Tag Archives: HIstorical

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

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

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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.

Amazing Women of the Middle East: 25 Stories from Ancient Times to Present Day by Wafa’ Tarnowska

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Amazing Women of the Middle East: 25 Stories from Ancient Times to Present Day by Wafa’ Tarnowska

img_7464A nonfiction picture book for teens that features amazing women from ancient times to the present day.  Many of the women featured are Muslim and each entry receives a teasing summation page with a full page portrait from one of five international artists before a two page, more in-depth biography is presented.  The 112 pages feature an introduction, and a map to start the book off, and acknowledgements and a glossary at the end.  There are large time gaps that I wish would have been commented on, the geographical pool includes India which surprised me, and in one of the entries the way hijab is discussed seemed judgmental to me, but other than that the stories are absolutely remarkable.  There are amazing women in every culture and throughout all time periods, but to see one that highlights a region that is stereotypically oppressive to women is a sight for sore eyes.  I learned so much and marveled at the intellect, bravery and determination shown from being rulers of empires to intellectuals to scientists and artists everything in between.

The book starts with Nefertiti born in 1370 BCE and concludes with Zahra Lari, a hijab wearing ice skater from the United Arab Emirates born in 1995.  There are “celebrities” such as Amal Clooney, Fairuz, Cleopatra, Sheherazade and many that might not be as well known.

I particularly enjoyed learning about Zenobia the 3rd century warrior queen who conquered a third of the Roman empire in just five years.  Sufi mystic and poet Rabi’a al Adawiyya and her devotion to Allah swt.  Eqyptian Shajarat al-Durr who was nicknamed Queen of the Muslims in the 13th century.  And Hurrem Sultan from the Ottoman Empire.

Not every one featured was a ruler or married to one, and not are so far in the past, which in many ways gives the collection it’s charm.  Somayya Jabarti was the first female editor-in-chief in Saudi Arabia in 2014 and  Maha al Balushi is the first Omani woman to fly professionally for her country’s airline in 2010, examples of two women presented that cracked the glass ceiling by following their own dreams.

It is great to learn about the strength of the women from the past and see how to add to the legacy.  The book is a great reference, as well as a source of inspiration for people of all backgrounds to enjoy and appreciate.  I found the book at my local public library in the YA/Teen nonfiction women section.

Little People, Big Dreams: Muhammad Ali by Isabel Sanchez Vegara illustrated by Brosmind

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Little People, Big Dreams: Muhammad Ali by Isabel Sanchez Vegara illustrated by Brosmind

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A few things surprised me in this latest addition to the non fiction biography series Little People, Big Dreams. First that a police officer told him to learn how to fight if he wanted to face the thief that stole his bike.  Second, that the 32 page book targeting 5 to 8 year old children has an AR level of 4.8 and finally that it does mention his conversion to Islam and shows him praying.

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The biography hits a lot of major milestones in the boxer’s life after showing he once was a little kid too.  He was born in Kentucky, had a younger brother and after his bicycle was stolen he started learning how to box.  He wasn’t the strongest fighter, but he was fast.

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He won a gold medal at the Olympics in Rome, and then set his sights on being a professional boxer and becoming the world heavyweight champion.  Its nice that on this page the illustrations show that part of that pursuit involved physical training but the books and meditation show internal growth was valued and pursued as well.

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It shows how he used to taunt his opponents and that some thought it poetry, while other’s thrash talk. It also makes it clear that he used his voice to speak out for things important to him at a time when it was dangerous and accepted the consequences, whether it was African American rights or the war.

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The page about him becoming Muslim explains that he was inspired by Islam, changed his name and “felt strong and proud to be himself.”  After his ban from boxing, he won the heavyweight belt three times before retiring and dedicating his life to community and giving back.

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The book ends with a timeline and some real pictures of Muhammad Ali, along with some other books you can turn to for more information.  The illustrations are comical yet detailed in their emotion and the information that is conveyed.  Kids will enjoy them and find they give life to the simple text on the pages.

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I got my copy from the library and my children aged 4-12 enjoyed the book as they have the other books in the series.

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The Grand Mosque of Paris: A Story of How Muslims Rescued Jews During the Holocaust by Karen Gray Ruelle and Deborah Durland Desaix

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The Grand Mosque of ParisThis beautiful, beautiful book tells of a little and sparsely known event in history.  During the holocaust The Grand Mosque of Paris served as a place of refuge for many North African Jews.  Many who passed through the vast gardens and beautiful Mosque were given fake documents of conversion, tombstones with their family names inscribed, and access to truly underground passageways (subterranean mazes), as the Muslims of Paris offered assistance to keep their Jewish brother’s and sister’s safe from the Nazi regime. Many of the stories were recently uncovered and with the passage of time, so much of the information has been lost.  As a result the book is a bit choppy, each page tells what is known about the Muslims’ assistance in some capacity, but does not flow to the next page.  So there are generalized recountings of children being hidden with other families, the efforts of the Kabyle Ressistance (Berbers from Algeria) to smuggle Jews to safety, etc.. There are also a few specific examples of Salim Halali, a young Berber Jew from Algeria, two friends one a Muslim the other a Jew seeking shelter, a Tunisian Jew who stayed at the Mosque for over two years,and a few others, but with the exception of the use of the Grand Mosque and a Doctor Ahmed Somia very little flows throughout the book.  Thus making it more of a historical account than a story.

Truly the book would not work for story time, it is geared for children (and adults) ages 12 and up,  it has an AR level of 7.1.  I would imagine it would be an amazing addition to any class studying World War II and finding the humanity offered in one of the bleakest times of our world.  It should, in my opinion, be standard required reading in Islamic School curriculum to supplement WWII study.  The hope and pride one feels when reading this book, shows how rich our faith’s are in coming together.  It would also work in understanding how history is lost, and the importance of perserving it.  There is an Afterword on page 34 that is very informative and interesting.  It is followed by a Glossary, Acknowledgements, References, Bibliography, Recommended Book and Films, and an Index.

The book also sparked my interest to know more about, not just how Muslim’s helped Jews during the Holocaust, but also how Muslims were treated in France.  The book says, “The Grand Mosque shimmered like a mirage, the white domes and the glittering mosaics of the minaret in stark contrast to the muted colors of Paris.  When the mosque was built in 1926, the North African countries of Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia were under French rule, and many Muslims had come to Paris from those countries.  The land for the mosque was given by the French government, in exchange for a symbolic payment of one franc, to thank the half-million Muslim soldiers who had fought for France during the First World War.”

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I have already read the book more then once, and gone back and read passages multiple times.  It is as fascinating as it is informative, and a great addition on any book shelf.