I had debated picking up this book knowing that it isn’t labeled YA and I’m painfully behind on a stack of books I want to review, but after reading @muslimmommyblog’s review I opened the first page: that was 24 hours ago, I couldn’t put it down. I’ve seen a lot of comments about this book being more YA than adult fiction because it tidies everything up so precisely at the end. I’ve also seen critiques from non Muslims that it is overly preachy at times. Many Muslims are so swept away by the rawness and presence in Islam in the book that they are making their teens read it. So I wanted to read it and review it to determine if it is appropriate from my perspective for teens, and offer my take on it. Ultimately I think while much of the Palestinian-American protagonist’s life story in the book occurs as a child and young adult coming of age, that the “flags” are so critical to the story and so numerous, that no matter how deftly and non specific she handles these issues and moments, that the book really is meant for more mature readers. I’ll detail it more below in the FLAGS section but to highlight a few mature spots mentioned in the book to varying degrees: extra marital affair, alcohol, making out, groping, nudity, sex, voyeurism, killing, shooting, physical abuse, profanity, suicide attempt, bigotry, etc. The writing is absolutely superb, and it isn’t sensationalized, but it is there and provides understanding as to why the characters often are as they are to a point that you need to understand them with a certain clarity. I would think this 298 page book would most appeal to early college age readers where one is hopefully open minded enough to understand the characters relationship with religion whether they are Muslim or not, old enough to have some of their own life to reflect upon, and on the cusp of a new chapter that they realize the role their choices can make as they move forward.
Afaf’s life story unfolds out of order and with occasional interruptions from an outside point of view. It opens with her at work, as a principal of an Islamic girls high school in Chicago as we see her dealing with parents upset with things taught at the school and the balance she tries to achieve in guiding her girls to be strong, confident, well-informed Muslims in a diverse America. It then flips back to 1976 and begins the tale of Afaf’s life with her parents, immigrants from Palestine, her older sister and younger brother. Not ever feeling like she fits in at school, she loses any sense of normalcy at home when her 17 year old sister Nada goes missing. There were problems at home before: her mother never being happy, Afaf never feeling her mother’s affection, her father having having an ongoing relationship with another woman, but as days and months go by, and no clues can find Nada, it will be the event that seemingly tore the family apart. Afaf’s mother has a mental breakdown, Afaf’s father takes to drinking, and thus Afaf and her younger brother Majeed have to navigate much of their life on their own. In high school Majeed finds baseball and becomes the ideal student and son. Afaf lets white boys feel her up and has a reputation for being easy. She doesn’t cross the line, but her reputation and name on the back of bathroom stalls is fairly accurate. When their father is involved in a car accident, he finds Islam. The family is very cultural, but not religious at all. Eventually Afaf and her brother accompany their father, much to their mother’s protests to the Islamic Center and while Majeed has no interest in religion let alone Islam and never returns, Afaf feels an instant peace and the opportunity to redefine herself and continues to go and study Islam.
The book jumps regularly in sections, not every other chapter, and at some point it shows Afaf as an elementary school teacher making the commitment to wear hijab and preparing to wed a Bosnian man with a broken war filled past. It jumps and has her brother home from law school visiting and her mother attempting suicide by drinking drano and being found laying naked in a bath tub. After recovering, her mother returns to Palestine and never returns. In yet another vignette, it has Afaf and her husband and father preparing to go for Hajj, where her father passes away, and has her returning to find she is expecting her third child a little girl. There are other surprises that I’ll not reveal, but some of these jumps are interrupted by a voice of a radical alt right mant who walks into the girls school and starts shooting, finding himself face to face with the principal, Afaf.
WHY I LIKE IT:
I am seriously blown away at the quality of writing, and the interweaving of religion and culture. It is a main stream book and it has a lot of religion in it. It isn’t so much long passages of preaching, the father would like it to be that way, but the other characters keep him in check. But the quiet transformation of Afaf and having Islam save her from a life she was not content with. I love that it has joy and happiness despite all the tests and obstacles. The book could have been really heavy and drag, but it wasnt, it was compelling and hard to put down. The characters will be with me a while and I can see myself rereading the book just to visit them again.
I was a little confused with Afaf’s limited Arabic and her mom’s limited English. How did they communicate? I get that perhaps it was symbolic of their broken relationship, but seriously when Afaf is seven and not understanding Arabic and her mom is not understanding the police and neighbor in basic English, something is a bit off. I like that insight is given as to why Afaf is fooling around with any boy that wants her and that it shows it isn’t about the acts themselves. I also like how it showed her conflicts in reporting an Arab child in her class being abused at home by her father and how the response was so sad by the community. While Islam saves her and holds her to a higher standard, it doesn’t appeal to her brother, it doesn’t remove the hypocrisy of people who are Muslim: abuse, owning liquor stores, and it doesn’t make everything better for her. She has to suffer consequences of her choices, she just feels that Islam gives her the tools to persevere and understand and have hope.
I love the food, oh man, hearing all the dishes being cooked and served and cleaned up after, really made me very hungry. The cultural elements of the music and songs and oud really ground the book and make the OWN voice value ring so true and strong. The racism and bigotry feels very real as well. The author is the daughter of Palestinian immigrants and the way that she articulates such pointed examples of not being given the chance to move up in the elementary reading group, side comments the high school coach makes to her, and the general stereotypes thrust upon her, are very powerful.
So there is a lot, as stated in the intro, but I want to articulate a bit of why I maintain older teens for the book even though it isn’t overtly sensationalized. I’ll walk through some of the major flag themes.:
Take the drinking. The father is an alcoholic, but the mother and children hate it, Majeed drinks beer with his friends, but isn’t Muslim, yet the Khalti is somewhat religious and they pour amber drinks at Thanksgiving. So there is some moral lesson, which I think you could argue is fine in YA or even middle grades.
Relationships/sex/body: The father is having an affair with a much younger woman, they refer to her as sharmoota and everyone knows about it, no other details are given. Afaf lets boys touch her naked body, but draws the line at intercourse, she says she on some level doesn’t want to do that to her parents or something of that nature. Right before proposing marraige, her and Bilal do kiss. Once they are married it mentions them making love in the mornings. It mentions masterbating and blow jobs. The shooter and his girl friend have sex, the shooter watches an Indian neighbor nurse her baby through the door and sees her exposed breast with some detail and then goes home and masterbates. When the mother is pulled out from the tub after attempting suicide it doesn’t just mention she was naked, it comments on her pubic hair.
Violence: An Arab Muslim male classmate, drives Afaf away from her bike and the slaps her telling her basically that she should not be such a slut. Afaf punches another girl in a fight at school. A child in Afaf’s class is being hit by her father. Mother lashes out at Afaf, she ends up burned. The climax is a mass shooting where 14 students and a teacher are gunned down and killed. Self harm: car crash while drunk, suicide attempt with drano.
Minor: Yeah there is music, and Halloween,
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
This would make a great book club selection for those in their early 20s and up. It is well done, just not for younger readers. The book is very popular and numerous author interviews can be found with a quick Google search.