“A Pure Heart,” by Rajia Hassib

Rajia Hassib

Reviewed by Donna Meredith

In Rajia Hassib’s A Pure Heart (Viking, 2019), characters present different versions of themselves, depending on where they are and whom they are with—as we all do. The result is multi-faceted characters with secrets kept even from closest friends and family.

Hassib’s novel shines as one of the finest explorations of identity, religion, and culture in modern American literature. Her background leaves her particularly well situated to develop these themes. Born and raised in Egypt, Hassib moved to the United States when she was twenty-three. She lives in West Virginia and holds a masters in creative writing from Marshall University. As the characters traverse the sands of Egypt, skyscrapers of New York City, and mountains of West Virginia, the accumulated perspectives deliver uniquely personal stories and universal truths.

The novel begins with a 2016 New York Times report that a suicide bomber has killed nine people in Cairo. One of the dead is Rose’s younger sister Gameela—who, unbeknownst to her family, had quit her job months before her death. Why? Where had she gone every day if not to work? Methodically, using her skills as an archeologist, Rose digs through the artifacts of Gameela’s life, trying to discover how her sister came to be near the bomber when he detonated. Was her death simply the “result of being at the wrong place at the wrong time, a freak accident”? Rose, we learn, is wracked by guilt. She worries she may have unwittingly set in motion the events leading to her sister’s death. Rose is tortured by the fear that minor events led to major ones, “the butterfly effect.” The novel drifts back and forth in time and shifts viewpoints, slowly unfolding the mystery behind Gameela’s death.

Rose, named Farouz at birth, begins to westernize—even to the point of altering her name—long before she marries an American journalist and leaves Egypt. A graduate student and Egyptologist, she works at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Her husband Mark becomes a Muslim so he can marry her. Fascinated by Egypt, Mark notices similarities between Egypt and his home state of West Virginia: both enjoy close-knit neighborhoods with a sense of community, both are plagued by poverty, and both foster the personal connections lacking in New York City.

Religious differences tear through the fabric of the character’s lives. Although Rose is Muslim, she and her parents practice a secular version of their faith. The women don’t cover their hair—except for the rebellious Gameela. Her headscarf “transported her closer to God and away from her family, which was as fervently devoted to its secularism as any religious fundamentalist was to God.” The story takes place three years after the Arab Spring, with Egyptians divided into two camps. The middle class, represented by Rose’s parents, were strongly pro-military, fearing their secular freedoms would be trampled by the Muslim Brotherhood. In contrast, Gameela is more sympathetic to the Brotherhood and resents Rose’s marriage to an American—although privately she admits she should not be so judgmental. Across the ocean in West Virginia where “a white, blond Jesus” smiles “down on all who entered the house,” Mark’s mother also resents their marriage. She is sure her son will roast in the same hellfire Gameela predicts for secularists. Far more liberal, Rose refuses to believe an all-merciful God punishes people for wearing or not wearing a scrap of fabric on her head. Yet she is aware that she, too, wants “others to be just as religious as she was, not more, not less.” Nevertheless, she believes if people would just study all religions, “perhaps they would finally recognize their similarities and learn to live with their differences.”

As a journalist, Mark is trying to write a series of personal profiles “to show Egypt’s political diversity,” which taken together would challenge the stereotypes Americans hold. He believes “in the power of words,” and as someone with a strong sense of right and wrong, he believes “that writing about something could fix it.” The poverty he witnesses in Cairo’s slums opens his eyes to what tourists rarely see: “a country where the poor are gnawed at, their bones sucked dry of all meat and juices before they are tossed to the dogs.” It is in this Cairo, in this collection of Have-Nots surrounded by wealthy power-holders, where hope goes to die and where suicide bombers are born.

The importance of allowing adults the freedom to make their own choices lies at the heart of the novel. Rose, in particular, realizes she needs “her freedom above all else,” and has broken off several early romances because men tried “to control how she dressed, whom she spoke to, where she traveled to.” Gameela also recognizes choice as a right accompanying adulthood. She knows she should learn “to accept [her] sister’s choices,” but she is unable to shake off her judgmental morality—until events reveal that “her morality so far was not the result of her excellent character and religious observation, but rather a coincidental by-product of never having been tested.”

All the characters have multiple identities competing for attention, tugging them in one direction or another. There’s Mark the West Virginia high school basketball player, Mark the foreign correspondent, Mark the New Yorker, Mark the Muslim, Mark the teenager who sang in the Episcopal choir, Mark who loves Egypt, and Mark the man of good intentions. There’s Gameela: a child playing a piano, a college student and engineer, an advocate for social justice, an aspiring botanist, the defender of religion—and, surprisingly, a woman with several hidden iterations. And finally, there are the many incarnations of Rose: Egyptian, American, Mark’s wife, Gameela’s sister, daughter protecting her parents, graduate student, professional woman in a male-dominated field, and sleuth uncovering the circumstances of her sister’s death.

Early in the novel, Rose thinks about death being the center of all cultures. She considers the magic spells engraved on the inside of coffin lids, spells meant to open the gates to heaven with forty-two declarations of innocence, of sins not committed. The confession ends with a final assertion: “I am pure, I am pure, I am pure, I am pure!” By novel’s end, it becomes evident that no one is entirely pure, no matter how good their intentions may be. Still, one of the novel’s greatest achievements is the creation of nuanced characters who act with good intentions, even if the outcomes aren’t always what they expected.

A Pure Heart brilliantly illuminates the complications of our world: the clash of religious beliefs, the uneven division of wealth, our classist snobbery, the failure of our best intentions. Yet the story is not simply an examination of problems. It is also a fervent illustration of the strength and beauty of familial bonds, ties that persist even after death.

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. Hassib has written for The New York Times Book Review and The New Yorker. She lives in West Virginia with her husband and two children.

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