Tag Archives: desi

A Dupatta Is…by Marzieh Abbas illustrated by Anu Chouhan

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A Dupatta Is…by Marzieh Abbas illustrated by Anu Chouhan

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I read this 30 page early elementary book a few times before writing this review and honestly my cheeks hurt because I cannot stop smiling.  The lyrical writing radiates warmth and pride, culture and tradition, legacy and identity, while acknowledging both the playfulness and solemnness of a piece of fabric.  My heart breathed with the clarity and articulation that is felt and contained within the fabric that perhaps all Pakistanis feel, but cannot convey so poetically.  The book may be meant for children four to eight years old, but all readers will appreciate the text and illustrations that seamlessly flow like a favorite dupatta grabbed while running out the door. I struggled with picking only a few images to share, as every page became my new favorite as the book progressed.  Admittedly though, one page did give me pause as it conflated incense burning with getting rid of evil spirits which comes across as a religious belief, but is a cultural practice.

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The book starts out with the actual physical description of what a dupatta is and how it is adorned.  It then moves on to describing the color, the sound, the smell, the place, the function, the art, the beauty, the fun, the faith, the legacy, and the identity.  Each spread ends with the words, “but a dupatta is so much more…” seamlessly weaving so many facets of what a dupatta is together to create a true understanding of it from a tangible, to cultural, to practical perspective.

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I love that there is a page about faith, and praying five times a day with a dupatta being worn, it is a little odd that there is a portrait decorating the wall behind the two characters making dua, but at least it is clearly behind them.  I absolutely loved that so often the wearer of the dupatta was also wearing a hijab, particularly the bride picture- which is absolutely gorgeous.  It signals without words that a dupatta can be worn to cover a Muslim woman’s head, but it is also often not.  The backmatter further details that it was once worn as part of the national dress and as a form of modesty, but now is often worn as an accessory.

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One summer in Pakistan, a friend and some cousins and I started trying to formulate 101 Things to do with a dupatta (wipe noses, pull things out of the oven, catch fish), it was the year of net dupattas so clearly covering your head was not one of them.  Sure we were being silly, but to see the book also highlight wiping sticky hands, and wrapping it up like a sari, and using it as a cradle to rock a baby was very, very accurate and heartwarming.

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Please pre order this book, it signals to publishers that these books are in demand and is a way to show what type of books we want to see.  I preordered  mine here.

Basking in My Brown by Fatima Faisal illustrated by Anain Shaikh

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Basking in My Brown by Fatima Faisal illustrated by Anain Shaikh

This picture book celebrating brown skin, particularly in girls, and specifically from a Desi culture point of view, takes on the notion of dark brown skin not being as ideal as compared to lighter skin.  If this is not a concept you are familiar with, I don’t think that the book will hit home, but as someone who has heard this refrain of staying out of the sun to not get darker since childhood, aimed at my friends and cousins (I turn red and burn in the sun), I do appreciate this owning and pushing back on a ridiculous colorist mindset. I don’t love the “magic” diction choice, and there is nothing Islamic in the book, save some covered heads that could be religiously inspired, or culturally, or even weather related, and I’m not sure if the author or illustrator identify as Muslim, but I’m sharing anyway because I know young Pakistani girls particularly, hear this colonial mindset messaging still, and I support undermining it.  This book is not about systemic oppression and racism and taking up space, this book is internal cultural acknowledgement of a pointless beauty notion.

A young girl begins the book telling of things she loves: trips to Pakistan to fly kites with her Dada, her mother’s dinner parties, swimming, climbing trees, but most of all she loves basking in the sun.  One day while playing with her friend Zoya in the warm sun, Zoya abruptly says she should go in before she gets too dark.  The protagonist counters that she loves all the shades her beautiful brown turns and equates it to magic.

She holds out her hand to show her magical brown skin shimmering, and connects the beautiful brown to the brown clay pot her Nani used to carry water in, the brown shawl her mother wore when coming to a new home, the brown of the henna her sister puts on, etc..  She says her brown skin has its own story of being proud, brave, courageous, soft, sweet, and fearless.

Zoya decides she likes the magic and decides to stay and bask in the sun. The author on the final spread raches out to brown girls to own, embrace, and celebrate their brown skin.

