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.
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.
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.