Author: Randa Abdel-Fattah
Publisher: Marion Llyod Books (October 1, 2006)
Setting: The story is set in a town in Sydney, where the main character, Jamilah, lives and attends a public school.
Main Characters: Jamilah, Hakim (Jamilah’s father), Bilal (Jamilah’s brother), Shereen (Jamilah’s sister), Timothy/John, Amy and Peter
Summary: The story revolves around a teenage girl, Jamilah, who leads two different lives. At school, she is known as Jamie from an Anglo-Aussie background, but at home, she’s Jamilah, a Lebanese-Muslim. She dyes her hair blonde and wears blue contacts to school to blend in with the Australian community as she’s afraid to embrace her true identity in school, where racism is prevalent. She keeps a low profile to avoid being exposed, but she truly admires her friend’s (Timothy) courage to be different from everyone else. Timothy is often ridiculed by Peter, the coolest kid in school, but doesn’t give two hoots about Peter. Jamilah has always wanted to have a real friendship with someone at school, but because she’s afraid of being exposed, she doesn’t let her guard down even with Amy, the closest friend she has. The only place that Jamilah seeks solace in and is able to truly embrace her ethnicity and religion, which she is proud of, is at madrasa, an Arabic school. There, she’s not afraid to be herself, and she’s also part of a band that is later invited to perform in the school she attends.
At home, Hakim is very strict with Jamilah because he is a single parent. After his wife passed on, he assumed the role of a fatherly and motherly figure and struggles to be a good parent to Jamilah, who never understands his intentions for her. As such, Jamilah often feels that she is being treated unfairly because even though Hakim objects to the things that Shereen and Bilal do, they still get away with it.
The only person that knows of Jamilah’s true identity is John, a friend that she meets through an online chat room, who is later revealed to be Timothy, her classmate. Throughout the story, Jamilah and John confide in each other whenever they encounter issues at home. Even after Timothy reveals his ‘online identity’ to her, he continues to be the driving force for Jamilah to finally be herself at school.
The key event in this entire story is the Fall Night, during which she would have to perform with her band and in order to do so, she would have to reveal her true identity. She struggles with a series of decisions prior to the actual event, which include getting her father’s approval (because the event is co-ed and her father is strict about her hanging out with boys).
At the end of the story, Jamilah reveals her true identity to Amy, and to her surprise, Amy doesn’t treat her differently and she is relieved. Hakim remarries to Miss Sadja, Jamilah’s madrasa teacher and she manages to convince him to give Jamilah the green light. Bilal also volunteers to drive his sister to the event and stay by her side to give Hakim a peace of mind. At the ball, Jamilah gets cold feet about performing on stage with her band but Timothy manages to calm her down and with that boost of confidence, Jamilah performs and “for the first time in [her] life, knowing the answer has never felt so sweet.”
Review: As a coming-of-age book, this story adopts first-person narration, which helps teen readers relate to the character’s struggles easily, offering an intimate perspective into the character’s life. The entire story is centred on the theme of self identity, where Jamilah struggles with an identity crisis at home and at school; and this is closely related to the social identity theory developed by Henri Tajfel and John Turner, which posits that “when acting in groups, we define ourselves in terms of our group membership and seek to have our group valued positively relative to other groups” (BBC Prison Study, n.d., para. 1). So what are the factors that prompted her to adopt a different persona at school? According to the theory, permeability and security are the key considerations that would affect the person’s decision to either embrace one’s culture or blend in with the rest of the community (BBC Prison Study, n.d.).
In this story, due to prevalent racism in her school, Jamilah believed that it would be impermeable for the Lebanese-Muslims to be accepted by the Anglo-Aussies, therefore she decided to change her identity to fit in with the latter, even though she was secretly proud of her heritage and culture. In terms of security, because she believed that the level of racism at her school was inevitable and unchangeable, she felt insecure and adapted to the school culture to seek security in being a pseduo Anglo-Aussie. In chapter 31, Jamilah revealed that “all I want is to fit in and be accepted as an Aussie. But I don’t know how to do that when I’m juggling my Lebanese and Muslim background at the same time…juggling Aussie and Lebanese and Muslim is like juggling a couch, a letter box and a tray of muffins…how can I be three identities in one? It doesn’t work. They’re always at war with each other.” Feeling almost defeated, she battled with this internal struggle and continued to assume her false identity in school. In addition, the attention that she was getting from Peter, the most popular guy in school, made her reluctant to reveal her true identity because he disliked ‘her people’.
On the other hand, there are other Lebanese-Muslim characters in the book who behaved differently from her. Examples include her classmates Ahmed, Danielle and Paul, who were never afraid to stand up to the popular crowd in school like Peter, Chris and Sam. Despite their heritage, they believed that their community was permeable in society and deliberately distanced themselves from the regular Anglo-Australian students in school. They were able to do this because they felt secure in their own skin. Moreover, they viewed racism as an unacceptable treatment and would rather “act collectively to challenge the status quo and bring about social change” (para. 4).
Another example closer to home for Jamilah would be her sister, Shereen, who proudly wore the hijab and was very passionate activist who frequently organised or took part in protests because she strongly believed that she could make a difference in society. Of course, Timothy also played an important role in this book – despite not being part of the ‘cool crowd’ in school, he never allowed their dissing or mocking to get to him. Instead, he always maintained his cool and in a way, his character played a huge role in helping Jamilah accept her biological identity and encouraged her to “risk it all and play in the band.”
As such, we can see that the existence of characters like Shereen, Ahmed, Danielle, Paul and Timothy were motivations that contributed to Jamilah’s decision to truly be one person at home and at school. She finally decided that “dyeing [her] hair blonde, poking [her] eyes out with contact lenses and living a lie at school all guaranteed [her] a share in the Australian property market but [she was] starting to realise how empty [her] bit of ‘place’ was. It [had] no soul.” Tired of her false identity, she gave up her “alter ego” and together with her band, they challenged the status quo, disallowing any form of racism against them. They sought to create a place for minorities in school, proving that one didn’t need to be ‘cool’ to be well-liked or accepted by others.
Although I personally cannot attest for how serious racism is in Australia, I am confident that this book will speak to the majority who have been through or are going through a similar situation as Jamilah. At the end of the day, in a multicultural society like Australia or even Singapore, it is especially important to respect and be tolerant of each other’s race and religion – this will ensure that the country remains progressive and aware of the complexities and intricacies of being a first-world nation. Acting out against those that you dislike only goes to show how reluctant the people are in adapting to changes. Needless to say, such values need to be incorporated from a young age at home and at school.
Overall, this has been an interesting read, although I wished that the author could have developed the aspect on how the school authorities could have done more to eradicate bullying and racism in the school. The initiative to invite Jamilah’s band to perform was a one-off event and would not have changed the attitudes of the students greatly. More aggressive efforts to champion this cause would probably have made life easier for Jamilah and she wouldn’t have had to struggle with an identity crisis for three years. (Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars)
Social identity theory. (n.d.). Retrieved September 18, 2014, from http://www.bbcprisonstudy.org/resources.php?p=59