OCTOBER 25, 2019
CAN A NOVEL that squanders a tantalizing premise ever recover? In the case of A Pure Heart, by Rajia Hassib (author of In the Language of Miracles), the answer is in the affirmative. It takes a good while, though, for this to happen.
The story opens in 2016, during a particularly trying time in the life of New York City–based archaeologist Rose (given name: Fayrouz). Rose, whose expertise lies in the ancient Middle Kingdom era of her native Egypt (author Hassib herself is an Egyptian immigrant), has flown to Cairo following her younger sister Gameela’s death at the hands of a suicide bomber. In the run-up to her imminent return to New York, where she works at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rose collects a number of Gameela’s personal belongings to take with her.
In a way, this curious and self-appointed task mirrors Rose’s latest project at the Met, where she assists one of the curators with organizing an exhibit titled “The Daily Life of Ancient Egyptians.” Inspired by Egyptian mythology, Rose has flights of fancy in which she “imagines that by collecting Gameela’s things she will put her sister together again and then instate her as queen of the underworld, empress of resurrection.”
When Rose returns to the States, she starts reading letters to the dead; the literate among bereaved ancient Egyptians often composed epistles to their recently departed loved ones. Perusing such a letter, one in which the writer accuses his late wife of causing him, from the world beyond, to fall ill, “Rose considers what this implies about ancient Egyptian daily life: a belief in the afterlife, of course; a way of communicating with the dead; but also a belief in the influence that loved ones, long deceased, can still have on their living relatives.”
Intriguing, no? Hassib has laid the groundwork for two scenarios, either of which would steer her story into beguiling territory. Will Rose begin to lose her grip on reality as she takes to writing Gameela, now ensconced in the hereafter, one letter after another? Or will Rose’s reality become enrobed in a layer of magic, so that Gameela responds in kind to her sister’s missives?
Alas, neither. Rose never pens those letters! Despite the earlier appearance of foreshadowing, Hassib veers away from either of the bounty-lined paths we glimpsed on the horizon. She chooses another trajectory entirely, leaving the reader both mystified and disappointed.
The author decides to delve into the inadvertent role played by Rose and her American journalist husband, Mark (whom she met and married when they both lived in Egypt), in triggering the string of events leading to Gameela’s presence at the site of the suicide bombing that claimed her life. This in turn enables Hassib to reveal the varied and at times competing selves that make up each of her main characters. Besides Rose, who serves as the story’s linchpin, those characters are Mark; Gameela; her husband, Fouad; and Saaber, who is none other than the suicide bomber. An omniscient narrator moves from one to the other, deepening the reader’s acquaintance with each.
Truth be told, Rose and Mark’s connection to what befell Gameela does not emerge from out of nowhere. Hassib introduces the issue in the first few pages, before Rose returns to the United States from her visit to Egypt. “[F]or the ten days since her sister died, she has had the butterfly effect on her mind, has been obsessed with minor events that lead to major ones.”
Like what? “An interview leading to a suicide bombing, for example.” It becomes increasingly clear that, despite its apparent tenuousness, Rose and Mark’s link to Gameela’s recent demise via an interview that took place two years ago will play a crucial part in how the tale unfolds.
“Every time someone spoke to [Mark], they were at some degree of risk, especially if they were perceived to be criticizing the government.” Mark, after all, is a journalist, and post-revolution Egypt has reverted to authoritarian rule following a military coup that ousted a democratically elected Islamist president. So, two years earlier, when Mark, now based in New York with Rose, briefly returned to Egypt to profile a handful of ordinary Egyptians for his paper, The New York Times, he knew that certain topics could land an interviewee in a heap of trouble. Still, “he didn’t think a simple profile could have any negative repercussions.”
The ingenuity of Hassib’s conceit lies not so much in tracing the path Saaber took from that seemingly innocuous interview with Mark, through imprisonment, and on to self-perceived martyrdom — as a matter of fact, this attempt at retroactive tension-building works only occasionally — but in taking a lateral step into Gameela’s secretive life. Indeed, that is what rejuvenates the story. Slowly, Hassib lures the reader into its embrace all over again.
When Rose still lived in Egypt some years earlier, Gameela’s turn toward religiosity strained their relationship. In particular, Gameela took issue with Rose’s acquiescence in Mark’s clearly pro forma conversion to Islam, the sole purpose of which was to smooth the way for their marriage. The couple relocated to the United States shortly thereafter, without a healing of the sororal rift. The once inseparable sisters might have gone their separate ways (with Gameela marrying the much older Fouad in secret, as her parents disapproved of him, and Rose adjusting to life in the States while contending with Mark’s resentment that they left Egypt only for a revolution to erupt and fulfill every journalist’s dream), yet Hassib shows the durability of their emotional bond. And now, of course, Gameela is gone.
Although Fouad, like Saaber, isn’t properly fleshed out, his dual role as Gameela’s husband and on-the-ground facilitator of Mark’s fateful interview of Saaber proves critical to the story. Additionally, Rose’s excavation of Gameela’s recently terminated life unearths more and more nuggets of information that Hassib strategically tucked away here and there. In fact, links between this tale’s various themes — the lost promise of the Arab Spring’s Egyptian Revolution, the dangers of both religious and secular-ideological fundamentalisms, and the tension that may arise between a sense of physical home and a preferred cultural-ideological milieu — take to solidifying. As all this happens, the story’s earlier letdown fades into the background, and the reader is both relieved and delighted that A Pure Heart redeems itself.