Cultural Cartography: Randa Jarrar’s A Map of Home

A Map of Home by Randa Jarrar is a book that does not fall into a category easily.

A Map of Home provides the vivid portrait of a girl, who is Muslim, who is Palestinian and Egyptian and Greek and from Kuwait and born in America, who fulfills her parents’ expectations and dashes them fiercely. Randa Jarrar’s first novel is the story of Nidali, told in first person, through her childhood and adolescence.

From the beginning of the novel, with the tale of the protagonist’s birth, A Map of Home is filled with vibrant, believable characters. Nidali’s father doesn’t bother to confirm that she’s a boy, and proceeds to name her Nidal for “struggle,” until he realizes and corrects his mistake with an “i,” and he and her mother have a loud and expletive-filled argument of how, her mother wants to know, he could have given her daughter such a terrible name as “struggle.”

Nidali is born in the United States, but this isn’t a Muslim American, second-generation immigrant story — at least not the way you’d expect. Nidali is raised in Kuwait until her family has to flee to Egypt during the war, so her childhood takes place entirely in the Middle East, although she and her Palestinian father and Greek-Egyptian mother do speak English as well. It’s a family in which everyone has a different passport, birthplace, and idea of home. The family moves from Egypt to the United States when Nidali is in high school. The mix of cultures and locations is believable, because Randa Jarrar, who herself grew up in Kuwait and based the book partly on her own life, seamlessly weaves into the story references to language, music, food, history, and politics. Yes, the book fits on the “multicultural” shelf, but that’s because that’s just Nidali’s life, not because of any concerted effort by the author.

Believable too are the characters. With the exception of Nidali’s brother, Gamal, who is never fully developed, Nidali’s family is full of realistically complex characters. Nidali’s father is one example of multifaceted, convincing characters Jarrar creates. Waheed Ammar doesn’t want his daughter to be like his sisters, who didn’t go to school past the sixth grade and, as he describes, “raised babies and cooked and cleaned for their useless husbands. Do you want to be like them?” He pushes Nidali to study hard, so she can be “free.” A poet at heart, he tells jokes and dramatic stories, he swears profusely and he snaps at his conservative, religious nephew — who warns that weather reports are blasphemous — to “shut up.”

While he rejects some conservative attitudes, he forbids Nidali to spend time with boys, lest his daughter become a “whore.” When he gets angry, he shouts at and hits his wife and children. He then denies it, telling his daughter once, “I’ve hit you five times in my life.” Jarrar’s portrait shows the impossibility of seeing Nidali’s father as an only an abuser, and the likewise inaccuracy of considering his positive traits without the controlling and violent behavior.

Nidali and her mother are equally developed characters, and the interactions between the three of them spark hilarious, tragic, and thoroughly engaging dialogue. Jarrar’s prose is consistently alive with wit and sarcasm, whether she’s discussing war, religion, or sex:

“Four weeks into the invasion, Gamal discovered a black cat licking itself in the bidet and screamed at the top of his lungs. We all ran to the bathroom, and Baba yelled, ‘All that for a cat, you son of a bitch, you scared me!’ Mama was already beginning her histrionic attempts at capture. As for me, I was completely relieved that, for once, there was someone other than myself masturbating on the toilet.”

With the exception of her Greek Christian grandmother on her mother’s side, Nidali’s family is Muslim. Religion is just as naturally woven in the fabric of Nidali’s life as her parents’ fights and her crushes on boys at school. When she is seven, Nidali decides to enter a local Qur’an reciting contest. Her father supports her, helps her practice, teaches her verses to know for the contest and for life (“I don’t want you to be prepared just for a contest”) and forbids her to cover her hair, which the contest requires. Nidali does it anyway, without her father’s knowledge, and impresses the judges with her recitation. They have to insert the feminine suffix in the certificate, usually given to boys.

Unlike Randa Abdel-Fattah, Jarrar doesn’t make a fuss about Islam. It’s nothing exceptional, just another part of who Nidali is and how she grows up. Nidali isn’t a stereotypical Muslim by any stretch — Jarrar writes openly about Nidali as a sexual being, and her sexual experiences are as much as her life as anything else, from adventures with the bidet to experimenting with girl friends and boy friends, including the handsome Fakhr el-Din. But Islam is nevertheless part of her identity. When Nidali and her family move to the United States in high school, Nidali is struck by the difference: there’s no call to prayer, and the silence makes her homesick.

I love the way Jarrar portrays Nidali’s move to the U.S. Rather than the ubiquitous story of the immigrant all too eager for the “American Dream,” quick to drop and deny her past and take on a new American identity, Nidali approaches her new life in the U.S. cautiously, with a critical eye. She doesn’t know what “homecoming” is, she’s overwhelmed by all the commercials on television, and she’s shocked American bathrooms don’t have bidets.

A chapter earlier, the author explains that when Nidali was younger, in Kuwait, she and her friends would watch one scene of the American film “License to Drive” over and over: when one of the characters scoffs, “This isn’t…Kuwait.”

Jarrar describes the irony of their joy, articulating the position of citizens of a world dominated by U.S. media and popular culture:

“We were thrilled to hear the name of the place where we lived—a place we believed to be a tiny spot of spit on the map of the world—uttered by a gorgeous actress in an American movie. We’d never stopped to notice, though, that it was being uttered negatively in criticism of our place of residence. Still, the fact that we were noticed! That we existed! We relished it. America actually cared that we existed, and this somehow made us feel like we were worth existing.”

The jacket of the hardcover library copy I read is a black-and-white image of half a girl’s face, cut vertically, surrounded by small images, in color, apparently meant to represent the United States: Mount Rushmore, the Statue of Liberty, a mustard-slathered hot dog. I’m baffled why the illustrator didn’t choose to show any elements reflecting Nidali’s life in Kuwait or Egypt, since that makes up the previous two thirds of the book. At least there are no Orientalist motifs, and the illustrator doesn’t throw a hijab on a character who clearly doesn’t wear one.

Just like her main character, who is full of stories and aspires to pursue writing, Jarrar is a gifted writer. With its engrossing story of three-dimensional characters you could imagine meeting on the street, A Map of Home is hard to put down. The brilliant mix of the absurd and the profound makes the novel both hilarious and very real. There aren’t enough characters like Nidali; Randa Jarrar paints a refreshing, but rare, portrait of a modern Muslim woman.


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