Tag Archives: Pakistan

The Secret Diary of Mona Hasan by Salma Hussain

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The Secret Diary of Mona Hasan by Salma Hussain

mona

I really don’t know how to review this book. Is it funny and engaging, yes at times, but I am a 41 year old, and I can attribute it (hopefully/possibly) to satire, hubris, character voice, and commentary, except it isn’t written for me, it is written for 10-14 year olds.   There is no way would I put this in the hands of a fourth grader, let alone a high schooler.  The book starts on New Year’s eve with a “Muslim” family drinking alcohol, later the 11 year old drinks to get brave enough to meet up with her boyfriend (he wanted to wait until after Ramadan), after a bad haircut she starts wearing hijab and later takes it off, her period starts and she is baffled at which hole it comes out of, she is no longer allowed to be alone in a room with a boy because that is how babies are made, but it is ok to go to a school dance and kiss them, women are rather useless, old people (31 year olds and up)  should know their place and act their age, dark skin is bad, chests need to be big, slut is both something you are and something you can do,  Aisha (RA)’s age of marriage is criticized as is Khadeeja (RA)’s, no one is as good at her, Ramadan is annoying because she has to hide when she eats in public for a whole month, Friday prayers even though they rush through them limit their fun time, the Tablighi Jamaat have to be lied to and hidden from, her mom is pregnant months after coming out of her bedroom smiling, her father claims he will only ever enter a mosque horizontally, you can see the list goes on and on.  Yet at the same time, there are true moments of strength, such as when she fights back against the creepy sexual assault vibes from “uncle annoying” and then protects her sister when her parents dismiss it, when she sticks up to a bully to protect her gay friend in Canada, the dad getting caught one day praying salat, the love of family felt despite her perceived privilege while visiting Pakistan, her constant reference to Allah swt as she asks Him and tries to understand the world around her, and her terrible, terrible poetry.  The diary style is both brilliant in trying to show the world through Mona’s eyes, and irritating as NONE of the aforementioned concerns are given any context, explanation, reflection, anything.  The thoughts pour out of her head, onto the paper, and the reader is left to figure out if this is how things are, is this her naïve view, is she commenting on society, is the author, is this fact, is it satire, is it someone with an axe to grind on culture and religion, is it showing the ridiculousness of so many stereotypes? And to be honest, I have no idea.  Which is why I can’t say that the book is good or bad, I think it is well written, my problem with it is, I don’t know who it is written for.  I think it would be very damaging to young children, the vulgarity, misogyny, racism, arrogance, will hurt both those that see parts of themselves in Mona and those that read it and assume too much about what Mona represents.

SYNOPSIS:

Mona is an 11 year old girl, and this is her diary.  She is arrogant and opinionated, but she grows and mellows as her view of the world moves from privilege in Dubai to immigrant in Canada with a bit of an awakening in Pakistan in between.  It is her view of her life, her place in the world, and the greater society around her.  It is an easy read on the surface of her living through the war without getting any days off of school, friends, maturation, first loves, hoping for a bigger chest, pulling a fire alarm to get time with a boyfriend, feminism, and the annoyance of being better than everyone else in everything she does.  There are side characters that flit in and out and family members that shape her, but the point of view is uniquely hers in all matters regarding leaving the Middle East as a Pakistani living there, spending time with her mother and father’s families in Pakistan and the rift her parents’ love marriage caused on their acceptance of her, their move to Canada to start a more peaceful life that ends up being grueling and difficult and through it all threads of Islam, fitting in, and growing up.  It is a snapshot of so much that the reader is left to connect the pieces, assign them value, and understand the larger message, if one exists.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I still don’t know if I like it or dislike it.  I dislike it for kids.  I like it for adults as a light over the top snarky read, but I think my opening paragraph is sufficient and the 296 page book doesn’t need my concerns and praises rehashed here.

FLAGS:

Misogyny, anti Islam, sexism, racism, ageism, lying, vulgarity, cursing, crude talk, lying, disrespect, lack of religious respect, kissing, sexual assault (attempt), deceit, pulling a fire alarm, physical fighting/assault, family trauma, arrogance, pettiness, stereotypes, bullying, sexual innuendos,

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I have suggested a few ADULT friends read the book so we can chat, but no kiddos, no teens, no early twenties, old ladies (31 plus according to the main character)!

