Tag Archives: fear

The Cat I Never Named: A True Story of Love, War, and Survival by Amra Sabic-El-Rayess with Laura L. Sullivan

Standard
The Cat I Never Named: A True Story of Love, War, and Survival by Amra Sabic-El-Rayess with Laura L. Sullivan

img_8275

This amazingly captive 370 page, nonfiction autobiography details life during 1992 through 1995 in Bihać, Bosnia through the eyes of a 16-year-old Muslim girl.  The horrors of war, her determination to survive, a lifesaving cat, and her coming of age, all come together to make for a compelling read that is both reflective and inspiring.  I had a hard time putting the YA/Teen book down even knowing that she would obviously survive and being vaguely familiar with the Serbian attacks and ethnic genocide that occurred.  In an easy to read flowing first person narrative, somehow the book avoids being overly political, while still managing to convey the role of the media, the international world, and the hateful mindset that turned friends and neighbors into enemies.  I think teens, 15 and up, should spend some time with this book as well as adults, it really serves as a wake up call to how fragile nations can be when we turn on one another.  We must know the past, to as not repeat it.

SYNOPSIS:

The book starts out with Amra on a train returning from Belgrade where she took tests as she is one of the brightest kids in the region.  Immediately it is made clear that she is incredibly smart, and independent as she travels alone into the heart of Serbia.  The war has not yet come, but on the return trip Serbian Nationalist soldiers board the train and she is desperately afraid that she will be sexually assaulted.  Fortunately, she does not “look Muslim” and the soldiers physically leave her alone.  Her naivety, however, is lost as she realizes the war is closer than her family thinks.

Her family lives in a beautiful home that they designed and saved for, they wear hand me down clothes and watch expenses as a result.  Amra has a younger brother Dino, her older brother seemed to have some disability and has passed away, her parents are honest and value education. Her family is everything to her, they are incredibly close knit.  They are ethnically Muslim, but do not practice.  She mentions it regularly, that they are being attacked for a religion they do not practice.  They wear bikinis and date, eat pork and drink alcohol, they identify first as Bosnian and then as Muslim.  But they do identify as Muslim and they suffer for it, over and over and over again.

The story sets the stage by showing how diverse Bihać is and how Serb, Croats, Bosnians, Muslims, Christians, Catholics all live together.  It is Amra’s birthday, it really isn’t, but they could not afford the food and gifts at the time of her 16th birthday, so they are celebrating it now with a sleepover with her closest life-long friends.  When Amra and her father go in to town to get the cake, they see tanks rolling in, refugees from other cities seeking safety and Amra and her father start handing out whatever money they have and take a couple home with them.  At the party, they don’t discuss what they have seen, but when Amra’s best friend, a Serb, cannot spend the night, the parties tone changes and the mood is set for the next chapter in Amra’s life.

At school she shares how Muslims are treated and forced to take Russian, while the Serbs are encouraged in English, while the children get along as many are mixed ethnicities, there is rampant favoritism from the adults.  When one day only the Muslims arrive at school, the Serbs have all secretly evacuated in the night, there is no more denying that the war has come to Bihać. With the comfort of her cat, who she simply calls, Maci, cat in Bosnian, and his “luck” to somehow delay her or warn her of bombings, she and her family endure the first wave of attacks by hunkering down in a cousins basement.

Ultimately they decide that they cannot stop living.  Death is striking at every turn and no one is more safe in one location than another and the family returns home.  They still have electricity at first, but it soon disappears, the phone lines stay, but food starts to get scarce.  At times the family goes out of the city to stay with family on a bee farm and survive off the honey, but it is not safe there either.  School resumes a few days a month, but all the Muslim’s records have been “lost” and paper is in short supply.

Over the four years of the war, Amra’s aging diabetic father is called to fight, an explosion at the house renders her mother deaf, friends and family are killed while somehow the day to day of surviving continues.  Amra graduates from high school, works as a tutor when she cannot pursue her own education, and finds work as a translator for international workers after she teaches herself english.  There are times she is so malnourished her hair is falling out, her gums are bleeding and she blacks out, and there are times when the family is able to trade honey for food and can open a small store in the corner of their house.

