This culture rich, American set, upcoming 416 page YA book proudly shows the characters’ Islam as it shares a story of pain, privilege, guilt, adversity, hope, and family dynamics. The book is an easy read that is hard to put down, and is remarkably clean for the threads of romance, war, and mental health that permeate the pages (note that here are triggers of loss, separation, death, suicide, drowning, trauma, hate, and bullying). There, however, are also some plot holes, contradictions, and weak threads that I feel obligated to note, but ultimately don’t make the book a bad read. I think 16 year old readers, both Syrian and not, as well as Muslim and non Muslims will benefit from the characters sharing their lives and peeling back surface layers to show an intimate account of expectation and obligation for Syrian American girls in today’s world with the backdrop of war in Syria. The book’s first few pages are powerful in their Islamic centering and unapologetic normalizing of salat and hijab and identity. The Islam in the forefront fades as the story progresses and I don’t think I can sign off on the relationship between two characters as being “halal,” but starting the story with fears of praying on the side of the road as a mom’s concern is next level. Most book parents are trying to get their kids to pray, in this family- prayers are happening five times a day and on time, so the worry is knowing where you are when Maghrib time hits, because it obviously won’t be missed or delayed, alhumdulillah.
Khadija’s mom is queen bee in the tight knit Syrian community in Detroit and Khadija does not fit the mold of what the queen’s daughter should be. It isn’t that Khadija is a rebel, she loves her mother, her faith, her roots, and well, boxing. Khadija is wealthy, and privileged and so much of what is expected is for appearance sake only. Khadija knows this, and takes boxing lessons for free in exchange for helping keep the gym clean as to establish this as her own thing, no strings attached. When Khadija’s mom takes in a Syrian refugee and her daughter, Leene, Khadija has to figure out if she is threatened, jealous, or impressed by the new arrivals and what that means about her own family.
Leene shares the narrative with Khadija and shares her transition to life in America and in the Shaami home along with her past. The loses she has faced, the obstacles overcome, and the secrets she keeps in order to face each new day show glimpses into the destruction of the Syrian war on a way of life and the beauty lost.
The two girls are at odds with each other for much of the book, but as their stories start to intertwine, they find themselves with similarities and strengths that show they are a benefit to each other, despite their stubbornness and fiercely independent personalities. In a race to reclaim what was once lost, the girls start to trust each other, and when family is further threatened the two girls allow themselves to be vulnerable and work together to save what matters.
Clearly I am trying not to spoil the book, nor takeaway from the climax, but I think most that start the book, will find themselves glued to the pages and will understand why I am choosing not to disclose too much.
WHY I LIKE IT:
The first chapter completely blew me away, I loved the idea of such a strong hijabi girl boxing and being so unapologetic about her Islam and culture. I must admit I cried at the end as well. It was tied up very neatly, arguably too perfectly, but there were tears none-the-less and no matter what I critique about the book, I was moved by it. The writing is engaging, and entertaining, no doubt, but alas, I have some questions, lots of questions in fact: How did the mom’s meet? One is super posh and high class, the other refugee with very little, how did their paths cross? How did Leene convince her mom to let her travel even if the ‘why’ was kept hidden? After everything they have been through wouldn’t being left to travel to the Middle East be a huge obstacle that needed to be overcome, it reads inconsistent and unbelievable. How hard was it for the “girls” to leave the “boys,” I would imagine it was devastating, yet it didn’t even get a mention.
What changed so much about the family dynamic when they stopped going to Syria, the author shows the joy of Syria and being together for the family, but I think if you are not Syrian and do not know Syrians well, some of this thread, is going to fall short. I talked to @muslimmommyblog and could see the reflection of the characters for her, but if I didn’t have her shared experience to flesh out the characters, I don’t know that I would have understood the weight of the guilt, the helplessness, and the frustration. Similarly, only through talking to Shifa did I understand the pressures of being an American Syrian girl, if I’m being honest, Khadija the majority of the time, just reads whiney. Other family dynamic questions involve the dad and brother. Was the dad always so absent? It must not have happened overnight, right? And exactly how old is Zain? He reads like he is 12, but he is in high school? Additionally, high school graduation is very important for both girls for very different reasons, but their is no talk of college or career plans, which was noticeably missing from the book.
Then there is the angsty storyline of Younes. The perfectly selfless guy who doesn’t center his Islam as much, but does want to have a prolonged engagement. What does that even mean, and how will that be ok Islamically, with them already laying on the 90s Bollywood style glances and loving confession? Also why does Khadija frame morality through an Islamic lens for most things, but for the relationship resorts to worrying about what her mother will be ok with? And was the family ok with Younes? How is he at the BBQ? Speaking of places he shouldn’t be, how was he at the party Nassima isn’t Arab enough for, when she at least speaks Arabic and he does not?
I think it best to just enjoy the story for what it is, not look too deep, not ask questions, and just enjoy the rep, the story, the characters, and the emotions released with the climax and conclusion.
Romance, crushes, road rage, bullying, Islaophobia, mental health, death, killing, war, destruction, suicide, drowning, abandonment, separation, loss, grief, rebellion, angst, lying.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
This would not work for a middle school book club, and I really should say that this wouldn’t work for a high school book club either, but I know many older high school girls that would absolutely love this book and I think it might be possible to convince them that the relationship is more than the text shared, and was approved by the families and made halal. Considering so many holes exist, it might be possible to control the narrative in a book club setting on the permissibility of the relationship. It would definitely depend on the girls reading the book and I would strongly suggest that whether you read this book in a group or hand it to a teen, that you make it clear what a halal relationship looks like and that this is a work of fiction.
The book releases in March 2023 and as always to show support for OWN voice Muslim character filled stories please consider pre-ordering the book: you can do so here on Amazon. And once the book releases please purchase, checkout from your library, and encourage your schools to shelve titles to encourage similar books to be published and made available, thank you.