ABC’s of Pakistan by Marzieh Abbas illustrated by Michile Khan

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ABC’s of Pakistan by Marzieh Abbas illustrated by Michile Khan

abcs of Pakistan

I absolutely love this ABC book, it truly does Pakistan proud and I’m thrilled that I could obtain it, it wasn’t easy, sorry not sure where you can get it in the USA, and it isn’t available even at Liberty Books in Karachi, but if you can find it, grab a copy, or two because it really is a well done tour of the country.  My only suggestions would be thicker pages, the hardback 8.5 x 11 binding is nice, but the pages seem to have curled in the transporting from overseas.  Also, some pages have a large A or E, but others such as the words for B, C, D, are just all flowing story style over a two page spread.  I don’t mind one way or another, but I do side with consistency, either have the letter on all pages singled out, or on none.  The effort to string the pages together makes it read very much like a story, and I appreciate that it features little snippets of fact and history in talking bubbles throughout.

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Little Hassan and his cat Makhan introduce themselves and then take you on a tourney of Pakistan.  Included are landmarks, handicrafts, foods, famous people, festivals, sports, and more.  It concludes with a reminder to carry facemasks and hand sanitizers, which might date the book a little in the future, it was published in 2020.

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The book works for non Pakistani’s to learn, especially those of us with children that have not been to the “homeland,” as well as for Pakistanis in Pakistan to feel proud of their culture, history, tradition, and landmarks.  There are beautiful masjids and the azaan mentioned and hijab wearing and non wearing women, as well as famous men and women included.  It is inclusive on the F for festivals page where it mentions Eid, Basant, Christmas, Diwali, and Children’s Literature Festival.

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Enjoyable text and illustrations alike. InshaAllah, will be more readily available if we can convince the author and illustrator and publisher that there is demand, I hope, hint hint.  Happy Reading!

All My Rage by Sabaa Tahir

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All My Rage by Sabaa Tahir

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The hype is correct: this book is moving, impactful, powerful, reflective, all the feels.  The writing superb, the plot gritty, the characters seem real, so real.  One of my all time favorite authors is John Irving because every word seems deliberate in his books, not every plot point or every paragraph, every. single. word.  And it has been a long time since I’ve read a book that strikes me in that same vein of the author being so in control of the story, and my (the reader’s) emotions being so completely at the mercy of the words to come.  I think I could read this book five more times and each time peel back a new layer and see something I hadn’t seen, or understood, or felt before.  I cried, I cheered, I sighed and unclenched my jaw, and I am still haunted by the lives of the characters.  Not just the “main” ones.  All of them, they all are real and fleshed out and have character arcs and live in shades of gray.  There are no checkboxes for skin tone or religion or sexual preference they each are more than a label, they are complex and real.  I could easily be convinced that they are in fact real people and that their world and stories are not fiction at all.  That is how well it reads, that is how hard it is to close the window on the world they let us see.  The book is YA (374 pages) and with the drugs, abuse, alcohol, relationship, complexities of it all, I would think 16 year old’s and up can, strike that, should, read this book.  The characters are Muslim, but it never even goes near being preachy, these are complex characters and stories, and remarkably there is no internalized Islamophobia or watering anything down, each character deals with faith, like everything else, in their own way.

SYNOPSIS:

The story bounces between the past in Lahore, Pakistan and the present in Juniper, California.  In Lahore it is Misbah’s story and in the desert it is her son’s, Salahudin and a girl she has taken under her wing, Noor’s.  When the book starts we see Sal with a drunk father dropping him off at school where his girlfriend is waiting, and his best friend, Noor, not speaking to him for the last few months after she confessed to bein in love with him.  Noor lives with her uncle after her entire village in Pakistan was destroyed when she was 6, and he wants nothing to do with Pakistan, Islam, or Noor going to college.  He owns a liquor store and makes Noor work there.  Sal’s mom is sick and has always been their for Noor, so when she takes a turn for the worse, Noor and Sal are brought back together, Noor’s uncle is enraged that she is missing shifts, and Sal’s father is constantly searching for the bottom of a bottle.  Things are bad, but they are about to get a whole lot worse.  Sal’s mom dies, the motel Sal’s family owns is in severe debt and the options for saving it are less than ideal.  The small town starts to feel familiar as everyone’s stories are fleshed out in Juniper and Lahore and two star-crossed narrators are forced to confront both the stresses of high school and impending adulthood, and deep, dark realities of abuse, loss, and generational trauma.

