on December 17, 2014
When Sophia Al-Maria's father was a boy his family still lived a traditional Bedouin lifestyle, traveling around the deserts of Qatar and Saudi Arabia and sleeping in tents under skies dark enough to be filled with stars. After being forced by boundary-loving authorities to settle in a gender-segregated family compound her father's wanderlust remained, which is how he ended up in Seattle unable to speak English but still managing to meet and marry an American girl, giving Al-Maria the dual or maybe triple or even quadruple cultural heritage that makes this memoir so mind expandingly and eye openingly interesting.
Al-Maria spent part of her childhood in her grandmother's small, isolated house in rural Washington state, where the protective paranoia of her mother made Al-Maria feel more trapped than when she stayed in her father's crowded multi-generational and now stationery home in Qatar. Even though while in Qatar there were substantial cultural and religious restrictions on her ability to move around freely and meet with whomever she wanted, being part of a larger family crowd felt liberating.
While she lived in Qatar Al-Maria spent her time getting to know her substantial Bedouin family, attending an international school mainly for foreigners, brawling with her male cousins in the wrong side of their gender divided home because she couldn't stand that being older meant she was no longer able to play Mortal Kombat with them (well, this happened just once), assisting her uncle's carefully choreographed subterfuge as he sneak-courted a non-Bedouin girl unacceptable to their family (which helped her figure out how to spend forbidden time with her boyfriend when she fell in love), and attending rowdy, sexually charged all female parties that seemed to be part of the insular culture of women. Al-Maria also got to experience a little of her traditional Bedouin heritage when the whole family would take off to camp in the desert.
Several of Al-Maria's perspectives and insights on hot topics like burka wearing are not what I've encountered anywhere else, and she experienced class divides I knew nothing about. The book presents a fascinating almost disorienting set of interrelated worlds and Al-Maria's vivid energetic writing sweeps the story along, allowing me the deep pleasure of being able to visualize that wide, star-rich desert sky but leaving me hanging a little at the end wondering what she did next. I'm hoping for a follow up book.
on December 5, 2012
I adored this book.
Sparing the readers from the orientalist cliche's Middle Eastern writers are often forced into, The Girl Who Fell to Earth is a beautiful coming of age story that will resonate with anyone who has wanted to rebel and LIVE at the same time. Al Maria's writing style incorporates cultural complexities the author navigates with sensitivity and a unique perspective only those who cradle the thin line between two culture can present. Between her love for David Bowie and a desire to read the stars from the desert, Al Maria spoke to my heart.
Sophia Al-Maria's memoir, "The Girl Who Fell to Earth," opens in the Arabian Peninsula in 1969. A Bedouin boy named Matar, of the Al-Dafira tribe, is mesmerized by a portable television that the members of his tiny settlement watch communally. When Matar is eighteen, he announces to his mother that he is going to Seattle, Washington. The fact that he speaks no English does not deter him. He dons a ridiculous "used polyester suit" (the slacks are salmon pink), flies to America, and ends up in a Tacoma, Washington bowling alley. There he meets Gale Valo, who happens to be sitting around waiting for a cousin. Improbably, these two people, who have nothing in common, end up marrying and having children, one of whom is the author.
Gale, who grew up on a farm in the Puyallup Valley, where her mother, Sophia, still lived, had no idea what she was getting into when she set her cap for Matar. Only later does Gale realize that she and her husband, whose background, language, and customs are radically different, could not realistically expect to live happily ever after. Not only does Matar insist that Gale convert to Islam, but he returns to the Gulf to seek his fortune. Gale and the kids eventually join him in Qatar, a move that proves disastrous. She says in a telephone call to her mother from the capital city of Doha, "I keep thinking this is how it must be for astronauts. All cooped up for months on end, not knowing which way is up."
"The Girl Who Fell to Earth" is about Sophia's efforts to fit in either in Qatar or Washington. When she was five and saw a video that her father sent from overseas, Sophia said, "having a second world to belong to immediately made me cast doubt on my place in the first." As she grows older and becomes rebellious, it is increasingly clear to Sophia that she is an alien, in the sense that there is nowhere on earth where she feels at home. In desperation, Gale, who is back in Washington, sends twelve-year-old Sophia to visit with her father's Bedouin family. After a few months, Sophia says, "I was convinced that all the women in my family had forgotten what it was like to be fearless and what it had once meant to be free."
