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• A New York Times Editors’ Choice •
“Assured and beautifully crafted . . . Hassib is a natural, graceful writer with a keen eye for cultural difference. . . . [She] handles the anatomy of grief with great delicacy. . . . In the Language of Miracles should find a large and eager readership. For the beauty of the writing alone, Hassib deserves it.” —Monica Ali, The New York Times Book Review
“[A] sensitive, finely wrought debut . . . sharply observant of immigrants’ intricate relationships to their adopted homelands, this exciting novel announces the arrival of a psychologically and socially astute new writer.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
For readers of House of Sand and Fog, a mesmerizing debut novel of an Egyptian American family and the wrenching tragedy that tears their lives apart
Samir and Nagla Al-Menshawy appear to have attained the American dream. After immigrating to the United States from Egypt, Samir successfully works his way through a residency and launches his own medical practice as Nagla tends to their firstborn, Hosaam, in the cramped quarters of a small apartment. Soon the growing family moves into a big house in the manicured New Jersey suburb of Summerset, where their three children eventually attend school with Natalie Bradstreet, the daughter of their neighbors and best friends. More than a decade later, the family’s seemingly stable life is suddenly upended when a devastating turn of events leaves Hosaam and Natalie dead and turns the Al-Menshawys into outcasts in their own town.
Narrated a year after Hosaam and Natalie’s deaths, Rajia Hassib’s heartfelt novel follows the Al-Menshawys during the five days leading up to the memorial service that the Bradstreets have organized to mark the one-year anniversary of their daughter’s death. While Nagla strives to understand her role in the tragedy and Samir desperately seeks reconciliation with the community, Khaled, their surviving son, finds himself living in the shadow of his troubled brother. Struggling under the guilt and pressure of being the good son, Khaled turns to the city in hopes of finding happiness away from the painful memories home conjures. Yet he is repeatedly pulled back home to his grandmother, Ehsan, who arrives from Egypt armed with incense, prayers, and an unyielding determination to stop the unraveling of her daughter’s family. In Ehsan, Khaled finds either a true hope of salvation or the embodiment of everything he must flee if he is ever to find himself.
Writing with unflinchingly honest prose, Rajia Hassib tells the story of one family pushed to the brink by tragedy and mental illness, trying to salvage the life they worked so hard to achieve. The graceful, elegiac voice of In the Language of Miracles paints tender portraits of a family’s struggle to move on in the wake of heartbreak, to stay true to its traditions, and above all else, to find acceptance and reconciliation.
From the Hardcover edition.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)|
About the Author
From the Hardcover edition.
Read an Excerpt
When Khaled fell sick at age nine, his grandmother descended on his parents’ house and promised him healing. Armed with incense, a thermos filled with holy water from the Zamzam Well in Mecca, and a frayed pocket-sized book of prayers, Ehsan arrived at Khaled’s bedside ready to fight any and all misfortunes that might have befallen her favorite grandchild. His illness, she insisted, had to be the result of an evil eye, its malice aggravated by her daughter’s negligence of the simplest methods of protection from such wickedness. “Not a single blue ornament on display in the entire house! And when was the last time you played a recording of the Qur’an in the kids’ rooms? How do you expect to protect them?” she chastised her daughter again and again. Khaled, with his jet-black hair, green eyes, and that coy smile that always caused Ehsan to burst into a recitation of the sura of Al-Falaq to pray for his protection, was particularly vulnerable to the evil eye. His mother’s insistence on throwing him an elaborate birthday party a few weeks earlier must have been the last straw. “Why parade the boy around? Why invite people’s envy?” Ehsan would repeatedly mumble as she tended to the sick child. They might as well have injected him with bacteria and saved the money spent on the inflatables.
Khaled, aware of his favored status, had not thought it strange that Ehsan would travel from Egypt two months before she had originally intended, risking a flight into JFK on the heels of the blizzard that ushered in 1996, probably spending the ten-hour journey imagining her plane tumbling down in the middle of the unfamiliar snow she still feared beyond reason. On the day of her arrival she walked into Khaled’s room, flanked by his parents and followed by his siblings, Hosaam and Fatima, and sat on the edge of his bed, the thermos held tightly in both hands. In a whisper that implied her words were meant only for his ears, Ehsan told Khaled the story of the holy water she had requested specifically for him, water her sister had carried all the way from Saudi Arabia to Egypt and that she in turn had carried from Egypt to the United States.
“This is blessed water,” she said as she unscrewed the thermos lid and poured just enough to moisten a washcloth. “It is water that has run since the time of the prophet Ibrahim, peace be upon his soul. It is so pure it can heal the sick. If you were in the middle of the desert, one sip only would quench your thirst for days. This water,” she continued as she put the thermos on his nightstand and held the white washcloth up for him to see, “runs out of the deep belly of the Arabian Desert, yet in this scorching heat it still comes out ice cold. This water will make you all better.”
