Books

Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

A Girl Made of Dust

by Nathalie Abi-Ezzi

“Abi-Ezzi walks the delicate tightrope between man’s inhumanity and the power and strength family members must draw upon in order to survive. . . . In turn hopeful and despairing . . . Beautifully written, lyrical, with vivid, sensual descriptions that are sophisticated yet completely believable as experienced and retained by a child.” —Publishers Weekly

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 256
  • Publication Date July 13, 2010
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4487-4
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $14.00
  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Publication Date July 14, 2009
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-9988-1
  • US List Price $14.00

About The Book

The latest in a run of best-selling literary novels about children in politically turbulent settings—from Hisham Matar’s In the Country of Men to Uzodinma Iweala’s Beasts of No Nation to Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner—Nathalie Abi-Ezzi’s A Girl Made of Dust is a sophisticated exploration of one family’s private battle to survive in the midst of civil war.

In her peaceful town outside Beirut, Ruba is slowly awakening to the shifting contours within her household: hardly speaking and refusing to work, her father has inexplicably withdrawn from his family in favor of his favorite armchair; her once-youthful mother looks so sad that Ruba imagines her heart must have withered like a fig in the heat; and Ruba’s brother, Naji, has started to spend less time with Ruba in order to meet with older boys, some of whom carry guns. When Ruba decides that to salvage her family she must first save her father, she uncovers a secret from his past that will send her on a journey away from the safe fantasies of youth and into a brutal reality where men kill in the name of faith and race, past wrongs remain unforgiven, and where nothing less than courageous acts of self-sacrifice and unity can offer survival.

As Israeli troops invade Beirut and danger moves ever closer, Ruba realizes that she alone may not be able to keep her loved ones safe, and it is up to her father to shed the shackles of his past and lead his family to a better future.

A Girl Made of Dust is a coming-of-age story sparked, but not consumed, by violence and loss. This strikingly assured and poetic debut captures both a country and a childhood plagued by a conflict that even at its darkest and most threatening, carries the promise of healing and retribution.

Tags Literary

Praise

“A subtle, pertinent depiction of civilian life in the midst of bewildering conflict.” —Catherine Taylor, The Guardian

“Abi-Ezzi deftly tells this story through Ruba’s eyes, allowing the reader to experience her loss of innocence as she learns of the complexities of the world. Highly recommended.” —Library Journal (starred review)

“Abi-Ezzi walks the delicate tightrope between man’s inhumanity and the power and strength family members must draw upon in order to survive. . . . In turn hopeful and despairing . . . Beautifully written, lyrical, with vivid, sensual descriptions that are sophisticated yet completely believable as experienced and retained by a child.” —Publishers Weekly

“[A] haunting story that raises elemental global issues that are part of headlines today.” —Hazel Rochman, Booklist

“In lean, lyrical prose, the author juxtaposes scenes of everyday pleasure with surrealist horrors to depict coming of age in the line of fire. Part folk tale, part reportage, this moving portrait achieves a dark poetry.” —Kirkus Reviews

“[A] powerful, poetic debut novel . . . Ruba is a delightful and precocious narrator . . .
[reminiscent of] Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. . . . Both graceful and wise, [A Girl Made of Dust is] a simple narrative that lets the pure vision of childhood speak for itself . . . [and] makes a reader wonder: If more Rubas found their voices, might there not be less war?” —Marjorie Kehe, Christian Science Monitor

“Subtle and unique.” —Mary-Liz Shaw, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

“Abi-Ezzi’s exquisitely affecting debut novel, A Girl Made of Dust, not only conjures a fully-realized and vividly-populated world via the perspective of an eight-year-old girl, but adroitly plays on her ingenuousness to subtly convey its themes, namely the senselessness of religious conflict and the elusive importance of responsibility and forgiveness. . . . Abi-Ezzi portrays the inhumanity of the violence that devastated Lebanon without a tub-thumping agenda. . . . Page-turningly suspenseful . . . A Girl Made of Dust is equally gripping as a poignant family drama and as a visceral depiction of living with war literally crashing on your doorstep. The local sounds, smells, and sights are astonishingly well-rendered, with transportingly-textured details that nevertheless are wholly convincing as the impressions of a young child.” —Words Without Borders

