Islamaphobia is rampant in today’s America, but it isn’t the first time that a minority group has had to face extreme persecution. Often us Muslims need to look around and be reminded: Blacks are still targeted, Japanese once were interned, Italians, Irish, Hispanics, really every minority group has, and continues to struggle to be accepted as part of American culture, unfortunately. Today’s middle school students didn’t live through 9//11 and often they think they are the first to be ostracized for their faith or their parent’s countries of origin. So I picked up this book to see how well the book would serve as a way to discuss prejudice and persecution with Muslim kids, in a way that they could relate to, but be removed enough from that hopefully they could offer their own insights and experiences. This book takes place in the 1970s and the climax is the Iran hostage situation as the book is told from an 11-year-old Iranian girl’s perspective.
Similarly, most Persian penned books that I’ve read fight against Islam and the way it was forced upon them by their government, so I also wanted to see how the author would paint the faith in her semi auto-biographical-middle-school tale. Alhumdulillah, I was happily surprised how Islam was handled in this 378 page, AR 4.7, book, and I think, like the inscription reads, “To all the kids who don’t belong, for whatever reason. This one’s for you.”
Zomorod has lived in America before. She was born in Iran, moved to California, moved back to Iran, back to California, and now from Compton, California she is moving to the much wealthier Newport Beach and hoping to start middle school fitting in more with her new Brady Bunch inspired name, Cindy. Establishing early that she is the translator for her mother, who doesn’t speak English and doesn’t want to learn, and that she is somewhat embarrassed by her parent’s thick accents, lack of American snacks, Iranian food, and conversation topics, the book will appeal to most middle schooler’s who can relate. Her parents, however, are pretty chill about letting her go out with friends, and doing whatever she wants, so really its more about the age and being angsty and awkward, then it is about her parents and their lifestyle and culture. The basic point of the book is a growing-up tale of making friends, finding real ones that care about you, finding the balance between family and the outside world, cultures that conflict, the past and the future, and ultimately finding acceptance and pride in who, and what you are.
The political climate in Iran and in America amplify what it is like when people hate your country, but can’t find it on the map, and manifest in the story with bullying at school, Zomorod’s father losing his job and not finding a new one, and some hateful acts occurring at the Yousefzadeh’s home.
WHY I LIKE IT:
The book could be heavy and dark, but it’s not. The voice of Zomorod really stays in the persona of an 11-year-old girl and is poignant, clever and light-hearted, I even laughed out loud a few times. The 1970’s backdrop isn’t too alienating for today’s readers, as there aren’t a lot of cultural references that would turn them off. The historical significance, is very likely one they will not have heard of before and the book, through Zomorod’s eyes, will shed light on Iran in the late 70s and early 80s without boring the target audience. They might even learn something and remember it.
The stereotypes about Iran are addressed, the concept of a single person having to represent every one of that minority group is felt first had through the main character, and many misconceptions about Iran are clarified. Yet, the book doesn’t get preachy, it maintains its lightness, and while I read it in a few days, it was just as easy to put down as it was to pick up. The characters felt real and developed for the most part, so even though it was a tale about life, it was compelling enough to stick around, and you are invested enough to care how the characters are doing. There are a lot of really great supporting characters in the book as well: neighbors, friends, teachers, friend’s families, and a few not so nice characters that surprisingly aren’t painted with a singular condemning evil stroke. The author is very careful to reserve judgement of all her characters and the sub groups they represent.
Which brings me to how Islam is handled in this book. Her family doesn’t practice, but her reference for Islam is shia, as evident by her mentioning 12 imams. I took pictures of most of the pages where Islam is mentioned, less than 10 in all, but where it is mentioned it is handled very politically correct and powerfully. She talks about how they don’t celebrate Christmas or most holidays as they aren’t Christian or really American, but when the pool key is lost she does pray to a Christian Saint after a suggestion that such an act will help it be found. It isn’t really presented as a religious act, more of one done in desperation. Here are the most applicable and relevant passages regarding Islam.
- Dr. Klein shakes his head in sympathy. “Do your wife and Cindy have to wear those cover-ups if you go back?” “Yes, and I cannot believe this. When we lived in Iran, my wife, my sisters, all the women I knew wore western clothes. No tennis clothes like you see here, but regular clothes. Only religious women chose to wear hijab, it meant something. Imagine if everybody in America had to wear a cross around their neck or a Star of David-what would those symbols mean? Nothing. If you have to wear it, it means nothing. If you choose to wear it, it means something” (168).
- “The Ayatollah is Muslim, right? So is, like Allah, his God?” “Allah is the Arabic word for God,” I say. “It’s the same God. (154).”
- We don’t have Saints in Islam, just a Prophet with twelve imams, and they don’t preach to animals or help find lost items, My family, like most Iranians, is Muslim, but we never do anything religious. I’ve never even been in a mosque, which is like a church (40).
- “Being Muslim means different things to different people,” I say. “My family doesn’t do anything officially religious. My dad says religion is kindness and that’s what everyone should practice” ((184-5).
- “…even though we belong to three different religions. We are alike in so many more ways than we are different.”
The book is fine for middle school readers, there is mention of Cindy’s dad trying alcohol at one point in the past and not liking it. Cindy’s friends tease her once or maybe twice about liking a boy and Halloween is celebrated. There is a lot of lying in the book, but it is made clear why, even if she doesn’t always feel bad about it: she is embarrassed by her mom’s food and lies that she shared it, she withholds information a lot, she pranks the neighbor lady who left a dead rodent on their porch, etc. Hopefully the demographic won’t be inspired by Zomorod’s antics and just find them as her way of dealing with life.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
This would be a fun book club book to discuss being new to a country, minorities, how to handle conflicting cultures, and how to be and have good friends.
Educators guide: http://firoozehdumas.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/ItAintSoAwfulFalafelguide.pdf
Author’s page: http://firoozehdumas.com/books/it-aint-so-awful-falafel/