From Somalia With Love is Na’ima B. Robert’s first novel and is intended for a Young Adult readership. She tells the story of fourteen year of old Safia Dirie, a Somali girl living in East London. The story begins with the arrival of her father, a Somali freedom fighter absent for twelve years and long thought dead.
A happy family reunion is short-lived as Safia realises her life is quickly changing: the close bond with her mother begins to weaken, her favourite brother Ahmed’s behaviour and lifestyle goes from bad to worse and Safia feels herself drowning in her father’s cultural expectations. Lonely and unwilling to talk about her feelings, Safia begins to close herself off from her family and close friends, and instead is drawn to her sophisticated cousin Firdous and her party-girl lifestyle. Despite being warned about Firdous by her aunt, Safia begins spending more and more time with Firdous and away from home. Things, however, are soon to get out of hand and Safia must decide what is most important in her life and who she really wants to be.
It’s been a long time since I’ve read a Young Adult novel, perhaps not since my own YA days, and I definitely never read anything like this at the time. Early-teens is perhaps the only age where there seems to be unlimited time for reading, and I’m sure I got through hundreds of YA books. You want to know what I read? (Oh dear God, I can’t believe I’m about to tell you this). Sweet Valley High and Point Horror books. And Point Romance, but those got hidden under my bed because I was so embarrassed about reading them and didn’t want anyone to find them! *hangs head in shame* I wish I could look back and say that I used to read all the children’s classics like other people but unfortunately I can’t. ( I did read The Secret Garden, that counts as something, right..?) I think the reason was probably because although reading was encouraged at school, there was no real guidance on what we should read, and being the daughter of first generation migrants, there was a lack of guidance within the family also, in terms of English literature.
But I digress. In my early teens, there was next to nothing written by Muslims for Muslim teens, other than a few Islamic books my father bought me on his visits to London and Birmingham. It wouldn’t be untrue to claim that what we read shapes us as humans and our understanding of the world, especially at the tender age of early teens. For this reason, I find it so refreshing and encouraging that the teens of the Muslim community finally have reading material that they can relate to. Reading that will inspire them and give them an alternative view of life to other literature they might be reading at the time.
From Somalia has a simple story line in which Safia explores the usual dilemmas of any teenager – school, boys, clothes, family relationships – and discovers how to balance this with her dedication to her religion. From Somalia is quite a short read and not as detailed as I’d hoped, but it opens up the possibility for British Muslim YA fiction that I can only applaud and encourage. For a teenager, it can only mean the start of better reading and therefore better thinking. I actually quite enjoyed the light read that From Somalia provided, and wished that similar books had been available in my own time.