For Qatari-American writer Sophia Al-Maria, controversy comes with the territory. Like many residents here, Al-Maria had struggled with identity issues for much of her life, after being born to an American mother and a Bedouin father.
The conflict of straddling two worlds is frankly explored in her memoir,A Girl Who Fell to Earth, which was released in November 2012.
Though her book has received critical acclaim abroad – the New York Times lauds Al-Maria for “searching for a deeper understanding in her paternal land, where others are digging only for oil” – it is not currently being sold in Doha.
This is possibly because the memoir covers taboo subjects like complex lineage, pre-marital sex and double standards among males and females in the Arab World.
For that, Al-Maria, who delivered the commencement address at Northwestern University in Qatar this past May, has earned her fair share of criticism in this conservative Islamic region, especially from her target audience of young Arab women.
Al-Maria, who is not based in Qatar, dabbles in filmmaking, screenwriting, science fiction and a number of other art forms. During a recent visit to Doha, she sat down for a brief question and answer session.
Is your book sold here?
I don’t think Al Rawnaq will ever carry it. That’s the great tragedy of Doha. Virgin (Megastore) doesn’t really sell books. It’s what we’re missing, just a really good public library.
Who was your intended audience when you initially wrote the book?
I wanted to write the book for anyone, especially young women who feel that it’s not just about not fitting in. (The book) deals with more serious stuff than just that, but especially anyone who might have had experiences, or had things happen to them and feel like they can’t get over (it) – like they are damaged goods or they feel like something is wrong with them.
And the thing is that there’s such a (stigma) in our culture in the Middle East, or generally in the entire world. Insha’Allah, it will be published in Arabic. I hope that kids in the region will relate to it, because even though I’m half American, I’ve gone through the same things that a lot of girls here have. When I was younger, I would have really liked a book like this.
Why do you think people are fascinated with the resonating theme of an identity crisis?
As globalized culture happens, there are more and more of us. And all of us come from different cultures, I assume. All of us are meeting here in Doha. Everybody has this dissonance of, where is home? Who am I? Why am I speaking English? And I hope that humanity is evolving into a place that is more understanding. And especially through education, I hope we can reach that point.
In what ways do you find yourself “performing” an identity?
I think that performing identity is actually very empowering. I don’t feel fake when I am wearing an abaya. I don’t feel fake when I am in the states wearing overalls and running around on a horse or something. The abaya is empowering in a lot of ways, and not just in the Gulf.
Yes, it is a performance of identity and it is a cultural garb. But I think it is also an aspirational, empowering thing. It’s a signifier of wealth. And I think in the future, a lot of people will be wearing abayas. Because it’s an excellent protection from the sand and the environment, especially as global warming increases. And, it’s stylish.
How do you go about addressing stereotypes?
We’ve all had to deal with stereotypes, so if you get the chance to correct it in whatever way would, you take it. So that’s why the opportunity was there, to maybe change even one person’s mind about Americans or about Qataris or about halfies. Or maybe actually confirm their concerns about these people like myself. You can tell the truth and it will set you free.