Randa Jarrar's 2008 novel A Map of Home has its heroine a wonderful young Palestinian/Egyptian heroine Nidali rebelling against her domineering Palestinian father. The author like her heroine grew up in Kuwait, Egypt, and Texas with her higher education at Sarah Lawrence, the University of Texas at Austin, and University of Michigan. This novel is one of the first in English to give a moving account of Palestinians in exile and the family's surviving the Kuwait-Iraq war in 1992.
The heroine Nidali's father was forced to leave Palestine in 1967 because of the war, going to university in Alexandria, Egypt, where here met and married a Greek/Egyptian woman. The father, an immensely imposing figure in the novel, did brilliantly in his school and wanted to be a poet, but instead chose architecture in order to support his family. The mother had an university degree in music composition and was a brilliant pianist but also gave that up to be a housewife. The daughter judges both her parents severely for giving up their art but the parents seems to have poured their love of poetry and music into their children so this book is alive with pop music, dancing, and poetry. Nidali and her brother are constantly singing and dancing no matter what hardships they go through.
After her grandfather dies, Nidali's father takes the family back to Palestine to pay their respects. The crossing is harrowing: first fly from Cairo to Jordan; then a taxi from the airport to the border which stopped at a gate with soldiers; then sit on a bench before getting into a crowded bus ; the bus then drives until it stops at the Allenby bridge where all the passengers get off. At this point Nidali asks her father how long crossing would take and he says, "All day." The women and children are separated from the men and go into a room where the women and children had to take off their shoes and outer garments to be searched where an Israeli woman soldier steals a Palestinian woman's Gucci sandals. Finally, they take a taxi to her father's village. Nidali's father shows her the one-room house he lived in with six sisters and a mother and a father. He constantly tells his daughter his six sisters all married before they were seventeen but he wants his daughter to be a professor. Going to Egypt he tells his daughter, "I lost my home ... and I gained an education which later became my home. That can also happen to you."
Some of the novel's best parts are Nidali's accounts of her childhood ending at thirteen when Iraq invaded Kuwait. The story is a middle school view of war--how it disrupts her budding romance with a boy at school. The story is also a moving account how a family hides out in their apartment in suffocating isolation with the invasion of Iraqi soldiers. One of Niadli's best friends is a Kurd who flees with her family into Saudi Arabia. Nidali's father decides to flee to Jordan, and he and the family take a car caravan through southern Iraq where young Nidali watches her father bribe Iraqi guards with either ties or whiskey. The family does make it to their refuge in Alexandria, Egypt, and the mother's family. The father has lost his job and doesn't know if he can return to Kuwait to get the family's belongings and their money.
The novel continues the adventures of our heroine's coming of age--loss of first boyfriend in Kuwait; suffering nasty teasing in her new high school, studying for exams--against the background of her multiple exiles. Since Arafat supported Saddam Hussein in the invasion of Kuwait, the Kuwaitis retaliate by throwing out all 300,000 Palestinians including her father. The father briefly weeps at his latest loss. Then he tells his daughter he can relate to her losses because leaving Palestine: "I never got a chance to say goodbue to any of my friends or belongings. But I survived. And well, I ended up having a great time here. What a lucky family, a lucky people we are to have Egypt! "
Most of all this is a story of a family's surviving war and exile as the father puts up hundreds of resumes (he had been a leading architect in Kuwait) landing a job in Texas, so off they go to start again. The novel is also an immigration-to-America in the 1980s where Nidali has to overcome loneliness in her new high school and new country as well as rebelling against her father's strictness. She has horrible clashes with her father who imposes curfew and bans dating: the daughter is on her own quest for freedom including sexual freedom while her father wants an obediant stay-at-home daughter. A Map of Home as a first novel is a stunning achievement.
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