The resiliency and heartache is not something a review can capture, you feel for Amra at every turn, both in delight as well as in fear and devastation.

WHY I LIKE IT:

It has a map! Seriously, thank you.  I love that the book is so emotional, it doesn’t get hung up on dates and events, but how whatever is happening affects Amra and her view of the world.  As a character, ultimately a person, she doesn’t stay down, she is capable and strong, which is so remarkable in the best of times and absolutely heroic living through this war.  The cat is a remarkable character, and while at times it seems forced, it is a great thread that keeps her story being relatable on all levels.

There are a few chances for Amra to leave her family and get away to safety, the first time it is presented to her she would have to change her name, she decides she cannot.  This is a testament to her love of her family, but also to her identity.  She is proud of who she is, which is mind blowing to me.  I talked about it in my review of The Day of the Pelican, about how Bosnian refugees I got to know in the late 90s knew nothing about Islam, but were being slaughtered for being Muslim.  Repeatedly she talks about how in Bosnia there were some conservative traditional Muslims, but that most of them are not, her family is not.  Yet, my heart truly cried out when her and her mother are trying to get food from drunk soldiers and are certain that they are going to be raped or blown up by land mines and she says the only prayer she knows.  One that she learned after the war started: “Auzubillahi Minahs Shaitan ir Rajeem.  Bismillah ir Rahman ir Rahim.  Rabbi Yassir wa la Tua’ssir, Rabbi tammim bil khayr.  I seek refuge in Allah from Satan in the the Name of Allay the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.  O God make it easy and don’t make it difficult, O’ God, complete this with good.”  

She explains the cover of the book at the end, “the book’s jacket presents my authentic self, a liberal Muslim teen, yet a Muslim who was still so profoundly hated.  The jacket illustration serves as a reminder that the hate is a product of its perpetrators rather a reflection of its victims.

FLAGS:

The book is about war, it has rape, sexual assault, death.  At times it is descriptive and detailed, not sensationalized, but powerful.  There is kissing, boyfriends and girlfriends, nothing lewd.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I learned about this book from Lovely Books Podcast when she interviewed the author: https://lovelybooks.buzzsprout.com, it is a great introduction along with many of the interviews and articles that Dr. Amra Sabic-El-Reyess has done.

I would love to do this as a book club, but I think it would have be done on a high school level, not middle school.  The dialogue and understanding I would imagine surrounding this book would be compassionate and thoughtful.  I hope those leading book clubs for older students and even adults will consider this book.

Flying Over Water by Shannon Hitchcock and N.H. Senzai

Standard
Flying Over Water by Shannon Hitchcock and N.H. Senzai

This middle grades, upper elementary book is a character driven contemporary story of two friends with their own fears coming together: one a native of Tampa, the other one a refugee from Syria arriving in the US on the day Trump’s ‘Muslim Ban’ goes in to effect. In 272 pages of alternating narratives, two 12 year old girls find strength and kindness in themselves, in each other, and in many around them. Islamaphobia is focused on in the story, but the inclusion of diversity, Black Lives Matter, anti semitism, mental health, social justice, and US immigration makes the book relatable to everyone and interesting to explore. The book is remarkably similar to another book published this year, A Galaxy of Sea Stars, and I wish I had not read them so close together. Both are well done, and I honestly don’t know if one is better than the other, but space them out so you don’t find yourself comparing them. I got my copy from Scholastic, and I’m always happy when the school market shows accurate strong Muslims, so if you see this in the book order forms that come home or book fairs and are wondering if you should get it, do it, it is worth your time and your child’s, inshaAllah.

SYNOPSIS:

Noura’s family has escaped Syria and had been living in Turkey when they learn they have been granted assylum in Tampa, Florida, USA. When the book opens Noura is practicing controlling her fear of water as the plane flies over the ocean. Her twin brother, Ammar, her parents and baby brother Ismail are greeted with protesters when they land. Whisked away by a church group and local Muslims, the family is given support and assistance in a new country.

