I was expecting a review copy of the book She Wore Red Trainers in my mailbox any time. It was early September, the time of year when the kids start school, get busy with homework, enroll in a soccer team, and so on, so it is the time of year when I have no time to do anything for myself, let alone reading a book!
But I had already heard some good things about this novel, written by Na’ima B. Robert. It’s a love story that takes place in a Muslim context. I have not read a lot of those novels before, because I am not a big fan of romantic stories, but I thought I should give it a try this time.
She Wore Red Trainers tells the story of Amirah and Ali, high school students who come from different backgrounds and circumstances. Both have their miseries and challenges, happy and sad moments. They share one thing: both have a set of red trainers.
Ali is a hardworking student and a basketball player, who just moved to London with his father and brothers for the summer vacation. Amirah is a talented high school student, who is in love with the arts. She lives with her mother, stepfather, sister, and two brothers. By observing the daily details of the relationships between Ali and his family, and Amirah and her family, readers are able to dissect their lives and understand how such relationships caused them to take certain decisions.
The book is divided into chapters; every other chapter is told from the perspective of Ali or Amirah, so, for example, we start with Ali talking about his life and what is going on with him, and then in the next chapter, Amirah talks about her life from her own perspective. I like that approach, because some incidents in the book are told twice but from different perspectives, and that is exactly how some aspects of our lives get interpreted in different ways, as people look at things from their own perspectives.
For me, the best part of the book was not actually the romance between Ali and Amirah; it was rather the little details that the author, Nai’ma B. Robert, was able to highlight in the relationships between Ali and his friends, and Amirah and her friends. The book shows how the groups of Muslim girls, who come from different backgrounds, are unique in their communities, and how they can work hard to be integral members of it. For example, Amirah proves to be one of the best art students in class, and she works with children with special needs to help them through works of art. Amirah’s aunt, Azra, is a very important member of her society, who takes initiative in holding parties and banquets to benefit those in need.
For Amirah and Ali, it is not easy to fall in love while still being loyal to their own values related to spirituality and religion. In such stories, if a guy and a girl fall in love, they cannot just start seeing each other for dinner or a movie, they cannot move in to live with each other, and most importantly, they cannot have any physical contact of any kind. So the challenge that the author faces here is to try and present such a love a story in a context that is challenging for both Amirah and Ali, in which they have to hold on their desires and needs, but at the same time, to create a story that is both appealing and exciting for the reader.
Roberts has been criticized for drawing a limited picture of Muslim women; she tends to list some characteristics for Muslim women, and only if a woman fits these characteristics is she a “real” Muslim. For me, and looking at different reviews by MMW contributors, I can see that Robert has only version of “good Muslim girls,” and they are the ones that wear hijab, and maintain a high level of physical purity. In her review of Robert’s book, Boy vs. Girl, MMW’s Sara Yasin writes: “The book is also blatantly pro-hijab. The good and ‘real’ Muslim women cover the proper way. It seems to me that Robert has a particular vision of what it means to be Muslim, and does not really encourage the reader to critically engage with this definition. A character can’t be an intellectual, reflective, strong female, without also embodying sexual purity and morality.”
I believe Roberts was able to build up a love story between Amirah and Ali in a realistic manner, within what the characters consider to be “halal limitations.” Some people might think of this idea as a limitation to what Robert writes, but personally, and despite the fact that I sometimes disagree with her views, I see it as part of the community that I come from.
I felt at some points that there were unnecessary details inserted into the story, probably to make the novel longer, or maybe seen by the writer as essential to the buildup of the plot. But I felt it could have been shorter, and the end could have been reached faster.
The ending of the story was not the best I have ever read. I don’t think every novel or story written should have a happy ending. In this novel, we see Amirah and Ali flying together to Mexico after “getting married in an airport,” to start a new life where Ali could pursue his dream, while Amirah has left all her dreams of studying arts behind. For me, that’s not a happy ending; it is unrealistic and represents the end of Amirah’s dreams.
She Wore Red Trainers was a good easy read, during which we follow part of the lives of two young people falling in love. After finishing the book, I was wondering about one thing: what if those two people were in another city, other than London, would the story be different? I don’t think so; the geographical or cultural background of London and its people are not part of the story at all. Ali, Amirah, and their communities look like they are living on an island away from their surroundings. Apart from Amirah interacting with her arts teacher, there is no other communication between this Muslim community and the diverse group of people living in London. I think it makes the story a on-dimensional tale, and makes it simpler than it actually is in reality. At the end of the day, you can read this story, and you can enjoy it, but it will also raise a lot of questions about love, Islam, identity and culture.