Category Archives: Arabic

The Turtle of Michigan by Naomi Shihab Nye

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The Turtle of Michigan by Naomi Shihab Nye

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This is not a religious story, it is part cultural, but it is really all heart.  The sweet relationship between a boy and his sidi stole my heart in The Turtle of Oman, and in this stand alone companion book, I once again was swept away by the admiration and relationship of the two.  This lyrical middle grade book is slow and enveloping with its cadence and detail.  There is no real climax, but the character driven story will linger long after the last of the 322 pages are read.  The book is clean, and never states the characters are Muslim, but it hints at it.  It celebrates Oman and America, and would be a great read aloud in a classroom or at bedtime with its poetic passages, lists, and emails back and forth across the ocean.

SYNOPSIS:

Aref has finally left Oman for Michigan and as he and his mother board the plane and start their adventure to America to join their father who has gone ahead to set everything up, Aref’s heart aches for all he has known in Oman, and for his beloved grandfather.  Once in Michigan, his days are filled with tagging along with his parents to their university classes, exploring Ann Arbor, making friends, and getting to know the neighbors.  Everything in America is new and different, but sometimes the same too.  He writes messages catching his Sidi up on all that he is taking in, and Sidi writes back, but it isn’t the same.  From new flavors of ice cream, the first snow, celebrating Christmas for the first time, and giving a speech on Martin Luther King Jr Day in an Omani hat, there are so many new things Aref feels his Sidi is missing, if only he would come and visit.

Sidi on the other side of the world is lonely.  He is trying to take computer classes so he can email his grandson, he can’t figure out how to message on his smart phone, and tries to avoid going anywhere that reminds him of Aref.  But he and Aref went everywhere in his jeep, so Sidi doesn’t go out, and is not doing well as a result.  It will be three long years before they return to Oman, and Sidi might need to be brave and board a plane.  The reunion is not a surprise for the reader, only for Aref, but it is tender and warm and worth the journey for them both.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I wish there was some clear Islam, there is mention of not celebrating Christmas normally, a prayer room at the airport, peace be upon him when there is a death, and prayer beads, so it is possibly there if you search, but it isn’t at the same time.  I know I say this a lot in books like this, but it seems that when the religion and culturally religious words are withheld it seems a bit hollow.  A family coming straight from Oman to America doesn’t say Assalamualaikum ever, or make dua when hardships arise, or say InshaAllah or MashaAllah? It seems watered down and overly dismissed. I guess the way Christmas is framed is understandable, they are trying so many new American things they decide to give each other one gift to try it too, I wish though Ramadan would have been mentioned or Eid.

All that being said, I absolutely love Aref and the world through his daily actions.  He is endearing and his love for his grandpa is goals.  I love that Aref’s new school is so diverse and that everyone is celebrated and accepted, it isn’t a story of him being the new kid, but rather them all bringing something unique to the school experience.  The first graders as conflict resolvers is either a bit hard to believe or based on something real and absolutely brilliant, I am still undecided about that. Also as an adult reader, I couldn’t help but notice how money never seems to be a problem, and while I don’t know if children will pick up on it, it seemed a little surprising for two parents that are professors to never stress about it.

The language and emotional pull the story has is remarkable, and I think the slower pace would be hard for kids to get used to initially, but it will win them over and the rhythm of the story will hook them and make it hard for them to put the book down once they get going.

FLAGS:

Some bullying discussions

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

Too young for any book clubs I host, but definitely want it on the library shelf.

One Wish: Fatima al-Fihri and the World’s Oldest University by M.O. Yuksel illustrated by Mariam Quraishi

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One Wish: Fatima al-Fihri and the World’s Oldest University by M.O. Yuksel illustrated by Mariam Quraishi

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This book is so long overdue, yet at the same time it was worth the wait.  The writing is simply superb: Fatima al Fihri is celebrated, Islam is centered, there are references, and the story compelling.  We, Muslims, as a whole know so little about the beautiful impact fellow Muslims have had on the current world and our way of life, that to see this book being celebrated in public libraries, in Islamic schools, at masjids, and retail bookstores, truly makes you sit up a little straighter, and reach confidently to get this book in your hands to share with those around you.  Thank you Mindy (@moyuksel.author) for these 40 pages of absolute delight, ages 5 and up will read it to learn, read it again to enjoy, and inshaAllah read it repeatedly to be inspired.

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The book begins with a Hadith regarding seeking knowledge and leaving knowledge behind.  It then begins the biography of Fatima as a small girl curious about the world around her starting with the word Iqra, read, from the Qur’an.  It sets the stage of her living in the desert in the early ninth century, a time where some boys went to school and some girls learned at home. Her connection to Islam and it teaching her the value of knowledge caused her wish, to build a school, to grow stronger.

