It looked like such a promising book! A hijabi on the cover (okay, so she’s wearing jeans…), and (seemingly) good reviews from when I did a quick Google search on it. To tell the truth, it’s actually not that bad – the first half, anyway. In fact, I loved the first half!
Okay, you’re probably wondering what I’m talking about (if you haven’t noticed the title of the post…). I’ve just finished reading Mohja Kahf’s book “The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf.” It’s about Khadra Shamy, the daughter of Syrian immigrants to Indianapolis, whose parents become heavily involved with the Da’wah Centre. The chapters recounting her childhood and adolescence, growing up in a very tight-knit Muslim community, made me smile, laugh, and even sniffle a bit – also being the daughter of “Da’wah workers,” I could relate to it quite a bit!
As I said, I loved the first half of the book. Funny and interesting anecdotes; truly accurate glimpses into the heart of the Muslim community; and since no life is complete without sorrow, even the grisly death of one of the community’s most promising young women.
The first half of the book is about Khadra growing up in America – in the first few years of elementary school, of dealing with issues like “pig in candy corn,” wearing hijaab for the first time and dealing with the abuse of racist KKK neighbourhood members, and teen angst and rebellion expressed through support of the Shi’a group Amal. Also of note are Khadra’s trip to Saudi Arabia for Hajj – where she discovers that not all is Islamic amongst the youth of the Land of the Islam. Things began to look up, though, when Khadra marries Juma al-Tashkenti – a good guy all around. Awwwwwwwwww, masha’Allah! was my reaction, and I thought maybe this would be a husband-and-wife battling the odds sort of thing that would fill up the rest of the book – after all, I was halfway done and there hadn’t been a main plot to the story yet. At this point, I had gone around telling everyone I met what a great book this was… little did I know that my feelings of joy at discovering a really good book of Muslim fiction that didn’t follow the usual “oppressed Muslim woman sees the light of Western Civilization” storyline would quickly disappear!
It was the bike that did it. I totally agree with Khadra’s husband – riding a bike in public isn’t quite seemly of a Muslim woman. The author, apparently, has quite different ideas, as can be evidenced here:
“But eventually, she put the bike in the resident storage area of their building’s basement… The gears rusted and the tires lost air. Something inside her rusted a little, too.”
My immediate reaction to that: “Oh, please!” Honestly, talk about a drama queen… major incidents followed in quick succession after that – her husband’s visa expiring, which meant she’d have to move with him back to Kuwait (which she didn’t want to do; she wanted to finish her studies at her university even though she could do them just as easily in Kuwait); joining the Islamic Studies class at her university, where she’s introduced to Sufism and starts to get all proggie on us; and then, despite her birth control pills, she falls pregnant. This is the Big Thing – rather than having the child, she decides that her studies and work are more important to her… so she gets an abortion. Yep, that’s right. The A-word. Abortion.
After the abortion, and her community’s reaction to it (NOT violent, just in case you were wondering), she goes to Syria to her aunt – who also introduces her to a “different” way of thinking, as she recovers from the stress and trauma of the abortion. She eventually returns to America, where she lives far away from her family and any Muslim community – it’s also where “Khadra found that she enjoyed venting… about her experiences with conservative religion.”
Eventually, Khadra ends up back in her old city, where she meets up with an old childhood friend, now a trombone-playing former imam (he gave up being an imam so that he could continue his hobby of playing at jazz clubs). The last few chapters of the book are dedicated to her reunion with the people of the Muslim community – except that now she looks down upon them as unenlightened, too strict and rigid and supposedly repressed just because they actually stick to the rules of the Deen.