Khaled listened to her, struggling to make out the words, which she pronounced in an Arabic he found different from the one his parents used and yet familiar, since he had spent months out of each year in the company of his grandmother either at his home in Summerset, New Jersey, or at hers in Alexandria. Keeping his eyes on her lips helped him understand her better and also filled him with comfort; years later, he would still remember how unfamiliar his own room had felt, crowded as it was with his entire family. Hosaam’s bed, the upper of the bunk beds, loomed heavily over Khaled’s head the whole time, and throughout his feverish nights he would wake up imagining the bed was slowly lowering and eventually flattening him, and he wondered what his mother would do when she walked into his bedroom in the morning and found her son sandwiched between the two mattresses. Hosaam had not slept in his bed for days, having been banished to the living room both to protect him from potential infection and to give his brother some rest. Sitting on the edge of Khaled’s bed, slowly dipping the washcloth in the small bowl now filled with Zamzam water, Ehsan’s large body managed to make his bed seem more solid and less overcast in the shadow of his brother’s. Looking at her, he could also ignore his other fears: that Fatima, standing in the corner, would accidently topple over the Lego that he had stacked on his desk, or that Hosaam would look under his bed and find the ladybug he had discovered crawling on their windowsill that morning, so rare in January, and that he had placed in the little jar with holes in its lid to keep safe until he could figure out what to do with it.
Ehsan put her hands under his armpits and lifted him into a seated position as she instructed her daughter to grab one of Hosaam’s pillows and place it behind Khaled’s back. Gently, Ehsan pushed his shoulders until his back settled in a Khaled-shaped groove in the pillows. He did not feel like sitting up, but he did not object. Ehsan, clad in permanent black since her husband passed away thirty years earlier, was not a figure he was willing to defy. Besides, as she leaned over him, adjusting the pillows, Khaled enjoyed breathing in the smell of incense, rosebud soap, and spices that always clung to her dress and her white veil, and the verses from the Qur’an that she hummed under her breath reminded him of her home and filled him with an unrealistic expectation of freshly baked cake and cold, frothy lemonade.
“How does the water work?” Fatima asked. She had inched closer to his bed, keeping to his left-hand side where their mother, Nagla, sat. The youngest of the three siblings and barely seven, Fatima’s Arabic was the most riddled with an American accent that Khaled knew she was trying hard to mask. He looked at her and smiled. The sun, shining through the window behind the illuminated strands of her black hair, framed her face in a messy halo. He was grateful she had asked the question he had in mind but would not ask in the presence of Hosaam, who was leaning against the door frame, watching him.
“It works any way you want it to,” Ehsan answered as she started folding Khaled’s sleeves up. “If the sickness is in your stomach, you drink it and it takes the sickness away. If it’s on your skin, you wipe yourself with it and it heals you.”
“But . . . Khaled’s lungs are sick. How will you get it there?” Fatima’s eyes widened and teared up, her lower lip trembling as she looked at Khaled.
“Oh, we don’t have to get it there,” Ehsan said, laughing. Khaled laughed, too, relieved. “We’ll just wipe his chest and face with it, and maybe give him some of it to drink.”
Slowly, Ehsan started unbuttoning the front of Khaled’s pajamas. Her hands, rough with years of cooking and cleaning for five children and twelve grandchildren, rubbed against his feverish skin and he winced. When she was done, Ehsan pulled the pajama top open. Khaled immediately started shivering, looked around him at his mother, his sister, and his father and brother, both standing by the doorway, and instinctively pulled the shirtfront closed. Ehsan, who had just had time to reach out and grab the washcloth from the bowl, looked at him and laughed.
“What’s wrong, boy? Are you shy?”
“I’m cold,” Khaled said, blushing. Fatima retreated into her corner and sat on the floor, pulling both legs up to her chest.
“Don’t be silly, Khaled; it’s just us,” Nagla said, pulling his shirt back open. Khaled’s lower lip quivered and he looked at his older brother, who was grinning down on him.
“Do you know the story of the Zamzam Well, Khaled?” Ehsan asked as she slowly touched the wet washcloth to his chest. Khaled, the fabric cold and prickly against his skin, felt his eyes well up and shook his head so that he would not have to speak.
“Well, it goes like this: The prophet Ibrahim, peace be upon his soul, took his wife, Hagar, and their young son, Ismail, out to the desert as he went in search of God. This is the Arabian Peninsula, you know, and the desert there is hotter and drier than the inside of a brick oven on an August day. So he set up camp for them between two large hills called Al-Safa and Al-Marwah, and then went up one of the nearby mountains, where the angels had told him he should go,” she said as she gently stroked his entire chest with the cloth. She paused for a moment, murmuring prayers and verses from the Qur’an as she moved the washcloth in circles. When she was done, she pulled out a dry towel and started patting his chest.
“Hagar and her child waited for so long, they ran out of water, and Ismail started crying of thirst. His mother, desperate and aggrieved, ran up one hill, hoping to see someone who could help her, but there was no one there. So she ran back down and up the second hill, again looking for help, but saw no one. Seven times she ran from one hill to the next, the cries of her son piercing the empty desert, and still she found no help. Finally, she fell to her knees by her son’s side and asked Allah for the help no humans had given her. And what do you think happened next?” She leaned close to Khaled as she buttoned his shirt.
“What?” Khaled asked, his eyes fixated on her face.
“Young Ismail struck the ground with his heel and water spouted out of it! Water so pure they each drank their fill and all sickness disappeared from them. Water so abundant it still runs to this very day out of the hot desert, just as it did thousands of years ago at the time of Ibrahim. This,” she said as she picked up the thermos and held it high like a trophy, “this is water out of that same well that will not dry out until Judgment Day. This is water that God ordered to flow as He answered the prayer of one who needed Him, one who knew He was the only one to turn to in the hour of need. This is blessed water, and it is healing water, and it will make you all better.”
