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NPR's Malaka Gharib remembers summers in Cairo in her new graphic memoir

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

NPR editor Malaka Gharib spent a lot of summer vacations in Egypt as a kid. Her parents had split up. Her dad, Maged Gharib, had moved back to his country of birth, remarried and had more children.

MALAKA GHARIB, BYLINE: All those trips to Egypt were meant to create a sense of family bond with him and my stepmom and my siblings. And they were really, really important in the long run. I remember writing in my diary, like, what would ever happen or become of my relationships with Selman (ph), Ahmed (ph) and Dunia (ph), my siblings? And here we are, I mean, still hanging out together, you know, decades later.

FADEL: In her new graphic memoir, titled "It Won't Always Be Like This," Malaka revisits those summers in Cairo and how they shaped who she is today. She didn't speak much Arabic. And her new stepmom, Hala Gamal (ph), spoke very little English. But that didn't stop them from forging a bond.

HALA GAMAL: (Through interpreter) I understood a little bit of Malaka's language because it's based on what I learned in school. I was kind of understanding her through her eyes. We didn't talk much, actually. But it was easy for us. It was all about love. I loved her, and she loved me. It's just love communication.

FADEL: Malaka, how old were you when you first met Hala?

MALAKA GHARIB: Yeah, I was 9 years old. It was a total surprise.

FADEL: (Laughter).

MALAKA GHARIB: It was like, hey - you're meeting someone today. It's your new stepmom.

(LAUGHTER)

MALAKA GHARIB: I was like, oh, my God. What the heck?

FADEL: Surprise.

MALAKA GHARIB: (Laughter) Yeah. And that was pretty hard for me because, like, I had always only lived until that age with just me and dad.

FADEL: Yeah.

MALAKA GHARIB: Like, when I went to Egypt, it was just me and dad. And I was like, oh, this is going to mess up the vibe.

FADEL: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

FADEL: There was a moment in your book where you communicated with your stepmom with music.

MALAKA GHARIB: Yeah. So Dad was managing this resort in Sharm el-Sheikh one summer. It was, like, a gorgeous resort. But we got bored pretty easily. And so Hala and I would make up these games together. One of the games was, OK, I'm going to sing a song. Then I'm going to teach it to you. And then we're going to sing it together. And one of those songs was the 1994 banger "Stay" by Lisa Loeb. I was successfully able to teach Hala the lyrics as if I was being taught - like, my dad used to teach me the Quran, like, by the sound.

FADEL: Yeah.

MALAKA GHARIB: And so I taught her the lyrics kind of the same way (laughter).

FADEL: Wow. Maged, I want to ask you, Malaka is so honest and so raw about how hard it was to see you move away. What was it like to read that in her graphic memoir?

MAGED GHARIB: Well, I really enjoyed what she's writing. The move from Los Angeles to Cairo - I'm sure I have my personal reason to move back. My parents were getting very, very old. So I felt, they took care of me. I think this is the time for me to take care of them. I made decision to go back. And after a long, long search, I find Hala. And she was perfect for me. And she gave me three beautiful kids.

FADEL: Malaka, do you mind if you open your book to Page 154 and 155? Do you mind reading this?

MALAKA GHARIB: Oh, yeah. (Reading) When I was a kid, I used to count down the days before I could be with Dad again. Now, in my journals, I counted down to when I could return to the States. I wanted a relationship with Dad like the ones I saw on TV. I wanted to confide in him and ask him for advice like D.J. did with her dad, Danny Tanner. I want him to know about what was going on at school, who I was dating, about my zine and my dreams to become a writer. My zine is called Sever, and it's all about music. I put some in Tower Records. I wanted us, when we fought, to talk things through, then hug it out, like Will and Uncle Phil in the "Fresh Prince Of Bel Air." We were so far from that.

FADEL: So this is you as a child, talking about your relationship with your dad. What's it like today? I mean, you're sitting here having a conversation about a book about your relationship.

MALAKA GHARIB: I know. It's so crazy. I think - I remember my dad specifically - I used to - Dad, do you remember when I used to write in my journals all the time? And you were saying, like, what are you doing? Writing about us, I'm sure. And I was like, I am writing about you. And it turned into a book. So - yeah.

MAGED GHARIB: That's true. Yes.

MALAKA GHARIB: A lot of things in life - right? - you don't know what you're going to do is right or wrong. But, like, one of the things that my dad definitely got right was pushing me to come to Egypt.

FADEL: But there were times - you were a teenager, and you felt like you didn't fit in, right? And that is most captured in the family portrait that your dad insisted every year on having. He wanted a picture of all of his kids together and his wife. You hated those portraits. Can you talk about that?

MALAKA GHARIB: Oh, my gosh. Yeah. Those portraits - I hated those portraits. So like, it was very clear that - Hala is, like, a very light-skinned Arab, and so is my dad. And my three siblings are also very light-skinned Arab. And then I'm here, this, like, dark-haired, dark-featured girl who is, like, significantly older than the rest of the children. It did draw attention to the fact that I was just this person who kind of swooped into their lives every now and then. Who am I to these people? Who am I supposed to be in my dad's life now? You know, as all blended families are, you kind of figure out this way to all work together in unison.

FADEL: Hala, tell us about your relationship with Malaka and how it changed over the years.

GAMAL: (Through interpreter) So at the beginning, it was just our first meeting. So I wanted to make her feel very comfortable talking to me. And then when she became a teen, we became, like, more - a little bit more friends. I used to give her advice. But then there was a stage where she became distant. And I felt like she wasn't very comfortable anymore. She felt like a stranger in the family. And I didn't like that. I wanted her to be one of us, part of our family. But then she grew up, and she got a job. That's when our relationship had kind of, like, became more distant.

FADEL: More distant back then, but not anymore. Malaka shares stories of discontent on quite a few pages of this memoir. But inspired by Hala's strong will, she dedicated her graphic memoir to her.

Was it hard to be this honest? And was it hard for your parents to hear of that?

MALAKA GHARIB: Yeah, it was really - I mean, I think that one of the things that I told my dad and Hala was that, like, I will not publish this book or sell this book if you're not comfortable with it. Like, for me, my relationship with them is more important than my art. You know, the last time I saw Hala was over a decade ago. And I didn't realize until now that that time that I had with Hala was all that I would really ever get, and not just with Halla, but with Dad and the kids - all of us being together. And it was so, so special, and we didn't even realize it. That's why I named the book "It Won't Always Be Like This" because in life, you're going to experience things. And it won't always be that way.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAY (I MISSED YOU)")

LISA LOEB: (Singing) And I thought I'd live forever, but now I'm not so sure. You try to tell me that I'm clever, but that won't take me anyhow...

FADEL: Author Malaka Gharib's graphic memoir is out today.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAY (I MISSED YOU)")

LOEB: (Singing) You said that I was naive. And I thought was... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.