I think that this book pointed out two interesting and commonly found themes within proggressive ideology – one, that to Khadra, at least, Islam is not the One True religion, the only one accepted by Allah; as such, she doesn’t believe that she needs to follow the laws of Islam; and two, that to sacrifice certain things for the sake of Allah isn’t considered a good thing, but rather, is to be considered “repression” or “oppression.” Basically, it seems that they go along with the whole “If it feels good, do it” attitude, regardless of what the Shari’ah says about it. Two examples that come to mind are art (drawing animate figures) and music (the case in point regarding the character of Hakim al-Deen – the trombone-playing-former-Imam). I’m sure we’ve all read or heard the many excuses and arguments that arise whenever the above subjects (as well as others) come up, so I won’t bother with explanatory details.
Anyway, here are the relevant bits from the book, presented in respective order:
“Well, why are you Muslim then? If anything else is just as good.”
Khadra thinks for a minute. “Love,” she says slowly. “Love and attachment. I love the Quran, for example. And the forms and rhythms of salaah. I keep coming back o it. It has a resonance for me.”
“But you think someone else can pray another way and find a path to God?” Tayiba counters.
“Islamic, unIslamic. Halal, haram. Is it godly? Is it frivolity? No space to breathe. Everyone must have kept secrets from each other about what they really liked, who they really were. How much had any of them really known each other growing up?”
So there we are. In the first snippet of dialogue, Khadra (and presumably Mohja Kahf, if the character’s beliefs reflect the author’s) does not believe in one of the main principles of the ‘Aqeeda of Ahlus-Sunnah wal-Jamaa’ah – that Islam is the only true and correct path to worshipping Allah and attaining success in the Hereafter. In the second, we see that there is a heightened sense of the dramatic (not doing things that they wanted to, even if it was haraam, means that they’re “repressing their inner selves” – something mentioned earlier on in the book, like when Khadra stopped riding her bike) and apparently no concept of sacrificing for the sake of Allah, no awareness that whenever a Muslim gives up something for his/her Lord to ward of His Punishment or to earn His Pleasure, Allah will replace it with something better (whether it’s in this world or in the Hereafter).
Looking at the book from a purely literary point of view, I’d give it 4/5. The writing style, especially of the first half, is excellent – detailed, descriptive, and it tracks character development through various phases in a way that you feel you’re growing up with the character. In the second half, I seemed to have lost that feeling of closeness – whether due to the author’s skill waning, a deliberate attempt to make us feel Khadra’s confusion and transition into proggie-Sufism, or my own disgust at the way Khadra turned out, I’m not exactly sure. I found the end disappointing also – for some reason I didn’t feel that sense of closure that I associate with a good ending to a good book. Rather, it felt clunky and incomplete – one moment she’s wailing with grief, the next providing emotional support to her boy-band-member younger brother who wants to marry his Mormon girlfriend, then giving her older (and much more sensible) brother an “enlightening” lecture about how she has to show both sides of the story about the Muslim community (she took pictures of them that would only reinforce ignorant stereotypes about Muslims and said that she trusts viewers to be intelligent and look past the stereotypes)… and then she’s off to the racetrack, on a date family-friendly outing with Hakim al-Deen (aka the trombone dude) to watch his sister be the first Muslim woman to drive on a racetrack.
From an Islamic perspective, however – I definitely would NOT recommend it to new Muslims or those interested in Islam, because it would either majorly confuzzle them or lead them in the wrong direction. (Here’s where certain people will denounce me for being narrow-minded and prejudiced and taking on the role of censor.) But unlike Khadra, I don’t place much confidence in people’s intelligence and ability to discern what’s correct – most of the time, anyway (and no, I’m not so arrogant that I can claim to be totally objective and correct all the time – basically, it’s a case of “If I can’t trust myself, how can I trust others?”). For others, however, who perhaps enjoy some good fiction (“good” in terms of quality of writing, not necessarily content) and/or would also like to glean a better understanding of how and what the progressives/ liberals/ modernists think – then yes, I would suggest this book, because it’s why I read it in the first place (well, that and curiousity about whether it was just another piece of Islamophobic trash disguised as literature). I’m sure many people would disagree with me on that, but whatever.
If any of you have read this book, please do let me know what you think about it!