“A Pure Heart” begins with a news account, one that’s become all too typical in spite of its atrocity: SUICIDE BOMBER KILLS 9 IN EGYPT.
The author of this book, Rajia Hassib knows full well that we have grown accustomed to the clichés of terrorism: “. . . an improvised explosive device . . . ties to terrorist groups . . . extremists.” Tucked within the expected details, however, is a fateful one about how the bomber had been profiled in The New York Times.
Cut to Rose, an Egyptian archeologist living in the West, gathering objects from her dead sister’s Cairo bedroom: headscarves, a teacup, a necklace, two T-shirts, and a string of prayer beads that bear the 99 names of Allah — objects that reflect a specific young and devout, yet modern, Muslim woman.
While everyone else assumes Gameela’s death, 10 days earlier — she died in the the bombing from the news clip — can be chalked up to random violence, Rose has her doubts. She has the butterfly effect on her mind, afraid that if she can follow the tornado of Gameela’s death backward to its origin, she won’t like what she finds.
“A Pure Heart’’ is a timely, sweeping tale that examines the intersection of fate and choice, the pull of culture and identity, family and love. It takes us in and around the 2011 revolution in Egypt, through alternating points of view and alternating locations, with each character’s story revealing how the pursuit of pure intentions is sidetracked until they reach the calamitous end.
But it’s in each of the characters’ distinct stories — and in telling them each so skillfully, so movingly — that Hassib fulfills her mission to humanize the page-one news account, and to puncture our sense of moral certainty.
At the center of the story are Rose and Gameela, two sisters who love each other but have kept a distance from one another. The consummate archeologist, Rose tells herself as she sifts through her sister’s artifacts that the items might bring her sister’s death into light: “Inanimate objects, as she once told her father when he asked about her work cataloguing artifacts, do speak, if they are only given a chance to.”
What Rose fears most is that her sister’s possessions will tell a story about the choices Rose, herself, has made that may have endangered her sister — her marriage to an American journalist and his New York Times interview with the bomber are two that top the list. As Rose pieces together the hidden parts of her sister’s life, it becomes apparent that the two represent the kinds of choices faced by modern Muslim women.
Admittedly, they benefit from their upper-middle-class background and education, which provide them with choices. Rose’s version of religious orthodoxy involved requiring her American, Christian suitor to convert to Islam before they married. Much more conservative Gameela, elects to wear a hijab — in spite of her parents’ objections.
Gameela is deeply conscious of her public and private observance of her faith. She’s the one who connects us to the meaning of jihad, reminding us several times throughout the story, that jihad, to her, means an ongoing struggle to “be better, to do better, to let go of egotistical, selfish notions, to strive to be the best person one can be — a truly good person, a kindhearted, pure person.”
Hassib asks us to ponder action and reaction, and Rose struggles to understand what triggered what: Was it her suggestion that Mark return to Egypt to do some reporting because he “missed the revolution” so he could follow her to New York? Was it Gameela’s profound commitment to lead an intentional and devout life while indulging herself in some personal — but very clandestine — happiness? Or was it Mark’s own mission to make his mark writing about world events by looking deeply into the private lives of people?
“Very few people can see the whole story when they are at its center,” Mark acutely observes. And that’s the artistry of this novel: Each of the characters, in turn, is at the center; and each one, in a flawed and human way, is in pursuit of their own version of purity of heart.
The suicide bomber, Saaber, whose name means “the patient one, the waiting one, like Job, who can withstand life’s trials,” is not just the main plot point in the story — the nexus of all the characters’ paths — he’s also well-drawn and compelling, one of several pieces of a complex story that showcases Hassib’s skill at crafting convincing psychological shifts in her characters.
Might Saaber’s destiny have been changed with a few tweaks — a less chaotic life, or more good fortune? Or could a simple act of kindness have been the butterfly effect that kept him from killing nine people? We cannot know, but the point of this beautifully written story is that you’ll find yourself wondering.
Kathryn Burak is a novelist and professor at Boston University. She can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.