All-American Muslim Girl
by Nadine Jolie Courtney
In the newest novel by Nadine Jolie Courtney, a teenage girl named Allie learns to embrace and accept a part of her that many don’t understand. Her journey is one woven with threads of many colors: the gentle blues of self-doubt and purple curiosity, the bright green of support from unexpected sources, the brutal reds of distinct anger, and of course … the soft pink of faith and love.
I was drawn to this novel in part by my own reality, and maybe more importantly, the reality of my youngest son.
Leo is born of a woman and a man. But … it’s more than that.
An English mother and a Pakistani father.
A white mother, and a brown father.
A Christian mother and a Muslim father.
I’d never truly thought about or dug deep into the sticky social situations that Leo will be sure to encounter as he grows older, until recently. At only four years old, he is still very young, and has yet to be subjected to racism or any of the other nasty things that can come along with being a non-white person in a land where “white” comes hand in hand with privilege and acceptance.
And, you know … I’ve never really had to think about it until now. Because I’m white.
I’ve been to countless events with my husband, huge gatherings that center around the deeply rooted culture that is being Pakistani. Bright colors and elaborate outfits with enough gold and jewels to fill a vault. Shoes with curled tips, turbans and hijab. Nose piercings filled with giant hoops and dangling charms. Joyous dancing and loud music. And … you know … all that food.
It’s always been fascinating, as an outsider, to join in that culture. Even now, nine years later, I can recognize that Pakistani culture is everything American culture is not. It is color, where before I’d only known a million shades of gray.
And this is part of my son’s heritage. Exactly half of where he comes from. With this culture, comes a religion … one that I still (nine years later) know hardly anything about.
And that’s my fault.
It took three dates for me to work up the courage to ask the guy I liked if he was a Muslim.
I’d met him online. A silly dating website. I’d set up a profile on a bit of a whim. I was lonely, and I was looking for someone fun to spend my time with. Nothing too serious, mind you … just a dinner here and there, maybe a movie. Someone to help fill the time and the hole left in my world when my kids were with their dad. I’d been a stay-at-home mom for over seven years, and I didn’t know how to be alone after my divorce.
From his profile, I’d figured the guy was ethnic of some kind. His name – Salman Ahmed – made it obvious that he wasn’t white. The photos on his online profile were vague. Blurry. Ambiguous. There was a group photo in the mix, but he was hiding in the back and all I could make out was some curly hair and brown skin. The one photo I was drawn to … well, his hand was in front of his face and I still couldn’t really tell what he looked like.
But his eyes seemed kind.
His profile mentioned one of my favorite movies, Pride and Prejudice, and he came across as light-hearted and funny. Truth be told, Salman had tried to talk to me a few times before but I’d ignored him, based solely on the fact that you know … I couldn’t see his face. But one Friday night I relented and said yes to coffee; I’d had a dinner date that was canceled at the last minute and I didn’t want to waste a good outfit and freshly washed hair. I decided to meet Salman in real life, to stop flirting online, and just hoped that he was decent looking.
Have you ever had your breath completely sucked from your body? It leaves a weird feeling in your stomach … it’s so sharp that it’s almost tangible. It’s not a pain, but it’s not quite pleasure either.
It’s … awareness.
That’s how I felt, when I saw Salman unfold his long body from his beat-up car. He was tall and lanky, his body moving with a confident fluidity that I immediately envied. I was watching him from across the parking lot, my eyes hungrily taking everything in. A light blue Polo that set off the deep brown of his skin. Jeans that were a tad bit too long, and fraying at the ends. Messy hair the color of ink. He walked up to my truck and brushed his hand over his face – something that I now know he does when he’s nervous. As a poker player, he doesn’t have many tells … but … his hands were warm when they embraced mine as he said hello. They shook just a little.
I’m pretty sure I fell in love right then and there.
But before he opened his mouth, I’d expected an accent. I’d been nervous I wouldn’t be able to understand him.
Even though everything about Salman’s face screams “I’m not from here,” the exacting preciseness of his voice says something else. The way he wove his words and pronounced them was almost British in nature. His use of the word “y’all” was decidedly American. Texan. Familiar.
I admit, the lack of an accent made me feel calm. More comfortable.
