From Somalia with Love (and Heavy-Handedness)

I was really looking forward to reading this book, as I still love young adult fiction and was intrigued to see what a Muslim take on the genre would read like.

From Somalia with Love focuses on 14-year-old Safia who lives with her Mum and two older brothers in the heart of the Somali community in East London. She spends most of her time with her extended family, writing poetry or with her best friend, Hamida. Then her father comes home after 12 years of being missing, presumed dead in Somalia, an event heavily sign-posted as earth shattering for the protagonist.

The book is an engaging and easy read. Safia’s voice as a 14-year-old is fairly convincing and the parts where she meets her father and her mother talks about their escape from Somalia are genuinely moving. However, the main facts of the plot are really Safia’s interactions with her “bad girl” cousin Firdous and it is here that the weaknesses in Robert’s story become apparent.

It is not unleashing major spoilers to tell you that in Robert-land, practicing Muslims are very good (and don’t go to cinemas, which is news to me) and non-practicing or “bad” Muslims aren’t. With the exception of Safia’s English teacher, non-Muslims barely exist in this story accept to prop up a few stereotypes. Talking of stereotypes, there is a convert in the story who talks of leaving behind mini skirts and partying–at the age of 15! As a convert herself, I thought Robert would have thought better then to air a trope used against many converts in real life. Likewise, I can understand why she, as a niqab wearer, would want to promote the image of a woman who wears niqab as independent and strong, but the scene this happens in feels very forced and incongruous.

That Robert takes such a monochromatic view of her characters is a disappointment. Firdous is actually written in a very convincing, descriptive and initially empathetic manner, it is a shame she is ultimately treated as a gone-astray archetype, when really far more condemnation should go the way of her supposedly pious family who leave her in the inadequate care of a auntie obviously struggling with mental illness (a fact which is treated with little compassion in the book).

The book talks of dilemmas, but by making the characters so one-dimensional, it doesn’t really resonate with reality in the way that Robert might hope. Even within groups of practicing Muslims, there are still many social issues and no, not just because of culture either, as the problems found in the neo-Salafi and neo-Traditionalist communities illustrate. Many young people don’t just leave the Muslim community because of the lure of the non-Muslim world, but because they may find the Muslim community itself a hostile place. There is also the fact of some who do good deeds in the mosque, but plenty of bad ones elsewhere. All this is a complexity many of Robert’s readers would be familiar with and Robert underestimates them and underachieves herself by not tackling them.

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  • Muslim woman

    I totally agree.Robert seems to be harbouring stereotypes of anyone outside of her framework of what a muslim is and regurgitating her single mindedness within her writing.

    Why would anyone especially a woman pen the beliefs of a patriarchal/ cultural Islam that swear by ridiculous notions that cinema going is non muslim and haram.

    On the one hand I can see her drive to promote the strong niqabi woman, but from what I have seen, heard and read from Robert their is a strong preaching slant towards the submissive woman and a dismissive attitude towards real strong muslim women such as Islamic Feminists. She self defeats. I found this book and her other books preachy at best and patronising at worst.

  • Khadijah

    I confess I haven’t read this book but I am surprised by the review. I have read Robert’s book “From My Sister’s Lips” and found it inspirational and comforting. As I result, I regularly give copies of it to sisters as gifts. I also read SISTERS magazine, of which she is the editor. Of both these sources I have never found her words to be preachy, or patronizing.

    As concerns the above review, I appreciate the fact that you have included positives as well as the many negatives concerning Robert’s writing – as we should never critisize a Muslim for being too close to the Deen.

    I am not of the opinion that going to the cinema is haraam. However, I have witnessed the kind of behaviour in the cinemas by young girls that I am sure can lead to haraam, if not there already.

    I find it very hard to believe that Naima Robert would dismiss strong women as The Mother’s of The Believers were all strong women, Aishah and Khadijah are clear examples. However, we must consider whether “submissive” is such a bad thing? In this day and age it has many negative connotations and unfortunately steers us away from the Allah’s laws and the Prophet’s s.a.w words of wisdom for young women.

    After all, isn’t Islam a religion of Submission??

    It takes a strong character to submit. Submission is not a weakness. Please remember that.

  • Lara A

    Salaam Alaikum,

    Thanks for the comments.

    Just to answer a few of your points Khadija. I too loved ‘From My Sisters Lips’. I thought it was a brilliant read and very diverse.I just really feel she’s playing it safe with her YA novels and it’s a shame because she could do so much more.

    As for submission, it’s important to note that we only submit to Allah the Almighty, not to men or men centric ideals.