“In her affecting and assured first novel, Nathalie Abi-Ezzi lyrically evokes village life in rural Lebanon during civil war.” —Anna Mundow, Boston Globe

“Vivid and unflinching, A Girl Made of Dust portrays the deterioration of a family and a war-torn town from the perspective of a candidly charming and astute eight-year-old girl. Nathalie Abi-Ezzi’s prose is evocative, radiant, and lyrical. This poignant and gripping debut virtually crackles with urgency and compassion.” —Kiara Brinkman, author of Up High in the Trees

“I could not put this down—A Girl Made of Dust is at once tender and tragic and Nathalie wonderfully evokes that transient aspect of childhood where everything is possible. It is a book that begs to be re-read . . . [and one] you can’t help but think about long after you finish. A truly remarkable story.” —Patricia Wood, author of Lottery, short-listed for The 2008 Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction

“Nathalie Abi-Ezzi’s debut novel, A Girl Made of Dust, is a timely reminder of the agonies thousands of Lebanese families had to go through during the years of the Lebanese Civil War. . . . Through Ruba’s worries about her family, Abi-Ezzi skillfully introduces the reader to a life in fear of bombs and stray bullets, as well as to how new hope can be born from affliction.” —Ingrid Lamprecht, Socialist Review (UK)

Awards

Winner of the Liberatur Prize (Germany)

Excerpt

The August sun shone like Jesus, and across the road, large black flies worried the thin dogs and cats that stepped among the rubbish or leapt on to the garbage drums. At midday, sweating shopkeepers pulled down their shutters, went home to have lunch and rest, and the afternoon slump set in. People and plants wilted together; only the pine trees remained upright, like soldiers, in the heat. Dust rose and settled whenever a car chugged slowly uphill, cats and young women yawned, and the town waited for the shadows to grow long.

I didn’t want to be alone in the house with Papi, so I stayed on the porch that ran three-quarters of the way round the building. I slid down to the floor and sat with my back to the wall.

Mami always said that time passed quickly, and maybe it did in other places—in Beirut or on the beach or in the Roman temples at Baalbek that were in our history books at school, or at the top of the snowiest mountain—but here in Ein Douwra, it went slowly.

The Rose Man came down the stairs onto the far end of the porch, smiled at his roses as he walked past them, and carried on up the hill, easing himself from foot to foot, lifting and settling his stick, stopping at every fifth or sixth step to rest and look around. He was slow, and time moved even slower than he did. It had taken for ever to get to 1981, and would take for ever again to reach my eighth birthday.

Finally there was a crunch of gravel and Mami appeared, sweating and red-faced, weighed down with bags of shopping. Naji came behind, carrying two more and stamping his feet in time to a song he was chanting. He followed Mami into the house, and a minute later came back out again. “What happened to you?” he asked, looking at my cuts.

I turned first one way and then the other to show Naji the best ones.

“What happened?”

“I fell down that ledge in the forest, the steep one.” I pointed the short distance down the slope to where the trees were singing, their chirps stitched together in an endless row. The forest was the best place to be, with its green pine needles and grasses, its brown trunks and rock, its bright coloured flowers, gleaming insects, thorn bushes, and the dry red earth of its narrow paths. “The skin tore as I slid down. There are still bits of grit in, see?” I poked at the black specks on my knee.

Naji’s eyebrows rose as if he didn’t believe me.

“I did! I tried to get hold of some roots but I couldn’t.”

“What was at the bottom, if you fell?”

“There were all sorts of things—twigs, a rusty can and pine-cones.” My fingers still smelt of the young cones that had been hard and green with a silver diamond on each scale. “And then I found . . .”

His eyes lit up. “What?”

“Nothing. When I got back and you and Mami weren’t here, I went to Teta’s, and she touched me all over to check that every bit of me was still there. It tickled! And there was blood on my shirt from the cut on my shoulder. It looked like a flower—it got bigger . . . like a rose!—and then Teta put spirit on my scratches, which hurt even more than falling over.”

But Naji was two years older than me and wasn’t interested in such things. He went inside. When he came back he was carrying a Matchbox car, his bag of marbles and the blue tin box that lived on the top shelf of his bookcase where I couldn’t reach. He kept his most precious things in it.

“Teta said it was the Virgin who stopped me dying when I fell.”

