Tag Archives: Arabic

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.

The Magical Reality of Nadia by Bassem Youssef and Catherine R. Daly illustrated by Douglas Holgate

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The Magical Reality of Nadia by Bassem Youssef and Catherine R. Daly illustrated by Douglas Holgate

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This middle grades AR 4.5 OWN voice book by Muslim author/comedian/surgeon/activists Bassem Youssef mixes text, comic strips, and illustrations over 166 pages to tell a story about ancient Egypt, friendship, leadership, xenophobia, and life sprinkled with magic.  It has a lot of potential, and I liked the lessons that Egyptian-American Nadia learns, but it just seemed lacking to me.  It seems to be book one in a series, and in many ways it reads like an introduction.  The magical element is underdeveloped to me and often just annoying.  The micro aggressions,  racism, and character’s ages would suggest upper middle grader readers would gravitate toward the book, but the overall writing style and length would more appeal to younger readers.  This disconnect makes the book hard to pin down and hard to connect with.  I’ll definitely check out future books in the series even though no religion is mentioned, because this brown girl has a lot of potential to break down Arab-American stereotypes and empower readers to be proud of where they and their families are from as universal obstacles are worked through.

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SYNOPSIS:

Nadia has just come back from a summer vacation visiting family and friends in Egypt and can’t wait to get ice cream with her best friend Adam.  She picked up an Egyptian comic book for him and is anxious to see if he likes it.  Except the comic book seems to have disappeared and when she asks her many bobble heads to help her find it, her necklace with a hippo amulet starts to glow and an ancient Egyptian teacher, Titi, starts talking to her from the now found comic book pages.  As Nadia figures out how to control this ancient man who lives around her neck and in papers around her, she also has to deal with a new kid that acts like a bully and has the admiration of her best friend Adam.  Nadia loves facts and her and her friends call themselves the Nerd Patrol.  Nadia can be a bit bossy though, and while usually her friends let it go, she seems to be stepping on toes lately, especially with Adam.  When a competition at school is announced that will result in an exhibit at the Museum of American History, Nadia will have to use her “genie” to get help coming up with ideas for her display, coping with a bully, restoring friendships, and learning how to be a leader before her friendships fall apart.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that Nadia is so proud of her culture and doesn’t feel like she has to pick one of her hyphens over another.  She brings Egyptian food for lunch, wears Egyptian inspired clothing, and is still very “American” as well.  Ancient Egyptian tidbits as well as modern day Egyptian information seeps through and weaves into the story smoothly.  The  diverse side characters are also a plus.  I think her trying to handle the bully in multiple ways makes the story resonate with other kids and gives readers something to ponder over.  I worry that most readers, however, won’t know who Elvis Presley is, or get if Titi is really helping or not and how it all comes together for him.  I am curious to see if he is a major character in future books, because I still have a lot of questions about his knowledge and understanding of the world after being trapped in an amulet for so long. Really, she could have learned so much from him, she just scratched the surface.

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FLAGS:

There is teasing and bullying and racism, subtle and overt.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This book is too short and superficial for a middle school book club selection, but it could be a fun read aloud in a 3rd or 4th grade class.

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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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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The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty

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The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty

This series is adult fantasy written by a Muslim author for her ummah and contains Muslim characters. I think the series as a whole is definitely not YA, as the main characters would age out of the target demographic, but I think that book one could qualify. I’ve contacted the author to get her perspective on the matter, and will update this if I hear back. So why am I reviewing it? Because it is so good, and I’ve heard of a lot of people letting/encouraging their teens to read it, and honestly, I did as well. There is complex world building, implied physical interactions, one hinted at gay romance, alcohol, concubines, violence, djinn, ifrits, killing and one kiss/slight make out session. There is also Middle Eastern culture, Islam, and a fiery protagonist that make the 530 pages in the first book fly by. I’m only reviewing the first book, and I think 14 years and up can handle it, I know my 14 year old and I haven’t stopped talking about it, and it has been quite fun to fan girl with her over it.

