Behind You Is the Sea, Susan Muaddi Darraj’s debut novel, brings readers into the lives of three Palestinian families in and around Baltimore: the Salamehs, the Baladis and the Ammars. Generational disputes form the core of the novel’s action, which unfolds through weddings, graduations, unplanned pregnancies and funerals. Women’s issues are also at the fore, as each of the novel’s chapters, which function as linked stories, reveal families both divided and united by class, gender and traditional values.
In the opening chapter, “A Child of Air,” teenage Reema Baladi resolves to keep her baby, while refusing to marry her Puerto Rican boyfriend. In “Mr. Ammar Gets Drunk at the Wedding,” Walid, patriarch of the wealthy Ammar family, despairs at the lack of Arab traditions at his oldest son’s wedding to an American. “Ride Along” focuses on a police officer, Marcus Salameh, and the rift between his father and his sister, Amal, over Amal’s perceived dishonor, a rupture which grows deeper after the death of their mother.
Darraj deftly explores class tensions in the titular chapter: When the Ammars employ young Maysoon Baladi as a housekeeper, she is shocked by the couple’s indolence and their spoiled teenage kids, but flirts openly with father and husband, Demetri. In a later chapter, Demetri’s daughter Hiba moves in with her grandparents after an embarrassing incident in college and an unspoken but deeply felt lack of support from her parents. The final chapter “Escorting the Body,” the only chapter not set in the United States, sees Marcus fulfilling his father’s wish to be buried in his Palestinian village, a visit which reveals dramatic secrets about the life he left behind.
Behind You Is the Sea draws a composite portrait of Palestinian American families with sensitivity and humor, its linked stories breaking down stereotypes and embracing complexity.