He stroked the little white sports car. “It’s a Lamborghini. Look.” He flicked the doors so they opened upwards, then closed them again.

“Do you think it’s true, Naji?”

He ran the car quickly across one palm so the wheels whizzed. “No. The Virgin Mary’s not here at all. Didn’t you hear how they saw her in a building site in Beirut?”

“Who saw her?”

“Just people. Gabriel’s mother told us. She said miracles were happening just twenty kilometres down the road from here in Beirut.”

“But Teta doesn’t lie.”

He shrugged.

A rumble of shelling was coming from somewhere as Naji emptied his pockets to see if there was anything precious to add to the box. There was a long piece of string with knots tied in it, his old penknife, a little block of wood with a hole bored through it, a round of caps and some more marbles.

“I’ve got a marble too,” I said.

Naji’s black eyebrows lowered. “Where is it? When did you get it?”

“Today. I found it.” It was still in my pocket, warm from being against me all afternoon. “Here!” I plopped it into his hand.

He gasped. The glass eye jumped up and down twice in his palm. I sat on my heels and laughed.

“Where did you get it?”

I told him how I’d found it in the forest, and he turned it over, examining it closely. It looked funny lying in his hand without a body round it, and I thought about people being made up of separate parts—ears and fingers, hair and bellybuttons.

“Do you think it’s hers?”

He glanced up. “Whose?”

Hers!

He peered more closely, as if it might have her name on it. “The witch?”

I nodded.

“Probably.”

Ever since we were old enough to think, we’d known she’d put a spell on Papi to make him the way he was.

“I know!” I cried. “It’s the evil eye!”

Naji looked doubtful. “Maybe.”

“She’s probably got more than one so she can swap them round depending who she wants to put the evil eye on. Big eyes for big curses and little ones for smaller curses—a drawer full, rolling about when she opens it!”

Naji sighed, which meant he didn’t think I knew anything. “There’s only one evil eye,” he said, “but if it is hers she can’t put a curse on us because we’ve got it.” His face lit up. “Like a miracle. Miracles are always happening.”

“What other miracles happen?”

He put the glass eye to his, maybe to find out if he could see with it. “Mar Sharbel.”

“What’s he ever done?”

“He’s our saint and there’s always stuff about him, how sick people get better.”

The sound of shelling, which was always in the background, came again, carried on the still air. “How?”

He waved his hand, as if there were too many instances to remember. “If they’re blind they grow new eyes, or new legs if they can’t walk.”

But we weren’t missing any legs, arms, eyes or even teeth.

We were only missing Papi.

Mami talked to herself—made noises, her face twisted, frowning or sad: the slight sucking in of breath when she cut herself, the annoyed “tut” when she was rolling up fatayir into parcels and the dough wouldn’t stick together, the “ach” when she straightened up from making beds, the long sigh, like the sea, when she sat down at the end of the day. She even talked to the chicken when she was preparing it for the oven, sympathetically as if she was sorry. And then there was the sound of her: the rustle of the underskirt against her legs, the clack of her wooden slippers, the tinkling of her two gold bangles, the click of her hips as she shifted from one foot to the other, the tiny tick when she bit down on hairpins while she was coiling her hair.

Papi was as quiet as a stone.

Perhaps Mami liked to cook because the kitchen talked back to her: the bubble and hiss of the pots, the crushing and chopping that came from the board, the clatter and tinkle of knives and glasses, the creak of the table, the whirr of the fridge, and the tlup-tlup-tlup of the dripping tap.

Naji must have left footprints when he left to go to Gabriel’s because the stretch of kitchen floor between the dining room and the porch door was newly cleaned and wet. I almost sent a tray crashing to the white-tiled floor.

“Be careful, ya Ruba!”

There were trays everywhere—along the counter and gas hob, on top of the fridge, on two chairs Mami had brought in from the dining room all covered with pastry dough.

“Why are you cooking so many?”

Mami’s face was red from the heat as she wiped her hands on a cloth. “They won’t make much in the end.” Sweat had settled on her upper lip, and she wiped it off with a downward sweep of her forefinger.

“Are they all the same?”

She nodded and started to roll out a new square. Then she lifted it onto her knuckles and, elbows spread sideways, stretched it so thin I could see her face through it. Three times it tore and had to be mended, but finally she cut it up and piled layers of dough on top of each other, brushing them with butter and sprinkling nuts as she went. Several ripped, and a ragged ball of useless skin-like pastry grew.