I stared at him from across the table at dinner, entranced by everything that wasn’t …. white …. about him.
His thick eyebrows. A nose that on anyone else would be too large, but seemed to fit his face impeccably. The jet depths of his eyes. His hair was so dark, it seemed unnatural. The brown of his skin wasn’t even just brown … it was like this golden coffee color that couldn’t be manufactured anywhere else with any degree of authenticity. The angles of his jaw could be seen from under his short beard, and seemed cut from glass; his high cheekbones were something from a Grecian painting. Salman looked like someone from the desert. Like someone from some exotic land, with camels and cobra snakes.
I wondered what he saw looking back at him. I felt boring in comparison to his acute ethnicity. I felt nothing like the girls he’d probably grown up seeing … you know, Princess Jasmine.
Salman was a complete contradiction to the other guys I’d been on dates with.
As luck would have it, Salman liked me back. The first date went from coffee in a bookstore to pizza and drinks, to a movie … and then some light making-out in a parking lot. My teenagers read this blog, so I won’t go into too much detail, but Salman and I knew very quickly that we had something special. We became inseparable pretty quickly.
So, that third date.
“Where are you from?” I asked him. He’d taken me into Dallas, to some restaurant he said I’d love. Shawarma sandwiches were something I’d never had before. It was a novelty. Looking back, I cringe on how delighted I’d behaved when faced with all of these “delicacies.”
“Originally?” he replied. I nodded, and he continued. “My family is from Pakistan, but I grew up in Saudi Arabia. I moved here when I was 16.”
“So are you …”
He’d smiled. “Muslim? Yeah. But I don’t practice.”
Again, just like when he’d first spoken and I’d heard no accent, I felt relieved.
And it’s only now that I realize how terrible that was of me.
I ended up marrying Salman. I made the choice not to convert and for the most part, it hasn’t been a big deal. My mother-in-law welcomed me into the family with open arms, and she forced everyone else to accept me as well. My father-in-law grumbled a lot, but he came around in the end because I’m super charming and I refused to give up until he loved me. My family? Yeah, that’s another story.
I was married in a mosque, and then married in a church.
Our son, Leonardo Ali Aziz Ahmed … well, he’s a Muslim, right? His father is a Muslim. And although my husband “is not practicing,” that’s the way the tradition seems to go. I am not such a practicer of my own Christian faith that I can justify insisting that Leo be raised Christian. We celebrate Eid and Christmas. Why can’t he have both? If neither one of us practices our faith, why should we care if our son does?
I don’t think I recognized how problematic this particular issue has the potential to be – my brushing off of religion – until I read All-American Muslim Girl.
Allie Abraham is in that special twilight of life. She’s crossing the bridge from adolescence into womanhood, and as her sixteenth birthday looms on the cotton-candy colored horizon, she has a question that’s sitting heavy on her chest.
What do I believe in?
Allie’s father is a Muslim. Her mother is a converted Muslim; a born American with blonde hair and light skin who changed religions when she married. Her parents don’t practice Islam as far as calls to prayer or Ramadan are concerned, but they don’t eat pork. They allow her to date, but Allie could never bring a boy to one of her family reunions. The lines are blurred so haphazardly that there doesn’t seem to be anything real that Allie can hold on to.
On a plane ride into Dallas, Allie is shocked by how a passenger treats her gentle father. The color of Mohammed Abraham’s skin is a shade that speaks terrorist to the man sitting next to him. It’s a terrible and angering situation that has occurred before, but one that has never quite been so full in Allie’s face. She watches as her father makes himself small, as he apologizes for who he is as a human, and how the man she has always looked up to works incredibly hard to pacify a stranger who is so decidedly in the wrong.
It is eye-opening to Allie that she, with her pale skin and light hair, is able to appease the stranger’s sensibilities. He readily accepts her offer to switch places with her father, having no idea that no matter that Allie and her father look completely different from one another – he is still sitting next to a Muslim.
Something beings to stir in Allie’s soul. She begins to feel a calling to the beautiful faith of Islam, but she has no idea how to harness the strength of her born religion. Allie has no real place to start; her father has all but shunned that side of himself in answer to the American culture that he has done his best to absorb and melt into. According to Mo Abraham, being a practicing Muslim means standing out – and not in a good way.