WHY I LIKE IT:

The book could have been a thousand pages, and it still would have felt too short.  Much like her fantasy writing, the book seems to start with world building and roping the reader in to thinking that they can handle what is about to come, then much like a band-aid being pulled off, the pain hits, and the wound starts bleeding again.  Somehow despite it all, you can’t look away, you can’t stop reading, there is hope.  Hope for the characters, hope for happy endings, hope for survival and peace.

I absolutely love the quality of writing, things dangled early on, come back, often with subtly and restraint that you could easily miss them.  When discussing the book with @muslimmommyblog, I felt like we both were finding threads we had possibly not considered and connections that added nuance and staying power to the plot.

So often, the more religious a character in literature is, the stricter they are presented, the less kind they are seen, but in this book it was the opposite, the loving couple were the imam and his defense attorney wife, the glue that radiated kindness to Sal, Noor, and so much of the town is a hijab wearing strong woman.  So many tropes and stereotypes were uprooted, tossed aside, and reimagined.  There is compassion for a Muslim alcoholic, a liquor store being the employment of a Muslim, consequences for dealing drugs, yet nothing “haram” is really ever glorified, it is gritty and repulsive, but there is no judgement, there is only understanding and sadness.  Palpable despair that rattles your bones and makes you wish the world was different.

I don’t want to spoil the book, I was able to read it largely not knowing what the plot would delve in to. In many ways the trigger warning at the beginning was the only thing that braced me for what was to come. The level of religion and how it was woven is through the gentleness of some of the characters and hatred of others, was expertly done.  There are not ayats in the Quran quoted or speeches given, there is love, and faith and hope that manifest as duas and longing and finding ways to be Muslim in action, not just in appearance. When the characters start to make-out their Islamic conscious is drawn in, when they grapple with their hope and future- trust in something bigger is considered. It is not a Muslim book, not even an Islam centered book, perhaps Muslamic, but really about characters who are Muslim and dealing with the cards they have been dealt.

FLAGS:

Alcohol use, drug use, relationships, kissing, touching, longing, language, physical assault, physical violence, domestic violence, hate, racism, stereotyping, Islamophobia, there are mentions of a lesbian relationship and a bi relationship, a child out of wedlock, death, addiction, sexual assault, repressed trauma, bullying, teasing, lying, music,

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I have a 15 year old daughter, and I probably will have her read the book this summer, I think there is a lot to discuss and I think in the right hands the book could be used for a high school book club.

The Lady or the Lion by Aamina Qureshi

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The Lady or the Lion by Aamina Qureshi

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I was kind of surprised how well done this YA culture rich 350 page romance story was in holding my attention.  I don’t know that I had any expectations, but I was genuinely engaged in the growth of the protagonist as she began to emerge from her naive political state, and I look forward to some resolution from the cliffhanger conclusion of this the first book in the Marghazar Trials series.  The characters are practicing Muslims who pray and mention Allah swt regularly, they also acknowledge when they make extreme departures from basic Islamic tenants such as drinking, dancing, murdering, exhibiting racist attitudes, and mixing freely with the opposite gender.  It doesn’t stop any of the characters from behaving as they wish, but at least it is noted. The Urdu words and Pakistani setting in this fictional reimagining is filled with warmth and love, and while there are some steamy scenes and outright cruelties, I think 15 year olds and up can handle the contents, and recognize the suspension of reality and moral laxities for the sake of telling a story.

SYNOPSIS:

The book makes clear from the onset that “In the very olden time, there lived a semi-barbaric king. . . This is not his story.” This is the story of 18 year old Durkhanai, an orphaned princess raised by her grandparents, the King and Queen of Marghazar.  Marghazar is a prosperous country that is waging war on two fronts and does not let outsiders in, ever.  When the book begins it is doing so begrudgingly to avoid war with the neighboring districts that are working to unify and have recently been attacked.  With ambassadors arriving to determine the guilt or innocence of the one district unaffected by the terrorist attacks, the foreigners are seeing the inner workings of the kingdom for the first time.  All the ambassadors are females of various ages and experience, save the one from Jardum.  Asfandyar is young, dark, and handsome, and immediately discriminated against by the Badshah for his complexion.  Additionally Shehzadi has been warned by many to stay away from Asfandyar, which naturally makes him a great character for her to be swept away by.  She holds out for a while, but with her people mysteriously getting ill, her betrothed melting in to the background, and cracks in her country making themselves obvious, Durkhanai will find herself struggling to understand her heart, her country, her family, and her future, and with the cliff hanger ending, no simple answers will be given to her, or the reader.

