Abdel-Fattah, Randa. Ten Things I Hate About Me (2009). 297 Pages. $8.99
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This book was a couple firsts; it’s the first book I’ve read by an Australian author, and it’s the first book I’ve read about a Muslim teenager. That made it a bit strange (since it was set in Australia) but still interesting.
Jamilah Towfeek is a Muslim-Lebanese-Australian high schooler who just wants to blend in and fly under the radar. She’s straightens her bleached hair, wears blue contacts, and goes by “Jamie” when at school. She refuses to talk about her family or culture to anyone. She doesn’t want to deal with the racism; and she wants to be popular,but only “Anglos” can be popular.
Outside school, however, Jamilah loves her heritage. She goes to madrasa (Arabic culture/language school), she plays darabuka in a traditional band, she has a close-knit family, and she loves Lebanese food. She’s not ashamed to be Muslim or Lebanese– unless she’s at school.
Books like this have an inevitable ending; the deceit fails somewhere, and the selves must merge. Jamie does eventually vanish in favor of Jamilah, though the path she takes to get there is not an easy one to follow. With the support of her family, and some friends she doesn’t know she has, Jamilah learns to embrace herself, and her heritage, no matter where she is.
There is a lot of discussion about immigrant families– Jamilah’s father says at one point, I came here, and I integrated for you. You should not still be fighting it, you should be able to be proud of being Muslim-Lebanese-Australian. There is also a little about the hijab— Jamilah’s sister wears it, while Jamilah doesn’t– and some discussion about the role of women and the interpretation of the Koran. There is still more about ramadan* and madrasa, and other aspects of Jamilah’s culture.
One of the things which most struck me was the fact that Jamilah is so aware of being Muslim in a post-9/11 world**. She is very aware that her heritage makes it nearly impossible for her to be an airline pilot, and it ensures that she is always “randomly screened” when traveling through airports. She worries about being a stereotype, about being seen for the extremists of her religion, rather than for herself.
I was not expecting a book set in Australia, and I was a little confused by some of the slang (Wog for example, is not a word I know) but I did really enjoy it. Jamilah manages to be a character you want to root for as she tries to re-define herself. Her struggle is both unique and average; many teens have to find their identities, it is not exclusive to immigrant teens, though it can be harder. This book was surprising, and interesting, and scores a 5/5.
* Ramadan is mentioned, but never discussed in depth. I suppose because it is the most well-known of Islam’s holidays.
** I know that an awful lot of Americans are racist bastards, who assume that a hijab, a beard, or a Sikh’s turban mean “terrorist,” but I did not think it was such an issue in places like Australia.