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When war destroys her town her family flees to the busy city of Fez, Morocco.  She begins to accompany her father to the souk and enjoys listening to talk of planets, distant lands and different languages and wishes these scholars could educate everyone. She grows and gets married and her and her family become wealthy merchants.

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Tragically, her father and husband die, and Fatima must decide what to do next for her family.  She decides to help her community as a form of sadaqah jariyah and make her wish a reality.  She sets out to build a school where everyone can live and study for free.  She purchases land, and the building begins.  Fatima oversees each detail and names it the al-Qarawiyyin after her hometown in Tunisia.  It takes two years to build and it still functions today.

The back matter is just as compelling as the story with an Author’s Note, information on The University of Al-Qaryawiyyin, a Glossary, Bibliography, and a Timeline.  The only complaint I have about the book, are the illustrations.  I really don’t understand why half of her hair is showing when based on the time and her connection to her faith, she most likely was a niqabi.  I don’t understand the continuity of the hijab from a young child to adulthood.  I get that it shows her influence moving forward at the end, but it could have been a small print on an outfit for token representation of symbolism, I don’t get it as being a complete outfit her whole life.

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I absolutely love the role of Islam in both Fatima’s life and in this book.  It is so much a part of her and her wish, that every reader will recognize how connected her faith and the creation of the University were and I’m confident both Muslim and non Muslim readers will be in awe of her devotion and accomplishments, inshaAllah.

The Tale of Princess Fatima, Warrior Woman: The Arabic Epic of Dhat al-Himma translated and edited by Melanie Magidow

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The Tale of Princess Fatima, Warrior Woman: The Arabic Epic of Dhat al-Himma translated and edited by Melanie Magidow

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I’m not sure how to really review this 167 page book.  It is the translated YA work of an Arabic Epic that took place somewhere between the seventh and 10th centuries and began possibly being compiled in the 1100s.  It was told orally, but when written, comprised some 6000 pages.  The translator notes that the choices of what to include and how to translate, all potentially alter and reshape the narrative, so as a reviewer I’m simply going to review the text in my hands.  I have no outside knowledge of this epic woman, and approached the book as I would have in high school when reading The Odyssey or Beowulf: some of the history is accurate, the characters fictitious, the culture possibly representative.  As a result, I find the comparisons to Wonder Woman and Katniss Everdeen on the back cover, very odd choices.  At times the contemporary diction, in my opinion cheapens the narrative.  Sure I appreciate the modernization of the text to make it an easy read, but throwing in modern slang seems too much.  I found the book’s framing unfortunately counterproductive of what it hoped to achieve.  I have no idea what the other 5,900 pages include and what the translator had to choose from, but the majority of the book focuses on marriage, being raped by her husband, and working to prove who the father of her Black son is when her and her rapist husband are white.  I was prepared for battles, and conquering, and fighting misogyny, and saving the down trodden, not every one just wanting to marry her.  Many of the characters are Muslim, some convert to Christianity to escape Dhat al-Himma, the Quran is quoted, prayers are made, the Kaaba visited.  I do however, take issue with the explanation of the child’s skin coloring being attributed to intercourse (rape) occurring while Fatima is menstruating and a case of Prophet Muhammad (saw) being used as proof of this occurring.  So much of the text is footnoted, this instance is not, and I find it disturbing.  The book also contains a lesbian character who ends up marrying a man, violence, death, and many other potential flags (see below) that might make it better suited for older college age readers.

SYNOPSIS:

