Bismillah al-Rahman al-Raheem
I am super excited to share today’s book review with you, because it is something a bit more interesting than my usual resources-sharing business. It is a work of fiction!
I took on this book review mostly because I wanted to help out an awesome Muslimah author, and get her work in front of more eyes. And I was sure I would like the book, because I like books (except Great Expectations. I don’t know why that is even allowed to exist.). At any rate, as soon as I got the PDF in my inbox and started reading, I was very, very surprised.
I could not put this book down. Seriously, I don’t think I have devoured a book like that since the Harry Potter days. I am already planning my second reading as I type this now, and I am still a little bit shocked at how much I truly enjoyed this book.
The book is called Amilah by Halima Hagi-Mohammed. She was born in Nairobi to Somali parents, and was raised in Fresno, California with eight siblings. She has been writing since a young age, and this, her first book, has been a long time in the making. I highly recommend you go read more from her and keep up with what she is up to over at halimawrites.com.
The title, Amilah, means “hope,” and that is essentially what the book is all about: it tells the stories of people within the Somali communities of America, of their struggles, and the problems they face. But at the bottom of it all is the idea that there is always hope, for everyone.
Knowing that that is what the book is all about, I halfway expected it to be a little bit too “fairies and rainbows” for me. I found out all too quickly that that is not the case at all: the first story starts right in on the tough stuff, with the narrator being a woman in a situation of domestic violence. The story starts directly after the worst argument yet, and though it is the story of her leaving, it recalls many other altercations throughout her marriage to Khalid, the abusive husband.
Firstly, I absolutely love when an author is brave enough to tell a tough story, and not give it a forced, sparkly happy ending, because that is real life. Sometimes there is no happy ending, you just pick up and keep moving.
Secondly, it was jarring for me to read this story smack in the very beginning of the book, because for me, it was a little too close to home. I myself lived with a verbally abusive step-father for most of my childhood and though I have successfully put the past in the past, I could feel what the narrator felt as she told her story of fear and helplessness.
The story is left open-ended, as the narrator drives up to the house of her friend that she plans to stay with, knocks on the door an awaits the answer. She says that she hears footsteps coming towards the door, and it ends on that note as she begins to imagine a new life of independence. But we never find out who opens the door.
I loved how this, and many of the other stories were left open to nuance and interpretation. In my mind, the first thing I thought when she said she could hear the footsteps was, “oh my goodness, he knew she would go to the friend’s house, he got there first and is going to drag her home,” and I began to despair a bit. But seeing that I will never know for sure and I can choose my own ending, I decided to push that thought away and let it be the friend who answers the door with a warm embrace and spicy cup of tea to begin the narrator’s new life. That’s what the book is all about isn’t it, choosing hope.
It didn’t let up after the first story: there were stories of battling the stigma of depression, of loss, of judgement, of family troubles, exorcisms, bullies and learning hard lessons. Not all of the stories resonated with me like the first, but it was so amazing to get this insight into what members of this community go through, and the issues that they face, especially the people of my generation and younger.
And even if I could not directly relate to what was happening in the story, the quality of writing made it so that I was feeling the feelings along with each and every narrator.
Another story that struck me particularly was the second to last, ‘Hooyo Macaan.’ It was one of the shorter ones, but the narrator is a girl exactly my age, whose mother was known to be the most beautiful and hard-working woman in her village in Somalia. She ends up getting married to a rich man and devoting herself to house-work and children, and when the troubles began they moved together to America, where the narrator was born.
She tells of how early in her life, her father’s mother had died, leaving him devastated and depressed. He quit working as a taxi driver and began to live off of government-help and food stamps.
All the while, her mother had trouble learning English and integrating into the community. She ended up doing her housework, tending her children, and spending the rest of the day lost, not knowing what to do besides listening to BBC Somalia and having tea and sweets while gossiping with her friends. The relationship between the narrator and her mother is a strange one; she is an obedient daughter, but there is not much love between them.
Especially as she sees her mother begin to continually gain weight and get diagnosed with Type II Diabetes, while her father spends eight hours every day at the local coffee shops talking with the other men and not working, she becomes slightly disappointed in her parents.
The “hope” moment of the story comes when she slips downstairs to go get a sandwich and finds her mother crying. Not knowing what to do, she comforts her and they end up having a discussion that opens up their lost relationship.
While it was a beautiful story, the part that struck me most was the insight into the lives of the narrator’s parents.
I have had contact with the Somali community on two occasions in my life: once when a couple of lovely Somali girls sat near me in bright red jilbabs at an MSA conference and struck up a conversation, and second when I lived in north-west London. There was a large Somali community there, and quite a few Somali families lived in my building.
I remember how often my English and European friends would complain about the community, noting how they only came to the U.K. for the free government handouts, then they sat around and ate their food, getting fat off Enlgish tax money. Seeing how I had to take ten flights of stairs to get to my house every day because the lift was always full with some rather large woman or another and her seventeen kids, I always just assumed what my friends said was true.
This story not only provided me with a glimpse into what it is like to have left your country in the midst of war and been forced to settle in a foreign land, but it made me see the human side to the stereotypical parents in the story. When I first began reading it, my brain told me, oh see, it is totally true everything they said! But as I read on and began to see into the lives of this family, I must admit I was truly ashamed that I had ever let such stereotypical and discriminatory stories seep into my perceptions of a whole community of people.
Each story was narrated in the first person, and it was always interesting to transition into a new voice, and step into a new character’s life. I loved the writing and the depth of the short stories, and how the author did not shy away from difficult topics or less-than-ideal endings. On the whole, the book was so real and it provided so much valuable insight into this community for me; it certainly changed my perceptions as someone looking in from the outside.
If you haven’t figured it out already, I would totally recommend this book to each and every person reading this. I would love it if you would help support the awesome sister who wrote this, and I think this book has something to offer to everyone, from any walk of life. You can get it on Amazon, so please go pick it up and let me know what you think!!
To sum up my review in one phrase: ma shaa Allah!!