From Puyallup to Mount Sinai: The Girl Who Fell to Earth by Sophia Al-Maria

The Girl Who Fell to Earth is a wry, brilliant coming-of-age memoir that follows Qatarican (Qatari and American) Sophia’s journey across continents and cultures.

Sophia Al-Maria is an artist; she makes films, creates art, and writes.

She’s recently won MCA Chicago’s $100,000 prize for Middle Eastern art. So, as I read more about Al-Maria, I wasn’t surprised to find out that often her exhibits and films lead those interested in her work to her memoir. For me, it was the other way around.

Born to an American mother and a Bedouin father in Puyallup, Washington, Al-Maria grew up in the U.S. and Qatar before she moved to Egypt and then to London for her studies.

I will admit that I feared the memoir would be another neo-Orientalist narrative that promises to unveil “the mysteries” of the Arab world in general and Bedouins in particular. Al-Maria’s narrative, however, has transcended my preconceived expectations about stories by “native informants” that tackle straddling two different cultures.

As its title suggests, the memoir feels otherworldly, ethereal, which distinguishes it from other stories of migration, displacement, and otherness.

As an adolescent whose patriotic mother converts to Islam and whose father relocates to Qatar after having married a second wife, Sophia goes through the arduous process of figuring out her identity. She finds that she is compelled to live on the fringes of society wherever she resides. As a Qatari in Puyallup, she battles microaggresions from her peers, as well as all-too-familiar biases (e.g. “the daughter of Saddam Hussein,” “terrorist”). When she visits her father’s tribe, as an American she falls short. Moreover, when she moves to Qatar to attend an American high-school, she finds that her Bedouin family is despised by the Qatari elite as rural and barbaric. Sophie soon realizes that her hope that attending the American University of Cairo in Egypt as a Qatari would simplify the process of identity negotations is futile too. Not surprisingly, her struggles as a hyphenated spirit are amplified in the memoir. The text also serves as a space where the transmission of knowledge to the reader about the Gulf, particularly her Bedouin family occurs.

Sophia writes:

It’s a common misconception that all Gulf Arabs are rich. I feel the need here to lay out the fact that out family absolutely was and is not. Marginalized from the moment borders, cities, and politics began to solidify in the Gulf, Bedouin families like those in Al-Dafira had a difficult time adapting to urban life.

In a sense, Al- Maria addresses a crucial gap in works of literature on the Middle East. Readers aren’t necessarily exposed to the stories of Bedouins who have been relegated to the periphery of Arab societies. By focusing on her family’s history, Sophia sheds light on how most Bedouin tribes have been compelled to leave their home, as well as their lifestyles that transcend the social constructions of ethnicity and nationality:

In the ’80s, the governments of many Gulf countries had planned boroughs and filled them with relocated Bedouin. Parts of the Al-Dafira tribe had been crossing back and forth through the neck of the peninsula between Saudi and Qatar, Kuwait and the UAE for generations. While the disorienting effects of industry and modernity dizzied the tribe, invisible lines were being drawn in the sand under their feet and on the papers they couldn’t read. Sides of the border were taken and families were broken up. Each patriarch had to choose his nationality: Saudi or Qatari or Emirati? For those who chose Qatar, they each received one house called a beit shaabi. These “folk houses” were stocky one-story blocks set back behind twelve-foot-tall walls of concrete erected tp protect the women’s privacy. What they didn’t factor in was that out in the desert, there was no privacy.

As she continues to occupy a liminal space in the countries she resides, she grapples with the notorious question:

“What are you really?”

From the police officers in Egypt to a Bedouin man whose tribe she observed one summer for an anthropologist, strangers she meets repeatedly ask her the same question:

“What are you? American? Moroccan? Turkish? Spanish? Italian? Tunisian? Greek?”

And Sofia’s narrative illuminates how draining and exhausting it can be to encounter the question again and again and to be constantly wrapped up in identity politics:

After nine months at AUC, I had been dropped into the center of the then very vogue political debate about the future Arab identity and American foreign policy. Although I might have been both Arab and American, I still felt I had no place in the discussions […] I cultivated a taste for the Orientalist curiosities and out-of-print accounts of “native peoples” […] In a way I think it was an unintentional punk gesture after months of circular complaint about the disparaging portrayal of Arab men in American films and the offensive attire of Princess Jasmine. I didn’t give a fuck about anymore what Edward Said said–I just wanted to look at turn-of-last-century nude photographs of tattooed Oueled Nail tribeswomen.

As she takes a step outside the box of all the political and cultural debates about her identity– Americanness, Arabness, ethnicity, religion, nationality, and so forth– her focus gradually shifts from what am I to who am I. Of course, the message of the memoir is that it takes a while to get there:

I’d already left the orbits of Ma and Baba before I felt the effects of their gravity, of their influence. In fact, neither of their worldview made sense to me at all; they were just a couple of grand delusions in a universe of chaos and pure chance. Neither Ma’s pragmatic ideas of manifest destiny or Baba’s deep belief in the precision of Allah’s intention offered any comfort as I sat there quivering on the mount in the middle of my identity crisis. I had been shaped by these opposing polar forces, but I wasn’t governed by them anymore, and it tool climbing a holy mountain I’d never planned to summit before I could understand that.

The memoir itself comes to end as Sophia sits on the top of Mount Sinai, watching the stars and the Milky Way, but we know this is just the beginning for Sophia. She writes:

I didn’t care anymore where I came from or where I was going; all I wanted was to be on my way. After all, the universe, this planet, my two homelands, and even I would come undone. From politics to particles, everything that made me in every most profound sense was on a constant polarizing drift, stretching farther and farther apart.

The shift from the need to belong to I already belong, from what am I to who am I at my core, is what renders this memoir special for me. Moving back and forth between her two homelands serves a way of escape for Sofia–until it doesn’t. This is Sophia Al-Maria’s gentle reminder that you’re part of something bigger than the constructs of nations, religions, and ethnicities–you’re part of something bigger than yourself.

More on Sophia Al-Maria

I’ve read The Girl Who Fell to Earth as part of my reading around Asia project; some other Qatari writers/works of literature that are on my radar are:

Have you read The Girl Who Fell to Earth, or any other works by Qatari writers? What did you think?

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