I’ve read and reviewed a few Randa Abdel-Fattah books and read and reviewed even more cheesy West-meets-East-and-my-parents-are-so-strict-so-I-will-rebel books, that with such a flimsy title referencing a movie which references Shakespeare, I didn’t expect much. With such minimal standards, the book didn’t disappoint and the surprising warmth of many of the characters actually left a pleasant smile on my face. I’ve had this book on my to-read list since it came out in 2006, and for some reason it is a bit hard to find now a days. There seems to be a few covers out there, and I don’t know if they differ, but the one pictured above is the one I read, and it is 297 pages and written on an AR 4.8 level, but probably would appeal and be more content appropriate as a light read to 9th through 12 graders.
Jamilah Towfeek leads a double life. At home she is a proud Lebanese Australian that goes to Madrassa, plays the darbuka drums in an Arab band, and identifies as Muslim. She has recently dyed her hair blond and wears contacts to hide her Arab heritage and doesn’t allow her sister who wears hijab to pick her up from school where she is known as an all Australian girl, Jamie. Her mother has passed away and her father is pretty strict about who she goes out with and her curfew. They even have a contract posted on the fridge. Despite this, Jamilah and her dad seem to have an ok relationship and it is definitely something they both are fighting to improve. Jamilah’s older brother is a bit of a rebel and goes out with girls to bars and the book definitely discusses the double standard. He however, isn’t painted as “bad” or as presented as an outcast, he just does things differently, and must wage his own path to build a relationship with their father. At school Jamilah has acquaintances more than friends, as she is constantly pushing people away. The stage is set that she has to keep lying to her friends, but it is more in her head than in reality. She doesn’t open up to her friends, nor they to her. As a result the Jamie at school amongst her peers are presented as incredibly shallow, which is partially intentional I think, and partially, under developed. She makes up excuses to not attend parties and it isn’t a big deal until the most popular guy at school starts to take an interest in her. In frustration she starts opening up to someone who has started e-mailing her. Her user name is Ten_Things_I_Hate_About_Me and the dialogues between her and Rage_Against_The_Machine reveal a lot about how she sees the world. There is some tension with immigrants in Australian and Jamilah starts to realize that her silence is consent to the bigotry and bullying around her, and that there is no way to stay neutral. There really aren’t any major plot twists, you can see a mile away who the mystery email boy is, and that he likes her, you can see that her friend Amy will come through, and that she will have to reconcile her two identities. There are a few minor ones with her dad getting remarried and thankfully with her opting to not “hookup” with anyone in the end despite a climatic kiss in order to stay honest with her father.
WHY I LIKE IT:
I’m obviously older than the target audience and the characters, as is the author, but compared to a lot of the other books of similar content, I feel like this book stays the most grounded. There are some pop cultural references, and obviously the kids are naive, but there are some universal truths and experiences brushed upon that I think a lot of high schoolers can relate to, not just immigrant Muslim ones. The idea of having to be two different people at home and at school, family relationships, cultural identity, being true to yourself, dealing with the loss of a parent, taking a stand when you see something wrong, etc.. All that being said there is a huge gaping plot hole. How her friends that have known her from elementary school when her mom brought Arab food suddenly don’t know she is Arab, or don’t pick up on her ethnic last name is beyond even a 5th grader to over look. If you can tune out your internal sense of logic for the premise, the book is much more enjoyable, but it really is a stumbling point.
I wish that Jamilah was a bit religious. She identifies as Muslim and clearly her sister is, but pretty much all of her actions and gripes come more from her culture than from her faith. Many of her father’s friends drink, as they are either not religious, or Christian, which is fine, but part of me really wanted her to live up to the picture on the cover of the book and discover her religious stance alongside her owning up to her cultural one. I love that at it’s core it is a book about a girl’s relationship with her dad and being true to her self, but somewhere her religion fizzled out of the narrative and I wish it hadn’t. I Would have loved that she turned down the prospect of a boyfriend because it wasn’t Islamically permissible, in addition to her wanting to be honest with her father. But, alas the author didn’t pursue that. She did however, do a good job of not making it a judgement of culture or faith, just as attributes of her characters.
There are racial slurs, drinking, dating, and kissing.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
Surprisingly I wouldn’t completely disregard this book for a Book Club selection. It would be for older kids, ideally upper High School. But I think especially in an Islamic School setting the discussion would be so much better than the book. Many send their children to Islamic Schools to reduce the need for dual identities and I would love to see how the kids view the effectiveness of it. I would also enjoy hearing students’ perspectives on going to formal dances with siblings or a group of girls, the double standards of boys in girls, and dealing with Uncle’s and Aunty’s constant opinions.