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CSotD: Identity and Belonging

Two confessions from the start:

First, when I agreed to review Sabba Khan’s graphic memoir, “What Is Home, Mum?” I had no idea what I was getting into. My interest was sparked because I’d had several Indian kids — both Hindu and Muslim — among my young writers in Denver, and knowing them and their parents over the years had been interesting and fun.

Well, “What Is Home, Mum?” is extremely interesting, which helps offset the fact that any fun in it comes not in the form of laughter, but from the illuminating process of watching her spirit grow. Sabba Khan’s narrative is unsparing of herself, her family and the world around her.

I didn’t know what I was getting into, but I’m sure glad I did.

The other confession is that some of these scans could be better, but I wasn’t about to tear the pages from this incredible book so they’d lie flat. Buy a copy yourself and see all 280 pages without that dark strip at the edge, because I’m keeping mine intact.

Khan writes of a Muslim family from Kashmiri Pakistan transplanted into Britain, and the interweaving of a strong culture based on a demanding religion in a world that is totally other.

Or perhaps where she is totally other. As she asks, “So many studies on how minorities conduct themselves within the host culture. But what about how the host culture affects the minority?”

It is a convoluted situation, not simply because the Khans are a minority in Britain, but, occasionally, because they are a minority within the minority: As a small child, her best friend is also South Asian, but Hindu, and her South Asian neighbors disapprove. It doesn’t get better. As a young woman, she finds herself shunned by other Pakistanis because, while not subject to the caste system of India, there is a quieter caste system at work upon which her family is at the lower rungs.

Meanwhile, she is comfortable with the giving philosophy of Islam, but — no longer completely surrounded by fellow Muslims — she questions some of the religious concepts as well as the social outcomes for women.

She finds herself leading a double life, a modern British girl — albeit a hijabi — in public, and an obedient, loyal Pakistani daughter within the home. Her love and devotion to her mother and grandmother throughout her life create an ongoing dilemma as she establishes an external life different from what they expect.

The tension is not that she wants to break free. She does.

But she also wants a family and appreciates the values, if not all the customs, found there, and hence the title: The memoir is about a lifelong search for home.

When she finally stops covering her head, it is not a joyous act of rebellion so much as a deeply conflicting attempt to resolve her dual existence, and she doesn’t simply recount domestic conflicts with her parents and random encounters with those who don’t understand, but devotes a great deal of effort working through her own internal conflicts, bringing into the discussion not just the Prophet but DesCartes and Maslow as well.

There are some specific insights into the culture I hadn’t thought of, including the plight of a left-handed Muslim in a culture in which, as Paul Simon wrote, “That’s the hand you use … well, never mind” and so one in which people are aghast to see anyone eat with the “wrong” hand.

And I was aware that, as with other lunar observances, Ramadan shifts around on the Gregorian calendar, but it hadn’t occurred to me that the dawn-to-dusk fast is — of course — easier when Ramadan falls in December than when it edges towards those longer days.

(I’m also glad she includes a glossary at the end. Footnotes would destroy the brilliant, engrossing pace of her thought process, but there are terms that will be unfamiliar to non-Muslim, non-Pakistani readers.)

I suspect most minorities will appreciate her telling of the day-to-day condescension, misunderstandings and overt insults she encounters, but there are some special moments, as she applies to a prestigious art school.

Her interviewer simply assumes Western garb as the default, even when facing a young artist in South Asian clothing, but a more central problem had arisen earlier, when her high school Advance Textiles teacher told her that her portfolio must include Life Drawing.

“How could I tell her that I’d barely looked at my own boobies, let alone someone else’s?”

She swallows hard, signs up for some life drawing sessions, fights to contain her blushes and turns out to be an impressive artist at that, too.

Then, once in art school, she finally sheds her hijab but a class trip to Israel provides a harsh reminder of her outsider status:

Yanks have little cause to feel superior here: We’ve seen American Muslims detained at the US border coming home from a wedding in Canada, though I can’t find the story now. But I did find a 2011 Tom The Dancing Bug on the general topic.

However, as she does throughout the book, Khan adds a flip to the story: She tries to go inside the Madjid Al-Aksa, but believe the guard there refuses to this bareheaded foreigner is a Muslim and makes her recite several prayers before admitting that, While her accent is poor, the words are right and lets her enter. After handing her a hijab.

Enough. Highlighting specifics is no way to capture the depth and warmth of her combined inner and outer journey, though I will say that it ends well. I’ll also add that the set-up and unfamiliar words in the first pages make it one of those books that feels like the slow clank-clank of the roller coaster at first, but, once you crest the first hill, you’re in for a thrilling ride.

“Where Is Home, Mum?” reminds me of Vera Brittain’s classic “Testament of Youth,” which brought the superficial lessons about World War I into a sharp, unforgettable focus. Similarly, Sabba Khan breathes real life into a world we know exists but — except for those who live there — have never really understood.

If you have to special order it at your local bookstore, why not? It’s a special book.

Sabba Khan adds song titles to the start of each chapter. Here’s one I recognized despite being neither Kashmiri nor young:

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