It’s that time of year again. A time when devout Muslims, for thirty days, to express their faith in God by stepping into the shoes of the less fortunate, Ramadan. I’m aware most of our readers probably aren’t too familiar with the Muslim holiday, so I’ll give a quick rundown on the essentials. During the month Muslims must fast during the entirety of sunrise but when nightfall begins the fast is broken only to start once more come dawn. The purpose is to bring people closer to their faith by forsaking the everyday needs people have. The intention is to spend time reflecting on themselves and the ones around them, as well as being appreciative of the gift of life.
In the U.S., young Muslims use this time to temporarily release themselves from American culture and embrace their own but are often conflicted on balancing their roles as Muslims as well as being proud American citizens. American Muslims usually utilize bi-culturalism to deal with these issues when it becomes difficult to make others understand the struggles of adjusting to the two cultures. Luckily, reading is an amazing tool to help get others to sympathize with the turbulence life may bring to people from another culture. There’s no better way to understand this unique religion and lifestyle than a few YA novels that capture the everyday struggles of the Muslims in America dealing with culture clash. Now that food and water are out of the equation there’s more time to do so.
1. The Henna Wars by Adiba Jaigirdar
In this coming-of-age novel, Bangladeshi-Irish teen Nishat deals with bullying over her faith at her Catholic high school in Dublin while struggling to come out to her Islamic parents. Though they disapprove of her preference, she is mostly unmoved by it until her childhood friend Flavia reappears in her life by attending her school. She wishes to confront her feelings for Flavia but an entrepreneur competition where they each offer students henna tattoos causes a rift between them. Nishat offers traditional henna tattoos that help ease the tension in her life. Meanwhile, she believes Flavia and her problematic cousin Chyna are appropriating her people’s culture by opening a henna stall of their own. And so the henna wars begin.
Jaigirdar balances a sweet romance for teens that wish to be more open with their sexuality. She tackles the themes of homophobia in Islam as well as catholicism in a very relatable fashion. Nishat is subject to bullying from the student body over her sexuality but the insults become more about her race and religion over the titular henna wars. The book offers a more positive outlook on the state of closeted homosexuals in the Muslim community as Nishat becomes more comfortable with herself despite the negativity around her. It all culminates in a beautiful ending that’s sure to warm the hearts of struggling people everywhere.
2. You Truly Assumed by Laila Sabreen
Hopeful Black Muslim teen Sabriya, or Bri for short, has her whole life ahead of her. Suddenly a terroristic act erupts near her home. With many assuming the perpetrators are Muslim, the local hate begins to grow rapidly. In an effort to conjure some peace within herself she begins a blog called You Truly Assumed as an outlet. The blog begins to gain much traction with two like-minded teens, Zakat and Farah, joining her forming a strong friendship as popularity grows. Their blog becomes a safe haven for young Muslims from all over that deal with islamophobia in their lives and gives them the same peace the girls received. Sadly the comments become more hateful as time goes on and soon threats are made toward the friendly trio. After one of them experiences a racist altercation, Bri, Zakat, and Farah must decide if the blog is worth keeping to make their voices heard or if the danger it poses to them is too great to bare.
The main draw of this entry is Islamophobia. Where this hatred comes from is relatively grounded by showing its face in very familiar ways. The girls’ experiences come from speculation about criminal acts, ignorance of people’s culture, and media outlets stoking fear on current events at the expense of the people they implicate. You Truly Assumed sheds a more hopeful light on the increasing state of bigotry in the U.S. that all people can relate to. Though at times harrowing this heartbreaking story will likely warm it by the closing chapter.
3. How It All Blew Up by Arvin Ahmadi
In another coming-of-age story, we follow closeted eighteen-year-old Amir in his quest to come out to his conservative Islamic parents. Though intending to but nonetheless fearful of the confrontation, Amir soon becomes blackmailed by bullies from his school to come out sooner than expected. Amir then skips out on his high school graduation and runs off to Rome to discover himself. After having a myriad of fun, embarrassing, and even spiritual moments abroad, his family life comes back into the picture. Now, all he has to do is explain his entire story to a customs officer and face his family in his most turbulent hour.
How It All Blew Up is more of a cultural lamentation of homosexuality rather than a strictly religious one. Amir early on admits that his parents aren’t very religious but they remain “traditional” as it were. Ahmadi paints a down-to-earth look at how the cultural implications can sometimes far exceed that of a religious household. The stresses that it causes promising youngsters only serves to hit home for so many Muslims that might be dealing with issues. Culture clash can show up and debilitate so many people out there and Ahmadi beautifully crafts a strong entry that sheds light on these matters.
4. An Emotion of Great Delight by Tahereh Mafi
This period drama set in 2003 follows Shadi a Muslim American dealing with bigotry in the wake of America declaring war on Iraq. The racial tension in her community hits closer and closer to home as time elapses all the while she deals with familial issues. Her brother is dead, her father is sick and her mother is suffering from mental issues. To top things off, Shadi is dealing with a broken heart. Despite wallowing in her loneliness, she perseveres through her pain in silence until she makes a breakthrough. Over time she learns to master her pain and turn it into something beautiful where only she remains in the face of opposition.
This National Book Award nominee tackles a very unique issue within the purviews of dealing with bigotry in America: isolation. Shadi is balancing multiple tragedies in her life both personal and societal. The perspective Mafi gives us is that of pure introversion in which the main character doesn’t necessarily find refuge in her beliefs. Shadi finds it in her life via seclusion until a great awakening is formed by her force of will. Many Muslims find difficulty in handling life’s issues through aid from our respective communities. Most American Muslims go through hardships with pure silence and quiet anguish until a better alternative is sought. Mafi’s beautifully crafted story captures the specific sensations that come with the fear of sharing your pain with others regardless of support. This painful reflection on the silent struggles of minorities is definitely amongst the best as an introspective look into the Muslim lifestyle in the U.S.
5. Internment by Samira Ahmed
Layla is your typical Muslim American teen. She’s trying to get good grades, go to prom, and decide where to attend college when high school wraps up. Her promising future is cut short when after much political strife the American government starts putting Muslims in internment camps reminiscent of Japanese camps in the 1940s. With her parents stripped away and inducted into the camps, a devastated Layla is left with nowhere to really turn. She soon joins up with a like-minded activist group and finds her rebellious spirit sprout into public discourse. Her cause gains momentum and she discovers her true strength. Her only mission now is to fight for her peoples’ rights and get her parents back safely in this not-too-distant future scenario.
Samira Ahmed paints an all too familiar America in this merciless take on the power of political activism. Some, definitely not all, Muslims find activism to be an effective method of dealing with social angst as well as being equally helpful toward a worthy cause. Our neighbors deal with laws and regulations that threaten their peaceful way of life. Layla’s harrowing journey to free her people is not all too different from what Muslims worldwide deal with when settlers both figuratively and literally cage them for their differences. Despite Internment‘s message being a bit heavy-handed, the book drives the point home with its realism and authenticity to the subject matter.
Many both within and without Islam in their lives can relate to the many struggles Muslims deal with day to day. These books make connecting to our Muslim neighbors simpler by not strictly highlighting the faith aspect but also not flooding it with YA cliches just to garner attention. They bridge the gap between us by moving our plains close together. We all need a little faith and discipline to push through life’s darkest hours. The broader issues as well as the individual ones require a high-held head to make that major difference. We must give our neighbors and ourselves a chance to share who they really are especially during the most reflective of times. May peace find you all and Mubarak Ramadan(Happy Ramadan).
Featured Image Via: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, Amazon, & Goodreads