Rummanah Aasi
  The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf by Mohja Kahf was recommended to me by my dad or more accurately-one of my dad's student had recommended it to him, but since my dad doesn't read "novels", he passed it on to me. I wasn't in the mood to read a preachy book and thus had the title sitting on my shelf for about five years until I put in my list of top 10 books I resolved to read in 2011. I'm glad that I can finally pull it off from my bookshelf, but I can't seem to shake off my frustration with the title.

Description: Khadra Shamy recalls what it was like growing up as a Syrian Muslim American during the 1970s in Indianapolis, Indiana. Her devout parents raise Khadra and her older brother, Eyad, to be observant of Islamic customs. As Khadra grows older, she reaches a cultural crossroad that forces her to question what it means to be "Muslim", "Syrian" or "American."

Review: The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf is a very ambitious novel that seems to tackle all the important complex issues tied to identity: religion, race, and politics. For Muslim Americans (such as me), the book forces them to see the rising problems in the Islamic community that are still relevant today. For those who are not familiar with Islam, the book is an eye opening experience of looking at America from a "foreigner's" point of view. Regardless from what perspective you are reading the book, it is undeniable that the issues it brings up is important, timely, and much needed, however; I can't honestly recommend it without some reservations.
 I had a really hard time reading this book. It's not that the language or themes were beyond my comprehension, but rather I found the writing and editing to be so poorly done. The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf has no plot, at least in the way we traditionally think of plot (beginning, middle, end or events leading to a climax and a resolution- depending on how you define plot). The prologue establishes our protagonist, Khadra, on a trip back home to Indianapolis, Indiana for a project she has to do for work. She has some trepidations in coming back home. The book immediately goes back in time to her childhood through adulthood with abrupt transitions to the present. There are large plot holes in the novel, particularly with the books timeline. In fact by the last few chapters of the story, I completely forgot Khadra was on a trip at all because I didn't know what she was doing in the present.
  In addition to the plot holes, there is an inconsistency with the translations of important Arabic phrases that are used throughout the book. While I have background knowledge of Islam, I did not have a problem understanding the terms, however, those who are not familiar with the Islamic faith could easily get confused and miss out its significance. I don't consider myself a lazy reader who is not willing to look up information in order to understand a book nor do I feel that an author needs to spoon feed me the information in order to enjoy his/her novel, but I do strongly believe there needs to be some context in which phrases are used. The author doesn't give any context clues nor a glossary, but only a haphazardly thrown bibliography of books that influenced her writing.
  Along with the book's disorganization, I did not feel there was any character growth for the characters. Kahf throws in characters right and left as if she's a chef preparing a complex dish. Characters disappear without leaving any impression on the reader. I didn't like Khadra at all. For the first half of the book, I found her to be insulting and condescending. She sees religion in its most puritanical form and those who don't follow her rules are deemed as unobservant and are "going to hell". While the book is a coming of age novel and most novels in this genre show the protagonist question authority and go on a quest to find their own identity, Khadra does neither for the first 300 pages. She follows the beliefs that her parents taught her blindly and absolutely. It is not until her trip to a politically charged Syria, does she reconsider her beliefs and only then her epiphany is only about 5 pages, which I found very hard to digest and believe.
 While the book addresses important issues such as gender equality, how one interprets religion, and tolerance, it superficially addresses them. One can argue that the book isn't really a novel with a message, but rather an expository piece that shows how fractured the Muslim community is in terms of what constitutes a Muslim identity and what is the correct way to interpret Islam in the 21st century. In that case, I can't help but think the book succeeds in this aspect only by the stereotypes it presents to the reader. 
 I appreciate the author's attempt in exploring the identity of a Muslim American, which has been routinely questioned by those who are first generation Muslim Americans (including myself). For most of us, our parents have raised us to follow Islam and the Islamic code the way they have been taught by their elders, however, things get murky when you live in a secular society like America (and that's not always a bad thing). Books like The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf that explores the identity crisis of Muslim Americans are desperately needed and I think book is in the right direction. Some readers may think the book is poignant and a great choice for book discussions, but it's definitely not for me.


Rating: 2 stars

Words of Caution: There is strong language in the book including racial slurs. There is also allusions to rape and murder. Recommended to mature teens and adults only. For those readers who are unfamiliar with Islam, I would highly suggest you read some introductory materials to gain some background knowledge first before reading this book.

If you like this book try: The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
4 Responses
  1. Alison Says:

    That's too bad that this one didn't quite work out. One thing that's always hard is discussing religious concepts and culture without making it seem like a textbook but also not failing to explain things. I guess it depends on who the author's intended audience is. Are there other books about Muslim Americans that you'd recommend?


  2. Thank you for posting this review and connecting it to the Middle East Reading Challenge. What a shame it's not good; the storyline sounds like it has such potential!


  3. Jenny Says:

    While I really like the idea of seeing America through as you said a "foreigner's" point of view, the lack of character growth and the plot holes are a big problem for me. I like to get attached to characters and I like to know what's going on when I'm reading, so I will be passing on this one:)


  4. Alison: I also pondered who the audience was for the book and I'm still not sure. I thought the "American Muslim Handbook for Teens" was well done. As for adults, I haven't read much to recommend them which is why I chose to do the Middle East Reading Challenge. I hope to read more!

    Helen: I know! I was a bit excited to read the blurb but was completely let down when I started reading it. I had to force myself to finish it.

    Jenny: You're not missing out on much.


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