“Here—chop these nice and fine.” Flour smeared her face as she brushed her hair back with her arm.

It was hard to chop the pistachios. One flew up and hit the saint on the calendar that hadn’t been turned for two months. Another spun out onto the floor.

“Patience. Patience will extract sugar from a lemon.”

I rolled a nut between my fingers. “How?”

But she didn’t answer. Two trays came out of the oven and two more went in, the layers of filo, like dragonfly wings, that crackled when I touched them.

Mami wasn’t taking any notice. She was arranging more pastry on a tray. She was bent low and her hair was like a giant snail sitting on the back of her head. Then, as I stepped up close, her eyes widened. “Ruba, what happened?” A loose strand of her hair tickled my cheek as she leant down, her eyes round and black-rimmed. The light from the window showed specks of flour floating next to her ear in the thick heat.

“I fell. It’s all right, Teta put spirit on them,” I explained.

She checked me quickly, then carried on working and moving among the jigsaw puzzle of trays. The green of her dress was dark under the armpits, and her arms wobbled in the heat from the oven.

From the living room came the faint tack-tack-tack of Papi’s worry beads passing through his thumb and finger one by one, again and again and again.

“Mami, why do you cook all the time?”

“It keeps my thoughts busy.”

“Is that why you didn’t notice my cuts?”

She looked worried. “Yes.”

After the cooking came the washing. Then the clothes were hung out on the porch and Mami watered the fuchsias, marigolds and geraniums set out against the walls. She flickered in and out of the sun as she passed behind the hanging clothes, and water spilled out dark from the bottom of the pots. Mami was good at taking care of things, at making sure they had enough food and water. Thin streams slid across the porch and into the gutter. They oozed out from the bottom of every pot except for that of the leaning cactus tied to a pole that stood alone in the corner. Mami didn’t like it and kept hoping it would die, but it wouldn’t. She didn’t want to throw it away, but she didn’t want to water it either. Perhaps her heart had dried out and withered in the heat like a fig. For a moment I pictured it, purple and shrunken, inside her chest. “Mami, when will you water the cactus?”

She glanced over her shoulder. “I don’t know. Soon.”

“How soon?”

The plastic washing-line creaked but there was no answer. She gave the last few drops to the fuchsia, while further along the wall, the earth round the cactus stayed cracked and hard.

Papi watched silently from his armchair as I crossed the living room, his large dark eyes fixed on me; except for them, he didn’t move. A woman was singing out of the little radio he kept on the shelf near his chair.

“They put up roadblocks,
They dimmed all the signs,
They planted cannons,
They mined the squares.
Where are you, love?
After you we became the love that screams.”

I found a book and sat on the sofa. Above my picture of Ali Baba with the forty thieves, Papi’s face looked even more square than usual—a big brown square but for the funny reddish mark on his forehead, like shoe polish, that I had always wanted to rub off. And all the time, the tack-tack-tack of his worry beads.

The woman was still singing—”It is the second summer, the moon is broken“—and Papi was staring at the cuts on my legs.

“I fell, that’s all. It didn’t hurt much.”

There were black hairs on his arms where the shirt was rolled up, on the backs of the hands and above each knuckle; and below that, on his toes in their black leather slippers, on the big ones and the smaller ones lined up in a neat row beside them.

“You must be careful.”

” . . . O love of days, they will come back, Beirut, the days will come back . . .

The reddish mark over his eyebrow seem bigger now. It reminded me of what Soeur Therese had said last time she came in to school to teach us about God and the Bible, watching through her glasses with eyes that saw everything, ready to use the telling-off voice that came straight out of her nose. She talked about Cain and Abel, and how the bad brother had a mark on his head.

In the vase on the table the plastic flowers were dusty, and the smell of burnt pastry hung in the air. Papi had turned into a statue with its eyes fixed on the floor. When he lifted his head again he seemed surprised that I was still there. As I left, it came to me that he was like the cactus. He sat in the corner all hard and dry, as though someone had forgotten to water him.

