In an age where Muslim characters in popular culture are often portrayed as extremists, A Pure Heart by Rajia Hassib offers a refreshing alternative.
The Egyptian-American author depicts Arabs and Muslims as complex and nuanced, rather than tokenised figures to tick one of three boxes – the extremist, the fundamentalist, or the ultra-liberal rebel. For the author, it's all about debunking stereotypes in the West.
Hassib's novel fluctuates between the past and present narratives of two Egyptian sisters – Rose who marries an American and moves to the US, and Gameela, who takes up wearing the hijab and follows a different path – one that eventually leads to her being killed in a suicide bombing.
Shocked, heartbroken and adamant about solving the mystery surrounding Gameela's death, Rose returns to Egypt to investigate. While she's certainly the protagonist of the book, many chapters are told from Gameela's perspective, and as the story progresses, surprising facts about the Cairo sister's life, come to light.
The jump between sisters' perspectives is an enjoyable one, as the reader experiences key events in their lives – such as the time Rose brings her American husband-to-be home for a family dinner – from two different viewpoints.
As an Egyptian Muslim immigrant to the US herself, Hassib's own experience inspired much of Rose's story. "I chose to make Rose immigrate in her 20s, as I did, because I believed this age would allow her to fully absorb her Egyptian culture before moving away, but it would also leave her young enough to be mailable, to be able to conform and adapt to her new, American culture. Because of that, she would be able to investigate that middle space between both societies more intimately," she tells The National.
“As an immigrant, I’m fascinated by how people negotiate that space between cultures, how a change of place can lead to a reinvention of one’s identity, and how moving from one country to the other forces one to redefine the meaning of home.”
Rose, though strong-willed and confident in her life choices, such as marrying an American man and moving to the US to pursue her studies, at times struggles with conflicting forces within her own identity. At a young age, she gives up her given name, Fayrouz, for a shorter, more western-friendly moniker. She also finds difficulty in understanding her sister's choice to start wearing the hijab, since the two had not grown up doing so.
To some extent, she resents Gameela for her new-found pious nature and her tendency to judge Rose's own decisions – such as marrying a foreigner even though he converts to Islam, and choosing the West over her home country.
The book is set both in the period before the Egyptian uprising, and in the aftermath of it, and while it isn't too heavily delved into, it sets much of the tone for the mood of the story.
Rose feels a sense of guilt for being so far away during such a tumultuous and polarising period for her country – and, for bringing her husband back to the US, as he reveals that he misses the adventure that came with being a journalist in Egypt. The uprising also shapes new characters who we are introduced to as the story progresses, some of whom, amid brewing extremist pockets within the divided nation, unwittingly play a role in Gameela's death.
Through the development of Gameela's character, Hassib humanises the hijab, addressing the loaded political symbolism so often attached to it in the West. It also tends to be seen in the West as a symbol of the Arab woman, but Hassib places it in a home where it's just as alien as it may be to a westerner. "Such backward traditions were not for people of their class and education," Gameela's mother says, when her daughter first emerges wearing a headscarf, shedding light on the diversity of beliefs, even among Muslims, within Egyptian society.
The author emphasises that while the main characters are Egyptian Muslims, the story will relate to a diverse audience. “A lifetime spent between Egypt and the US taught me that people are more alike than they think,” she explains.
"The main characters in my novel, though Egyptian, all act based on desires that are universal and struggle with issues many people can identify with. I strove to dig deeply enough into their motives and desires to strip them of their superficial cultural attire and present them simply as people facing difficult choices and doing their best in their own ways, and I believe readers will certainly recognise that and relate to it. Such empathy makes differences of race, religion and culture less important or noticeable."
Hassib, who worked on A Pure Heart for five-and-a-half years, addresses religion with the collected experience of a Muslim striving for interfaith harmony in an Islamophobic era. Some chapters are told from the perspective of Mark, who offers a refreshing "outsider's" voice. Though Mark converts to Islam to marry Rose, he believes that whether he's labelled Christian or Muslim, the root religion – that is, a belief in God – is one and the same.
Hassib's characters, after all, are not only relatable, they're balanced. In a literary world where Muslim characters are often depicted as one of two extremes – rebellious or religiously zealous – it's a refreshing take.
"They are either fanatical terrorists or rebels who reject the religion altogether, interesting only because of their difference," explains Hassib, who says she consciously avoided stereotypes when forming A Pure Heart's characters.
"Stereotypes are always a product of ignorance," she says. "They can be debunked if people get to know others intimately, but not everyone in the West has a Muslim or Arab friend. Fiction offers the next best thing: a chance for people to get to know the 'other', even if it's only a fictional version of the 'other'."