SYNOPSIS:

Nahri is living in 18th Century Cairo. She is completely alone and always has been. To survive she relies on her healing abilities and her ability to steal, cheat, and con her way to food and shelter. She knows nothing of her past, but is able to pick up any language after hearing a few words. At a performance to con a family needing help healing their daughter, she accidentally summons a djinn, Dara, which in turn awakens a graveyard full of ifrit, and sends Nahri on the run. Not trusting Dara they are travel companions none-the-less as they make their way to Daaevabad, a protected home of the fire beings, and the only place Dara thinks she will be safe. Along the way on the month long journey, Nahri tries to learn about the djinn, called Daeva, and the creatures they are running from. She also learns that she is the last surviving Nahid, healer, and while she may be a shafit, a half blood, she has powers and lineage the kingdom desires. Dara isn’t forthcoming with information, as a result his dark past and incredible powers keep Nahri on edge. She is constantly plotting her escape from the magic carpet carrying them and the future that she doesn’t understand let alone know if she wants.

The book is told from Nahri’s perspective and from Ali’s as well. Ali is the second born son to the king of Daevabad and has been raised away from the palace at the citadel. With a soft spot for the shafit, second class citizens of Daevabad, he gets tangled up in a plot to free child slaves and gets called back to the palace to be watched and tested as his brother’s future Qaid, the top military official that he has been preparing for his entire life. Ali is already an outcast to his family, as a devout Muslim in practice, belief, and actions, unlike his family who identify as Muslim for political unity.

Once Nahri and Dara cross in to Daevabad and the two narratives come together, the politicking, deception, deceit, and historical complexities get intense. The king demands that Ali get to know Nahri so that she can be persuaded to marry the emir, Muntadhir, but Nahri is in love with Dara and struggling to learn how to be a healer in the mythical world. To say that the story gets messy with the djinn tribes, and the manipulation of power and historical atrocities would be a simplification. But the writing is superb, and the world building encompassing. The book doesn’t drag and even after reading all three volumes, you’ll find yourself thrilled to know that the author has some additional points of view online.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The author takes a lot of liberties with Prophet Suleiman’s story, but it is fiction and I don’t think that anyone would be mislead by the information given about him and his control over the djinn. The “Islamic” elements in the book are really just that, elements, they aren’t plot lines, or more than just a layer to the setting and the characters. The history and the cultural richness is made more complete by the foods, clothes, and salat times mentioned, but there is nothing Islamic fiction about the text.

I love the writing. Period. It is engaging and doesn’t lag or feel repetitive. The characters are very fleshed out: no one is good or bad, the entire cast is shades of gray, and their motives and intentions are often debatable. My daughter and I have argued and I don’t think we have tried this hard to convince each other about characters since Harry Potter, and it is so great!

FLAGS:

SPOILERS: Dara and Nahri have chemistry and they kiss and long for each other, but it isn’t the bulk of the story line. Ali starts to fall for Nahri, but he has poor judgement so it is by and large dismissed. Muntadhir is always drinking wine and courting courtesans and is never in his own bed, nothing is detailed, it is said in passing, or implied. It is also hinted that Muntadhir is in love with his best friend, a male, and pretty much everyone knows, and they just look the other way. It does not state anything explicitly about them, but it is hinted at, implied, and mentioned by the other man’s father that the prince has broken his son’s heart numerous times.

Wine is always present, as is stealing, and lying. There is a lot of violence, not overt gore, but occasionally graphic as Nahri is a healer and there is a war simmering in the current time line, and a historical one that wiped about a whole tribe that is discussed throughout.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t be able to do this for middle school, but perhaps closer to the end of the school year, I would suggest that the high school book club consider it. There is a ton online for this award winning debut novel, so I’ll just include the author’s website: http://sachakraborty.com

Happy Reading!

