Nidali Ammar is born in Boston to a Palestinian father and an Egyptian-Greek mother. Family circumstances call them back to the Middle East not much later, and Nidali spends her childhood in Kuwait before Iraq’s invasion causes her family to flee to Alexandria, and from there, eventually, back to America. Her attraction to girls is presented very much within the larger context of this life — her parents’ rocky marriage, her father’s rages and determination to keep her from hanging around with boys, her sadness and struggles to acclimate and make friends every time circumstances drag her to a new place. Nidali is a whole person, and her attraction to girls is not the only thing in her life that’s difficult or confusing. It’s so refreshing that queerness, and particularly bisexuality, can be contextualized this way, that there can be a book about a most likely bisexual character that is not only about her sexuality. Nidali as a character doesn’t exist for the sole purpose of being bisexual, and I’m glad that we’ve reached the point where that’s possble. I understand the need for the coming-out narrative, and those are also powerful books, but I’m glad they’re not the only books that exist.
Which is not to say that her feelings about girls aren’t upsetting to Nidali; the few times they come up, they certainly seem to be. After an unexpectedly sexual wrestling match with her friend Rama, the two ignore each other and read magazines the rest of their visit, and Nidali cries all the way home. She’s crying about her bewilderment about the war in Kuwait and the need to leave her home, but I got the impression she’s also bewildered about what just happened and why, and that might be what tipped her over into tears. Later, she finds herself thinking that she’d like to give her friend Jiji her first kiss. She manages it by offering Jjji practice with kissing so she’ll know what to do when her boyfriend kisses her, and she describes the minutes of kissing that follow in rapturous detail. Afterward, she dwells on that kiss and wonders how she can like both girls and boys, what it means that she does. But it doesn’t consume all of her attention; she has a whole life to attend to, and this is only part of it. I appreciate that visibility. Queer presses are very important, but so is having believable, sympathetic queer characters in more mainstream books that people will read for other reasons. The same way I got a look into what it might be like to grow up with Nidali’s ethnic and religious background, other readers will get a glimpse of what adolescence might be like as one discovers one is queer.
Bisexuality is not the only thing Jarrar handles sensitively and well. Nidali’s father’s feelings about Palestine, and the way Nidali herself feels going through an Israeli checkpoint, are presented simply and movingly, allowing the reader space for a reaction rather than telling hir what to feel. I have a bit of a blind spot on the subject of Israel, and the way the narrative refrained from preaching and instead simply shared the characters’ experiences gave me room to sympathize and empathize. This is the same thing I think Jarrar did well as far as Nidali’s sexual experiences with girls, reporting her feelings and actions and confusion and not telling us how to react to them. She’s similarly restrained about Nidali’s masturbation and sexual experience with boys, her struggles due to being mixed-race and never quite feeling she fits in, her mixed feelings about her nerdiness and good grades, the friction in her parents’ marriage, etc. She doesn’t preach about any of them, and it gives the reader a chance to really consider them.
I was about to write that if you’re only reading A Map of Home for the bisexual content, you may be disappointed. But that may not be true; I read it for that reason, and found many other things to like. Nidali’s sexual orientation is nowhere near the focus of the book, and only comes up a handful of times. We know that she never saw Rama again after their experience, since shortly afterward Nidali’s family fled Kuwait for Alexandria. I would have liked to know more about how her friendship with Jiji changed (or didn’t) after they made out; what Jiji’s reaction was, if they ever talked about it, whether and how they justified it to themselves. I would also have liked to observe more of Nidali’s thoughts about these experiences – she seems to struggle with it more than she does with her frequent masturbation or her sexual experiences with boys, both of which are also supposed to be beyond the pale, and it seems reasonable to assume she gives it more than the few pages of thought we see. I’d like to know what she’s thinking, and what if anything she concludes about herself. Given her background, it would make sense for her to decide that regardless of her feelings for certain girls, she will of course eventually marry a man — after all, she likes them. She doesn’t necessarily have to give up her chance at happiness in order to be normal. But we don’t know if that’s how she’s framing it for herself, or whether she’s framing it for herself at all.
I do wish we could have stuck with Nidali a bit longer. As the book closes, she’s getting ready to go to a small liberal arts college in Boston. If she’s going to encounter queer ideas and develop an identity and ethos around or in opposition to them, not to mention finding queer girls to befriend or date, she’d likely do so there. And she’s rebellious enough and willing enough to challenge herself and the expectations of others that it seems a strong possibility. It’s a pity we don’t get to know. But the soft focus on Nidali’s sexual orientation, and the lack of politics around that and everything else, are among the things I enjoyed most about this book. While it would also be fun to watch a character go through the process of becoming politicized, I suppose in this case I can’t have it both ways. And by not following Nidali until she’s partnered, we avoid the conundrum of discovering whether she’s “really straight” or “really gay” based on her partner’s gender, and she has the space to feel of what she feels and be all of who she is. All in all it’s a beautiful, engaging book, and I enjoyed the time I spend with Nidali.