A Word for Love is the debut novel of Fulbrighter Emily Robbins. The novel is set in the Middle East in the years just before the Syrian war. Syria isn’t actually named as the country of setting, but Damascus sites and streets are referenced.
A naïve, American exchange student named Bea is living with a Syrian host family while she studies Arabic and attempts to read the famous love story of Qais and Leila – a story in which the Bedouin Qais loves Leila so much that he stops being called Qais, and is instead called Majnoon Laila, meaning Crazy for Laila. Bea becomes a part of their family and develops a deep friendship with their married Indonesian house servant, Nisrine. Nisrine falls in love with a policeman standing guard on a neighboring roof top. Bea watches their love affair develop through hand signals and looks and relates it to Qais and Leila.
The mother of the host family suspects the relationship and begins to distrust the servant and by association, Bea. The father of the host family is an anti-government activist who has already served 10 years in jail and is under current observation by the police. Bea carelessly tells her Arabic tutor that the father is at a known anti-government hangout. The tutor trades the information for his own freedom during a police interrogation and the father is again arrested. Her guilt overcomes her and further cracks the relationship with her host family. With the Syrian family now in real danger of backlash from the dictatorship government, the servant returned shamefully back to her country, Bea escapes back to America with an easy phone call to her parents.
Robbins writes with the beauty of someone who knows the Arabic language well – using soft, flowing, dreamy sentences that paint vivid works of art in the reader’s mind. Her love of the language, the culture and the place are apparent in her writing as she modernizes the romantic style of 1001 Arabian Nights’ storytelling.