In ‘A Pure Heart,’ Two Egyptian Sisters Are Separated by a Bombing

Rajia Hassib on challenging the Western gaze, anti-Muslim prejudice and self-colonization

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Photo by Alexandru Acea on Unsplash

Rajia Hassib’s second novel A Pure Heart lands in the reader’s hands as a prayer and an interrogation. It’s about two sisters, Rose and Gameela, who were close in their childhood in Cairo. Then Rose meets and marries Mark, an American journalist for the New York Times. Gameela is the only family member not thrilled with this news. Mark converts to Islam, but Gameela wonders if it’s in name only. Is he—can he be—a true believer? 

A Pure Heart by Rajia Hassib
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From here the sisters’ paths diverge: Rose immigrates to the U.S. with Mark, where she does a PhD in Egyptology and works for the Met. Gameela gets involved in the Arab Spring. Her decision to wear a headscarf is part of her journey into traditional Islam, where she finds a system that engages with her longing to live a moral life. Gameela judges her upper middle-class parents for their distance from the protesters at Tahir Square, and the “bread and social justice” the protestors demand. 

The book opens with the news that Gameela has been killed in a terrorist explosion. Rose grieves by investigating her sister’s death the way she would approach an Ancient Egyptian excavation, collecting “artifacts” from Gameela’s room that Rose sifts through, discovering secrets. 

Rajia spoke to me on the phone from her home in West Virginia. We talked anti-Muslim prejudice and self-colonization.

Sunisa Manning: How did this novel come to you?

Rajia Hassib: I thought of the last scene first—not the last, but the climactic scene. And I don’t want to spoil the book, but it was 2014 and Egypt was going through all the aftermath of the Arab Spring. There was a lot of divisiveness going on because of politics. So I had all of that in the back of my mind. I also wanted to write something that directly addresses terrorism committed by someone who thinks that they’re doing this in the name of Islam. I wanted to explore that more directly. All of that came together in that moment that I had—when someone would commit a lone wolf act of terrorism, and someone else would happen to be there. It started from there.

SM: In the book, you have a cast of characters who inhabit the political spectrum. There’s Rose and Gameela’s parents, who are upper middle-class Cairo residents: educated, enamored with the West. Rose stays out of politics and concerns herself with her PhD study of Ancient Egyptians. Gameela’s sympathies take us into the Arab Spring. We come into contact with Saaber, who is described as a sympathizer to the Muslim Brotherhood. 

From this range the reader gets a sense of the multitudinous Egyptian responses to the protests at Tahir Square. This mirrors how Rose’s husband Mark, the American journalist at the New York Times, writes profiles of different Egyptians so that those in the West gain a composite portrait of Egypt, not just one of radicalization and revolution. 

Did you think about selecting a spectrum of characters when you conceived of the book? How much did the Western gaze inform how the novel was developed?

RH: The Western gaze informed it tremendously, specifically the tendency to classify people very clearly into different groups, or opposing groups. And just knowing people, growing up in Egypt, and still being in contact with people in Egypt, I always found that a little bit too simplistic.

I intentionally show a varied cast of characters. Yes, I try to demonstrate that you cannot easily say people are on that side or on this side and they have nothing in common. But sometimes they fall on a specific side of a political argument or something like the uprising and revolution that happened in Egypt. But it’s much more complex than the simple classification that their political attitudes can imply.

SM: Building on the last question, I enjoyed how you explored the intricacies of self-colonization in A Pure Heart

Rose’s parents love that a Westerner, and a journalist at the New York Times at that, has fallen in love with their daughter. This contrasts painfully with their reaction to the man Gameela loves, Fouad, an older farmer and socialist with an arrest record from his political youth. Rose’s real name is Fayrouz, but only Gameela called her that. Gameela, on the other hand, didn’t use her nickname Gigi. The sisters seem to inhabit the spaces of self-colonization and nationalism, Westernized and Egyptian, migratory and local. Would you agree with that? Tell us about the sticky places each sister’s stance gets into. 

RH: They get into something that I’ve observed– the postcolonial attitude of inferiority is still very much there. Even now, I see it sometimes when I talk to people. There’s a sense of fascination with everything that is Western. And I trace that back partly to the implied assumption that Western is almost always better. The problem with that is that the things that are seen as better are very superficial—it’s a fascination with things that don’t even define Western culture. It’s not fascination with the advances in technology, it’s fascination with the way people dress. 

We manipulate our beliefs and our ideologies and use them to justify whatever we want to do.

And I think that part of Rose and Gameela and their differences—what I was trying to demonstrate with that is that one way people have reacted to that was to embrace ethnic and religious roots. That sometimes comes as part and parcel of becoming more religious, which is a trend that happened in Egypt starting in the ‘80s and ‘90s. People would identify as religious and embrace Islam more openly are definitely larger numbers now than they were in the 80s. And part of that is, I think, a reaction to this kind of self-loathing, when people are just fascinated by everything that is not ethnically Egyptian or that is not traced back to Islam or to the ethnic origins of whoever they come from, like Arab or ancient Egyptian or whichever way you want to classify Egyptian. 

