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This week, I am excited to write about Secrets Under the Olive Tree, a book about a Palestinian-American girl written by a female Palestinian-American author. As a passionate champion of diverse narratives, I think it is incredibly important to have narratives by writers who belong to the communities they are depicting. I believe this adds to the authenticity of the work and helps to eliminate stereotypes that so often occur when others take on the role. Especially where stereotypes about Muslimahs are concerned.
For Secrets Under the Olive Tree, the main character Layla is introduced early to adult themes and situations she doesn’t know how to cope with. Treated as an unwanted addition in her family, and threatened by her father for something she has no knowledge of, Shaabneh makes the reader concerned for Layla’s welfare from very early on. Her mother tries her best to protect and include her, struggling under the threat of domestic violence and an alcoholic husband. She lacks any power to ease Layla’s situation at home. For the most part, she is submissive to her husband and his requests. This representation, although adding to the homogenous view of the oppressed Muslim woman, is also an acknowledgement that real life problems exist. Married off early to someone she does not choose, Layla later discovers secrets about her husband that make it impossible her to remain with him. Layla must discover the secret her family have kept from her that ultimately provides the answer to both her past and her future. Layla’s vulnerability is apparent in a scene where she sits in the street in the rain, unable to go home to a family who will only disown her. Her rescuer comes in the form of female Muslim charity worker, Wafa who helps people who have run away from home or need assistance by providing supportive charity services for those in her community. It is refreshing to have such a positive contributor to society who is portrayed as caring, sensitive and non-judgmental.
The diversity in representing female Muslims in America doesn’t stop there. Wafa and Layla visit a poetry night one evening, organized by a younger ‘inner city Muslim activist group’. There, we are introduced to more Muslims who do not conform to the typical stereotype including the depiction of the character, ‘Aya’. She has a strong voice on stage and overwhelms Layla with her words. Aya dresses uniquely and has ‘a bohemian flare about her that [Layla] had not seen before in a Muslim woman.’. These varied depictions help to portray Muslim women as a diverse group, united by their faith but not by their dress, attitude or any other factors that tend to form the stereotypes we are often used to reading and seeing in the mainstream. One commentator on Goodreads agreed that the book; “helps debunk and shed light on the common misconceptions about Islam, Middle Eastern men and women, and the stereotypes that surround them.“
For every negative role model or representation in the book, there is a positive counterpart. For example, when it comes to marriage, we have different representations of marriage in the Muslim community. As a counterpart to Layla’s own parent’s unhappy marriage we have the happily married couple of Layla’s friend, Hanadi, who represent the positive; ‘Mr. Ayad tenderly took his wife’s hand and kissed it…she asked for a drink of water and he immediately stood up and walked to the kitchen.’ By offering counterparts to each negative scenario, the book infuses the reader with hope and erases any typical stereotypes one might be expecting.
Shaabneh’s characters depict a section of the Muslim community in America, made up of various backgrounds and cultures and their struggle to fit into both their cultural world and that of America. She is well aware of this and says that the ‘…Palestinian struggle and her bicultural American struggles are based on truth …that continues today.’ The book also touches on other conflicts that Muslim women experience, like the decision to not wear the hijab after 9/11, when Layla says, she is ‘conflicted, [feeling that she has] betrayed Muslim women by succumbing to the fear’: a scenario Muslim women are still experiencing today and one that is back in the spotlight.
As a reader, I feel that the author is close to the story, not only with the parallels of her background and that of Layla’s but also because she uses first person throughout the book. Shaabneh says that she wanted to be the voice because, ‘I knew I had to be the one to tell the story – to share it from the perspective of a Palestinian-American woman’. I believe this is important because although this is a fictional story, the author was compelled to write it from her own experiences. The story was hers to tell and Shaabneh has captured the lives of fictional characters and humanized them. The book evokes such strong emotions that you come to care about the characters she depicts. Instead of stereotypical representations, the characters are relatable, first and foremost as people who contribute to mainstream America.
This book is a great example of why narratives written by those within Muslim communities can help to break stereotypes and provide a more authentic experience to the reader. Nevien Shaabneh is currently working on her second novel, and I am looking forward to reading it.