fiction · YA

All-American Muslim Girl- Nadine Jolie Courtney

I usually remember the process by which a book ends up on my TBR. I may not remember which friend recommended a book to me, but I’ll remember it was recommended by a friend. I may not remember which blog I saw that book on, but I know a fellow book blogger raved about it. But for the life of me, I can’t remember where I first learned about All-American Muslim Girl by Nadine Jolie Courtney (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019), only that it went immediately onto my TBR. And that was absolutely the right action to take, because this book was ah-maaaaaaaaaa-zing.

Allie Abraham is Muslim, nominally. Her family- Dad was born Muslim, Mom converted- doesn’t pray, doesn’t attend mosque, doesn’t fast for Ramadan. Dad, a native speaker, never taught Allie Arabic or the Circassian language, and has always tried to downplay his religion and heritage. Allie’s pale skin and lighter hair don’t necessarily clue people in to her heritage either, and thus, not only does she feel out of place amongst her more devout extended family, she’s also the dumping ground for anti-Muslim bigotry that non-Muslims dump on her when they think they’re in good company. As a result, Allie has spent her life hiding who she really is, never truly comfortable with her background, becoming a different person each time her family moves for her father’s work.

This new town in Georgia, however, feels different. It’s meant to be permanent, and Allie almost immediately catches the eye of Wells, a supercute guy in her grade. Their attraction is mutual, but there’s one major catch: Wells’s father, a majorly conservative TV host who spreads Islamophobia, amongst other horrors, on his TV show. Allie could go on hiding who she is, just as she’s always done, but she’s increasingly drawn to Islam, its practice and its meaning, in a way she’s never been before. Via study and her new involvement with her school’s Muslim Student Association, Allie’s discovering things that speak to her soul and help her define who she truly is…but how will her father, who has always subtly encouraged her to pass as non-Muslim, react?

Ohhhhhh, how I loved this book. In Allie, Ms. Courtney has given us an Every Girl, a teenager used to changing her image to fit in like so many teenagers do, unsure of who she really is and who she wants to be. YA novels with strong teen characters who know exactly who they are are so necessary (and there are so many great examples of those out there!), but characters who are searching for identity and a sense of self reflect the experience of the majority of adolescents, and Allie’s character arc throughout the novel is a beautiful one of growth, in tentative baby steps, trying out what works for her and working up the courage to present that part of herself to the world (a world that isn’t always friendly and is often downright hostile to those parts). While her religious journey may not be something every reader can identify with, her search for identity is, and Ms. Courtney has created a sympathetic and sharply intelligent character who will have readers cheering through her bravery and triumphs, and rooting for her in her pursuit of identity.

A very basic understanding of Islam would be helpful in reading this book, but as Allie is learning as she goes (even buying and hiding a Qu’ran from her parents! The irony of a teenager sneaking religion, of all things, along with Arabic language lessons, was…I don’t want to say humorous, but given all the things she could have been hiding in her bedside table, well…), the reader should be able to learn right along with her. Allie’s entire extended family is warm, inviting, and deeply supportive, and should have any reader wistful for such a welcoming group. I also enjoyed the trajectory of her friendship with the girls from her Qu’ran study group. While they often disagree with each other on different issues (dating and relationships, how to best practice Islam, etc), there’s room for disagreement within their friendships while still remaining close and having each others’ backs.

Allie’s relationship with Wells is very sweet and mature without seeming forced. Wells is nothing like his father, and their relationship seems strained at best, as does his parents’ marriage. He’s an easy character to feel sympathy for, even when his and Allie’s relationship isn’t quite going the way they had hoped (that’s not a spoiler; teenage relationships have their ups and downs, as we all know!). He’s kind and supportive and a great match for Allie.

Content warnings exist for Islamophobia and religious bigotry and hatred, microaggressions, on-page panic attacks, on-page death of a family member, and strained parent-child relationships. Nothing is graphic.

There’s so much good in this novel. I’d never heard of the Circassian people before and Ms. Courtney has helped to begin filling in that gap in my knowledge. Her voice is so natural and so readable, even during the more tense scenes (such as between Allie and Wells’s father, or Allie and her own father during their confrontations over religion), that her novel of growth and identity is an absolute page turner. If you’re looking for a lovely novel on the intersection of family, faith, and identity, All-American Muslim Girl needs a place on your TBR list.

