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A Place For Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza

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On a recent holiday, with friends, I took along A Place For Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza. I’m afraid I spent more time reading than I did visiting until I had finished this truly exceptional novel. It is a novel that is so much more than the story it tells that I feel unable to describe it adequately.

The story begins with a wedding, eldest daughter Hadia, surrounded by her family and friends, looks only for her brother, Amar. He chose to leave his family some time earlier without any contact, but Hadia has asked him to come to her wedding, and he has come.

We then move back in time to the meeting of the parents, the arranged marriage, Rafiq and Layla. Then their move to the United States, to California and the beginning of their lives as young parents to Hadia, Amar and Huda. They live in a suburb of predominately immigrant, Muslim, families. They socialize with their neighbours, attend their mosque regularly and live their lives. They are observant of their religion, and except perhaps for Layla, assimilated into the culture of America. They are peaceful, good people.

Layla rules the home, whole heartedly loves and mothers her children and cares for her husband. Rafiq takes his role as breadwinner, father and husband very seriously, and demands not only to be listened to, but obeyed. Though he loves his children, and is proud of their accomplishments, he does not understand or tolerate the behavior of American teenagers – especially the behavior of his only son.

We see the gulf between father and son widen, with a father who cannot understand the sensitivity of his son, sees it only as weakness, and a son who seethes and withers. Though he loves his daughters Rafiq simply sees them as lovely girls, temporarily in his care, before becoming wives and mothers.

Hadia understands that in order to win her father’s favour she must achieve and please him. She is a smart girl, and studies Medicine – achieving the American Dream, becoming a well respected Doctor though she finds she has no passion for it. She is a confident and capable young woman, liberal in attitude and attire but still deeply committed to her religion.

A Place For Us reveals all of the joy and tragedy of a family. The joy of young children and parents when things are good and the world is full of optimism for the future. The complications of the teenage years, and the conflict of children and parents during this time when the young need independence and the parents need to protect. There is the tragedy of a young death and fear of the future. There are the secrets kept and revealed.

This novel gave me more of an understanding of the importance and influence of religious belief, and the challenges that face Muslim Americans, than anything else I have read, fiction or non-fiction. We are taken into the home, and into the private conversations, the conflicts and compassion shared by this family. The spoken and unspoken fear and distress after the tragedy of 9/11. The changes some choose to make and the challenges faced by all within a family and a community.

As we follow this family through one generation and into the next, we see the children grow, attempting to find their own place in the world. Hadia and Huda do so by pleasing, but for Amar this is just not possible. Amar’s conflict with his father results in estrangement, not only from his father but also from his mother and sisters – a great grief to them all and with such regret.

Much later we share the great pleasure Layla and Rafiq find in becoming grandparents. We also witness, along with this family the growing xenophobia in America. 

Will this wedding bring them together, or simply make it clear, once again, to Amar that he will never find peace within this family.

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