Khaled looked at the thermos, his eyes wide. He could barely feel her stroke both his arms with the cloth as he looked at Fatima and saw her staring at the thermos, too. His parents exchanged looks, his father rolling his eyes, his mother looking away from Ehsan so that she would not see her smirk. Then he saw Hosaam, three years his senior, still leaning against the door frame close to his father, grinning.
“Oh yeah?” Hosaam said. “So this is holy water?”
“Yes, it is,” Ehsan said without turning to look at him.
“So this water is going to make him better, huh? How’s that? Is it antibacterial water or something?” Hosaam laughed at his own joke. Khaled saw his father give Hosaam a stern look that Hosaam either did not see or chose to ignore.
“Don’t make fun of that which you don’t understand,” Ehsan said. Slowly, she turned and looked at Hosaam, holding his gaze until his grin collapsed into an uncomfortable smirk. “And mind your manners when you talk to me, boy. I’m not your mother.”
“He didn’t mean it, Mama,” Nagla said, smiling at her mother and mouthing something at Hosaam behind her back, to which he waved a dismissive hand that his father quickly slapped down.
“This is no laughing matter, Nagla. You should know better.”
“I know, Mama, I know. I’m sorry. The kids are just not used to this stuff.”
“This stuff is not something you get used to. This stuff is something they need to learn to respect. You know what happens when you disregard stuff like that, Nagla.”
Khaled’s father snickered, and Khaled looked quickly at Ehsan, thankful she was still too busy pulling his sleeves down to notice his parents grimacing behind her back.
Ehsan stood and picked up the bowl and the thermos. “Still, they’re your kids, and you can raise them any way you like. Here,” she said as she turned around and shoved the bowl into Hosaam’s arms, “make yourself useful and take this to the kitchen. And you,” she spoke to Nagla, carefully handing her the thermos, “take this to my room. Let me have some time alone with the boy.”
“Come on, Fatima,” Samir said, holding out his hand. His daughter jumped up, ran to him, and took it. As the family walked out, Ehsan reclaimed her seat on the edge of Khaled’s bed. Smiling, she reached out and pushed a stray strand of moist hair away from his eyes.
“You want to lie down again?” she asked. Khaled nodded.
Gently, Ehsan pulled the covers back and let him slide down before she pulled them back up, tucking them around him as he laid his head on his pillow. Then she sat back next to him, and softly and monotonously started reciting verses from the Qur’an, her right hand now stroking his arms through the covers, now his legs, and occasionally straightening his hair. Khaled closed his eyes. He did not care what Hosaam thought. He did not care what his parents thought. He believed everything Ehsan said. He believed because he could feel her coarse hand against his forehead but his skin did not ache anymore, and because he could already feel the tightening in his chest lessen and his breathing grow steady and deep, like he was finally able to pull enough air into his lungs to fill them all up.
“What did you mean when you said it was not good when people didn’t respect stuff like that? You know, about the holy water?”
“Why do you ask?”
“I don’t know. I was just wondering.”
“Well, do you believe it?” she asked as she stroked his head one more time.
“Yes, of course I do.”
“Then you have nothing to worry about, do you?”
Khaled did not answer. He thought he should ask her more questions, just to make sure nothing bad was going to happen, but his eyelids grew heavy, and her hand, suddenly lighter, seemed to push the questions out of his mind with every new stroke until he finally fell asleep.
ENGLISH: The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away.
ARABIC: God gave; God took; God will provide compensation.
For almost a year, the Bradstreets and the Al-Menshawys practiced elaborate avoidance tactics, living next door to each other yet hardly crossing paths. Khaled noticed his parents’ change of habits right away: Samir, after years of leaving for work at 8:00 a.m., started heading out a full half-hour earlier just so he would not run into Jim Bradstreet. Coming home, Samir no longer parked his car in the driveway and walked through the front door but squeezed his Avalon into the cluttered garage then slid through the barely open door and walked into the kitchen. Nagla abandoned her wicker armchair on the deck, moving her ashtray to a bench where she sat with her back to the living room wall, looking away from the Bradstreets’ backyard and hidden from their view. Even Cynthia Bradstreet forsook her gardening and the backyard she had practically lived in for years. From his bedroom window, Khaled watched as her irises wilted and drooped and her herb garden succumbed to negligence, the tan spikes of dry dill and cilantro eventually covered by snow, which, once it melted, revealed a rectangular bed of lifeless mud where the blooming garden once stood.
Then, just short of a year after the deaths, Khaled answered the door one evening and saw Cynthia Bradstreet standing on his parents’ doorstep. One hand still holding the doorknob, Khaled stared at her, forgetting to step aside to let her in.
“Hey, Khaled,” Cynthia said, moving closer to grab his hand. Khaled had grown four inches since he turned sixteen a year earlier, and she had to look up to meet his eyes. Despite the warm weather, her hand was freezing cold.
“Hey, Aunt Cynthia,” Khaled said. Behind him, he heard his father’s heavy step, followed by his mother’s hurried one, and then Ehsan’s shuffling feet and her voice, mumbling prayers.
• • •
Nagla served tea in gold-rimmed miniature glasses that wobbled on the silver tray in her unsteady hands. Khaled, terrified that his mother would drop the tray in Cynthia’s lap, stared at Fatima until their eyes met and then nodded toward their mother.
