I grew up with hundreds of fond memories when I moved in the third grade to a house of baby-pink bricks in the Deep South of the United States. There was a tree in the yard for my sisters and me to climb during the summer months and to avoid altogether during the spring when stinky flowers blossomed. We had the typical suburban lifestyle of clipping coupons and taking joyrides for soft serve at fast food restaurants. Then, once I began to wear the hijab around 2006, I was made aware of harsh Islamophobia. I had memories that were set against a backdrop of hate, much like Amani Al-Khatahtbeh examines in Muslim Girl: A Coming of Age.
Al-Khatahtbeh is the founder and editor-in-chief of the Muslim Girl site. Muslim Girl: A Coming of Age is her debut book framed as a memoir. The memoir traces Al-Khatahtbeh’s experiences as a visibly Muslim woman, experiences that helped drive her passion to create a platform to ensure that Muslim women’s voices were heard. I was excited to see that she even mentioned Muslimah Media Watch as one of the first sites of its kind that inspired her to create more room for Muslim women’s perspectives publicly. The book follows Al-Khatahtbeh from when she was around nine years old at the time when the twin towers fell until the present day. Her story focuses on how dramatically life shifted for Muslim people post 9/11. Some memories are painful, with her house vandalized, hateful words constantly thrown at her during school, and flea market vendors creating a petition to kick out Muslim sellers such as her own father. She remembers the atmosphere of fear that surrounded her family at all times. Al-Khatahtbeh sets her childhood marginalization as the catalyst for how she got to be where she is today, as a woman who has made Forbes’s “30 Under 30” list and a woman who has been featured in many high profile newspaper and magazines.
When I first started reading Muslim Girl, I did not know what to expect. I knew that parts of my former selves, at twelve, at fifteen, at eighteen, would have been so full knowing that a woman with a similar background as me had in a sense made it big. I would have slipped the hardcover book into my parents’ shopping cart when they weren’t looking, excited for the chance to hold a published voice that I could claim as one of my own.
And I did feel connected to some sections. The parts I admired were her descriptions of her times in Jordan, tracing stories of women in her family who un-surprisingly had complicated and rich personas. I loved hearing about her exchanging English music for Arabic music with her relatives and her young innocence in making fun of King Abdullah. She mentions sneaking out with her cousins to meet up with friends and playing soccer with neighbourhood boys. These anecdotes felt real and relatable. They allowed me to think back of the times that I spent with my cousins in which I connected with them regardless of the fact that we grew up on opposite sides of the world.
Another element I appreciated was that Al-Khatahtbeh did not shy away from her privileges. She examined them head on, forcing the reader to acknowledge that her appearance and skin colour have afforded her opportunities that systemic inequalities have made out of reach for others. She comments on her skin colour and forces her audience to think about the fact that had she been a few shades darker or looked less conventionally attractive, her life may have turned out completely different. She recognizes that her appearance and the general privileges in her life have helped her become the public figure that she is today.
But I couldn’t help but feel as though this book wasn’t written for me. I didn’t feel as though Muslim women were the target audience. It felt as though Al-Khatahtbeh were writing to people who wouldn’t have necessarily personally understood how deeply everything shifted after September 11th. In between explanations of how hijabs aren’t oppressive and how intensive TSA checks are, I found myself skimming a lot, because I had heard this all before. I had even experienced a lot of it. I think this would be my greatest critique of the book. After all, what does it mean when Muslim women consistently feel the need to write about our own experiences as the “other,” spending so much time explaining our stories to those without our intimate understandings rather than just telling them?
I also personally did not feel as though I could relate to much of the memoir. While I understand that this is one woman’s journey, I fear that this may be used as a stand in as a universal experience of Muslim women in the West. Among the best sellers in bookshops, the options are few and vary between Malala Yousafzai’s story and that of Al-Khatahtbeh. This is to be expected in a Western media circuit that only allows a few privileged voices of people of colour to stand out amongst a whole slew of whiteness. However, I feel as though Muslim Girl: Coming of Age was honestly more of a promotion of her rise to stardom than it was anything else.
Al-Khatahtbeh is successful, without a doubt. She has managed to create an online platform that has allowed her chances to speak on panels with former presidents and simultaneously visit the house of the current president. She speaks of meetings and photo shoots with high-profile news sites and magazines. Forbes knows her by name. All of this is well documented within Muslim Girl: A Coming of Age, perhaps a little too much. I found myself bombarded with the constant reminders of Al-Khatahtbeh’s corporate achievements. Success is defined rather narrowly in such a way that I know I could never live up to. For many of us, the chances she got and the work she has done is unreachable. Many do not have the resources she had. If success is defined as positioning herself to the top of elite lists that only handpick a tiny handful of people to recognize, this measure of achievements is still, by definition, limited to a very small group. Many people and voices are left out.
I do not want her to be quiet about her accomplishments at all, but the book began to sound like a resume at points. This does not seem to be a story of how Muslim identity has shaped Al-Khatahtbeh so much as it is a timeline of her identity turning her into a powerhouse. I would have liked to read more about her personally, and less about the people and the meetings she scheduled. I would have loved to read more about her journey with Islamic feminism and her ideas of how to make Muslim communities stronger and more inclusive. I would have liked for her to have a discussion with me through the book, rather than just talk at me about her media image. She is clearly a very intelligent and dynamic person and I know there is possibility for so much more.
I know that past me would have loved this book as I was hungry for any book that had writers that claimed any parts of my identity. I can sense her arguing with current me over what more could I possibly want from a book written by a Muslim woman. I am so grateful that Muslim Girl exists and I, like Al-Khatahtbeh, will continue to “think of the little girls we were and the little girls we could have been, and the little girls who never were and what little girls will be if we have anything to say about it.” I hope for future Muslim girls, more people will get books published so Amani Al-Khatahtbeh’s voice isn’t taken as one of the only ones. I want fewer books to be written about Muslim Women and I want more books to be written for them, for us. For those of us who cannot fit neatly into magazine pages and for those of us who do not really care to try.