The Glass Witch by Lindsay Puckett

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The Glass Witch by Lindsay Puckett

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Another Scholastic published book that I genuinely cannot understand why the author forced a Muslim character to be a part of, and no it isn’t just a token hijab on a character named Fatima.  It mentions she goes to the mosque, there is a Quran on the book shelf, her parents don’t understand her obsession with monsters, she is desi, and there is Urdu in the text as well.  This isn’t me just doubling down on Halloween being a pagan holiday that I’m against, this book is about witches and magic and while it does take place on Halloween, and the witches are Good(e), it is their last name, it is a weird inclusion flex for me.  The book also has the Muslim grandpa crushing on the grandma witch, he even kisses her hand and they are revealed to be soul mates.  There is evil possession, different men that could be the protagonists father, killing, and a pageant.  The book has good qualities- positive body size messaging, focus on family love, self acceptance, and is fast paced and entertaining, but even as a parent that lets my kids read fantasy books, and books that mention Halloween, this book went too far for me.  It normalizes Muslims being ok with magic, it isn’t world building and fantasy, it is very much the real world with sihr characters and practices. It positions the parents as being loving when they come around to accept their daughter’s love of monsters, it also seems to normalize men and women relationships, and for a middle grade 224 page book I just can’t support a Muslim character’s role in such a story. 

I know sometimes I’m ok with magic in books, this one just seems a bit intense, we might just have to agree to disagree if you feel differently, and I’ll own my possible inconsistency in the matter as well.

SYNOPSIS:

Adelaide is heading to her grandma’s house with her mom, and being dropped off for three months- abandoned is more like it. The family dynamic is stressed even on a good day, and today is not a normal day.  The Goode family of witches are all that remain of the witches in the town and more than three can not exist within town lines.  Additionally, if at least one witch is not always in Cranberry Hollow, all the magic will be lost.  Adelaide, doesn’t have magic though, toss in that she is a bigger girl than most other twelve year olds, and that she never feels like she is enough, and the bees within her are buzzing. 

The plan was to drop off Addie and head out of town.  The neighbors, Hakeem and his granddaughter Fatima show up though, and before Candice can sneak out, she finds herself heading to the Cranberry Hollow Halloween Festival with Fatima, Addie, and her mom.  The town loves the Goodes, they help crops grow better, cancer to be cured, and so much more.  Of course they don’t know that they are witches, but they know that they are helpful.  When the time to leave arrives, Aunt Jodie stays on the other side of the town line and they prepare to say their goodbyes and keep the fourth Goode outside the imaginary line, but Addie in a last ditch attempt to make her mother notice her, pulls her mother back across and thus sets off the curse of having too many witches in the town.  The hated Hern family is going to be possessed, and Addie will be hunted come midnight on Halloween.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The book is intense and scary at times, just toeing the line of what a MG reader can handle, I just don’t get the Muslim character.  It really seems intentional and thought out, and I would love to find out why it was a conscious choice.  There is a small passage equating Addie standing out because of her size with Fatima and her hijab, but I can’t imagine that is enough of a reason to have a practicing Muslim loving Monster hunter in the book.  I know we want representation, but this didn’t work for me, and while I know others are ok with Halloween and some with sihr in a fictional sense, having a Quran on a shelf above the book of monsters and jinn that the Nana has collected, just rubs me the wrong way.  The book is published by Scholastic and will undoubtedly be in book order offerings and in book fairs, and if you are ok with it for your children, that is your choice, I just feel obligated to share my concerns so that you can decide what is best for your family.

FLAGS:

Magic, witches, curses, killing, death, Halloween, crushes, romance, kiss on the hand, premarital sex not detailed (two options at least for who Addie’s father is), cigarette smoking, bullying, mention of a kid at the festival with two dads.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t shelve the book in an Islamic school library or classroom.  I would also pull it from a Scholastic Book Fair display at our Islamic school.

Bhai for Now by Maleeha Siddiqui

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Bhai for Now by Maleeha Siddiqui

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We tend to love people and books that do things first, for good reason, they raise the bar, set the standard, and pave the way for all those that come after.  And no, this is not the first middle grade traditionally published book to have Muslim characters having a completely non-Islamic-identity-centered plot, BUT it might just be the best one I’ve read.  The amount of Islam woven into the characters and storyline is absolutely incredible and seamless. The writing quality keeping dual male point of views separate, engaging, and unique without judgement, is nearly flawless.  The emotional connection of the writing and characters and plot had me both laughing out loud and crying unapologetically within the span of the 276 pages of the book.  This book is a treat for the readers and everyone eight and up I’m quite nearly certain will enjoy this Muslim authored, unapologetically Muslim approach about two 8th grade strangers realizing they are twin brothers and getting to know each other.