The story doesn’t begin with the birth of Fatima, but rather with her great great grandfather.  It sets the stage a bit to show culture, how women and honor are treated, and the line of her ancestry.  When we get to know Fatima a few chapters later she is being born and her gender is a disappointment, so she is hidden away.  As she grows away from her tribe she becomes an accomplished warrior and captures her father in a raid.  When she returns to her people, her cousin, Walid, born the same time as her, is struck by her beauty and wants to marry her.  She refuses.  Repeatedly.  Finally she agrees to battle him and if he wins, she will marry him.  She wins, and he still doesn’t back down, finally she is forced/tricked in to marrying him by the Caliph’s agent.  The two are pronounced wed, but little changes for Fatima, she is a warrior and does not seek intimacy or companionship.  Eventually, her husband Walid enlists the help of Fatima’s milk brother and friend, Marzuq, to have him drug Fatima, so that he can rape her.  He acknowledges the rape, the whole community does, but allows it, because he is her husband.  When the child is born he is Black and Walid and his family refuse to accept that the child is his.  Amira Fatima is socially put on trial for being a whore and that the child is illegitimate.  As Walid works to have them killed, Fatima works to prove her innocence and carry on with her life trusting in Allah swt completely, all while the Arab-Byzantine battles are raging in the borderlands.  As Abdelwahhab, Fatima’s son, grows he too becomes a formidable warrior and the two have continued adventures.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the richness of the culture coming through a compelling story. Fatima is incredibly devout in her worship of Allah, swt.  She does not falter, ever.  When she is being tested she needs only her faith, at one point a man converts to Islam upon having a dream as a result of her conviction in praying.  That being said, I genuinely don’t understand a few critical points.  How can a woman who single handedly destroys tribes not be listened to, to make her own decisions to lead her own life.  I get that that is perhaps the poignant point of the story in today’s context, but there are a lot of strong women in this book, so why does her marriage and being defined by her not wanting to marry get so much of the spotlight? Her father didn’t want her, but they don’t resolve anything, they just reunite and all is well.  I need more.  I want to know what happened to Walid once he became Christian, was it a permanent thing, a temporary fix? What ended up happening between her and Marzuq? He was her trusted advisor and immediately regretted drugging her, what happened to him.  I want more about her mother, maybe even her Aunt or other women to see how their lives compared and contrasted to the powerful women highlighted.  How did they view her, was she inspiration, an anomaly, beloved, loathed?

I appreciate the footnotes, the introduction, the Note on the Translation, the further reading list, help with pronunciation and the character list.  A map would have been nice.

FLAGS:

There is violence, killing, rape, talk of sexual intercourse and menstruation.  There is misogyny, racism, flirting, sexual temptation, a lesbian character, magic, jinn.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I would not be able to lead a proper discussion on this book, I am just not knowledgeable enough on the larger story.  I think I would like to be a student or be able to join a discussion led by someone well versed in The Tale of Princess Fatima and all the subtext that brought her story to life and maintained it over time.  It would be fascinating.

Silverworld by Diana Abu-Jaber

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Silverworld by Diana Abu-Jaber

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At 304 pages this middle grades fantasy OWN voice book attempts to weave together a granddaughters love for her Teta, with her adventures in a mythical world that only she can save.  In much the same way of Narnia, or Gregor the Overlander, or even Alice in Wonderland, the book takes a realistic character and pushes them, in this case Samara aka Sami, just beyond, into a world filled with mystery, adventure, and lessons.  The Lebanese flavor sprinkled in adds a little depth and uniqueness to the story, and aids a bit in the world building, but it isn’t a strong presence outside of ifrits and character’s names.  Teta is a Beduin that has a prayer rug and tarot cards and a painting of the Virgin Mary that she calls Fatima, and Sami’s deceased dad was American and the house has Christmas lights.  At one point the book remarks that Teta “likes to pick and choose her beliefs.”  The premise starts with Teta showing signs of dementia: speaking in a language no one but Sami can understand, and not eating and seeming present, the resolution as a result could give children the wrong idea about treatments for such real conditions, and adults might want to make sure their middle graders wont be triggered by the decline of a loved one.  The book is written well and holds reader’s interest, the world building is decent and the character’s relatable, I don’t know that it is overly memorable, but it is a fun light magical read with culture and family and friendship at its core that readers will enjoy.

SYNOPSIS:

Sami and her brother Tony, along with their attorney mom Alia and maternal grandmother, Serafina, have just moved to Florida from Ithaca, New York.  The children’s father was killed and the family has moved a few blocks away from his sister to start anew.  Sami is not settling in, and to make matters worse, Teta has stopped talking coherently, and Aunt Ivory and Alia are looking for a nursing home to place her in.  For some reason though, when it is just Sami and her grandma, she can communicate just fine, and Teta tells stories of her adventures with her flicker Ashrafieh in Silverworld.  Sami doesn’t necessarily believe the stories are true, but she gets the idea to use her Teta’s fairy stories to try and save her grandma, but when she finds her Teta’s spell book and peers into an old beloved mirror, Sami is taken to Silverworld and realizes that it is not just her grandmother’s future at risk.

