This review first appeared in Washington Independent Review of Books on 9 September 2015.
So much is conveyed in the first paragraph of Rajia Hassib’s eloquent debut novel, In the Language of Miracles: protagonist Khaled’s status as favorite of his devoutly Islamic grandmother, Ehsan; her disappointment in her daughter’s failure to follow the same devout traditions; and her firm belief that such lapses will lead to disaster for the beautiful boy, as evidenced by Khaled’s life-threatening illness, which has prompted Ehsan’s emergency visit from Egypt.
“His mother’s insistence on throwing him an elaborate birthday party a few weeks earlier must have been the last straw. ‘Why parade the boy around? Why invite people’s envy?’ Ehsan would repeatedly mumble as she tended to the sick child. They might as well have injected him with bacteria and saved the money spent on the inflatables.”
That peek at a sly sense of humor is deceptive, though, because the story that Hassib goes on to relate is heart-wrenching. Meet the Al-Menshawy family: physician father Samir, stay-at-home mother Nagla, eldest son Hosaam, middle child Khaled, and youngest Fatima, along with the frequently visiting Ehsan.
Samir and Nagla made the leap as newlyweds from Alexandria, Egypt, to the U.S., ending up finally in small, suburban Sommerset, N.J., where Samir starts his medical practice and the family grows to be best friends with their next-door neighbors, Jim, Cynthia, and Natalie Broadbent.
The crux of the story, though, is the horrific incident that took the lives of longtime sweethearts Hosaam and Natalie, the first anniversary of which is quickly approaching as chapter one opens. The tragedy hangs over everything and everyone, and has separated the Al-Menshawys from the community, from their former best friends, and from each other. Each of the surviving family members is wrapped in his or her own form of grief, and their lonely attempts to find a way through increasingly polarize and isolate them from each other.
There is so much going on in Language, so many quiet layers that build on each other, and Hassib guides us through the nuanced implications of culture, religion, community, gender, familial relationships, even birth order that together form the unique lens we all use to view one another and to experience the world around us.
Samir is fully committed to his adopted nation, believing in his and his family’s ability to assimilate and be accepted as true Americans, while also clinging to very traditional beliefs about his role as the head of the family and each member’s role in relation to his.
He is certain he understands the American character and way of thinking, yet he is utterly tone deaf in his dealings with the community he’s lived in for years. Even his unassimilated mother-in-law understands what a poor idea it is for the family to attend the inevitable memorial service for Natalie. That he wishes to speak at the service is a source of dread for all of us; a disaster is in the making.
While Khaled is at the book’s center as the ever-obedient middle child now living even more deeply in his dead brother’s shadow — the standard miseries of adolescence paling in the face of chronic physical and social-media harassment, the constant fear of being recognized in public, and the sense that his family has turned its back on him — it is Nagla who is the book’s heart.
Our view into her grief, guilt, and sense of helplessness as a mother makes her universally accessible, and demands we consider how we would act under similar untenable circumstances. Nagla suffers through the judgmental and conflicting advice that her friend Ameena and mother Ehsan, two highly observant Muslim women, heap upon her.
“Both her mother and Ameena had an uncanny ability to quote the Qur’an in support of their arguments, even if their views opposed each other, even, she now realized, using the same verse to support two different sides of an argument,” but both sides telling Nagla she is wrong. She and Samir can no longer speak to each other without shouting, but Ehsan sides with Samir, even though she doesn’t agree with him. Nagla is truly alone.
Hassib’s book invites the question of how this scenario would have played out if the families involved were both from the same white, suburban, middle-class, typical “American” background. The answer, perhaps, is not so much differently.
The cultural disparity here makes the situation more fraught — particularly in a post-9/11 America and a 24-hour “news” cycle that has elevated public defamation to a full-contact team sport — but with the exception of Cynthia’s bigoted sister Pat, the people of Sommerset aren’t ostracizing the Al-Menshawys for being Muslim, but for having taken something from them that they can never recover.
Hassib herself only moved to the U.S. when she was 23, and yet she has an impeccable ear for the twanging crosscurrents of American culture, xenophobic melting pot that it is. She heads many of her chapters with roughly equivalent English and Arabic sayings that highlight both similarities and differences in the cultures.
And Hassib weaves in snippets from the Qur’an that feature a number of figures prominent in the Old Testament, helping to remind non-Muslim readers of the tightly linked origins of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It’s an empathetic reminder that our similarities are always larger than our differences.