Visit Nadine Jolie Courtney’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Love From A to Z- S.K. Ali

Look what was FINALLY in at the library, you guys! I could have put it on hold, but I had plenty of other books to read in the meantime, but finally, FINALLY I went and Love From A to Z by S.K. Ali (Salaam Reads, 2019) was on the shelf! SQUEEEEEEEEE!!! I really enjoyed her Saints and Misfits this summer and was really looking forward to reading this one. The two books are quite different, but Love From A to Z didn’t disappoint one bit.

Zayneb is headed to Qatar to spend time with her aunt after being suspended from school after an incident with a racist, bigoted teacher. Adam is heading home to Qatar after leaving university, a fresh diagnosis of multiple sclerosis- the disease that killed his mother- taking up the majority of the real estate in his brain. Their brief encounter in the airport and on the airplane sets the tone for what becomes a friendship, because- surprise!- Adam’s family and Zayneb’s aunt know each other. It really is a small world.

Things are always more complicated than they seem, though. Adam’s terrified to tell his still-grieving father and adoring younger sister about his diagnosis, and his condition seems to be worsening. Zayneb is struggling to deal with the fallout of the racism and bigotry she left behind at home (and which seems to have followed her to Qatar as well). Both of them are trying to appreciate the marvels and oddities of life, while learning how to be honest with their parents and with each other, and taking life one step at a time.

(Content warnings for Islamaphobia, racism, bigotry, microaggressions, death of a parent, chronic illness, death of a grandparent, a few mentions of some grisly world events, and grief.)

This? Is a lovely, lovely book. Entirely heartfelt, with characters who seem so very real. Adam is sweet, charming, and grappling with what his diagnosis will mean for his family and for his future. He so badly wants to protect his sister and father from more pain and hates that he can’t. Zayneb is angry at the unfairness of her hideous teacher (who really is a jerk) and hates how powerless she feels, but along with her friends back home, she’s working to take back some of that power. She’s also exploring new aspects of her personality with the new friends she meets in Qatar, while still remaining entirely dedicated to her Muslim faith (her “Of course not, scarf for life” quip made me grin).

This book is representation to the max for Muslim readers, which I love, both for Muslim readers and for readers like me who get to learn and see Muslim characters as the heroes. (And sometimes cringe heavily at the racism, bigotry, and cringeworthy questions, comments, and microaggressions directed their way. There’s a scene where Zayneb wraps her childhood baby blanket around her when she’s sad over the loss of her grandmother and is answering the door with no time to ‘scarf up,’ as she puts it, and a non-Muslim character asks if that was something she had to wear when people die, ostensibly for religious reasons. *cringe* It’s better to ask than to assume, but I feel like it’s my responsibility to learn as much as I can in order to not necessarily be asking questions…like that one.) Qatar is a fascinating place to set a novel and I loved being able to see it through the eyes of two teenagers.

I got to thinking as I was reading the novel… Zayneb and Adam are both religious and very dedicated to their shared Muslim faith (Adam’s father converted when he was young, and Adam eventually followed in his father’s footsteps, which gave the novel a really interesting perspective), but this novel absolutely shines in ways that the Christian fiction I’ve read (most of it, anyway) hasn’t, and I’ve been pondering why these two types of novels, where faith is a major player, feel so different. In Ali’s novels, there’s no proselytizing; there’s no shaming for lower or different levels of observance. Faith is up to each character personally and is portrayed as their own private journey and not something that their neighbor is watching in on, ready to pounce and point them back to the right path. There’s no overall message of having to be or do or believe in a certain way; faith just is, but isn’t pushed. This is fiction where the characters are religious, but whose author has no religious agenda and that’s something I appreciated. It’s been a few years since I’ve read any Christian fiction (Always the Baker, Never the Bride by Sandra D. Bricker was pretty good and, from what I remember, is a good example of Christian fiction that isn’t at all pushy in its message), so maybe the genre has changed since then? Love From A to Z felt like a breath of fresh air in that regard, though, and it’s something I’m still considering.

