55 pages 1 hour read

Randa Jarrar

A Map of Home

Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 2008

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

A Map of Home is a 2008 coming-of-age novel by Randa Jarrar. The novel follows the life of Nidali, a girl of Palestinian, Greek, and Egyptian descent who grows up between Kuwait, Egypt, and the United States. The novel contains three parts, each of which correspond to Nidali’s time in these three different countries. During her childhood, Nidali navigates extreme circumstances, grappling with violence, family conflict, and the backdrop of war, all while exploring her own identity—including her cultural identity, her sexuality, and her queerness. Jarrar, a queer Egyptian and Palestinian author who grew up in Egypt, Kuwait, and the United States, draws on personal experience to shape the character of Nidali. Throughout A Map of Home, Nidali grapples with Multicultural Identity and the Meaning of Home, trying to find her place in a world marked by displacement and constant change. Along the way, the narrative explores the theme of Relationships as War, linking the backdrop of war to the conflicts and tensions within Nidali’s own family. Lastly, the novel situates School as Both Refuge and Battleground, exploring the setting of school as an escape from Nidali’s home life as well as a site of struggle and adversity.

This study guide refers to the 2009 Penguin Books edition.

Content Warning: The source text contains domestic abuse, sexual assault, and racist slurs, as well as allusions to death by suicide.

Plot Summary

Loosely autobiographical, A Map of Home reads like a memoir. The protagonist, Nidali, narrates the events in first person, only deviating from this perspective in later chapters. She describes her childhood, ranging from her birth to her high school graduation. While Nidali’s voice varies as she grows older, starting out with a slightly childlike innocence and gradually becoming more introspective and mature, the tone implies that she narrates these events from the perspective of adulthood. Even in early chapters, Nidali interjects humor and blunt observations into her anecdotes.

Part 1 begins with Nidali’s birth. Nidali is born in Boston in the late 1970s to an Egyptian mother and a Palestinian father. Nidali’s father, Waheed, referred to as “Baba,” assumes that his wife will give birth to a boy. He initially names the child Nidal but later adds the letter I to the end of the birth certificate to feminize the name after finding out his child is a girl.

Shortly after Nidali is born, her family moves to Kuwait for her father’s new job. Nidali attends an English language school. Her mother, Ruz, referred to as “Mama,” gives birth to a baby boy, Gamal.

Nidali describes her parents as failed artists, implying that their bitterness leads to conflict and dysfunctionality in the household. Her father is a poet-turned-architect, and her mother is a musician-turned-housewife. Nidali’s childhood is marked by domestic violence; her father regularly abuses Nidali and her mother.

Nidali’s religious cousin, Esam, visits the family. His strict beliefs and conservative nature clash with Nidali. One day, he rips down her Wonder Woman stickers from her bedroom because he believes that such things are inappropriate for a Muslim girl.

Baba believes that Mama neglects her duties as a housewife because she spends too much time playing piano. Mama and Baba get into a huge fight that ends with Baba stranding Mama in the desert. She eventually finds her way back home and declares that she is keeping the piano.

The summer Nidali turns 11, her family flies to Egypt for her aunt’s wedding. There, she spends time with her cousin, who explains the concept of virginity and sex to her.

Nidali studies for the entrance exam for secondary school. During the exam, instead of writing an essay, she writes a creative story. Afterward, she finds out her results: She was placed in the highest-level class. During secondary school, she continues to write imaginative stories instead of doing her assignments. She often receives detention as punishment for this. In detention, she meets a boy named Fakhr. They begin dating in secret, sneaking around the school to spend time together and kiss.

Iraq invades Kuwait, beginning the Gulf War. One day, despite the war raging around them, Nidali convinces her mom to let her visit her friend, Rama. During her visit, Nidali and Rama start to have a sexual encounter, but then they jump apart and pretend nothing happened.

At the start of Part 2, Nidali and her family flee the country, traveling through Jordan to Egypt. In Egypt, she runs into Fakhr on the street, and they decide to become boyfriend and girlfriend and continue seeing each other in secret. Nidali explores her sexuality with Fakhr. She also continues to explore her queer identity, kissing her friend Jiji behind closed doors.

The war ends, but Nidali’s family is barred from returning to Kuwait because they are Palestinian. Baba searches for a job elsewhere and finds one in Texas. The family moves to America at the start of Part 3. Nidali initially struggles to fit in. She finds the move to America to be more culturally challenging than the family’s move to Egypt. Eventually, she makes friends with a few girls at school.

Mama flourishes in Texas, making lots of friends and connecting with her neighbors. She begins teaching piano lessons and opens her own bank account. By contrast, Baba keeps his life relatively small and monotonous and focuses only on work and his dream of building his own house.

Nidali and Fakhr write letters back and forth until Baba discovers them and forbids Nidali from writing to Fakhr. In defiance, Nidali runs away. She calls her parents, withholding her location as she tries to negotiate with her father. Baba does not relax his rules on dating but does adjust her curfew by one hour.

A boy from school sexually assaults Nidali. He later spreads rumors at school about her and sends a letter to her house. When Baba reads this letter, he beats Nidali and chases her around the house with a knife. Nidali goes to the police and takes Baba to court, but she eventually drops the charges. As she narrates these traumatic events, Nidali’s perspective shifts between first person, second person, and third person, and the verb tenses shift between past and present tense.

As Nidali applies to colleges, Baba only allows her to consider local schools. However, she rebels by secretly applying to one school in Boston.

One day, Nidali goes over to a classmate’s place to study with him and ends up having sex with him. At home, she contemplates the experience of losing her virginity. While she initially feels fearful and panicked, she decides that the fact that she is not a virgin does not matter, because she would never want to marry anyone who would judge her for that anyway.

The bank approves Baba for a mortgage. Nidali receives a letter from the college in Boston and hides it in the bushes. She opens it weeks later and finds out that she was accepted.

Baba forbids her from going, so she runs away for 10 days. Mama spends those 10 days looking for Nidali, and most of her hair turns white. Nidali returns home and Baba yells at her, but he eventually softens. The narrative implies that Baba finally allows Nidali to go to college in Boston. The night before Nidali leaves, Mama gives her a box of love letters from Mama’s and Baba’s courtship. She tells Nidali to never forget them. Nidali ends the narration by recounting an anecdote about a pen.

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