A Word for Love: A Novel

A Word for Love: A Novel

by Emily Robbins
A Word for Love: A Novel

A Word for Love: A Novel

by Emily Robbins


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"A paean to unabashed, unbridled love."  —Khaled Hosseini, New York Times-bestselling author of The Kite Runner

A mesmerizing debut set in Syria on the cusp of the unrest, A Word for Love is the spare and exquisitely told story of a young American woman transformed by language, risk, war, and a startling new understanding of love.

It is said there are ninety-nine Arabic words for love. Bea, an American exchange student, has learned them all: in search of deep feeling, she travels to a Middle Eastern country known to hold the "The Astonishing Text," an ancient, original manuscript of a famous Arabic love story that is said to move its best readers to tears. But once in this foreign country, Bea finds that instead of intensely reading Arabic she is entwined in her host family's complicated lives—as they lock the doors, and whisper anxiously about impending revolution. And suddenly, instead of the ancient love story she sought, it is her daily witness of a contemporary Romeo and Juliet-like romance—between a housemaid and policeman of different cultural and political backgrounds—that astonishes her, changes her, and makes her weep. But as the country drifts toward explosive unrest, Bea wonders how many secrets she can keep, and how long she can fight for a romance that does not belong to her. Ultimately, in a striking twist, Bea's own story begins to mirror that of "The Astonishing Text" that drew her there in the first place—not in the role of one of the lovers, as she might once have imagined, but as the character who lives to tell the story long after the lovers have gone.

With melodic meditation on culture, language, and familial devotion. Robbins delivers a powerful novel that questions what it means to love from afar, to be an outsider within a love story, and to take someone else's passion and cradle it until it becomes your own.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780399185854
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/16/2018
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Emily Robbins has lived and worked across the Middle East and North Africa. From 2007 to 2008, she was a Fulbright Fellow in Syria, where she studied religion and language with a women’s mosque movement and lived with the family of a leading intellectual.  In 2016 she received a second Fulbright, to study in Jordan. She now lives in Oslo.

Read an Excerpt


The box arrived on my doorstep, small and unassuming. It was addressed to me, but only with my first name. The letters stood up painfully, without any slant, as if the person who wrote them was not used to writing English. This was my first clue. I thought it might be a box from Madame. I had left some books with her when I lived with her years ago, and ever since, she had been promising to send them. But when I lifted the box up, I found it was too light to contain books. In the corner was a foreign postage stamp, and beside it, an insignia that I recognized as the police's.

I opened it slowly, and papers poured out: poems, printed text messages, calling cards ripped in half. I lifted them and smoothed them; Kleenexes bought by the packet to write on. This was a box from a policeman; he knew the importance of documents. I had once been told that he was a real Qais, which meant a deep lover. I heard a story that he once clipped a poem to the ear of a teddy bear and sent it. The bear was for love. The poem was his document.

I want to record in my hand-Bea, do you remember your Arabic?

I want to record in my hand. Anything I've done after 20-01, 2005, until today, and after today, if it is romantic, it is only for Nisrine. Because I can't speak or do to any girl-only her. There isn't anyone other than her. And I record it here, in my name, too: My name is Adel Ibrahim Ammar Talbani, that's my identification. I'm known to some as Abu Talib, that was my name at the police station. And among the boys, I am Ammar, they call me Ammar. But my name is Adel, and I was a policeman. And I write this to Bea because, like I said, I cannot do for any girl-only Nisrine, and my love for her will never change, if I change it's only for the better. And Bea knows all this, because she knew Nisrine, and Nisrine knew everything, and from my heart, I wish her all happiness.

 Adel, 21 January, 20-

I had gone to Adel's country as a student of Arabic, and I returned, six months earlier than expected, thinking that I would never leave home again for a foreign country. Nisrine was my reason. I wanted to lock myself in my room for a long time and not come out, so I couldn't accidentally make trouble for anyone. I tried to bury my guilt. I blamed myself.

And Bea knows all this, because she knew Nisrine, and Nisrine knew everything . . .

The madam of the house where I lived always said that if you can write, it means you have a clear conscience. I took up the policeman’s poems, one by one. I sorted through his documents. I laid them all out, so I could see them as I was working. I began this story, in the hope that I could do it justice, and clear my conscience.


The rains came to the foreign city with red skies. All over, people watched the fiery night above them, brushed their palms across their foreheads and muttered, "Tomorrow will bring rain." The clouds were restless with the wind. The next day rain did not come. Nor the day after.

