#Review: Jasmine Falling

jasmine falling cover

Jasmine Falling
By: Shereen Malherbe
5 stars

This review was originally published on Muslimah Media Watch.

Jasmine Falling by Muslimah Media Watch’s Shereen Malherbe recounts the story of Jasmine, a young English girl who, in order to receive her inheritance after her mother dies, searches for her father in his native Palestine and winds up discovering not only the family she left behind, but also the culture to which she belongs.

As clichéd as the phrase may be, reading Jasmine Falling sent me on an emotional rollercoaster. Within the span of just a few pages I would find myself vacillating between pitying Jasmine for her loss and being downright angry with a fictional character for the decisions she makes: for example, Jasmine’s decision to get drunk in Palestine (a foreign land for her) with a guy she hardly knows, even though going to the bar had nothing to do with her mission, upset me so much I briefly stopped reading, then realized I was angry out of concern. I know people who’ve done the same thing Jasmine did, and I know the unfortunate consequences of their actions. Despite my frustrations with some of the protagonist’s choices, by the end of the novel, I was overwhelmingly happy for Jasmine, because she “found what her heart wanted.”

When I took a step back from the book after reading it, I realized I got way more involved with the characters than I normally do. As I read, I quoted the book and narrated Jasmine’s life to those around me (mostly my mother, who eventually began asking me for updates in Jasmine’s life) which speaks volumes (pun intended) about how well-written the novel is. Though written in accessible prose, the sentences are woven in such a way that the reader feels almost part and parcel of the action, of which there is plenty.Jasmine Falling is almost overwhelming in its back-to-back twists and turns, but each new plot element follows naturally from the one that preceded it.

Religion plays a more central role in Jasmine Falling than the title would suggest. Malherbe’s novel is  peppered with references to Islam, but the book doesn’t feel “Islamic,” nor do the references disrupt the flow of the story. In fact, the references propel the story as Jasmine goes down the path of growth and self-understanding. The adhan (call to prayer) in the countryside provides a cadence against which readers can measure the passage of the day. The Arabic greetings provide a layer of authenticity to the novel. Jasmine’s gradually increasing usage of phrases such as “alhamdulillah”  and her slow recollection of Islamic teachings she learned as a child (and abandoned as a teenager) artfully indicate her growth of character.

Despite the elements of Islam in Jasmine Falling, there are several themes in the novel that may appeal to a non-Muslims just as much as Muslims.  My mother,  who is a sixty-year-old Christian, was just as eager to hear about Jasmine as I was to read about her. Jasmine appealed to my mother’s sense of adventure. Those with ties to Middle Eastern culture will enjoy that aspect of the novel. Third culture children (people who grew up in a  culture different from that of their parents) and people whose parents are from two different places but they themselves only grew up in one would enjoy Jasmine Falling the most. Much of Jasmine’s internal conflict centers around cultural reconciliation. She grew up in England, and after her father disappeared, her mother essentially ignored Jasmine’s Palestinian half. Jasmine, who remembers her father, felt the emptiness, but decided to immerse herself in English culture. When she goes to Palestine, she is filled with a mix of nostalgia for the old sights and smells and regret at having let her roots slip away.

Reading this novel certainly made me realize how important it is to acknowledge and celebrate all of the cultures in which I was raised. I’m both more proud to be black and less hesitant to call myself American. Just as Jasmine realized the rejection of her father’s culture left her flailing for grounding, I have begun to  realize that the food, the media, and the traditions I grew up with make me who I am. Trying to stifle the minority culture (black) to better conform to the majority culture (American) split my personality unnecessarily, and left me generally confused. My new-found embracement of my hyphenated identity is perhaps indicative of why I enjoyed it so much: Jasmine, in a way, is me.

Though Jasmine’s reason for going to Palestine was not a happy one, the novel is not very grim. There are dark moments, as there are in most novels, but Malherbe managed to strike a balance between the uplifting moments and the somber ones. Jasmine is a youthful, audacious character, almost to the point of recklessness at times. She follows her instincts and is not afraid to speak up when she witnesses injustice. It was refreshing to read something about a Muslim woman that didn’t paint her life as exceedingly difficult, and that didn’t involve her overcoming some form of culture-based oppression that she blamed on religion.Jasmine Falling will remain on my shelf for some time to come, and I hope to find more books worthy enough to join it.

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Click here to read an interview with Shereen

#Review: Jasmine Falling

#Review: The Prayer Rug

prayer rug image
2015. Black Rose Writing. 155 Pages.

The Prayer Rug
By: H.M. Hymas
2 stars

This review was originally published on Muslimah Media Watch.

