Zahra’s Trip to Misr by Sufiya Ahmed

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Zahra’s Trip to Misr by Sufiya Ahmed

misr

This middle grade series has been highly recommend to me numerous times over the years, and I finally found a copy to read and review.  It is book three in the series, and I have not read the first two, so I may be missing something, but the book didn’t wow me honestly.  The 147 page story published in 2011 has a lot of potential, but I felt like it didn’t know who the audience would be, and thus often felt cumbersome and disjointed to read.  At times it uses Islamic terms (muezzin), other times the Urdu words (namaz), and way too often the english meanings (ablution, peace be upon you, mosque), often all three in a single paragraph.  It is Islamic fiction and stays adventurous, without getting overly preachy and didactic, but there are some cruel life threatening antics by the girls, and some heavy themes of child trafficking, revenge, kidnapping, lying, bullying, gender treatment in Islamic spaces, finance and micro loans, but to its credit, it stays on level and, while as a mom some of the adventure needs adult intervention, I think young readers would support the young girls handling so much on their own.

SYNOPSIS:

Twelve year old Zahra and her classmates from her Islamic boarding school are headed on a class trip from England to Egypt.  For ten days they will be learning about the history, the culture, and connecting to Islam.  A group of first year girls and their chaperones in a foreign country meet with former students, another girls school from the UK, and some of their chaperone’s husbands giving this short book a lot of characters to get to know briefly, and only in passing.

The adventure starts right away as bully Saira locks a claustrophobic girl in the airplane lavatory in revenge of being locked in a freezer and forced to eat spiders earlier in the school year, and the foreshadowing that these battles are not over is set.  Once in Egypt, the girls muddle through worksheets sharing what they have learned, stopping to pray, and enjoying the experience.  Every so often at the hotel however, they see a girl they have dubbed, “sad girl” and the mystery to figure out what is making her so sad will ultimately make this a trip that brings the girls close to danger, and if successful will make them heroes. Toss in a nasheed concert, a runaway camel, and it is going to be a busy week and a half for them all.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The book presents a lot of Islam, and I think most readers will learn something and see Islam practiced authentically.  There is praying, and wearing hijabs, and halal meat, and Islamic history, and the 99 names of Allah all present in the characters naturally.

The book starts with Zahra and her mom and aunt rushing to the airport, they are running late.  Zahra’s aunt is not Muslim and presumably her mom is a convert, there is some really awkward dialogue before the family leaves, and it is called out as being awkward, but it just didn’t seem to fit either.  Why would a girl’s brother tell a non Muslim to wear a scarf? A character that is just in the first scene? I’m hoping there is more to her as a character in the first two books, and maybe this is a reference to something, but it just reads really weird and unrealistic (I hope).

Similarly, I am sure the first two books cover the forcing a bully to eat spiders and why she was locked in a freezer, but to just see that this is the level of the pranks, is a little disturbing.  The book acknowledges that locking a girl in a bathroom who has claustrophobia is dangerous, and that triggering the camel to run-off was similarly potentially deadly, but what about the other cruelties? It doesn’t even hint that there is more there, and I would have liked to see some context to recognize that these aren’t benign pranks, they are pretty big acts.

The child trafficking and kidnapping plot really had me wishing that the girls at least talked to Anu Apa. Having preteens take on such a dangerous situation so haphazardly was a little stressful for me, and I need to find some middle grade readers to help me see the actions through their eyes.

The randomness of the nasheed concert didn’t seem to fit for me, the song she wrote wasn’t that good, the whole thing came together too easily, and then some of the girls taking off their hijabs in wildness seemed such an odd tangent to me.

The biggest obstacle for me was the terminology and diction.  I don’t think it matters if the readers are Muslim or not, use the Islamic terms.  The teachers and students go to an Islamic school, it isn’t a stretch to have them use the proper term of salat instead of namaz, they can remark on the athan, not azan, they can say Assalamualaikum, they don’t need to say in english peace be upon you, and upon you when they greet, it seems so halting to the authenticity of the characters and flow of the story.

I think part of the difficulty in getting these books in the US is they just had one edition printed, and I genuinely hope that at some point the author will revisit the books especially now that she has been published mainstream for her other works, and hopefully grown as an author.  There is a lot of good in the book, it just could use some polishing and updating.

FLAGS:

Child trafficking, revenge, kidnapping, lying, bullying, cruel pranks, physical assault.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I wouldn’t go out of my way to get these books on a classroom shelf based on this one book.  If a classroom or library already has them, I wouldn’t remove them.  Utlimately, I don’t know that many readers will stick with the sorting out of all the characters in the beginning of the book, and those that do I think would probably be slightly disappointed, not with the presentation of Islam, but in the side story building details.

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