SYNOPSIS:

Shaheer lives with his dad and paternal grandfather.  They are well-to-do with his father being an ER physician, but they move around a lot, and never stay in one place long enough to make friends, unpack boxes, or feel like they have a home.  Ashar has lived in Virginia since he was four.  He and his mom recently moved out of living with her brother and his family, but they are next door so even though money is often tight, family and love are always present.

The first day of eighth grade finds the two boys at the same school, staring at each other and wondering how they can maybe find the pieces of themselves that have always been missing. The idea is good, but the reality is complicated.  Ashar and Shaheer’s parents have refused to even acknowledge each other to the boys over the years, extended family plays along, and the boys have to decide if they can even forgive their parents for doing this to them.  Throw in a cousin who knows the boys are switching places, hockey practices, a masjid remodel, and the ever looming threat that Shaheer will be moving yet again and the stage is set for a lot of laughs, tears, and characters that won’t be forgotten anytime soon.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The retelling of “The Parent Trap” is not predictable, nor does it talk down to the reader and tie everything up in a nice unrealistic bow.  There are twists and disappointment and hope and joy, not just for the characters, but for the readers as well.  The side characters are even fleshed out and memorable, not just as foils for the protagonists (I loved cousin Zohra), but as characters with a vested interest in how it all plays out.  I was surprised how clearly different the characters are, even when imitating one another and how nuanced their differences are.  They are not simply opposites: one is not good the other bad, one outgoing one an introvert, rather they are just different, as any two siblings undoubtedly would be.

I absolutely love how Islam is so much a part of the story, a part of the characters, a part of the details, but is not the whole story.  There is no Islamophobia, internal or external, there is no religious othering, it is masterfully done and Muslims and non Muslims alike will benefit from the real tangible expression, growth, and presentation of faith for the characters.

Similarly, culture is presented as a part of the characters in various forms without overly explaining or white centering.  This is who the characters are and their present predicament, as crazy as it is, could happen to anyone, of any culture or of any faith, the two are not corollary. But because it is happening to Ashar and Shaheer, the reader is brought into their world where salat/namaz, athan, mosques, hockey, entrance exams, volunteer work, finances, naan, pineapple on pizza, donuts, and nihari are all present and all unapologized for.  Well, except for the pineapple on pizza.

The best part of it all, is that it is also clean.

FLAGS:

Nothing an eight year old can’t handle, but there is deception as they imitate each other, parental arguing.  There is mention of Shaheer putting his headphones on and listening to music. Zohra plays flute in the band and it mentions when she has practice or that the family all goes and supports her. Male cousins and female cousins interact with each other freely.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

If my middle school book club is mostly 6th graders in the fall, I think I will feature this book as soon as it is released on October 4th.  Even if it is a bit below “reading level” the writing is engaging and I don’t think even the most cynical book club member will be sorry they spent time with this book.  It would be a quick read for them, but an enjoyable one for sure.

It can be preordered here on Amazon

Hassan and Aneesa Go To a Nikaah by Yasmeen Rahim illustrated by Rakaiya Azzouz

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Hassan and Aneesa Go To a Nikaah by Yasmeen Rahim illustrated by Rakaiya Azzouz

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The latest installment in the Hassan and Aneesa series caught my attention because there just aren’t a lot of books about an Islamic marriage process (it is Desi tinged).  Cultural weddings you often see, but despite the misleading title of them just attending a Nikaah, they actually walk the reader through the steps from wanting to get married, to getting to know someone, praying Salatul-Istikhara,  agreeing on a mahr, signing contracts, and a walima.  The idea and premise is brilliant and greatly needed, the finished product, not so much.  Somehow I had forgotten how tiny in size the books in the series are (6.5×7.5), making it all visually cluttered and the text often hard to see over the illustrations.  And while I love how the concepts and terms are defined, the point of view of having it witnessed and detailed by the brother sister duo is often awkward and wordy.  I wish the author would have ditched the familiar characters, and just written a book about the marriage process for kids.  The vacillating between a fictionalized story, factual requirements, kids witnessing their parents helping their cousin get married, makes for a tangled book that fails to connect to readers seven and up, let alone two and up like the book claims. If you’re kids are asking about how Muslims marry or seem curious about a halal way it can be done, I suppose this book would provide a way to understand some of the key facets in broad strokes, but it needs editing, and more space to show joy and excitement in a book about families and a couple coming together.

