "I married a wife, not a damn concert," he shouts. Fairuza responds with profanity and sadness. "Don't tell me what I'm not doing and what I am doing," she snaps. "Where is my pleasure?"

Describing the 1990 invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein, Jarrar shows tanks in the streets and soldiers taking over Nidali's school. There are "orange-red and grey" clouds mushrooming outside her windows, formations that make Nidali think there is "a giant outside smoking his giant cigarettes, inviting other giants to smoke with him, to keep his lonely self company." Nidali starts her period in a village in western Iraq while her family is fleeing to Egypt - they resettle in Alexandria - and doesn't want to tell anyone because she "could imagine, from the sparse agricultural surroundings and the smell of sheep and gasoline and burning rubbish that had been following us, that there would be no walled 'rest stops'."

Jarrar depicts the arguments of Nidali's parents with a kind of histrionic humour, but the violence that Waheed inflicts on his wife and daughter is real and unsettling. Waheed, who quickly emerges as the book's most complex and challenging character, wants to expand his daughter's horizons intellectually as much as he wants to limit them physically and culturally. Thus Nidali is kicked, slapped and pulled up from the ground by her hair because she is seen sitting next to a boy in public - but also encouraged to compete against boys in her Egyptian school's Quran recitation contest, which only one other girl enters. Waheed tells his daughter that she shouldn't have to cover her hair for the contest (it's "for donkeys", he says). But later, after the family has decamped to Texas (Palestinians were not particularly welcome in Kuwait after the war), he screams when he finds out Nidali doesn't know what the 1967 War is. ("The Vikings," Nidali shrugs, when asked what she's studying in history.) Her father insists that she drop out immediately and enrol in an "Arab school, with Arab girls and an Arab teacher in the Arab world." He ends up demanding that his daughter write daily essays on her Arabness; she responds by comparing the lyrics of the Egyptian crooner Abdel Halim with those of the American rap group A Tribe Called Quest.

Nidali becomes an adult by deciding what she wants to inherit from her father and what she wants to leave behind. She can certainly do without his restrictions on her romantic life. In Alexandria, Nidali takes up with a curly-haired boy who always "smelled faintly of sweat when I saw him," which makes her want to "wrap my entire body around him." Since public kissing is illegal in Egypt, the two begin making out in alleyways, elevators and abandoned beach cabins. Later, she moves into a hotel to negotiate for a 9pm curfew and the right to receive letters from an old boyfriend.

In Egypt, as in Kuwait, Nidali's half-Palestinian status marks her as an outsider. In Kuwait, other kids called her "Palestiniass." In Egypt, her classmates ask "Hey Nidali, where's your keffiyeh?" But she learns to shrug off these attacks, in part by demonstrating the force of her Waheed-driven intellect. When her ninth-grade teacher embarrasses her by assuming she doesn't know anything about Egypt's past leaders, Nidali stuns the class into silence by hurling off the 13 correct names in order, starting with Muhammad Ali. By the time the family moves to Texas, Nidali has had to develop a toughness that makes Holden Caulfield's anomie look like self-indulgence.

This thick skin may be the reason Nidali's assimilation to American culture seems the easiest in the book, even though her new peers ask if she used to "live in a tent and stuff". Though Americans are capable of viewing Nidali in reductive terms (a particularly comic scene has the local Latinas claiming Fairuza as one of their own because of her "bangin' booty") Jarrar suggests that in America racial and cultural difference does not immediately signal otherness, in part because, as Nidali puts it, "everyone here was half one thing and half another". When the daughters of Nidali's white neighbours come to visit and she tells them she is half Egyptian, half Palestinian, they respond without batting an eyelash, saying "We are half German, half Irish." In Nidali's high school cafeteria, the question is not "where are you from?" but "where do you sit?" with the breakdowns determined as much by socioeconomic and avocational status as by race (of course, the nerds are their own category, regardless of all else).

Armed with the confidence she gains from realising she is much like any other American teenager - she goes to prom, loses her virginity and listens to music that offends her parents - Nidali decides to attend an east coast college that is known for its writing program rather than the local college her father wants her to commute to. She has always excelled in her composition classes and devoured the poetry of CP Cavafy. Nidaly's coming-of-age journey, or at least one stage of it, ends the moment she decides that she wants to tell "all our stories" - the stories of her family. Holden Caulfield's narrative struggle is primarily to make sense of his individual place in the world. Nidali is more like Stephen Dedalus, the hero of James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in that she wants to use the power of art to make the world take shape around her. By the book's end she is not so much enlightened as empowered.

Maps are a prevailing metaphor in this powerful novel. There is the map of Palestine that Waheed makes his young daughter trace until she can draw it from memory. When she gets older, he admits there is no possibility of drawing the lines correctly, since they change from year to year. There is the map of the high school cafeteria that Nidali forms in her mind, with the different types of students in their segregated corners. And finally there is the idea that the physical body itself - with its enormous capacity for generating both fear and love - can be a kind of map. This notion is hinted at by the book's epigraph, a quote by Franz Kafka (another writer with a famously domineering father): "Sometimes I imagine the map of the world spread out and you stretched diagonally across it." The map of home referenced in Jarrar's title charts not so much a place as a process, a story of becoming.

Andrea Walker is on the editorial staff of The New Yorker.