A Place for Us
by Fatima Farheen Mirza
An American-Indian Muslim family gathers for Hadia, the eldest daughter’s wedding, a match of love, and the family was as excited–and as nervous–to welcome Amar, youngest son, estranged from the family and out of touch for three years, as they are to witness the marriage. Unconventional in structure, the non-linear book is primarily told from the point of view of Hadia, Amar, and mother Layla, with memories as early as the first time Layla met her husband Rafiq. Key stories are told and revisited, such as Amar’s campaign for a pair of expensive red tennis shoes and his locker room encounter with angry students after 9/11. Amar chafes against the strictures imposed on him and feels isolated and misunderstood while Hadia strives to exceed expectations and become the ideal son. Huda, middle daughter, becomes lost in the wake of the close relationship between her siblings which is based as much in competition and jealousy as it is in love.
“Make no judgments where you have no compassion.”–Anne McCaffrey, Dragonquest
While reading A Place for Us, I kept reminding myself of the quote, “Make no judgments where you have no compassion.”–Anne McCaffrey, Dragonquest. I was challenged to find empathy and forgo judgement as I bristled against the strict Muslim guidelines constraining the behavior of the family at the core of the book. The rules regarding gender were particularly hard for me to understand, with women: the separation of men and women at mosque, during parties, even in the classroom; the rules regarding modesty and decorum; the focus on arranged marriage. When Layla wanted Hadia to eschew college and medical school in favor of a traditional marriage, it was difficult for me to feel anything other than disbelief though I tried to imagine evens from her perspective.
Fatima Farheen Mirza writes beautifully, and after reading the book, I feel absolutely gutted (and at the same time, sad that it’s over). The characters are entrenched in patterns that keep them from reaching out to each other, and they protect secrets instead of seek resolution. Both Amar and Hadia each think the other is the favorite child, and instead of making a connection, that false belief becomes a seed of resentment. Yet, there is hope, too. Rafiq hopes to send Amar a message: “There is another way. Come back, and we will make another path.”
A Place for Us is about a Muslim family navigating identity and the complicated ties that bind and separate them from each other, but it transcends the narrative to illuminate the love and anger, forgiveness and resentment, that all families must navigate.