Tag Archives: Persian

Saffron Ice Cream by Rashin Kheiriyeh

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Saffron Ice Cream by Rashin Kheiriyeh

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The book may seem to be a lighthearted diverse read about a little girl comparing a beach in America to those of Iran, BUT there is also some pretty charged portrayals about gender divided beaches, religious police, and hijab.  I’m not saying this own voice book is exaggerating or saying anything that isn’t true, but it is an oddly belittling perspective to slip into a brightly illustrated children’s book with the words “ice cream” in the title.  The 40 page book for ages 4-8 is not one I would recommend for its negative undertones and dismissal of understanding another culture.

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Rashin’s first trip to a beach in America has her and her family getting ready to go to Coney Island.   She remembers past trips to the Caspian Sea in Iran.  Trips where they would wake up early, her mom would prepare halim and they would drive through the countryside stopping for a picnic lunch.  Often her best friend Azadeh would come along and they would listen to Persian music and share kebabs.  On this trip they are going on the subway and there is diversity and music and excitement too.

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The next few pages detail and depict the curtain that would divide the women’s side of the beach from the men’s.  While the words say how fun the women’s side is and that even the ice cream vendor is a woman and the beach goers can remove their covers and get a tan, the inclusion of the Islamic guards with their aggressive faces and full black abayas and hijabs, is a stark contrast to the happy faces throughout the other pages.

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Rashin then recalls one trip where little boys poked holes on the men’s side to look at the female’s side. While it might be taken as silly to children, there is a lot to unpack with such “peeping,” the concept of respect and of covering.  It then seems to make the whole situation seem ridiculous by having the women covering themselves with umbrellas, newspapers and whatever they can find.

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When Rashin finally gets to Coney Island, the ice cream stall doesn’t have saffron ice cream and another little girl suggests she try chocolate crunch, she concedes and discovers it is pretty good, and the beginning of a new friendship is implied.  She then asks the girl about the rules of the beach and the accompanying illustration has the Islamic police seeming to try and stop the fun.

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It is natural to compare new things to those that we know, but this book has a very strong negative, judgmental tone to what could have simply been presented as different without the criticism.  The author is the illustrator as well, so there wasn’t a divide in continuity.  I appreciate that there is a visibly Muslim family at Coney Island, but it seems too little, in a book very aggressively passing opinion on a religion and how it is “enforced.”

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I find it rather disappointing that Scholastic chose to publish such an angry book masked in smiling characters and a trip to the beach.  It may be how life is in Iran, but I don’t know that a children’s book is the platform to air grievances without explanation.  This book does nothing to open dialogue and acceptance, it definitely would cause more harm than good.

A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi

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A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi

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The book is often marketed as a Muslim coming of age story in a post 9/11 world.  The contemporary work is semi-autobiographical, but really I think the positioning is a bit misleading.  It’s a love story, and the main character is Muslim, and her environment is awful and she is angry. Its an engaging read, I read all 310 pages in one sitting, but I don’t know that the take-away will enlighten anyone about Islam, or really what it was like to be Muslim in the years after 9/11, I think people will remember how sweet the couple is and wonder how much of it mirrors the author and her husband, author Ransom Riggs (Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children), but not suddenly become knowledgable about more than what the main character experiences and endures.   I appreciate that the book challenges the stereotypes of Muslim women, there is authenticity as it comes from a writer who lives it, and I do think it shows evolution of attitudes that teens can benefit from.  The book is not yet in the AR database as it just came out, but I would imagine high school and up.  

SYNOPSIS:

Shirin’s Persian-American family moves a lot.  Her and her older brother are incredibly close as their parents are rather aloof to the day-to-day experiences the kids endure.  That isn’t too say her parents aren’t around, they eat two meals a day together and the parent’s are warm, but Shirin’s brother Navid is a much more present.  The story starts with 16-year-old Shirin starting her 12th new school.  Conditioned to not make eye contact, remember faces, or get affected by the trivialities around her, the reader sees how angry she is as she curses at a teacher that assumes she needs ESL not Honors.  Knowing how fleeting her time in any location can be, as her parents are constantly trying to find better jobs, Shirin doesn’t feel compelled to make friends or get attached to anyone or anything.  This intimidating vibe similarly keeps offers at bay, for the most part.  When she gets paired up with Ocean to dissect a cat, he tries to talk to her, and this throws her off her game.  Most every interaction she experiences at school are people making racist comments and being very one dimensional and bigoted.  Ocean tries to be nice, an attitude so foreign to Shirin that it begins to force her to change.  Simultaneously, Navid, who is charismatic and has no problem finding friends wherever they go, decides to put his and his sister’s dream into action and they start a break dancing club at school.  Three other kids join, and start becoming, not just Navid’s friends, but Shirin’s as well.  

