Memoir reveals that American-born author was drawn to her Bedouin roots

US-born Sophia Al-Maria's story of growing up as the child of an American mother and Qatari father involved the decision to follow her Bedouin heritage, Lucy Scholes writes.

Robert De Niro talks with Sophia Al-Maria at the 2009 Doha Tribeca Film Festival, where she was named Most Promising Filmmaker. Maneesh Bakshi / AP
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The Girl Who Fell to Earth
Sophia Al-Maria
Harper Perennial

In 1978, 19-year-old Matar, a Bedouin man from the Al-Dafira tribe, swaps his thobe for a tight, sweaty polyester suit the colour and texture of a "goat's tongue" and, with a briefcase full of tuition fees in the form of traveller's checks, boards a plane headed for an English school in Seattle. He touches down at Sea-Tac airport barely able to speak English and finds himself lost - the stars he's orientated himself by for his entire life are now obliterated by the rain clouds that fill the American sky. Two days later in a bowling alley in Tacoma, a girl named Grace Valo finds Matar staring dejectedly into the box of Tide laundry detergent he mistook for cornflakes when he purchased it in the convenience store across the road. This "kind of dark-skinned" stranger, sporting a "salmon disco ensemble", and looking like a "spooked horse", intrigues her, so she wanders over to his table. The rest, as they say, is history.

The writer, artist and filmmaker Sophia Al-Maria begins her Middle East-meets-the-Pacific North-west coming-of-age memoir with this story of her parents' first meeting. The two then take a road trip together, during which Matar practises his English while playing pool in the roadside taverns en route. He slaughters a lamb as a present for her mother when Grace first takes him home, then Grace finds out she's pregnant. The young couple settle down with Grace's mother on her farm in Puyallup, and Sophia is born, followed shortly by a younger sister, Dima. Early cultural differences are solved by an easy system of bartering - Grace agrees to learn how to pray if, in return, the land-bound Bedouin boy learns to swim.

When the girls are still both too young to really remember him, Matar decides he must return to Qatar, so Grace continues to raise them alone, until, when Sophia is about five, the three of them up sticks to Doha, a "pockmarked moonscape of construction pits and cranes", where they're reunited with Matar, and introduced to their extended tribal family. So begins Sophia's process of learning to live in both worlds as she spends the next 10 years flying back and forth across the globe, from one half of her family to another, one culture to another, trying to find her place in both.

The title pays homage to the 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth, directed by Nicolas Roeg, and starring Sophia's teenage idol, David Bowie. As a confused and angry adolescent, she finds Bowie's suggestion of the possibility of "creating an alter ego or curating one's own personal mythology" incredibly alluring. Her identification as an "alien" or a space traveller of some kind or other runs as a refrain throughout the story - on official documentation throughout high school she always checks the box marked "other", usually adding "Klingon" to the "please specify" section underneath. This kind of lighthearted humour deftly conceals what was clearly a significant teenage identity crisis, magnified ten-fold by the actual split between the two very different sides of her family, and the two very separate lives she led as she pinged between them.

What perhaps makes Sophia's story most interesting, though, is the way in which she's always drawn more powerfully to the Bedouin side of her family, despite having been born in the United States. Contrary to many of the assumptions one might make about the freedom and independence allowed by western societies when compared to their Middle Eastern counterparts, Sophia tells another side to the story. Her sprawling Bedouin family - that which "refused to fit onto the page neatly", when she attempts to construct her family tree, the necessary addition of each man's multiple wives engendering a frustrating "lack of symmetry" - quickly comes to represent a form of security her American nuclear family unit can't even begin to offer. On the phone to her father while seated in the "dark silence" of her maternal grandmother's living room in Washington state, she listens to the hubbub in the background and yearns for "the safety that came in those numbers".

Arguments with her mother lead to Sophia being banished to Qatar for a summer in an attempt to curb her early teenage rebellion, where the time she spends among her father's extended family is actually one of surprising freedom, whether in the form of the movies she's allowed to watch supervision-free, or the lack of the usual societal expectations exerting their force on an American teenage girl: "There was no curfew, no diet, and no one able to read my diary."

Even her adoption of traditional dress holds none of the negative assumptions that many in the West have come to expect. Quick to point out that her decision to wear it was "in no way political", to Sophia it simply signified "an easy transformation into a bona fide Al-Dafira woman, anonymous, invisible, and with the sun and sand protection over my face: invincible. I felt as though I could go anywhere and, out of politeness, no one would bother me".

She returns to the US for a while, but is drawn back to the Arabian Gulf again, realising that "the only way to become the person I wanted to be was to remove myself from the people who thought they knew me", so she leaves her sister, mother and grandmother behind and returns permanently to her tribal roots.

Her dual identity reaches the peak of its confusion during this period, after she enrols herself in the American School in Doha. Despite the foreign setting, the school is a "patty-melt pastiche" of a fantasy version of America as sold to the rest of the world by most high school-set TV dramas: "It was like 90210 if it were acted entirely with international exchange students cast by Benetton."

This "other world of school" is a million miles away from both the actual American high schools she knows back home in Washington, but it also has nothing in common with her home life in Doha. Her schoolmates come from completely different backgrounds - the sons and daughters of ambassadors, oil barons and power families - who use the word Bedouin in "the way an American might talk about rednecks": "But he's sooo Bedu!" drawls one of the school girls after meeting Sophia's uncle.

Her daily commute between the two worlds quickly leaves Sophia suffering from "cultural whiplash". She feels as disorientated as "a deep-sea diver, adjusting constantly to the pressures of the two very different environments. And just like the bends, it was painful."

Sophia brings her story to a close on the slopes of the mountains of Sinai after a summer research assistantship to an anthropology professor at the American University in Cairo (her time at which is provided for by a "powerful but secret patron who takes education very seriously", in true Great Expectations style) finds her living with an old nomadic tribe, observing and recording their customs. She has weathered the turmoils of adolescence while battling differing degrees of cross-cultural confusion; a forbidden teenage love affair; and harassment and abuse in Egypt, alone from her tribe for the first time. Her new-found independence is tempered by the obvious place she's forged for herself in Qatar, the country to which she eventually returns and makes her home - today she works at Mathaf researching Gulf futurism, as well as writing regularly for Bidoun magazine.

Avoiding the traps of sentimentality that youthfully written memoirs can so often fall into, Sophia's story is funny, honest and heartwarming in equal measure, but more importantly, she's a natural storyteller.

Lucy Scholes is a freelance journalist who lives in London.