Updated 13 Sep 2020


A detail from the Book of the Dead; this tome — that describes the ancient Egyptians’ deep and meaningful obsession with the afterlife — plays into the plot of Rajia Hassib’s novel
A detail from the Book of the Dead; this tome — that describes the ancient Egyptians’ deep and meaningful obsession with the afterlife — plays into the plot of Rajia Hassib’s novel

Egyptian-born, West-Virginia based writer Rajia Hassib sets her bi-cultural novel, A Pure Heart, predominantly in Cairo and New York, although the fine, leafy countryside of West Virginia also makes an appearance. The story is about the very different lives of two sisters, Rose (Fayrouz) and Gameela Gubran, who hail from a moderately affluent Egyptian family.

Their destinies diverge markedly as Rose’s passion for ancient Egypt leads her towards marrying an American journalist and establishing a professional life in New York at the prestigious Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met). Although no less spirited and intelligent, Gameela pursues the more practical profession of engineering but, as the novel unfolds, one finds that Gameela’s heart rules her head insofar as setting up the parameters of her life are concerned. The book is set in the years following the Cairo revolution of 2011 and, hence, social justice is as central a theme to Hassib’s work as are timeless issues of love and longing.

The very beginning of the book establishes a tone of personal tragedy — Gameela is found to have died during a suicide bomber’s attack in Cairo. A stunned Rose returns briefly to their childhood home to mourn her sister and console her parents. Ever the archaeologist, Rose collects a number of her sister’s belongings from her room in order to try to “excavate” the reasons behind why Gameela was even present during the attack that killed her. Rose’s primary academic interest is in the fascinating Egyptian Book of the Dead — a tome that describes the ancient Egyptians’ deep and meaningful obsession with the afterlife.

While her feelings for her late sister are sad but utterly explicable, far more intriguing is the manner in which Rose confers an almost mystical dimension on Gameela’s passing, by relating it to age-old approaches to death, the ultimate aim of which were to purify the soul. Her colleague at the Met, Ingrid, sensibly points out to Rose that the only reason historians rely on artefacts to piece together the past is because they have no way of actually accessing anyone in distant history who is still alive — obviously this is not the case with Gameela, whose family and friends are still around. However, like many scholars who are strongly driven by their disciplines, Rose believes that she can make more sense of Gameela’s tragic demise by treating her death as if it were a historical mystery.

Hassib also recount part of the narrative from Gameela’s perspective. We are told that she quit her job at a sound, national construction company in order to secretly marry a man old enough to be her father, but to whom she was genuinely attracted and who, likewise, cared for her, too. Her husband Fouad — a cousin of Gameela’s family friend, Marwa — is able to connect Rose’s husband, Mark, to a young man named Saaber who gives Mark an interview for a piece that the latter publishes in The New York Times.

A bi-cultural novel about two Egyptian sisters set in the post-Arab Spring world explores timeless issues of love and longing as well as issues of social justice

Saaber comes from the lower classes of Egypt that were hardest hit following the removal of Mohamed Morsi, the president who succeeded Hosni Mubarak, from power. Morsi had originally acquired power because of his connections to the controversial, but important, Muslim Brotherhood, and tens of families such as Saaber’s were dependent on the Brotherhood for financial assistance.

Saaber speaks about these matters to Mark, even though he naturally incurs the displeasure of family and friends alike for confiding in a Western journalist. But his main message is a poignant one: that in a socially stratified society such as Egypt, the poor simply cannot better their lot substantially without influential political help. Both Saaber and his late father ran into problems with the law — although Hassib points out that both were partly blameless — and Saaber’s 18-month long imprisonment leaves him embittered about the police, as well as dangerously susceptible to the religious fanatics whom he encounters while incarcerated.

Therefore, it does not come as much of a surprise that Saaber decides to take revenge by bombing a police station. What is far less explicable is why Gameela decides to befriend the jaded young man, even though Fouad expressly forbids her to have anything to do with Saaber. Readers will find that, ironically, Gameela’s character and motives are made far more accessible to one through Rose’s narrative as opposed to her own. Perhaps this is because Hassib is especially good at portraying various types of love, ranging from the filial and fraternal, to the romantic and nationalistic.

And Rose’s complex love for her sister speaks volumes about what Gameela’s strong-willed psyche may truly have been like beneath her modest, hijabi exterior. Rose discovers a copy of Gameela and Fouad’s Islamic marriage certificate — an orfi, the Egyptian equivalent of the Pakistani nikahnaama — amongst Gameela’s private papers and other paraphernalia such as her headscarf. Her subsequent visit to Fouad, a rural landowner by profession, helps Rose achieve a necessary sense of closure following the trauma of losing her sister.

Although both siblings truly adore their respective spouses, Gameela’s love for her homeland comes across as just as authentic as her sentiments for Fouad. As a parallel corollary to this, we find that, though Rose cares deeply for her intelligent and mild-mannered husband, Mark, her feelings for an older, more enigmatic Egypt are just as vital to her existence and emotional well-being as are her marital ties.

Hassib writes with clarity and focus, and her powers of description are excellent. Her belief that the power of love transcends many of life’s sorrows, while no doubt idealistic, is convincingly portrayed throughout the book. She is able to capture nuances of feeling and sentiment by means of her almost photographically pictorial descriptions, and it often seems as if she takes genuine pleasure in the art of writing itself.

This is a point that makes all the difference as to whether a bi-cultural novel succeeds or fails; that is, no bi-cultural author can effectively fake the conflicts and challenges that arise from being pulled apart by two different cultures. But when it comes to fine writing, Rajia Hassib does not need to fake anything. It is evident that she writes sincerely and passionately only about those social and spiritual matters that truly move her. Which might explain why reading Hassib’s work will prove as cathartic for some as Rose’s “excavations” in search of pure truth ultimately were for her.

The reviewer is assistant professor of social sciences and liberal arts at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi

A Pure Heart
By Rajia Hassib
Viking, US
ISBN: 978-0525560074

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 13th, 2020