Two weeks later, though, it came as the people promised. Men at the mosques washed their feet in the rain, catching the water from the faucets with care, one hand holding their coats to shield their heads from the sky. The drops of moisture were stars on their foreheads, shining as they ran down wrinkled faces, into the whites of cloudy eyes. In them the town saw heaven, and it was gray.

For a while, the rains took the power with them. The people in their houses sat in the dark of candlelight. The sky was bright outside. And the planes flying overhead through the night did not know they were passing over a city.

In the morning, the rains were gone and when they cleared, there was a holiday. The people streamed into the street and watched the leftover water run off the cobblestones. The sun was glowing and pulsing. The water made off with the dust and the stray garbage bags and ran out to the highways and sand hills. Above it were the sigh and flap of rugs as they dried out the windows. Wet coats, strung from hangers on the balconies, leaned low over the morning city.

The rains came, and with them the police. They stood about in the sun after it cleared, tan as wheat, smelling the cobblestones. The police dragged wet sandbags to dry in the sun on the streets. They made a small gray mound, right in the middle of the traffic lane. There was a sweet smell of sandbags drying, and the policemen brought more for the other lanes so, as they were drying, the sandbags made a blockade.

The cars were all stopping by the sandbags and the policemen were leaning against them, checking licenses and back plates. We were seven in the car, coming from the market, and no one had a seat belt. Madame was in the front seat with Abudi, and Baba was driving. Nisrine and I were in the backseat with Lema and Dounia, the little girls. We talked about bribing the policeman.

Madame gathered up our apples and put them in a bag.

"Here, Bea, you give these to the policeman."

I didn't want to.

Madame wasn't listening.

I said, "Here, Nisrine, you give these to the policeman."

We stopped at the sandbags, which stretched from the station to the public garden, and Baba rolled down his window.

"Now, Bea."

Nisrine and I got out of the car, giggling, and handed the bag of apples to the policeman. Then we got back in.

The policeman opened the bag to inspect it. He had blond hair beneath his gray cap; in the sun it was glinting. He looked through Madame's window into the backseat where Nisrine and I sat, giggling.

He checked Baba's license.

"Go through," he said, holding the apples, "go through."

We didn't go far. We rolled past the blockade and parked on the other side, in front of our building. I turned around to look for the policeman.

In the rearview mirror, Baba caught me turning.

Baba said, "I see Bea likes blond men."

In the backseat, Dounia caught my giggling.

Madame said, "Shh, Dounia. It's not nice on young girls to giggle."

Later, I would learn that the blond policeman was also watching. He followed us with his eyes all the way out of our car, and he found us again, five floors up on our balcony, airing our shoes. Dounia’s shoes were too small; they were patent-leather white and they almost slipped through the railing. He saw Nisrine bend to retrieve them.

His friends stood around, checking cars and license plates. They wanted to buy cigarettes.

"Come on, Adel," they said to the blond policeman.

But Adel was still holding our apples.

Another car rolled up, and he thought he heard someone giggle in it, so he let that car go through, because he liked the sound.


Madame and I were introduced by an agency that found families for a fee. I was twenty-one and studying abroad from America. Before I came, my university paid the agency and the agency paid Madame my first month's rent, which was US$150. It was Madame's first time as a family-for-a-fee. It was my first time as a paying student in a foreign country.

We lived in an apartment with five rooms and a balcony that looked out over the center of the city. From it, we could see over the gray tops of the buildings, to the large bridge that ran north toward the president's house, to the minarets of the mosques and their green lights at the edges of the highways. Across from us was the police station, which was a tall, gray building like ours, with five stories. From our balcony, we saw the policemen standing guard at each corner of its long, flat roof, legs apart. In the center of the station roof were an open shed and a little turret with a chair and a phone in case the policemen needed to be reached. We could hear them on the phone in the afternoons, ordering up tea. Behind the station, cement buildings lined up in uneven rows, the same way Baba's friends lined up their shoes at the door before they went into the parlor to talk politics. When the men were all inside, Madame and Nisrine and I squatted by the door to straighten their shoes. We brushed dust from the leather tongues. We folded their socks and set them beside the children's, neatly. Madame judged men by their feet; a man who took care of his shoes would take care of his family.

