I can’t remember how I first came across this book by S. K. Ali. I’m sitting here, trying to remember, and drawing a blank.
In any case, it’s a great YA romance that I highly recommend. The title comes from the names of the two main characters, Zayneb and Adam and it’s written in the form of their journal entries, with occasional interjections from the author for clarification and readability. Both of them are Muslim, and both of them, at different points in their lives, stumbled across an ancient Muslim manuscript called “The Marvels and Oddities of Existence” and it inspired both of them to keep a journal recording the marvels and oddities they observe in their own lives, years before they meet each other.
Zayneb is from the Midwest, she’s struggling with her anger and her Islamophobic teacher, Mr. Fencer, isn’t helping. He enjoys teaching his class about things like Muslim honor killings of women and using it to claim that Islam is a “culture” (he says it’s a culture, rather than a religion) that consistently represses women more than other cultures. When Zayneb pushes back, specifically on his insistence that Islam is a culture, rather than a religion, he argues that, because Islam governs people’s daily lives, that makes it a culture. Like any other religion is any different?
Zayneb fumes and her BFF, Cali, comforts her with a note saying #eatthemalive, which is an initiative their friend has been working on in which she gathers evidence on racists and bigots using their social media profiles. When she has enough evidence, she attacks them with their own ignorance.
Zayneb decides to draw a knife and fork around the hashtag, making the knife especially sharp, but hadn’t gotten around to drawing the fork yet when Fencer grabbed it, brought it to the principal, and used it to get Zayneb suspended, claiming she was threatening him.
Zayneb’s parents are furious and don’t understand why she can’t just keep her head down and stop making waves. Her actions also got her friend in trouble because Fencer researched the hashtag, realized they were on to him, scrubbed his social media presence, and had Zayneb’s friend removed from student council, claiming she was improperly stalking him on social media.
So all her hard work was undone and Zayneb got suspended and it looks like The Man” is about to win. Zayneb decides she needs to get control of her anger and learn to keep her head down, like her parents keep saying. If the book had ended with that message, I would have been seriously pissed.
Meanwhile, Adam is a Chinese Canadian, but his family currently lives in Doha in Qatar and he’s going to university in London. He and Zayneb first notice each other in Heathrow airport on their way to Doha. Zayneb’s maternal aunt lives in Doha, and they were going to visit her for spring break anyway, so since Zayneb got suspended for the week before break, her aunt invites her to come out a week early, although her parents stress that it is not a reward for getting suspended.
Zayneb has a layover in London and that’s where she and Adam first notice each other. She just notices that he’s cute, but he notices how busy she is, and that her hijab is the same shade of blue as the hunk of azurite he’s bringing home for his little sister’s rock collection. He also notices her Marvels and Oddities journal and tries to mention that he has one, too, but when he summons up the courage to tell her on the plane, she’s asleep, so he puts it off for most of the rest of the book.
Adam has just been diagnosed with MS, which is especially tough because his mom died of MS and the anniversary of her death is coming up and he’s afraid of how his dad will take the news.
Despite my determination to stick to comfort reads this year, somehow I keep ending up with books about dead moms. I will say that I can totally relate to Adam trying to dance around his dad’s grief while dealing with his own grief. Another moment that struck me was when he said that, not only that his mom was a great mom, but that she continues to be a great mom because when he needs advice, all he has to do is bring up her memory and think of what she would say. So true.
Anywho, so of course Zayneb and Adam get together, but not right away because it has to follow the usual romance plot. Zayneb and her friends continue to fight the good fight and even recruit a white girl named Naomi from Fencer’s class to their cause. Naomi had been studying domestic abuse and attacks on women in America, so when Fencer called out Islam for being sexist while completely skipping over Christianity’s very big problems with sexism, she recognized it for the BS it is, and it turned out that Zayneb speaking out in class gave her the courage to help resist Fencer.
I was glad the book took the time to point out that Zayneb speaking out did some good, although Zayneb was clearly jealous that Naomi and Cali were becoming closer while Zayneb was away. I can totally relate to the feeling of being replaced, but at the same time, I also got some romance vibes from Cali and Naomi. I’m not sure if that was intentional, not knowing Ali’s personal take on homosexuals. I’m assuming she’s very religious to write a book about two Muslim teenagers falling in love but refusing to even touch each other until after they’ve been married. (Spoiler alert, they get married and they get Fencer fired).
What did you read/listen to this week? Any other comfort reads that turned out to not be very comforting?