Posted in Book Discussions

Book Discussion: The Proudest Blue

The Proudest Blue: A Story of Hijab and Family. By Ibtihaj Muhammad with S.K. Ali. Illustrated by Hatem Aly. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (9780316519007)
Publish date: September 10, 2019

Faizah admires older sister Asiya’s new, strikingly blue and beautiful first-day-hijab, finding inner strength and pride when facing bullies at school who make fun of it.

This book discussion was conducted on May 12, 2019 and was based on the fold & gather, received from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. The conversation has been edited for clarity.

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Ariana: My first appreciation is seeing multiple Muslims involved in the process of this book from the author, Ibtihaj Muhammad with S.K. Ali and illustrated by Hatem Aly. The cover clearly conveys the concepts and themes– beauty of the blue hijab, ocean and sky, the endless possibilities.

Mahasin: For me it is still unusual to see African American Muslim representation in children’s books and seeing people who look like me and my family. To see both faces of the sisters…I think just seeing the cover will just make a lot of little girls in particular really happy.

Ariana: When I went to a presentation for this, there was a reading of the text by Ibtihaj. At that point I had only heard the name Asiya pronounced Aah-si-ya or Aa-si-ya. In the audio recording, her name is pronounced A-see-yuh; it was interesting for me to hear how Asiya’s name is pronounced in her family.  I thought about how it would create a different experience for readers listening to the book and reading the text and how it’s another point of identity that would make the experience of the story richer in this case.

Mahasin: That is not an uncommon pronunciation of the name, especially in African-American communities. I find the ritual of going to the store as a family so powerful, because I think that there’s this idea often times that wearing a scarf is forced upon girls and if they had the choice they wouldn’t choose to wear it. Right at the beginning it’s established that this is a moment of pride, a moment of togetherness, a moment of consent, a moment of choice, and a moment of affirmation.

Ariana: I like differentiation in the scarf style preference between Asiya and her mother, her mother in an abaya and a long khimar, a hint of how they might differ in hijab style. I also like that Asiya’s style without hijab is distinctive and cool.

Mahasin: I love the details of Asiya’s hairstyle. She clearly has cornrows or braids and colorful rubber bands, which are common hairstyles for Black girls. I also appreciate the details of her earrings and jacket. I think of the book Under My Hijab by Hena Khan, and that so often the question that women who wear headscarves get is “What’s going on underneath there? Do you have hair underneath there? Are you bald?” 

This image is important because it normalizes the idea that the person wearing the scarf and not wearing the scarf are the same person. While the scarf has symbolism, it’s simultaneously a piece of clothing and there’s still that person with all the things that humans have underneath. As obvious as that sounds, it is an important statement.

Hadeal: I really enjoyed seeing things from Faiza’s perspective, and her clear admiration of her sister. But even though we don’t get a lot of written explanation of Asiya’s feelings, we can see that she sure herself, with no hesitation, she knows what she wants, and Faiza knows that too. 

Ariana: I appreciate that throughout the book you can still clearly see aspects of Asiya’s personality, like her headphones dangling under her hijab, still there. And as they move through the setting you see more of Faizah, counting her steps with each light up of her shoes, walking with a princess. So she doesn’t think of herself as a princess yet. 

Mahasin: In my bio for the blog I referred to my scarf as a crown. I had debated whether that was cheesy, but decide that it is my truth. This crown on top of my head, regardless of terminology, is an accessory or accent to Blackness, and “Black is beautiful,” that utilizes the language of royalty and recalls “kings and queens” in Africa. It is a common phrase connected to the African American community, the African African Muslim community, Islamic liberation theology, and social and political awareness around Blackness. In my lived experience, Faizah thinking of herself as a princess-in-training, in terms of the headscarf, rings true to me. 

Ariana: Thank you, Mahasin for that clarity. I love the joy of the color blue in the smile of the hijab as Faizah watches Asiya head to sixth grade. The spread that follows has Faizah claiming her joy back from whispers of doubt about Asiya’s scarf. That self-realization and sense of agency was subtle but something that people of color and communities that have experienced oppression have had to do, carrying the idea back to the title of Proud.