One of the members in the church group that have volunteered to help the Alwan family, is Jordyn and her mother. Jordyn is going to be Noura and Ammar’s Student Ambassador at Bayshore Middle School and Jordyn’s mom has offered to help Noura’s mom learn English. Jordyn is the state title holder in swimming, but while she was swimming her fastest race, her mom was having a miscarriage, and both have a lot to work through to function as they once did.

The two girls immediately hit it off, and the families follow. Noura’s love of birds is mirrored in Jordyn’s love of water and fish, and both have their fears and mental health coping skills to bond and confide in with one another about. The girls and Ammar are assigned a Social Studies assignment and Jordyn getting close to the Alwans is not well received by Jordyn’s close friend Bailey who’s brother was killed while fighting in Afghanistan. Other classmates also show bigotry and with the real incidents of 2017 incorporated in to the story of a mosque being burned, Jewish cemeteries being ransacked, pedestrians being run-over in France, and more, the Alwans are questioning their new country, and their friends are wondering how America has gotten this way.

While praying at school Ammar and Noura are constantly harassed no matter where they relocate to, and finally ask the administration if there is a safe place they can worship. Florida law says a space can be set aside for all faiths to have the same access as clubs do (I’m overly simplifying), and many different and diverse students come together to turn an old closet into a place of peace, worship, freedom, reflection, and meditation. As expected, the space is destroyed, the culprits never caught and complaints to the school board mount. The ultimate climax involves the kids speaking up about what the space means to them, and waiting to see what the final school board vote is. Along the way there are smaller victories, such as Jordyn teaching Noura to swim, Ammar speaking about the white helmets saving him, and Jordyn and her mother working together to heal.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the Muslim Ban is discussed in a way that it is personal, not political. By highlighting a fictional manifestation of refugees affected by such policy, even people that don’t know anyone affected, I’m certain would feel a connection to a concept and its affects in a very real way. I love that N.H. Senzai was brought on to make the story’s Islamic elements ring true and that the prayer room, a very American Muslim construct ends up being at the center of the story. Noura and her family eat halal, wear hijab, and pray. I enjoyed that other diversity and acceptance issues were carried in to the story by the supporting cast including a Jewish boy, a Cuban girl, a Hindu and more. Overall the book is well written and solid, the mental health and coping skills are so beautifully normalized. Both girls have sought help and found success with it, and both are brave in addressing their fears and opening up about them to those around them. It really is empowering.

The end of the book features more information about the real Syrian children heroes mentioned in the book: the ten year old model builder Muhammad Qutaish, the Olympic swimmer Yusra Mardini, and education activist Muzoon Almellehan. There is also information about the two authors and how their collaboration came to be.

I would love to not compare this book to A Galaxy of Sea Stars, but just to highlight a few of the near exact similarities would prove my point that had these two books not been published the same year, one would definitely be accused of copying the other. Both feature middle school girls, both have a refugee arriving to a coastal town with their families (one Afghan one Syrian), both have the American born protagonist loving water, being an only child, and have mothers going through their own life changing crisis. Both have two side kick friends, one that is very anti Muslim and one that is on the fence. Neither have a completely resolving happy ending with the three girls’ friendship and there is doubt in both books of friend’s possible involvement of hate motivated actions. Both feature a side character’s brother being killed in conflict in a Muslim majority country. Both feature an amazing teacher that is very involved in opening minds and facilitating growth regarding prejudice. Both feature PTSD issues, and fear of water issues as well as a major hobby being destroyed by an angry classmate character. The ‘ethnic mom’ in both stories is rather one dimensional but loves to cook and feed everyone. Sure they also have their differences, one alternates point of view and is tied closely to current real events, but both have remarkably similar themes of friendship, overcoming fear, and finding similarities over differences.

FLAGS:

Some mention of violence as the Alwans recall the destruction and fear of war in Syria. Mention of a cartoon drawn by a classmate mocking Jordyn getting her first bra, but it isn’t detailed. The swimming coach is a lesbian and she mentions her wife at one point.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would definitely encourage elementary teachers to have this book on their shelves and encourage students to read it and respond. I think it would be too predictable for middle schoolers to read in a critical manner, however, they would probably enjoy it as a light read. With Covid 19 still keeping me from starting up book clubs again, I have been asked to consider helping put together some side reading lists/suggestions, and this book would definitely find its way on that.