  • Nadia

    I haven’t read the book so I won’t comment on the review, however, I am curious as to what Khadijah means by submissive not being a bad thing. Yes, Islam is the religion of submission, but submission to God, not men (or women) who profess to speak in His name. I think that unfortunately many Muslims today can’t distunguish the difference. I would appreciate it if she could clarify her meaning. Thanks.

  • Melinda

    Great analysis. It seems like some authors respond to lack of YA books about Muslims by turning up the heavy-handedness, replacing negative stereotypes about Muslims women with more – but “positive” — stereotypes.

  • AnonyMouse

    Just as you have found Robert’s book to be ‘preachy’ and ‘stereotypical,’ I’ve found MMW’s reviews of her books to display the exact same characteristics – taking to task the values that the author chooses to share with her readers.

    Perhaps you find that the mentality/ Islamic views and backgrounds that Robert’s writes from to be “extreme,” “patriarchal,” or “one dimensional,” but for myself and many, many others, we find it to be both appropriate and inspiring.

    I for one quite enjoyed “From Somalia, With Love.” For those of us who do believe in and try to practice Islam strongly, this book is great and has been widely shared with (and recommended by) young teens.
    You may find FSWL to be “one-dimensional,” but I would keep in mind that this book is meant for younger teens who don’t necessarily need an entire commentary on Islamic feminism or a criticism of the social ills found in Muslim communities. It’s really just meant to share a situation which many young Muslim girls can relate to, while also trying to impart a lesson about being a stronger Muslimah.

    I believe that Na’ima Robert is doing a brilliant job in successfully writing quality books of fiction for the younger Muslim crowd. The situations and characters she features are easily related to by many Muslim teens (and this isn’t just in “Robert-land” but rather even amongst many un-”Salafi” and un-”Traditionalits” crowds) and makes them feel that their lives aren’t weird and isolated struggles.
    In that, I feel that Robert has helped create a niche in both the Muslim scene and public literary circles. I hope that she and others will continue to provide such material for both younger and older Muslims!

    BTW,when you mention Firdous being left in the aunty’s care, you may have missed the part at the end where she is taken back by her family to be given another chance (because of Safia’s advice) :)

  • Anneke

    @ AnonyMouse, I am not sure that young teens do not need ‘the full picture’. I often find that young adult books/articles/tv shows etc., are often very belittling towards the intelligent capacity and empathy that teenagers have. Teens are capable to deal with complex situations and so on, and often have to in daily life. Even though I have not read this particular book, I have found that many (secular and non-secular) authors underestimate the capabilities of young adults, giving them nice ‘comfort’books, while it would be much more interesting to see, especially this agegroup, being challenged with bigger ‘ideas’, such as feminism. They are the critical thinkers of the future, but society seems to keep them very much ‘small’… I remember that I had to read literature at age 13, but nowadays adolescents have not read any ‘adult’ book at age 18! Says something about the current education system, but as well about the books on offer as well…

    Remember, they are used to reality and the bigger picture, they live it EVERY day!

  • Bree

    What strikes me is that she is a convert, but in a YA book gives little diversity. For other inspiring converts who may look to her book out of a sense of solidarity, they may be quite put off by that. A YA book is a good place for a light cultural introduction (as opposed to something academic or technical) for anyone. At least comment thread is showing her other books as less homogenous.

  • Muslim woman

    @ Khadijah : When the beautiful deen is twisted and reshaped into patriarchal portions, it becomes diluted and processed. Semantics is another – submission is to Allah – not to men, to Allah we are all equal souls. Submitting to MEN is BAD BAD BAD sisters.

    We must teach our muslim sisters and brothers to live respectfully with one and other not in a submission/dominance existence.

    Our Sisters in Islam were strong independent respected pious women, not women that were ‘conditionally’ respected if they behaved submissively to men.

    I have read Sisters Magazine and have been saddened by the patriarchally driven rhetoric displayed for women. Our sisters Khadijah and Aisha had no need for such magazines – they will have used their common sense and true Islam itself as guidance.

    I gather Naima’s books won’t be televised or on the big screen in the future due to the haraam nature of multimedia or so we are told to believe.

  • Muslim woman

    @ Anonymouse I strongly agree with the reviewer of this book, she has produced a fair and balanced review.

    There are also plenty of non Salafi non traditional muslims that disagree with the beliefs Naima has chosen to preach. However if you preach patriarchally twisted versions of Islam plenty will be ready to help with PR.

