Yes, theres been a lot of book reviews on here lately, but I have to admit to being thrilled about that. When I was first approached by FB Publishing to review some of their books, I naturally jumped at it. The following review is quite self-explanatory as to the reason for my excitement.
Normal Calm by Hend Hegazi
This is a book that breaks the mould, more especially in the spectrum of books about muslim women by muslim women authors. And I’m so glad it does! The story is a look at surviving, conquering and succeeding. It deals with so many different themes and its all packed into this wonderful piece of story telling. Very few fiction books tackle the challenges faced by young Muslims and especially young muslim women, in non-Muslim communities.
Although this book is set in the US, there are so many relatable aspects for young muslim woman worldwide, not least of which is the cultural clash between ‘modern’ living and Islamic ethics and values. It highlights the context of Arab American life: the immigrant work ethic of the parents, their wish to see children succeed, the anxiety that parents deal with at the prospect of allowing their children freedom as in American standards. The book also addresses the problems someone who can clearly be identified as Muslim might face in America and the way Muslims integrate and interact with those around them. Amina, the main character manages to find a balance between these 2 seemingly opposing world values, pursuing a degree in chemistry whilst wearing hijab, staying away from her parents whilst studying yet performing the 5 daily prayers, enjoying an active social life whilst still holding firm to her faith. Amina shows that the 2 lifestyles are not completely incongruent and can actually blend together…However it is perhaps this same ‘blending’ that leads to a moment where Amina finds herself completely vulnerable and experiences a moment of sheer terror, that will forever change her. Amina is raped, and by someone she considered a friend.
This is a turning moment for her, one which will test her faith, and her strength and her resilience. I have to admit that I was a little disappointed that she didn’t immediately report the incident to the police, but later found that she dealt with it in a manner which was best befitting to her. It gave me the realisation that not every victim of rape seeks ‘legal’ justice, some just need to find healing for themselves. The attack is not described in graphic detail, but that’s perhaps as a result of Amina not wanting to deal with the exact details in the moment. That may have been a coping mechanism on her behalf. Amina does join a group therapy programme and thereafter finds solace in her friends and family in whom she confides. I would have appreciated a slightly more in-depth look at the psychological and emotional hurdles a rape survivor has to endure, and a more detailed insight into how she found coping mechanisms and dealt with her pain, however as it quickly reveals this story focuses on an unspoken, unfair, unjust implication…
Dealing with the physical and emotional trauma seemed easier than dealing with the societal trauma and perceptions that result. In a culture that only values a lady and considers her marriageable if she has maintained her virginity, Amina thereafter has to deal with the harsh reality of rejection based on events that were not her doing. Virginity in her community, like it was in others until some decades ago, is still an essential condition to find a husband. She was still paying for the crime of her attacker. She endured her fiancé leaving her, when she told him the truth, her parents becoming overly-protective to the point of her having to turn down a work promotion, and the constant fear of rejection from potential suitors. It also highlights the double-standard that is imposed on young muslim women…Young men are never asked such questions!
The story also focuses on the impact of rape on the family, and not just the victim. Amina’s mother has a breakdown, and Amina has to become a support to her! Her other college friends also have challenges that they have to address, from hijab, to marriage, and this makes it something relatable for almost every young muslim. I also quite liked the character of Kayla, a childhood friend, who lives life in a carefree faith-free manner, and I enjoyed reading Amina’s gentle attempts at Dawah towards her. Kayla has been a constant rock, questioning her, cheering her on, and just being there. I like that this character was not muslim, as it showed how friendships between people of different faiths are not only possible but can also be very fulfilling. The conversations between the two also serve a dual purpose in that it helps the reader to understand the Islamic perspective of certain things, when Amina is explaining them to Kayla.
In the end, not only does Amina conquer her own fears, but also succeeds in finding love. Her fears of telling him the truth about her past, were unfounded as he explains to her that he already knew of it. She also shows herself to be a woman of faith, and courage.
The stigma of rape and its implications are not often discussed in any society, and so Hend Hegazi needs to be commended on this compelling story. She proves to be a good novelist when it comes to her style of writing, and the way events are built upon each other in the book. I have to admit that I did stumble upon a few spelling errors, however these did not detract from the story. While reading it, there were certain sections that I wanted to rush through, I wanted to know what was going to happen next. Whilst we often lament the fact that as muslim women we don’t need others to speak for us, Hend Hegazi has gone one step further, and presented our own views to the world. Normal Calm is an eye-opening novel about the hurdles we cross, the dreams we dream, how we achieve our goals whilst still holding firmly to our faith, just like any other woman around us. I wait with baited breathe for what comes next from this truly talented story-teller.