Amazing Women of the Middle East: 25 Stories from Ancient Times to Present Day by Wafa’ Tarnowska

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Amazing Women of the Middle East: 25 Stories from Ancient Times to Present Day by Wafa’ Tarnowska

img_7464A nonfiction picture book for teens that features amazing women from ancient times to the present day.  Many of the women featured are Muslim and each entry receives a teasing summation page with a full page portrait from one of five international artists before a two page, more in-depth biography is presented.  The 112 pages feature an introduction, and a map to start the book off, and acknowledgements and a glossary at the end.  There are large time gaps that I wish would have been commented on, the geographical pool includes India which surprised me, and in one of the entries the way hijab is discussed seemed judgmental to me, but other than that the stories are absolutely remarkable.  There are amazing women in every culture and throughout all time periods, but to see one that highlights a region that is stereotypically oppressive to women is a sight for sore eyes.  I learned so much and marveled at the intellect, bravery and determination shown from being rulers of empires to intellectuals to scientists and artists everything in between.

The book starts with Nefertiti born in 1370 BCE and concludes with Zahra Lari, a hijab wearing ice skater from the United Arab Emirates born in 1995.  There are “celebrities” such as Amal Clooney, Fairuz, Cleopatra, Sheherazade and many that might not be as well known.

I particularly enjoyed learning about Zenobia the 3rd century warrior queen who conquered a third of the Roman empire in just five years.  Sufi mystic and poet Rabi’a al Adawiyya and her devotion to Allah swt.  Eqyptian Shajarat al-Durr who was nicknamed Queen of the Muslims in the 13th century.  And Hurrem Sultan from the Ottoman Empire.

Not every one featured was a ruler or married to one, and not are so far in the past, which in many ways gives the collection it’s charm.  Somayya Jabarti was the first female editor-in-chief in Saudi Arabia in 2014 and  Maha al Balushi is the first Omani woman to fly professionally for her country’s airline in 2010, examples of two women presented that cracked the glass ceiling by following their own dreams.

It is great to learn about the strength of the women from the past and see how to add to the legacy.  The book is a great reference, as well as a source of inspiration for people of all backgrounds to enjoy and appreciate.  I found the book at my local public library in the YA/Teen nonfiction women section.

Baba, What Does My Name Mean? A Journey to Palestine by Rifk Ebeid illustrated by Lamaa Jawhari

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Baba, What Does My Name Mean? A Journey to Palestine by Rifk Ebeid illustrated by Lamaa Jawhari

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This lyrical journey through Palestine’s major cities, shares historical facts, geographical information, cultural richness, and love for a homeland that will inspire and educate all readers. There is a lot of information pressed in to 32 pages and at times the rhyming text, illustrations, and maps are powerful, and at other times overwhelming. The 8.5 x 11 horizontal paperback bound book needs to be bigger to hold all that the pages contain, and hard back to hold up to the details that need to be poured over to be appreciated. The content about the names and places in Palestine is priceless and well done, but I really wanted to love the book a bit more than I ended up feeling for it. I think trying to make it all rhyme was just a bit too much for my liking, but I would buy this book again in a heartbeat to share with my children. Even though we are not Palestinian, I think all Muslims have a piece of Palestine in our hearts and feel a deep need to celebrate the culture, fight for their freedom, and demand a quality of life that they are brutally being denied by their oppressors.

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The book starts out at bedtime with a little girl, Saamideh asking her baba what her name means. He explains to her that it means “one who is patient, persistent and one who perseveres.” She is named this because she is Palestinian, he explains and then he shows her the key to their ancestral home in Palestine. He asks her to close her eyes and imagine a white dove, named Salam, taking her on tonight’s journey.

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Salam and Samamidah prepare to journey across Palestine’s mountains, hills, deserts, and plains. They start in Areeha, one of the oldest cities in the world, and one one of the lowest points on Earth.

