Worth Reading: The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf

After our review of Boy vs. Girl, a couple readers asked for MMW’s thoughts on The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf.  Having really enjoyed the book when I read it last summer, I was happy to oblige! Beware: minor spoiler alerts!

The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf, Mohja KahfWritten by Mohja Kahf, The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf tells the story of Khadra Shamy, a Syrian-American woman returning to her hometown of Indianapolis for the first time in several years.  Most of the novel looks back to her childhood and early adulthood during the 1970s and 1980s, as she negotiates questions of religion, identity, racism, and belonging.  Interspersed with this is her return to the community at the age of 28 as a magazine photographer doing a story on minority religious communities in America.

Covering a long time span and a variety of geographic locations, the novel follows Khadra’s religious paths, from being the daughter of a Dawah Center worker, through a “surge of religious austerity” in her early teens, a “neoclassical phase” of traditional learning as she gets older, a sense of disillusionment and uncertainty as she comes to question the monolithic image of Islam she grew up with, and ultimately a reconciliation of sorts as she comes to feel more comfortable in her own religious path while appreciating the community where she was raised.

The novel also ties in an impressive range of political issues, reflected in local community relations (Sunni-Shi’a tensions within the Muslim community, and KKK violence and other racism directed at the Muslim community from some others in the city) as well as international issues (the Iranian revolution, the occupation of Palestine, the dictatorship in Syria, etc.)

I loved reading this book.  There’s something particularly lovely about reading a novel with so many resonating experiences.  Many of these, being specific to the experience of being Muslim in North America, are rarely represented in literature, and even more rarely represented in literature that’s actually any good.  There were several moments that really grabbed me or even made me laugh out loud, not so much because of their humor (although there was plenty of that too), but just because of how true they felt.  Quotes at the beginning of each chapter – from sources as diverse as scientific writing on insects, historical writing about Indiana, Qur’anic citations, and mystic poetry – add extra thought-provoking moments to the book.

Kahf’s writing is engaging, real and honest, and often very funny.   We can feel the young Khadra’s confusion over the meanings of Muslim and American identity as she encounters people who challenge her conceptions of both, and an older Khadra’s angst as she battles Muslims who exclude her or demean her because she’s a woman, despite her earnest quoting of religious principles establishing women’s rights in Islam.

Khadra’s experience of hajj is beautifully and poignantly described; the Kaaba, a Lady, is their Hostess:

Everything was ceaseless motion around the Lady of the Night, and the Lady was absolutely still.  She was Sakina, the serenity within the whirl.  Imagine, Khadra thought, looking at the massive tides of pilgrims around the Kaba, these circles get bigger and bigger, as people all over Mecca face here to pray, then all over the world, even as far as America, wave after wave of people, in concentric circles going all around the earth, and I am here at the centre of all that. Khadra was a little stunned, and then she was taken up swirling too, and her mother was pleading, “Hold onto Jihad [Khadra’s younger brother]!  Hold him tight!”and her father was calling, “Stay with me!  Stay with me!” And they were off, part of the sea.

The euphoria of this moment, however, is followed by Khadra’s shame at being arrested by Saudi police for going out alone to pray fajr at a nearby mosque (“Women here don’t go to the mosque,” she is told), and later by a sexual assault by a young man who assumes that, as an “American,” she must be open to sexual activity.  This becomes one of many events to challenge Khadra’s ideas of who Muslims are, and of who she is.

As the novel progresses, these ideas are increasingly called into question, and Khadra comes to resist the safe rigidity in which she was brought up.  Her decision to have an abortion – within a time period that she understands as Islamically permissible – not only breaks up her marriage but leads to a distancing from her family and community.  She travels to Syria, where she learns from her great-aunt about her family’s history, and from a poet about the need for introspection.  From an aunt and uncle who remain in Syria, Khadra learns a kind of appreciation for her parents and for their decision to move to America, a country she only tentatively understands as home.

She returns to America but makes her home in Philadelphia, where she studies photography and maintains some distance from her family.  Only after several years is she able to return, and realizes that she can’t simply dismiss the people that she grew up with, however much she disagrees with them. I appreciated that this wasn’t a story about Khadra freeing herself from her oppressive Muslim surroundings, but rather one of her coming to feel comfortable with complexity and contradictions, loving this community despite the ways that they may disagree and even hurt each other.