In a world of flickers and shadows, Sami finds two balancers that taker her in and guide her: Dorsom and Natala.  The world is a reflection of the Actual world, but the Shadow Nixie is consuming the land and taking prisoners.  The balance is off, and Sami is convinced that this darkness is what is also harming Teta.  Between shadow spies and giant rotifers, magic and prophesied destinies, Sami must push her fear away and accept that she can be the one to set things right.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that Sami has to step in to her own and fight for what she wants, even when she is afraid.  I love the relationship she has with her Teta it is very warm and palpable.  I feel like the “saving Silverworld will save her Teta thread,” however, is lost in the middle of the book, it might be the catalyst and might have worked out that way in the end, but I don’t know that the middle makes the case that the two efforts are one and the same.  I appreciate that there are glimpses of Lebanon in the story with the athan in the background and spinning dervishes, but outside of Teta and a bit of the food, the cultural elements seemed a bit forced and deliberate instead of stemming from a natural flowing place.  A bit odd since it is an OWN voice novel, but maybe I was just wanting more. I would have liked more information about how Teta settled in America, learned English etc., or about her tattoos and Beduin upbringing. Another thing that seemed off to me was the close relationship of Dorsom and Sami at the end.  I hadn’t over nearly 300 pages realized that they were that much closer than Sami and Natala.  I even went back to see if I had missed something, but I couldn’t find that I had.  I wasn’t entirely sure why they were going to see Nixie either, I mean yes it was logical for they type of book it is, but I don’t know that Sami really had a plan for Silverworld or her Teta, she was just going to Nixie’s castle to get there.  There were also a few inconsistencies such as Sami wishing her and Tony could go fishing or surfing, when the book has made it clear that Sami is afraid of the water, particularly the ocean.

FLAGS:

There is magic, killing, death. There is talk of goddesses, there is a female character, a shadow, that has two flicker husbands and children with them both.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t think this would appeal to middle school readers, it is a solid middle grade book.  I do think fourth and fifth grade shelves would benefit from having this book available to be picked up and enjoyed.

The Olive Tree by Elsa Marston illustrated by Claire Ewart

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The Olive Tree by Elsa Marston illustrated by Claire Ewart

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Set in Lebanon, this 32 page book for kindergarten to second graders uses the ever important olive tree as a point of contention between two neighbors. Muna’s family moved away during the conflict because they were not like the others in the village, and while they were gone, Sameer’s family cared for the olive tree on their neighbor’s property, and collected the olives that fell on their side of the wall. But now that the neighbors have returned, Sameer is not only disappointed that they don’t have a boy his age to play with, but also clashes with Muna when she says that he shouldn’t take their olives. By the end of the book, olive branches of peace will be referenced and hope hinted at in this brightly illustrated book with a lesson.

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I like that why Muna’s family left is not abundantly clear, saying that “For many years the house next to Sameer’s had stood empty. . . that the family who lived there had gone away during the troubles because they were different from most of the people int he village.”  Lebanon is a diverse place and the illustrations seem to show both Mom’s wearing head scarves, the text does not detail if they are unlike each other because of religion, or culture, or some other reason, and I kind of like that it is left vague so that children learn in the end perhaps, it doesn’t matter.  

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When the family moves back home, Sameer watches them and recalls the ways his mom prepares the best olives in Lebanon.  The neighbors are polite, but not friendly.  They don’t ever say much and they don’t return visits.  One day when the ripe olives have fallen on the ground, Sameer heads out with his basket to collect them.   Muna, who has never looked over at Sameer, watches him and tells him that they are her olives, and that the tree has been in her family for a hundred years.

The two bicker about who has rights to the olives on Sameer’s side of the wall and in anger, Sameer dumps his basket of olives on Muna’s side and walks off.  After that, no one on Sameer’s side collects the olives on the ground.  One night there is a storm and the olive tree and part of the stone wall are destroyed.  The adults gather to survey the damage, but walk off without saying anything.  The two children are left to decide what to do next about their beloved tree, and their relationship with one another.

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I like that the resolution is subtle, but thought provoking and that the adults don’t seem to interfere too much.  I can’t imagine that they don’t have opinions about their neighbors and the olives, but the book stays on the children and the assumptions, stubbornness, and unsaid words that have created such a divide, and must ultimately be resolved as a result.

 

Baddawi by Leila Abdelrazaq

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Baddawi by Leila Abdelrazaq

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This 8.5 x 8.5 middle school graphic novel biography tells a powerful story of a young boy coming of age and striving to find his place in the chaos of the Nakba and its aftermath.  Over 128 pages the reader will learn and be outraged about the displacement and genocide of so many Palestinians as they see the events through Ahmad’s eyes and relate to his dreams and experiences despite the terror around him. The book has violence, destruction, death and mentions rape, yet the humanity shines through as it is also heartfelt and memorable.  I had my 14, 12, and 10 year olds read it and we have discussed it at length in context to what they already know about Palestine and the ethnic cleansing occurring.  It is a seamless mix of history and character driven narratives brought to life by the black and white illustrations of the author/illustrator’s family history.