“Here, Mama. Let me,” Fatima said, taking the tray and passing the tea around before walking into the kitchen to serve Ehsan, who had settled in at the breakfast table the moment everyone else was seated and had started softly reciting the Qur’an, her oversized copy of the book resting under her palms, the print large enough for her to see without glasses. In the background her voice rang in a constant hum that Khaled missed only whenever it was interrupted, just as he noticed the combined noises of air conditioner, refrigerator, and running dishwasher only when the power went out in the winter and the house was suddenly drenched in silence.
Khaled, sitting at the bottom of the stairway, watched as his father sipped his tea, legs crossed in his armchair. Neither Nagla nor Cynthia tasted hers, though both women held on to the gold-rimmed tumblers, wrapping their fingers around them.
“I wanted to be the one to tell you,” Cynthia said, raising her eyes to look at Nagla. “We’re planning something for next weekend—for the anniversary.”
Nagla nodded. “Yes. We saw the flyers.”
“I thought you might have.” Cynthia looked down. “Jim and Pat went a bit overboard with them, I’m afraid. They’re everywhere.”
Khaled had seen the flyer that very morning. Standing on the platform of the Summerset train station, waiting for the Amtrak to take him to New York, Khaled had turned around and found himself facing Natalie, her image centered in the flyer thumbtacked to the green felt, safely tucked behind the glass of the display case. She was wearing her hair in the asymmetrical bob that she had debuted only a few weeks before her death and a blue sweater that Khaled remembered seeing her wear to school. Looking at the flyer behind the protective glass, all Khaled could think of was the blue morpho butterfly, and how he had once told Natalie he would one day travel to South America and photograph his own, not catch it to put it on display, but watch it, follow it around, guess at the span of its wings, maybe even attempt to measure it, but then let it fly away unharmed.
Khaled waited for Cynthia to resume talking, his heart sinking. He imagined her asking his parents to leave town for the weekend of the memorial with no need to explain why the Al-Menshawys would not be welcome. He hoped that she would not be so blunt, that she would spare his mother the humiliation.
“We’ll be planting a tree,” Cynthia said. “At the park. A rosewood. They live very long, you know.” Khaled reached out for his teacup, which he had placed on the wooden steps, sipped some of the minted black tea, burned his tongue, and put the cup back down.
“That’s an excellent idea,” Samir said, nodding. Fatima moved closer to her mother and perched on the arm of Nagla’s chair, one arm wrapped around her shoulder. Khaled, watching her, smiled.
“I wanted to come to tell you in person.” Cynthia addressed Nagla, but Nagla still kept her eyes down, intently examining the surface of her tea. Only one year ago, they would have both been sitting at the kitchen table, alone, the hot tea growing cold as they whispered and laughed.
“I knew for a long time now that I’d be holding some kind of service,” Cynthia went on. Khaled strained to make her words out. Her voice, so soft, made it seem as if she were whispering the words for Nagla’s ears only. “I need this, Nagla. Some closure. I’ve also realized, a couple of days ago, that I would never get closure unless I spoke to you, too.” Nagla looked up, for the first time meeting Cynthia’s eyes. “I want you to know that I don’t blame you. I . . . not anymore.”
Nagla nodded, quick, repeated nods, letting her head fall down again and her gaze rest on the tumbler in her lap.
Cynthia sighed. “Also—that whole memorial thing; I never intended it to be that public. When I first thought of it, I was hoping for something private, just for the family. But then Pat thought we should let people come, too, if they wanted to.” Samir’s eyes narrowed at the mention of Cynthia’s sister. Cynthia went on, “Jim agreed, and now . . . Well, you’ve seen the flyers.”
“I saw a couple of flyers today,” Samir said, crossing his arms at his chest. “I’m sure everyone saw them. You’ll have a good turnout.”
Cynthia nodded, placing her tumbler on the side table. She had not once looked Samir in the eyes. She turned to face Nagla again, reached one hand out and touched Nagla’s. “I know this might make you uncomfortable, but that was not my intention. I’m not apologizing for the memorial,” she added quickly, “but I do want you to know that this is not meant for you. I also want you to know—I need you to know that I don’t blame you for what happened,” she repeated. Nagla nodded again.
“Okay, then,” Cynthia said, getting up. Nagla and Samir followed her as she headed toward the door. Halfway there, Nagla’s eyes froze on the door-side console with its assortment of framed photos. She hastened, overtaking Cynthia and Samir, and stood by the console, her back resting against its marble edge. Khaled’s eyes met hers, and he understood. Of course. She was blocking Hosaam’s picture, the one of him when he was twelve or thirteen, grinning in his blue-striped shirt, his expression infused with the discomfort typical of school pictures. Khaled held his mother’s gaze, remained seated until Cynthia passed both of them on her way out. Only then did Nagla relinquish her spot, following her husband and standing by the door as Cynthia walked down the front path. Khaled followed, too, standing behind his parents and towering over both of them, watching as Cynthia turned to her own house, disappearing behind its front door.
Khaled let his parents walk back in and then slipped out. He looked around him at the quiet street where he grew up, familiar even in the darkness. Taking a deep breath in, he savored a comfort that daylight seemed to eradicate, a safe sense of belonging that had lately become people-shy, obliterated by the slightest glance of recognition from a stranger. Khaled walked up to the swing hanging from the white porch rafters, sat down quietly. The chains holding the swing up rattled. They would not creak if he did not push the swing. He stretched his legs in front of him, leaned his head back. Across from him and on top of the opposing row of houses, the cloudy sky hid all stars.
