Written by Kim Anteau
McElderry Books, 2007, 192 pp.
Pakistani teen Nadira thinks she has nothing left to protect as her face is scarred and honor “soiled” after a brutal levying of village justice in contemporary Pakistan. A misdeed by one of her older brothers leads to a brutal beating and the loss of her virginity. Interestingly the older brothers are barely mentioned and they do not come to the rescue of the female family members or their youngest brother. Nadira later conceals her gender when slave smugglers take her youngest brother, Umar, and she follows him. Her purpose is to find an illegal camp for “camel kids,” boys trained as jockeys in the dangerous sport of camel racing. She is hopeful of reuniting with her brother and adapts to her new environment disguised as a boy as she tries to find him. The setting initially includes two tiers of Pakistani society: the very rich and the very poor. Nadira comes to the city to hide and to work in a rich household. It is through this household that she decides to go to another country to find her younger brother. In the middle of the story the setting changes completely to an arid desert scene where Nadira becomes a leader of the other young boys as a male, insinuating that she could never be a leader as a girl.
This story is written in an interesting manner as a first person narrative, a structure that lends the story credibility for the audience. The story is expressed as a diary that the sister writes for her youngest brother referring time and time again to her misfortune and their present predicament as she undertakes the journey to find him. Both Umar and Nadira were given diaries by their deceased father–a red one for the brother with the words “Learn Wisely” and a green one for Nadira which says, “Remember Shahrazad.” It is Nadira who fills out both diaries as the story progresses.
This story feeds several stereotypes which are generated through presumptions and assumptions about the female figure in Muslim third-world countries. The use of the bold red color for a boy and the subdued green color for a girl in the diaries are examples of such assumptions as are the words written within them. Nadira is advised to follow Shahrazad, the mythological queen from the Alif Layla tales, who tricked her husband/king and remained alive through her imagination and stories rather than her wisdom. Umar is advised to “wisely learn,” an assumption that only a boy can undertake both of these actions within patriarchal societies. The Shahrazad metaphor is embedded within the story; wherever Nadira goes and in whatever situation she finds herself, the stories she weaves are her savior. As she closes the first entry in the diary, she says, “I dream of the two of us on the magic carpet, will you? We are flying far far from here” (p. 6). Somehow Muslims never seem to throw off the Aladdin/magic carpet image. Another problem is a reference to the King as holder of a recipe for “masala chai,” a tea that heals all ills. The story of the King is presented as if it is recent and ‘masala chai’ as a contemporary drink in Pakistan. Black tea/chai is a common drink in contemporary Pakistan, but not masala chai.
Nadira and her family are referred to as ‘small people’ who live in a ‘tiny house,’ with Nadira having ‘tiny hands’ so that the smallest bangle fits her hands rather than the large hands of the rich. Nadira works for a rich household but receives no pleasurable objects like bangles, only hand-me-down clothes. The author refers to Nadira’s mother as wearing silk saris in the village and when Nadira is provided with the opportunity to choose from hand-me-downs she picks up saris for her mother. A sari is a dress worn mainly in India or rich Pakistani households for formal occasions, so it would be culturally inaccurate to portray saris as regular dress for Pakistani villagers.
Ninety-seven per cent of Pakistanis are Muslims and religion has a presence in the everyday lives of the people, but there is no mention of the practice of the religion within this story. The internal voice of Nadira in the front matter of the book articulates the third world woman’s emotional and physical dependence on male family members and their oppression at men’s hands: “I will never have a husband, but I have the best brother in the world, your breath on my cheek–on my scar–felt like the breath of Allah.” This quote exemplifies an often misunderstood concept by western audiences of Pakistani/Muslim culture. By saying that it felt like “breath of Allah” the author is giving a physical persona to Allah/God which is against Muslim beliefs. Another misconception is found on page 52 where there is a reference to the shooting star. Nadira’s father explains this phenomenon as lost children who fall to the earth. Within Islam and Pakistani culture, a shooting star is viewed as a stone cast by angels to scare away the devil when it gets too close to paradise. When Muslims see a shooting star, they are supposed to say, ‘There is no power greater than that of Allah/God.”
