Where I Belong
Written by Gillian Cross
Holiday House, 2011, 244 pp.
Set in London and Somalia, this book wrestles with issues of identity, trust, and family. In the hot historicized desert of Somalia, Mahmoud is kidnapped and held for a ten thousand-dollar ransom. His older sister, Khadija, is in London, sent there as a savior of her family in Somalia. Khadijah’s identity that she is Qarsoon “the Hidden One,” the face of renowned fashion designer Sandy Dexter’s latest collection, is discovered by her people and they are the ones who kidnap her brother. The main concern is Khadijah’s dilemma about who she can trust to help her as she prepares to appear publically on the Fashion Week runway. She can only earn the ransom money to save her brother’s life by being part of an entourage that travels to “backward” Somalia to be part of the fashion show and it is Sandy who takes things into her own hands and saves not only Mahmood but also Khadijah and her “brother” Abdi.
Cross’s book has three protagonists and each chapter is dedicated to the personal dialogue of one of the three characters. The third character is that of Freya, daughter of the designer, Sandy. It is Freya and her thoughts and life that provide the necessary comparison between the two Somali characters and the Caucasian family. Cross uses Freya’s character to provide connections for Western audiences. It is also, ironically, the chapters dedicated to Freya that provide a space for Khadija’s Somali brother to put his oppressed life and circumstances as a filter to the Western audience. Khadijah is a young Somali girl sent to England to be part of a family she does not know. She has to take on an entirely new identity and name as she leaves her family and beloved younger brother in Somalia. The legal issues of sending a girl as a daughter and sister of a family she is not related to are not mentioned in the book. She is sent as a savior of her family who is poor and stuck in the violent circumstances in Somalia. Her family is fighting poverty, disease and bandits in their day-to-day lives–“Concentrate on your education. That’s what my father said when he sent me away. So you can earn a good living and help us all” (p. 34). She poses as a daughter and sister of her ‘new’ family while her heart is with her own family in Somalia. Khadijah is spotted by a famous clothes designer who wants to cast her as a model to launch her new line inspired by Somalia. She is given another identity as a model: Qarsoon meaning “hidden.” So by this point in the story ‘Khadija’ has three identities to juggle:
They wanted to know my family and where I belonged, and when they found out I wasn’t going to say, I knew what they were thinking. Someone who won’t tell those things surely has a secret to hide. But if I had been allowed to tell them, which name would I have use? Khadija Ahmed Musa? Geri? Or my real name which would give away everything? Maybe it was simpler to say, I am Qarsoon. (p.195)
The main concern throughout the story is the secrecy that they have to maintain—“Qarsoon, the hidden one,” veiled and hidden. Somali bandits find out about her good fortune and abduct her real brother in Somalia for ransom. It is her own people in England and Somalia who betray her for their own fortune. These bandits initially use her exposure and use of her body as a model as the reason for their actions, and they later provide an explanation of their actions as a way of getting money for Somalia and its people. The grand finale is set in the dramatic fashion show in Somalia where Khadijah is ‘unveiled’ along with gun wielding Somali bandits leading to a showdown. All are caught in real time as the event is being streamed live to England and the U.S. as fashion capitals of the world.
The male Somali character Abdi is living in England with his mother and sibling. Abdi is Khadijah’s ‘brother’ in her new family and a co-protagonist in the story. He is told and believes that his father is dead. His family is well connected to the strong Somali families living around his family in England. He is an a-typical Somali teenager who is responsible as he is the ‘man’ in the household because of the father’s absence. He accepts a new ‘sister’ easily and is a male support to Khadijah throughout her changing circumstances. He knows himself as a Somali but has never visited his homeland. Cross provides her world-view on Somalia through a young Abdi’s thoughts when he thinks of Somalia:
SOMALIA. There! My father would say. That is where you belong. I would look down at the jagged, angled shape and think of warlords and pirates. Kids strolling down the streets with AK-47’s over their shoulders. Battle wagons with submachine guns mounted in the back, and men haggling over ammunition at the arms market in Mogadishu. (p. 3)
In Battle Hill when people talked about Somalia they went on about the big skies and huge empty spaces—as if emptiness was something to be proud of. I just didn’t get it. When we drove away from Galkayo, I felt as though we were dropping out of the world. What was it like living here all the time? Looking after goats like those boys we’d pass on the road? It was impossible to imagine. What did they do about music? Where did they meet their friends? (p. 192)
The reality of Somali life seems alien to him except for his background knowledge, until he goes there for the fashion show and is disillusioned by the land and people as he discovers that his father is alive as the head of the bandits. He realizes that he belongs in England not Somalia. Abdi’s struggle is brought to life when Khadijah says, “he could have chosen to go with his father…he could have stayed in Somalia forever. But he didn’t. He knows where he belongs, I thought. For a second, I almost envied him” (p. 242)
The exotic paradigm at the heart of Where I Belong reinforces stereotypes of African Muslims. The impression of exoticism stems not only from the image on the cover but also from the traditions described within the book, the inclusion of words from languages other than English hint at the mental structures of people from another culture (Bradford, 2007; Aziz, 2011). The depiction of the exotic is more than an attention device to capture readers, it establishes the vital ‘otherness’ of the people depicted and suggests that they suffer from a deficiency of the kind of subjective agency assumed as an accepted mode of behavior in the West. The same trends can be found in other books about Africa and Northern Africa e.g. Nai’ma Robert’s (2009) From Somalia with Love and Adowa Badoe’s (2010) Between Sisters.
Bradford, C. (2007). Representing Islam: female subjects in Suzanne Fisher Staples’s novels. Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, Vol 32 (1), 47-17.
Aziz, S. (2011). Issues within picturebooks representing Pakistan and Afghanistan. Childhood Education: International Focus Issue, Vol. 87 (6), 444-445.
Seemi Aziz, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, OK