Wednesday, February 10, 2010

REVIEW: The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf, by Mohja Kahf

The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf, by Mohja Kahf. Published 2006 by Carroll & Graf. Fiction.

The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf is a enjoyable and moving novel about growing up Muslim in Indiana of the 1970s. Khadra Shamy emigrated from Syria as a child with her parents; her family is very close and part of a conservative religious community including Khadra's African-American friends Hakim and Hanifa. The novel follows her life from adolescence to marriage to early midlife, from Indiana to the Middle East and back again as she sorts through questions of identity, religion and belonging.

I read Tangerine Scarf for my interfaith book club and I think that it was a great choice. It's accessible and provides a lot of cultural and religious information as well as some great characters and fodder for discussion. I expect our meeting next week will be lively and I found it more approachable than some of the older historical fiction we've read in the past.

I also found Tangerine Scarf to be bracingly honest- author Mohja Kahf doesn't sweeten Khadra for a non-Muslim audience, for, by example, giving her political opinions other than those she would most likely hold- even at the expense of (for me) robbing her of a little sympathy when it comes to her views on, for example, Israel. At one point Khadra forms a friendship with an Orthodox Jewish young woman and I had to cringe a little at some of her views even though they make sense given who she is. Khadra's discomfort with some aspects of mainstream American life and identity also struck me as honest and appropriate given the context in which she lives. At the same time, it also made sense to me that she and this young woman would find common ground, as she does with the Mormon family next door- all members of highly structured religions whose observance is as much a lifestyle as a matter of faith.

Having said that, I think Tangerine Scarf is also just a very appealing book about a decent, relatable young woman who deals with questions common to many:
But what if she'd been just a regular Muslim girl trying to make her way through the obstacle course-through the impossible, contradictory hopes the Muslim community had for her, and the infuriating, confining, assumptions the Americans put on her? A girl looking for a way to be, just be, outside that tug-of-war?
That tug-of-war is the center of the book, as Khadra moves between cultures, lifestyles and the different people in her life- who also ask tough questions of themselves. Kahf shows that no one's life is simple, however it may seem from the outside. I particularly liked how Kahf portrays the diversity in the Muslim world and while the book has obvious appeal to those interested in Islam it would also appeal to readers who enjoy character-driven coming-of-age stories with a strong point of view and clear focus. I think young adult readers would also enjoy getting to know Khadra and empathize with her questions about herself and her place in the world. In the end Tangerine Scarf grows into a moving portrait of a self-realization and self-actualization as Khadra learns to love life and herself and begins to balance it all out.


FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.