The year is 1952. Halah Ibrahim is a young teenager when Cairo is set on fire, stoked by the Egyptian Revolution that strips away British control and emboldens Halah’s father as a member of the military elite. Yet Halah’s only role is to stay home from school until things grow calm, observing from a distance: “I watched from the roof as the city burned,” the book begins.
It is with the backdrop of profound political, economic, and societal change that Halah experiences a life-altering change of her own—a change of country, a dramatic change of pace. Escaping the inevitable fate of arranged marriage with a much older man, Halah impulsively runs away with Khalil Seif, a young officer she’s met only a handful of times, believing they’re destined to be together because their “lives collided on a rooftop.” They move to New York, where he begins his medical studies.
The novel spans decades and borders. Azim gives us an immigration story, where living in either country—Egypt or the United States—feels incomplete; Halah no longer feels whole in either place. Even though Egypt is only a phone call away, the first time she calls her father after the move, she runs out of coins midway through the call. Halah must learn to raise a daughter, Amena, in a culture that she can’t fully grasp or even accept in some ways. Her daughter eventually sets down roots that seem to ground Halah but apparently not enough.
Azim dives into the subterranean chambers of the human heart. She finds what remains unexamined and asks readers to finish the investigation. What you think will be a novel focused on Halah as its central voice diverges into multiple perspectives after her mysterious disappearance during one of her summertime visits to Egypt. We move from a series of chapters narrated by Halah in first-person, to episodes narrated in third person.
The shift dims Halah from view; it is like moving from color to grey-scale. She no longer speaks to us directly, but she is still there. We read of Halah through the perspectives of others: her husband Khalil, their daughter Amena, and Khalil’s brother Hassan. With each point of view, we understand another hidden layer of the puzzle. All narratives work together to expose an underlying compassion and sensitivity that produces gentle explorations of topics as weighty and complex as mental illness and sexual exploration to the comical act of ordering takeout in a new country.
Other characters complete Azim’s character study of Halah by offering themselves at different moments in time and space. I appreciate the way Azim moves us through the years, marking the beginning of each chapter with specific chronology. We work on resolving the mystery of Halah’s disappearance by “interviewing” the people closest to her—by reading what they think and have to say. However, Azim offers clues and suggestions rather than full-on answers. She is obviously a writer who acknowledges and values the intelligence of her readers.
In Azim’s novel, we find that the human heart can both pursue and reject the object of its desire simultaneously. Contradiction is the essential statement of art. In music, it’s counterpoint. In writing, it’s sometimes life and death. We all contain contradictions that occupy space. As one character, Adam, puts it, “It’s possible to experience joy and grief at the same time.” This tension guides and controls Azim’s narrative while giving it structure. We start with a character who craves a new life and yearns for home, who seeks out forgiveness but ends up committing—in her mind—the gravest sin. We have a doctor whose job is to preserve life, and yet we find him robbed of life with the diagnosis of stage four cancer. We encounter a character who spends more than half his life in prison, but who later achieves the greatest inner peace as custodian of a mosque. We spend time with a young woman clinging to what is practical—a career in scientific research—yet reaching for the transcendent in art.
This is a novel about movement, the way characters come and go, some lost forever. The most meaningful movements are those constituting journeys away from the centers of home and towards the unknown. Readers track the distance. When Amena leaves New York to attend university in California, her father later tells her, “I suppose I left my parents behind and went even further away.” He had a way of “setting his expectations for her [Amena] in the context of his failures” (179). Khalil assumes Amena will want to do the thing he couldn’t do.
At heart, Amena possesses the practical skills of a scientist—one who begins a graduate program in the study of Colias butterflies—but moves through the world with an artist’s vision. Her love is art, but science pays the bills. She pairs up with an artist who makes art out of things like manmade craters and ant colonies, a true appreciator and manipulator of nature. Ants, given only a pile of dirt, transform it into an underground edifice the height of a skyscraper in an ant-scaled city. Unfortunately, only a lucky few survive to start new colonies and perpetuate the species. Identifying the rules that ants obey helps scientists understand how biologically complex systems emerge — for example, how groups of cells give rise to organs.
Country of Origin is aware that self-organizing mechanisms are present everywhere in nature. Azim seems to draw on this truth as she explores the literary equivalent: how words give rise to stories, how language is sometimes all we have. Azim’s prose is slow yet deliberate, beautiful but spare. She offers occasions for the narrator to agonize over and even obsess about questions of inter-generational family ties, immigration, privilege and justice. These opportunities afford readers a sense of how Halah operates, a woman who herself agonizes and obsesses over things, the extent of which isn’t revealed all at once but piece by piece, layer by layer. One obsession that grips the narrative in its entirety is Halah’s fear that her father used his influence to have Khalil’s brother thrown into prison; a punishment for Khalil’s “crime”—taking Halah away from him to a life in America. The aftermath of this injustice leads directly or indirectly (we don’t know) to Halah’s disappearance.