“Inte hora, ”a general tells his wife early on in Dalia Azim’s Country of Origin. You are free, in Arabic. The saying appears at first during a quarrel over politics in the intimacy of a Cairo home while, outside, revolts against Egypt’s then leader, King Farouk, combust the city. A saying echoed three decades later in the multigenerational story.
Who is free and who gets to be free, I wondered as I read the Egyptian American author’s debut novel. The married woman from Cairo’s upper crust society who answers her daughter’s inquiry about love with “I’m still waiting for that to happen”? The principled servant who watches over the daughter of the house and hardly ever gets to see her own kids? The teenager with a dozen suitors who must choose between her family’s support and the love of the only man she wants? The young, disillusioned officer who can only make something of himself if he leaves his country? Or the student who seeks an education in the UK only to be sent back over his place of birth?
Freedom — what it means to be free and what it takes to be free — appears to be a theme in Azim’s rich and intricately composed novel set between Egypt and the US It found in the choice of words (passports are “liberated” from drawers where they are kept hidden) and symbols (chickens attempting to take flight from a rooftop and tumbling down).
Mostly though this is a story about origins and home. Origins as what’s marked in our identification papers, what runs in the family and what reveals itself through genes. Home, too, for Azim’s characters come in many forms. The family home that housed a former version of oneself. The address in a handwritten letter that may uncover family secrets. The space in a life found in arts. The safety of a love that needs neither explanation nor competition. “I just want to go home,” an ailing character says at one point in the novel, home then turning into an eternal haven for the soul.
Azim and I met on Zoom earlier in March. She spoke from Austin, Texas, where she lives with her family while I joined from Dubai.
Ladane Nasseri: You said in a recent talk that you started working on this book 15 years ago and initially wanted it to revolve around 9/11. What was it about the Arab American experience that you wanted to capture and how did that change?
Dalia Azim: I had wanted to write a multigenerational saga about an Egyptian family that immigrates to the US in the middle of the 20thth century, but because I moved to New York a month before 9/11 and that was so much a part of our experience then, I wanted something that portrayed positive sides of the Arab identity. I abandoned that after a year. It seemed falsely limited to focus on 9/11 when my initial impetus was to write an immigration story.
In the past few years since I found the right angle for the book, it became more about the characters and their experiences. The jumping off point is a woman who has little to no agency in Egypt in the ’50s as she’s watching a revolution unfold outside her sheltered home. How she develops an awareness of what freedom means and trying to find out what freedom could mean to her.
LN: The novel starts at the time of Egypt’s struggle for independence. I saw parallels between what was happening at the nation’s level and at the characters level. We see a yearning for freedom politically but also in Hala’s efforts to emancipate herself. It’s about what it means to be free, and its limitation given Egypt’s politics and Hala’s emigration. Tell me more about choosing this time period as a setting, and the notion of freedom.
DA: The waning days of the colonial period and the emergence of independence in a country like Egypt is something that has always been very fraught and interesting to me. I had grown up hearing stories, my relatives had lived through that, my grandparents talked about joining the protests in the street and what it meant to come out of that moment.
I wanted to have a character, Hala’s father, be part of the inside, see these machinations and understand that it’s very orchestrated still. It’s not freedom across the board. For Hala as a woman whose life was being determined for her by her father mostly, it’s a personal awakening. She has a close relationship with the family’s live-in servant, and she also sees that there are all these ways people are constrained and the revolution is not going to change anything for them — whether it’s women or people from the serving class.
Khalil too is from a working-class background, and he does not see himself having the future he wants in Egypt. There is a pivotal scene where he is part of a rally for (former president) Gamal Abdel Nasser. That’s something that fascinated me, the speculations on whether there was a legitimate attempt on his life then or if it was staged to create the springboard for him to make a bid to unseat the president and become president himself. I wanted that to be a turning point for Khalil — this sense of political corruption, that the composition of the government and who’s running the country has changed but it feels as controlled by a small group of people as always.
With Hassan, there are more obvious parallels of incarceration versus freedom, and he goes through a major transformation when he is incarcerated. For me, the most moving part to write was when he comes out of prison and tries to get his footing back in the world after so many years of not having anything.
LN: Did you want to write a multigenerational story as a way to record the evolution of Egypt over time and capture the breadth of the immigrant experience?
DA: That was a big part of it. I wanted to explore the multigenerational experience of leaving one’s home country and settling in a new place. The alienation and the disconnect from the sense of home was something I really wanted to get into emotionally with the writing.
