I didn’t initially think the premise of the book was terribly original: a poor scarred girl in Pakistan working as a servant, cuts her hair to look like a boy and be free to move about and rescue her brother. But the weaving in of the One Thousand and One Arabian Nights stories into the larger story, and the plot of kidnapping children to be camel jockeys in the Middle East, made the story good. Really good, but not the book. I really struggled with the format of the book. It is written as letters by the main character Nadira to her young brother Umar. The information seems too forced in this style, she is telling him how old he is, or retelling him things he said a few days ago. Once they are together she has to clarify that now she is writing it to their mother, and then again alter it to be writing to those following her story. It presents too many characters, that are awkwardly introduced because presumably he knows who they are, the reader does not, and bridging that gap makes the book halt the reader from diving head first into a really compelling story. I feel like the book’s editors let the characters down, it would have been an easy fix to tell the story as Nadira told it to the Sheikha, and then when the story caught up with the present to continue it from there as written, without the guise of it being shared in letters or a diary format. But, alas no one asked me. Luckily the book is only 183 pages and written on a AR 4.2 level so it is a speedy read. Do not let the fourth grade level, however, trick you into thinking it is content appropriate for a 10 year old. There is a lot of abuse, in every sub category of the word.
When Nadira was 12 years old she was attacked by a group of men seeking to avenge an alleged crime Nadira’s older brother committed against their daughter. By this girl’s reputation allegedly being ruined by Nadira’s brother, the village decides that a female in his family should in exchange be ruined. Nadira manages to fight and ends up with some external scarring, including a moon shaped scar on her face, a lot of internal scarring, but the book points out quite often that she got away from being sexually abused. In her culture she is assumed to be ruined, and will never be married. She begins to work as a servant to help the family financially as her older brothers have more or less disappeared and no longer are of any help to her family. When her father dies, her mother and younger brother, Umar, rely on Uncle Rubel who is a horrible man who covertly sells Umar to the smugglers to become a camel jockey. The family that Nadira works for seem kind, they stick to the norms and don’t include her in their fun and frivolity, but they don’t abuse or belittle her either. They offer her, her mother, and Umar a place to live on the property, and assist her in finding someone to locate her brother. Nadira, however, is strong and determined and takes matters into her own hands by cutting her hair to look like a boy, finding the smugglers, and convincing them to take her. Once in the camp she wins over all the boys, by becoming Sherazad and telling a story to delay her being beat. Her wit, tenacity, and perseverance is infectious and you find yourself cheering her on. As she prepares for the races and to broaden her access to camps to find her brother at, she meets a western vet, a Sheikha who essentially owns her, and discovers that all the boys she lives with know she is a girl and love and respect her. The climax involves her racing in the Sheikha’s Race where the winner is granted a wish by the Sheikha. Can Nadira win? Can she find her brother? Can she save all the boys at the camp that she has taken in as her brothers? I won’t spoil it this time. You’ll have to read it.
WHY I LIKE IT:
I like that the author did not cast judgement on a group of people. Not all Pakistanis are bad, not all women are helpless, not all men are oppressive, not all employers are abusive, etc.. similarly, there is a western character, but she doesn’t swoop in and save the day, in fact I read her to be complacent in what she knew were obvious human rights violations. I loved the relationship that Nadira had with her father. The love of learning and love of his daughter is so sincere and beautiful that I think readers can see that the stereotype of daughters not being prized jewels in a family as being false. I wish the mother would have been further developed. She seems defiant, but not fleshed out, which is unfortunate. I also like the subplot of the gardener boy, Saliq. A boy who completed some of his education in England, only to be made crippled by a horse, and sent back to be a servant. He’s role and respect of Nadira furthers the notion that her scar does not define her, as he proposes marriage and pledges to support her in her efforts to continue rehabilitating kidnapped children and stopping the cycle. I also like that the author doesn’t share her response, as if to emphasize that she is liberated and with or without a husband she is a complete person.
The characters are Muslim by culture, but there is no real mention of Islam or Islamic practices. Before Nadira cuts her hair she wears a scarf, but that is neither her nor there.
The premise of the book is an accusation of a sexual crime. One of the stories she tells at the camel camp to delay the beatings, is the story of the lady who traps a merchant, a king, a carpenter, and a Kazi to free her lover. She offers her body to the men and traps them in a cabinet naked after obtaining their signatures. There is some kissing and some innuendos and references to sexual acts. There are also references to the sexual abuse at the camps as well as descriptions of the physical ones that take place. Not for the faint of heart or young and innocent. The boys at camp also discover that Nadira bleeds like their sisters, as a clue to them figuring out she is a girl, but compared to the sexual crimes, menstruation seems hardly like a flag, and I only mention it because the AR level is so low, not because there is any reason for shame or shyness in discussing an act all women endure.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I think high school students could handle the book, and would allow a plethora of discussion options from child labor, civic responsibility, abuse, justice and the power of literature as a coping mechanism. I wish the author would have included some information on camel racing and how they are regulated and jockeys are obtained, and maybe thrown in a recipe for masala chai as well.
There are no online websites or guides that I could find to accompany the book.