“Hey.” Fatima’s head was sticking out of the doorway. “Come back in. They’re fighting.”
Fatima did not answer but waved at him to hurry in before disappearing through the doorway.
“No, Samir. She was not inviting us.” Nagla was sitting back in her chair.
“It was as good as an invitation,” Samir said, hovering over her. “Why else do you think she came?”
“She was just being nice.” Nagla paused, raised one trembling hand to her forehead. “Because that’s how she is.”
Samir sat on the sofa, crossed his legs. “Twenty years in the U.S. and you still don’t understand Americans.”
“What’s there to understand?”
“That she took the trouble to come to our house. That she mentioned closure. Sure, it’s nice of her. But there is more to it than that. She wants to make peace, Nagla. How can she do so if we don’t participate?”
“How are we supposed to participate? There is no way they want us at this service, Samir. Think of how awkward it would be,” Nagla pleaded.
“I’m not saying it won’t be awkward; I’m saying it’s necessary. If we don’t go—especially after she came to our house to tell us about it—they will think we don’t want to put this thing behind us.”
“Who will think so?”
“Everyone!” Samir’s voice rose. Echoing him, Ehsan’s voice rose, too, reciting verses from the Qur’an. She had moved from the kitchen to the living room, sat in a corner chair across the room from her daughter and son-in-law, but had kept the holy book open in her lap, her lips moving rapidly as she continued her reading, barely audible.
Samir sighed. “Think about it, Nagla. This is our chance to be part of this community again. This service is an opportunity for us to show that we are on the same side they are on. That we regret what happened as much as they do. That we are not—” He paused, searching for words. “That we are not what they think we are.”
“I don’t know, Samir. We tried going public before, and that didn’t go so well, did it?”
Samir stiffened up, blushing. “I was trying to help. To make things better for you and the kids. That’s all I’ve ever done. What else would you have me do, huh? Just hide and wait it out? For how long?”
“We could always move, you know,” Khaled said. His father turned and glared at him.
“We’re not starting this again. And who asked for your opinion, anyway?”
Fatima, moving closer to Khaled, grabbed his arm and squeezed it. He said nothing.
“Just think about it,” Samir resumed, leaning toward his wife again. “We could go together, as a family, showing our respect. Perhaps they would let me say a word or two, address them—”
“You want to speak, too?” Nagla interrupted him.
“The flyer said they’d welcome speakers!” Samir said.
“Yes, but not you! Not you!” Nagla got up, paced the living room. “I know you mean well, Samir, but I really think you’re off, this time. I mean—can you imagine?” She paused, raised both hands to her face. “Ya Allah.” She sighed.
“Why not me? See, this is the mentality that’s setting us back. You’re acting like they are right; like we are not part of this community.”
“It’s not about the community!” Nagla’s voice rose. “It’s about . . . about . . .” She choked up.
“It’s about your refusal to support my decisions. Again.” Samir’s voice grew hard. Fatima nudged Khaled, took a step toward her parents, but her brother held her back. She glanced at him and he shook his head.
“I’m always supportive. When have I not been supportive?” Nagla stepped closer to her husband. “Why do you have to turn everything into a criticism of me? Can’t I even help you see the . . . the . . .” she stammered, and then, in a gush, added, “the stupidity of your plans?”
“Eh ellet eladab di?” Samir protested. What kind of ill breeding is this?
Ehsan raised her voice again. “Hal jazao alihsani illa alihsan.”
“Baba,” Fatima said, stepping closer to her father.
“Watch your language, Samir,” Nagla said.
“Look who’s talking!”
“Fine,” Nagla said, walking away from him. “Mashi.”
She headed toward the stairs, started climbing up.
“Where are you going?” her husband yelled. “We’re not through yet!”
“I am.” Nagla did not pause, nor did she turn around. “You know what you want to do, go do it. That’s how it always is anyway.”
“I’ll do what I want, yes. And I don’t need your permission!”
Nagla slammed her bedroom door shut.
Samir, as if noticing his two children for the first time, looked at Khaled and then at Fatima. “And what about you two, huh? Do you have anything to say?”
Khaled shook his head.
“Good!” Samir walked to the kitchen, paced once around the breakfast table like a man on a pilgrimage, then walked out the kitchen door and onto the back deck. Khaled could see him through the bay window as he sat down on one of the armchairs, leaned forward, and ran his fingers through what remained of his hair.
“As stubborn as ever,” Khaled murmured.
“He’s only trying to help, Khaled.” Fatima looked up the stairs. “You think she’ll be okay?”
“She’ll be fine. She’s used to this.”
“Psstt,” Khaled heard. He and Fatima turned around to see their grandmother summoning them. She had closed the Qur’an and placed it on the table beside her, where Cynthia’s untouched tea still stood. Khaled and Fatima walked up to her, Fatima sitting by her side while Khaled crouched down in front.
“What’s going on? What memorial are they talking about?” Ehsan whispered.
“El-sanaweyya ya Setto,” he said, trying to pronounce the words in his best Arabic. “They will be holding a memorial service for Natalie’s one-year anniversary. The anniversary of her death, that is,” he clarified unnecessarily.
“They’re going to the cemetery?”
“No, not the cemetery. It’s different, here. You don’t have to hold a service at the cemetery. They’re doing it at the park.”
