The American Dream is portrayed in any number of novels, often from the perspective of the struggle to reach it, but In the Language of Miracles Samir and Nagla Al-Menshawy are Egyptians who have already achieved the dream. He is a doctor and they live in a nice New Jersey suburb with their three children. They have been close friends with their next-door neighbors the Bradstreets for the last decade and their oldest son, Hosaam, dates the Bradstreet’s daughter, Natalie. They are assimilated, a part of their community, right up until Hosaam shoots Natalie and then himself. The novel begins one year after the shooting and five days before the Bradstreets and the community hold a memorial for Natalie.
In the Language of Miracles provides an intimate look into the private life of the Al-Menshawys. Despite having lived in the U.S. for over twenty years much of their lives is still rooted in their past. After Hosaam’s death Nagla struggles to come to grips with the loss of her son and his actions. What was a comforting routine of socializing and girl time with Cynthia Bradstreet is now lonely days spent avoiding her and largely staying at home with only her old-fashioned mother for company. For Nagla, Hosaam’s act is a direct reflection on her parenting and she slips into an increasing depression trying to decipher where she went wrong with her oldest son. For Samir, no such reflection is necessary. Hosaam perpetrated a grievous wrong but after initial apologies Samir is now certain that by getting involved in the memorial, by reminding the citizens of their community that they too have suffered, it will put an end to the increasing isolation and discrimination his family has faced.
While the adults try and muddle their way through the days leading up to the memorial, seventeen-year-old Khaled wants only for it to be forgotten. For him, his old life ended that day, when his social media accounts exploded in vitriol and all but one of his friends stopped talking to him. He shut everything down and only engages online in a made-up persona to avoid anyone recognizing him as a Hosaam’s brother. He will always be the killer’s brother. His fear is compounded by his brother’s final words to him:
“ …I want you to remember one thing: I want you to remember that you’re my little brother, that you’ll always be my little brother, and that we’re just alike, you and I. We’re just alike.”
This psychological weight colors every action he takes so that even when he meets a nice girl he cannot let her know his real identity. That he is also more American than Egyptian in his cultural make-up means that he is the conduit between his parents and everyone around them, putting him in the untenable position of trying to reason with his father about what is appropriate and what will only make things worse.
Although fiction, In the Language of Miracles is a timely study in cultural differences. On the surface the Al-Menshawys are progressive Muslims. Samir imposes no restrictions on his wife—she smokes, wears skinny jeans and is a licensed pharmacist. And yet, their culture is engrained in them. Nagla’s approach to being a wife and mother is strongly influenced by her mother who has visited from Egypt since the children were young and is now living with them. She places expectations on her daughter, especially regarding her role as wife that Nagla tries to meet but that only create a growing disconnect between her American life and Middle Eastern upbringing. As for Samir there is no malice in his actions nor is he an unintelligent man but his upbringing is such that he cannot accept he doesn’t understand the ways of his new country. As the man, the head of the household, no matter the cost, he cannot be wrong so his entire family lies to him down to the smallest detail. He builds on these lies a thicker and thicker wall of stubbornness and intolerance. His way is the only right way even when all the evidence suggests otherwise. His perceptions of America are so skewed by what he has been fed by those trying to keep him emotionally full and content that he truly believes going to the memorial is a good idea.
Author Rajia Hassib’s piercing eye brings to the forefront the cultural and religious differences of things unfamiliar to us and yet all too real as our communities expand and change. She opens the door to a world of beauty and ritual that, while it may be unlike ours, shares more similarities than differences when it comes to the fundamentals of family life. Throughout In the Language of Miracles her ability to navigate such psychologically and socially fraught territory with grace and compelling prose means that ultimately stereotypes are stripped away and all that is left is the compassion we too often forget.