Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Book Review: Muslim Girl: A Coming of Age by Amani Al-Khatahtbeh

Muslim Girl is one of those things that seems a little hard to define. It started out as a web community and blog (on Livejournal! Remember Livejournal?), but these days, it's a Facebook page, a Twitter profile, a website, a hashtag, a column in magazines, a slogan on apparel... essentially, Muslim Girl is now a brand rather than any singular entity. It is the brainchild of Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, and now it is also a book - her autobiography.

From its scattershot, breathless introduction, to the very last page, the book zips from one thought to the next, largely without a linear path. This was a surprise: I'd vaguely expected an autobiography, possibly with a little politics and a dollop of lifestyle stuff for young female Muslims (which is more or less what I perceive Muslimgirl.com to be), but generally following the linear route that autobiographies tend to take. Like pretty much every expectation I had about the book, this was not the case.

The introduction sums up the essence of the Muslim Girl project. The first sentence:
"I'm kind of playing the game right now," I told Contessa Gayles in the bathroom of Muslim Girl's overpriced studio in Brooklyn, New York.

Then, after the name dropping (who is Contessa Gayles? Never heard of the woman) a brisk tour of post-millennium history and some of the things that sent shockwaves around Muslim communities in the West  (9/11, France's headscarf ban, the Iraq War and American atrocities against Iraqis, Trump),  followed by the final paragraph which sums up the Muslim Girl media phenomenon:
I think we've become starved for people to actually listen to us. We've become so desperate to hear our own voices above all the white noise that we have willfully compromised and repackaged our narratives to make them palatable - to make them commercial and catchy, to make them headline-worthy, to sell a story that you will find deserving of your attention. We call it playing the game, because you consuming some semblance of our truth is better than you consuming whatever else is out there, conjured by someone else on our behalf. But that's not good enough any more.

 ("White noise" ... Hah! I certainly did not expect her to use a pun...)

Reading the book was easy and pleasant enough: it's accessibly written, jumping around thoughts and little scenes fast enough not to get boring, and while it may occasionally get quite ranty, the rants rarely get to that eye-rolling stage. That said, the book did not leave me with very strong impressions or a deeper understanding of anything. My most fundamental take-away from the book is a certain envy of Amani: ten years younger than myself, she has achieved so much more, and left her mark on the world in a way that I have not. I can only take my hat off at her achievements.

I guess the second take-away is the matter of identity. I was 19 when the two towers fell. The author was 9. I'm a white, atheist male. She is an Arab Muslim. For me, world politics since 9/11 has often felt like an enormous, slow-motion train wreck: something with near-infinite momentum, with atrocities, disasters, injustice, and erosion of the liberal, multicultural values that I hold dear, and something I have been completely impotent to stop or change, no matter how many petitions I signed, protests I attended, or charities I donated to to undo some of the damage. When all is said and done, I have always been a spectator, which is, I guess, the luxury afforded to me by my visible identity. For Amani, a young Muslim girl, the geopolitical events weren't something that she could watch from outside, but something that shone a spotlight on her identity, and seemingly defined her life. I have to admit to being quite tired of identity politics, and every time someone mentions "intersectionality" I groan inwardly. The book did remind me that this is a luxury that not everyone shares, and that there are some instances where ticking many boxes in the check list of "disadvantaged groups" really does mean an accumulation of troubles.

Where the book fell flat is in the "autobiography" bit. Perhaps it's because the author is still so young that she simply hasn't lived long enough to have many stories to tell. But my suspicion is that Amani shares a quality with many Muslims: that of being essentially a private person. It's perfectly understandable (and wise, in a world where racists are emboldened), but it means that even after reading the book, I have only the vaguest notion of what her family are like, and virtually no idea who else is in her life. I might know about some instances when she was bullied, but there is very little that's personal in the book.  If you were hoping that Muslim Girl would be like a Millennial Muslim version of Caitlin Moran's "How to be a Woman" (as I must sheepishly admit, I was), then that hope, too, will not be realised.

Finally, the book made me wonder about the future of Muslim Girl. When it launched, the idea of a pop culture, lifestyle-heavy, feminist, tolerant media outlet for Muslim Girls was overdue, revolutionary, and ripe. Now, after the girlpower phase is possibly approaching its zenith, with Amani appearing in music videos and casually name dropping celebrities she's met in her first autobiography, I cannot help but wonder: will Muslim Girl grow up? Will we see Muslim Woman, aimed at the Linda Sarsour generation, perhaps a little less consumerist and hip, perhaps daring not just to "play the game" but to meet the problems Muslim women face head-on: right-wing populism, discrimination and Islamophobia in the West, genuine oppression and persecution in Persia and much of the Arab world... 

In summary: the book might not be exactly what you expect from an autobiography. It chronicles a life that has only just begun, and it shines a spotlight on how Muslims in the West are victimised by a society where racism flourishes, rather than giving in-depth, personal insight into one life, but it's short, never boring, and worth a read.

No comments:

Post a Comment