I really wanted to like this book. I love to hear lesser-told narratives, and this one checked all the boxes: it features a female protagonist and Muslim characters. More specifically, the characters are Iraqi, and I’ve never read a story that features Iraqi people. In short, The Prayer Rug follows Reem and her family as they struggle to maintain their sense of home in Iraq while it is being invaded by American Forces. Reem clings to her prayer rug—whose rhythmic presence is not as central to the novel as one might expect—as a symbol of faith, struggle, and progress. Unfortunately, the book fell flat. The writing is clumsy, the “plot twists” are obvious, and the characters feel more like caricatures.

In terms of word choice, The Prayer Rug was pretty easy to read. The phrases are short and the words are simple. So simple, in fact, that I found myself getting bored. Hymas frequently repeated words and phrases, a device that would have worked well had the repeated words come from the same character’s mouth, but the phrases seem to be playing round-robin throughout the book, which is not only confusing but also uninventive. Rather than letting the events of the novel speak for themselves, Hymas uses character commentary to move through the plot. As a result of the repetition and transparency, I quickly learned which phrases signaled an upcoming tragedy or plot reversal. Several times,  Reem comments that “Today is going to be a good day,” right before tragedy strikes. The attempts to the reader away from the plot “twist” are painfully obvious. Reem makes daily trips to the market. The first time she goes, she pauses to ask herself, “Will the market be safe today?” Reem then explains that the market is often the target of terrorist activity. The second time Reem goes to the market, a couple of chapters later, she once again pauses to ask, “Will it be safe today?” before reiterating the dangers of the market. The reiterations seems to imply that readers cannot retain information for longer than a couple of pages. Inevitably, the market becomes the dangerous place it’s worked up to be, and of course Reem doesn’t see it coming, despite being aware of the possibility.

Throughout the novel, characters changed so quickly and so frequently that I often found myself re-reading previous passages to make sure I understood them correctly. For instance, in one chapter, Reem checks the road for explosive devices while taking her children to school. She notes that her children are so used to the exercise they no longer ask her about it. In a later chapter, though, Reem pauses to assess a public area for danger (I’m being intentionally vague here to avoid spoilers) and her daughter asks why she stopped. Through Reem we discover that her daughter has only known the war, and that Reem’s older son has spent the majority of his life in the warzone. Still, her son doesn’t seem to comprehend the dangers of walking recklessly in the road and consorting with strangers. When his parents discuss who is fighting and why, it seems as if he is hearing this information for the first time, despite his being a teenager. While it is possible that he would be ignorant of the specifics of the war, Reem and Azzam (her husband) discuss the war so frequently I find it hard to believe their son hasn’t learned anything about it during his lifetime.

Perhaps the thing I found most appalling about the book was the blatant political agenda. We get it; the war in Iraq ruined people’s lives. Show us, don’t tell us. The characters repeated some version of the phrase “things were better before the Americans came” ad nauseum. Even as they repeated this mantra, they continued to detail the terrible reign of Saddam Hussein. This dual treatment leaves readers in limbo. On the one hand, readers are supposed to believe that the American occupation in Iraq ruined the lives of the Iraqi people. On the other hand, they are supposed to believe that Saddam Hussein was the one who ruined the lives of the Iraqi people. One gets the impression that Iraq would be better off with no governmental system, but history tells us that doesn’t work either.

Fortunately, Reem herself is a somewhat respectable character. She is depicted as a pious, loving wife and mother, who does everything she can to ensure the safety and relative comfort of her family, even if it means making sacrifices. Of all the characters, Reem seems the most human. She suffers grief, pain, and fear, but she also enjoys hope, joy, and thankfulness. Like the other characters, Reem’s character is deficient in the areas of dialogue and thought narration, but Hymas succeeded in creating a strong female Muslim leading character. Though Reem depends on her husband to provide an income for the family, she is neither oppressed by, subservient to, nor entirely dependent upon him. Reem makes it clear both to her family and to the reader that no matter what happens to her on Earth, she will always be able to turn to God.

I was excited to see some Islamic thought peppered throughout the book: why we pray, why we fast, why we (some of us) wear hijab. Regrettably, these aspects were dropped into the story, rather than woven in, and Hymas only touched on the basics without addressing the shades of meaning and variations in practice. In a book that spends so much time talking about Sunni/Shi’a conflict, discussing the differences would have been easy. While the differences aren’t exactly integral to the plot, having some idea why Reem’s family (who is Sunni) might be persecuted by her predominately Shi’a neighbors would have deepened the narrative. On some level, I’m glad the author didn’t attempt this; based on the shallow plot and poor characterization, I can tell he wouldn’t have done the topic justice.

Frankly, I’m glad I received this for free, in ebook format. The cover, title, and subject matter would have lured me into buying the book and I would have been frustrated I wasted my money. I cannot openly recommend this book because it has serious structural issues, but at the same time I’d like to recommend it to readers because it’s a book that deals with both women and Islam, and the world needs more of those narratives. Even horribly constructed narratives are welcome, because they encourage discussion. Hopefully, in the future, those narratives will be something worth reading.

I received a free copy of the H.M. Hymas’s The Prayer Rug from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

#Review: The Prayer Rug