Mahasin: I am thinking about the continuum of Ibtihaj going from Proud to the Proudest Blue. I think the theme of not being embarrassed, ashamed or feeling like you have to hide, it stands out to me in conversations about Islam, assimilation and race. It harkens back to being Black and proud and standing up for who you are not feeling like you need to cower.

Hadeal: In the author’s notes, Ibtihaj Muhammad mentions moments when they would wear a scarf as preparation for wearing hijab full-time. This was true in my community, and I appreciated that this story is about self-identifying as Muslim, knowing that you might be treated differently because of your expression of faith, and possibility of being othered. Children picking up will see this story and know that the author went through this, and be encouraged to still be who they are and know who they are,  for whatever reason makes them different, in this case hijab. I appreciate the inclusion of Asiya’s friends, not just in activity but their smiling, supportive faces, not making a big deal out of the change but still reacting when another kid points at Asiya. It’s really important to include, because in my own experience you might not know how to talk about it with your friends and to see that Asiya’s friends are on her side is powerful.

Ariana: The spread with Asiya’s wondering face and friends angry on her behalf held was particularly meaningful in modeling the difference between bystanders, upstanders and allies. 

Asiyah’s experience in hijab is still new, but it is a quick-to-learn lesson that there will always be haters. Hijabis learn to be quick with the brush-off and can become desensitized. But people on the outside seeing hateful experiences can get angry, showing acknowledgment when you might be gaslighting yourself just to cope, because you don’t always have the energy or audacity to be angry, even if you know you have the strength and pride to walk away. They remind you of your right to feel angry and that you deserve to be in a space without feeling othered. The children as shadows without names and faces is also powerful, because many naysayers will be anonymous approachers, people who don’t even know you. And between Asiya’s friends, the naysayers, and the wondering child, there is the underlying question of “who are you in that spectrum?” letting that resonate with the reader, and asking “what would you do in this situation?”

Mahasin: While I don’t want to pit books against each other, I can’t help but think of the joy of this book, Faizah’s happiness in the boat looking at the blue of Asiya’s scarf and the ocean, in juxtaposition to Saffron Ice Cream and the expressions of the anger there. I know we struggled with that book, though it was an own voices story and told a truth that is worth being told, but there are just so few stories that everything becomes prominent. I’m just so happy to see another story with an ocean and a Muslim woman in a scarf, and there is another image that doesn’t convey force, but instead joy.

Ariana: The page with the sky and clouds that talks about hijab being special and regular, is so deliberate. I like that normal isn’t used. So that even if it’s something that is a regular occurence, it’s always going to be special. I like the perspective also, of Asiya’s face in the spread you mentioned, that it just keeps going forward. It’s different from the cover image and the expression of being proud, kind of squared off, while this one is more rounded, comforting and content. 

Mahasin: She’s just riding the waves.

Ariana: Yes! And coupled with their mother’s quote where it says, “‘some people won’t understand your hijab,’ Mama had said. ‘But if you understand who you are, one day they will too.” It’s so beautiful and powerful – it’s becoming my new daily positive affirmation.

Hadeal: Reading this book I thought about kids going through changes, especially girls wearing hijab, and instructions and affirmations they might receive from family about being strong and being proud, but not about treatment from outsiders. So I’m hoping that this book reaches readers who want to learn more, but also parents, adults, and role models who can touch on different things happening in this book but still help affirm identity and prepare a child. 

Mahasin: I struggled a little bit with this and with Yo Soy Muslim by Mark Gonzales because they are picture books that deal with the negativity of how people might respond to us as Muslims. I think about when I would read this to my four-year-old: before an experience or after, and read it as a response. No negativity towards either of the books, but as a parent I’m not really sure…do I protect them from that? Inevitably they end up learning that not everyone likes Muslims. This is a book that I can definitely read in a class visit right or storytime, but if children haven’t had an experience like this am I introducing and idea that might be hurtful or am I addressing something that’s already there? I think of the potential for a child or class who might be working through this or is nervous about it, but I wonder about the child who hasn’t had any negative experiences, what does seeing that in a book do? Does it address something necessary or create a conversation that is unnecessary? I really don’t know.

