The Qatar to which they decamp is a concrete labyrinth, replete with oil rigs, a dizzying flurry of construction, and vast outskirts of sand. In that immense desert young Sophia learns that her father has another family — a young wife named Flu, who has borne Matar the son that Gale has been unable to give him. A slew of differences now comes between Matar and Gale — language, tribal customs, polygamy. He tries teaching his daughters Arabic, but Gale sees it as a way to exclude her.
Petty fears sprout into major misunderstandings; it’s enough to break your heart. And yet young Sophia muddles through. She returns to Washington with her mother when the marriage is in shambles. She tries gamely to be American. Then, struggling to reclaim her Arab identity, she moves back to live with her father, finishes high school in Qatar, and goes on to college in Cairo. But world events intervene: the Gulf War, the conflagration in the Middle East. After the devastating events of Sept. 11, when Arabs are being rounded up and detained in the America she once called home, Sophia’s will seems to falter. She takes up with a Qatari boyfriend, then moves on to a fleeting romance with an American. It’s as if she were vacillating between worlds that are never entirely her own.
You finish the book with the sense that you are staring at a roof beam above you. There are no stars in this firmament, little sense of deliverance. There’s a scattered, unfinished quality to Al-Maria’s story, lovely stretches of prose are marred by amateur composition. And yet there is much to beguile you: a desperate search for identity, a frenzied motion between two worlds, the sheer love that impels that transit. For all the awkwardness of The Girl Who Fell to Earth, there is an undeniable urgency here. It’s hard to look away from a heart cracked in two.
Marie Arana reviewed this book for the Washington Post.