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They journey next to Al-Quds, the capital. They see the old city, Al-Aqsa, and more, before heading off to Nablus, Yafa, Haifa and the Akka. Learning about the cities, the food, and the history of each.

They learn about the dabkah, and the weaving in Gaza and head to Bait Lahem too. They learn about glass blowing in Al-Khalil at the Ibrabhimi Mosque, and finally they conclude their journey with the little girl dreaming of flying around the world to use her key and open people’s hearts and minds.

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She proudly exclaims her love of Palestine and her and her baba pray that one day they will be able to return. Saamidah then asks her baba why they are refugees, and he promises to save that conversation for tomorrow’s beditme story.

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The book concludes with a list of the city names in Arabic, trasliterated in English, and then the English names. It then has discussion questions at the end.

The book is not outwardly political, nor critical. It is a celebration of a people, a culture, and land. Happy Reading!

Flying Over Water by Shannon Hitchcock and N.H. Senzai

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Flying Over Water by Shannon Hitchcock and N.H. Senzai

This middle grades, upper elementary book is a character driven contemporary story of two friends with their own fears coming together: one a native of Tampa, the other one a refugee from Syria arriving in the US on the day Trump’s ‘Muslim Ban’ goes in to effect. In 272 pages of alternating narratives, two 12 year old girls find strength and kindness in themselves, in each other, and in many around them. Islamaphobia is focused on in the story, but the inclusion of diversity, Black Lives Matter, anti semitism, mental health, social justice, and US immigration makes the book relatable to everyone and interesting to explore. The book is remarkably similar to another book published this year, A Galaxy of Sea Stars, and I wish I had not read them so close together. Both are well done, and I honestly don’t know if one is better than the other, but space them out so you don’t find yourself comparing them. I got my copy from Scholastic, and I’m always happy when the school market shows accurate strong Muslims, so if you see this in the book order forms that come home or book fairs and are wondering if you should get it, do it, it is worth your time and your child’s, inshaAllah.

SYNOPSIS:

Noura’s family has escaped Syria and had been living in Turkey when they learn they have been granted assylum in Tampa, Florida, USA. When the book opens Noura is practicing controlling her fear of water as the plane flies over the ocean. Her twin brother, Ammar, her parents and baby brother Ismail are greeted with protesters when they land. Whisked away by a church group and local Muslims, the family is given support and assistance in a new country.

One of the members in the church group that have volunteered to help the Alwan family, is Jordyn and her mother. Jordyn is going to be Noura and Ammar’s Student Ambassador at Bayshore Middle School and Jordyn’s mom has offered to help Noura’s mom learn English. Jordyn is the state title holder in swimming, but while she was swimming her fastest race, her mom was having a miscarriage, and both have a lot to work through to function as they once did.

The two girls immediately hit it off, and the families follow. Noura’s love of birds is mirrored in Jordyn’s love of water and fish, and both have their fears and mental health coping skills to bond and confide in with one another about. The girls and Ammar are assigned a Social Studies assignment and Jordyn getting close to the Alwans is not well received by Jordyn’s close friend Bailey who’s brother was killed while fighting in Afghanistan. Other classmates also show bigotry and with the real incidents of 2017 incorporated in to the story of a mosque being burned, Jewish cemeteries being ransacked, pedestrians being run-over in France, and more, the Alwans are questioning their new country, and their friends are wondering how America has gotten this way.

