Monday, August 30, 2010

Does My Head Look Big in This ?

This first novel by Randa Abdel-Fattah is the story of Amal, a Melbourne teen of Palestinian heritage, and her decision to wear the hijab full time.  As a novel, it's a great polemic. Worked well with a gaggle of girls at book club, though...plenty to discuss.

My gripe with this book is that it endows migrants with a certain dignity and wisdom - and why not ? - at the same time as it caricatures the Anglo characters. Not a good look when you are writing a novel of (supposed) tolerance. Anglo characters are either rigid and prejudiced ( Amal's headmistress ), sneered at for their political correctness ( the teacher who helps Amal find a room to pray in at school ), shallow (the diet-obsessed friend) or ultimately unable to bridge the cultural divide (the love interest).  Migrants who 'integrate' are a source of comedy and fun. 'Authentic'  migrants, like Amal and her parents, or  the Greek lady next door or those with an relation to the 'other', like a Jewish friend with Orthodox relations are portrayed with much more complexity and sympathy.

I think it's a fault of a first time novelist, writing well about what she knows and far less convincingly about what she must imagine. I've read Abdel-Fattah's second book, Where the Streets have No Name, and it is much better least until she introduces the peace-loving, returned from America, liberal Israelis. Sigh.

There are some lovely things about this book, despite my misgivings. One is the relationship between Amal and her parents. Her Mum and Dad have their faults ( her mother is an obsessive when it comes to home hygiene ) but they are loving, present, reliable, tolerant, sensible and fun, and Amal know it. What a welcome change from the gloom of many of the relationships with parents present in young adult fiction.

The other is the relationship between  between Amal and her elderly Greek neighbour. What begins as hostility ends in vulnerability and affection.

The book club girls had a lot to say about Amal and about whether she should wear the hijab, from girls who felt she should follow the promptings of her conscience and wear it full-time to those who though she should be more pragmatic. Many of them made the distinction of the hijab being a cultural choice, rather than a religious one. Several girls thought it was a shame she had to hide her hair as 'because of her ethnic background, it was probably long and thick and glossy'. Hmmm. It prompted an interesting discussion about the wearing of religious symbols - one girl shared that when she attended her Orthodox church, she was required to cover her head, others felt they would be uncomfortable advertising their family faith. We talked about how we felt around girls and women wearing the hijab or the burqua, how some of us felt their modesty made us appear immodest by default.

We were once at the local pool when a mother arrived to swim with her three children in what's called a burkini - a full length swimming costume complete with headscarf. At first I felt happy for her because she could swim  instead of watching from the side. I tried to catch her eye, to make a wry remark about splashing, joyful children. She avoided my eye and I could understand why. It must take courage to swim in a burkini,  with no guarantees about the comments you'll provoke. She must have loved her water-loving kids a lot, or maybe she didn't see why she should lose the freedom of weightlessness  in water because of her choice of clothing or because of the ignorant Australians who might mutter or give her the 'look'.

And suddenly I felt exposed, in my tankini, whereas a moment before I'd felt no more uncovered, no more conscious of my flesh than a fish in water.  I felt her coveredness as a critique of my uncoveredness. I wondered if she thought me immodest and that was why she wouldn't meet my eye.

It's a complicated issue. And I guess Does My Head Look Big in This, partisan and clumsy as it sometimes is, at least provoked a discussion, made us question and think, even if our own opinions are still cloudy.


  1. if I had not read it, I would now![lucy]

  2. I picked up a copy of this book at a 2nd hand bookshop last week.

    I agree that there is a lot to consider in the issues that the book raises, even if the characters aren't presented as well as they could be. It sounds like a fantastic book club book.

    I'll have to move it a little closer to the top of my To Be Read pile. :-)