This was another book I stumbled upon in the Scholastic Teen Book Flyers, and I wanted to read it to see, once again, how Muslims are being portrayed in books presented and widely distributed in the school markets. I didn’t figure given the “romantic element” it would be a candidate for our Book Club, but none-the-less wanted to know if it should at least be on our library shelves in the Middle School section. The book is not in the Accelerated Reader data base, bur for content I would think 11th or 12th grade. The book is written by a woman whose family left Afghanistan right before she was born and later returned as a television correspondent. Her story is included as the introduction of the book and a glossary at the end make the total length 292 pages.
A boy from a landowning family, Samiullah, and a girl whose family works the land, Fatima, have known and played together their whole lives. When Sami comes home, however, after realizing that the madrassa, religious school, he was sent to is a sham, he finds he is still in love with his childhood friend. Knowing that their families would never allow their union, Sami is in the midst of working up the courage to share his feelings with Fatima and try to convince her family, when Rashid, a cousin discovers them talking in the woods alone and rats them out. The role of culture and religion make this turn of events a dire one for the couple. As shame has been brought to Fatima’s family, her father arranges to have her married to a good friend of his, as a second wife. Fatima’s mother, responds very harshly by beating her and pouring boiling water on her arms. Sami is beaten as well, but not to Rashid’s satisfaction and thus he decides to go “tattle” to the local Taliban leader. As the story unfolds it becomes clear that Mullah Latif is not religious in the least and that he has no conscious. Latif and his gang leave a path of murder and suffering as they set out to make an example of the couple in the name of religion and culture.
WHY I LIKE IT:
The author actually does a pretty good job of making in clear that Latif and Rashid are one extreme of bad; manipulating religion to justify their acts. As Rashid realized how little Latif even knows about Islam he sets to distance himself from the gang. Latif at one point doesn’t even want to enter a mosque. The opposite of the Latif character is Mullah Sarwar who is good, and kind, and gentle, and loving. Overall the author doesn’t paint one group with a broad stroke, there are good and bad land owners, workers. There is even a grandma who supports women being educated and marrying for love, contrasted with a mother who wants to see her daughter killed for her actions. The story is also pretty universal and has some Romeo and Juliet similarities, simply set in Afghanistan. Some of the culture shines through to add context and understanding outside of the story alone, and that is nice. Fatima logically works through why she can’t marry her fathers friend. And in some ways you see why the country struggles as it does in real life, and why there isn’t an easy fix. Each chapter is told from a different perspective, either Fatima’s, Samiullah’s, or Rashid’s which does give a more rounded view of the events. But in some cases, not quite enough. One thing I didn’t find believable was how purely evil Rashid was one minute, and then his quick change (SPOILER). The reader is not given much insight into him and yet he has such a huge influence on every aspect of the story that it seemed a little abrupt and unrealistic.
The love story aspect is actually pretty clean and sweet in many ways. The unexpected violence, however, is a huge flag to me. (SPOILER ALERT) It mentions in some detail that Sami left the madrassa when he caught the head of the school sodomizing a young village boy. It isn’t graphic, but it is detailed enough to be noted. Fatima’s younger sister is also killed when Latif breaks her neck with his bare hands, again incredibly brutal, horrific and sad. Mullah Sarwar is murdered and hanged in the village. All reasons why the book in my opinion is for older and mature audiences.
A small religious point, that I think most would be fine with, but just in case should be mentioned, is that Sami goes to pray at a shrine. The author explains how it evolved as a place to pray to Allah for matters regarding love, but it could be construed as being inappropriate.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I wouldn’t teach this book to the ages I currently work with, but here is a little insight from the author about what she wanted the readers to take away from her novel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M2rMD16g23E