While praying at school Ammar and Noura are constantly harassed no matter where they relocate to, and finally ask the administration if there is a safe place they can worship. Florida law says a space can be set aside for all faiths to have the same access as clubs do (I’m overly simplifying), and many different and diverse students come together to turn an old closet into a place of peace, worship, freedom, reflection, and meditation. As expected, the space is destroyed, the culprits never caught and complaints to the school board mount. The ultimate climax involves the kids speaking up about what the space means to them, and waiting to see what the final school board vote is. Along the way there are smaller victories, such as Jordyn teaching Noura to swim, Ammar speaking about the white helmets saving him, and Jordyn and her mother working together to heal.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the Muslim Ban is discussed in a way that it is personal, not political. By highlighting a fictional manifestation of refugees affected by such policy, even people that don’t know anyone affected, I’m certain would feel a connection to a concept and its affects in a very real way. I love that N.H. Senzai was brought on to make the story’s Islamic elements ring true and that the prayer room, a very American Muslim construct ends up being at the center of the story. Noura and her family eat halal, wear hijab, and pray. I enjoyed that other diversity and acceptance issues were carried in to the story by the supporting cast including a Jewish boy, a Cuban girl, a Hindu and more. Overall the book is well written and solid, the mental health and coping skills are so beautifully normalized. Both girls have sought help and found success with it, and both are brave in addressing their fears and opening up about them to those around them. It really is empowering.

The end of the book features more information about the real Syrian children heroes mentioned in the book: the ten year old model builder Muhammad Qutaish, the Olympic swimmer Yusra Mardini, and education activist Muzoon Almellehan. There is also information about the two authors and how their collaboration came to be.

I would love to not compare this book to A Galaxy of Sea Stars, but just to highlight a few of the near exact similarities would prove my point that had these two books not been published the same year, one would definitely be accused of copying the other. Both feature middle school girls, both have a refugee arriving to a coastal town with their families (one Afghan one Syrian), both have the American born protagonist loving water, being an only child, and have mothers going through their own life changing crisis. Both have two side kick friends, one that is very anti Muslim and one that is on the fence. Neither have a completely resolving happy ending with the three girls’ friendship and there is doubt in both books of friend’s possible involvement of hate motivated actions. Both feature a side character’s brother being killed in conflict in a Muslim majority country. Both feature an amazing teacher that is very involved in opening minds and facilitating growth regarding prejudice. Both feature PTSD issues, and fear of water issues as well as a major hobby being destroyed by an angry classmate character. The ‘ethnic mom’ in both stories is rather one dimensional but loves to cook and feed everyone. Sure they also have their differences, one alternates point of view and is tied closely to current real events, but both have remarkably similar themes of friendship, overcoming fear, and finding similarities over differences.

FLAGS:

Some mention of violence as the Alwans recall the destruction and fear of war in Syria. Mention of a cartoon drawn by a classmate mocking Jordyn getting her first bra, but it isn’t detailed. The swimming coach is a lesbian and she mentions her wife at one point.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would definitely encourage elementary teachers to have this book on their shelves and encourage students to read it and respond. I think it would be too predictable for middle schoolers to read in a critical manner, however, they would probably enjoy it as a light read. With Covid 19 still keeping me from starting up book clubs again, I have been asked to consider helping put together some side reading lists/suggestions, and this book would definitely find its way on that.

Happy Reading!

The Servant by Fatima Sharafeddine

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img_6859This 157 page young adult book is translated from Arabic and while at times the story seems intentionally choppy, at other times it seems that the translation is making it more jarring than it needs to be.  I found the book interesting and powerful, in much the way a short story can be, but the length was awkward, as it was too long for a short story, and not long enough to really read as a novel with detail and depth and connection.  I love the growth and retaking of control that the protagonist embodies and I absolutely love the ending being left intentionally unresolved.  There is no mention of religion in this story set in Lebanon, until nearly the end when it states that she is Muslim.  I wonder if the translation took out some of the ‘Salams’ and ‘inshaAllahs’ that would have clarified it a bit even if prayer, or the athan or any outward signs of being a Muslim are clearly absent.  The book is probably fine for ages 13 and up.