But after a long path to get where she is by the book’s end, the strong sense of having finally figured things out and having arrived somewhere more permanent than the “phases” she went through at earlier moments seems to close things off somewhat. Although Khadra rejects the judgmental attitudes of both her religious and her non-religious peers, there was a sense that her development was superior to everyone else’s.  This can itself be read as a kind of judgment, as if her path is necessarily better or more self-reflective than theirs.  It would have been nice to see processes of introspection and personal religious development that led in other directions as well, or some kind of awareness that Khadra’s own perspectives might continue to evolve.

The other issue I had with the book was that it did feel somewhat didactic (and even cheesy) at times, and there were moments where it felt as if each of the characters was coming up only to make a specific point: the secular feminist Pakistani friend illustrates the kind of judgmental reactions that even non-religious people can have, and the Iranian roommate who experienced horrific violence committed by the “Islamic” government that Khadra once celebrated teaches us the extent of the cruelty that some Muslims can commit in the name of Islam.  These characters themselves weren’t unrealistic (I’m sure I could pull together an equally eclectic list of people I’ve met in real life), but as the novel went on, it seemed at times that we were being shown character after character so that the book could convey as many interesting and poignant moments as possible – which, at 441 pages, amounts to quite a bit.

That aside, however, I really enjoyed the book, probably more than any of the other novels that I’ve reviewed for MMW.  It’s interesting and thought provoking, yet easy to read, and manages to be both funny and touching while making points about politics, identity, and religion.  This is a book that I would definitely recommend, not only because there aren’t a lot of books on Muslims and this is the best we can get, but because it’s genuinely good, alhamdulillah.

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  • http://www.StunningHijab StunningHijab

    “Khadra’s shame at being arrested by Saudi police for going out alone to pray fajr at a nearby mosque (“Women here don’t go to the mosque,” she is told).”

    Wow, I had no idea.

    “sexual assault by a young man who assumes that, as an “American,” she must be open to sexual activity.”

    Just speechless.

    The book sounds very interesting. Thank you so much for sharing.

    Warm Regards,

  • Aliya

    Yay! I’ve been waiting for MMW’s review of this book for ages! I bought it in a bookstore a couple days after I moved away to college, and my reaction was pretty much exactly the same as yours re: this statement:

    “There’s something particularly lovely about reading a novel with so many resonating experiences. Many of these, being specific to the experience of being Muslim in North America, are rarely represented in literature, and even more rarely represented in literature that’s actually any good. There were several moments that really grabbed me or even made me laugh out loud, not so much because of their humor (although there was plenty of that too), but just because of how true they felt. ”

    I kept on finding these moments that were mirrored in my own life growing up in a Muslim community, and I loved it. My only criticism with the book is the same as yours–I wish more flexibility had been shown with Khadra’s path in the end. And of course, since I really like my ends to be tied up, I wish we did have some finality with her and that guy she grew up with (forgetting his name right now.)

    thanks for the review! now if only I could get my copy back from the person I lent it to for a re-read…

  • http://www.examiner.com/family-in-new-york/rahela-choudhury RCHOUDH

    I thought Kahf did a really great job vividly describing life for Muslims in America particularly during the 1970′s, 80′s, and 90′s. Her descriptions brought back alot of wonderful memories and some of what she described I could even relate to now! And I liked that she tries hard to stay away from one-dimensional stereotypes when describing all her characters, who were an amazing mix of races and ethnicities. And she does a really good job presenting a variety of complex social/political issues.

    With that said my only issue with her main character Khadra was that her final stance towards Islam in the end was somewhat confusing. And I agree with Aliya Kahf should have done a better job wrapping up loose ends (like with telling us whether Khadra and her childhood friend ever became a couple or not!) Maybe Kahf could do a sequel to her story with even more input regarding the Muslim community and the world in this post 9/11 world!

  • http://www.examiner.com/family-in-new-york/rahela-choudhury RCHOUDH

    BTW here’s an interesting thing I found out online, apparently Kahf was not too fond of the cover image above for her book, claiming that the model they used “looked drugged out”. What do you guys think? Is the cover image appropriate for the novel? I’ve since read how important cover images are towards drawing readers’ attention to a particular book; that’s why some publishers have been accused of inserting false covers to advertise their books, like using white models for the cover images even though the main character described within a given book is decidedly non-white.