Hadeal: I see it one of two ways. I think about first day of school books and, whatever level, it is preparing a child to go. I see where you are coming from. But in this situation, at least in my experience, women who didn’t talk about it with their families may have wanted to be warned or introduced to examples, and then affirmed by words like Asiya and Faizah’s mothers, “be who you are and be proud.” It’s a loving book and it’s affirming. It says, “I’m proud to be a Muslim and to wear hijab, and I still have all these friends around me.” 

And it can be used in different ways. Caregivers and teachers often ask for books about bullying when noticing issues and use books or situations to model behavior. It of course is whatever you are comfortable with as a parent, but there are things that children may need or want to know ahead of time. I think of other concepts of safety that you talk to a child about and, for their safety, it would be something that I would want to talk to my child about. And the mother didn’t mention specific examples, but she did warn them that there were always going to be haters, and she had mentioned that to her daughters, but as long as they knew who they were things would work out and I see power in at least being touched upon in the book.

Ariana: We talk about preparation as necessary–the idea of having to prepare your child or even student something hateful–as BIPOC educators as opposed to white educators, or white parents as opposed to Black parents or other IPOC parents. Our kids have to be prepared for a certain level of something. It’s beyond what white children might see or if it’s anything their parents want them to see. There are still so many parents who believe in the color-blind paradigm, that makes part of the world completely invisible and gaslights people, telling them that it’s not really a big deal, and it is, it is a big deal and it’s something we deal with daily. 

I think about hearing things as a young girl and policing of bodies, whether it’s covering or not, unwelcome comments or comments in general that are made about women’s bodies–their size, what they’re wearing–when do we prepare these young women? There is a barrage of negative imagery that women face everyday and that’s just advertisements. This book is a window for readers who are not Muslim or who don’t wear hijab, including Muslim boys and men, to get an understanding of what it’s like to wear hijab and the complexity, because of course there is a lot of policing of women’s bodies in Muslim communities too. 

I think about what kids have already seen, aftermath of Islamophobic events, and never knowing when to expect them. Do we go in prepared or try to maintain innocence as long as possible? In the context of race, avoiding these conversations can uphold white privilege and supremacy. So with hijab, I think it’s expecting discrimination even if you live in an excepting community, or a bubble. Do you keep your kids in Islamic school for as long as possible where they have affirmation of their identity, or do you take them out and they may have to constantly think about their identity and protect their identity, and how do you reinforce that strength and keep giving them that strength so they go out into the world? I know it’s a difficult question and I think it’s a question that’s always going to be difficult. 

Ariana: Moving on, I enjoy Faizah’s drawing and the poetry of picnic on an island where ocean meets sky, and their crowns and matching hijabs. The change in attitude of the little girl who asked Faizah about Asiya’s hijab in line, from questioning to admiration, creates hope.

Mahasin: I love that spread. It’s so representative–Faizah and her brown skin and afro-puffs, her classmate with red hair and green eyes, and their teacher with her olive-tone skin and brown hair. There is so much diversity in that spread but also throughout the book. Each person has a sense of individuality and personality. There are different skin tones and body types and Asiya is just another person that is part of the diversity in their community. 

Ariana: And you can have a very diverse population of students in your school, community or workplace, but if you don’t talk about it, you can still have kids who say, “take that tablecloth off your head” because children won’t be equipped with the language or the understanding to know that it’s wrong, not inclusive, and not acceptable. 

Mahasin: I do wish that this book had been around when I was a kid. I am very conflict averse and I don’t like to call a lot of attention to myself, and I grew up in the South in the 80s. So even though my mom wore a scarf, I can remember going to Piggly Wiggly after Sunday school and telling a little white girl that I had it on because my hair wasn’t done. I think I was just worried about being seen as different and not wanting to stand out. I don’t think that my parents really got it, and wondered why I cared about what other people thought, but it’s powerful seeing someone my age feeling proud about it, so I’m glad the book exists. 

