Reviews of Two Children’s Books That Explore Islam and the Middle East

By Judith Bolton-Fasman

May 2002


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Muslim Child: Understanding Islam through Stories and Poems by Rukhsana Khan. Illustrated by Patty Gallinger. Sidebars by Irfan Alli. Whitman. $14.95. Ages 8 to 12.

A window opens on the Muslim world through a child’s eyes as one reads the varied stories and poems collected in this book. We learn that, more than a religion, Islam is a way of life for Muslims, who gain peace and status among their people by observing strict rules and rituals in their daily lives. Yet observing these traditions leave them open to misunderstanding by others who are unaware of their significance. Is that really a black ghost, or could it be simply a child’s mother who dresses in a black cape and head covering? Is it okay to pretend to complete the complicated washing before prayers five times a day, or may one pray even if not quite perfect in washing? Might one be excused for eating something containing forbidden pork products if one has already bought it and is really hungry?

The book presents a sympathetic picture of children embracing the ways of their religion while fitting into modern life in many countries. This reviewer found the constant refrain of “peace be upon him” following every mention of any of the prophets (including Moses, Abraham, Jesus and Mohammed among others) rather confusing, since this book is intended for general audiences rather than Muslim religious instruction. But the sidebars on nearly every page, as well as materials following chapters and at the back of the book, provide excellent information while stressing the ties between Judaism, Christianity and Islam and their universal desire for peace. Includes appealing black and white illustrations throughout and a pronunciation and script guide. —Judy Chernak

Nineteen Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East by Naomi Shihab Nye. HarperCollins. $16.95. Ages 9 and up.

Born to a Palestinian father and a German-American mother, Naomi Shihab Nye’s poetry is infused with images of her childhood memories in St. Louis and Jerusalem as well as verse about her current home in San Antonio, Texas. This latest volume from the prolific poet collects all of Shihab Nye’s poems about the Middle East, her hopes for peace and her hyphenated identity as an Arab-American. In a poem entitled “Jerusalem,” she bluntly writes: “I’m not interested in who suffered the most. I’m interested in people getting over it.” Shihab Nye’s motivation in collecting these poems was to assuage her grief over “the huge shadow [that] had been cast across the lives of so many innocent people and an ancient culture’s pride after September 11.” And in this volume she remembers the life-affirming details of her father’s prayers, her grandmother’s hands, the fig and olive trees in her Jerusalem backyard. Language itself is also a force with which to be reckoned. In “Lunch in Nablus City Park” Shihab Nye muses that, “When you lunch in a town which has recently known war under a calm slate sky mirroring none of it, certain words feel impossible in the mouth. Casualty: too casual, it must be changed.” Prescient words in these tragic times. —Judith Bolton-Fasman


About Judith Bolton-Fasman

Judith Bolton-Fasman is a freelance book reviewer and writer in the Boston area.