Ten Things I Hate About Me by Randa Abdel-Fattah

tenthingsihateaboutme“How can I be three identities in one?  It doesn’t work.  They’re always at war with one another.  If I want to go clubbing, the Muslim in me says it’s wrong and the Lebanese in me panics about bumping into somebody who knows somebody who knows my dad.  If I want to go to a Lebanese wedding as the four hundredth guest, the Aussie in me will laugh and wonder why we’re not having civilized cocktails in a function room that seats a maximum of fifty people.  If I want to fast during Ramadan, the Aussie in me will think I’m a masochist.

I can’t win.”

Jamilah lives a double life: at home, she’s Jamilah, the girl who plays an instrument in an Arabic band and tries to convince her super-strict father to lighten up once in a while.  However, at school, she’s Jamie, with bleached hair, contacts, and endless excuses for why she can never socialize after school.  She just doesn’t want people to see her as a stereotype; she’s afraid they’ll hear Muslim and think extremist.  However, the strain of constantly hiding who she truly is wears on her, and her friends are wondering why she’s never around.  She can’t keep it up much longer-but what will happen if everyone knows the truth about her?

This is Randa Abdel-Fattah’s second novel about Muslim teenagers struggling to find a place within a larger culture that doesn’t always understand or welcome them.  Her characters are complex, from the hijab-wearing activist Shereen, to a father struggling with the task of raising three children alone-he doesn’t want to create strife between him and his children, but he also feels compelled to raise them in line with his core values.  While Jamilah often feels like an outsider because of her cultural identity, she gets great joy out of sharing meals, playing traditional instruments, and speaking Arabic.

Abdel-Fattah takes pains to differentiate between ethnicity, culture, and religion, and explore the different ways they can be expressed in her characters. It may not always be easy to have a hyphenated identity, but Randa Abdel-Fattah opens an important dialog about faith, fear, and the self in her thoughtful, timely novels.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://www.randaabdelfattah.com

Abdel-Fattah, Randa. Ten Things I Hate About Me. Orchard Books: New York, 2006. 297 pp. Ages 15 and up.

Boy vs. Girl by Na’ima B. Robert

boyvsgirl“Farhana’s  hijab felt heavy now, heavier than it had ever been.  Heaver than when her mum questioned her about it, making her feel as if she had done the wrong thing, that she was on her way to becoming an ‘extremist’.  Heaver than when she found that she was no longer the centre of attention at school.  Heaver than when, after the initial honeymoon period when her wearing the hijab was a novelty and a number of the girls had admired her brave decision, the hype moved elsewhere.”

Farhana and her twin brother Faraz are struggling with life-changing decisions this Ramadan season.  Farhana is trying to decide whether she wants to wear the hijab full-time, even if it probably means losing the attentions a handsome classmate.  Faraz is conflicted, as well:  he’s so bullied at school, for being sensitive and artistic, that he can’t stand it anymore.  Does he pursue his art, or join the gang that promises protection?  During the holiday month, the two struggle with their feelings about religion, freedom, and doing what’s right for themselves.  For Farhana, this means going against her parents’ wishes for her, and for Faraz, it means something far more dangerous.  Ramadan bring change and self-awareness to both twins.

This novel is reminiscent of The Outsiders, with its devoted siblings, clear (to the point of preachiness) distinction between right and wrong, and hey-I’ll say it- the street gangs.   The central conflict is one of identity: what role does faith and religion play in the lives of the twins?  What role would they like it to play?  Farhana’s mother is firmly against her covering herself-she doesn’t want her daughter to lose opportunities or be discriminated against.  Farhana must decide whether she wishes to defy her parents and wear the hijab, or if she’d rather not make such a public declaration of her beliefs.  Faraz knows what Allah says he should do, but it’s so hard to resist the brotherhood and protection of the neighborhood gang.  When a tragedy threatens Farhana’s life, Faraz understands what he must do, even if it feels impossible.

The exploration of identity, religion, and the social universe of the high schoolers makes for fascinating, if not entirely original, reading.  Na’ima Robert brings us a traditional coming-of-age story, but viewed through a different cultural lens.  While the story occasionally veers into a cautionary tale-style narrative, the exploration of deep belief is worth reading.  Robert portrays Farhana’s religious self-searching skillfully and sensitively.  I’d like to know what you think of this one!  It’s a relatively recent book with a very fifties’ feel to it, that’s for sure.

Happy Reading!

Robert, Na’ima. Boy vs. Girl. Francis Lincoln Books: London, 2010.

If you’re interested in reading more books like this one, you might like:

Does My Head Look Big in This? 

The Garden of My Imaan

Bestest. Ramadan. Ever.

I’d like to invite you to read a blog post on this book written by someone who was displeased with this book, as she felt it didn’t realistically address teenagers’ problems, while at the same time it was upholding a “pure” Islam.  Hop on over and see what Sara Yasin at Muslim Media Watch has to say about Boy vs. Girl.

Does My Head Look Big in This? By Randa Abdel-Fattah

Does_My_Head_Look_Big_In_This“The slide opened and I heard a gentle, kind voice: ‘What is your confession, my child?’
I was stuffed. The Priest would declare me a heretic; my parents would call me a traitor…
The Priest asked me again: ‘What is your confession, my child?’
‘I’m Muslim.” I whispered.”