Hadeal: Touching again on the details, I appreciated that the bullies were shadows without faces that they walk away or cartwheel away from, and ultimately they are just shadows that are not given much power or weight to. There is so much symbolism there. 

Ariana: Right. How much do we let the shadows interfere with who we are? It’s kind of like djinn in a way. All these little formless whispers that creep at you that make you question yourself. And again there are those power words of preparation from their mother to not, “carry around the hurtful words other say. Drop them they’re not yours to keep. They belong to those who said them.” It’s giving others accountability, not taking in these messages and internalizing them, not just as Muslims or as women but as human beings– that it’s not that there’s something wrong with you. But it’s about being able to take space and make space. It seems so simple but there is power in asserting yourself and being proud and standing up who you are and making people recognize that you deserve to be in a space and you deserve space. 

Hadeal: Isn’t it sad that we have to think that way? You find yourself in a space and have to take inventory and be aware of who you are in that space and what is making you “the other?”

Mahasin: So it’s a good reminder for adults too to be proud, don’t worry about the people in the shadows, live your life out loud and keep it moving.

Ariana: Faizah is so strong and defiant against the boy, and later looks for those whispers and shouts which goes back to your point Hadeal about feeling out spaces and preparing yourself for the possibility of confrontation. And Faizah is protective of her sister, of her community, her family but then she sees Asiya, “waiting for me like it’s a regular day. She’s smiling. She’s strong.” And in that moment she recognizes that Asiya doesn’t really need Faizah to protect her or her feelings, but having her back and having her there, it doesn’t mean it’s not appreciated. And then the whole relationship between the sisters like ocean and sky with no line in between them, it was just a lovely sentiment.

Mahasin: I like the end notes that show there is support from both parents. 

Ariana: That’s the only time you see the father, and that’s powerful too. The conversation and wisdom and instruction is in the voice of the mother and it’s so warm. 

Hadeal: I just really like this book and I’m glad that it exists. I’m glad that there are more books like this coming out. 

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Posted in Book Discussions

Book Discussion: Crescent Moons and Pointed Minarets

Crescent Moons and Pointed Minarets

Crescent Moons and Pointed Minarets: A Muslim Book of Shapes. By Hena Khan. Illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini. Chronicle Books (9781452155418)
Publish date: April 10, 2018

This is the newest title in Hena Khan’s picture books about Muslims and concepts. The previous title was Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns: A Muslim Book of Colors.

This book discussion was conducted on May 20, 2018

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Hadeal: So what did you all think? I know that this is something small, but besides the artwork and illustrations, I love that there is a cat on the cover at the masjid. I don’t know why, but I just love it.

Ariana: I liked the details in the illustration, they are really rich, even to the point where in the spread with the circle/daff there is a child with a bit of a unibrow.  

Mahasin: I see it now.

Image result for crescent moons and pointed minaretsAriana: I love that there are so many different looks of people depicted. I do think that some of the criticisms of the book seem minute, one mentioned that the previous book seemed like the protagonist is a child in a “western country”, but this one is international and may reinforce stereotypes around clothing, but I don’t necessarily think this is true. I think that some images of children could work for a child who lives in the “west.” Especially in the oval spread, where “oval is the table where we break our fast, when the sun sets it’s iftar time at last.” There is a tagine, the decor is neutral, it could be Morocco, it could be here. The diamond spread, that could also be here. The last place with the crescent moon and a car, has a license plate convention that is not American, but it doesn’t mean it couldn’t be a European country. I don’t think it’s a big concern.

Image result for crescent moons and pointed minarets oval

Hadeal: I love the author’s note at the end. It’s not just a note about showing you shapes and whatnot, but wraps things back around to the importance of shapes and mathematics in Islam. I like the rectangle spread with the masjid and the light coming from the doorway into the prayer hall. I think the detail there is exquisite. The clothing too, puts it in context and gives it life to the community around it.

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Sara: Especially with the laundry line. And that’s how it is back home, the masjid is right in front of your home and you hear the adhan from different blocks. It conveys that feeling.