    Why underestimate and patronise young peoples, teach them about the real world and real, balanced Islamic values, not a fictionalised Islam.

  • Lara A

    Salaam Alaikum,

    Anonymouse: When I read this part of your comment: “For those of us who do believe in and try to practice Islam strongly, this book is great and has been widely shared with (and recommended by) young teens.”, my initial reaction was “Oh no.” Does not agreeing with a book make me a bad Muslim?

    Can we please not bring judgements of people’s religion or dedication to the deen into this. Not once have I questioned Na’ima bint Robert’s Islam. Nor would I ever choose to and may Allah keep me from slandering another Muslim in this way.

    I have to ask you to apologise for that statement, to me and anymone else reading this who felt slighted.

    Just to make this very clear to anyone reading this:

    You can call the source material bad, call the post bad, but DO NOT call anyone on this blog, writer or commenter, a bad Muslim.

    Anneka- I agree with you and I honestly think that Robert is perfectly capable of tackling these dilemmas and I’d look forward to her doing so.

  • AnonyMouse

    I do not feel that I in any way, shape, or form meant or implied that anyone who disagreed with this book is a bad Muslim! May Allah protect myself and all of us from judging each other’s faith.

    Rather, what I meant was that those of us who come from a similar “ideological” background as Na’ima, who share similar values and beliefs which others such as yourself may consider to be “strict”/ “Salafi”/ what-have-you, we are of those who find this book inspiring and helpful.

    In fact, I feel quite shocked and upset that you would take my words as claiming that you or anyone else on this blog is a “bad Muslim,” as that was not my intention in the least.

  • AnonyMouse

    “However if you preach patriarchally twisted versions of Islam plenty will be ready to help with PR.

    Why underestimate and patronise young peoples, teach them about the real world and real, balanced Islamic values, not a fictionalised Islam.”

    Hmmmmm, I find that statement to be quite offensive myself… “patriarchally twisted versions of Islam”? I personally believe very firmly in Islam being the cause of women’s liberation and empowerment. I am also a firm believer in women’s rights and fighting against the very patriarchy that you indirectly accuse me of supporting.

    In any case, wrt youth, I’m only twenty myself and have spent many years as part of a Muslim girl’s youth group and volunteering at youth-centered events.
    Teens don’t need to be talked down to or patronized, but neither do we need to be subjected to analyses of every facet of our community’s social ills. Tweens and younger teens, say from ages 11 – 14/15 (those who would most likely relate to this book), could care less. What they care about is the monumental problems *they* are facing at home and at school… and that’s what they want help with, guidance about.
    Situations such as are portrayed in Robert’s book FSWL, while they may seem “simplified,” are honestly the type of situations that these young teens are facing and relate to when they come across it in fiction. (This I know for a fact because when I got my copy, I lent it to the girls in my community and got their feedback/ reviews of it.) Far from feeling that the book portrayed stiff characters without much complexity, the majority of young readers felt that the book provided an accurate representation of the conflicts and emotions that they often feel.

    In the end, I guess we can all just agree to disagree :)

  • Muslim woman

    @ anonymouse: The comment “However if you preach patriarchally twisted versions of Islam plenty will be ready to help with PR.”

    Is not aimed at you or anyone directly it is written as the generic ‘you’ form. I stand firmly by the statement.

    If we agree to disagree so easily then we remove unity within the Ummah.

  • Krista

    Thanks Lara for this review! I love YA literature too, and it’s always great to see book reviews.

    @ Muslim woman: “If we agree to disagree so easily then we remove unity within the Ummah” – really? My own feeling is that agreeing to disagree is actually what *keeps* us united – that we’re able to see past small disagreements and continue to respect each other and see each other as fellow Muslims despite differences among us. I don’t think that unity necessitates sameness.

    @ AnonyMouse: I appreciate the perspective that you bring in your comments, because as you’ve acknowledged too, you’re often coming from a different approach from many of us MMW writers. I think it’s definitely important to acknowledge that some readers will find the book “appropriate and inspiring,” as you said, and that some readers will identify it, even if others are turned off. The value of finding characters that you can relate to is huge, and I’m glad that this book is fulfilling that role for some people (even if I suspect that my own reaction to it might be more like Lara’s – I’m interested to read it though!)

    I didn’t read your comments as saying that anyone was a “bad” Muslim exactly, but it did seem that you were suggesting there was only one particular way to “strongly” practice Islam, and that people who didn’t like this book aren’t doing it. I don’t know if that was just an unfortunate way of phrasing your comment, and I appreciate your later comment that it wasn’t your intention, but it’s worth watching out for wording like that (perhaps especially when similar wording *does* get used to paint certain people as bad Muslims.)

