Title: Cairo In White
Author: Kelly Ann Jacobson
Release date: February 14, 2014
Publisher: Musa Publishing
Source: Review copy
Rating: 5 out of 5
Eighteen-year-old Zahra had been climbing over the wall to Jamila’s house and sneaking into her girlfriend’s room for years, but that night was different.
That night, as she crept through the Ahmeds’ house, she ran smack-dab into her parents. They were taking tea and arranging her marriage. But not to Jamila; love between two girls in 1986 Egypt was forbidden. Instead, Zahra will marry Jamila’s brother.
The only thing stronger than Zahra’s sense of independence is her loyalty to her family. And so she follows her head rather than her heart, committing herself to a brutish man she hardly knows on one condition: they move across an ocean, far from memories of true love, to a new world—one that, Zahra discovers, is far more accepting of her sexuality.
More than two decades later, 22-year-old Aisha greets the heat of her homeland for the first time. After growing up in the U.S. with only her mother to watch over her, Aisha is determined to find a family and a history in Egypt. But she discovers more than she bargained for.
Will Aisha find acceptance, even a home, in a culture that once rejected Zahra? Will Aisha be free to pursue the love that she finds in Egypt? And will Zahra ever rediscover love herself?
At this point I should note that I am a biased reader. Kelly is a writer friend of mine, and I’ve enjoyed watching this novel take shape. (But trust me: Friend or not, you would know if I didn’t like it. I’m not really known for holding back my opinions.)
Lucky for our friendship… I loved this book from start to finish. The writing is fabulous, but more importantly, the story’s central themes resonated deeply with me. How do you reconcile cultural taboos with what you know to be true about yourself? How do you manage your family’s expectations with what you really want and need?
Both Aisha and Zahra feel, for different reasons, like outsiders in a culture that is an irreplaceable part of them. The conflicts of growing up and growing into yourself, figuring out where you belong and who you are—these are universal struggles, and Cairo In White illustrates them beautifully.
One of my favorite exchanges occurs when Zahra asks Jamila why white is her favorite color. “There are so many beautiful colors to choose from, why would you choose the one that doesn’t count?” Zahra asks with the sweet thoughtlessness of youth. “Sometimes, the things that don’t count are the most beautiful of all,” her girlfriend responds. Indeed.
Zahra’s loss is clearly defined—she knows all too well what she has given up—while Aisha’s is vague, an indefinable lack—both of family support and purpose in life. Their interwoven narratives contrast identities—mother and daughter, traditional and modern, gay and straight, immigrant and emigrant—that are not so different as they seem. A low throb of heartache and loss run beneath the narrative, but so, too, does a bright vein of optimism.
The best stories fully ground the reader in a place. They make you miss somewhere you’ve never been. I can see it all now: the crowded markets, the women with jangling bracelets haggling with old vendors. The swish of cool fabric against hot skin, cigarette and shisha smoke blending and floating on a dry breeze.
Jacobson has a gift for descriptions—for pulling the reader on to the page and immersing her in an unfamiliar setting, whether on the streets of Cairo or in an immigrant neighborhood in Northern Virginia. I loved poetic descriptions like these:
Al Qahirah, or the city of a thousand minarets, had turned like a dried date. The streets were bruised with shadows, and empty sunflower shells littered the pathways like breadcrumbs through the dark.
The book is probably best described as a romance, although it could also be called new adult. I’ve been reading a lot of LGBTQI fiction lately, and have a special focus on new adult titles this year, so Cairo In White was a very satisfying read on those levels as well.
In all, I highly recommend it! I wouldn’t be surprised if this book found its way on to my Best of 2014 list in a few months.
Quote of Note:
Eventually, they would fade like paintings in the sun, just an outline and a wash of color against an ever-expanding white background.