Although I found that once the characters leave Egypt, I had to pare it down because there is a point where it becomes too didactic, inserting certain events in history just because they happened, not because they were integral to the story. There were other wars, other conflicts with Israel, turmoil within the country with transitions in leadership I ended up pointing to only when it was essential. Like the transition from Nasser to (former president) Sadat. You learn more about that through Hassan’s perspective in prison, the political ramifications of that with another round of people being incarcerated.
LN: Hala is the only character written in the first person. She has a strong personality, she makes certain decisions that are life changing, but she’s also fairly traditional when it comes to her relationship with Khalil, hiding things from him, or being wary of how much she shares with others. What were the challenges of writing her?
DA: Putting myself into the mindset of a woman who grows up in the ’50s is in and of itself challenging. My experience is so different growing up with a lot of agency and freedom — my parents are Middle East, and they are very open minded compared to other first-generation Arab immigrants I have met.
Writing is an act of creative empathy. Writing about experiences that are so foreign to me is the biggest challenge but also the most rewarding. I wanted to portray her as a mix of confident and naive. She has so little experience of the world when she does things that ultimately unseat her life. She does have a private education from the school system, but a lot of her education comes from movies and soap operas that she watches at home, so she has this silly, romantic aspect to her. She suffers when she leaves and is somebody who probably would have suffered had she stayed as well. She’s one of those people who’s always wondering what if and wonders if she made the right decisions. She has some impulse issues that come out and it becomes clearer as the book goes on. Hala was challenging but also core to the story. It was a way to narrate this background of the revolution and talk about women’s freedom.
LN: Middle Eastern women when they are represented in mainstream Western media and movies, are often so flat. They are usually depicted as victims with very little agency and some of that can be true at times, but I do not feel that we see them as multi-layered human beings. I found that so satisfying about your female characters, they are multi-layered. What was most important to you as you were developing them?
DA: It bothers me when I encounter unidimensional characters in other stories. There’s always complexity in something that may come across as a negative trait, it usually has some sort of origin story and so to really flesh out what the backstory is, what is happening in the present, what makes a person a person is one of the reasons I love to write. It’s important to capture the good and the bad in order to make characters memorable, to make them as whole and complicated as possible.
LN: We witness external, political upheaval but also internal ones. The mental health aspect you introduced, and its impact on the characters’ lives brought an unexpected element to the story. It was a slow reveal and on the second read I could see hints I had not picked up at first.
DA: It’s something that I have seen very little, if at all, in literature about the Middle East or from the Middle East. Mental health is something that many people deal with, and that we should all be talking about more.
I was drawn to the idea that what might have seemed like naive impulses could have been underpinned by mental health issues. Although the book changed form a lot the mental health narrative was there from the very start. It’s something I initially wanted to explore in a heavy-handed way in response to 9/11, but as the book got more mature and developed, I thought it would be more interesting to look at it — not in a contemporary character but further back —At a time when it would not have been diagnosed or recognized.
LN: In a 2018 article, you wrote about wanting to take your kids to Egypt to visit family and your friends wondering if that’s safe. When you are in Egypt, your relatives are concerned about the extent of gun violence in the US Living in the US, we fail to see how the country can be perceived by non-Americans. What are some of the misconceptions you are trying to dispel as a dual citizen and someone who is able to have that dual perspective?
DA: It bothers me when people ask if it’s safe to bring your family to the Middle East. It’s as safe as anywhere. There’s always unknown, there’s the threat of violence anywhere you go. It’s hypocritical for Americans to say that and not be looking at what’s happening in our own country. Gun violence is insane in the US In Egypt and other places, you can not just get access to them.
I was born in Canada and raised in the US I’ve spent a lot of time in Egypt, but I have never lived there. Although it’s getting better, in the 20 years that I have been a writer, it’s been challenging to find books that are either translated into English or written in English about the Middle East. That pool is growing. It’s becoming a richer area of literature with stories that do defy stereotypes. The negative stereotypes about Arabs are well known and that’s something I definitely want to counter through my own writing. That’s a lot to take on as an individual writer but the more Arab and Arab American writers we have who are writing complex stories not set around terrorism, the richer the field becomes and the more accurate it becomes in terms of describing a diverse community. We need to continually add more diverse narratives to the literary scene so that we ultimately have a more complex picture.