Seventeen-year-old Amal considers herself to be a bunch of hyphens: an Australian-Palestinian-Muslim teenager.  She goes to a fancy private school, lives with her parents, is totally devoted to her friends, and fostering a massive crush on her classmate Adam. She’s also decided to begin wearing the hijab all the time, as an expression of her faith.  She doesn’t decide because her parents make her, or because she believes that all women should be covered up.  In fact, her parents are concerned about how others will receive her decision-they don’t want her to experience any prejudice, or for her career or educational choices to be limited in any way because she covers her hair.

There’s so much to consider.  What will her classmates say?  Will people stare?  Will they think bad things about her?  Also: Adam.  How will he react to her decision?  And it’s not like that’s the only thing she has going on in her life, either: her friend Leila is having trouble at home, and her grouchy neighbor is bumming her out every time she leaves the house.  This is high school, Amal-style.

So, this awesome book is part of a project I’m working on, where I’m looking at how Muslim teens are represented in young adult literature.  What I loved about the story was how Randa Abdel-Fattah gives us, on the one hand, a hilarious, light read about a quirky and engaging teenager, but on the other hand, some serious commentary on prejudice, assimilation, family, and feminism.  Amal gets frustrated with the assumptions people make about her, and sometimes wants everyone to stop talking to her about religion.   And you know what?  It was so hard for her not to kiss Adam-that’s just not something that fits with her religious beliefs.

Through different characters in the text, we are able to explore aspects of Islam and the ideas people have about Muslims.  Randa Abdel-Fattah really shines when she tells us about about Amal’s friend, Leila, and Leila’s mother.  Leila’s mother came from a small village in Turkey, and wants different things for her daughter than Leila wants for herself.  Rather than writing off Leila’s mother as a backwards, conservative parent who is more concerned with religion than her daughter’s well-being, Abdel-Fattah tells us the story of a mother loving her daughter in the only way she knows how.  And that’s just one excellent part of this story: woven throughout is commentary on family, immigration, and diverse expressions of faith.  It’s funny, too, and never once preachy.  You’ll love it, and you’ll learn from it, too. I can’t wait to read her next book, Ten Things I Hate About Me.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://www.randaabdelfattah.com/index.asp

Here’s a really great interview with the author, in which she explains her choice of subject matter: “It became apparent to me that the only time Muslim females appeared as heroines in books were as escapees of the Taliban, victims of an honour killing, or subjects of the Saudi royalty! I wrote Does My Head Look Big In This? because I wanted to fill that gap. I wanted to write a book which debunked the common misconceptions about Muslims and which allowed readers to enter the world of the average Muslim teenage girl and see past the headlines and stereotypes- to realise that she was experiencing the same dramas and challenges of adolescence as her non-Muslim peers- and have a giggle in the process!”

Abdel-Fattah, Randa. Does My Head Look Big in This? Orchard Books: New York, 2005. 359 pp. Ages 15 and up.

Here’s what else is on my reading list for my Super-Special Muslim-Lit Project: Bestest. Ramadan. Ever.,Where I Belong, Boy vs. Girland A Map of Home.  And if you come across any others, please send them my way!

Bestest. Ramadan. Ever. by Medeia Sharif

“Sometimes I feel that I don’t fit in.  Years ago, during a sleepover at a friend’s house, some girl I barely knew asked questions about my ethnicity.  I was wearing pink nail polish and she asked me, ‘Your parents allow you to wear nail polish?’ As if Muslim girls can’t wear something harmless like nail polish.  Those ignorant comments come only once in a while, because my real friends know that I do fit in.  People who know very little about me think my mom will come to school wearing a veil or sari, and they’re wowed by how hot she is (the only time her hotness makes me look good). Or they think Dad will have a long terrorist beard and bland clothes, but he always comes to school in a suit, looking all suave and charming.  I don’t mind if my classmates see my parents, but it’s best that they don’t.  Like most people my age, I pretend that my home life and my school life are on different planes of existence.”

During the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, believers are not supposed to eat or drink from sunrise to sunset.  For the first time ever, fifteen-year-old Almira is fasting with her family, and it’s hard work!  Combined with learning to drive, her first crush, getting braces, and some drama with the new girl, Almira has her hands full.  How can she get Peter to notice her at school? How can she get her grandfather to understand that she’s just a normal American teenage girl, and not trying to be disrespectful or rebellious?  And why is the new girl so mean?

I have a special interest in books featuring minorities for young adults, and was so pleased to see a book about a Muslim teen on the shelves at my library, especially one that focuses on issues beyond cultural differences (for example, Almira’s crush, an understandable preoccupation for a teen, is a main plot element). While there is some discussion of religious beliefs, Almira’s family is portrayed neither as exactly like everyone else in the novel, nor as religious extremists with an oppressive belief system.  In short, they’re normal, and there’s no need to dwell on it for pages.  Young lovers of chick-lit will be delighted with Almira’s authentic voice and her interactions with her friends, as well as the teenage traumas of braces and driving lessons, while I, for one, am thrilled to see representations of the Muslim teen in the YA lit world.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://www.medeiasharif.com

Sharif, Medeia.  Bestest. Ramadan. Ever. Flux Books: Woodbury, MN, 2011. 298 pp.  Ages 13-16.

If you’d like to read more like this, Does My Head Look Big in This? is a good place to start!