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The very first page set the tone for me, the overly dressed girl at a barbecue and the way her name seems to be so formally introduced.  Perhaps it is a difference of culture, but the book never bounced back from the heavy handed tone.  Aisha wants to get married and asks her parents to help her find someone.  They ask her what she is looking for and she tells them.  I like what she includes kindness, love of Allah, funny, etc.  I wish it would have suggested that she had given it a lot of thought before answering though.

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Aneesa and Hassan’s mom and their aunt are discussing Aisha’s want to marry at their painting class and a friend over hears and suggests her son Uthman.  The families agree to have the two meet in a cafe with Aneesa and Hassan’s dad and uncle so that her mahram is nearby.  Uthman and Aisha both enjoy sports and Uthman interacts with a baby at another table impressing Aisha.  They both pray istikhara and decide that the families should all meet.

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It is then time to pick out a dress and hand out invitations, which at least involves Hassan and Aneesa, but the pages are so cringe and awkward from the phrasing, to the structure of the concepts.  The spread is disjointed and you’ll catch yourself shaking your head and making a face every time you read it.

Mehndi is next and I’m not sure why it focuses on Aneesa not sitting still and looking sad when her design is ruined.  It seems like an odd inclusion in what should be a joyous book.  Hassan is entrusted with gift to hold on to by Uthman for Aisha, and the Imam gives a khutbah about marriage.

Contracts are then signed with Aisha her wali, uthman and the imam and each party is asked if they agree.  They have already decided on the mahr and then Hassan hands over the gift.  The walima feast is delicious and the reader is encouraged to go back and find the cat in the illustrations.

As for illustrations I do like that the main females are shown out of hijab at home, and in hijab while out.  At the wedding there are different shades of brown, different loves of covering and not covering, there is a guest in a wheel chair and the couple and their families seem happy.  I found it odd that it says they are in love, since there isn’t a lot of emotion mentioned before the last page and I wish the text on numerous pages wasn’t mixed in with the pictures.

The book concludes with a glossary of terms.

Zara’s Rules for Record-Breaking Fun by Hena Khan illustrated by Wastana Haikal

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Zara’s Rules for Record-Breaking Fun by Hena Khan illustrated by Wastana Haikal

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This early chapter book packs a lot of personality, growth, and fun into 127 pages.  The writing quality is engaging and the characters relatable.  If you have read the Zayd Saleem books you will recognize the family in this new stand alone series.  Either way though, from the surprising Naano to the fun Mamoo, the neighborhood children and the desire to maintain her reign as Queen of the neighborhood, the book may be meant for 7-10 year olds, but based on the kids in my house, anyone that picked it up, read the entire book before putting it back down.  The grandma covers her head, it mentions she reads Quran, there is a Salaam or two, an InshaAllah, and desi cultural foods mentioned.  The focus is not on religion or culture, but the layer adds depth to the characters, and normalizes names and practices in a universal plot.

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SYNOPSIS:

Zara’s neighborhood has a lot of kids in it, and Zara has the reputation of being the leader who rules with grace and fairness.  It is a position she takes very seriously.  When Mr. Chapman moves out and a new family moves in, Zara fears losing her place.  The new girl Naomi has a lot of ideas and everyone seems to like them.  Zara has a grand idea to set a Guinness World Record, but with her little brother Zayd messing her up, nothing is going as planned for the summer.

As she finds her self alone a lot and not having much fun, she decides to change things up.  She works to be less bossy, less controlling, more willing to to share her crown.  With a lot of heart, internal growth, recognizing her strengths and weaknesses, the neighborhood kids just might have a record-breaking summer.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the story wasn’t just surface level, it acknowledged some emotions and stresses and introspection, that I was pleasantly surprised to see played out in an early chapter book.  I really just enjoy the family, they read relatable and fun. The Nanoo’s surprise ability to hula hoop and her pettiness over a cooking competition genuinely made me smile.  The neighborhood kids and the politics of the different aged children having to find ways to compromise reminds me a lot of my summers as a kid, and the nostalgia was sweet.  I like the Islamic touchstones, I would have loved if they had to go in at sunset to pray or something of the like, but I was glad that at least that Nanoo reads Quran and an inshaAllah in the text made me feel seen.

