by Sonali Kudva
Amina, the novel’s protagonist, is an Egyptian-American girl. She has normal dreams and aspirations like all young women. Her parents are conservative, but not stiflingly so. She goes away to college, and that’s where the novel really begins.
Hend Hegazi, the author of “Normal Calm,” addresses issues of race and searching for a personal identity, while remaining true to oneself, and to the tenets of the Muslim faith.
Amina is not preachy, but she remains firm and true to what she believes and feels. As I went through this journey with her, I realized I would like to know her and call her my friend. That is the highest compliment I could pay a fictional character.
Amina is raped by someone she considers a friend and a brother. She deals with this trauma in a manner that caught me by surprise. She confides the details to her parents, her friends and then moves on with her life. She later meets a man, falls in love, and confides the details of her past to him, only to realize that a rape victim is unacceptable to him.
In many eastern cultures, virginity is a prized possession, given by a woman to her husband on their wedding night. It is a sign of purity, and of loyalty to one man. But really, is virginity something worth rejecting the love of your life? Hegazi uses the novel to wrestle with this question, and others, dealing with them with sensitivity and faith. There is a very strong thread of hope and faith that binds this story together.
Amina moves on from her failed engagement, to focus on her career. There are obstacles. She is a hijabi, and thus, encounters the prejudices against those who choose to veil, or display the tenets of their faith in dress and manner. But Hegazi does not dwell on this issue, or dig deep in this; it is not the focus of the novel after all. Instead, she uses devices like this to make Amina more real to the reader.
Kayla, Amin’s best friend, believe it or not, is a white-American girl from a broken home. Kayla drifts from one man to another and has no steady faith to guide her. The two girls could not be more different. And yet, she is Amina’s loyal friend, who drops everything to drive three hours to console her after the rape. She also plays cupid to find Amina’s next romantic possibility.
The new man is an Egyptian-American dentist with ties to the old country. Amina wrestles with the questions that so many young modern South Asian women encounter with romantic relationships: Do love and chemistry follow or precede marriage? Are you settling for stability? Should you?
In the course of her journey, Amina comes face-to-face with her rapist again, who offers to marry her to make things “right.” This is an interesting plot device. However, more than that, it exposes how many rape victims in Eastern countries end up with their rapists, after being labelled “tainted” and “impure” in societies that prize virginity, and equate it with purity.
While Hegazi doesn’t address or debate these issues, by lightly touching upon them, she creates awareness of the issues that pervade certain societies and cultures. And in the end, she provides hope for a better future for her characters, despite these obstacles, leaving the reader suffused with a sense of optimism.
When I picked up “Normal Calm,” I wasn’t sure what to expect. I read the blurb, and I figured I would give it a chance. And, I’m glad I did. Hegazi’s story featuring Amina is an easy read. Fans of the religious romance genre will certainly appreciate it.