In this sad, touching, funny, and sometimes lyrical work, Sophia is stunned by the contrast between life in America and Qatar. She learns that Muslim women must dress a certain way, are kept segregated from men from the time girls reach puberty until they marry, and have limited educational and professional opportunities. If this weren't enough to make females feel inferior, Bedouin men practice polygamy.
Sophia is a lost soul, struggling to grow up with no sense of direction or proper support system. On that fateful day when Matar met Gale, they did not realize that they were about to take a step that would lead to heartache for all concerned. "The Girl Who Fell from the Sky" is about feminism, culture shock, love, and parenting. Al-Maria's experiences reinforce the idea that children need stability, a clear set of values, and consistent guidelines in order to become secure and self-confident adults.
on July 8, 2014
Being a Qatari, the book was a bit shocking!
The story is fresh and touches the heart, but I'm not convinced of many details that the author highlighted. Her Bedouin Grandma speaks English?! No way! The family was happy to see their son suddenly married to a stranger with two kids? Impossible!
Although I can relate to many cultural things she mentioned, I never felt I was immersed in the narrative. Most importantly, I never felt that painful attachment when you finish reading a book, mainly because the end was abrupt and uncreative.
You may read it, but don't think of it as your "guide" to the Khaleeji culture, habits or lifestyle. Think of it as the "case study" of Sophia Al-Mariaa and her family because her life is quite unusual.
Snaring the universal adolescent snarl of finding one's place in the world, is the marriage of her American mother and Bedouin father. Counter-intuitively, she often found the segregated world of the Bedouin culture to be more free for her, even within the folds of the abaya. Al-Maria split her childhood between poverty blighted Tacoma and Qatar. For some reason she found it more binding in Tacoma where people assumed they knew her.
Her memoir is deeply intuitive, with warm empathy toward her split family. She expresses the fears of being the outsider in both her cultures. Her language is erudite and witty. At one time, her father and mother lived together in Dakar. When he brought his second wife home, her mother used "germ warfare" to cope by sending in the plagues of her young daughters into the other wife's bedroom. It is this type of description,: sparing, witty, succinctly structured; that makes this book a joy to read.
Al-Maria writes about herself with compassion but also self revelation. I like her tremendously in her resistance to self pity and acceptance of her own shortcomings without self hate. She will often pull back at first, but watching from sidelines, eventually chooses her part to play. Sharing these two cultures is difficult to live and harder to expound upon without alienating the reader or making inane generalities. She is successful in escaping both these pitfalls. I recommend this book to you and await her future work.
on February 17, 2015
Anyone who reads memoirs knows that a successful one requires two distinct elements: an interesting life, and strong writing skills. By memoir standards, Sophia Al-Maria's life is promising: her father is a Bedouin from Qatar, her mother an American from rural Washington; she grows up in the U.S. but moves to Doha as a teenager to live with her father's family, then attends college in Cairo. That clash of cultures seen through the eyes of a modern teen, interested in sci-fi and video games, provides some potentially great material.
Unfortunately, Al-Maria does little with that material. Other reviewers have criticized the book as self-centered, which isn't necessarily a problem for me; it is, after all, her memoir. The problem is that the one thing that makes Al-Maria's life interesting is her having lived in such wildly different cultures; the activities that make up her life (attending school, experiencing pop culture, discovering boys) are mundane. And when the interesting thing about someone's life is the other people in it, then a lack of interest and insight into those other people becomes a problem. A scene toward the end is representative of Al-Maria's focus throughout the book: she goes on an anthropological expedition, but realizes afterwards that her tapes consist almost entirely of her talking to her subjects about herself. Despite that supposed epiphany, this book does the same thing.