S.K. Ali goes onto my list of authors I’ll automatically read, and I’m very much looking forward to whatever it is she puts out next. Her characters are vibrant, and she makes them come alive, flaws and all. She’s such an exciting voice in YA fiction and I’m absolutely hooked on her writing.

Today only- that’s December 12, 2019- this book is available FOR FREE on RivetedLit.com, so what are you waiting for? GO GET IT!!!!!!!!!

Visit S.K. Ali’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Salaam, Love: American Muslim Men on Love, Sex, and Intimacy- edited by Ayesha Mattu and Nura Maznavi

While I’m not much of a series reader, after having read Love, InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women, as soon as I found out there was a companion version from the men’s perspective, I knew I had to read it, too. Fortunately for me, my library also had a copy of Salaam, Love: American Muslim Men on Love, Sex, and Intimacy, edited by Ayesha Mattu and Nura Maznavi (Beacon Press, 2014), so I happily grabbed it on my next library trip. (Which is pretty much every day, hence the name of this blog. Odds are, if I’m not at the library, I was there earlier in the day or will be there later on. Today, I was there twice. Why yes, I have no life!)

Just like Love, InshAllah, Salaam, Love is a collection of essays, this time written by American Muslim men on their perspectives on the search for love, dating, Muslim courtship, sex, the difficulties and joys of marriage, and all the happiness and heartbreak that come about in the search to find and live with a partner. Once again, this book highlights a unique perspective in romance; Muslim men aren’t necessarily the go-to voice when it comes to affairs of the heart, so each essay feels fresh, a novel (though it shouldn’t be) but welcome change from the usual, everyday take on love.

The essays, just as in Love, InshAllah, run the gamut on experiences: there are straight men who date, gay men who hide their relationships from their families (and one who grows in his faith after an encounter with a particularly devout man, which I found both charming and heartwarming), converts, Muslims from birth, men who submit to their parents’ wishes for a traditional Muslim courtship, men whose search for love continues, men whose loves died (both metaphorically and literally), love that works out, and love that doesn’t. Interspersed with it all are struggles with faith, culture (often the straddling of two or more cultures), and how to incorporate both fully into a relationship that may have ties to neither.

It’s possible I may have enjoyed Salaam, Love even more than Love, InshAllah (and I really enjoyed that!). I don’t read men’s writing as often as I read women- not on purpose, I tend to enjoy female writers more, especially when it comes to fiction- but reading about men’s thoughts on love and emotion and the struggle that goes with each, THAT was absolutely a breath of fresh air. How often do we hear about men’s feelings on anything? Men in our society- in most societies, sadly- are taught to not feel things, hide whatever they do feel, and never, ever discuss it, especially not in public. Hearing these men talk about having their hearts broken, about crying after being dumped by a girlfriend or the fear they felt over a loved one’s frightening medical diagnosis was a balm to my soul. (Are you listening, men? MORE OF THIS, PLEASE.)

The authors vary by background: many have ancestral roots in Africa, the Middle East, or south Asia (and many of these authors are first generation Americans); others are white converts who grew up Christian or Jewish and found a home in Islam, but often struggled to find a spouse. Several are bi- or multi-racial. It’s a beautiful mixture of people and places, and their stories had me wishing for more when I turned the final page.

I can’t recommend these books enough, and if you read one, you definitely need to read the other. I’m so glad to have a better understanding on some of the many Muslim American perspectives on relationships.

Reading these two companion books reminded me how much I enjoy essay collections, whether by a single author or multiple authors like these. If you have a favorite collection of essays, I’d love to hear about it!

(In writing this out, I discovered a few typos on my post of Love, InshAllah, namely, my failure to capitalize the A, and a misspelling of Nura Maznavi’s last name. I apologize greatly for these errors and have corrected them.)

Follow Love InshAllah on Twitter.

Nura Maznavi’s tweets are protected (and given the climate on Twitter some/most days, I can’t blame her).

Follow Ayesha Mattu.

fiction · YA

Internment- Samira Ahmed

Sometimes a book comes along that fits eerily well into the current cultural and political environment of the times. Internment by Samira Ahmed (Atom, 2019) is one of those books.