Reading Group Guide

Guide by Barbara Putnam

1. How are our reactions to A Girl Made of Dust conditioned by events in the Middle East in recent years? Are there clear-cut rights and wrongs between the Israelis and the Palestinians and the Lebanese? (Comparing the atrocities committed by all three sides, the Rose Man observes, “But then they all do that, all of them. It’s a man who pulls the trigger, not a flag. There is no good side and bad side in this” (p. 134). How much do you know about events in Lebanon in 1982? (See Thomas L. Friedman in From Beirut to Jerusalem for useful background.)

2. What is the significance of the title? “Chipped red polish on her left thumbnail where she’d been sucking it. She was old to be still sucking her thumb. And the rest of her was covered in sand and dirt—hair, arms, legs. It was on her eyelashes, round her mouth, and in the single crease on her throat. She was nothing but a girl made of dust” (p. 111). How does the story of the Dust Girl resonate in the life of Papi? Why does it haunt Ruba? How are children shown as victims throughout the book? Do you see Ruba as a victim even though she herself is not physically hurt (except in her initial fall in the forest)?

3. “I will show you fear in a handful of dust” is a line from T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, the great poem about a sterile, wasted land of war. A Girl Made of Dust is filled with images that relate Eliot’s post-WW I poem to Lebanon of the 1980s. How do Ruba’s descriptions of a thirsty, dried up land and people capture a disillusioned world? From the degraded land (bulldozers and dynamite) to a cactus in the corner that Mami wishes would die, we see that in this child’s eyes, things are seriously awry. Give other examples. Ruba worries that her mother’s heart has dried up like a desiccated fig.

4. “I didn’t want to be alone in the house with Papi” (p. 4). From the start, Papi is a sad but frightening outcast. How does his birthmark symbolize his position? Link him with Cain? If he is a marked man, what has marked him? “Papi had turned into a statue with its eyes fixed on the floor . . . it came to me he was like the cactus. He sat in the corner all hard and dry, as though someone had forgotten to water him” (p. 12). What makes this image especially sharp in a dry Mediterranean country?

5. What is the core of the conflict between Mami and Papi? Mami’s anger? What has caused Papi’s clinical depression and withdrawal? How has Mami’s fear and unhappiness affected her mothering? It is a complex relationship. “I saw Papi twitch as though a mosquito had landed on his cheek, but his eyes didn’t move from the carpet” (p. 22). Do we have any hope at this point for their reuniting? “. . . It’s only since you left us that everything’s changed. I don’t know what we’ve become, or what I’ve become. I don’t know myself any longer. . . . I saw Papi reach up and touch Mami’s cheek. ‘I know you.’ But she turned away sharply” (p. 171).

6. What is Papi’s history as a parent? In what ways does he fail his children? How does he contribute to their character, despite himself? When war lands near his doorstep, how does Papi try to become re-engaged in rearing children, especially Naji? “‘Other boys’ parents,’ exploded Papi, ‘are either too stupid or too heartless to care what their children do. . . . Everyone in this country’s going mad, mad with the taste of blood.’” (p. 146). Are the fears of this father justified? How does Naji react?

7. In contrast to the frozen Papi and abstracted Mami, who are the more nurturing adults for Ruba? Talk about Teta, Ali, and the Rose Man. What does Wadih bring into the children’s lives? Are teachers perceived as nurturing?

8. How is the prison motif important to the novel? Are some characters in prisons of their own making? Which ones? Would you include Latifeh, Tati’s friend? Amal? Is school seen as a prison by the children? When the children visit the aromatic nut shop, they are struck by “the brilliant colours of sweets, chocolates and drinks . . . the prettiest place in town” (p. 15). But another image is juxtaposed: “A moment later Ali appeared behind a metal grille above the door in his white cotton vest, looking out as if it was the first time he’d ever seen the world.” How does being behind bars suggest Ali’s status in a Christian community?

9. This is a Christian family, but how important actually is formal religion to the family? For Teta? Ruba asks, “But Teta, what does it mean, being a Muslim? Is it bad?” (p. 84). How does religion lead to conflict in the family? Talk about Ruba’s sly observing of church in pages 16-17. And look at Teta reassuring Ruba that the Virgin Mary (the plastic statue whose inner holy water Ruba later drinks off) would have saved her, no matter what, in her fall. “Is that her job? Is that what she does?” “Does? . . . She’s not a belly dancer, child, she’s the mother of Christ” (p. 2).

