‘You do not laugh at someone who is trying. Only the fools who do not give themselves a chance‘.
When a radicalized shooter brainwashed by the online alt-right tears his way though Nurideen School for Girls, headmistress Afaf is trapped listening to his progress through the school. We are swept back through her memories and the story of the life that has brought her to this terrifying point.
There is so much to unpack in this story, it is somewhat of an emotional overload and a true exploration of prejudice in one of its most dangerous forms. The content is highly traumatic from the offset, making it rather intimidating to begin, however I was surprised to find that very little of this book is actually centered around the shooting. Though still distressing at points, much of it follows Afaf’s complex family dynamics and how she navigates her way through various familial minefields. With a mother lost in the memories of her homeland, a sister who disappears without a trace, and a father who drowns his sorrows in drink, it is easy to understand why Afaf grows to feel invisible.
Perhaps the aspect I enjoyed most about this book is the insight it allows into Islam and its values. When Afaf feels most lost, her newfound faith is what saves her and I adored watching her find strength and power both in religion and the people it brought into her life. I loved the use of Arabic language (I believe it is Palestinian dialect but a little unsure of the specifics) and the fact that I had to go and look up much of what it meant; this book doesn’t spoonfeed Western audiences which I really respect. From the language to the Hajj pilgrimage Afaf and her family make, there is a lot to be drawn from this book about Islamic practises, especially to a reader similar to myself who didn’t know much about it previously.
The exploration of racial discrimination is often jarring but serves as an important reminder that these are the interactions many of our Muslim friends living in Western societies are forced to endure. The reader gains an insight into the horrific alienation and discrimination that Muslims experienced in post 9/11 America, as well as the representation of daily microagressions and stereotypes.
The flashbacks are equally as gripping as the present day narrative with far more emotional depth to them. The family dynamics are multilayered and extremely complex, and I loved the honesty with which they were depicted. It is difficult to say I ‘loved’ this book as it is so highly traumatic for so many reasons, however it is certainly one of the best books I have read in a long time and reinforces my view that fiction is one of our most valuable resources for learning about the vast range of people that make up the world around us. Absolutely essential reading and a truly stunning debut novel from Sahar Mustafah!
I would like to make it clear at this point that I am not an own voices reviewer and we should all absolutely seek out own voices reviews for their take on this story.
Trigger warnings: school shooting, gun violence, racial discrimination, addiction, alcoholism, suicide, references to 9/11.