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.”