10. After Naji is wounded, Papi cries, “Idiots, all of them, burn their religion!”(p. 173). Does he have a point? Is Papi’s disaffection from the church due to his own depression, a kind of agoraphobia about the town and being seen in church? Or is it a part of his own mordant view of politics and adversarial religions in his world? Does Abi-Ezzi offer not only sympathy for believers (her mother and grandmother) but also some sense of the mystery and power of Christianity for these people?

11. What are the pictures of childhood in the book? Freedom to explore? Friendship? What do we see of the cruelty children are capable of? Consider the encounter of the boys (including Naji) with Karim and Ruba when they have been collecting snails. How do the children treat the mysterious Amal? In Jbeil children play at adult prejudice when “two bullies were teasing Karim, pulling his hair and blocking his way. ‘You can’t get past—we’re Crusaders, and you’re a Muslim barbarian. . . . Let’s shoot the invader’” (p. 76).

12. Abi-Ezzi has a gift for high comedy—even in a book that often tells of family dislocation and loss. “Juhaina and Mami kissed each other on the cheeks three times—mwah, mwah, mwah—although Juhaina only kissed air” (p. 194). Who is this woman? “After flashing her teeth at me and Naji she looked about her in a way that made me embarrassed about the house and the things in it. She looked at Papi in exactly the same way” (p. 195). So far, does Ruba just feel wary? (Why is vulnerability often fertile ground for comic activity? ). How does Juhaina take the bit in her teeth like Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice? She draws invidious comparisons with other people’s children, spurns local coffee in favor of Nescafe, and has trained her husband to respect her poor nerves. It is a marvelous, funny, and chilling vignette.

13. The past: How are knowing about and accepting the past central to this book? Is this process necessary for a people? For individuals? Which characters are particularly haunted, and how do they resolve it, if they do? As Ruba peels back the layers of mystery, do you find her a reliable narrator? Is there a gap between appearance and reality? Some characters suppress or evade the truth. Does Ruba? Do you ever find her self-serving in her narrative?

14. In contrast to the battered picture of a country at war, how does Abi-Ezzi evoke a beloved Lebanon, even a land of milk and honey? The descriptions are often vivid (Ruba is a keen observer) and enchanting (the fairy tale motifs, especially). These are a child’s memories, from the down-the-rabbit-hole fall in the forest chasm to the witch and her spells, and Ruba hopes to discover the mysteries of the past and the magic that will cure them all.

15. Does her fall precipitate Ruba’s coming-of-age story? Fairy tales might be seen as a necessary alternate reality, like dreams. How does the glass eye become a talisman? What does she learn later in her return to a ruined forest (pp. 211-212)? Think about the “curse” on Papi and that on Ali with his ruined nuts. When Ruba listens to Mami singing, “It was a beautiful voice, and she was like a princess going round and round sweeping—round and round until one day something wonderful would happen, and then she’d sing all the time” (pp. 21-22). One mordant fairy tale allusion is to Hansel and Gretel’s “leaving a trail of breadcrumbs to show the way home,” except the analogy is to “the Israelis forcing their way along the coast . . . leaving a trail of corpses” (p. 133). How can a child make sense of the horrors of war except through her imagination? Catastrophe has struck her parents as war has torn her country.

16. “I looked at Papi’s empty chair. He’d let me touch his scar, answered my questions, made me laugh. Yes, everything seemed to be changing. It was a strange sensation, as if everything was connected and I couldn’t see how. Suddenly I wanted to sit in his chair. Maybe if I sat in it I would understand” (p. 109). What is her dual fall from innocence here? (Naji?) “It wasn’t sealed, so I took out what was inside” (p. 111). What does Ruba learn? One other time Ruba gives into fear and ignorance and compromises herself at the Witch’s house. What does she do, and how does she later try to ease her conscience? (see p. 122). Why does Teta say, “It’s time I let the skin heal over my anger”? (p. 123).

17. Annie Proulx has said, “For me, the story falls out of a place, its geology and climate, the flora, fauna, prevailing winds, the weather.” Would you agree that spirit of place provides a background for the love and loss that are happening in Lebanon? Beirut is a legendary destination for these small-town people from Ein Douwra. “We stood beside the church, gazing down at the terraces of olive and almond trees. Naji said the Phoenicians made them, but when I asked who they were, he wasn’t sure. Below and further away, Beirut lay spread out along the coast like grey and white Lego, the sea glinting beside it” (p. 16). How do the smells and sights of the forest comfort Ruba? And cooking—almonds and dried fruit, wheat, onions and pine nuts, fennel, anise, cinnamon?

