Sunday, 14 January 2018

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Review: Love, Hate & Other Filters by Samira Ahmed

Love, Hate & Other Filters by Samira AhmedNetGalleyLove, Hate & Other Filters by Samira Ahmed (eProof) - A searing #OwnVoices coming-of-age debut in which an Indian-American Muslim teen confronts Islamophobia and a reality she can neither explain nor escape.

Maya Aziz is torn between futures: the one her parents expect for their good Indian daughter (i.e.; staying nearby in Chicago and being matched with a "suitable" Muslim boy), and the one where she goes to film school in New York City--and maybe, just maybe, kisses a guy she's only known from afar. There's also the fun stuff, like laughing with her best friend Violet, making on-the-spot documentaries, sneaking away for private swimming lessons at a secret pond in the woods. But her world is shattered when a suicide bomber strikes in the American heartland; by chance, he shares Maya's last name. What happens to the one Muslim family in town when their community is suddenly consumed with hatred and fear?


Trigger Warning: Terrorist attack and Islamophobia.

I've wanted to read Love, Hate & Other Filters by Samira Ahmed ever since taking part in the Ramadan Readathon last year, where it was highlighted as a book featuring a Muslim character yet to be released, and I was ecstatic when I discovered it was also being published in the UK. I expected it to be hard-hitting and horrible, and while it is at times, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was also cute and funny at times, too.

You could almost split the book into two parts, before the suicide bomber changes everything, and after. The first half was just brilliant. It felt a lot like Sofia Khan is Not Obliged by Ayisha Malik meets Jenny Han's YA novels; a sweet, Summery romance, but where our main character is a Muslim, who has parents who have certain expectations for the life of their Indian-American Muslim daughter. The only difference between the parents expectations in this book and in Sofia Khan is Not Obliged is that Sofia's parents behaviour and reactions are met with affectionate exasperation, and provide a fair amount of the comedy, but Maya's parents are deadly serious. They don't seem to understand why Maya would not want the life they expect her to lead; to marry a suitable Muslim boy, and become a lawyer or doctor, when she would rather make her own choices over who she dates, seeing as she is really into the white football captain at school, Phil, and go to NYU to study filmmaking, which is her passion. Their relationship becomes more strained as the story goes on, after the terrorist attack, but the first half of the book is actually really lovely, such a cute romance, and you're rooting for Maya and Phil. Even so, though, there is a sense of foreboding; as the reader, we know there's going to be a suicide attack, and every chapter ends with a few paragraphs from the terrorist's point of view,or a memory of his, as he's preparing to do the unthinkable. So all the while, while you're reading about Maya's everyday life, her arguments with her parents about which college she goes to, and the will-they-won't-they during Maya's swimming lessons with Phil, you know something terrible is coming that is going to shatter Maya's world.

And then it's here. And, my god. Whenever I hear about a terrorist attack on the news, no matter where in the world it's happened, I am engulfed by a wave of fear and sorrow. 2017 saw quite a few take place in the UK, and that fear would trigger my anxiety. Only last month there was a false alarm of a terror attack taking place ten minutes from where I work, while I was at work, and it was absolutely terrifying. The world we live in now, that fear is hard to escape. And Ahmed captured that feeling so brilliantly as Maya and the other students at school are in lockdown just after the attack happens. When they're locked in and they don't know why. When the texts come piling in, when various news outlets are saying different things about what happened, yet all in agreement on terrorist attack. The fear Maya feels - the fear they all feel - in that moment is palpable. And even though this is a book, and even though I knew it was coming, I was right there with them all, engulfed in that fear. I don't write fiction, but I can imagine how difficult it is to write a feeling that is almost beyond words, but Ahmed writes it perfectly.

But Maya's fear is different from mine, because her fear isn't just in reaction to the news of a terrorist attack, her fear is also very specific fear of what this will mean for her and other Muslims.
'I'm scared. I'm not just scared that somehow I'll be next; it's a quieter fear, and more insidious. I'm scared of the next Muslim ban. I'm scared of my dad getting pulled into Secondary Security Screening at the airport for "random" questioning. I'm scared for the hijabi girls I know getting their scarves pulled off while they're walking down the sidewalk--or worse. I'm scared of being the object of fear and loathing and suspicion again. Always.' (p140)*
Reading it, it was... shocking. And I was ashamed that it was eye-opening. I think it's part privilege and part being a decent human being who doesn't automatically think that all Muslims are to blame for all terrorist attacks, where the terrorist is - supposedly - a Muslim. I wasn't shocked by the things Maya was scared of happening, I watch the news, I go on Twitter, I carry a spare scarf in my bag, I know what happens. I was shocked that this fear, fear of what the backlash from the terrorist attack would mean for Muslims, is automatic. Of course it would be, when we have scumbags in the world who make the lives of Muslims hell when atrocities like this happen, committing atrocities of their own.