On top of that, too often the story simply doesn't make sense, raising more questions about events than it answers. Here's a small example: "Ma checked us in [to a hotel] under a false name and, having no money, gave them our passports as collateral at the desk." (That makes sense how?) And here's a larger one: Al-Maria's parents meet when her father travels to the U.S. as a foreign student, gets lost as soon as he arrives, encounters her mother in a bowling alley, and takes off with her. It sounds like the plot of a bad romantic comedy, and the author offers no more explanation than such a film would. How does he manage to get a scholarship, when he is long out of school, with no achievements or connections mentioned? When a student arrives from another country speaking virtually no English, wouldn't someone meet him at the airport, or at least instruct him in advance on finding the school? Does no one realize he never arrives at the school, or try to check up on him? Isn't ditching his academic plans a problem for his immigration status and/or stipend? When he's later mentioned to be regularly "visiting" his girlfriend's mother in rural Washington, where is he living, and how can he afford it? There are so many unanswered questions that it feels as if we're only getting half the story.
And then, the author's writing itself can be clunky. The constant pop culture references from the author's childhood are both needless and distancing for those who don't share her reference points, and she never uses a common noun where a brand name will do. Here are several examples all taken from a single page: "The only snippet of incongruity in Joey's look was the fact that he was wearing thick-as-Coke-bottle glasses. He rummaged through his worn-out leather-bottomed Jansport. . . . Tara was skinny with a shaved head like a Tank Girl. . . . [Joey] pulled a pack of Pall Malls out and lit one off a floppy clip of matches. . . . Joey was peeling up the edge of the `hum' part of his Subhumans patch."
In the end, neither the author's writing nor her insight is crisp enough to bring anything but her own angst and pop cultural interests into focus, and the story trails off - not a moment too soon - with no real conclusion. Though I know a bit more about Qatar than before, I was glad to be finished with this book and would not recommend it to others.
on December 29, 2013
I felt this was a very interesting and telling tale of a girl struggling to fit into two very different cultures. Living in Qatar, I was able to relate to a bit of what she was experiencing. I found it a very interesting comparison of two very different, yet similar groups of people. One being the Bedu people of Qatar, and the other the "Bedu" (redneck/country) of America. Both have very similar qualities but are worlds apart. We all hear about how rich and extravagant Qatar is, but this book takes you behind the scenes of those Qataris who are barely scrapping by. I do wish the ending had a bit more substance. It felt a bit rushed. I would have liked to know more about her current situation and what happened after Cairo. Also, more of her current relationships between her parents and her Qatari family. The writing style was very good, and it had a nice flow without feeling rushed or unorganized. Overall, I would recommend this book to all memoir readers!
on April 2, 2013
The author's fearful mother sends her to live with her estranged biological father in Saudi Arabia in response to discovering her normal budding tween sexuality. He, in turn, shunts her off to female relatives of his Bedouin (formerly nomadic) clan. In this setting, the extreme taboo of genders mixing makes what would probably have been casual interest in a boy into an exciting chase from prying eyes.
The author does not feel completely at home with her anxiety-disordered mother, nor with her father's people, both sides of the family forbidding her to grow independently and find her own way in life. As a young adult at American University in Cairo she finally tastes freedom, which comes with drawbacks such as sexual harassment being routine.
The book is a fascinating ethnography on the similarities of being young
and female in different cultures, and of the influences on perceptions of economic and gender status between and within each.
Her Middle Eastern life was so outside this American reader's experiences that it felt like reading fiction, and was lovely armchair travel. Looking forward to reading more from this author.
on December 8, 2013
Sophia writes of her very unusual life and childhood. The offspring of a Qatari Bedouin man who came to America and a very American girl from Washington state, she spends her childhood torn between the two worlds. She doesn't feel completely comfortable in either world, but manages to find strength from each place as she makes her way. The book covers just a few years of her life, from about age 9 until about age 18. It was difficult to understand much of her description of the Qatari region and lifestyle, but it was educational all the same. Interesting book.
on April 15, 2014
It was a pleasure to read this book. I really enjoyed it. I lived in Qatar for 8 years and it bought back so many happy memories. It helped explain so many of the local customs. I wish I had been able to read it before I lived in Qatar. I recommend it to anyone who plans to visit there.