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SYNOPSIS:

There are 10 children in the author’s father’s family, and her father, Ahmad, was born in a refugee camp in northern Lebanon, called Baddawi.  The story starts on October 29, 1948 when Safsaf was ethnically cleansed.  Ahmad’s father, the author’s grandfather had been in Akka at the time of the massacre, and her grandmother hid from the Israeli soldiers, the family, once reunited, would escape for a refugee camp, hoping that they would one day return.

We first get to know Ahmad as he starts first grade in Baddawi.  Things do not start well for the little guy as right away he gets teased by other students, his class is too large so he is selected to be joined with a girls class, and he doesn’t have soccer cleats so he isn’t allowed to play soccer, luckily he gets two good crayons, unlike his friend who gets a white one.  Ahmad is identifiable by his striped shirt that he wears throughout as a nod to Handala, the boy depicted with a striped shirt with his hands clasped behind his back and his face not shown.  The artist said his face would be revealed when Palestine was free, sadly the artist, Naji al-Ali passed away, and Palestine is still occupied.

Ahmad desperate to purchase soccer cleats devises a business plan that his mother takes as gambling and quickly puts an end to, in exchange she offers to pay him if he helps her collect and prepare za’atar.  It isn’t as fun, or as lucrative, but they family is busy packing up to return to Palestine.  Unfortunately the Naksa, the setback, the six day war occurs, and more Palestinians are ethnically cleansed and the families cannot return. Ahmad and all those in Baddawi carry on, playing, celebrating Eid, trying to claim normalcy.  The camp however, is not safe and soldiers raid the camp killing PLO leaders and innocent people in their way.  With no option but to keep on keeping on, these acts of violence are often taken in stride. It is so hard to believe, but what else can they do, the children still play, deal with bullies, and cope with universal struggles in addition to being shot by rubber bullets, and fearing cluster bombs and shellings.  At one point Ahmad and his siblings are left in Baddawi to finish school while his parents are in Beirut.

When the family is reunited in Beirut, Ahmad is in a better school, but violence follows as Mossad agents start raiding PLO homes in Lebanon.  Ahmad goes back and forth between Beirut and Baddawi, wherever he can go to school.  His favorite library is the one at the American University in Beirut and he hopes to attend school there, but without connections, he is at a loss to come up with funding.  His intellect finally lands him an opportunity to leave the Middle East to pursue higher education, he ends up in the United States, and when the story ends, readers are left hoping that everything works out even knowing it will be 10 years before he can return home to see his family.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the harsh horrific life is not shied away from in a war, but the little things are just as important in shaping and showing Palestinians to be resilient and culture rich.  I love how the concept of Handala is included and amplified.  The book is at times funny, and at other times devastating.  The connection to the characters is pretty remarkable, in such a relatively short book, and I am fairly confident it will be pulled off the shelf and thumbed through often.  I really wanted to know if the girl in the book that Ahmad left behind ended up being the author’s mother, or if he married someone else, but I couldn’t find it by Googling.  This book is truly powerful, and I highly recommend it.  There isn’t a lot of religion, the family is shown praying on Eid and celebrating.  It mentions the diversity in Beirut, but nothing too detailed.  Similarly, there isn’t a lot of political detail.  There is a glossary at the end, some actual photographs of Ahmad and his family.  At the beginning of the book there is a preface about Handala and how Ahmad represents more than just her father’s experience as well as information about the tatreez patterns on the pages and a map.

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FLAGS:

There is violence, torture, killing, death, bullying, and possibly gambling.  The book mentions that women were raped, but it isn’t detailed.  The war is ever present and depicted, but it isn’t sensationalized.  Ahmad and a girl study together and the family wants them to get married, but Ahmad opts instead to leave for school, nothing inappropriate.

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This book might not work as a book club selection, but I hope middle school children and their teachers or parents will encourage them to read this book and think about it.  Imagine if it was their homes that were taken, imagine what they would do, and how they would manage, and to be aware that it is still going on and that we cannot be silent.

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Laith the Lion Goes to Palestine by Jameeleh Shelo illustrated by Sara Mcmullin

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Laith the Lion Goes to Palestine by Jameeleh Shelo illustrated by Sara Mcmullin

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This 36 page toddler to kindergarten book features a little lion that doesn’t like to sleep.  One night he wishes for friends to play with and his crib starts shaking and moving and a magical adventure begins to unfold. The story highlights and celebrates Palestine, as that is where the crib takes him, but the story is also about not wanting to go to sleep, not wanting to miss anything fun, and seeing nighttime and daytime routines.  I love that it shows tatreez (embroidery), and mentions olives, and the friends he makes on the beach playing soccer are so welcoming, even gifting him a keffiyeh to keep warm with, but I really wanted more sites of Palestine, and more childish adventure and wonder about the beloved country.  The book mentions wishing and uses the word “hate” in describing how Laith feels about bedtime.  The taytas wear hijab, but there is no mention of religion.  The book is a great introduction to Palestine or a mirror for Palestinian children to see themselves in a fun animal led universal story.