Happy Reading!

My Monster and Me by Nadiya Hussain and Ella Bailey

Standard
My Monster and Me by Nadiya Hussain and Ella Bailey

This adorable 32 page book about facing worries, anxiety, and fears is told in story format and meant for ages four and up. The personified monster isn’t scary, but he is big, and the little boy learns to talk about him to get him to shrink. The book is engaging, fun, and powerful. I had my teenager who has anxiety read it and she loved it, a few days later as she was forcing herself to get out of the car, she mentioned that she needed to make her monster small. Normalizing mental health, feeling like you aren’t alone, finding the words to explain to others how you feel, having empathy for those that are facing challenges, are all things the book conveys without being preachy or condescending. I think every child, parent, and caregiver, needs to be aware of what children are facing and find ways to be like the gran in the book and listen, so that children suffering aren’t doing so alone. The fact that the author is a Muslim celebrity chef in Britain and the protagonist is a boy with brown skin, makes the message that much more universal.

The book starts out with an unnamed boy introducing himself and his much bigger monster. He doesn’t know when the monster arrived, but it seems he has always been there, and the monster knows all about him.

The monster is big, and when he stands infront of the little boy, the little boy can only see his tummy. At night he snores too. When he asks his mom or dad or brother to take the monster away, the monster hides.

Over time the monster has gotten bossier. When the little boy is getting dressed or brushing his teeth or when he wants to play, the monster is always there, blocking him.

One day after school the monster was there and the little boy tried to lose it, but couldn’t. Gran asked what was wrong when he showed up crying, and the little boy told his grandma all about his monster.

Gran listened quietly and the more the little boy talks, the smaller the monster gets. Pretty soon the boy realizes he can make his monster go away. When he finds the monster later, the little monster is confused, so the boy puts him in his pocket.

The monster is always there, but the little boy can make him behave and he isn’t scary any more. At the end the boy is big, and the monster is little.

I love that the boy finds someone to talk to, and that he accepts that the monster may never leave. Even if you don’t have anxiety or worries, the book is a great metaphor that even little kids can understand to help them cope when stresses do occur. I love the large size of the book, the minimal text and the bright illustrations. Truly a great book that needs to be in classrooms and homes and anywhere kids are.

Playing Atari with Saddam Hussein: Based on a True Story by Jennifer Roy with Ali Fadhil

Standard
Playing Atari with Saddam Hussein: Based on a True Story by Jennifer Roy with Ali Fadhil

atari

This 165 page AR 3.9 book about the 42 days in 1991 that Iraq was at war with the United States is told from an 11 year old half Kurdish Christian boy’s perspective, but he mentions that he has friends that are Muslim and culturally and historically the book is relevant, important, and engaging as well.  I had my 9, 11, and 13 year old read it to gain perspective of the Gulf War, the difference between politics and people, and to see diverse religions co-existing despite stereotypes, especially in the middle east.

SYNOPSIS:

Ali gets the highest score on his Atari console the day that the bombs start falling.  Ali and his brothers Shirzad and Ahmed, and sister Shireen along with their parents retreat to the safest room in the upper middle class home to hopefully stay safe.  With experience of surviving the Iran-Iraq war which ended just three years earlier, the kids camp out at night in the room farthest from the nearby school and spend their days playing soccer in the abandoned streets.  The safe room was determined by knowing that Saddam uses his own people as human shields and places military installments in public service locations so that he can use propaganda to try and convince people that the enemy is bombing schools and hospitals intentionally to harm the innocent.

When the electricity goes out and the water cuts off, the family is forced to accept government rations.  Their dad is a dentist, but as he is essentially property of the state, he is forced to work as a medic and is often absent from home.  The family lives in Basra, which is in southern Iraq and near to the invaded Kuwait, thus all the troops pass through the city and the children spend their days keeping up their house, playing soccer with their friend Mustafa and trying to avoid the bullies Omar and Umar who’s father is in Saddam’s Ba’ath Party.

Ali speaks English because of his love of American TV and feels that if he can meet some US soldiers he will convince them that he should be in America not in Saddam’s Iraq.  He loves Superman, video games, soccer, his family, and his country, but the people, not the leader, he loathes Saddam, even though he knows he can’t ever speak ill of him.