FLAGS:

Music, dancing, frustration, jealousy

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I think this book should definitely be on every library and class shelf.  It releases tomorrow on Amazon, but Crescent Moon Store already has it.

Ali and the Gladiators by Farheen Khan illustrated by Evgeniya Erokhina (Ali Series Book #1)

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Ali and the Gladiators by Farheen Khan illustrated by Evgeniya Erokhina (Ali Series Book #1)

This new early chapter book series from Ruqaya’s Bookshelf comes as a boxed set (Books 1-5), so I wasn’t sure if I should review all of them as a collection, or just the first book.  I don’t typically review additional books in a series, but these books can be read out of order and stand alone just fine.  Ultimately, I’m just going to review the first book, but know the entire series is silly, clean and engaging for ages 7 and up (2nd grade will love these), they will connect with boys, girls, Muslims, non Muslims, and get readers of all ages smiling, if not laughing, at Ali’s outrageous adventures and choices.  Ali is presumably Muslim, the author is Muslim, the publisher is Muslim, but there is nothing religious at all in the text.  Even the one about Eid is very culture framed, not “I’m Muslim and this is what we do and why,” so to speak.  In Ali and the Gladiator there is a friend named Abdullah, his parents are referred to as Mama and Baba, they eat at Moe’s Shawarma Shop, and eat daal and roti at home, so there are hints of culture and religion that will further mirror a Muslim reader’s experience, but the focus is on the hilarious situations that Ali finds himself getting in to and out of with good friends, kindness, enthusiasm, and bravery.  All the books are about 60 pages long with short chapters, detailed pencil style drawings every few pages, inviting text, and an activity at the end.

TODAY (3/25/22) IS THE LAST DAY TO PREORDER AT THE SPECIAL PRICE, and THE BEAUTIFUL BOXED COLLECTION RELEASES APRIL 1st, JUST IN TIME FOR RAMADAN!

SYNOPSIS:

Ali really wants to impress his teacher, Mr. O’Reilly and a big project on Rome will be a great opportunity to do so, but he isn’t anxious to get started.  He has his April Party to prepare for, his friends to hang out with, and plus he knows he works best under pressure.  When he finally realizes he should get started, all the books on Rome are checked out, save a small book on the floor, yes Ali is on the floor in the library.  The book is about how to become a gladiator and that gives Ali an idea.  As his imagination works out the details he is off to his favorite store, the hardware store.  He has weapons to make and actors to train, and beasts to tame.  The assignment is supposed to be written, but Ali is extra and he does not want to be boring.  When he raises his hand to go first in the presentation, Mr. O’Reilly is confused, no one is presenting, they are just handing in their reports, but when gladiators and a “ferocious” cat enter the room, it is clear that Ali has his own way of doing most everything.

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WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that it is fun and well written.  The characters grow and the writing and descriptions smooth, the illustrations add detail and the books are perfectly silly for their intended audience.  So many books for this demographic resort to brattiness or potty humor, and I love that these are outrageous shenanigans, but they don’t cross into being obnoxious

I do wish there was more Islam in the books, or really any.  It doesn’t need to be Islam centered of preachy, but to add a bit of depth to the characters and flesh out their backgrounds would have been nice.  The desi foods are included, why not mention halal or toss in some inshaAllahs or that Ali gets to work on his weapons after fajr.

I absolutely love the presentation of all five books in a hard glossy case.  They look lovely on a shelf and would make wonderful gifts for Eid, or any time really.

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FLAGS:

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TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I hope to have these in our school library, and encourage the 2nd and 3rd grade teacher to look in to having them on their classroom shelves.  Kids will be tempted to pick them up off the shelf, they will thumb through them and be drawn in, inshaAllah once they read one, they will read the whole series, and if that isn’t praise for a book series, I don’t know what is. Happy Reading!

Zahra’s Blessing by Shirin Shamsi illustrated by Manal Mirza

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Zahra’s Blessing by Shirin Shamsi illustrated by Manal Mirza

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Just when you think all the Ramadan stories have been told, you flip open a new book, hold your breath as the stage of predictability is set, and alhumdulillah in this case, you squeal with delight when the big reveal in a children’s book swept you up and surprised you too.  This 32 page richly illustrated story for elementary readers is heartfelt, culture rich, informative, and embracing.  The book doesn’t dwell on the details of Ramadan, fasting, and Eid, but intentionally focuses on some of the feelings, blessings, and acts that make the month extra special.