The heroine’s name of ‘Nadira’ derives from Nadir meaning the lowest point, while Nadera is a common name for Muslims and means ‘rare’ or ‘dear.’ The crescent as a symbol is used throughout the book, especially to signify the scar left on Nadira’s face. The crescent is a symbol of Islam and is accepted as a new beginning or a rebirth. Also it faces the right side rather than the one in the book that is almost a horseshoe shape, facing down. To take a religiously revered symbol and project it in such a manner reflects a lack of research.
Nadira does get a marriage proposal at the end of the story from a young man who works as a gardener in the same rich household and has a limp. He is portrayed as having lived most of his life in England with a rich aunt. After breaking his leg in an accidental fall from a horse, the aunt loses interest in him. The author seems to be inferring that it was his life in England that brought on the proposal as no illiterate, backward Pakistani Muslim would accept her.
The story projects Nadira as “spoiled goods,” reflecting a view of women as having an object-like nature in the society: a thing rather than a living breathing person. The plot device of a third world Muslim female figure changing gender to become male in order to take action in a Muslim society is a common trend in other books, such as the Breadwinner Trilogy by Deborah Ellis. The cover of this book has Nadira as a veiled young girl who is not looking directly at the audience. The image of a veiled woman observing ‘purdah’ is read by most Westerners as synonymous with oppression and the rape of innocents. Some of the generalizations that are often taken as facts about third world Muslim females are that she has ‘needs’ and ‘problems,’ but not ‘choice.’ As soon as Nadira ‘chooses’ to undertake the journey to save her brother and later declines the marriage proposal, she becomes a living, breathing, heroine, portrayed as unlike the norm within the Pakistani society for Western audiences. It is through the Western standards of feminine identity/agency and societal/patriarchal oppression that each of the characters within many books portraying Muslims is weighed.
The author is an American who lives in the Pacific Northwest. She has never visited Pakistan. There is a marked absence of an endnote or author notes that would have provided a better understanding of the basis from which the author created this story. This type of story about sexual oppression and slavery is common in books set in the Middle East and Pakistan. If Amazon.com is explored with key words like ‘oppression of women,’ ‘slavery’ and ‘Muslim women,’ many titles pop up, mostly written by western women, some claiming to be insiders to the Muslim cultures they are writing about. The author does articulate her gratitude at the beginning of the book saying, “Thanks to Asma Yasmine Shafi for answering my questions about a girl’s life in Pakistan.” She does not provide further details about the content of the conversation, as if merely placing this at the beginning of the novel explains that all within the tale is true.
Buying and selling humans and sexual violence are an integral, albeit, subliminal, part of this story. For example, Nadira observes that, “the “older boys attacked the smaller boys the way those men in the village attacked me.” The author takes these issues and places them front and center without concrete evidence and research. Pakistan, being a Muslim country, does not allow “village justice” or the gang rape of a young innocent girl for any reason. The author’s efforts to adapt the plot to adhere to the broadest audience as to the age range results in vague, puzzling language about the incidents. Sympathy for its imaginative, empowered heroine and connections to real-world exploitation may leave teens within the U.S. outraged.
The same thematic thread of poverty is found in Beneath My Mother’s Feet (2007) by Amjad Qamar. Patricia McCormick depicts buying and selling of humans in Sold (2006), while the Shabanu Trilogy (Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind, Havlei, and The House of Djinn) by Suzanne Fisher Staples, and Deborah Ellis’s Breadwinner Trilogy (The Breadwinner, Parvana’s Journey, and Mud City) take up the issues of female oppression in present day Islamic patriarchal societies.
Seemi Aziz, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, OK