Rules, rivalries, upsets: an American abroad tries to decipher a Middle Eastern household while translating a mythic Arabic text.
A Word for Love, by Emily Robbins, Riverhead Books, 293 pages, $27
• • •
Set in an unnamed Middle Eastern city experiencing the rumblings of civil unrest, Emily Robbins’s debut novel, A Word for Love, hones in on the domestic sphere to offer a fresh perspective on a scenario that may have become numbingly familiar to us through televised news reports.
The domestic, when imperiled, loses its banality; each moment, each ritual becomes precious, and all the more so if filtered through the prism of an impassioned outsider’s gaze: in this case, a twenty-one-year-old American exchange student named Bea. With Bea as our guide, we find ourselves cozily ensconced inside a family home, an upper-floor apartment whose occupants almost never leave (not least because the heads of the household typically lock the door from the outside). We know the city by the way it enters the apartment, in the fresh cheese the father, Baba, brings from the market, by the dust that blows in from the deserts and the salt mines, by the noise of the rallies, with their music and drumming.
As told by Bea, the ostensible focus of the story is a love affair, carried out from the height of rooftops and balconies, between the Indonesian maid (the second foreigner in the book) and a local soldier stationed across the street. This affair is linked in Bea’s mind to a famous Arabic folktale known as “the astonishing text,” which she’s yearning to read in the original version as a culmination of her assiduous study of the language—if only, on her sporadic forays out, the bafflingly fickle librarian in the public library would grant her access to the rare manuscripts room. But, rather than the love plot or the city’s political malaise, what lingers in our minds are the domestic scenes where, through fertile juxtapositions of often disparate moments, Bea’s narration captures the hum of a household in all its delightful, and occasionally shadowy, complexity.
As well as providing a dramatic lull, the classic domestic scene that precedes the battle—from The Iliad to John Wayne Westerns—points up the sweetness of what is being fought for: all that could be lost were the enemy to triumph. In this novel, the domestic scene is dilated to the point of crowding out the battle, which exists only on the fringes, in the comings and goings of Baba. In political trouble before, he is now convening with a group of other men to draft a document against the government, a petition he still hasn’t decided if he will sign, an act that would surely lead to his arrest.
This household is a system like all households, with its rules and codes, rivalries, strong feelings, upsets and reconfigurations, of which Bea is one devotedly involved element. The others include the mother, Madame; her three children, ranging from ages four to fourteen; and Nisrine, the maid. (The exchange student pays $150 a month room and board, subsidizing the maid’s monthly income of $125, which she sends back to her family.) Together, the two foreigners grapple to translate cultural codes, decipher Arabic, and sift Madame’s rules and moods.
The rules: soak the parsley in iodine before chopping, take the white part off the oranges, fill the water bottles up in the evening, use two squares of toilet paper if you must use toilet paper (preferable is the orange hose), tie a white scarf on your head after the bath so your hair dries flat and straight and don’t take it off until Madame says you can. Not to mention the rule to keep silent, to know when not to speak. Bea’s friend in America asks: “Doesn’t it bother you, you’re like a child? You’re twenty-one, what if you want to bring a man home? Go out and explore!” To which Bea responds: “But, I was exploring, just not the way my friend imagined.”
The system, depicted by Robbins with poetic compression, whirs with the sweetness of habit, rituals repeated over and over again—and what is family life but that?—until Nisrine, lovestruck by her soldier, accidentally leaves the gas on; Madame grows testy, no longer trusting her. When, finally, the system is strained to the point of toppling—Nisrine’s soldier swings between rooftops on the family clothesline to consummate the affair, perilously loosening the balcony rail; Baba signs the document and is taken by the authorities—Bea, like most Americans, has the luxury of pulling out and buying, however guiltily, a plane ticket home while the other parties have no choice but to remain. “It was nothing. Today you were here, tomorrow you took a plane and it all became nothing.”
What if this text were written by a local writer, as opposed to Robbins, who trained as an anthropologist and spent time in Syria? Or, put differently, what does the American lens do? On the one hand, it sees. The alienation of the foreign narrator allows her to isolate and appreciate the beauty and peculiarity of daily life in this unknown place. On the other hand, we observe Bea with her hands up, not wanting to break anything, as if she were in a glassware shop. While the author’s engagement with the country she’s writing about feels undeniably real, a glowing light infuses a number of her descriptions of the place and its people, at times keeping this world she so caressingly delivers somewhat at bay.
Another trope the novel grazes is the character of the earnest, and ingenuous, American abroad. If she messes up, as the American innocent often does—and this narrator is no exception (speaking when she should have been silent and, in a casual aside to her Arabic tutor, revealing where Baba and his group are gathering)—it’s a guileless mistake; she’s an earnest bungler, even though that bungle has dire consequences for everyone in the cast but her.
The book then corroborates a story that we Americans like to tell ourselves about our presence abroad: our intentions are good, we treat other countries carefully, even reverently, and if we ever make trouble, it was just an error for which, in the end, we are forgiven. A narrative that, while buoying us up, cannot help but cause smoke to pour out of non-American listeners’ ears.
While not challenging that discourse, A Word for Love does offer a sophisticated and thoughtful version of it. Bea is haunted by her slip about Baba. She writes, she says, to clear her conscience. And we sense, indeed, an urgency to summon up this household, which no longer exists, the city engulfed by war as the narrator composes her text. It’s as if by making us see “translucent purple, the color of parsley in iodine” or the way Nisrine “leaned against the sink and let the water soak her waist,” Bea could, if not alter what has happened, at the very least file a report that would, by transcribing civilian life in all its thrumming sweetness and intricacy, amount more effectively than any frontline chronicle to a plea for peace.
Maxine Swann is the author of three novels: Flower Children, Serious Girls, and The Foreigners. She has received a Harold D. Vursell Memorial Award from the Academy of Arts and Letters and her stories have been featured in The Best American Short Stories, O’Henry Prize Stories, and Pushcart Prize Stories. Born in Pennsylvania, she has been living in Buenos Aires since 2001.