In our apartment, Madame fit herself; her husband, Baba; and Lema, Abudi, and Dounia, who were the children. Lema was fourteen. Abudi was nine. Dounia was four. In the last year, Madame had had two maids who didn't work out, and then Nisrine came from Indonesia, and she also gained me, the American.

For US$150 a month, I got half a bed and fresh food, and the chance to learn a language and literature that I had fallen in love with. If I went out, I got a family who worried until I came home. For half a bed and extra bathwater and extra worry, Madame got rent in American money, which she used to pay Nisrine.

Madame said when you got a maid from Indonesia, she came with a black bag and a white veil. That was what Nisrine was wearing when Madame got her, and everyone expected it. They drove up to a crumbling part of town. It was Madame and Baba and the children. The agency man had Nisrine’s passport. He handed it to Baba and said to hide it where she couldn’t get to it, and she knew no calls home, and if there were any problems, call him. His number was in the passport.

In this country, the money exchange only went one way. You could change US dollars into local money, but you couldn't change local money into dollars. It was illegal to change local money, and in this city, only the local money could be spent, but you couldn't travel with it outside the country, that was also illegal, so dollars were the way most international business got done, and people, who were paid only in local money, were always short on dollars, and always scrambling to get some, even when their international business was only an Indonesian maid, like Nisrine.

Nisrine got US$125 a month, plus a fee to the agency, and so Madame was always in need of dollars, and she was always running out. That was why Madame got me, to take care of her problems with the currency.

Nisrine also had to pay her agency. To come here, she'd borrowed her wages for one year, up front, and she was saving up to build a house when she returned home, so she, too, always needed money. She got small gifts from guests of the family.

"Here's for your girl," said Madame's aunt, and handed her a bill in a thin scarf.

"Buy yourself something special," said Baba's cousin, and handed her two silver coins.

The guests didn't bring gifts for Madame, but there was always something for Nisrine, and it made Madame happy. "See how good they are to her?" she said. "They think of her even before they think of me!"

Because I was foreign, Madame was always worrying about me, like she did about Nisrine, though in different ways. With Nisrine, Madame worried about communication. She worried Nisrine would invite strange men to the house, or whether she’d mistaken the iodine for bleach, or if she’d used enough detergent on the pans. “Watch her, Bea,” Madame said to me, and I sat in the the kitchen, watching to make sure Nisrine took the white part off the oranges we ate.

"How many brothers and sisters do you have, Nisrine?"



Nisrine had hands like birds. They picked at the white part. In Nisrine's country, there was a story about a heroine who turned into a bird. She loved the rainbow, so she flew away to the sky, and never returned home. At Madame's, we were often telling stories.

"How many brothers and sisters do you have?" Nisrine asked me.


"None?" And I knew from the way she said it that here, "none" was as strange as "nineteen."

Nisrine finished two oranges, and Lema came to take them to the living room. When she was done, Nisrine got out her photos to show me. They were all of her with her husband and child, and she wasn't wearing a veil. She had left when her child was one. Now, he was almost two. We tried to guess which words he would be speaking.

"Book," I said.

Nisrine looked at me. "Bea, you like books?"

"Animal," I guessed.

"I like animals."

"Love," I guessed.

Nisrine guessed, "World."

I had a picture, too, to show Nisrine. It was of my parents before they were married, and my mother looked like me. This was to remind me that it was still possible to get a boyfriend, even with birds’-nest hair.

Nisrine took the picture from me. "Your mother looks very nice," she said. Then she asked, "You want to know what my mother looks like?" and puffed out her cheeks.

"You mean, fat?" I was unsure.

She laughed. "In my family, we're all fat. We like too much to eat."

I looked at Nisrine. She had a slender waist and legs that rose perfectly beneath her pajamas, like young trees. When she laughed, it shook her breasts, not her belly.

Later, I would come to see this joke as Nisrine's own special kind of joke, her special luxury. Madame's apartment was small, and we were many; each of us learned to take our luxuries. Madame's husband, Baba, slept at any time, anywhere, through anything. This was his luxury. Guests came over at four in the afternoon, and Madame served tea around him, watched television around him, balanced the tray on his stomach, and he didn't wake from his place on the sofa, snoring.

Mine was my books, and my love of romance. I learned to bury myself in an Arabic book at Madame's, and to daydream so deeply, it didn't matter what was around me; in this way, I took time for myself.

Nisrine told jokes. She made faces at the children, "I'm a monster!" which made them laugh, because they knew she wasn't.

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