I hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas if they celebrate it! I know I did, mostly because I got NEW BOOKS!!! I spent the week cleaning out my bookshelves in preparation, largely because "Completely Full Bookshelf" had become "Completely Full Bookshelf In The Family Room, Two Completely Full Bookshelves In The Upstairs Room, Desk In My Room Covered In Various Piles of Books, Bookshelf In My Room Completely Full of Books I Neither Needed To Read Nor Wanted To Keep, And Pile On My Dresser Of Books I Actually Wanted To Read But Had Now Read And Had Since Started Filling With Books I Had Already Read Because I Had No Space In The Aforementioned Locations." (Not the catchiest blog title, if you ask me.) I have since gotten my collection of books stuffed into the bookcase in my room, alongside three (yes, three) piles on the floor which I will put into another bookcase once it ships (along with the picture rails I will use to display my all-time favorite books). For my second bookcase, I actually managed to get what I think is the exact same bookcase I already had in that room, which is surprising because the one I already have is at least 15 years old, and I figured they had stopped making it. But apparently not!
Anyway, today I am recommending a book about a holiday, but not the holiday we just celebrated. Instead, this book is about the Muslim holidays (plural) of Eid, and it is Once Upon an Eid: Stories of Hope and Joy by 15 Muslim Voices, edited by S. K. Ali and Aisha Saeed.
|The list of contributors|
(click to enlarge).
Once Upon an Eid is an anthology of 15 stories by Muslim authors, all set on or around the Muslim holidays of Eid. In case you are unaware (as I was before reading the book), Eid-ul-Fitr (to quote the editors' note, "the feast of breaking the fast") celebrates the conclusion of Ramadan (the month when many Muslim people fast during the day). Eid-ul-Adha (also to quote the editors' note, "the feast of the sacrifice") is held on the tenth day of Hajj (the month when Muslim people who can make their pilgrimage to Mecca do so). These holidays are joyous ones often filled with food, prayers, gifts, and celebrations with family, friends, and more, although it is important to recognize that such celebrations are far from uniform across different people and regions. The anthology recognizes this diversity of experiences through 15 highly varied stories. Some center clearly around Eid, while others use Eid as more of a backdrop for illustrating Muslim experiences (and general life experiences, for that matter). Most of the stories are in prose, but two are in verse and one is in comic panels (although that one is way too short). What all of these stories do have in common is their undercurrent of, well, the "hope and joy" mentioned in the title. Even while tackling saddening topics, these stories never cease to inspire and provoke happiness in readers.
I have tried to read a more diverse selection of books over the past year, but I have done an awful job of reading books by Muslim authors or even with Muslim characters. Thus, I'm glad to have crammed this book into 2020 as my last review of the year, especially since it is fantastic! I don't normally review anthologies, so what I've decided to do here is post micro-reviews of the individual short stories that I enjoyed in particular. As you'll see in the micro-reviews below, the anthology format of this book is excellent at capturing the sheer breadth both of Eid and of the experiences of those who celebrate it. I do want to give a quick disclaimer that despite the fact that many of the stories I enjoyed sound horribly sad when you explain them, there are a number of lighter stories in the book that many readers may prefer—they just weren't the ones I personally liked as much. With that, let's dive right in!
- The book starts off on a great note with "Perfect," a short story by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow. Whoever decided the order of the stories in the book (the editors Ali and Saeed, I would assume) made the great decision to put the stories that center the most around Eid at the beginning of the book, allowing readers more unfamiliar with the holiday to get a sense of what it is all about before it begins to fade into the background in some stories. "Perfect" is set entirely on Eid, as protagonist Hawa gets ready to celebrate Eid with her father's side of the family, who she is nervous about spending so much time with (especially since she does not get along with another girl her age, Fanta). Who doesn't relate to spending a holiday with people you don't know and/or don't like? In a short amount of time, we get an immediate sense that Hawa is pretty confident and definitely headstrong, but not in an overbearing or exaggerated way.
- I also loved the story "Don'ut Break Tradition" (pun intended by the author), written by one of this book's editors, S. K. Ali. In this story, Nadia is determined to bring the joy of Eid back to her home and her mother in spite of poverty and her mother's new cancer diagnosis by keeping up her family's tradition of buying donuts every Eid. First of all, I cannot help but like any story involving food, and I could practically smell the donuts just from the page. (I loved that Nadia picked specific donuts for each of her parents and siblings based on who they are.) The story also paints a beautiful picture of how misfortune can be spun into gratefulness for what one has, and while it would certainly be unfair to expect the disadvantaged to be grateful for what little they have, you can see here how such an attitude can make the best of such a situation. I also loved what Mr. Laidlaw, the owner of the donut shop where Nadia stops by, and Joy, his employee, do to help Nadia make Eid special in spite of their different beliefs.
