Afaf Rahman is the principal of the Nurrideen School in Tempest, Illinois, who must lead this all-girls’ faith school through the hostility of its surrounding community, who are wary of immigrants in their neighbourhood, and the parents of the pupils who fear their children are being led astray by their Western education.
It’s Tuesday morning and one of the mothers calls Afaf to complain about the state-approved text she is teaching them, The Great Gatsby, presumably because of the decadent parties that are featured in the book: “The state of Illinois is not raising my daughter to be a proper muslimah, Ms Rahman,” she says.
As Afaf muses over a wealth of similar complaints, she is confronted with a more urgent issue: The school is targeted by a radicalised shooter, a storyline which reflects a growing trend in popular culture to explore right-wing terror attacks, rather than the Islamic fundamentalist suicide bomber plot which has been exhausted, including in TV series such as Homeland.
The attack sends Afaf through a kaleidoscope of memories through which the reader discovers how and why Afaf is the woman she is today, with a particular focus on her time at school as a Palestinian immigrant, caught between her own culture, the one she is growing up in, and how outsiders perceive and treat her.
Here lies the biggest drawback to this novel, which is otherwise a beautifully written and fascinating portrait of life as an American, Muslim immigrant. Although we understand more about Afaf’s motivations and learn why she makes certain life choices by understanding her childhood, the continuous dive back into Afaf’s past, rather than her life now, feels frustrating and makes the book a slow burn.
This book is on the shortlist for the Palestine Book Awards 2021, please click here to read the full review on the Palestine book awards site.