Abdel-Fattah, Randa. Does My Head Look Big in This? (2005). 360 Pages. Scholastic. $16.99
Previously, I reviewed Ten Things I Hate About Me, which has turned out to be my most popular blog post (ever), with an average of 10+ hits a day. It’s unexpected, and surprising, and I wish I knew what the readers were looking for when they came across that post. Regardless, it was a brilliant, funny book which was really enjoyable to read, so right after getting through it, I opted to find her debut novel; Does My Head Look Big in This?. I’m glad I did.
Amal Mohamed Nasrullah Abdel-Hakim, a sixteen year-old Australian-Palestinian-Muslim has decided to go “full time” and wear the hijab. She’s not sure what made her choose to do something so dramatic; high school is hard enough without wearing your stigma on your head. It’s not an easy decision, rather, she’s spent a long time thinking about it, and has finally decided that it’s the right step for her.
As Amal dons the scarf, she learns a lot about herself, her friends, and her family. She doesn’t learn so much about her enemies, she already knew they sucked, after all. With the scarf comes an intensified devotion to her religion; previously, she had skipped midday prayers, since she was at school, but with the hijab comes the extra prayers.
With the increased devotion, Amal sticks closer to some other rules, most notably those about dating. She’s got a strict drool but don’t touch policy about guys, which gets harder and harder to follow as she realizes just how much she likes Adam, her science partner. Somehow, Amal will get through it all, and when she does, she’ll be stronger than ever.
It hit me when I was power walking on the treadmill at home, watching a Friends rerun for about the ninetieth time.
It’s that scene when Jennifer Aniston is dressed in a hideous bridesmaid’s outfit at her ex’s wedding. Everyone’s making fun of her and she wants to run away and hide. Then she suddenly gets the guts to jump onstage and sing some song called “Copacabana,” whatever that means. I’m telling you, this rush of absolute power and conviction surged through me.
Amal is exactly the smart, sassy, determined narrator that a story like this needs. She knows what she wants, and will do what it takes to get there, even when the going is tough, and someone with a lesser will would have already given up. She worries a bit about being a walking stereotype, the weak girl in the hijab whose parents have forced her (though not as much as Jamilah, despite sharing the post-9/11 setting).
There’s a lot going on, there’s Amal’s story, but also the stories of her friends, especially Leila, the daughter whose parents are more interested in marrying her off than her education, and Simone, whose parents call her fat, and who has major body issues. Her other female friends, Yasmeen and Eileen are quieter, their stories never come to the forefront. Then there is Adam– Amal’s crush– and Josh– Simone’s crush– who add another interesting dimension to the high-school drama and angst which Amal struggles with.
Amal manages to be deeply and securely religious without it being a barrier between her and the reader, because at the heart of everything, she’s a normal teenager dealing with normal struggles, and that makes her so perfectly relatable and human that you can’t help liking her. You want her to succeed, because she wants to succeed, and you want her to be happy, and to find herself on this journey she’s undertaken.
While reading it, at one point, Amal’s father says he will “dial 911. Not your cell phone. 911” (83), which immediately made me wonder how much they had Americanized in this edition. Does she really talk about Friends, and Survivor, and Big Brother, or does she talk about Australian equivalents which got replaced when they were brought to the US?
This book gets a 5/5.
There is mention of 9/11, and then there is mention of the October 2002 attack in Bali, which added an extra depth to the book. Amal gets looked to as a Muslim, and is therefore considered to be a representative of her entire religion and culture, which of course made me think of The Sunflower. How often do we look to one person as a representative of their race, their culture, their religion? How often do we say “Well, he’s ____, so he knows ___’s view on the matter,” as if it’s acceptable or reasonable? Looking at it, I realize that I have been on both sides of that; I’ve been “The Catholic” or “The Girl” or “The White Girl” and I’ve been the person going “Well, you’re Jewish, what’s [the Jewish] opinion on the matter?”