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Laith is a lion, his mom is a giraffe and his father a bird (perhaps a hawk or falcon), he loves bath time and story time, but not bedtime, he doesn’t want to miss anything.  So when he makes a wish and finds himself flying outside in his crib, he is disappointed to see mama and baba asleep. his taytas asleep, and all of his friends sleeping too.  He wishes for someone to play with, and roar he is off to Palestine, where his night is their daytime. 

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In his world every character is an animal, but in his adventure, the characters are human.  He sees a grandma and eats an olive before asking some kids playing soccer on the beach if he can join.  As they play and cheer he gets cold and wants to go home.  He invites his friends, but they have to stay.  They gift him a keffiyah, and he leaves. 

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On his way back to his room, he looks in on his friends. Daliyah is getting dressed for school.  Zain and Idris are brushing their teeth, and his taytas are making breakfast. When he wakes up he tells his parents he wants to go back to Palestine, and they remark on him having a beautiful dream. 

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I love that there are diverse kids depicted in Palestine, that Laith’s grandmas are involved in his daily life, that the concept of day and night on different sides of the world is accounted for.  I don’t know how I feel about the voyeurism, sure it is innocent enough, but maybe Daliyah could have been getting ready for school, rather than getting dressed.  I like that the keffiyah came back with him and the illustrations show the Dome of the Rock.  

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I bought this as an ebook, because I was impatient and didn’t want to wait for shipping to show support to Palestinian books and authors.  It came with a coloring sheet as well, and is $2.99 on the website https://www.laiththelion.com/ it is also available as a hardback book on the website (heavily discounted) or on Amazon at its regular price.

City of the Plague Gods (Rick Riordan Presents) by Sarwat Chadda

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City of the Plague Gods (Rick Riordan Presents) by Sarwat Chadda

I was excited to hear that another Rick Riordan/ Rick Riordan Presents books featured a Muslim character and was anxious to see how the multi god genre would account for Islamic tenants.  But I was completely giddy (that’s putting it mildly), when I found out that Sarwat Chadda is aka Joshua Khan, author of the Shadow Magic Series and that this book has practicing Muslim Characters front and center.  In his own words, “it has taken be twelve years and eleven books to get around to writing a Muslim tale.” That isn’t to say that it is Islamic fiction, there is gay romance that is there if you want to see it and has been confirmed by the author outside of the book, there are  numerous fake gods in Mesopotamian mythologies, there is death and violence, but it is fun, oh so fun.  It has salat, and going to the mosque, and an imam, and saying surahs and discussing jihad an nafs, and sadaqa and it says the shahada in Arabic and English, it presents Muslims authentically in their words and actions, and it isn’t just the characters’ backstories it is who they are and how they see the world.  The book is an AR 4.5 with 383 pages and like all Rick Riordan books, full of humor, sentiment, family, growth, and ancient mythology.

SYNOPSIS:

Sikander “Sik” Aziz is 13 and when not at school is at his family’s NYC deli working away.  The son of Iraqi immigrants, he is dedicated to helping his family especially since his older brother Muhammed, Mo, has passed away.  Mo’s lifelong friend Daoud has moved in to Mo’s old room and helps out in the deli, but is really an aspiring actor who does anything to get out of work.  When the book opens, Sik and Mo are closing up when the deli is attacked by rat faced men demanding to know where it is.  Sik has no idea what they are talking about and the two demons tear apart the family restaurant until a mysterious girl appears and sends them and their stream of insects, disease and destruction from the deli.

The next day at school Sik’s injuries are healing remarkably quick and he and the new girl, Belet, find themselves getting sent to the principal’s office together.  When he learns that Belet’s mom is Ishtar, goddess of love and war, or rather passion, and was the girl at the deli, he can no longer deny that the tales Mo used to tell him about Gilgamesh, Enkido, Nergal, Kasusu, and Mesopotamian mythology are very real.  

As Sik, Belet, Ishtar, Daoud, and an army of cats, Lamassu, learn that the plague god Nergal is behind what is going on and that he plans to destroy Manhattan, it is up to them to stop the destruction, save Sik’s parents who are in the hospital, and ultimately the world.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The book was written before Covid 19 and the idea of a plague or pandemic was not yet on everyone’s mind, but when it was published in 2021 it sure become that much more relatable and close to home.  I love that some of the reactions of the characters and community to being around infected people and the backlash was so accurate to what we have all seen since 2020.  