    As an overall comment, I think heavy-handedness ends up being a common feature in YA literature, especially in books that are trying to make a particular point, or to try to diversify the selection of books that are already out there – I agree with Melinda above that sometimes the characters end up being no less predictable or stereotypical, even if the negative stereotypes have been replaced with positive ones. I think that’s been a common criticism of a lot of the books we’ve reviewed on MMW, which is sad, because it means that a lot of the books about Muslims in the west (young adult books especially, although not only those) end up not being very good in their literary quality. And it’s hard, because we’re so starved for literature on those topics that we still get somewhat excited about it, even if it’s mediocre, and then it seems like there’s not a lot of incentive to raise the bar and call for higher standards in the quality of the book.

  • Muslim woman

    @ Krista Yes really. I’m not saying ‘unity neccessitates sameness’ as you frame it.
    ‘ easily’ is key to my statement, debate and discussion is a good thing upon which we mustn’t give up, we ALL gain new perspectives and understanding the more we discuss, which encourages long term unity.

  • Khadijah

    hmm, I submitted 2 comments here in response to everyone’s points and they seem to have disappeared

    • Fatemeh

      That they did. We’re a media criticism site with a focus on Muslim women. Your comment veered toward a religious discussion, which isn’t what we do here, and so it wasn’t published. But know that your comments weren’t the only ones to get left behind!

      Brush up on our Comment Moderation Policy for more info.

  • Fatemeh

    AAAND let’s all take a step back and get back to the review, shall we? I’m not approving any more comments that make assumptions about anyone’s Islam–that goes both for MMW writers and Na’ima B. Roberts. This is just getting into whose Islam is better, which is petty, ultimately in God’s hands, and especially unbecoming during Ramezan.

    Lara’s review focuses on how Na’ima’s characters preach a specific type of Islam that is often exclusionary, presenting one-dimensional characters that are either rosy-shiny-happy-perfect-Muslims or terrible-evil-no-good-non-Muslims. If you want to engage, read her book and battle with us on her texts.

  • Krista

    A couple general notes on comment moderation on this post, not to single out any one person in particular (and this applies also to the comments that will not be allowed through, so it’s not only about those people whose comments are visible here):

    First, as per our Comment Moderation Policy (, MMW is not a place for theological discussions or lectures.

    Second, please do not come here and make assumptions about MMW writers, who we are, and what kind of Muslims we are. We are a diverse group of Muslim women whose Islamic practice and beliefs vary significantly. Assumptions that we’re all “non-traditional,” “non-practising,” “bad Muslims,” etc.? Not only irrelevant and inappropriate, but also incorrect. (And even if they were correct, it’s not really anyone else’s business.) Particularly during this month of Ramadan, let’s try to assume the best about each other, instead of making totally baseless accusations.

    Now, back to discussing Lara’s post! Let’s keep things on topic.

  • Lara A

    Salaam Alaikum,

    So back to the post. I’m think about Anonymouse’s comments about Robert’s books being very popular with the teenagers she knows. I wonder if it is because in so much of the media, Muslims are baaaad and religious Muslims are really baaaad, so it’s nice and comforting to escape to a world where religious Muslims are good and lovely.

    What do you think?

  • Anneke

    @Lara A,

    I think this is the trend in young adult books, it has to be comforting, not too complex and very self assuring. It is okay to be of a different race, a girl, a model with body image issues and yes, it is okay to be a (traditional) Muslim girl as well. And when you put the book away, you are re-assured you are not so ‘weird’ anyway. (Which possibly one of the biggest concerns of young adults, to be thought of as weird/different) Even this amazing character, who you would like to be so much, has similar issues, and in the end, it is all fine.

    From my limited experience with islamic young adult books, they are not so different from their secular counter parts, similar issues, and in the end the main character sails through all what (young adult) life throws at her, and in such a exemplary manner, that you cannot but notice how great this person is.

    So is it a religious/muslim young adult book thing? No, sure not. It is just what non-young adults think what young adults need. Great examples in very black/white situations, which they just deal with in a close to perfect manner (except for that one misstep, which is actually not such a big deal anyway, because the main character completely repents over that close to the end of the book, and everyone forgives and forgets).

    A sad thing, according to me, and boring really, but it is popular.. But my question really is: do young adults really want this same story again and again? Do they not want to be provoked and learn to love a ‘bad character’?

    Anyway, just my thoughts and concerns, I guess…