"Putting on hijab isn't the end of the journey. It's just the beginning of it," Amal, the narrator, says in the book. This brief statement summarizes the powerful lesson of this compelling, funny novel.
The novel begins as Amal is watching a Friends rerun and is inspired to wear hijab (the Muslim head scarf) when she sees Jennifer Aniston's carefree character get up and dance in a "hideous bridesmaid outfit" at her ex-boyfriend's wedding. This comical, worldy inspiration sets the stage for Amal's third term rollercoaster ride as an eleventh grader in a private, prestigious "institution" (as the principal Ms. Walsh like to call it).
Having gone to Muslim school up until the year before, Amal's decision to cover in hijab will prove a huge test of faith for her, especially since she spent first and second term at the school appearing normal...except for her long name: "Amal Mohamed Nasrullah Abdel-Hakim". (She says, "You can thank my father, paternal grandfather, and paternal great-grandfather for that one. The teachers labeled me slow in preschool because I was the last child to learn how to spell her name).
As I read, I laughed out loud and shook my head in recognition of how it feels to grow up Muslim in the West, especially as a teenager in school. The book is authentic in its representation of that experience, the ups and downs, the stereotypes, the harassment, and (ah!) the "good souls" that make you smile because they prove that there really are people (however rare they are) who are actually guided by good human sense when dealing with Muslim citizens, instead of CNN headlines on "Islamic" terrorists and the like.
Amal has to deal with normal teenage struggles, school, friends, and even a crush on a fellow classmate Adam, who seems to adore her too. Her relationship with her two Muslim friends brings to light scores of issues that Muslims battle everyday--in their homes and the world--in terms of stereotypes and drawing the line between Islam and culture.
The writing is witty, smooth, and enjoyable. I couldn't put it down once I picked it up. For the writing alone, the book deserves five stars.
I have but one reservation about the book, especially for Muslim readers looking for some inspiration as they seek solace in Western society, despite tons of setbacks:
Despite its obvious Islamic theme (the hijab), the book is definitely not a morale booster in the spiritual sense. As one reviewer commented, the central issues were cliche and stereotypical, but, most significantly, lots of them are not representative of the lifestyle of thousands of practicing Muslim youth living in the West.
Probably the most glaring contradiction is that the hijab is the central focus in the book but the narrator (and apparently the author) repeatedly wants Westerners to see it as "merely a piece of cloth" and not a significant spiritual statement that represents an Islamic lifestyle. This is like saying a Christian wants others to see the cross as merely two pieces of wood (or metal) hammered into the shape of a lowercase "t".
What's more is that the entire purpose of the hijab is completely lost in the book, that of covering one's beauty, as instructed in the Qur'an. Repeatedly, Amal does all she can to accentuate her lips, eyes, and face to make herself appealing, particularly for her "mad crush" Adam. She doesn't lower her gaze, displays no sense of modesty, and is completely at ease in male company, stopping short only of kissing or sleeping with him. This I couldn't relate to, and in fact it left me confused, wondering if the author was going a bit overboard to drum the "We're just like you!" mantra to non-Muslim readers.
Also, although the book was very authentic to the experiences of many Muslim youth, it is grossly inauthentic to hosts of others, especially those who can actually relate to Amal. In most cases, the Amals of the world do not come out as unscathed and "pure" as this narrator does, and in that way the experiences with her "mad crush" Adam bordered more on idealistic than realistic.
Nevertheless, as a novel, it is an excellent read. But if you're looking for a taste of the Muslim youth lifestyle in the West, this book is only scratching the surface and barely so, except for the obvious debunking of stereotypes of Muslims in the media. For the Muslim reader looking for an "emaan lifter", look elsewhere. You're more likely to want to go out on a date, watch Friends, dress like Jessica Simpson, and blast your music than to be inspired to say a single prayer or want to crack the Qur'an open.