WHY I LIKE IT:
I love that there is a map at the beginning, and lots of supplemental offerings at the end.  There are a lot of Urdu words and phrases and while I am moving away from feeling like all OWN voice books need to include glossaries, I think non Desi readers will be appreciative in this particular book to have one available.  For someone with some knowledge of the language the inclusion of the titles and relations and phrases between the languages is expertly done and delightful. There is also an author Q & A, as well as reader discussion questions.  There is a content warning at the beginning alerting the readers to physical and sexual assault as well as racist behavior and language and makes clear that it is contained to the characters and the story and is not the reflection of the author and publisher.  I like that it is there, and I like that the princess makes a stance against the racism and the sexual assault that she witnesses.

The high school girls at our Islamic School are always wanting “halal” romance books.  Ok so really they just want romance books, but I try and keep their pickings halal, and so I am forever reading these books trying to find new titles to recommend.  The book is very 1990s Bollywood in terms of romance flags.  There is a lot of proximity and caressing of necks and longing, and familiar obligation.  There is some snuggling and kissing, so maybe 2000s Bollywood, but the characters thus far don’t cross “that” line.

I really appreciated that Durkhanai was fleshed out and relatable.  Even though the setting is long ago, and the genre is romance, she didn’t wait to be rescued, even when she was hurting or pining, she was still maintaining her obligations and moving forward.  I also love that it showed some depth to her emotions.  She recognized that Asfandyar would let her speak and would show his support by being there, but he pushed back on her and challenged her too.  Rashid on the other hand would speak for Durkhanai and would fawn over her in a very superficial way almost.  Sure neither relationship was ideal, but from her perspective at least she was able to see how various presentations made her feel.

I was a little lost in some places, but I was reading quick and had distractions so I’m not entirely sure if it is my carelessness or plot holes or if gaps will be filled in future books.  I needed more reasoning though, for why Durkhanai’s cousins, Zarmina and Saifullah, truly hated Asfandyar as much as they did, or what exactly Saifullah was plotting and how it connected to ratting out the princess.  For all that is seemingly going on, the Badshah and Wali always seem available to chat and are often just lounging around.  I know it is not their story, but the negotiations, the plotting, everything seems to be done very slowly and could really use some fleshing out to show some depth to the side characters.  Other than a few voices, the side details are lacking.

FLAGS:
Lying, killing, racism, sexual assault, physical assault, plotting, murder, kissing, manipulation, touching, caressing, sneaking around, theft, cruelty, cursing, romance.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

The book is not an Islamic story or even a moral one, it is entertainment and it could possibly be used for a book club if the participants relish in these kind of books, but it probably wouldn’t have wide enough appeal and would alienate nearly all the boys from joining.

Wrong Side of the Court by H.N. Khan

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Wrong Side of the Court by H.N. Khan

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I don’t know what it is about male protagonist sports novels, but they often seem to be overly crass and crude.  Perhaps that is the real life environment that inspires such writings, or perhaps it is just male voiced YA books, but in this one in particular it seemed to stand out because the storytelling by-and-large is really enjoyable, it just has a lot of flags, A LOT.  Beside the language, sexual innuendos, drug use, violence and romance, it also has a few religious and cultural concerns that are possibly just specific to the niche that I review for, but did have me shaking my head out of confusion and sighing in disappointment. To its credit there is a decent amount of Islam featured, some male friendships that are quite heartwarming, and some emotional depth that presents really well.  The 312 page book is marketed to readers 12 and up, but there is no way I would encourage the book for anyone that young, Muslim or not.  For Muslim youth specifically I would say 17 plus.