18. How would you describe the tone of A Girl made of Dust? Part of it surely is elegiac, ringing a bell to mourn the passing of a finer time in Lebanon and the Middle East in general. What are the things that have been lost for these people? Peace and prosperity have surely been shredded, but aren’t these people who have known hard times before? (Think of the forced migrations to Nigeria to find work).

19. Is one of the most precious things lost the friendship and tolerance between Muslims and Christians? How do the family friendships with Ali and Karim exemplify an earlier, gentler time? Is there any indication that Jews have been accepted by Muslims or Christians?

20. What is it that causes Ruba’s family to want to leave their country? Is it the general chaos and brutality of war? Feeling threatened as Christians? Even if they manage to leave Lebanon, like some of their friends, what does Ruba’s family have to look forward to?

21. Meaning emerges in this book partly through the juxtaposition of images. That meaning is enlarged by echoes of earlier writers, such as T. S. Eliot (see question #3). Are you reminded of others? Abi-Ezzi mourns the decay of civilization in this war-torn land, as rockets, bulldozers and looters gouge the land. “The shelling was further away today, a dull rumble like the quarrying in the forest” (p. 176). Note how the sound imagery links the war with aggravated assaults on the land.

22. How is Uncle’s story (one of survival, he would say) a reflection of the moral ambiguities in this land? Trace the pattern of lies: Ruba’s to Naji and Naji’s to the family, and Uncle’s about his work in Beirut. How does his shooting flamingoes drive a dart into Ruba and lead into his story of a falcon killed for love . . . connected with the soapy yellow water streaming on the terrace? “It was Uncle who had brought fear out onto the veranda with him” (p. 64).

23. “One morning in mid-September, the world stopped moving. No trucks or cars drove up the hill, no cockerels crowed, no birds chirped. Not a cat, dog or insect moved” (p. 193). What has happened? “For the rest of the morning, Mami ironed in silence. Uncle, who hadn’t shaved, sat talking to Papi, and Papi slumped lower than ever in his chair” (p. 193). How does this cataclysm strike Americans with their own memories of disaster?

24. In pages 142-144, talk about Ruba’s fear of a glass eye of the imagined witch as it mutates into a very real menace, the armed helicopter bearing down on two small children. “They’d caught us. We’d been caught flying a kite on the church veranda where we shouldn’t have been. Perhaps someone had told them we were there, and now they were going to swivel those long side-guns round to point straight at us, one for me and one for Naji, and shoot us dead. And I would suddenly be under the rubble like the girl in the newspaper” (pp. 143-144).

25. What are the consequences of war in a child’s eye, such as the exodus of Karim’s family? When Ruba hears about her friend’s imminent departure, it is a shock: “Around her, the diamond pattern on the bedspread turned into a hundred sharp, separate islands” (p. 154). What other examples of wrenching and fragmentation appear in the book? Naji’s being hit is a dreadful irony evoking the Girl Made of Dust.

26. When the children hang “on the railing watching the planes fighting in the sky above” (p. 157), it is like watching horrors on television. Think of Lee Harvey Oswald being shot as the nation watched on a Sunday morning . . . or gazing at scud missiles and smart bombs in Desert Storm, like a violent video game. How does the reality become clouded by illusion?

27. Who are the villains of the book? Is it the thoughtless, militarist boys who attract Naji? Is it Israeli soldiers and terrorists? Papi through much of the book? How does Abi-Ezzi ask us to reconsider how we demonize the unknown?

28. Is this a hopeful book? For the family? For Lebanon? Why, or why not? We are thirty-five years up the road from these events. What has changed?

29. In this novel cast as memoir of vulnerable youth, Ruba is imaginative, curious, loving and shrewd. A Girl Made of Dust makes us think of books like Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time, Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club, and Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life. What other memoir-novels can you think of?

Suggestions for further reading:

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte; Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte; Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen; Great Expectations by Charles Dickens; The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald; The Outsider by Albert Camus; A Box of Matches by Nicholson Baker; Without Blood by Alessandro Baricco; Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson; The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields