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I received a free copy of the H.M. Hymas’s The Prayer Rug from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
I really wanted to like this book. I love to hear lesser-told narratives, and this one checked all the boxes: it features a female protagonist and Muslim characters. More specifically, the characters are Iraqi, and I’ve never read a story that features Iraqi people. In short, The Prayer Rug follows Reem and her family as they struggle to maintain their sense of home in Iraq while it is being invaded by American Forces. Reem clings to her prayer rug—whose rhythmic presence is not as central to the novel as one might expect—as a symbol of faith, struggle, and progress. Unfortunately, the book fell flat. The writing is clumsy, the “plot twists” are obvious, and the characters feel more like caricatures.
In terms of word choice, The Prayer Rug was pretty easy to read. The phrases are short and the words are simple. So simple, in fact, that I found myself getting bored. Hymas frequently repeated words and phrases, a device that would have worked well had the repeated words come from the same character’s mouth, but the phrases seem to be playing round-robin throughout the book, which is not only confusing but also uninventive. Rather than letting the events of the novel speak for themselves, Hymas uses character commentary to move through the plot. As a result of the repetition and transparency, I quickly learned which phrases signaled an upcoming tragedy or plot reversal. Several times, Reem comments that “Today is going to be a good day,” right before tragedy strikes. The attempts to the reader away from the plot “twist” are painfully obvious. Reem makes daily trips to the market. The first time she goes, she pauses to ask herself, “Will the market be safe today?” Reem then explains that the market is often the target of terrorist activity. The second time Reem goes to the market, a couple of chapters later, she once again pauses to ask, “Will it be safe today?” before reiterating the dangers of the market. The reiterations seems to imply that readers cannot retain information for longer than a couple of pages. Inevitably, the market becomes the dangerous place it’s worked up to be, and of course Reem doesn’t see it coming, despite being aware of the possibility.
Throughout the novel, characters changed so quickly and so frequently that I often found myself re-reading previous passages to make sure I understood them correctly. For instance, in one chapter, Reem checks the road for explosive devices while taking her children to school. She notes that her children are so used to the exercise they no longer ask her about it. In a later chapter, though, Reem pauses to assess a public area for danger (I’m being intentionally vague here to avoid spoilers) and her daughter asks why she stopped. Through Reem we discover that her daughter has only known the war, and that Reem’s older son has spent the majority of his life in the warzone. Still, her son doesn’t seem to comprehend the dangers of walking recklessly in the road and consorting with strangers. When his parents discuss who is fighting and why, it seems as if he is hearing this information for the first time, despite his being a teenager. While it is possible that he would be ignorant of the specifics of the war, Reem and Azzam (her husband) discuss the war so frequently I find it hard to believe their son hasn’t learned anything about it during his lifetime.
Perhaps the thing I found most appalling about the book was the blatant political agenda. We get it; the war in Iraq ruined people’s lives. Show us, don’t tell us. The characters repeated some version of the phrase “things were better before the Americans came” ad nauseum. Even as they repeated this mantra, they continued to detail the terrible reign of Saddam Hussein. This dual treatment leaves readers in limbo. On the one hand, readers are supposed to believe that the American occupation in Iraq ruined the lives of the Iraqi people. On the other hand, they are supposed to believe that Saddam Hussein was the one who ruined the lives of the Iraqi people. One gets the impression that Iraq would be better off with no governmental system, but history tells us that doesn’t work either.
Fortunately, Reem herself is a somewhat respectable character. She is depicted as a pious, loving wife and mother, who does everything she can to ensure the safety and relative comfort of her family, even if it means making sacrifices. Of all the characters, Reem seems the most human. She suffers grief, pain, and fear, but she also enjoys hope, joy, and thankfulness. Like the other characters, Reem’s character is deficient in the areas of dialogue and thought narration, but Hymas succeeded in creating a strong female Muslim leading character. Though Reem depends on her husband to provide an income for the family, she is neither oppressed by, subservient to, nor entirely dependent upon him. Reem makes it clear both to her family and to the reader that no matter what happens to her on Earth, she will always be able to turn to God.
I was excited to see some Islamic thought peppered throughout the book: why we pray, why we fast, why we (some of us) wear hijab. Regrettably, these aspects were dropped into the story, rather than woven in, and Hymas only touched on the basics without addressing the shades of meaning and variations in practice. In a book that spends so much time talking about Sunni/Shi’a conflict, discussing the differences would have been easy. While the differences aren’t exactly integral to the plot, having some idea why Reem’s family (who is Sunni) might be persecuted by her predominately Shi’a neighbors would have deepened the narrative. On some level, I’m glad the author didn’t attempt this; based on the shallow plot and poor characterization, I can tell he wouldn’t have done the topic justice.
Frankly, I’m glad I received this for free, in ebook format. The cover, title, and subject matter would have lured me into buying the book and I would have been frustrated I wasted my money. I cannot openly recommend this book because it has serious structural issues, but at the same time I’d like to recommend it to readers because it’s a book that deals with both women and Islam, and the world needs more of those narratives. Even horribly constructed narratives are welcome, because they encourage discussion. Hopefully, in the future, those narratives will be something worth reading.