2018-06-11 22-54Ariana: I do wish, a little bit, in the author’s notes that they would say where an image is from, especially for that spread. I was fortunate enough to attend a preview with Chronicle before the book was published, and the editor had put up pictures of the doorway that inspired this spread, and I wanted to know more about the architecture specific to this country/location. I think that they may have said specifically, but I don’t remember right now, and I don’t want to guess. I mean, some may look at it and say, it’s the Muslim world and somewhere perhaps in West Africa*, but it’s not specific. Some families may recognize themselves based on the cloth, or other aspects, like the kids in the first spread look to me, like they are Malaysian or Indonesian, but maybe I’m completely wrong? But I do think it would be a nice touch, especially for Muslim children who aren’t often depicted.

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Mahasin: I agree with that. I was really excited about the diversity, and when I got to the page where the little girl had cornrows, the mother had a scarf wrapped up and the little boy, maybe it’s a girl, had tight curls, it was clearly African heritage, and that was really important to me because a lot of times my folks get left out of the narrative. That page made me really happy. The rectangle spread, with the women and all the colors on the page made me think, “Nigerian Muslims!”* and that was my first thought. So I really appreciate the diversity. The daff spread made me think of my time in Syria where the women would have maulids celebrating the Prophet (saw) and get together. A lot of it rang so true and authentic to me. I really liked the spirit of the book.

Hadeal: I like that wording, about the spirit of the book.

2018-06-11 22-45 1Mahasin: The one thing that was a bit tricky for me was that some of the shapes I had to stretch a little bit to connect, particularly the square and the orange trees – my mind went went immediately to a circle because they were oranges, but a square as a garden was a different cultural context for me. There was another one with the triangles on the minbar, that was also a stretch for me.

Hadeal: I still can’t see the triangles, can you see it?

Mahasin: It’s on the side.

2018-06-11 22-47Ariana: Right, the space between the railing and the stairs.

Sara: I can see that in the minbar, they do look like triangles from the side.

Mahasin: I guess I can see that, especially from a child’s perspective, but some of the shapes did feel a little bit of a stretch, but I feel like it a little mincing. A co-worker brought the book to me and said that they thought that the people were all in traditional dress, and should have been in modern dress and I have been toying with that in my head. I haven’t read any of the reviews. On the one hand, is that a critique of Muslim “modest dress?” Maybe people would call the ways we put together modest outfits “traditional,” even though I don’t know how traditional they are since they might just be long and flowing, or extra layers. The other part of me says, “what if they are traditional?” I don’t know if I agree with that critique. In the spread with the daff there is a little boy with a- what is it called with the number on the back?

Hadeal: a jersey.

Mahasin: Right, thank you. But that is pretty non-traditional to me.

Hadeal: Even the girls’ dresses. They’re just dresses.

Mahasin: Yeah. So, what if it is traditional? I think that they look like what Muslims really wear. It’s happy, colorful clothing. I don’t know. Does someone need to be in jeans and a t-shirt to make it not stereotypical?

Ariana: I mean, I think of me growing up and my parents –

Sara: I love that it’s traditional clothing. Because on Eid day when the kids go out, they are wearing their traditional clothing.

Ariana: Exactly!

Sara: I don’t often see kids in “western clothing.” They are taking pride in wearing something different.

Ariana: To build on your point Sara, if it was Eid or a gathering, and I was ten years old and I said to my parents, that I was going to go out in jeans and a t-shirt?

Sara: That would be a no-no.

Ariana: Yes, they would say, I couldn’t come. “The rest of us are going to go out and have fun. We’re going to auntie’s house and eat all of the delicious food, and the other kids are going to play. You’re staying home. Sorry.”  

All: (Laughing) It’s true.

Mahasin: I went to Target for my daughter’s Eid outfit and I saw, what I would call, “a Wakanda-inspired outfit.” And I was thinking, “cultural appropriation for the win.” African-inspired outfit for Eid.

All: (Laughing)

Hadeal: When it comes to clothing, I think of how the author didn’t indicate specifics. I don’t see how, in a way, where you could indicate areas. So I don’t understand why a reviewer would focus on that instead of what the book was intended to do. It is a book about shapes in the Islamic world. But what is traditional? What is non-traditional? It bothers me.