SYNOPSIS:

The book is told from the perspective of fifteen year old Fawad who lives in Regent Park with his mom and sister.  He dreams of being the first Pakistani NBA player and the linear story bounces in time at the start and he sometimes even speaks to the reader, but the story is all his.  Regent park is a poor part of town pressed right up against a wealthy part of Toronto and the neighborhood is rough.  Fawad is a good kid: he doesn’t go out much after dark since his father died, he helps his mom, doesn’t run with a gang, he gets good grades, loves basketball, and doesn’t have a girlfriend, not yet anyway.  The story starts with him reliving the final minutes of a summer league basketball game where he opted to pass out of fear of the ever looming threat of Omar, rather than take the shot himself.  Omar ends up missing and they lose, oh yeah and Omar is the imam’s son.  Under the protection of Abshir, Fawad’s friend Yousuf’s older brother: Omar, Yousuf, and Arif have someone looking out for them on the streets.  Arif has some help from the Bengali crew, and Yousuf is Somali, but there are not enough Pakistani’s to make a stand or demand respect when out and about.  When Abshir gets murdered, Yousuf retreats into himself his music and smoking joints, Arif keeps his playboy ways to take his mind off things when he isn’t reciting Quran beautifully in classes at the masjid, and Fawad makes the high school basketball team and finds a girlfriend. Things with Omar physically escalate as well, while things at home have his mom putting in to action plans for Fawad to marry his cousin in Pakistan.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I really like that Islam and culture are presented powerfully with OWN voice strength and detail.  Things are not defined or over explained and if you don’t know what haram or Ramadan or an imam are, figure it out.  I rarely find myself wishing the ending of books were different.  You hear a lot about that in movies, that they didn’t screen well or something, and so the ending was changed, and that is how I feel about this book.  *SPOILERS* Fawad and Omar should not have resolved their issues so easily, it was more than a respect thing, there was blood and hospitalizations.  We never even knew why they had issues in the first place. Arif and Nermin should not have hooked up. The whole book she comes across as the strong Muslim hijabi that blurs the lines by side hugging her guy friends, but not being ok with it, then she shows up to a dance, and then hooks up with Arif, didn’t like that at all.  I get the mixed signals of Fawad having a girlfriend from his mom, and while he seems to be connected to the mosque it never shares that he understands Islam more than just I have to do this and I can’t do this, but I didn’t like him going back to Ashley and wanted him to choose his own self-worth and respect over accepting her apology and going back to her.  I do not understand why Fawad waited so long to tell his mother about Nusrat. It was nothing that would upset his mom, I don’t get why he dragged it out.  I do love that the cousins were friends or friendly, but were fronting to their parents, but it was unnecessarily dragged out, and the more it got dragged out, the more complicated and intertwined it got with Fawad having a girlfriend.

I did not get the mom and sister relationship at all.  The mom seems to have just given up on her, but they seem to spend a lot of time together, so that was a disconnect for me.  At first I kind of liked the twist on the stereotype that the boy was not allowed freedoms to go out, but the sister was, but it kind of unraveled in the logic department.  I am desi, (half anyway) and the stereotype is that the boys are earning before they get married.  So to be arranging Fawad’s wedding at age 15 is bonkers.  To be arranging anybody’s wedding at that age is, but it is so contrary to custom, that I couldn’t even ignore it and move on, it was constantly blocking the story from being smooth.  The mom’s rationale is that she wants a daughter-in-law to take care of her.  Again kind of bogus, but maybe there is some truth there, unfortunately there is the big gaping hole that she, the mom, doesn’t take care of her in-laws, so why the difference of expectation.  Suffice it to say the mom and sister are both road bumps in the story for me.

I was impressed at how much basketball play-by-play was in the book and how it didn’t get boring.  I love that there were plenty of male role models in the community and that the three boys really looked out for each other, supported each other, were connected to each other’s families, etc..  I didn’t like the abusive religious imam trope.  I’m glad that Omar’s dad wasn’t blind to his son, but to be abusive was uncalled for.

I don’t know why Nermin is called, “Arabic,” at one point, that is clearly erroneous and I wish that the condom talk and sexual innuendos were greatly reduced.  There isn’t a lot of resolution regarding who killed Abshir, if Fawad caused any permanent damage by playing, or what the future holds for any of the characters and their relationships, but it was a quick read and held my intention and I did quite enjoy the writing.

