I was 16. I was hunched over in a sloshy waterbed, a green blanket tangled around my legs. This is how I began reading Записки из подполья, or Notes from Underground. I’m not sure what I had read before that day; I think this was the first of Dostoevsky’s works to pass into my hands. I’m also not sure where I got it, as I did not grow up in a house of books. Most of my previous literary exposure, outside of To Kill a Mockingbird and 1984, had been racy thrillers or pop mysteries.
But записки was not like these other books. As I sat on the sloshy bed, the words built themselves into sentences, and images. The text began to reach inside me until I heard it echoing both as inside and outside, to such a degree that I felt it was speaking not from some external place, like the thrillers and mysteries, but from deep within. Something inside me exploded, sharply and painfully. I was shocked. As I read on, I heaved out big, open-mouth sobs.
Since then, many books have spoken from inside me. They have worked their way into me more deeply than the slim записки, and they have spoken to me more charmingly, more sweetly, more beautifully. But none has created that first utter shock, probably because after that I could never be so totally alone.
Pockets of loneliness still exist inside me: hundreds of hard little bubbles, squirreled away here and there. They are smaller, and breached less often now. But when they are burst open, I’m taken back to this place, sitting in among those tangled green covers, with the bright-green carpet and the dirty pale-green walls. This time, one was breached by Sophia al-Maria’s debut memoir The Girl Who Fell to Earth.
I have never felt this way about memoir, and you could not say al-Maria’s life has been too much like mine. She is younger: In 2001, she was an undergrad at the American University in Cairo while I was teaching pre-K in one of Cairo’s “international” schools. Al-Maria spent her childhood between small-big Washington and big-small Qatar; I spent mine in a cold green bedroom.
That bedroom has probably been rendered in memoir — if not mine, someone else’s. But the latter story of my life has not. In my twenties, I left America for Egypt, and that was my coming-of-age. When I arrived in Egypt, I was lonely, proud, tight-fisted, highly competent. Egypt taught me, bit by bit, how to open up my hands.
I am no longer so young as to think this story is mine alone. Recently, at a party, an older Frenchwoman understood me immediately. She knew, oh, she knew: “When you got to Egypt, you could breathe.”
But the dominant narratives go in the other direction: Arabs, particularly women, come to the U.S. to “come of age.” Hardly a week goes by that I don’t have some prickly argument with one of my blog readers about whether American women writers should go off and “help” Arab women writers. The few narratives that go the other way — G. Willow Wilson has perhaps come the closest — are largely conversion stories. Not for me.
Over time, this seems to have opened up a rather tough little bubble inside me, a lonely sense of being ill-understood. Early on, Al-Maria’s memoir pierced into that: She also came of age in the wrong direction, flying against the sun.
Her memoir is well-written, sharply observed, and since it takes place in the early years of her life, full of wonderfully crazy stunts (like jumping into the Nile). But since this memoir proposes to speak directly in the voice of the author, it is less like a fiction and more like talking to a stranger at a party. The opening of al-Maria’s book had me nodding furiously: Yes, yes, exactly. It had me falling in love with her, opening myself up, wanting to pledge my allegiance.
But when al-Maria arrived in Cairo, her experience distanced me a little. She saw Cairo differently. She didn’t love it as furiously and desperately as I had. If we had been at a party, I would have kept nodding. I recognized the city she was describing. I was charmed by her anecdotes. But my nodding would have been less fervent. I might have excused myself to go get another drink.
I may have come of age in the wrong direction, but I am not the man from under ground, nor am I the person writing this post. I am already different.
It has been a while since Sophia al-Maria came of age in the wrong direction and began writing The Girl Who Fell to Earth. The writing changed her. The time changed her. She is already a different person. And perhaps she loves Cairo better now — I can comfort myself with that.