Anyone who reads memoirs knows that a successful one requires two distinct elements: an interesting life, and strong writing skills. By memoir standards, Sophia Al-Maria’s life is promising: her father is a Bedouin from Qatar, her mother an American from rural Washington; she grows up in the U.S. but moves to Doha as a teenager to live with her father’s family, then attends college in Cairo. That clash of cultures seen through the eyes of a modern teen, interested in sci-fi and video games, provides some potentially great material.
Unfortunately, Al-Maria does little with that material. Other reviewers have criticized the book as self-centered, which isn’t necessarily a problem for me; it is, after all, her memoir. The problem is that the one thing that makes Al-Maria’s life interesting is her having lived in such wildly different cultures; the activities that make up her life (attending school, experiencing pop culture, discovering boys) are mundane. And when the interesting thing about someone’s life is the other people in it, then a lack of interest and insight into those other people becomes a problem. A scene toward the end is representative of Al-Maria’s focus throughout the book: she goes on an anthropological expedition, but realizes afterwards that her tapes consist almost entirely of her talking to her subjects about herself. Despite that supposed epiphany, this book does the same thing.
On top of that, too often the story simply doesn’t make sense, raising more questions about events than it answers. Here’s a small example: “Ma checked us in [to a hotel] under a false name and, having no money, gave them our passports as collateral at the desk.” (That makes sense how?) And here’s a larger one: Al-Maria’s parents meet when her father travels to the U.S. as a foreign student, gets lost as soon as he arrives, encounters her mother in a bowling alley, and takes off with her. It sounds like the plot of a bad romantic comedy, and the author offers no more explanation than such a film would. How does he manage to get a scholarship, when he is long out of school, with no achievements or connections mentioned? When a student arrives from another country speaking virtually no English, wouldn’t someone meet him at the airport, or at least instruct him in advance on finding the school? Does no one realize he never arrives at the school, or try to check up on him? Isn’t ditching his academic plans a problem for his immigration status and/or stipend? When he’s later mentioned to be regularly “visiting” his girlfriend’s mother in rural Washington, where is he living, and how can he afford it? There are so many unanswered questions that it feels as if we’re only getting half the story.
And then, the author’s writing itself can be clunky. The constant pop culture references from the author's childhood are both needless and distancing for those who don't share her reference points, and she never uses a common noun where a brand name will do. Here are several examples all taken from a single page: “The only snippet of incongruity in Joey’s look was the fact that he was wearing thick-as-Coke-bottle glasses. He rummaged through his worn-out leather-bottomed Jansport. . . . Tara was skinny with a shaved head like a Tank Girl. . . . [Joey] pulled a pack of Pall Malls out and lit one off a floppy clip of matches. . . . Joey was peeling up the edge of the ‘hum’ part of his Subhumans patch.”
In the end, neither the author’s writing nor her insight is crisp enough to bring anything but her own angst and pop cultural interests into focus, and the story trails off – not a moment too soon – with no real conclusion. Though I know a bit more about Qatar than before, I was glad to be finished with this book and would not recommend it to others.