Shirin and Ocean fall in love, despite Shirin fearing what the backlash will be for ocean.  She doesn’t really know anything about him, but feels strongly that all the racial slurs thrown at her on a daily bases will effect him and ultimately make them wish they didn’t pursue a relationship. She draws line after line in the sand, and crosses them all.  Only then does she learn how blind she has been, he is in two of her classes, not just one, he is a year older than her, and he is the golden star of the high school basketball team.  Being that the story is told from Shirin’s perspective, this is surprising to the reader as well.  The town turns on the pair and things get really ugly for Ocean who is willing to risk it all for Shirin.  Threats by the basketball coach, pictures of Shirin without her hijab being taken, accusations of terrorist ties and sympathies all challenge the couple and shape Shirin.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I really like the twist of having the relationship be difficult for the non Muslim, rather than going with the assumed Muslim girl having to sneak around.  Not saying that I support it, but interestingly she never mentions that what she is doing is going against anything religious.  She mentions twice that her parents wouldn’t like her with any guy, and that they view her as a child still, but she doesn’t explore Islamically any boundaries regarding their relationship.  She hides talking on the phone to Ocean, because her parents are adamant she gets enough sleep at night.  That is about it.  Shirin discusses that she wears hijab like an armor that she gets to pick who she shows her hair too.  I love the strength in that, but wish there was a bit of doctrine to back it up too.  At one point a Muslim, non hijabi, at school calls her out for wearing hijab and having a boyfriend, but she essential tells her it is none of her business, which it isn’t and who is to say that one sin is worse than another, but still it befuddles what exactly Shirin believes and why.  The book just paints her as a Persian Muslim, but never explores what that means other than the superficial outward appearance.  They do fast in Ramadan, no explanation about why is given, just that they not eat or drink during daylight hours, and right near the end, Shirin remarks how her mom asks her and her brother every morning if they have prayed and they lie and say yes, their mother sighs and tells them to make sure they pray the afternoon one, to which they lie and agree, only to have their mother sigh again.  AstagfirAllah, that is awful lying, and lying about Salat, but it is so real, I audibly chuckled.  

I like that the parents aren’t harsh, they just seem disinterested.  I didn’t want to read another book about the parent’s being the gatekeepers and bad guys, so that was really refreshing.  They mention they don’t celebrate Christmas, but they have an open door policy on Thanksgiving for any friends wanting to come.  I did hope for a bit more about them, why they don’t talk to the kids about moving, what makes them tick, because really they seem to have a solid relationship with the kids, they are just clueless to their social experiences and school environment stresses.

I love the growth and self reflection of Shirin, she holds a mirror to herself and she and readers are better for it.  She has to realize that she is doing so much of what she is accusing others of doing.  I love the support and genuine concern of the breakdancers and her brother.  It resonated to me as a girl with an older brother and the relationship feels very genuine. I just wanted to know more about Navid. 

FLAGS:

There is a lot of cursing. kissing, hand holding, romance, lying, and ditching school.  There is a brief mention of graffiti being sprayed.  There is racial slurs, threats of violence, violent physical outbursts by people of authority.  When a student throws a cinnamon roll at Shirin, Navid and his friends beat the kid up severely, it isn’t detailed, but it is mentioned.  Ocean  also gets suspended for a few games for a fight he engages in, and there is some detail of Shirin getting jumped in a previous city for wearing hijab.

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I don’t think I could in good conscience present this to a group of Muslim students.  I wouldn’t want them to think I was endorsing the violence and language and romance.  Like so many books of the genre though, if someone found it and read it on their own, I’d love to chat with them about it, as it is well written.

