I read this book a few years ago and was blown away that Islamic fiction could explore these topics compellingly in a YA package. I remember loaning out the book to a mom with middle school kids to see if she could tell me how accurate the storylines were. Yeah, I never got the book back, and never got the feedback, and the book slipped my mind and thus I never wrote a review on it. Fast forward to last month and I’m trying to find a middle school book club selection and I can’t believe that I don’t have a blog entry of this book to look back on. Clearly, this shows why 1- I don’t loan out books anymore and 2-Why I have a blog, cause I remember nothing about the flags, relevance or appropriateness of the book, thus I bought another copy, read it, and am now documenting my thoughts.
The book is 260 pages and an AR 5.3, but the drug use and violence I’d say would warrant an older reader, 9th grade and up perhaps. And while by the end, the book leaves a pleasant taste in your mouth and you would place it back on the shelf in a contented manner, I would be misleading if I didn’t confess that it took much self motivation to pick the book up and keep reading more than once, that it honestly took me a month to read. The last third was hard to put down, but you have to get through a fair amount of frustration, stereotypes, and extremes to get there.
Sixteen year old twins Farhana and her brother Faraz live in London and are incredibly different from one another. Farhana goes to a school where she excels both academically and socially. She is queen bee, beautiful, and articulate. Faraz on the other hand, goes to a different school and doesn’t really fit in anywhere, but in the art studio. One thing that unites them, however, is their determination to grow and learn about Islam this Ramadan, and their home environment of a large extended Pakistani family that places culture above religion.
Both twins are close with the “black sheep” of the family, their Aunty Najma, a niqabi rebel set on marrying a white convert. But, both twins have their own stresses as well. Farhana has recently called it off with a boy named Malik, but isn’t really over him and Faraz has gotten himself involved in a street gang to find a place to belong, but the stakes are getting higher. Both twins on the eve of Ramadan and with the coaching of their Aunt are determined to get their lives straightened out, fast properly, reconnect with their faith, and with each other. They do, alhumdulillah, however, the spiritual high only lasts so long, as earlier decisions come back to haunt them.
Farhana makes the bold decision to start wearing hijab, but once the novelty wears off, she starts to question her choice. It isn’t helped by her mom who is very, very against the need to veil and makes it difficult for her daughter. Faraz meets some street artists at the masjid and while it looks like he could find a place to excel, his alliance with a gang, also comes with enemies from rival crews. Physical fights and drug runs have him out at all hours of the night and the priority of fasting and praying fade as the the pressures of not getting killed or caught prevail.
As each kid has their ups and downs, and the parents prove to be out of touch with the lives of those in their homes, tidbits of Islam come through, but unfortunately so does a lot of cultural dogma that isn’t always clarified or pushed back on, making there a lot going on in this book, and making me wish it was a just a bit longer and more fine tuned.
WHY I LIKE IT:
The book, I could argue set the foundation for the amazing pieces of literature currently available. Published in 2010, the book really was a first of its kind. Written by a Muslim, unapologetically written for Muslim and non-Muslims, and available in the mainstream. The book tackles real issues, but seems to fall into stereotypes too. That Farhana covers and is so beautiful, she looks like Aishwariya Rai, the Bollywood actress, why would she cover. Malik decides to figure things out and wait for her, ahhh, so sweet. There’s the rebel Asian girl who gets a lot of page space early on for her incredibly minor role, going on about Asian Girl Bachelor Parties and hooking up with everyone and anyone. There is the best friend who is religious and the Imam’s daughter and is also chubby. The nice brother at the masjid who saves the protagonist. I don’t know, they all seem predictable. What I like about fiction is it allows Muslims to be seen in shades of gray not just black and white, and while this book tries to do it, I feel like only the main characters are allowed to grow and change, the minor characters hold on to their positions so resolutely that, they kind of seem dry.
I like that the tables on hijab are switched up, it isn’t the parents that want the girl to cover, but rather the girl her self, and some of the conversations about hijab and Farhana’s choice to do it compared to her friend who is forced allow for some powerful moments. I also like, that she has doubts soon after opting to wear it. I wish some religious reasonings were brought in to her understanding of hijab, but the aspects of choice and how to wear it, are present. I’m grateful that Faraz’s storyline takes most of the action, so that it isn’t a romance novel, with Farhana pining relentlessly for Malik. I had hoped for a little growth from the gang head, Skrooz, especially after Aunty Naj sheds some light on him, but his criminal act at the end after showing Faraz his cousin or maybe it was his brother seemed a bit off. Again, it was only to benefit the protagonist, not to show that we all have our own battles.
The parents and extended family are irritating to say the least. To the extent of delaying iftar to get the food to the grandmas house and then serving the men first, like really? I don’t think so. There is nothing that says the women have to eat after serving everyone else in religion and that is never challenged. Yes, Farhana challenges her mom’s notion of women not going to the mosque, but the food bugged me. I am Pakistani American, and the culture has its flaws, but the presentation in the book, is one big wide stripe of female oppression, which isn’t fair either. Absolutely, their are families that the women cook all day and then eat in a corner, but I feel like the staging of this book as “authentic” either needs to show variation, or account that this is how one family views it, not that it is universal.
There is talk of casual sex, physical violence with knives and fists, details about drugs: cocaine and heroin. None of it is celebrated, but it is present and very much the norm in how it is presented.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
I still sway back and forth on if this could be done as a book club selection, and in the end I would opt that no it can’t. Not for the drug use, or boy girl relationships, but ultimately for how the backwards and closed minded the Pakistani culture is presented as being. If the group was high school Pakistani heritage kids maybe, but I think Arabs and non Muslims in general will not think very highly of the culture after reading this book, and I think that is a disservice to be promoting in a book club selection.