Sophia Al-Maria's memoir, "The Girl Who Fell to Earth," opens in the Arabian Peninsula in 1969. A Bedouin boy named Matar, of the Al-Dafira tribe, is mesmerized by a portable television that the members of his tiny settlement watch communally. When Matar is eighteen, he announces to his mother that he is going to Seattle, Washington. The fact that he speaks no English does not deter him. He dons a ridiculous "used polyester suit" (the slacks are salmon pink), flies to America, and ends up in a Tacoma, Washington bowling alley. There he meets Gale Valo, who happens to be sitting around waiting for a cousin. Improbably, these two people, who have nothing in common, end up marrying and having children, one of whom is the author.
Gale, who grew up on a farm in the Puyallup Valley, where her mother, Sophia, still lived, had no idea what she was getting into when she set her cap for Matar. Only later does Gale realize that she and her husband, whose background, language, and customs are radically different, could not realistically expect to live happily ever after. Not only does Matar insist that Gale convert to Islam, but he returns to the Gulf to seek his fortune. Gale and the kids eventually join him in Qatar, a move that proves disastrous. She says in a telephone call to her mother from the capital city of Doha, "I keep thinking this is how it must be for astronauts. All cooped up for months on end, not knowing which way is up."
"The Girl Who Fell to Earth" is about Sophia's efforts to fit in either in Qatar or Washington. When she was five and saw a video that her father sent from overseas, Sophia said, "having a second world to belong to immediately made me cast doubt on my place in the first." As she grows older and becomes rebellious, it is increasingly clear to Sophia that she is an alien, in the sense that there is nowhere on earth where she feels at home. In desperation, Gale, who is back in Washington, sends twelve-year-old Sophia to visit with her father's Bedouin family. After a few months, Sophia says, "I was convinced that all the women in my family had forgotten what it was like to be fearless and what it had once meant to be free."
In this sad, touching, funny, and sometimes lyrical work, Sophia is stunned by the contrast between life in America and Qatar. She learns that Muslim women must dress a certain way, are kept segregated from men from the time girls reach puberty until they marry, and have limited educational and professional opportunities. If this weren't enough to make females feel inferior, Bedouin men practice polygamy.
Sophia is a lost soul, struggling to grow up with no sense of direction or proper support system. On that fateful day when Matar met Gale, they did not realize that they were about to take a step that would lead to heartache for all concerned. "The Girl Who Fell from the Sky" is about feminism, culture shock, love, and parenting. Al-Maria's experiences reinforce the idea that children need stability, a clear set of values, and consistent guidelines in order to become secure and self-confident adults.