“At the park?” Ehsan said, raising her eyebrows. Khaled nodded. “I’ll never understand the Americans,” she sighed. Upstairs, a door slammed, and they all looked up, as if expecting to see Nagla’s movements traced on the ceiling.
“What about your brother’s sanaweyya?” Ehsan whispered to Khaled. “Aren’t you going to do something for him?”
Khaled looked at Fatima, who was biting her lower lip, just the way their mother always did.
“I don’t think so, Setto. We can hardly invite people over for him, you know,” Khaled said.
“I know that, boy. I’m not an idiot,” Ehsan said, slapping Khaled on the shoulder with the back of her hand. Her slap, surprisingly hard, almost made him topple over. He reached one hand behind him and steadied himself. “I just meant you, the four of you, and me, of course. Maybe just go over to the cemetery and read some Qur’an. Or ask people at the mosque to pray for him after the Friday prayer,” she said, looking at Fatima. Upstairs, they heard another thud, perhaps another door slam, or a drawer pushed closed too violently.
“Why don’t you go upstairs to her, Setto?” Fatima asked.
“I don’t know,” Ehsan said, glancing toward the back porch though she could not see it from where she was sitting. “What if your father wants to go up and talk to her again? I don’t want him to find me there and think I’m snooping.”
“He won’t go talk to her now,” Khaled said. “He probably thinks she should come and talk to him first. He always does that; yells at people and then expects them to apologize.”
“Khaled! Don’t talk of your father in such a disrespectful way!” Ehsan said.
“But he’s always like that!”
“She’s his wife, so what if he yells at her? Your grandfather, Allah rest his soul, used to chase me around with the broomstick. At least he doesn’t do that, does he?” Fatima, glancing at Khaled, sucked at both her lips, and Khaled smiled, knowing she was struggling to stop herself from laughing at the image of her heavy grandmother dodging a broomstick. “Besides,” Ehsan added, “he’s the man of the house; he has the right to do whatever he thinks is for the best of his family.”
“Thinks is the key word, here,” Khaled mumbled.
Ehsan sighed. “Such bad luck,” she said. “Such bad luck has befallen this family. It’s all because of the evil eye, of course. Hasad. People back home, they think of you here, living in this big house, driving expensive cars, and all they imagine is money growing on trees. They covet all that Allah has given you, and then look what happens. This!” She held both arms up in a gesture that encompassed their entire lives. Khaled looked at the console, at the picture of his brother’s smiling face, slightly angled, so that he could not see his expression, only the sharp silver edge of the frame.
Sighing, Ehsan got up, headed into the kitchen, and opened the cabinet where she kept her incense kit. She pulled out the brass globe with its decorative perforations, the small box holding the dry incense leaves, and the bag with the pliers and the pieces of coal. In a moment, she would be resting the coal on the burning flame, letting it glow red and hot before she placed it on the layer of sand sitting in the bottom half of the incense burner. On top of it, she would sprinkle leaves of incense, let the fragrant smoke rise through the holes of the globe as she held it up by its three chains, swinging it in circles as she wandered the rooms of the house, chanting prayers.
Fatima picked up the abandoned tumblers still filled with tea and placed them back on the tray that she carried into the kitchen. Washing the glasses by hand, one by one, she occasionally looked out the window at Samir, still sitting on the deck. When she was finished, she walked out of the kitchen and up the stairs, where Khaled could hear her knocking on Nagla’s door. He headed toward the stairs, too. He would go to his room, to his laptop, away from all this. He climbed only a step or two before he stopped to look once more at his brother’s framed picture. In the kitchen, he could hear Ehsan’s incantations. The smell of the incense, sweet and tangy like a mixture of cloves and rosebuds, slowly filled the air, and Khaled, turning around, started up the stairs again. Of course it was all bogus, he thought. No amount of burning leaves could have possibly made a difference. No incantations, regardless of how sincerely and incessantly uttered, could ever prevent disaster.
ENGLISH: Home is where the hearth is.
ARABIC: Whoever leaves his house loses prominence.
Samir and Nagla arrived in New York on a sunny morning in April 1985. Sitting in the station wagon, Samir thought how perfect it was that this car now zoomed through the Big Apple while Egyptian music drifted from the dashboard. His cousin, Loula, was driving, and he, sitting next to her, exhausted after the ten-hour flight, slid down in the seat, looked out the window, and listened to Om Kalthoum’s voice mingle with car horns and jackhammers. The singer’s voice, low, chagrined, and so deep he felt it came from the bottom of the earth, was rumored to have been so powerful that she had to stand six feet from the microphones to insure they would not break. The recording dated back to the fifties, and Om Kalthoum tenderly reprimanded a lover for his long-endured cruelty. Samir listened and knew the answer to his own destiny was as simple as an American car playing Egyptian music in New York: he could, he was certain, build a life for himself and his family here, while preserving their Egyptian roots. Om Kalthoum sounded better contrasted with the New York skyline and its pure blue backdrop of a sky than she did in Cairo with its dusty roads and overcrowded streets. The contrast between her familiar voice and his new surroundings highlighted the beauty of each in a way Samir had never experienced before.
Glancing behind him, he smiled at Nagla, who sat in the backseat next to a squirmy Hosaam, too busy to see Samir watching her. He looked as she tried to comfort their ten-month-old son and knew, right then and there, he would do anything to give them the life they would never have had a chance at, back in Egypt.
