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It’s 2002, a year after 9/11. It’s an extremely turbulent time politically, but especially so for someone like Shirin, a sixteen-year-old Muslim girl who’s tired of being stereotyped.
Shirin is never surprised by how horrible people can be. She’s tired of the rude stares, the degrading comments—even the physical violence—she endures as a result of her race, her religion, and the hijab she wears every day. So she’s built up protective walls and refuses to let anyone close enough to hurt her. Instead, she drowns her frustrations in music and spends her afternoons break-dancing with her brother.
But then she meets Ocean James. He’s the first person in forever who really seems to want to get to know Shirin. It terrifies her—they seem to come from two irreconcilable worlds—and Shirin has had her guard up for so long that she’s not sure she’ll ever be able to let it down.
Trigger/Content warnings: Racism, violence, xenophobia, Islamophobia, hate speech.
Wow. Wow. Wow.
I’m kind of kicking myself for taking so long to read this book, but now that I have, I 100% see what all of the hype has been about.
As you can tell from the book blurb, this novel is all about a girl named Shirin who is a 16 year old Muslim girl. The story takes place only a year after the travesty of 9/11, and just in that short amount of time, Shirin has endured extreme bullying, including verbal and physical assault. Her family moves around often and even though high school seems to be easier for her brother, Navid (I listened to the audio of this so I hope I have the correct spelling), it remains difficult for Shirin. She chooses to continue wearing her Hijab and faces countless taunts, mean remarks, and racist assumptions.
Due to these constant attacks, Shirin has a very tough exterior. She’s shut herself off from everyone and doesn’t bother even attempting to make friends at new schools. She pretends that the racism does not impact her, but it does. At their newest school, Shirin is once again faced with racist, Islamophobic classmates and teachers, but she finds a small reprieve in the break dancing club her brother starts and invites her to be apart of. Through this club, she kind of connects to a few of her brother’s friends, but other than that, she’s still very shut off from other people. That is, until she meets Ocean James.
Before we even get into anything, I feel like I have to say that Shirin’s story will absolutely break your heart. Actually, scratch that. It will rip your heart out of your chest and crush it. Islamophobia is so present in America that far too many ignore how these racist and xenophobic ways of thinking affect Muslims. I am so glad to have been given the opportunity to read a book that focuses entirely on a young Hijabi girl because even if you’ve acknowledge white privilege, this will make you face it in a way you may not have done otherwise. The difference in Shirin’s reality and Ocean’s reality was… unsettling. Unfair. Heartbreaking. In every moment of this book, I wanted to be able to protect Shirin. The amount of hate, extreme bullying, and abuse that she receives in this novel is truly awful, and what makes it all the more outraging is that Muslim people really experience these same levels of hate every single day.
Because of the hate she has received and the cold exterior she puts out to other people, it takes a while for Shirin to warm up to Ocean. I don’t enjoy romance stories the way I do other genres, but I felt like Mafi wove the relationship into the story in a way that offered sustenance and importance. Ocean is not just a romantic interest for Shirin; he helps her fight for herself and what she wants in a way that she hadn’t yet done. Likewise, Ocean’s relationship with Shirin is a gigantic wake up call for him. Shirin pushed Ocean away again and again because she knew what dating him would mean for both of them, but because Ocean had never experienced the type of hate that Shirin received on a daily basis, he completely underestimated the response that other people would have.
For some reason, racist people tend to think that anyone who doesn’t think the way that they do is wrong. It’s a very big issue in our world, both in 2002 and in 2019. When the classmates and teachers at Shirin’s school discover her relationship with Ocean, they go to extremes to separate the two. I’m not going to do into detail and describe what happened, because I truly believe that this is a book that everyone should read, but it’s awful and disgusting. My heart ached for Shirin.
My heart also aches for Tahereh Mafi, who has said that this book is the most autobiographical book that she’s written to date. So many people have such a similar story to Shirin’s and I’m so glad that Mafi wrote this story to give those people and their experiences a voice. The writing was nice and flowed very easily. When listening to audiobooks, it’s always especially obvious when the writing or dialogue is choppy or flat. That wasn’t a problem in this story at all. The pacing was done so well that I didn’t even pay attention to how much time had passed. Instead, I was caught up in the way that it was passing.
This was honestly a great read and one that I hope that everyone aims to pick up at some point as well. The importance of books and stories like these is unlimited.