Review of 'Better Left Unsaid' - Tufayel Ahmed
The book opens with a newspaper report about an attack on a Muslim woman at a bus stop. Her hijab is ripped off her head. To begin with, I was unsure whether the book was going to be inspired by/based on a real incident, because sadly, I was convinced that I'd read about something similar happening in real life.
One of the characters talks about reading about the attack on social media and I can imagine the kinds of comments they would be reading. Without an understanding of the significance of the hijab, it's very easy to dismiss such an attack as being a minor one - "it's no different to having a hat pulled off, it's unsettling, but what's the big deal". However, the plain fact is that there is a world of difference between the two events. For many Muslim women the hijab is about modesty of dress and having it forcibly removed would be deeply traumatic. The beauty of this book is that it gets that message across without the narrative ever feeling as though it's purpose is to teach. Fahima's response to the attack is beautifully described and it is the catalyst for opening up old family wounds.
Nevertheless, this is only one of many 'learning' points in this book. As a white, heterosexual, middle aged woman, I found it really interesting to read about the different cultural expectations placed on the characters, particularly when it came to gender roles and sexuality. Also, whilst we like to think that as a society we have moved on at least a little, from racism and Islamophobia, if the experiences of the characters in the book are based in reality (and I have no reason to doubt that they are) then it's abundantly clear that it has simply moved underground. 'Microaggressions' is a term I am coming across more and more when it comes to discussions around race and the examples given here are perfect illustrations of this in practice. Imran is so keen to not be the 'angry Muslim' but it's hard not to be angry when you are on the receiving end of so much injustice. He is far from perfect, but by the end of the book he recognises this and has channelled that anger into something positive.
The other thing I found interesting was the question of sexuality and the role religion and culture plays in the acceptability of this for young Muslims (and I imagine for those belonging to other faiths as well). Although I had previously been aware of some of the issues raised, it wasn't something I'd come across in my reading before and I think the characters make an important point when they talk about how the LGBTQ community is often talked about as a homogenous group, when in fact that there are many issues faced by some that would not have been seen as an issue by others and this is often based in religious and cultural backgrounds.
I read the book because I thought it sounded interesting and on one level it was a fascinating study of family dynamics and a thoroughly good read. On another level however, I finished it feeling as though I was at least a little better educated on the issues it covered and that's never a bad thing as far as I'm concerned.
Thank you to Netgalley and the publishers for an ARC.