“So when do you get to start?” Loula asked. Over the phone a few weeks earlier, Samir had told her about the medical training he was to start in Brooklyn, only two hours from her home.
“Not until July. But I wanted to get Nagla settled in first.”
“Do you know where you’ll be staying?”
“The hospital has a couple of buildings they rent out of. I’ll get in touch with them tomorrow and see what they can do for me.”
“You should talk to Ahmed first,” Loula said. “He might know someone who could get you a cheaper place. Sometimes these places they recommend cost an arm and a leg.”
“I don’t need a cheap place.”
“Just to save up, you know.”
“Thanks, but I think we’ll be fine.”
Loula did not answer. Born in Brooklyn to an American mother, she was Samir’s first cousin whom he had seen only intermittently when she vacationed with her parents in Egypt. He suspected she was taking them in only because his uncle had insisted. Months earlier, Uncle Omar had assured Samir that he would have welcomed him in his own home had he not lived in Detroit. Loula was the only person Uncle Omar knew who might offer Samir temporary shelter.
Ahmed, her husband, Samir had met only once, and he had detested him. Tall and lanky, Ahmed had sat down in Samir’s father’s living room, legs crossed, the heel of his shoe facing Samir’s father in unabashed neglect of Egyptian manners, and had spoken in an Arabic scattered with unnecessary English expressions that his then six-year tenure in the United States did not warrant. In contrast, Loula had talked almost exclusively in Arabic, stuttering as she searched for words, pronouncing the letters in a heavy accent that belied her features, so Egyptian she seemed fit to play the role of Cleopatra. Considering that she was born and raised in New York, Samir had found it fascinating that she could even converse in the language. He did not understand how she had ever ended up with Ahmed.
In the station wagon, Samir tried to let Om Kalthoum’s voice soothe him again, but he failed. He did not know what had offended him more: Loula’s implying that he would not be able to afford the hospital housing (which, to be honest, he was not entirely sure he could), or her suggestion that he ask her husband for help, a man who, Samir suspected, knew nothing more about Brooklyn than he himself did. Whatever knowledge Ahmed had amassed in his years spent in the United States, Samir was sure he would be able to catch up on shortly. He did not need help from anyone, and certainly not from other Egyptians whose only claim to expertise on all things American lay in the limited experience a few years had to offer. Closing his eyes, Samir reminded himself he would have to veer away from any unpleasant confrontations with Ahmed during the days or weeks he’d have to spend at his home, and, most important, he’d have to make sure he got out of there as soon as possible.
To his chagrin, however, he and Nagla ended up staying with Loula and Ahmed for three months. Only a day after their arrival, the human resources lady at the hospital, portly and with too-blond hair, had looked at Samir over her reading glasses and told him, one more time, in a slow English that implied he might have had trouble understanding the language, that housing for the residents was currently full. He’d have to wait until June 30, when the senior residents would move out and make room for incoming interns. Samir, explaining again that he had been told accommodations might be available a month or two before his starting date, had to sit and listen to her explain to him that the key word here was might. Nothing was available. Short of paying for a hotel room for eighty-some days, Samir had no other choice but to impose on his cousin’s hospitality.
Loula was not as indisposed to having them as he first imagined. She and Nagla managed to use a mixture of broken Arabic and English to communicate, and in a matter of days Samir could see, to his relief, that the two got along well. Loula introduced Nagla to a plethora of baby products she had never heard of, from changing tables (“Really? A piece of furniture just to change a baby’s diaper?” Nagla had later whispered to him) to baby gyms, swings, and all sorts of bottle-cleaning accessories. Nagla slowly started cooking Egyptian food for Loula and Ahmed, taking over the kitchen and preparing dishes of stuffed eggplants and green peppers, musakka, and baked fish in a casserole of potatoes, garnished with celery and marinated in lemon, cumin, and minced garlic. Within weeks, Nagla was spending as much time in the kitchen as she had at home, sometimes by herself and often with Loula by her side, trying to learn the exact way to wrap grape leaves around their stuffing. Nagla, Samir realized, was much, much more comfortable than he was.
Even Ahmed did not seem to mind having them, but Samir suspected that was mainly due to how much Ahmed enjoyed telling him exactly what to do.
“So you’re really going to take that hospital housing place, huh?” Ahmed asked him one day. They were sitting on the back deck, where Samir found out anyone wishing to smoke had to go. Samir had not expressed his annoyance when Loula, seeing him light a cigarette inside the house only minutes after his arrival, had politely said, “Feel free to use Ahmed’s ashtray.” She ushered him to the deck, opened the sliding doors, shoved him outside, and closed the doors behind him, coughing. He had found the adjustment a bit cumbersome, especially considering how cold the weather still was in April. Especially considering that he frequently had to endure Ahmed’s company.
“I am taking the housing offer, yes,” Samir said, bending out of his chair to flick his ashes into the ashtray on the table between them. Ahmed was smoking a cigar, and the wind, changing direction, blew the odorous smoke Samir’s way. He got up and walked to the railing, stood leaning against it and looking at the hill in the distance.
“In Flatbush? You’re going to live in Flatbush?” Ahmed asked. He was sitting in an oversized wicker armchair, both his feet resting on the coffee table, the cigar dripping ashes on the deck. Samir, hiding a vague feeling of alarm that started to creep up on him (what was wrong with Flatbush?), looked calmly at Ahmed and nodded.
“It’s close to the hospital.”