Youtube video about the book by the author: https://www.hypable.com/tahereh-mafi-a-very-large-expanse-of-sea-tour/

Whichwood by Tahereh Mafi

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Whichwood by Tahereh Mafi

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I am admittedly late to the Tahereh Mafi fan club, and to rectify that I checked out all her books from the library (There’s quite a few).  Yeah, I have four kids and not a ton of time, so I decided to start reading Whichwood thinking then I could review it here due to it’s jacket claiming “Persian Fantasy,” plus noticing characters having names tinged with Islamic culture: Benyamin, Roksana, and Laylee Layla Fenjoon.  So, while I guessed the 368 AR 7.5 wouldn’t have anything Islamic, I figured it would at least give Muslim kids a taste of themselves in some of the words and representation by the hijab wearing author. And I think I was right. 

SYNOPSIS:

Laylee is a mordeshoor, which means she is responsible for caring for the dead and moving them to the next world. Its hard physical work, and since her Maman has passed away and her Baba has gone a bit crazy, the grueling job is left to her.  She is desperately tired and overworked and behind, and the people of the town, Whichwood, abuse and ridicule her relentlessly.  Laylee’s world is a frozen wonderland filled with odd characters and occurrences and magic of all random and gruesome sorts.  Two children, Oliver and Alice, from a different magical land show up unexpectedly to help Laylee with her burden, but Laylee is not well and is on the verge of death, and their help is not initially wanted.  As Laylee starts to die, it will take her living friends, with their variety of magical gifts to bring her back to life, and the dead ghosts that she can speak with, to help her live a life worth enjoying.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that Rumi is mentioned and quoted.  I love that words such as hamam and halva are tossed in, it gives flavor to a book that doesn’t need it, but is enhanced by it none-the-less.  The world created is so bizarre, that I was pleasantly surprised how the author kept the descriptions from becoming confusing albeit at times circular and tedious, the book starts out slow, but speeds up as you progress.  The narrator is telling the tale, and speaks often directly to the reader, which is a literary device that one doesn’t see that often in YA books, and I really enjoyed it.  It kept the book inline and avoided plot holes, as the narrator could just tell you how she knew and keep the timeline of the story intact.  

The characters are amazing.  Laylee is 13 and on her own, washing and scrubbing and pulling nails out of corpses before burying them in the frozen earth.  All while being harassed by the ghosts around her.  She has dropped out of school, the community doesn’t even pay her financially or with respect for the work she does, and yet she plugs along.  The reader wants to feel sorry for her, but there isn’t time, there is a lot going on.  Alice’s magic is she can color the world, and Oliver has the gift of persuasion.  Benyamin, Laylee’s closest neighbor on the peninsula, has insects and spiders that live in him and that he can communicate with.  His ailing mother can speak with whales, and rides inside them as a form of transport.  Yeah, it’s a bit nuts.  And because it is so fantastic, at times the story isn’t predictable or even really seeming to move to a clear climax, there is just so much to take in.  

I don’t really even know what to critique in terms of what I wish I would have seen or felt was lacking because there was no expectation.  The book is a companion book to Furthermore, which I think I will do as later as an audio book with my kids.  Perhaps once I read that one I’ll know more about Oliver and Alice’s gifts as the book is about them, as I do have some lingering questions about their whimsical abilities and backstories.  I would have also like a bit more on the mordeshoors, how they are trained, when they marry what enchantments that entails etc.  Seems like the concept in its most basic form could have benefitted from a little more detail.

The book is dark, and there is some darkness in Laylee, and I think that is what makes me like her as a character.  There are some emotions that she really has to work through, and I like that it is fuzzy and messy, I think the target audience of the book will really identify with some of Laylee’s internal struggles. The heart of the book is solid and is very grounded in reality even with all the fantasy on the surface.  I love that Laylee isn’t affected by what other’s expect her to be, there is amazing strength in this being brought to the forefront.  Also, the crystallization of giving someone what they need, not what you think they need is a lesson that will hopefully linger in the readers. 

FLAGS:

The book could be seen as grotesque, but I didn’t find it overly icky, I think middle school and up will  be perfectly ok with all the death.  Oliver is completely star struck and in love with Laylee and her beauty.  But, the book hints only at a future romance.  Similarily, Benyamin and Alice might have a future, but it isn’t mentioned more than a crush and isn’t dwelled on or annoying to the action of dead bodies coming out of their graves or anything like that.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

Author’s Website: http://www.taherehbooks.com/

A youtube review: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bgwtFqiFIi0