The best books never leave you. You never really finish them. They become part of your story, lying dormant until something, anything, sparks the tinderbox of memory and, like a long-lost friend, you remember how much you loved them.
The Girl Who Fell To Earth by Sophia Al-Maria is, for me at least, one of those books. A searingly-honest memoir that redefined the way I think about the Arab world, Al-Maria‘s first foray into the world of publishing augers of great things to come. Her story is one of conflicting cultures, personal freedoms and, ultimately, a wading-through-treacle groping for identity. It’s an unvarnished account of a childhood which encompasses desert-dwelling Bedouin tribes, Pacific North West green valleys and Egyptian metropolises. But it’s Al-Maria’s ability to ally her unique life with the universal human experience that makes this book both exotic and achingly familiar.
“I felt a bit ridiculous writing a memoir,” says 30-year-old Al-Maria. “But it felt like an important thing to do. All over the world, there are people who are bi-cultural and they are confused about that. For me, for the most part [writing the book] was a jettisoning of all my youthful angst. In retrospect, there are things I might have softened or smoothed over.”
Both family saga and coming-of-age story, The Girl Who Fell To Earth is, according to acclaimed author Douglas Coupland, a book which “can easily alter the way you see the early 21st century”. It begins with a winking star as dusk falls across the Arabian Gulf, but the reader has to wait until Chapter 5 to meet Sophia, the self-confessed “bastard child” who is the product of a Bedouin boy named Matar and a Marlboro-smoking girl named Gale Valo from Tacoma. As Sophia’s story unfurls, we lurch from rainy Washington State to sun-drenched Qatar, and over to the sprawling chaos of Cairo. It’s a nomadic tale in the most modern sense of the word, and a journey that reaches its conclusion in the mountains of Sinai.
Al-Maria says: “I still don’t have a grasp of how many people have read my book, or how widely it has travelled. Occasionally I get a tweet or a Facebook message and that feels really special and exciting. But it’s really difficult to gauge. In many ways, I feel weirdly removed from it and have mixed feelings. It will be translated into Arabic in January, so that will be very interesting. We’re working on the translation now.”
In the meantime, Al-Maria has much to occupy her time. Her first solo exhibition, which has just finished at Manchester’s Cornerhouse, garnered positive reviews with critics calling Virgin with a Memory “a truly distinctive and stimulating piece” and “a powerful critical evaluation of the phenomenon of the male gaze”. The exhibition took its cue from Beretta, Al-Maria’s unfinished debut feature film.
The movie stalled in pre-production for three years having faced immense schedule, budget and legal complications. According to publicity material, Beretta, which is set in contemporary Egypt, is “an homage to cult cinema and a call to arms, a rape-revenge thriller following mute heroine Suad who embarks on a killing spree, murdering men who harass her and other women”.
As an artist, writer and film-maker, Al-Maria has exhibited her work around the world, including at major European art shows and in countries as far flung as South Korea and New Zealand. But Manchester was the first time she’d had the opportunity to do something on a larger scale. The exhibition included a new five-channel video installation and four pseudo-documentary works which related directly to the production of Beretta, as well as the publication of the novelised version of Beretta‘s script.
“I really loved the space at Cornerhouse,” says Al-Maria. “It’s a really special venue and is incredibly dynamic. It was such an exciting proposition.”
Al-Maria succeeded in turning an exhausting and abortive process of trying to make a film into a work of art that moved many people. But she is not resting on her laurels. For the past few years, she has been carrying out research around the concept of ‘Gulf Futurism’. I ask her what this means.
“In the Gulf, there is an on-going insane acceleration and growth, and it’s all happening in my lifetime. It’s an architectural metropolis horror story occurring now. I feel like an entire population, my father’s generation, has literally time-travelled into a strange new world. I wanted to have a term to describe what is going on…there is an intense pressure to expand and [that leads to] environmental degradation.
“This is all linked to globalisation and I feel that the Gulf is an extreme example of it. For that reason I feel it is futuristic. I mean, my father was born in the desert and he didn’t even have shoes until he was about ten years old. In ten years time, I think the rest of the world will look a lot more like the Gulf and that’s a tragedy.”