And we get to see some of those atrocities as Maya and her parents experience Islamophobia in the days and weeks following the terrorist attack, verbal and physical. It's disgusting, it's upsetting, it's scary. Maya may be Muslim, but really, she's no different from me, and it's so very easy to put myself in her shoes - especially as a woman - when she is being attacked, when her family is being attacked. It made me feel sick, it made me feel scared, and it made me dread what was to come. And again, I was smacked in the face with the awareness of my privilege, because I don't have to fear what might happen to me when I step outside my house every day in the wake of a terrorist attack, not because of my faith or my skin colour. It's really harrowing to read.

I have to say I loved the conversation Maya had with her parents about the terrorist attack, and how it's nothing to do with Muslim. It's the kind of thing you hear on the news, when someone high up in the Muslim community is interviewed for the news after a terrorist attack, condemning what happened. But it's also a teachable moment for those who maybe don't watch the news, or don't pay any attention.
'My father picks up where my mother leaves off. "These terrorists are the antithesis of Islam. They're not Muslim. Violence has no place in religion, and the terrorists are responsible for their own crimes, not the religion and not us."
"Then why is there so much fighting in the Middle East, and why are so many suicide bombers Muslim?"
"Terrorism has no religion. Think of Dylann Roof and that church in Charleston or the attack on the Sikh gurdwara in Wisconsin. Terrorists have their own ideaology. Who knows what hatred compels them? They're desperate and unthinking and followers--"
I interrupt my mother. "Too bad none of that matters. We all get painted like we're un-American, and terrorist sympathizers, no matter how loudly we condemn terrorism and say it's un-Islamic. It's guilt by association."'
(p148)*
I have to say I also really loved the sections at the end of every chapter, leading up to and after the terrorist attack, first from the terrorist's point of view, and then from the media, as they discover more about the attack and the terrorist himself. It was so very, very clever. And it was interesting getting to find out about the terrorist's background, from interviews with people who knew him, and from memories of his, even though he's now dead. Terrorists do such horrific things, I think we tend to forget that they're human, too. That they're people. And while what we read is absolutely no excuse for what he did, because it's unforgivable, it does give an insight into what may have led him down this road. It's actually quite sad, and I found myself feeling sorry for him. Which just seems appalling. But I do think it was very clever of Ahmed to give us this guy's background, to show us his humanity. I also think it's pretty wonderful, too, that Ahmed would do this, for this fictional terrorist, when real terrorists commit such unspeakable crimes, to make us think that they are people too, that we don't know what they've been through. It's not forgiveness, it's not, but it's something other than hatred for this person. And I think it's really telling that Ahmed can think about the terrorists' humanity when they've done such terrible things, when bigots jump straight to hatred of those who have done absolutely nothing wrong, who are, as Maya puts it, guilty by association. And I really, really admire Ahmed for giving this terrorist his humanity, and his story.

I do have a few quibbles with Love, Hate and Other Filters, though. It's so, so short, and the terrorist attack doesn't happen until the half-way point. Which works well, it's an even balance between the normal, the everyday, the cute, sweet romance, and the horrific things that follow. But, as it's short at 272 pages  as a physical book, there isn't really a huge amount of either. That sounds like I want more Islamophobia,and I really don't; what they Azizs experience is too much as it is. However, a lot of time goes by in this book,  though, to be honest, I only really knew that because Maya would think something like she hasn't smiled properly like this in months, and then I know quite a bit of time has gone by, when I thought it was only a few days, so the passing of time isn't made very clear. But months go by after the terrorist attack, the longer lasting affects of Islamophobia aren't shown, exactly. There are specific affects that are specific to Maya and her parents' disagreements about her future, but there's not really anything about the affects to her parents' dental practice over time, for example. There is an attack on the practice, so how does that affect their business? Do patients stop coming, for fear of being hurt during another possible attack, or because they themselves are scumbags who no longer want to be around Muslims? Do they lose money? Do they start to struggle financially? I don't know, because it's not covered. And that's what I mean about there not being a huge amount of  before and, more specifically after the attack. I do wish the book was longer, and we got more of the sweet side of things, and more of the affects of Islamophobia.

But all in all, Love, Hate & Other Filters is such an incredible book - and not only incredible, but so very important. It's powerful, and it's needed. I absolutely loved it, and I look forward to reading what Ahmed writes in the future - whether sweet, cute stories, or hard-hitting, powerful stories, or more of both.

*All quotes have been checked against a final copy of the book.

Thank you to Hot Key Books via NetGalley for the eProof.

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Published: 16th January 2018
Publisher: Hot Key Books
Samira Ahmed's Website

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