Egyptian-born Rajia Hassib, who earned a master’s degree in creative writing at Marshall University and now makes her home in Charleston, opens her new novel, “A Pure Heart” (Viking, $27), with a newspaper account of a suicide bombing:
“A suicide bomber detonated an improvised explosive device at a security checkpoint outside of the police headquarters in Cairo, killing three police officers and six civilians and injuring dozens more.”
But while the bombing is a pivotal part of her novel, Hassib paints her story on a much bigger canvas. “A Pure Heart” is an in-depth exploration of the tangled relationship between Egyptian sisters Rose and Gameela Gubran.
The two sisters could not be more different.
Rose, an Egyptologist, marries an American journalist and immigrates to New York City, where she works in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gameela, a devout Muslim since her teenage years, stayed in Cairo.
During the aftermath of Egypt’s 2011 revolution, Gameela is one of the civilians killed in the suicide bombing at the Cairo police headquarters.
When Rose briefly returns to Egypt after the bombing, she sifts through some of the possessions Gameela left behind. She’s desperate to understand how her sister came to die, and who she truly was.
As Rose struggles to reconcile her identities as an Egyptian and as a new American, she investigates Gameela’s devotion to her religion and her country. The more Rose uncovers about her sister’s life, the more she must reconcile their two fates, their inextricable bond as sisters, and who should — and should not — be held responsible for Gameela’s death.
Rich in depth and feeling, “A Pure Heart” is a brilliant portrait of two Muslim women in the 21st century, and the decisions they make in work and love that determine their destinies.
Rajia Hassib was born and raised in Egypt and moved to the United States when she was 23.
In a Q-and-A interview released by her publisher, she decries the preconceived notions about Muslims and terrorism held by many Americans: “There seems to be a general satisfaction, at least in the media, that the terrorist’s religion — if he is a Muslim — is explanation enough for the act. In reality, of course, things are never that simple ... There are almost always personal or political grievances driving the terrorist.”
In “A Pure Heart,” she paints a sorrowful portrait of Saaber, a young Muslim boy whose father and brother both died at the hands of the Egyptian government. His radicalization ultimately casts him as the suicide bomber cited in the news article that opens the novel.
Hassib’s first novel, “In the Language of Miracles,” was a New York Times Editors’ Choice and received an honorable mention from the Arab American Book Award. She has written for The New York Times Book Review and The New Yorker.
On her web page, Hassib writes: “I owe more than I can possibly express to Dr. Jane Hill, Chair of the English Department at Marshall University, and to Marie Manilla, author of, most recently, ‘The Patron Saint of Ugly.’ Dr. Hill made me a writer; Marie Manilla showed me how to write a novel.”