Sleep under a ceiling, says an old Bedouin proverb, and your dreams will be only as high as the roof beam above you. Sleep under a sky, and your dreams will be as high as the stars. Half-Bedouin, half-American, born in a rustic valley of Washington state, Sophia Al-Maria was congenitally unable to look up as a child. It made her dizzy to glance at a tall building. Open skies made her feel like she was falling upward. Her dreams did not rise so much as plummet: She had a fear of being swallowed by stars.
Her memoir, “The Girl Who Fell to Earth,” is part of a growing literature by children of bicultural marriages. Like “Dreams From My Father,” by Barack Obama, “The Color of Water,” by James McBride, and “The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee,” by Paisley Rekdal, it describes the singular bridge so many children of mixed heritage inhabit. Half-this, half-that — half-blessed, half-afflicted — they have a preoccupation with identity that makes them seem older than they are.
Sophia’s father, Matar, came to America from the easternmost limits of Saudi Arabia. A Bedu of the Al-Dafira tribe, a man accustomed to sleeping under the stars, he had always been fascinated by the magical America he had glimpsed on television. Matar’s father had been “a wilderness detective,” a Bedu who could tell by the depth of a fleeing woman’s footprints whether she was pregnant, by windblown sand whether a storm was imminent. Matar’s mother had married his father when she was barely 14. When Matar grew into a restless boy, his parents, being Bedouin, understood that he would travel far, although how far they couldn’t have imagined. At 16, he made his way to Doha in Qatar, where the Ministry of Education told him about an opportunity to study English in America. He didn’t hesitate. He “traveled with the edge of night to a point so far and so different from his home it might as well have been another planet.”
He knew he was searching for an education. He didn’t know he would find love.
He met her in a bowling alley. The young Gale Valo was a free spirit: an avid smoker, a Radio City Rockette reject from a raspberry farm east of Tacoma, Wash.. But she had an immediate eye for the “handsome, dark-skinned guy.” “Mind if I sit with you?” she asked, when she saw him in a bowling alley, decked out in a ridiculous, salmon-pink polyester suit. “Today is . . . birthday, me,” he lied in pidgin English, trying to make conversation. “Well, then, we’ll celebrate!” she answered and produced two bottles of beer. Never mind that he was a Muslim. Never mind that there are strict laws about drink, not to mention what kind of woman a good Muslim consorts with. By the next day, the Bedu and the farm girl were fast friends.
Before long, they were expecting a baby.
What follows is a story as full of culture shock as it is of human candor. The first gift that Gale’s mother gives Matar is a lamb, only to find it given back, flayed and prepared for a barbecue. Once Sophia is born, Gale agrees to marriage, only to learn that she will have to be able to produce enough Arabic to say her vows, forswear her past and declare herself a Muslim. In time, she falls prey to worries that her child will be the victim of a kidnapping scam.
Somehow, the fledgling family survives, a second child is born, and Gale finds herself thinking about flying over the North Pole to make a home for her little brood in Qatar. Matar, who has returned to his people after a long stretch as a truck driver on the soul-crushing American highways, has sent a persuasive letter and video to his two tiny girls. “Dear my dotters,” he writes when Sophia is barely 5. “This fideo from your Baba in Dawha. Your family they wants see you. You have 11 auntie and uncles in dawha and your Gramma and Grampa they are in Saudia. Also you have too many cousins. We wait you and miss you too much. Next year come. And if you can like it stay. My wife, I miss you and America also. Donot forgit your prey. Promis. I love you honne. Baba Matar.”
The Qatar to which they decamp is a concrete labyrinth, replete with oil rigs, a dizzying flurry of construction and vast outskirts of sand. It is in that immense desert that 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. “Whenever he called from the rig and said ‘salam alaikum’ instead of ‘hello,’ ” she simply hung up the phone.
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, 2001, 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.
THE GIRL WHO FELL TO EARTH
By Sophia Al-Maria
Harper Perennial. 288 pp. Paperback, $14.99