I have been searching for a book like The Garden of My Imaan for a while now. Aliya attends a public school where she is the only Muslim. Soon after we meet her Aliya’s mother accidentally cuts off another woman in traffic. She yells at them to “go back to the desert and ride a camel!” The angry woman takes no note of the fact that family is from India–where there are NO deserts; and she doesn’t care. The entire episode frightens Aliya, who sees a stranger screaming in anger because Aliya and her family are different…because they are Muslim.
Aliya is confused about aspects of her own Muslim faith and how much of her life and her family’s traditions she wants others to know. She attends classes in Islam on the weekends and her teacher gives Aliya’s class a project: use Ramadan to find a way to improve on themselves. Aliya must determine an area within herself which she feels needs improvement, decide on a course of action to accomplish it, engage in that action and then write an essay about it. The entire idea sounds vague and ridiculous to Aliya. After talking with her great-grandmother she decides she will try writing letters to Allah in addition to praying in order to talk with him in more detail about her life and her feelings.
A new student arrives. Marwa is also Muslim. Her family was originally from Morocco and, unlike Aliya, Marwa wears the hijab at school. A hijab is the covering Muslim women wear over their heads. At first Aliya doesn’t want to be associated with Marwa. She is afraid of looking or acting differently from what she perceives as the norm. The more Aliya watches and gets to know Marwa, however, the more she comes to understand who she truly is and how to have the courage to be herself–whatever that involves.
This story is primarily about Aliya and the ways in which she begins to identify who she is, realize she likes many things about herself and that it is okay to share those things with others. The narrative voice in The Garden of My Imaan is genuinely that of a young pre-teen girl. She IS preoccupied with the way she looks to others and what others say ABOUT her. She is terrified of being different, standing out, of NOT belonging.
All of us feel like that at Aliya’s age. What makes this story unique is the fact that its main character is Muslim at a time in the United States when many people often make no distinction between Muslims in general and the specific individuals responsible for 9/11. This atmosphere and attitude definitely provide another dimension to Aliya’s life that we don’t often talk about outside the context of politics.
I, personally, do not have a lot of knowledge about the Muslim faith and I was excited to learn about some traditions–particularly in connection with Ramadan and daily prayers through Aliya’s story. I firmly believe the more we learn about each other as people the more we realize both how alike we are and how to appreciate our differences–as opposed to fearing what we don’t know or understand.
I had hoped to find a book with a main character who was also Muslim to read aloud in the classroom but due to some specific details about girls maturing, The Garden of My Imaan is not a good option for that particular environment. (There is NOTHING inappropriate in the book; it refers to biological developments that would be cause for embarrassment in a classroom for girls and boys.)The Garden of My Imaan is a great independent reading choice, or perhaps a good bedtime story where other conversations about differences and commonalities can happen naturally. Aliya is an engaging young girl on an inspiring journey of self-discovery. This is an absolutely worthwhile and enjoyable read!