  • http://www.examiner.com/family-in-new-york/rahela-choudhury RCHOUDH

    Oh oh I have a question for those of you who’ve read the book!
    ***spoiler alert***
    Does anyone know if Kahf ever alluded to the perpetrators behind the rape/murder of Zuhura? I’m thinking I might have missed that because at first I was certain it had to be KKK-violence but then I remember it being mentioned that shortly before her death Zuhura broke up with a young man in college who was devastated by the breakup. Was the author trying to say he may have been behind the crime?? Readers please let me know!

  • http://www.muslimmouse.blogspot.com AnonyMouse

    How ironic… I read The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf too, a while ago, and I thought that the quality of writing was amazing. No doubt about it, but Mohja Kahf can WRITE.

    But then.

    As Khadra changes, I was completely appalled and disappointed by a lot of what was said and implied. Like the being arrested in Saudi bit. That’s a flat-out lie. No woman in Saudi Arabia has ever been, to my knowledge, arrested because of going out to pray Fajr in the Masjid! I have (female) relatives in Saudi Arabia, and they have gone to Fajr in various masaajid without any issues.

    In the end, I did enjoy the book but strongly disagreed with its ending (because of my “conservative/ orthodox/ Salafi” values, as you might say)… it appeared to me that she had almost entirely rejected Islam and instead is replacing it with her own version. Again, my beliefs here are contradicted and while I’m not going to start frothing at the mouth about “filthy apostates” yadda yadda, I must admit that I found it very disappointing, especially since I actually loved Khadra’s character.

  • Krista

    Thanks everyone for the comments!

    @ StunningHijab: Yeah, that part of the book was pretty jarring. To be fair, it is fiction, and as AnonyMouse noted later, may be contradicted somewhat by other people’s experiences (although if I’m not mistaken, the reason she got arrested had more to do with the fact that she was out on her own than that she was going to pray.) That said, I’ve heard other stories of sexual harassment while on hajj, and I think that the overall point, that these places that we may see as the heart of Islam can definitely still have their own problems, is an important one.

    @ RCHOUDH: That’s interesting – I didn’t find Khadra’s ultimate stance towards Islam confusing at all. Maybe that’s just because it’s not too far from my own, which made it easy to relate to? It was certainly unorthodox in many ways, but I felt like she was still as strongly devoted to Islam as she had been at other points in the book, but simply that her understanding of what “Islam” was had changed. (See also my response to AnonyMouse below.)

    I also wasn’t bothered by the “loose ends” – to me, it seemed fairly obvious that the two were going to start getting to know each other better, and it even seemed pretty obvious to me that they were likely to end up together. I can totally see how that would have been annoying though if you were expecting something more clearly tied up!

    As for the cover – that’s funny about Kahf’s impression of her looking “drugged out” (although probably also incredibly frustrating.) I honestly hadn’t given the cover much thought, although I think you raise some good questions. Other readers, what are your thoughts?

    And that’s an interesting question about Zuhura’s murder. My impression too had been that it was a racist attack. I didn’t at all read the later part about the man who’d been interested in Zuhura as an indication that he was responsible for her death. I just saw it as a realisation by Khadra that Zuhura’s life hadn’t been exactly what she’d thought it was, that there were things about Zuhura that she hadn’t known.

    @ AnonyMouse: Thanks for sharing your comment. I appreciate you bringing in another side of the story about women in the mosque in Saudi.

    And I can definitely understand that you, and many others with religious understandings different from Khadra’s, would feel disappointed at the ending. As is probably clear from my post, that wasn’t my own reaction, but I’m sure there are a number of directions that she could have gone in that I would have felt really disappointed about, because she is a character you come to care about, and you want her to end up somewhere good!

    That said, I strongly disagree with your impression that she had “almost entirely rejected Islam.” I feel like Khadra still strongly identifies with Islam at the end of the novel, even if she might understand it differently than someone else does, and I think it’s problematic to assume that someone has “rejected” Islam simply because their understanding of Islam has changed. (I’m not arguing that she necessarily has the “right” understanding, but simply that she continues to have a strong connection to Islam, regardless of whether her understanding is a perfect one.)

  • http://www.examiner.com/family-in-new-york/rahela-choudhury RCHOUDH

    Thanks Krista for all your input!