This book is so incredibly timely that it feels like it could be real, granted its been timely since 911 and homeland security took to watching people more aggressively and openly. But, New York police have been in the news about their methods regarding watching muslims and mosques, and this fiction book does a great job of getting inside a boy’s mind as he explores both being watched and being the watcher. The book is 265 pages and is written on an AR level of fourth grade, but content wise I would not recommend it for anyone younger than high school. The concepts and themes need to be put in perspective to appreciate the book. And at the same time, being able to understand how terrorist recruit and how police aren’t always ethical, creates some gray area that require a certain level of maturity to make it resonate. It isn’t a black and white story with good pitted against bad or legal verse illegal, the nuances in between are where the action takes place.
Immigrant. Muslim. Teenager. Screw-up. Lots of labels for high school senior Naeem Rahman. Born in Bangladesh, he moves to Queens in New York, after his mother dies and his father has remarried in America and sends for him. While there is a gap in his relationship with his father, the story doesn’t focus on issues at home. He has a very strong relationship with his step mom, and his younger brother, making him very likable and endearing. He has problems elsewhere, however, that stress his family and get him in to trouble. His grades are poor and he learns he will not be able to graduate, which further distances Naeem from his small shop owning father. And his friends have dwindled to a single friend, Ibrahim, that enjoys weaving tales mixed with truth and fantasy and dreams, that gives Naeem a taste for living on the edge and running fluidly around the city. When an adventure with Ibrahim goes bad, and Naeem gets stuck holding stolen goods, it is a deal with some cops that comprises the bulk of the story, and forces Naeem to decide if he can go from being watched, to being a watcher, an informant for the police.
With a prior run in with the law, some marijuana in his backpack, a working class family, and not wanting jail time, the police officers know that they can pretty much ask anything from Naeem and he will comply. Naeem starts spying on his community online and by going to the masjid for prayers, volunteering with MSA’s, helping out with summer schools for Muslim kids, all things he and his family had stopped doing after 9/11 when cameras started going up on poles outside of mosques, and fellow worshippers started eavesdropping on each other to report back to the police. But, now that Naeem is on the inside, he finds power and strength in what he is doing, a confidence he has never had before. He starts helping neighbors, helping the family income, fasting in Ramadan, but all with a guilty conscience. His foundation is deceptive. When the story comes full circle and Naeem realizes the path he is on, he has to find a way to get out and own up to the choices he has made both to his community and to the police.
WHY I LIKE IT:
The story has moments of action and intensity, but it is also poetic and introspective. Budhos really gets inside Naeem’s head and shares that with the readers. Obviously, the book is for Muslims and non Muslims, it is a companion story to her book Ask Me No Questions, but I think the reason it resonated so much with me is because it is something I am familiar with. So the poetic musings made Naeem more likeable to me, I didn’t see them as speed bumps in a book billed as a thriller. I was glad that Naeem was charming and fleshed out. His relationship with his little brother and with his step mom, really show that he has layers and isn’t just one label or another. There is a lot of diversity in the Muslims presented and their backgrounds that make them who they are. There are also a lot of cultures presented in this immigrant neighborhood that make the details solid. There is no doubt that the author knows what she is talking about, that she is perhaps lived it in some capacity, the authenticity is definitely present.
Aside from the arcing themes that raise flags for the younger, more sheltered readers. There are a lot of things mentioned, although not explicit or celebrated, they are presented in passing to create understanding of an environment. There is drug use, kissing, violence and some profanity. In a story like this there is obviously a lot of lying, stealing, talk of homegrown terrorism.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
The author’s website: http://www.marinabudhos.com/books/watched
Author interview with NBC news: http://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/immigrant-teen-gets-swept-nypd-surveillance-marina-budhos-watched-n661171