Author: Rukhsana Khan
Ages: Young Adult
Characters of colour remain under-represented in mainstream literature; Muslim characters, even more so. To the outside world, the closed culture of Islamic societies remains an enigma - often misunderstood, too easily stereotyped. Pakistani-Canadian author Rukhsana Khan is one of the few writers of YA fiction today writing about ordinary Muslims and their everyday problems, demystifying that enigma for us, one book at a time. Through her novels, and picture books as diverse as Big Red Lollipop, King of the Skies and the haunting The Roses in my Carpets, she has led thousands of young readers into the lives of Muslim children, showing them the many ways we are all different, and yet, the same.
Wanting Mor, first published in 2009, won the Middle East Book Award for Youth Fiction, and is now available in an Indian imprint as part of Duckbill’s Not Our War series. It is one child’s account of struggling to survive harsh circumstances in the aftermath of the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. It also voices complex sentiments the’ free world’ has traditionally had trouble understanding – those of a devout Muslim resentful of so-called ‘American’ values (and the gender equality that goes with them) while willingly submitting to what seems like acute discrimination, in the culture of her choice. The book is all the more poignant for being based on the true story of a girl living in an orphanage the author is associated with.
Jameela is an illiterate girl in rural post-war Afghanistan , whose life falls apart after the death of her beloved Mor (Pushto for ‘mother’). She is then uprooted from the only home she has ever known and forced to follow her father to Kabul where he hopes to better his prospects. Things go even further downhill for her when he spends all their money on alcohol , and then rushes into a marriage with a well to do widow who treats her like a slave. Jameela toils in the house, endures hunger and humiliation, and struggles to please her stepmother. For her pains, she is abandoned in the marketplace by her own father. The kindness of strangers saves her, however, and Jameela eventually reaches an orphanage for girls where she finds refuge, companionship and an education. More significantly, a simple operation for her cleft palate finally frees her from having to hide her face from the world. But just as she contemplates building a life for herself, circumstances bring her father back into her life. Will Jameela have the courage to live her dreams?
The narrative style of the book (told in first person and the present tense, a device the author seems partial to) lends a touching immediacy to the story, and makes you feel the pain and loneliness Jameela suffers. The memory of Mor and the values she has instilled in Jameela, remain the mainstay of the child’s life. Mor's homily - If you can’t be beautiful, you should at least be good. People will appreciate that.- becomes the child's anthem, and it is heart breaking to see her throw her energies into housework, struggle not to give in to her anger, and cling to the rituals of prayer in the face of ever-increasing hardship.
Jameela could so easily have been written as a saintly do-gooder. It is to author Khan’s credit, that she lets her heroine be flawed and prickly, brimming with resentment one minute, grudgingly grateful the next, and always struggling with herself to be more like Mor. She burns with jealousy when her friend Soraya marries her step brother Masood, one of the few positive male characters in the book. Though she has herself been abandoned, Jameela finds it hard to empathize with children like Arwa, a clingy younger inmate of the orphanage. She is less than enamored of the American goodwill that she encounters at the orphanage, and distrustful of Christian missionaries. And while she is her own harshest critic, I couldn’t help but feel that she is far more judgmental of women than she is of men – the orphanage director who seems shamelessly forward with American men, girls who are careless with the rituals of prayer or their conduct outdoors, domineering women like her stepmother and Agha Akram’s wife who mange to manipulate their respective husbands into abandoning her. Despite her strained relationship with her father and his betrayal of her, she never stops yearning for his return – until, of course, he does, and brings her to the biggest decision of her young life.
The book’s stance on gender equality is likely to furrow a few brows, leaning as it does towards the conservative. The male characters in the book feel oddly undeveloped; all three (Jameela’s father, her stepbrother, the kindly Agha Akram who rescues her in the market) are written as weak, well meaning men who are controlled by their wives. Now all three have suffered the trauma of war, and Jameela’s father has clearly taken Mor’s death hard. Yet they are never given a chance to tell their story. “Men are supposed to be the caretakers of women, Jameela chillingly declares, ’ not the other way round.”
Jameela’s epiphany comes to her cloaked in betrayal and disappointment. She learns, the hard way, that she will have to fend for herself and make her own fate. She decides to embrace Mor’s homily, dedicating herself to a lifetime of service. For centuries now, girls across cultures have been conditioned into believing they can only be defined by physical beauty and/ or a selfless devotion to service, with no entitlement to the liberties boys are encouraged to take for granted. This conditioning is the very reason Jameela had remained illiterate, ashamed of her face and bound to the hearth, lacking even the sense to get the medical help that might have saved Mor. While I loved that she takes charge of her own life, I do wish she could have at least questioned the codes of conduct she chooses to bind herself in. But that is still a minor gripe - this is a book that had me hooked from page one, and is definitely on my re-read list for its compelling story and memorable heroine.
Image courtesy: Duckbill Books
I received a copy of this book from Duckbill for review purposes; the views expressed in this post, however, are entirely my own.