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Zahra looks up at the Ramadan moon as she hugs her teddy bear and sends a prayer up asking for a little sister. The next day Mama is packing up beloved clothes, and ones that the family has out grown to be donated.  They discuss giving without hoping for anything in return and once again Zahra asks her mama for a little sister. To which her mother lovingly replies that she should be patient.

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When Teddy goes missing, Zahra can’t help but think a little sister would help her find it.  Iftar that night are all of Zahra’s favorite desi foods and prayer after is her asking for a sister and Teddy.  The following day Mama and Zahra take the collected donation items to the shelter and Zahra realizes how sad she is about losing Teddy and these refugees have lost everything.

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Zahra spends time with the children at the shelter and gets to know them.  She wishes she could find Teddy to gift to a young girl named Haleema.  Some days Ramadan crawls slow, and other days fast.  The family reads Quran together, fasts during the day and prays at night.  The night before Eid, Zahra’s dad whispers a secret to Zahra, one that she keeps close to her all through Eid prayers the next day.

Not going to spoil it, although I’m sure you can guess what is going to happen.  There are hints in the remaining illustrations, but I think kids will enjoy not having the heads up.  The book concludes with some informational blurbs and details about the Muslim author and Muslim illustrator.

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I enjoyed the illustrations, they are bright and bold and festive and unique.  They compliment the text completely as they show praying, reading Quran, making duas, etc.  The text doesn’t get preachy, it doesn’t even mention Allah swt or God, but talks of prayer and blessings.  The combination of the text and illustrations, however, definitely convey a strong unapologetic Ramadan/Muslim centered story.  Overall, it is universal and warm and sweet, and both Muslim and non Muslim children would benefit from reading it.

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My only concern is the page that the family is making dua together, it seems odd that they are all sitting in a line as if they have just prayed, but not prayed with the dad in front and the mom and Zahra behind. I read an electronic arc of the book and I look forward to purchasing a physical copy to add to my bookshelf.

Good Intentions by Kasim Ali

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Good Intentions by Kasim Ali

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There is a reason that I read juvenile fiction: from board books to YA, but lately the “New Adult” category has really been tempting me.  Muslamic romance novels, often really need the protagonist to be looking to get married to make the plot work with some authenticity,  which means the main character usually needs to be a bit older than in their teens.  I decided to start my tiptoeing into the genre with this book, because I was intrigued at the racial and mental health themes that the blurb teased.  Sadly after reading the 288 page story, I still was waiting for more racial and mental health insight or enlightenment or perspective or deeper appreciation or anything really.  I kept reading hoping for more character growth, and to find out if the relationship worked.  I understand after finishing, that the book was intentionally more subtle and nuanced, and part of me appreciates it, but I still felt the book ultimately provided too little in either regard for me to feel satisfied or content that I had spent time with the characters.  The abruptness and harshness of the first few chapters, seemed disjointed from the dialogue filled introspective remainder of the book that showed so much potential, but left me feeling strung along for no real purpose.  The book covers mature themes of sexuality, drug use, racism, co-habitation, relationships, culture, mental health, and more.  The characters’ identify as Muslim, but aside from Eid prayers, iftar, and mentioning once that they should pray more, there is nothing religious practiced, mentioned, or contained in the story.

SYNOPSIS:

Told in a variety of timelines that all follow the relationship of Nur and Yasmina, the story begins with Nur finally after four years getting up the nerve to tell his desi parents that he has a Black girlfriend, and wants to marry her.  He leaves out that they have been living together for years, and the book then flips back to how they met and bounces around filling in the gaps that bring them back to the big reveal.

While in college, Nur had just broken up with Saara, but still goes to her fairly regular house parties.  At one such party he meets Yasmina, as a small group at the party sneak off to smoke pot, and he is immediately crushing.  His hungover broken-hearted gay friend Imran calls him out on it immediately, and his roommate Rahat chastises him for going to his ex’s parties.  Nearly all the main characters are met early on, and the rest of the book focuses on Nur and Yasmina growing closer through college, after school, through their early years of jobs and grad school, and the overshadowing of the fact that Nur has yet to tell his family about Yasmina, while Yasmina’s family is fully aware and fully supportive that they are living together.