FLAGS:
Lying, violence, murder, physical assault, kissing, making out, talk of arousal, talk of condoms and sex and getting physical.  Drugs and alcohol and addiction.  Child abuse, theft, stealing, threats.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

There is no way I could teach this to middle school or high school in an Islamic school.

Good Intentions by Kasim Ali

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Good Intentions by Kasim Ali

good intentions

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.

Zayd & Musa in The Trouble with School (The Story of Halal Money) by Hafsa Ahsan illustrated by Yusra bint Absar Kazmi and Urooj Khan

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Zayd & Musa in The Trouble with School (The Story of Halal Money) by Hafsa Ahsan illustrated by Yusra bint Absar Kazmi and Urooj Khan

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This delightful 70 page early chapter book is filled with humor, Islam, and a sweet story that ties it all together.  The book definitely has a teaching agenda, but it carries it with hilarious banter and relatable examples, all while covering a topic not often discussed in children’s books: money.  The book has a few grammar, vocabulary, and consistency concerns, but they are easy to overlook for readers 2nd grade and up.

SYNOPSIS:

Twins Zayd and Musa are very, very different.  Both boys enjoy cricket, but Zayd is more focused and enjoys homework, whereas Musa tends to daydream and often says something funny, but unintentionally.  When Musa makes the case in Science class that food, water, shelter, and money are all needed to survive, the class finds him hysterical.

Musa knows not to argue, his teacher is his elder and he knows he should have taqwa and be respectful, but he doesn’t give up on his idea either.  When the boys’ mom talks about halal money and gives them Islamic references for how money should be handled, Musa has a great idea: kids should be paid to go to school.

Once again, the whole school finds him funny, but Saeed Uncle, a neighbor who helps feed the poor at a roadside stand, doesn’t dismiss Musa’s idea and tells him, in some places kids are paid. And offers to take him and show him.

With references to sahabas who had great wealth and examples of how wealth can be used for good, Musa and Zayd learn numerous lessons, and share them with those around them, in a fun, engaging manner.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I get that the book is preachy, but in my mind, it is a story built around a teaching concept, so it doesn’t bother me.  I love the jokes and the tone.  At times the book is written quite formally, but being the author lives in Karachi, Pakistan, I assume that part of it, is just different standards.  I appreciate the Quran Circle table that lists where the Quran mentions wealth and the glossary.  I didn’t quite get all of the random facts included throughout, as some were about money, others about school, but I think kids will enjoy them none-the-less.  The illustrations are enjoyable, the text bubbles often hilarious (once again, a few I didn’t get).

I liked that it mentioned not drawing faces, and not going somewhere alone with someone you aren’t close with.  It is said in passing, but I love that those little nuggets exist in a book that is about something more, but normalizes and takes advantage of the opportunity to remind children of basic safety and Islamic concepts.

There are some awkward tense changes, and a few gaps in the story, but overall, I really enjoyed it and need to find the first one in the series.

FLAGS:

None

TOOLS TO LEAD THE DISCUSSION:
This would be a great book to use in a middle grades Islam class as a starting point to having students research the Quran and Sunnah to find information on a topic.  The humor will keep kids engaged, and the concept is an important one.  I plan to make all my kids read it, so that we can discuss as a family, and benefit from the lessons presented.

Omar Rising by Aisha Saeed

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Omar Rising by Aisha Saeed

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This middle grades 224 page read is quick and memorable.  The story is set in Pakistan and the characters are probably Muslim, but there is no religion mentioned until nearly the end, and even then only in passing.  The only culture specific references are the characters’ names, social etiquettes, and the foods mentioned.  By and large, the story is universal and could take place anywhere, and probably does take place everywhere.  While I wish it would have had more cultural and religious references, it is an OWN voice story after all, the book is enjoyable, the characters endearing, and I think young readers will benefit from spending the school year with Omar, seeing classism up close, and cheering for an unjust school system to be challenged.