A trip to get rations results in Ali seeing public executions and a colleague of his math professor mother’s getting hauled away.  A visit from their cousin gives them news that their father is missing. Life is not easy for the family, and yet they know they have it better than a lot of other people.  After the war, once again the family will have to put back together their lives and carry on.

The book concludes with a 14 year jump and Ali translating at the trial of Saddam Hussein where the leader who has been hiding is found guilty and sentenced to be killed by hanging.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that Ali is so relatable, he could really be a kid anywhere which makes what he sees and hears and experiences all the more intense.  The way that the book shows how the soldiers are forced to be soldiers, the citizenry at the mercy of the government, and the inability to speak freely so very real and frightening, is strong, but not traumatizing to the reading audience.  Even Ali being forced to observe the killing of  people in the street is handled with the target audience in mind.  They are Kurdish and had to deal with that within Iraqi society, which is a nice added layer to understanding that Iraqis are not a single monolith.  I love how the family had to go to the governor’s house and how nice his son was, even though, they are all Ba’ath Party members and part of the larger oppressive system.  It shows that things aren’t always black and white, and to convey all this to eight and nine year olds so clearly is quite remarkable.

I also like that the book holds up over time.  My kids had no idea what Atari is or was, but they could understand that it is a video game, and that it was an escape during the night for Ali to imagine he was playing a game trying to catch the falling bombs as a way to be brave and endure.

FLAGS:

Execution, death.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would consider this for a middle school book club, it is a bit short and definitely more middle grades, but it would allow kids to identify and imagine and discuss war through the fictional characters and voice their understandings of an authoritarian government structure, which would be interesting.

Author’s Reading Guide: http://www.jenniferroy.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Playing-Atari-Teacher-Guide.pdf

 

 

The Ghoul by Taghreed Najjar illustrated by Hassan Manasra

Standard
The Ghoul by Taghreed Najjar illustrated by Hassan Manasra

the ghoulThis 36 page book for ages five through eight is a cute story about being brave, facing your fears, challenging your perceptions, celebrating differences and giving friendship a chance.  Recently translated and published in English, this Arabic inspired folktale is timeless and important for readers of all ages to learn from.

8B5F2DF2-9E4D-41B0-B9CE-3220C01849D3

Hasan the Brave is a young boy that lives in a mountain village.  The children are told not to laugh out loud, the adults tiptoe to their fields, and the fear of being eaten by the ghoul that lives in a cave on top of the mountain consumes them all.

397BB0D0-FE53-491D-997C-F0A69FA851BE

But Hasan isn’t buying it and starts asking questions. Why is everyone afraid of the ghoul, he asks his aunt one day in the olive grove? She tells him because he is covered in hair, has one eye, long claws, sharp teeth and his favorite food is little boys and girls.  Unconvinced Hasan asks his dad if anyone in the village has been hurt by the ghoul.  His dad can’t think of anyone.  He asks his mom if the Ghoul ever ate anyone in the village? She can’t think of anyone, but has heard plenty of rumors and wants him to not disturb the ghoul none-the-less.

BA9EE74E-0AEA-4418-8265-146E1DFF7682

Hasan is tired of being scared and decides he will climb the mountain.  Everyone in the village tries to warn him against it, but he is Hasan the Brave after all and is determined to go.  When he gets to the top of the mountain and relishes at the beautiful view he proclaims that he is fearless and that he won’t be afraid of the ghoul.  Then he sees the ghoul, and after the ghoul sizes him up, the ghoul runs away.

76499216-F79A-45D1-8BD5-E7559269F315

Hasan goes to investigate why such a monster is scared of him and learns that the ghoul is scared of people because they have two eyes instead of one, they do not have thick hair like him, they have strange hair, small teeth, and they eat ghouls.  Ghouls, Hasan finds out are vegetarians.

A3D05D5F-10FB-42D3-866F-5863CEEDE484

The two laugh at their assumptions, and run off to play together.  From that day on the two are best friends and the people in the village pass on stories to remind future generations to celebrate differences and not let fear rule them again.