So part of that is the reason I wanted to have Gameela the way she is. Rose is a little bit more complex. I don’t think she has the same amount of self-loathing. She embraces both in a way that her parents, for example, can’t.

SM: Through the sisters, you’re able to explore the nuances in the spectrum between faith and secularism. It’s important to Rose that her husband be Muslim; she fasts for Ramadan and prays five times a day, but is also comfortable marrying an American. Faith, to Gameela, becomes something more. Even as I formulate the question I hear how I seem to be implying that Gameela radicalizes into a terrorist, but that’s not what I mean. So this is the question: are you concerned about the challenges of writing from a place of Muslim faith in this time of bigotry? 

RH: I’m not concerned. I think it is very important to write from the point of view of someone who identifies very clearly as faithful in this time, specifically because of what you are saying–that people tend to wonder right away whether being an observant Muslim who identifies as such is something dangerous. It is not. And that’s precisely why I think it is very important to write characters that are very clearly Muslim without making them into this. 

You can go back to that scene I was talking about, where I knew there would be a terrorist attack and someone would die–that’s why I wanted that main person who dies to also be a Muslim, because it’s a way to address the violence without blaming it on religion.

SM: Complicate the picture.

RH: Look at it in a more complex way by including characters who embrace the same faith, but have totally different attitudes toward how they make that level of religiousness work for them. Because at the end of the day, we manipulate things. We manipulate our beliefs and our ideologies and use them to justify whatever we want to do.

SM: Gameela’s fixated on what it means to live an ethical life. She tries to live her life as “jihad,” which she defines as “constant striving to do good in the world.” That’s beautiful. And of course to your typical Western reader, it’s not our first understanding of the term. 

Tell us about the moral thread running through the book, and what you were doing using “jihad” in this definition. 

RH: I specifically used jihad in that definition because that’s the definition Muslim clerics will refer to, if you ask them. The Western default definition that has very clearly tied jihad to terrorism is, of course, a result of the fact that terrorist groups have clearly tied whatever atrocities they’re committing to jihad. They’re claiming that they’re doing this because they’re participating in jihad, that they’re pleasing God. 

In the theology, one of the definitions of jihad is trying to fight against your own soul. It’s fighting against your inclination to do bad things.

But if you look at the theology, there are many things that fall under jihad. And one of them is the definition that Gameela is embracing, which is: trying to fight against your own soul. In a way, it’s fighting against your inclination to do bad things. You’re trying to tame yourself during your life in order to become a better person. And that is very hard to do. I think it’s much harder to do than to believe that others are enemies and– “if I can just conquer the enemy, then I will know everything will be better.”

I know it’s tricky to talk about morality, but it’s harder to identify the errors in one’s own attitudes and try to rectify them, or to pluck away hate from within ourselves, which is also part of trying to become a better person. So I wanted to explore that. But also in terms of fiction, of character development, it’s important to understand people’s motives, always. And that’s one thing that I’m always interested in—to understand how people come to act the way they act. To me, it’s one of the basic elements of building believable characters in fiction. And then those motives are so often driven by doing what the character thinks is the right thing and or what the character wants to do. Then in order to justify doing what the character wants to do, they have to convince themselves that this is the right fit, and that dynamic, specifically, that tendency to find a higher moral justification for one’s actions—it’s very interesting to me, and that’s something I wanted to explore.

SM: When Mark’s trying to make Rose comfortable in New York City, her new home, he says: “Places are always more welcoming. Places don’t care where you were born or how long you’ve lived in them. If you like them and make the effort to know them, they make you feel like you belong there. It’s their gift to you. It’s their way of liking you back.” This idea of place is significant to Gameela, too, who says she’s more at home on the farm than anywhere else. How do you think about place, and how people make homes in new places?

RH: That’s a personal attitude of mine as well. I’ve lived in so many different places, whether it’s in Egypt or when I moved to the U.S. I was in New York and New Jersey and California and West Virginia. I have come to experience this peace that you get somewhere when you become familiar enough with the place that you feel at home. That peace is interrupted only when people start making you feel less at home. I wanted to express that. It’s that power that people have over others, of making them feel Other, making them feel alien. It partly comes with having lived in a place before, or having roots there when others don’t.

But as an immigrant, and as someone who has lived in multiple places, I just wanted to explore that dynamic. How you can feel at home somewhere until the people who have claimed this home before you make you feel like you don’t belong there. But if you can shut that out, it becomes a source of peace. If you can enjoy the place where you’re living, if you can enjoy your relationship to it, it becomes a source of peace. And it’s anchored in a place. It makes you feel like you have a home.

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