Roadblocks continue to emerge as she walks her new path, but Allie maintains her persistence. She purchases a Quran, and reads it in secret. She teaches herself how to pray. She even finds a small group of Muslim girls that she can meet with and learn Arabic from. But she can’t help but feel discouraged and wrought with anxiety about her father finding out about her studies. Allie wishes more than anything that she could share this new side of her with her father, but she feels like its an impossible situation.
The boy she likes – he’s white. Wells may be kind and quirky and make her laugh, but he’s a Christian and she can’t talk to him about her exploration into her religion … especially when she finds out that his father is none other than Jack Henderson, a very conservative and vocal anchor on a national news program. Allie doesn’t know how to even begin navigating the swampy bog that is her current love-life, especially when she delves deeper into her Islamic studies and realizes that she probably shouldn’t be dating anyway – let alone to someone outside of the faith.
The prejudicial tension surrounding the Islamic religion and community in Allie’s area is being driven by people like Jack Henderson, and Allie knows she’ll never be able to change his mind about Muslims or his distorted vision of Islam as a whole. She also knows that she can’t change how people behave, react, or judge. She recognizes that she may never even be able to change her own father’s mind. All she has control of is herself, and in making the difficult choice to step into the light and into who she truly is deep in her heart, Allie Abraham will find that she is everything God has ever wanted her to be.
Not to sound super dramatic, but All-American Muslim Girl has changed the way I think – forever. It was written so incredibly thoughtfully, and hit so many points that were crucial to Allie’s development and growth. The novel dealt with Islam in a way that I’d never considered before. Most importantly, the portrayal of how Allie struggled to fit the religion she so desperately wanted to belong to into her modern-day life was a relevant to issues that the teenagers of today face.
I was so embarrassed as I read parts of this book; especially the sections where Allie has conversations with her friends before and after they know she is Muslim. I never cultivated the awareness I so absolutely need when it comes to my husband’s religion. I never realized how some of the ways that I have reacted towards the Islamic community could come off as completely cringe-worthy. I never realized that I’d had a preconceived notion about Muslims before I met my husband. And why is that? Why can’t people just be who they are?
I also never realized how I potentially made my husband feel small about about his religion. I’ve never discouraged him to pray, but there was a time near the beginning of our marriage where he did pray in the Islamic style. I never discouraged him, but I never encouraged him either. I’d walk into the room where he was and go about my business, never giving him the sanctity or respect he deserved.
He eventually quit praying. Did I have a hand in that? I don’t know. It hurts me to think that I did. It’s a conversation we need to have.
Allie’s struggle to find a cornerstone in her own home was probably what struck me most about this novel, because it obviously made me think of my own child. We have no Islamic art in our home. We own a Quran, but to be honest with you, it’s buried somewhere in our library under the thousands of books we have. We celebrate Eid, only in going to my parents-in-law’s home and eating some food. There is no true significance. Leo has no idea why he is doing these things … he has no idea that there is a religious undertone and that there is something to learn from it all. He has no idea what it means to be a Muslim.
‘ “Dad and I wanted you to choose your own path.
It’s the biggest mystery in life, the biggest question out there:
Isn’t it important to allow your children to choose what they believe?”
“Maybe,” I say tentatively, “it’s important to raise your kids with something so they don’t feel … lost?” ‘
That was the first time this book made me cry. It wasn’t the last.
When Allie sits on her grandmother’s lap and in a few sentences has exhausted the amount of conversation she can have with her? Yeah, I cried again. That is my husband and his own Bari Ami – To. A. Tee. Urdu has all but died out in my husband’s generation, as everyone has migrated to America and taken over the English language. Salman only knows a handful of words, as he was encouraged to leave that part of him behind him.
Leo knows no Urdu. I need to fix that.
The first thing I did when I was done with this book was call my mother-in-law. I impressed upon her my desire to learn more about Islam. My desire to teach my child, with her help. I may never convert, but I need to know all I can, so that my son has a proper knowledge and can make his own choices based in fact. I think she was shocked. My husband’s family has never pressed the matter of religion onto me. But she was also pleased, and happy to assist me on this journey of ours … together.
Five stars to All-American Muslim Girl.