All the characters are Muslim, but practice is pretty minimally detailed.  Yasmina tells Nur at their first meeting that she wishes she prayed more, and later it is mentioned that her parents were raised strict so they have raised their own children less so.  It is possible that Nur’s mom wears a scarf, but not clear either way, and they don’t seem to be bothered that she is living with her boyfriend.  Nur on one of his visits home goes for Eid prayers with his father, his mother and sister do not go, and it mentions that they are fasting.  Rahat does not find dating is for him, and wants to have a traditional arranged marriage, but it does not disclose if this is because of religious or cultural views.  Imran discusses his family praying and that he had to square away his sexuality with Allah swt more or less.

Nur and Yasmina’s younger sister have mental health afflictions.  Nur has anxiety attacks, and Hawa severe depression.  It does not label or identify or diagnose, this is my assumption, it does detail their experiences though, and how they affect those around them.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I actually enjoyed the writing style and the ease in which it flowed-save the beginning of the book. The beginning was a little crass, almost like the author was trying too hard to get the characters’ environment to read that they were in college.  The crude talking about sex and them talking about their parents’ intimacy and smoking and drinking and being vulgar, was in such contrast to the very subtle nuanced rest of the book that tried to show the layers of Nur and Yasmina’s relationships and lives.  Once I got through it, I genuinely wanted to know if they could make the relationship work.  No I’m not going to spoil it, but that really is why I kept reading.

I was disappointed that the book didn’t draw mental health out in the open.   I also wanted some religious based push back on racism.  It is a big thing in our communities and the book really could have had the characters argue it and make their points, right or wrong, for the disconnect between faith and culture.  It didn’t have to be preachy, or even mean that anyone changed their opinions, but it mentions numerous times, something to the effect of Nur’s parents being racist, but doesn’t detail why that is the suffocating presence in disclosing his relationship.  In four years I would imagine the opportunity to correct his parents way of thinking would have arisen, and he could have challenged it.  I get that might negate Yasmina’s point that Nur is racist, but I think it should have been made more clear then that he didn’t speak up when opportunities presented, otherwise it just seems unexplored and we, the reader, are expected to just accept the characters on face value, when the book really very easily could have nudged us, to self reflect and look inward.

FLAGS:

There is sex, and drugs, and lying, and racism, and all the other flags that adult books often have.  There is one “steamy scene” between Nur and Yasmina, but the rest of the relationship is very mild.  Nothing else is graphic in detailing their day-to-day living, or the day-to-day relationships of the other characters in the book: gay or straight.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

No. Would never, could never encourage unmarried Muslims living together, fictionally or otherwise.

Sway with Me by Syed M. Masood

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Sway with Me by Syed M. Masood

sway

This author won me over with More Than Just a Pretty Face, and his ability to celebrate and show flaws within our desi cultures while simultaneously presenting relatable Islamic experiences in a romantic comedy.   I have been yet to determine if this YA/Teen 328 page book follows in those footsteps, or cuts a little too critically and close on the Islamic presentation.  Undoubtedly the story is hard to put down, culture and Islam are present, but I don’t know what the lingering taste of Islam would be for a non-Muslim reading the book.  Would they see the faith separate from those that practice or actively don’t practice, would Muslim readers?  Literature is quickly showing how Muslims are not a monolith, but I worry that that nuance might be lost in this particular book, and the takeaway would be far more stereotype affirming, than critically thought provoking.  The packaging of the story is memorable characters and quality writing, even if the plot and purpose is a little shaky at times.  I admit for as much as I crave discussions on representation and twists and defined characters, this book has me at a bit of a loss on how to feel about the book overall.  I think it is possibly the first time I just haven’t seen myself and my experiences mirrored at all in a book with this much Islamic content. As a reviewer it makes me feel useless, but as an American born Muslim, I kind of love the uneasiness and challenge that my head is trying to wrap itself around.  The references, the language, lust, plentiful innuendos and physical abuse make the book a solid high school and up read.

