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.
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.
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.