nonfiction

Guest House for Young Widows: Among the Women of ISIS- Azadeh Moaveni

You ever go into a book thinking you’re getting one thing and then you wind up with another thing entirely? It’s kind of like ordering a pizza, but when the deliveryman knocks at your door, instead of a large with extra cheese, you get a platter of oysters. Now, plenty of people enjoy oysters; they’re served at some of the finest restaurants in the world, but when you were expecting a hot, gooey, cheese-covered pizza, that oyster platter may leave you puzzled.

That’s how I felt about Guest House for Young Widows: Among the Women of Isis by Azadeh Moaveni (Random House, 2019). With a title like that, I was very much expecting the book to be focused entirely on the women of ISIS. What inspired them to travel to Syria, what their lives were like before they arrived and after, what kept them there and what made them leave (if they could or did). And while Ms. Moaveni does include these stories, they’re more like brief interludes into the story of the conflict of Syria and the creation of ISIS. It’s a complex story, to be sure, and this book is very well-written; I would expect nothing less from Ms. Moaveni, who is a Pulitzer Prize finalist. But the text of the book is overwhelmingly about the conflict itself; the stories of the women are briefly wedged into a larger narrative about the war in Syria. Some chapters have a few paragraphs about a woman’s story or her situation, and the rest follows the story of the war.

I kept waiting for the focus to be more on the women, and in the last twenty pages or so, it finally turns that way, only to introduce women not mentioned at all through the rest of the book. I’d really been hoping to get a better, deeper look into the mindset and daily life of these women who left behind fairly normal lives (albeit some poverty-stricken, others depressing), often in Western countries, to join ISIS, and while the brief pictures painted show bleak ones, I was expecting quite a different book based on the title and the blurb. So while this is absolutely a masterful piece of writing, it wasn’t at allwhat I expected it to be.

One thing that really stood out in the book was the story of the British teenagers (known as the Bethnal Green trio) that ran away from home to Syria, in order to become ISIS brides. The police knew they were trying to leave beforehand, but didn’t inform the girls’ parents. Related incidents at school also weren’t mentioned to the families. The parents had no idea of the girls’ plans; they were all good students with no issues at school, and religious parents generally don’t think to question increased piety and modesty in their children. How three fifteen year-olds were able to purchase plane tickets and get on planes, unaccompanied, and fly to foreign countries is beyond me. It seemed like there were a lot of times the story could have been stopped before it started, but too many people dropped the ball.

That said, these girls were fifteen when they left. Not legal adults, below the age of consent, at the age where society knows they’re still apt to make terrible, illogical decisions, and there’s some scary vitriol thrown their way by certain commentators, calling the girls ‘whores’ and demanding that any attempts by the government to return the girls to their parents (the police and the government didn’t seem to be doing much, if anything) be dropped. I’m by no means excusing their actions; leaving their families to join ISIS is obviously deeply horrifying, with terrible consequences for them (two of the girls are dead; one has watched all three of her children, which she gave birth to by the age of nineteen, die) and for the world. But I’m also far more reluctant to call fifteen year old girls whores and throw their entire lives out like trash than others, apparently. I hadn’t heard of these girls before this book, so this particular story was an eye-opener.

So tell me, dear readers: have you had this happen before, that a book turns out to be quite different from what the back cover or inside flap portrays it as? I’m pretty sure this has happened to me in the past, though not anytime recently. The reviews for this book on Goodreads are quite high, and I almost feel like I’m missing something, because my takeaways are so different from everyone else…

Visit Azadeh Moaveni’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.