There are a few women in hijab, the villagers say inshaAllah, but there is nothing religious in the book.  The illustrations are detailed and colorful in a muted manner.  Overall a fun book with a great lesson.

 

A Girl Called Genghis Khan: How Maria Toorpakai Wazir Pretended to Be a Boy, Defied the Taliban, and Became a World Famous Squash Player by Michelle Lord illustrated by Shehzil Malik

Standard
A Girl Called Genghis Khan: How Maria Toorpakai Wazir Pretended to Be a Boy, Defied the Taliban, and Became a World Famous Squash Player by Michelle Lord illustrated by Shehzil Malik

maria

This children’s biography of Maria Toorpakai Wazir, Pakistan’s world famous squash player, is simplified and suitable for children 2nd grade and up.  At 42 pages with bright illustrations older kids will understand a little bit more about the cultural norms that were being oppressive and the strength and risks Maria took to play a sport she loved and defy the Taliban while disguising herself as a boy. Younger children will probably only get her determination and perseverance, which is impressive in its own right.

C9A2CED0-B2A4-43F9-942A-B5A32B0B7E9C

In 1990, Maria was born in the mountains of the Tribal Areas in Pakistan.  Conservative society and strict gender roles amplified by the control of the Taliban in 2001.  Maria’s parents supported rights for their sons and daughters, and allowed Maria to cut her hair, dress like a boy, and play sports.

9C7E2AE9-5668-48C6-8E41-304F1583B644

Her father called her Ghenghis Khan after the great warrior and when the family moved to the city of Peshawar he even introduced her as his son to people.  As Ghenghis, Maria was always picking fights and encouraged instead to play sports to channel her wildness.

2FB5AF13-2468-44A6-ACD2-1A118F69F9C6

She fell in love with the game of squash, and when she went to join the Squash Club she had to submit her birth certificate which revealed that she was a girl.  The director let her join the club, as the only girl among 400 boys.  But now her secret was out.

713C71CE-338C-4241-BD6F-05091868E560

She was bullied and her family ridiculed, but she kept playing and kept winning.  The President of Pakistan awarded her honors for her outstanding achievements, but that infuriated the Taliban and they threatened her family.

FF2A709B-F539-44B0-92FB-48C336C2213B

As a result Maria had to hide, and would practice at night, in secret, and for 3 years she played against the wall in her bedroom.  Appealing to squash clubs around the world for help, she finally heard from Jonathon Power in Canada, willing to help her get away from the Taliban and be able to play.

3915AD01-442F-4473-9571-9D798C8B1389

She left behind everything she knew at 20 years old to train in Toronto.  She still represented Pakistan in tournaments.  She studied, she prayed, she succeeded.  She now is back in Pakistan establishing health clinics, sports clubs, and schools for girls and boys.

The story is inspirational, and well told, it shows how culture limited her, not religion, and that in a larger city, culture was a little less conservative.  Muslim and non Muslim children will be inspired by her efforts, her willingness to look like a boy and her determination to excel.  Muslim kids will enjoy that it shows her praying, but might be surprised to see her in shorts and tank tops.  The book would be a great conversation starter about women’s rights and how it isn’t just in Pakistan that women struggle to have equal opportunity and respect.  It also might many children’s first exposure to the sport of squash.

138B3D8B-B868-437B-B7C8-5674879B81DA

There is an afterward at the end with more information.  A list of additional reading about other inspirational women, a selected bibliography and a highlight timeline of female firsts in sports.

 