First off, content warnings. Internment focuses on racial and religious discrimination, and there are multiple instances of racial and religious hatred, including insults. There are also multiple scenes of violence and several deaths. It’s not hard to deduce that this book draws heavily from the current political climate, so be sure that this book, with its heaviness and reality-based horrors, is something you can handle at the time. It’s not an easy read.

Internment begins in a time when the United States government has begun placing heavy restrictions on the activities of Muslims, from where they work to how late they can stay out (history students, does this sound at all familiar?). Teenager Layla Amin is bristling under the unfairness of it all, but her parents are trying to stay optimistic. All their optimism crashes to the ground, however, when the authorities show up at their house one night to take them away to a Muslim concentration camp in the middle of the desert, run by guards who (for the most part) lack any shred of humanity, with other Muslims charged with keeping them in line (if you’re familiar with the term ‘kapo,’ this would be an example of it). Torn away from everything familiar, Layla can hardly believe that her once-comfortable life in the Land of the Free has been reduced to…this.

Almost immediately and often without thinking through the potential consequences, Layla begins making plans for freedom, enlisting other teenagers she befriends, as well as a sympathetic guard, who helps her contact her non-Muslim boyfriend back home. Slowly, Layla and her friends begin to enact changes around the camp, but the blowback and the repercussions are serious and deadly. The culmination of it all will leave you at the edge of your seat, frantically flipping pages and praying for resolution for Layla and all others forced into this kind of captivity.

I’m not going to sugarcoat it: given the current political climate and with daily stories about the horrors of migrants, asylum seekers, and others, including children, in camps with questionable-to-downright-horrific conditions, this isn’t an easy read and will break your heart several times over. Layla is a bit on the young side for her age, and while she’s obviously intelligent, she’s also reckless and doesn’t always think things through (although if she did, I’m not sure this story would have been so action-packed, so her more imprudent nature serves its purpose for the story). More in the interest of brevity, the story concludes much quicker than it would have in real life, wrapping up a bit more neatly than reason leads me to believe it would play out currently, and though the director of Layla’s camp veers slightly toward ‘caricature’ in his overt monstrosity and lack of self-control, Internment is still a chilling, way-too-close-to-reality novel that is worth the read.

In a world where we have camps where children are taking care of other small children, reading this had me rage-screaming in my head, but I don’t regret picking it up- quite the opposite, in fact. Internment will stick with me as I continue to struggle to find ways to voice my fury at the actions carried out by my country. Nothing ever feels like enough, but doing absolutely nothing isn’t acceptable to me: as Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Internment and the daily onslaught of news are both depressing reminders of that.

Visit Samira Ahmed’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Love, InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women- Nura Maznavi and Ayesha Mattu

There are some books I seriously look forward to reading the second they land on my TBR, and Love, InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women by Nura Maznavi and Ayesha Mattu (Soft Skull Press, 2012) was one of those books. I’ve always known that many Muslim marriages are made not through dating, but more of a process that involves both families. It’s not the case for all Muslims, though, and I was interested in learning more.

Love, InshAllah is a collection of essays written by American Muslim women about their search for love. Some of them go the traditional route: their parents find available young men they think are suitable for their daughters and the daughters are free to say yes or no at any point in the process. If, after a few meetings, the couple decides they’re compatible and that a marriage between them would be the best option, the family celebrates and begins planning a wedding. The book showcases instances both of where this worked out fabulously and where the marriage ended, sometimes quickly, in divorce (which, when you think about it, isn’t that different from the average American marriage. I’m guessing most of us know at least one couple who married and then divorced fairly soon after).

Other women date in a more typical American fashion; a few opt to become someone’s second wife, after putting a lot of thought into it and spending time with the first wife. For at least one of the wives, being a second wife offers her the independence and freedom that she felt being a sole wife wouldn’t, and her reasoning for this decision makes a lot of sense (still not something I would choose for myself, but I have to agree with her that the down/alone time would rock!). Some women never find what they’re looking for and the search continues, while others revel in their happily-ever-after.

Love, InshAllah is real-life romance and the search for it, viewed through a cultural lens that I think most Americans don’t spend much time thinking about. It’s a book that gives Muslims a chance to see themselves on the pages and that will help non-Muslims both understand and appreciate our differences. Something doesn’t have to match my path or my life choices in order for me to recognize its worth for someone else, and that alone made this book the perfect read for me.

