It isn’t often that a 32 page AR 2.4 picture book will haunt you after you read the last page. Especially a book with short simple sentences, that is poorly organized and reads like two separate nearly disjointed stories, but alas this book has stayed with me for months and upon rereading it to write this review, the images and empathy and reflections stirred have not lessened. This is an important book to read, to think about, and to return to sporadically as your children and their understanding of the larger world grows and evolves.
Hussein is a Roma, or a gypsy living in a small village in Bulgaria. Their ancestors migrated many years ago from India and they are Muslim. Hussein and his family love Ramadan and the delicious smells of food and warmth of grandparents and family all year round, but particularly during the blessed month.
Eid is the best, with family and fun and new clothes. Hussein loves his life and his name. It was his grandfather’s name and his grandfather’s grandfather’s name. But then one day all that changes.
Tanks and soldiers with guns come to their village and close that mosque and tear up their identity cards and tell all the minorities that they must choose Christian names and give up their culture and identities.
Hussein and his family do not want to give up Islam and their names and their traditions, but they don’t know what to do. Feeling like they have no choice they change their names and Hussein asks the reader at the end if you would call him Hussein or Harry?
The last page of the book is an author’s note, and tells that this is based on his own life story. That in the 1980s Bulgarian minorities were forced to change their identities. That more than one million Muslims, including Roma, Turks and other minorities were forced to choose Christian names and that until he was 22 years old, his name was Hussein.
The illustrations are illuminating to the images that the simple words discuss. Truly they are a powerful and integral part of the story. The women wear hijab and the use of color to set the tone is spot on. The book is hardbound and the 8×10 size allow the pictures to be enjoyed fully.
The book published in 2004, was not easy to find which is unfortunate as it really sheds light on a recent history not known in the US at all, and one that should be known and remembered. The first part of the book reads like a Ramadan story detailing iftaar and Eid and how Ramadan is celebrated by this culture, but the second half goes back to Ramadan and how it is different with the soldiers and the pressure to give up who they are. There aren’t a lot of details about who the soldiers are or why they have come or what they are going to do to the Romas, but the fact that in recent history and this was what people were faced with, should be a powerful reminder to us all at how fragile this world is and make us appreciate that we aren’t forced to make such a decision.