This amazingly captive 370 page, nonfiction autobiography details life during 1992 through 1995 in Bihać, Bosnia through the eyes of a 16-year-old Muslim girl. The horrors of war, her determination to survive, a lifesaving cat, and her coming of age, all come together to make for a compelling read that is both reflective and inspiring. I had a hard time putting the YA/Teen book down even knowing that she would obviously survive and being vaguely familiar with the Serbian attacks and ethnic genocide that occurred. In an easy to read flowing first person narrative, somehow the book avoids being overly political, while still managing to convey the role of the media, the international world, and the hateful mindset that turned friends and neighbors into enemies. I think teens, 15 and up, should spend some time with this book as well as adults, it really serves as a wake up call to how fragile nations can be when we turn on one another. We must know the past, to as not repeat it.
The book starts out with Amra on a train returning from Belgrade where she took tests as she is one of the brightest kids in the region. Immediately it is made clear that she is incredibly smart, and independent as she travels alone into the heart of Serbia. The war has not yet come, but on the return trip Serbian Nationalist soldiers board the train and she is desperately afraid that she will be sexually assaulted. Fortunately, she does not “look Muslim” and the soldiers physically leave her alone. Her naivety, however, is lost as she realizes the war is closer than her family thinks.
Her family lives in a beautiful home that they designed and saved for, they wear hand me down clothes and watch expenses as a result. Amra has a younger brother Dino, her older brother seemed to have some disability and has passed away, her parents are honest and value education. Her family is everything to her, they are incredibly close knit. They are ethnically Muslim, but do not practice. She mentions it regularly, that they are being attacked for a religion they do not practice. They wear bikinis and date, eat pork and drink alcohol, they identify first as Bosnian and then as Muslim. But they do identify as Muslim and they suffer for it, over and over and over again.
The story sets the stage by showing how diverse Bihać is and how Serb, Croats, Bosnians, Muslims, Christians, Catholics all live together. It is Amra’s birthday, it really isn’t, but they could not afford the food and gifts at the time of her 16th birthday, so they are celebrating it now with a sleepover with her closest life-long friends. When Amra and her father go in to town to get the cake, they see tanks rolling in, refugees from other cities seeking safety and Amra and her father start handing out whatever money they have and take a couple home with them. At the party, they don’t discuss what they have seen, but when Amra’s best friend, a Serb, cannot spend the night, the parties tone changes and the mood is set for the next chapter in Amra’s life.
At school she shares how Muslims are treated and forced to take Russian, while the Serbs are encouraged in English, while the children get along as many are mixed ethnicities, there is rampant favoritism from the adults. When one day only the Muslims arrive at school, the Serbs have all secretly evacuated in the night, there is no more denying that the war has come to Bihać. With the comfort of her cat, who she simply calls, Maci, cat in Bosnian, and his “luck” to somehow delay her or warn her of bombings, she and her family endure the first wave of attacks by hunkering down in a cousins basement.
Ultimately they decide that they cannot stop living. Death is striking at every turn and no one is more safe in one location than another and the family returns home. They still have electricity at first, but it soon disappears, the phone lines stay, but food starts to get scarce. At times the family goes out of the city to stay with family on a bee farm and survive off the honey, but it is not safe there either. School resumes a few days a month, but all the Muslim’s records have been “lost” and paper is in short supply.
Over the four years of the war, Amra’s aging diabetic father is called to fight, an explosion at the house renders her mother deaf, friends and family are killed while somehow the day to day of surviving continues. Amra graduates from high school, works as a tutor when she cannot pursue her own education, and finds work as a translator for international workers after she teaches herself english. There are times she is so malnourished her hair is falling out, her gums are bleeding and she blacks out, and there are times when the family is able to trade honey for food and can open a small store in the corner of their house.
The resiliency and heartache is not something a review can capture, you feel for Amra at every turn, both in delight as well as in fear and devastation.
WHY I LIKE IT:
It has a map! Seriously, thank you. I love that the book is so emotional, it doesn’t get hung up on dates and events, but how whatever is happening affects Amra and her view of the world. As a character, ultimately a person, she doesn’t stay down, she is capable and strong, which is so remarkable in the best of times and absolutely heroic living through this war. The cat is a remarkable character, and while at times it seems forced, it is a great thread that keeps her story being relatable on all levels.
There are a few chances for Amra to leave her family and get away to safety, the first time it is presented to her she would have to change her name, she decides she cannot. This is a testament to her love of her family, but also to her identity. She is proud of who she is, which is mind blowing to me. I talked about it in my review of The Day of the Pelican, about how Bosnian refugees I got to know in the late 90s knew nothing about Islam, but were being slaughtered for being Muslim. Repeatedly she talks about how in Bosnia there were some conservative traditional Muslims, but that most of them are not, her family is not. Yet, my heart truly cried out when her and her mother are trying to get food from drunk soldiers and are certain that they are going to be raped or blown up by land mines and she says the only prayer she knows. One that she learned after the war started: “Auzubillahi Minahs Shaitan ir Rajeem. Bismillah ir Rahman ir Rahim. Rabbi Yassir wa la Tua’ssir, Rabbi tammim bil khayr. I seek refuge in Allah from Satan in the the Name of Allay the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful. O God make it easy and don’t make it difficult, O’ God, complete this with good.”
She explains the cover of the book at the end, “the book’s jacket presents my authentic self, a liberal Muslim teen, yet a Muslim who was still so profoundly hated. The jacket illustration serves as a reminder that the hate is a product of its perpetrators rather a reflection of its victims.
The book is about war, it has rape, sexual assault, death. At times it is descriptive and detailed, not sensationalized, but powerful. There is kissing, boyfriends and girlfriends, nothing lewd.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I learned about this book from Lovely Books Podcast when she interviewed the author: https://lovelybooks.buzzsprout.com, it is a great introduction along with many of the interviews and articles that Dr. Amra Sabic-El-Reyess has done.
I would love to do this as a book club, but I think it would have be done on a high school level, not middle school. The dialogue and understanding I would imagine surrounding this book would be compassionate and thoughtful. I hope those leading book clubs for older students and even adults will consider this book.