SYNOPSIS:

Faten is essentially sold in to servitude by her family.  Her family lives in a village outside Beirut and when money gets tight she is forced to go and work as a house keeper/maid for the Zein family.  Once a month Faten’s father comes and collects her salary showing little to know affection for the eldest of his children. The small Zein family has two daughters and lives in a flat.  While the girls are in school, Faten cooks and cleans and dreams of being a nurse.  The family is not particularly cruel to Faten, they often refer to her simply as ‘girl,’ but they are not particularly kind to her either.  The highlight of Faten’s day is watching a young man across the street that drives a dark blue car, come home, study, and play piano.  On occasion she catches his eye, so he knows she exists, but the two know nothing about one another.  On Faten’s 17th birthday she decides she is going to gift her self something, and writes a letter to the blond man across the street.  She has her only friend in Beirut, Rosalynn, a much older house servant in the apartment downstairs from Sierra Leon, deliver the letter which asks the boy to meet her so that she might seek his help in a very important manner.

When Faten and Marwan meet, Faten asks him to obtain information about how she might study nursing and change her future.  The two secretly meet with Rosalynn’s help on Sunday’s, Faten’s one day off.  Faten borrows May’s books to study as she learns what exams she must take to make her dream a reality.  Marwan helps her with questions she needs assistance with and Faten and Marwan become close friends, with both feeling some attraction for one another just beneath the surface.  One day however, they are discovered by a friend of Mrs. Zein at a beach side cafe, drinking coffee and Faten is forbidden from leaving the apartment as a result.  With the oldest girl, May, married now, and nothing to look forward to on her days off, Faten dives in to her studies and is more determined than ever to pass her exams.

To even take the multiple day exam requires a few lies, a few favors, and the willingness to take a huge risk.  When the Zein’s find out she is let go, and now must face her parents back in the village.  With the help of her childhood friend, Faten clings to hope, confidence in her ability, and determination to pave her own way on her own terms.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that while Faten is the victim of cruel parents, and an unfortunate circumstance, she rises up and fights for control.  I love that she has feelings for Marwan, but that they don’t overshadow her future goals, nor does she become overly dependent on him.  I really love her strength in handling the situation with him when it is good, when it is tested, and when she has to walk away.  There are elements of it being a love story, but that is just one thread of the book, her charting her own path is much more the central story line.  I wish her religion and his religion would have come to the surface more, and sooner.  Lebanon is a diverse place and just saying they were of two different faiths could have provided a lot of insight and fleshing out of the culture and the dynamics the two would have faced.  The classism is a bit obvious, but even when that is explored it provides a better understanding to the characters and to the arc they are moving on.  I like that her childhood friend and family are so loving and that her mom is not completely written off as a passive flat character.  Overall, I like the story and the book, set in the 80’s it really could have gone a lot of ways, but it held close to the theme and provided enough side details that it felt grounded, believable and ultimately was enjoyable to read.

FLAGS:

When May is entertaining suitors there is some ogling that young kids might question.  There is a lot of lying and deception and the possible romance between Faten and Marwan that in the text is pretty clean, but there is some hand holding if memory serves and implied desire for the friendship to be more.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

The book offers a lot in terms of classism and forced labor to be discussed and the cliffhanger ending between Marwan and Faten would allow the readers to decide if they could be together despite their different faiths, economic status and families, or not.  I probably wouldn’t do it as a book club, but if I were a high school teacher, I might offer some sort of extra credit assignment involving the book, as the ending really lends itself to the reader projecting the characters’ futures based on their own perspectives which would be fascinating to hear.

Leila and the Sands of Time by Shirin Shamsi

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Leila and the Sands of Time by Shirin Shamsi

shirin shamsi

This 127 page book has a lot of potential, but ultimately didn’t win me over.  It is one of those that needs a good editor to encourage the author to flesh out the characters, take advantage of a potentially cathartic resolution, and fill the gaping holes in the story.  Meant for ages 8-12 the tiny font, and tight spacing, make the book really dense and intimidating to look at and read.  The book, as written, should be well over 200 pages, if spaced appropriately for the target audience.  Once you accept the presentation and get in to the story, it isn’t an awful read, it just could have and should have been so much more.  I hope the author revisits it and polishes it up- the time travel, the science DNA component, and the death of the protagonist’s parents, offer a lot for Muslim and non Muslim readers to sink their teeth in and be swept away by, but ultimately, I don’t know that most readers will be motivated to finish the book, and those that do, won’t remember anything about it.