The Vine Basket by Josanne La Valley

Standard
The Vine Basket by Josanne La Valley

vine basket

While in the midst of moving from Knoxville to Birmingham nearly 4 years ago, a lady reached out to me telling me that a colleague of hers, also an author, was a follower and fan of my blog and had recently passed away, she asked if she could send me a copy of her friend’s books.  I agreed, not knowing what type of books the lady had written and didn’t think much of it.  In the chaos that is moving, I received the books and boxed them up and then unboxed them and vaguely remembered that they were about Muslims in China.  I put them in the to be read pile and just never got to them.  Then as the plight of the Uyghurs started to be known here in the US, something tickled my brain, but nothing came of it, until recently when I realized, a lady, a non Muslim years ago was trying to tell the Uyghur’s story, and had reached out to me, and I didn’t get it, and still wasn’t getting it.  So alas, I have now read the Vine Basket, and while it might not present Islam the way we are used to seeing it in life and in print, the characters do identify as Muslim and this middle grade book is a simply woven, beautiful story that gives voice to a population that is horrifically being silenced.  The AR 5.0, 252 page book is a quiet book that will stay with me: the drunken father, the threat of being sent to a factory, the loss of tradition;  I am so glad I read the book, and only wish I could reach out to the author to hear more about her knowledge of the region, of the people, of the culture that is being erased.

SYNOPSIS:

Mehrigul is 14, and since her older brother left, she has been forced to leave school to help her father sell goods in the marketplace.  More often than not though, it is solely Mehrigul’s responsibility as her father drinks and gambles away the meager earnings the family makes. Her mother, ashamed of the poverty the family endures along with some presumed mental illness and headaches, seeps further and further away from the reality of life and the chores that need to be done to ensure food and survival of the family.  Her younger sister is the only spark in a dreary and difficult life, and Mehrigul is determined that she should stay in school and be shielded from the darkness hanging over the family.

One day while in the market, an American woman approaches Mehrigul and asks to purchase a frivolous grape vine basket Mehrigul had made and hung to decorate the cart.  She offers her 100 yuan, more money than Mehrigul has ever seen, and asks her to make more baskets, and that she will be back in a month to purchase them. The basket serves no purpose like the willow baskets her grandfather weaves and despite the money, Mehrigul’s father is not happy.

Mehrigul is forbidden from making the baskets for the American, and the fact that she will even return is dismissed.  Her father grows increasingly cruel toward Mehrigul and keeps her busy to prevent her from making more.  Mehrigul seeks solace in her elderly infirm grandfather who tries to help her find inspiration and time to make her baskets as he sees in her a gift that has value in their old culture.  At one point as her father steals her baskets to take on a “religious” pilgrimage to the mountains.  And her planting crops in the fields leaves her hands cut and swollen, unable to make more with just days left before the American lady is due to return.

WHY I LIKE IT:

At first I was really uncomfortable with the idea of a white American savior coming to a dying oppressed culture to offer hope, until I read the afterwards and understood that much of the story was inspired by the author’s own experience and that she worked with Uyghur’s to get the story right.  The book reads like historical fiction which makes the day to day life of this modern book all the more heart breaking, it isn’t about the past it is the present, and life in East Turkestan is bleak.  I like the character of the father, he is an abusive mess, yet somehow it isn’t that easy to write him off, he has his own struggles and the depth of character I found in him, in a middle grades book, is haunting.  I also really like how Mehrigul’s story is so foreign to us here in America, yet her emotions and insights are universal and thus relatable.  She wants to find her place, and excel, and help her family, and she is scared, doesn’t know who to trust, and takes on more than most children any where should, but often are forced to do.

The characters identify as Muslim and as a people the Uyghurs are Muslim.  They say salam in the story, but only to the grandfather, and the girls all cover their hair with scarves.  The father obviously drinks and gambles, two practices, not permitted in Islam.  Mehrigul fastens a talisman and connects her prayers to it as a form of worship which I would imagine is cultural perhaps, and when things go awry she remarks she should have prayed to Allah swt.  The father goes on a pilgrimage to a mountain shrine, which again seems off from traditional Islam, but is presented in the book instead as odd because the father is not normally religious.  Islam is not a big part of the book, so it is hard to know if the representation of it are isolated to who the author met, or a larger norm of the community.  Considering how isolated and oppressed the Uyghurs are, I tried really hard to suspend judgement, or offer my privileged limited critique of the people.

FLAGS:

Drinking, gambling, abusive father, anger, lying, deception.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I would consider this for a middle grades or even middle school book club, there is so much going on in China and in the erasing of Islam there that this book would supplement the news and few stories we are hearing.  It opens up the culture and gives it a face that is not political, but personal.  The faults of the father are not glorified at all, and the discussion about his desire to hold on to culture and fear about his daughter surpassing him would be fascinating to hear from people the protagonists age.