There’s a section of author bios in the back, as is common with essay collections such as this, and I do wish that these books kept the bios at the end of each author’s piece, since it’s difficult for me to remember each author’s name once I get to the end, and I don’t necessarily want to be flipping back and forth through the whole book. Regardless, Love, InshAllah is a fascinating, insightful look at romance in a group of women who don’t often get the chance to tell their own romantic stories, and I’m so happy that this book exists and that the book was readily available to me through one of my local libraries.

The two authors/editors have also teamed up to produce Salaam, Love: American Muslim Men on Love, Sex and Intimacy, and you better bet I hit the WANT TO READ button on that baby immediately!!!

Follow Love InshAllah on Twitter.

Nura Maznavi’s tweets are protected (and given the climate on Twitter some/most days, I can’t blame her).

Follow Ayesha Mattu.

memoir · nonfiction

Muslim Girl: A Coming of Age Story- Amani Al-Khatahtbeh

During the month of Ramadan, BookRiot came out with a list of memoirs by Muslim women, and, always eager to learn more about the world and my neighbors (we have a good-sized Muslim community in my town and the surrounding towns), I pored over the list, adding several to my Goodreads TBR. Muslim Girl: A Coming of Age by Amani Al-Khatahtbeh (Simon Schuster, 2016) sounded interesting, and I was happy to find that my local library branch had in on the shelves (though not in stock; I had to return several times before it was available. As a reader, you’d think that that would be frustrating, but honestly, I’m not ever frustrated by that- I’m happy that my fellow townsfolk are reading, and they’re reading the same awesome books that I want to read! I live amongst great people, you guys).

Amani Al-Khatahtbeh is the founder of MuslimGirl.com, but before she began to change the internet and make its first real space for young Muslim women, she was a nine-year-old girl whose entire world changed the day the Twin Towers fell. Life for American Muslims altered dramatically that day; while Ms. Al-Khatahtbeh does recount a few positive experiences with kind people offering support, she and the members of her community were collectively assigned blame for horrors perpetrated a group of individuals who shared little more than their label. For a while, she and her family returned to Jordan, but ultimately came home to the United States, where she found she needed a deep sense of courage and self to even leave the house some days (and not without reason; a quick Google search is showing me multiple stories about Muslims, both men and women, pushed onto subway tracks and down subway stairs, while being called terrorists).

Ms. Al-Khatahtbeh recounts the lack of self-confidence she had growing up, and how that began to change as she matured. Founding MuslimGirl.com, first on LiveJournal and then moving it to its own domain, changed her life and launched her as a public personality, able to speak out for young women who work incredibly hard to make places for themselves in a society who, far too often, view them only as a single story.

Muslim Girl is a slim tome, but it speaks volumes, and I’m grateful to Ms. Al-Khatahtbeh for sharing her story. Despite living in such a diverse community, my world is pretty small right now (home, driving kids and husband places, running errands, and that’s pretty much it). Now that my daughter will be going to school soon, I’m hoping to be able to become more involved in my community (although I’m not yet sure how; my terrible back limits my abilities), but until then, it’s important to me to read books written by people who have experienced the world differently than I have, and this book absolutely fits the bill. I’ve known that the Muslim community has suffered terrible treatment since September 11th; I’ve read the news stories and been horrified, but this is the first first-person account I’ve read of the discrimination they’ve endured. I’m saddened, I’m angered, I’m bewildered that so many people, instead of learning and understanding, lash out in ignorance. Why aren’t we better than that?

I always feel a little out of place reviewing books by marginalized authors. My job as a random white woman blogger who has read and enjoyed this book, I feel, is merely to amplify the existence of Muslim Girl. Don’t read my words; read Amani Al-Khatahtbeh’s. Hers are the important one here, hers and those of others that are routinely pushed to the side and ignored or shouted over; listen and work to understand to what she has to say, because it’s the only way we’re going to achieve a more compassionate and accepting society, where everyone can thrive.

Visit MuslimGirl.com here.

Follow Amani Al-Khatahbeh on Twitter here.