SYNOPSIS:
Arsalan lives with his 100 year old Nana in Sacremento.  His mother has passed away, and his father is out of the picture in Arizona as he attempts sobriety.  Homeschooled and isolated from other kids, technology, and the world around him, he suddenly finds himself in a public high school trying to make his way.  Afraid that when his Nana passes he is going to be all alone in the world, he reaches out to the stepdaughter, Beenish, of the community match maker to see if she can help him with an arranged marriage.  She agrees on one condition, he dances with her at an upcoming competition.  He agrees, but first a makeover is required and before you know it a romance is blooming.  Awkward and formal and ever the gentleman, Arsalan uncovers that there is no competition, the dancing is required to break up Beenish’s sister’s wedding.  The girls’ biological mother was a dancer and the shame it brought on them all as it destroyed her career, her marriage, and the family has made her daughters the black sheep of the family and community.  The stepmom wants to get them out of the house as soon as possible and thus dancing of any kind is forbidden at Qirat’s upcoming nuptials.  Beenish despises the groom and hopes her dancing will not only remind the family that the mom has been banned from attending the wedding, but also hopefully prevent the wedding from taking place.  As the story moves forward with learning to dance, relationships must be reconciled, friendships developed, and growing pains felt, with some sass from Nana at every turn, more than one character will have to learn to make hard decisions and accept the outcomes that result.

WHY I LIKE IT:

Right from the start Arsalan makes it known that he is not a practicing Muslim, that he is “nominally one.”  His Nana has raised him to be a skeptic, his abusive father would beat him when feeling religious and guilty for his alcohol consumption, and his deceased mother was more spiritual than disciplined.  So, for the next few chapters, whenever Islam was mentioned I would snap a picture.  Twenty pages later and dozens of pictures of text made me stop and realize that this coming of age book is not a story about Islam, but rather the characters are dealing with their own identities and Islam just happens to be present, for all of them.  Arsalan remarks how our roots shape us as he quotes hadith, ok paraphrases them, and discusses sahaba, eventually having to accept that knowledge and wisdom and truth must be recognized, even when it comes from a source that he doesn’t favor.  Similarly, the most presenting tough guy, music and sports and appearance obsessed character is always hanging around the mosque, at the MSA, and encouraging Arsalan to come and pray.  The love interest calls out Muslims for their fake religiosity saying that her stepmom wears it as a fancy dress, she owns it, but takes it off when she wants.  Her father came to Islam late, and is relatively strict and conservative as a result, she is Muslim, but more culturally as she doesn’t seem to have sorted it out herself.  The characters dance, which involves touching and immodest clothing, at the end they do kiss.  There is language which is noted as being course and vulgar, and there really is no “model Muslim” or any characters that want to be.  So, similarly there are no haram police commenting when the characters, as individuals seemingly step out of line.  The sister character is quote unquote religious, but I don’t know if she covers, she doesn’t seem to be representative of anyone other than herself and she has her own cultural family issues, so her Islam is just stated, but not explored.  Some only eat halal, that gets included but not really opined on.   It really is the first time I feel like I’ve read so many Muslim characters in one place that represent only themselves, which is very much real life, but also a shift in Muslim rep in literature.

The story has some foundational issues which made me laugh when reading the author’s note that says he, “writes in the dark.”  Meaning he doesn’t know where he is going until he gets there.  I think it might show in this book more than he realizes. Aiza Aunty is shamed as scandalous because of her dancing in Lollywood (Pakistan’s version of Bollywood, which is India’s version of Hollywood) films.  She apparently got her sari a bit too wet in a waterfall scene, and it was too much shame to rebound from.  So why did that ruin her life? I mean any production has rehearsals, and blocking, and post editing, and retakes, why does one scene seem to fall squarely on her shoulders, every single decision maker along the way passed it through.  I’m not buying it.  I also don’t buy the whole wedding is hanging on a single thread of dancing, it tries really hard to make it make sense, and by the end the reader really is just prepared to go along with it, but holding auditions, not planning to tell Qirat, really is expecting the reader to suspend reality just a tad more than the genre should be asking one to do.

The book is smart and it expects the reader to be smart.  The references the character’s personas and need to be seen and loved is not always spelled out, it has to be pieced together and I love it.  The Thanksgiving scene, the misfit members of each family coming together and bonding with Nana and Arasalan is sweet, but actually really sad, and I love that it doesn’t say it, it shows it.

Of all the characters I love Diamond the most, I just wish we knew more about what motivates him.  He reads too nice and too puppy doggish and I wish we got just a bit more to see why he is the way he is.  Truly all the characters are memorable, and I’m pretty sure they will stay with me for a while.

FLAGS:

There is kissing, romance, crude language, lots of sexual innuendos, physical violence, physical abuse, child abuse, death, shaming, manipulation, alcohol addiction, religious zealousness, dancing, intimate dancing, body objectification, music, singing.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I could never teach this book, but please, please, please, read it and help me to understand how I feel about it.