The way that the oneness of Allah swt and the multi fake gods is reconciled is that the Mesopotamian cast are old and powerful, but not ALL-powerful, as Ishtar tells Sik, someone had to create us.  She also says that today people might call them something else.  It seems to leave open the idea that they have abilities and because of their abilities people worshipped them and the name stuck, not that they are creators or even claim to be. The concept of being between alive and dead is explored when Sik visits Kurnugi, he asks where Muhammad Ali is and Mo tells him he isn’t there, he went straight to Jannah.  It might not be a clear explanation, but it at least hints that Muslims in real life have a different view than the mythological one being explored.

I love the snark, and the humor, it flows so well and incorporates pop culture with ancient references very smoothly. I love that they say InshaAllah and AllahuAkbar and when Sik is presumed dead at one point and awakens he can’t go to the mosque because they are having his janaza and it would be awkward.  I love that there is a glossary that denotes if words are Arabic, Islamic, or Mesopotamian.  Muslim kids reading this will feel so seen and proud to be openly Muslim and inspired that they too can be heroes.

FLAGS:

Mythology, fighting, death, the use of the term badass.  Daoud and Mo’s relationship.  Daoud and Mo became friends in 5th grade and when Sik sees some photos of his brother that Daoud had taken, he says that he sees love.  When Sik and Mo are reunited in Kurnugi, Mo hints that there is more to the friendship, it is subtle.  In online interviews Chadda says they were in a romantic relationship.  It is not explored or heavily detailed.  The only other romance mentioned is that Gilgamesh in his prime refused Ishtar.

I think fans of Rick Riordan already know that there is going to mythological characters, creatures, battles and violence and a character or two that are LGBTQ+, some possible romantic angst between main characters, death, and unfaithful flirty gods.  This book is much “cleaner” than most, so 4th graders and up that are fans, will be fine reading this.  

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t know if I could do this as a book club selection.  The romance is minor, but once you sense it and know it is there, it is a factor.  I don’t know if it would have to be discussed and how an Islamic school would want me to handle it, because both Mo and Daoud are practicing Muslims.  I think the book does a sufficient job of not committing shirk and shirk like messages with the mythology, but as always with these types of books it is a judgement call if the children (and their parents) can understand where the lines of fiction are and where they stand.

Fandom: https://riordan.fandom.com/wiki/City_of_the_Plague_God

Halal Hot Dogs by Susannah Aziz illustrated by Parwinder Singh

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Halal Hot Dogs by Susannah Aziz illustrated by Parwinder Singh

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I’m not sure what I expected this book to be, I just knew I wanted to get my hands on it, but I’m fairly certain, that even if I would have had some expectations, they would have been no where near how well done this 40 page book for four to eight year olds is overall.  It is unapologetically American-Palestinian Muslim in an inclusive funny delightful way, that only an OWN voice book can be. There have been some great picture books lately that are authentic, yet mainstream, and this book pushes that standard just a little bit higher as it normalizes jummah, halal food, dabke, hijab, with familiar threads of street food, spunky little sisters, untied shoelaces, tradition, and excitement.  The story has a twist and some intentionally misleading foreshadowing, that give the book depth and added fun.  Readers of all backgrounds will relate to this book and find something that they can relate to, as they laugh and marvel at Musa’s infectious enthusiasm for hot dogs. img_0610

Musa Ahmed Abdul Aziz Moustafa Abdel Salam, aka Musa, loves Fridays.  His family heads to the masjid for Jummah prayer and then home for a special Jummah treat.  Lately, they’ve had molokhia, that stayed in their teeth for a week, kufte kabobs that were better for soccer playing than eating, riz bi haleeb with lost dentures, and prelicked jelly beans.  Alhumdulillah, this week is Musa’s turn to pick, and he is picking his favorite: halal hot dogs with Salam sauce.

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They head to the mosque dancing dabke as they leave their house with smiling faces.  The khutbah is long though, and during salat his stomach is roaring! Afterward he is off, but Seedi has to help Maryam find her red shoes in a sea of red shoes and mama is chatting with friends. 

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Dad gives in and lets Musa go get the hot dogs alone.  As he heads to the stall with the best hotdogs: the perfect amount of hot, chewy, juicy hot dog goodness, he passes all sorts of foods being eaten.  There is falafel and bao and tacos and samosas and churros, but he is determined to get hot dogs, even though the line is really long.

