Rajia Hassib tells the stories of two Egyptian sisters; Rose and Gameela Gubran. The book opens with Rose returning to Egypt from her new home in NYC in the wake of her sister Gameela’s death. Gameela is killed by a suicide bomber and Rose is determined to uncover the mystery surrounding her sister’s death as well as the secrets surrounding her life. We get glimpses into the lives of two wildly different women, with the book moving between time periods and from the perspectives of both women.
Rose is an Egyptologist who marries an American journalist- Mark and immigrates to the US to pursue a PhD, while Gameela is an engineer who loves her country and culture and who, despite the protests of her family and friends, decides to wear the hijab and make God the center of her life. These two seemingly opposite women provide a portrait of what it is to be a Muslim woman in modernity. As characters, they are nuanced and complex and move beyond the usual tropes of East versus West type narratives. Rose for example insists of her own accord that Mark convert to Islam and Gameela has secrets of her own. Their stories invite us into the world of Egypt post revolution and the personalities and attitudes that it spawned.
Hassib deals with hefty issues of class, religion, family, loss, identity belonging and home. She does this in a way that allows us to feel the emotions of the characters and for us to pause and reflect on these very human struggles in our own lives. The theme of home and belonging is one that is mentioned many times, Hassib beautifully describes the way Rose creates “spots of her own”, these are the small and sometimes unimportant spots in a city or country that become one’s own. Anyone who has lived abroad can surely relate to the feeling of how the unfamiliar becomes familiar and then becomes home, in some way.
Beyond the feelings of Rose who immigrates and Gameela who stays in Egypt – we get some insight into Mark – Rose’s husband who lived for many years in the Middle East and who yearns to return. We see the point of view of a “westerner” who much prefers living in Egypt, much to the disbelief of many. Hassib deals gently with his story and gives a balanced view but doesn’t shy away from clashes in terms of perspective between Rose and Mark relating to his attitude towards Egypt.
With Rose being an Egyptologist, she makes reference to ancient Egypt and especially the ancient Egyptian beliefs and rituals concerning the afterlife. This was well weaved into the story and also added an additional dimension in understanding Egypt. Modern and Ancient Egypt are often portrayed so separately, one cannot fathom a connection. Hassib effortlessly joins the two.
The story is essentially one of love and loss, and how the choices we make and the intentions we may have shape the course of not only our lives, but of those whom we love most.