Study Guide

Zahra Hakem in A Hologram for the King

By Dave Eggers

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Zahra Hakem


Dr. H has an important distinction in this book (other than being a female doctor in a largely oppressive, male-dominated society): she's the only one who can get Alan to feel any emotion. And yes: for our purposes, "horniness" counts as an emotion.

Eggers doesn't dance around the issue. He gives her a first name that means "beautiful" or "flower" in Arabic. And this is how he describes her (and Alan's reaction to her):

Her face was heart shaped, her chin small, her lips luxurious and pink. He felt wrong looking at her. He wanted too much from her. (XIX.52.159)

It's no wonder that Alan feels some good old-fashioned lust for the lady (even though she's about to operate on his disgusting neck lump). But Zahra Hakem is more than just a hottie; she's a force of nature. Alan feels moved in ways that aren't just physical when he's around her:

She was behind him, and he inhaled deeply. He hoped for an airy, sunny scent, but hers was something else. He couldn't place it. He thought of trees, earth. It was musky, rich. He thought of a forest after a rain, a hint of wildflowers. (XIX.81.161)

This description might make you think of a mythological power—a nymph, or water sprite, or goddess. She's like Desire herself made a trip to Saudi Arabia. And, bonus: she's got a medical degree.

Out of His League

Zahra catches Alan off guard from the get-go. She's literally not supposed to be there. At least, not according to Alan's guidebooks. He's read that it isn't customary for female doctors to treat male patients in Saudi Arabia—unless there's an emergency. (And there may be some truth in this—even Yousef is surprised that Alan was attended by a female doctor.)

But that's not the end of the unexpected when it comes to Zahra Hakem. Alan learns that she's part Swiss and went to school in Switzerland. That she has an ex and two children. His mind can't even comprehend the complexity that is Zahra:

She told him about high school in Geneva. A former boyfriend who was now trying to overthrow the government of Tunisia. The time she tried LSD. A stint with Islamic Relief, working in refugee camps in Kurdistan. A year in a medical hospital in Kabul. Listening to her, Alan felt like a less necessary species. (XXXII.23.305)

We can understand why. Alan can't even keep up with the convo. He completely botches a political chat they are having:

Alan said something about how it seemed good to have a reformer in the position of Abdullah, and soon found himself comparing Abdullah to Gorbachev and de Klerk. When he finished, he knew he'd gone too far. (XXXII.43.307)

Not only does he fail World History 101 here, he's way out of his league. Zahra's sophistication pulls the rug right from under his feet.

There is No "Them"

Although Alan and Zahra ultimately can't make a go of things, she gets an important message out to us: the barriers between human beings are artificial. Ethnicity, race, religion—all of them are useless constructs. She believes that there is no clash between West and East and certainly not between them.

Zahra tells Alan:

"We're separated by the thinnest filament." (XXXII.98.310)

For Alan, wallowing in isolation, this is revolutionary. And his "friendship" with Zahra, even though it's not what he wanted it to be, gives him exactly what he needs.

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