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He sees friends in line, and firefighters, and even his school principal.  Everyone loves hot dogs, even birds and squirrels.  Finally he buys a whole bag full with special Salam sauce and races home to share with everyone.  But uh oh, it doesn’t go as planned, and I’m not about to spoil it, so get yourself a copy like I did from http://www.crescentmoonstore.com or your library, and maybe don’t read it while you are fasting, because you will be craving hot dogs, mmmmmm nom nom nom.

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There is an Author’s Note at the end that details her kids’ influence on the story and explains that a portion of the proceeds go to UNRWA USA, a non profit that helps Palestinian refugees.  There is a glossary of Arabic Words and Terms, and a section explaining Halal Laws.

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The book shows the mom in hijab outside the home, and uncovered within the home.  There are diverse skin colors among the Muslim and non Muslim characters in the book, as well as a variety of ages depicted.  Seedi wears a keffiyah on Jummah, but different clothes on different days.  The illustrations are wonderful and descriptive and do a lot to compliment the story by setting a relatable and diverse-positive visual.

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Home is Not a Country by Safia Elhillo

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Home is Not a Country by Safia Elhillo

home is not a country

This upper middle school/high school 224 page novel told in verse touches on familiar themes of finding yourself and wondering about what could have been, but is anything but predictable.  Through magical realism, religion, culture, and phenomenal imagery, this book is haunting and powerful as it sweeps you into the possible alternate reality of a young 14 year-old-girl yearning to be someone else, consumed by a life that could have been, desperate for the other half of her mirrored existence, and for a home that she does not know, but so desperately longs for.  As a Muslim child of an immigrant, the daughter of a single mother, and nearly invisible at school, readers will feel her story, more than know it, and find themselves in her own awakening.

SYNOPSIS:

Nima feels like she exists in pieces.  No one understands her and she doesn’t feel comfortable in her own skin.  At school she is invisible, she is foreign and teased for it.  She has one friend, Haitham who is always there for her at home, but just a familiar wave in public.  At home Nima enjoys old Arabic songs and movies, hobbies she is teased for at weekend Arabic school, her hardworking mother is graceful and beautiful, Nima is neither.  Her world is the aunties and family in her building, but her Arabic is weak and she doesn’t fit in anywhere.  Her father passed away before she was born in a country she has never known.  Her twin sister died before birth, one for each parent in each world.  Nima imagines if she wasn’t Nima, but Yasmeen instead.  If she was bright and loud and loved and confident. The name she was nearly given, an alternate life she has become obsessed with.

When Haitham and her get in a fight, when her mother removes her headscarf and the bullying intensifies, Haitham ends up in the hospital, assaulted, barely hanging on and Yasmeen appears to help a floundering Nima escape a meal she can’t afford, a man that intends to assault her, and a world where she might find answers. The two girls travel to the homeland in the photographs to understand their parents, to understand why their mother left and Nima to the realization that only one of the girls can truly exist.  

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that I had no idea where the story was going and how much would be spelled out and how much would be left for the reader to interpret.  It affected me in a way that I wasn’t expecting and reminded me of the blurred lines of reality from books like Beloved (Toni Morrison) and Her Fearful Symmetry (Audrey Niffenegger).  I love that the Arabic script is present and often not translated.  The unapologetic connection to the character and author is powerful and beautiful to see in a deeply introspective book.  I enjoyed that the “country” wasn’t named as it added to the concept of not knowing you home, it was frustrating, but for all the right reasons.

There isn’t a lot of practiced Islam mentioned, she doesn’t talk about praying, but does talk about the athan and longing for it.  Her mother wears hijab, but takes it off and wears a hat instead. The daily life of living in two worlds is taken to mean something very literal and the journey to both worlds is remarkable and memorable.

FLAGS:
There is physical assault, theft, lying.  Nima has to escape a man that intends to rape her, his intention isn’t detailed, but Yasmeen helps her escape when he brings her to a hotel.  Haitham’s dad has an affair with his mom and she is pregnant with him when the story flips back to the past and the couple are not married.  There is singing and music and dancing throughout. I think 14 and 15 year olds will be able to grasp the intensity of such situations while also not being shocked by them.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I am on the fence if I could do this as a middle school book club, I might suggest it to the high school advisor.  There is so much to unwrap in the lyrical text that will draw the students in and force them to reflect on their own impressions to understand Nima’s reality.  I think there would be so many conflicting thoughts that the discussion would be amazing.  

Here is a better synopsis than mine: https://www.npr.org/2021/03/04/973389493/home-is-not-a-country-imagines-the-lives-we-could-have-led

Q and A with the Author: https://thenerddaily.com/safia-elhillo-author-interview/

 

https://www.npr.org/2021/03/04/973389493/home-is-not-a-country-imagines-the-lives-we-could-have-led