BEIRUT: In her quick and supple literary debut, “The Girl Who Fell to Earth,” the writer and filmmaker Sophia al-Maria maps out her story like an astronomer picking her way through stars in the night sky.
Maria names each of her memoir’s brisk 21 chapters for a single point in a constellation, giving all of them three names in three languages and packing in plenty of intergalactic pop cultural references along the way.
Chapter two, for example, is titled “Xi Ursae Majoris, The First Leap, Al-Qafzah al-Ula,” for the first double-star system ever discovered.
Chapter seven is called “Omicron2 Eridani, The Broken Eggshells, Al-Qayd,” for a group of three stars that orbit each other some 16 light years away and, perhaps more importantly, make an appearance in Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi novel “Dune.”
The ups and downs of Maria’s life – which is triangulated by Seattle, Doha and Cairo, with a few trajectories pulling the narrative up to Mount Sinai and out into Saudi Arabia’s Empty Quarter and Eastern Province – are streaked with astral allegories and cosmological metaphors.
One reads about the Lebanese pop star Samira Tawfik winking across the stratosphere, a tangle of spindly television antennae picking up old episodes of “Star Trek” and “Lost in Space,” a young mother counting off constellations in the desert to put a tribe of children to sleep, back issues of “Life” magazine documenting man’s first steps on the moon, and a rebellious teenager shocking her system with a public school library copy of David Bowie’s “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.”
For all those intimations of looking up, and haunted as they are by the myth of Icarus crashing to earth, the two key events on which Maria’s book is hinged occur in another element altogether – when she is plunged underwater.
First, Maria’s American mother chucks her infant child into the deep end of a suburban pool. Her object is to prove a point to her Bedouin husband, a non-swimmer, who fears the water and is still nursing the humiliation of having joined the navy of a nascent Qatari state, only to be shamefully discharged for chronic seasickness.
Then, as a young woman on the edge of adulthood and in the midst of some mind-scrambling sexual confusion, Maria hurls herself from the roof of a houseboat into – of all ill-advised bodies of water – the Nile. Hanafi, her bowab, fishes her out of the stink and sludge, imploring her to shower immediately and beware of bilharzia.
The one-two punch of Maria’s stars and sea material gives “The Girl Who Fell to Earth” a straightforward narrative structure, which is then filled in, vividly colored and subtly reshaped with unexpected nuance.
Maria offers up an assortment of recognizable cross-cultural themes, then brilliantly undermines them with details that are just too fine and too complex to be comfortably accommodated within a predictable script about a girl caught between east and west.
In broad strokes, “The Girl Who Fell to Earth” begins with Maria’s father, Matar, a Bedouin boy from the Dafira tribe. With his society’s patronage system in the early days of melding into nation statehood, he gets a government grant to study in Seattle – a land where apparently no Khaliji has gone before.
There, jetlagged beyond belief and clutching a box of Tide that he has mistaken for corn flakes, Matar drags his sorry, lonely self into a bowling alley, drinks his first beer and meets an American girl named Gale.
Matar marries Gale a little late – after Maria is born, but before her sister Dima arrives. Thus begins the first round of late 20-century here-and-there tug of war. All the easy and expected binaries, however, quickly give and fade away.
Gale’s mother’s generation may still regard the west as modern and the east as primitive, but that viewpoint is already starting to crack as the marriage between her daughter and Matar crumbles.
By the time Maria comes of age, forget it. Such Gulf cities as Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha have kicked aside rhetoric about civilization and enlightenment and taken digital capitalism into bypassing hyperdrive. Linear progress has become a time traveling loop.
Even the so-called anthropological turn gets whiplashed and warped. “I didn’t give a f ? anymore about what Edward Said said, “Maria declares. “I just wanted to look at turn-of-last-century nude photographs of tattooed Ouled Nail tribeswomen.”
Back in the days when Beirut was still publishing the most daring books in the Arab world – and when meaningful numbers of people still had the nerve and the fortitude to read and debate them – Abdelrahman Munif’s “Cities of Salt,” the explosive first volume in a quintet of the same name, was foisted onto a curious but skeptical public from a small press in the Lebanese capital.
At the time, the Gulf had already become the economic lifeline for the Levantine middle class. Munif, who was eventually stripped of his Saudi citizenship, was delving into the trauma and tumult wrought by the discovery of oil in an unnamed Gulf state, in effect telling the other side of an increasingly well-known story.
Munif’s novel is set in a time that corresponds to the period between the early 1930s, when the first Saudi oil concessions were granted to American oil companies, and the early 1950s, when the first wave of labor strikes surged through Dhahran.
The time of Maria’s book takes up the story of the oil age in another epoch, from the 1970s through the aftershocks of the early 2000s, when the money and then the politics go berserk. “The Girl Who Fell to Earth” once again flips over a familiar story to reveal the unknown ways by which it works.
In the hands of a writer who has created a hilarious body of work about the Gulf and more specifically based on a constellation of increasingly well-defined ideas she terms Gulf futurism, “The Girl Who Fell to Earth” in many ways marks the end of Dubai-bashing as a credible journalistic sport. The Gulf’s tough-minded, smart-mouthed, critical and erudite avant-garde has arrived.
Wrapping the story of a place into cheap clichés was already lazy after Munif. After Maria, it simply means missing out on the fun, probably the future, too.
Sophia al-Maria’s “The Girl Who Fell to Earth,” published by Harper Perennial, is out now in bookstores throughout Beirut.