SYNOPSIS:

Omar is the son of a servant and when he earns a scholarship to a prestiges boy’s school for seventh grade, the entire village is bursting with pride.  When he gets there though, it is hard, really hard.  The scholarship kids aren’t allowed to participate in any extra curriculars, they have to do service hours, and they have to maintain the ridiculously high A plus grade average or be expelled.  It seems that that headmaster is out to get the scholarship kids, and Omar in particular.  As the scholarship students struggle to stay afloat, Omar has to determine if it is all worth it. He spends all his time studying, even when he goes home to visit his mother, and while he doesn’t want to let the village down, he is struggling to find the optimism to keep fighting for his place.  When Omar learns that the system is designed to make the scholarship kids fail, and that those that are kicked out are called “ghost boys,” he has to decide to how hard to push himself and ultimately how hard to push to break down the system that treats him and those like him like second class citizens.  Luckily, Omar has some supportive teachers, some loyal friends, and a whole lot of determination.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the story is universal, it is at times a much tamer version of the YA book Ace of Spades which also explores second class citizens in posh private schools as a theme, and at times I even felt some Dead Poet’s Society vibes.  The cultural setting and names however, to me is a mixed bag.  I’m glad that it didn’t become another story about problems in another country with judgmental overtones, but at the same time, to be so void of cultural references seemed too far of an extreme in the other direction to make the story feel real richness and authenticity.  I love that the story isn’t about bullying and that a number of characters have depth.  I was genuinely confused for a large portion of the book about what the orientation in the summer entailed.  It was clarified much too late that it was a weekend, but I was at a loss trying to figure out how he knew some of the campus, some of the other scholarship kids, had a roommate, yet knew so little of the school and what it would be like.  I am not sure why that information was delayed, but seeing as I read an arc, I hope it is clarified in the final copy.

FLAGS:

Omar and a girl are friends, they hug at the end, but it seems rather innocent, and more sibling like as they were raised together.  

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This would be a good book on a shelf, and would possibly work as a read aloud to grades four or five.

 

Sway with Me by Syed M. Masood

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Sway with Me by Syed M. Masood

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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.

Little Seeds of Promise by Sana Rafi illustrated by Renia Metallinou

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Little Seeds of Promise by Sana Rafi illustrated by Renia Metallinou

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This sweet, well-done 48 page picture book for early elementary aged readers shows the fear associated with being in a new place, the love of an elder family member, and the courage it takes to make new friends.  The story focuses on a young Pakistani girl who has recently moved to a new country and how she tries to remember the wisdom of her Nani to blossom in her new home.  The culture rich story is universal and lyrical, with hints of making duaa, greetings of salam, and the soothing sounds of the athan that make memories of home so foreign to her in her new residence. Young readers will empathize with Maya, and see the symbolism in the seeds she is anxious to plant and cultivate.

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Maya finds her new home unfriendly and cold, she feels different with her food, and clothes, and way she speaks.  Home to her is dancing in the warm mansoon rains, saying As-salamu ‘alykum, and waking up to the sweet athan.  Nani was also there, her old home.  Sweet Nani with her hundred wrinkles, smelling like flowers.  When Maya left, Nani gave her a gift.  Little seeds of promise, so that they and she might bloom where planted.  But Maya doesn’t know where to plant them, she carries them with her everywhere she goes, but like a secret, she keeps them close.

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Channeling her Nani’s tenderness, she knows that she has to plant them if one day she wants to be surrounded by flowers.  Maya loves flowers, dancing around them, praying among them.  Maya finds a patch of earth.  She longs for rain, she hopes for warmth. She makes way for the rays of the sun.  The text talks of flowers, the illustrations show both the plant and the growing friendships.  For days nothing happens, with the seeds or the classmates.  But Maya remembers that seeds have a long journey from the ground up.

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Maya nurtures her seed, just the one she dared plant, with love and kindness.  She too feels ready to burst.  Can she be brave enough to plant all the seeds, can she share them, and her self in her new world? Can their be warmth here, like there was over there? Can this too be home?

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I love the symbolism and juxtaposition of the seeds growth with her own.  The character arc and the transition of home being one place to being the other, is very well done, older readers will feel an aha moment when they grasp it and younger kids will enjoy both the surface story and the dialogue you can have with them about blossoming where planted.

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Religion is not a strong thread, but Islam is present in her memories of her maternal grandmother and all the warmth and love that those memories contain.  I love that the classmates were never mean, they just didn’t know her either.  I wish there was a bit more diversity of skin tone and mobility in the classroom illustrations and the friend circle she is hoping to join.  Overall, a beautiful OWN voice picture book that will be enjoyed for multiple bedtime, small group, and classroom readings.