- Another excellent story in this book is "Just Like Chest Armor" by Cam Montgomery (who has previously published under the name Candice Montgomery). This story chronicles Leila as she attempts to convince her mother to finally let her wear a hijab, starting on Eid. To be perfectly honest, I didn't understand until reading this story how powerful wearing a hijab can be as both an expression of faith and an expression of oneself. Leila (who is eleven) brings a childlike excitement and anticipation to the whole situation (as with "Perfect," we get a strong sense of Leila as a character), but she nevertheless manages to grapple with the resulting prejudice or ignorance that made her mother so hesitant in the first place. There's also a set of four sentences in this story, said by Leila, that are some of the most striking sentences in the entire book: "All of it feels like a thing you could write about. It feels special like that. And I will. Later I'll sit down and write some big story about the magic of a group of girls putting on hijab and fighting moon monsters and evil space beings." These lines, of Leila nonchalantly creating the fantasies and stories she wants to see herself in but somehow never has, are simultaneously uplifting and heartbreaking. If you need a summary of why representation matters, here it is, y'all.
- One of the most painful but also most beautiful stories in the book is "Searching for Blue" by N. H. Senzai. This story watches Bassem, a refugee from Syria currently living in a camp in Greece, as he pushes through grief for his father to try to create a memorable Eid for the other refugees. Senzai does a stunning job capturing the pain of the refugee experience, from the dangerous boat ride to the unfortunate accommodations to the rampant prejudice against refugees, in such a short tale. We see Bassem's strength as he attempts to hold everything together in spite of his own pain, but we also see the compassion of others, from other refugees to volunteers and kind tourists, who do what they can for the refugees. Little elements in the story like Bassem remembering his now-deceased Babba while looking out at the beauty of the ocean or his younger sister Dina grappling with a stutter further add to the realism and depth of this story.
- I think my very favorite story in this whole book is one told in verse: "Taste" by Hanna Alkaf. This story watches Alia, who struggles to eat or even to taste anything after a tragedy lands her mother in the hospital, as she attempts to prepare the lontong her mother would usually make for Eid while grappling with her own pain and self-blame. (Goodness gracious, I really did prefer all of the most depressing stories, didn't I?) Countless authors try to tackle these feelings of pain in entire books, but Alkaf sums them up far better in just a few pages of verse. In one particularly striking moment, Alia mentions learning to use her mother's pet name for her brother Aiman, sayang, to keep his spirits up—that's something I never thought about before, how losing a parent meant you lost the name they called you when they were around. Alkaf's verse is almost ridiculously beautiful, so much so that I have to share this quote from Alia in the story: "wondering at the way It / darkened my tongue until it was numb / and loosened Aiman's until he could scream his fear / and softened Abah's until he could speak his love." If that quote doesn't sell you on this story, I don't know what will. I mean, besides the fact that there is also food in this story as well!
- The last story I have the energy to micro-review is "Maya Madinah Chooses Joy" by Ayesha Mattu. In this story, Maya Madinah struggles to enjoy the celebration her mother is holding the day before Eid as she thinks about how different Eid (and life) will be now that her parents are divorced. In an attempt to run away, she ends up at the home of her khala (or aunt) Nusaybah, who helps her work through her feelings with the help of a story about Muhammad. This story does a wonderful job depicting what it is like for kids when their parents get divorced; traditions with either parent can fall by the wayside, and the other parent may struggle to keep them going in the same way. Nusaybah serves as the adult Maya Madinah needs to help her through such an enormous life transition. I also loved the way in which the story about Muhammad helps Maya Madinah make sense of her situation as a new and different family instead of a broken family—this story acts as a reminder of why people have and value faith in the first place (which I often forget, as a non-religious person).
- Two of three quick points: If those stories sound appealing, remember they are just 6 of the 15 present in this book! And if they don't sound appealing, remember they are just 6 of the 15 present in this book! As I mentioned, there are many other stories in this book, including several more lighthearted ones like "Yusuf and the Great Big Brownie Mistake" by editor Aisha Saeed and "Kareem Means 'Generous'" by Asmaa Hussein—I just personally preferred the ones I reviewed above.
- Last quick point: I have to give a shout-out to this book's illustrator, Sara Alfageeh. Besides having created the cover illustration and drawn the comic panels for the story written by G. Willow Wilson, "Seraj Captures the Moon," Alfageeh also contributed 14 beautiful full-page illustrations, one at the beginning of each story. You can (and should) view some of them on her website here.