“You don’t have to live close to the hospital. It’s Brooklyn! You can take the subway, you know.”
“I’ll be on call a lot, and I don’t want to be too far from Nagla in case she needs me.”
“You can get a place in Bay Ridge. That’s where all the Arabs live.”
“I don’t want to live where all the Arabs live,” Samir said, his teeth clenched. “I want to live close to the hospital.”
“Well, I don’t blame you,” Ahmed said, crossing his feet. “I wouldn’t want to live too close to Arabs, either.”
“That’s not what I meant,” Samir said, irritated. That man could not sit without showing the soles of his shoes.
Reading Group Guide
Samir and Nagla Al-Menshawy have settled in the sleepy suburb of Summerset, New Jersey, to raise a family, leaving behind their native Egypt for their own version of the American dream. At first, it all seems to be going smoothly. The couple bonds with the Bradstreets next door and Samir’s medical practice is bustling. The Al-Menshawys’ three children make friends in the community, assimilating into American life. In high school, their oldest son, Hosaam, even starts dating his lifelong friend Natalie Bradstreet.
Then the unthinkable happens—Hosaam and Natalie are killed—and everything shatters. Patients abandon Samir’s practice, kids bully his children Fatima and Khaled, and their house is vandalized repeatedly. Where they once saw the promise of their affluent life, they now see closed doors and shaming stares. Worst of all, no one in the family can come to terms with their inexplicable loss.
A year has passed. Samir refuses to consider moving, and only wants to clear his family’s name to make a safer life for his surviving children. Nagla blames herself for not recognizing the signs of Hosaam’s descent into depression, and not doing more to save him or Natalie. Khaled, who always resented his domineering brother, is still angry for the shadow Hosaam has cast over his life and seeks refuge in New York City with a like-minded friend. Fatima grows increasingly devout, also spending more time outside the home. If the family once fit in to suburban New Jersey life, they are now more alienated than ever. Nagla’s mother, Ehsan, comes from Egypt to help, but her traditional ways only seem to spark more tension and highlight just how divided the household has become.
Everything comes to a head when the Bradstreets announce that they’re holding a memorial service for their daughter. The Al-Menshawys must decide whether it’s a chance for public redemption or a brutal reminder of what cannot be undone.
Rajia Hassib’s stunning debut novel follows the Al-Manshawys in the five days leading up to the service. A classic immigrant story with a decidedly contemporary plot, In the Language of Miracles explores the Arab-American experience and what it means to belong in a distrusting world. In crystalline prose, Hassib captures the intricate family dynamics at play—secrets, lies, unfulfilled hopes, and crushing regrets—as her eminently likable characters struggle to move beyond tragedy.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Gave me a greater understanding of a religion and culture I know little about. I loved the characters. I was sad when it ended.
With her debut novel, Rajia Hassib takes us on the journey of an Egyptian American family struggling to get over a family tragedy and how they’re confronting it one year later. I loved the format of a five day timeline because it allowed for the little details to be noticed. The characters were all interesting in how they dealt with their grief, and especially the sort of things they noticed a year later. This novel tells an important message: not all miracles require divine intervention and if the ending result is not what you expected, perhaps it was not what you needed. The reader gets to enter the minds of Samir, Nagla and their younger son, Khaled and all three prove to be very different and complex characters. For Samir, the American Dream is a very important goal because after all, he uproots his family in order to give them a better life in America. With this tragedy, the American Dream starts to crack and we see how that effects Samir on a very emotional level. He’s the type of person to care what others think of him and his family, and when his son suggests moving to a town that doesn’t ostracize them, he’s appalled. Samir considers this to be a cowardly thing and so he’s determined to fix the way the town views his family. Nagla starts to ask herself all these ‘what if?’ questions. She thinks back on the year before the tragic event and for the first time notices things about her son that she originally brushed off. After graduating from high school and becoming distant from his friends, Hosaam had isolated himself in the attic, playing music all the time and not wanting the life his father set out for him. Nagla regrets her actions, or lack of and see’s her son for the first time in a new light. This is all brought on by coming up to the attic to go through her son’s things, which had remained untouched for the last year. With her mother’s encouragement, she begins that next step in overcoming grief because the fact is if we wait until we’re ready, we’d never take the next step. It was Khaled’s voice that stood out the most. He feels the weight of his brother’s shadow and just wants to be anonymous. Khaled deletes his Facebook account, but later on creates a blog using only his initials K.A. It gets to the point where this blog is an important aspect of his life; with it he feels free and I really connected with that aspect. For me, blogging about books and being social in the book community is a really positive aspect of my life. I could understand Khaled’s feelings. It’s through this blog that Khaled meets Brittany and he’s absolutely terrified that she’ll find out about his brother. So much so, that for a time he won’t tell her what the K stands for. Later on, he relents and tells her because he decides there’s probably a lot of Khaled’s in New York – though he does consider giving her a different name. I could feel Khaled’s fear on a very in-depth level, and I think losing this new friend would also register on the same level as losing a loved one. Khaled is a very well-written character and above all my favourite! Surprisingly, the ending was not what I expected, but I agree with the way Hassib chose to end it. It fit better with the overall message. Hassib is an exceptional storyteller of complex characters and I’m excited for her next project! In the Language of Miracles is a narrative of human emotion and succeeds in giving a comprehensive account of a family trying to overcome grief.
I loved this book and highly recommend, its a very real human story.