In “A Place For Us”, I find home.

A Place for Us came across my desk and into my life suddenly and all at once. What I mean by that is that the book, the author, and the opportunity to interview her (!!) all came to Dallas in one big wave. Stay tuned for a second post with my interview of Fatima Farheen Mirza; read on for my review of her stunning book.

Readers, I ate the book up. In a day, I had laughed, cried, loved, cried and cried again at this beautiful portrayal of a Muslim-American family struggling with culture, love, religion, community, and family. We follow the story of a family–shifting perspectives from the mother Laila, to the daughter Hadiya, to the son Amar, and finally to the father, Rafiq–and view a lifetime in each of their eyes. The incredible thing is, I immediately and fully connected with and empathized with each and every one of them.

The book begins at Hadiya’s wedding; the appearance of her estranged brother Amar immediately creating tension among every member of the family. Drug use and short tempers are hinted at and then the book brings us into the past. The parents and siblings are young and we watch them grow. The book forces us to read on out of sheer curiosity–What led to Amar’s estrangement? A whodunnit of sorts. Something or someone must be the culprit.

We barrel ahead, tensing at every sign of adversity that little Amar faces, much like his parents, thinking, this is it. This is the catalyst to his fall, but he seems to come out of each one a little rougher but mostly ok. There are gaps & skips in Amar’s story and we feel the darkness that fills those empty spaces like we may sometimes feel a presence in our periphery–something we can’t quite place and when faced head-on, it disappears.

We switch perspectives. This time to Hadiya. We watch her growth and development. I watch as the ‘perfect daughter’ persona I have unconsciously dressed her in unravels quietly. She remains an innocent and respectful daughter to her parents and in the eyes of her community, but as she grows and gives herself permission to become something more than what society has prescribed, she struggles with her own rebellions. Amar’s decline effects her deeply and she begins to reflect on her own memories critically, searching for the answer to a question–“What happened?”. Her guilt wraps tightly to a small betrayal from her childhood, a moment of petty jealousy, and ringing it steadily like a gong whose vibrations reach into her every memory.

We switch to the Laila, Amar’s mother and closest confidant. We see glimpses of her life as a young girl in India blushing at the thought of the local ice cream man, a quick skim through her introduction to and marriage to Rafiq, the quiet love that grows between them as they build their life together in America and with the birth of their children. Then the worry sets in. We watch Hadiya and Amar grow up through Laila’s eyes. We see how sensitive Amar can be to the religious teachings she gives; how deeply he thinks about them. Hadiya’s loving and motherly nature comes naturally and from a young age. Laila does her best to support and protect her children every step of their development but despite her best efforts, we see Amar struggling. Laila’s intentions with her children are never anything but the best, so when she discovers a secret romance between Amar and the daughter of a highly respected family in their community, we hold our collective breath. Love is a complicated thing and we feel that acutely in her experience.

We only hear Rafiq’s views in the final act of the book. But, readers, it will rip your heart out. A retrospective letter to his estranged son, Rafiq’s perspective never shows us Rafiq’s life as a kid or a teenager. It begins as a father and ends as an old man, riddled with regrets and questions, perpetually replaying in his internal monologue.

Without ever letting us as readers force anyone character into black-and-white, good-or-bad binaries. It resists the reader’s urge to deal with the book’s uncomfortable or tragic situations by picking sides. It defies the pull of society to portray or place Muslims in a stereotype, a ‘Other’ category, or a box of any kind.

A Place For Us is shockingly honest. Moments throughout the book would suddenly resonate so strongly with my own internal thoughts that I would feel a visceral pang in my chest–an incredibly emotional feeling of belonging and relief to finally, finally be seen.

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Cleveland: Full of History, Full of Hope

I’ve visited Cleveland several times over the years, but I never really saw Cleveland until my last visit. Cleveland has often been viewed as a pock-marked with “bad spots”, especially after the recession of 2008. But the city seems to be coming out of a metaphoric chrysalis as of late. You can really feel the city coming alive around you. To truly capture the essence of Cleveland, you’ve got to visit these places.

1. Algebra Tea House

This is a place where people come to interact and discuss religion and politics and art and poetry and love. Bookshelves line the wall amidst pops of color and hand crafted mugs. This little tea shop was the first non-italian owned shop in Cleveland’s Little Italy district and it has given and received warmth to the community with its tea and friendship.

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Everything has a touch of the owner’s hand– chairs, tables, and even the front door is crafted by him and his paintings hang on the walls in bright bursts of color.

2. Superman wasn’t born in Kansas or Iowa… He’s from Cleveland

That’s right! The original superhero, Superman, was conceptualized in a house near Case Western University by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster. Like any iconic superhero, Superman is like a beacon of hope for mankind, shining bright and believing the best in us. It is fitting that a Man of Steel was born from the Cleveland community as Cleveland is finding its way again.

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The first volume of the Superman series is displayed in comic strip form on the fence surrounding Jerry Siegel’s house

3. Lucky’s Cafe

Craving a little Farm-to-Table action? Lucky’s is the place to be. Tradition and diversity lead the way in their most interesting of flavors. You can have fun with some of their more experimental dishes like the Canoewreck, or you can go with their Forever-Delicious Baked Mac-N-Cheese. Whatever you choose, I guarantee you’ll love it.

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Enjoy their outdoor seating in the warmer months!

4. Any one of the many Polish Catholic churches in the area

Poles came to Cleveland long ago and they brought their unique art form and food with them. Besides their delicious pierogis, some of the most stunning art is depicted in their churches–if you can find someone who works there to tell you the stories behind the different stained glass panels and gold leafed statues, it can be better than a trip to the museum. I personally went to St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Parma, OH where the minister walked me through his favorite panels and displays.

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A polish catholic church

5. Rockefeller Park aka Cleveland Cultural Gardens

Last but certainly not least, there’s Cleveland’s little slice of paradise. Cozied up against Lake Erie, I found this little gem on my way to the airport, right at the end of the trip. A string of 26 nationality gardens, the site is unique to Cleveland, with each garden sharing the flavor of its nation in the architecture and landscaping. It holds busts and full statues of notable individuals like Gandhi, Tesla, Curie, Schiller, and Shakespeare.

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Gandhi Statue at Cleveland Cultural Gardens

The theme of the Gardens “Peace through mutual understanding”, and the cultural diversity seen in the gardens stands at the very foundation of Cleveland and is a real joy to explore.


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