Love in a Headscarf
Shelina Zahra Janmohamed
R295 PP 288
I’d have plucked
Love in a Headscarf
(LIH) off any shelf in the world had it not been for R robbing me of the pleasure by plain handing me the book and demanding a review. Why? Cute pink cover, neon blue embossed type, my kind of unpretentious intellectual come-hither. And I’d have read it even if I weren’t reviewing it. Why? One riveting line in the blurb. “At the age of thirteen, I knew that I was destined to marry John Travolta.” That did it. It accosted me like a childhood friend in a street corner in Antigua or Jhunjhunu and dragged me into the book, hurtling me down 300-odd pages.
Old man Aristotle would have shot himself had he read LIH. After all he carps about plot, and here all the plot you get is a ‘man hunt’ in slow motion. But to call author Shelina Zahra Janmohamed’s debut novel just another don’t-want-to-be-single-desperately-want-to-mingle lit is to be decoyed by the cute pink.
LIH is a bold attempt to unveil the reality of one of the ‘oddities’ of the 21st century — the woman in the hijab or headscarf. The protagonist, also named Shelina, is aware of the homogenising gaze of the non-Muslim world and in the prologue itself tells the reader: “I am not Muslim as you might imagine Muslims to be. I don’t fit into other people’s boxes.”
But before Shelina can prove her individuality, Janmohamed has to explain to a global audience the customs, traditions and beliefs that form the context of an Asian Muslim diasporic female. The twin intent proves a tad heavy and the narrative ends up with schizophrenia.
So when an anxious Shelina e-mails a suitor she likes, the same who is yet to give his verdict, Janmohamed’s voice invokes Khadijah, the Prophet’s first wife recounting how she had taken the initiative of sending the Prophet a marriage proposal herself. It is also why an otherwise insightful paean about the hijab turns into a pain.
Janmohamed’s language is as free flowing and fine as the Basmati I dream of but can never dish up. Then there is the deft humour — samosa-evenings when boy meets girl and the advisory twitter of the Buxom Aunties — bait enough for the non-serious but exploratory reader.
Therefore, clunky presentation of what’s-what notwithstanding, my verdict is — spunky author, important book, and a good read.