SYNOPSIS:

Laila’s dad has recently died, and with her mother having died years earlier, Laila is now 13 and an orphan living with her stepmom and baby sister.  Feeling resentful that her dad remarried and had a child that took time away from her in his final span of life, doesn’t make Laila a very kind person at home.  Her best friend Beth, even points out how cold she is to her family.  With school vacations approaching, Laila is headed for Umrah with her dad’s brother, her uncle, and his wife.  While making tawaf, Laila loses her aunt and uncle in the crowd and finds herself transported to 7th century Arabia.  She hears a baby crying and learns that the baby’s life is in danger.  To save her, she must get the baby, the baby’s mom and baby’s sister from Makkah to Yathrib.  The only way to do that is to join a caravan, and they can only join a caravan if they have a male escort.  So Laila chops off her hair, acts like a boy, and gets them in the caravan.  They meet bandits along the way, but nothing too scary, they arrive in Medina and right before they meet RasulAllah, Laila finds herself back in the present.  She is in a hospital, but the doctors do not know what is wrong with her so they release her.  She returns to the US, relays the story to Beth, and decides that at an upcoming field trip to study DNA, she is going to submit the baby’s hair that she still has for dating.  The results show it is from 1400 years ago and a family heirloom of her step moms reveals that the baby is a great great great great… grandmother of her’s.  Resolved to open her heart to her family, Laila is a changed person, alhumdulillah.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love the premise, it is like Sophia’s Journal and When Wings Expand  thrown together and scrambled.  Laila is struggling with her faith and is trying to find it, while also finding a way to move forward after losing her father.  There are just a lot of things that aren’t answered, are contradictory, or don’t make sense.  It says she learned Arabic because her mother spoke it, her dad is desi, but really no hiccups speaking in 7th century Arabia other than forgetting the word for scissors?  She at one point said she was a cousin from the north, but while on the caravan mentioned that she had never travelled through the desert.  There really should have been more action with the thieves and the regrouping when the men came back.  Similarly, her gender reveal should have been a bigger deal than it was.  I was hoping there would be a mention of if her hair was long or short when she awoke in the hospital, I don’t think I missed it, but maybe, or maybe it wasn’t there.  Once back home, there really needed to be a reunion scene with Laila and her stepmom and half sister, I mean the whole point of the time travel was to save a baby. Really? Nothing? I was disappointed that it was glossed over and mentioned as a retelling to Beth and pushed aside.  The second climax is when the DNA testing is being questioned, but I didn’t get the need for the babysitter and everything to be rearranged for a two second conversation with the principal accusing Laila of theft, a phone call should have sufficed, plus when Laila and Beth mention it to the scientist, it seems everyone was questioned, but Beth wasn’t, something wasn’t consistent there either.  Overall, the book needed more action for a book that involves time travel and more emotional attachment and character connection for a book that involves a newly orphaned young teen girl.

I like the conveying of Islamic facts and information and history in a fairly smooth way.  At the beginning, Umrah being explained was a little text bookish, but it smoothed out as the book progressed.  I love the little flashbacks at the beginning of each chapter, I wish there would have been some information about the remarriage of her father and her emotions on the matter at that time.  It is one thing to be grieving, but really she is a brat to her step mom, and if the uncle and aunt live right there, not sure where they live, someone should really be working on getting them all some family therapy, not a quality situation for anyone.

FLAGS:

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t use the book as a book club selection, nor would I think it would get read if on a classroom shelf.  I might use the premise of going back in time to meet Prophet Muhammad, as a writing prompt though.  Would be a good assignment with factual and Islamic references to get kids stretching their imagination to make it all come together and work.