Jasmine Falling by Muslimah Media Watch’s very own Shereen Malherbe recounts the story of Jasmine, a young English girl who, in order to receive her inheritance after her mother dies, searches for her father in his native Palestine and winds up discovering not only the family she left behind, but also the culture to which she belongs.
As clichéd as the phrase may be, reading Jasmine Falling sent me on an emotional rollercoaster. Within the span of just a few pages I would find myself vacillating between pitying Jasmine for her loss and being downright angry with a fictional character for the decisions she makes: for example, Jasmine’s decision to get drunk in Palestine (a foreign land for her) with a guy she hardly knows, even though going to the bar had nothing to do with her mission, upset me so much I briefly stopped reading, then realized I was angry out of concern. I know people who’ve done the same thing Jasmine did, and I know the unfortunate consequences of their actions. Despite my frustrations with some of the protagonist’s choices, by the end of the novel, I was overwhelmingly happy for Jasmine, because she “found what her heart wanted.”
When I took a step back from the book after reading it, I realized I got way more involved with the characters than I normally do. As I read, I quoted the book and narrated Jasmine’s life to those around me (mostly my mother, who eventually began asking me for updates in Jasmine’s life) which speaks volumes (pun intended) about how well-written the novel is. Though written in accessible prose, the sentences are woven in such a way that the reader feels almost part and parcel of the action, of which there is plenty. Jasmine Falling is almost overwhelming in its back-to-back twists and turns, but each new plot element follows naturally from the one that preceded it.
Religion plays a more central role in Jasmine Falling than the title would suggest. Malherbe’s novel is peppered with references to Islam, but the book doesn’t feel “Islamic,” nor do the references disrupt the flow of the story. In fact, the references propel the story as Jasmine goes down the path of growth and self-understanding. The adhan (call to prayer) in the countryside provides a cadence against which readers can measure the passage of the day. The Arabic greetings provide a layer of authenticity to the novel. Jasmine’s gradually increasing usage of phrases such as “alhamdulillah” and her slow recollection of Islamic teachings she learned as a child (and abandoned as a teenager) artfully indicate her growth of character.
Despite the elements of Islam in Jasmine Falling, there are several themes in the novel that may appeal to a non-Muslims just as much as Muslims. My mother, who is a sixty-year-old Christian, was just as eager to hear about Jasmine as I was to read about her. Jasmine appealed to my mother’s sense of adventure. Those with ties to Middle Eastern culture will enjoy that aspect of the novel. Third culture children (people who grew up in a culture different from that of their parents) and people whose parents are from two different places but they themselves only grew up in one would enjoy Jasmine Falling the most. Much of Jasmine’s internal conflict centers around cultural reconciliation. She grew up in England, and after her father disappeared, her mother essentially ignored Jasmine’s Palestinian half. Jasmine, who remembers her father, felt the emptiness, but decided to immerse herself in English culture. When she goes to Palestine, she is filled with a mix of nostalgia for the old sights and smells and regret at having let her roots slip away.
Reading this novel certainly made me realize how important it is to acknowledge and celebrate all of the cultures in which I was raised. I’m both more proud to be black and less hesitant to call myself American. Just as Jasmine realized the rejection of her father’s culture left her flailing for grounding, I have begun to realize that the food, the media, and the traditions I grew up with make me who I am. Trying to stifle the minority culture (black) to better conform to the majority culture (American) split my personality unnecessarily, and left me generally confused. My new-found embracement of my hyphenated identity is perhaps indicative of why I enjoyed it so much: Jasmine, in a way, is me.
Though Jasmine’s reason for going to Palestine was not a happy one, the novel is not very grim. There are dark moments, as there are in most novels, but Malherbe managed to strike a balance between the uplifting moments and the somber ones. Jasmine is a youthful, audacious character, almost to the point of recklessness at times. She follows her instincts and is not afraid to speak up when she witnesses injustice. It was refreshing to read something about a Muslim woman that didn’t paint her life as exceedingly difficult, and that didn’t involve her overcoming some form of culture-based oppression that she blamed on religion. Jasmine Falling will remain on my shelf for some time to come, and I hope to find more books worthy enough to join it.