Sara: Right, I can see what you’re saying in that it’s not the focus of the book where these people are from, it’s more that they are seeing shapes in their every day and their beliefs and why we associate shapes in our religion, in our masaajid and our artwork and that kind of thing. It’s not focused on where they are coming from or why they dress why they do, but how we incorporate shapes into our daily lives. Is that what you were trying to say? I didn’t mean to put words in your mouth.

Hadeal: No, it is. I just feel like there is so much, I mean, even when we write our reviews we will get feedback about what others saw, but when it comes to this, it is so obvious to me that this is a book about shapes, architecture and Islam, but we’re going to focus on clothing? I mean, I understand, Mahasin had mentioned the spread with the family – the mother with the scarf wrapped and the little girl with the cornrows and to me, I think that’s important too, and we mentioned it, but for someone to just focus on that? I don’t know.

Sara: Why should that be the focus of the book when it is not intended to be? I love the fact that she’s incorporating everyone, the different styles of hijab and hair, but it is just showing you that these shapes have made their way through the Muslim world rather than associating it just with one group of people or another.

Hadeal: Even kaftan. Not all Muslims wear it, but to do the simple research, I don’t think it’s attached to certain countries or communities, multiple people do wear it and some definitely don’t. It’s just bothersome.

Ariana: For me, it’s a point of curiosity. I would like to know where it is from. I wish there was a bit more back matter so that if I was interested I could do further research for myself, but you’re right in that, it doesn’t matter too much. It would be one thing if really was asserting that there is this foreign otherness – but the reality is that Muslims do bring these cultural elements into our celebrations and our dress. That’s one time where, I mean, I married into – my husband is Pakistani American, and I think on Eid or celebrations I have no problems wearing Indonesian clothing, or a gown or a Pakistani style dresses. And often for children, especially for little girls that don’t dress themselves, they are often wearing “American” party dresses.

So I don’t know if this is actually offensive, reviewers making an assumption about the kinds of clothing people will wear. I’m glad that they are focusing on different aspects or elements of Muslim diversity, but it doesn’t mean all the spreads are or have to be international. So the spread that Mahasin was talking about with the hexagon, it could be an African country, it could be in a home here. Right?

Sara: I think that’s the beauty of the book actually, that you don’t know where it is. It could be anywhere in the world, and anyone who picks it up can find themselves in the pictures. The fact that she’s not pinpointing the places I’m reading it here, but the laundry spread reminds me of Egypt and being right across the street from the masjid. And someone from Pakistan can pick up the book and see orange trees and see themselves. This is why I am glad that she didn’t pinpoint where people are from. You can associate yourself with the spreads and go from there.

Mahasin: I’m looking at one of the reviews right now about how “Muslims dressing in non-cultural clothes are largely missing from the illustrations and potentially reinforce a  stereotypical image for non-Muslims.”

Ariana: I mean, perhaps that is a bit true, but here’s the thing, maybe the book is a nice window into our world, but it’s not really for the non-Muslim reader. It is a window that is important but it’s for the Muslim to see themselves. In the page following the hexagon, the oval, now I’m looking at the table and there is kibbeh and-

Hadeal: And samosa.

Ariana: Right.

Sara: They are all different kinds of food, not one specific culture.

Ariana: And the features of the people at the table, they have east Asian features. So my reaction first was, were these Uyghur Muslims? But it doesn’t look like there are Uyghur foods on the table. But there is also a little boy with really curly hair. And I think it’s supposed to be a blend, or blended family, or at least, that is what I’m reading. And where would you find that blend? Here. You could find it in other places and other countries, Moroccans can look like everything, but you can also find that here. That’s my take.

Sara: I agree.

Ariana: Final thoughts? Thumbs up? Thumbs down? Thumbs to the side?

Sara: I really liked it, I thought it was very cute and inclusive.

Hadeal: I liked it.

Mahasin: I liked it too. I would recommend it.

Ariana: I liked it. I mean, I think that the first book Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns is a book that you give to families when they are going have a baby, or for Eid. I mean, this is a book that will be distributed in the Muslim community and become a standard. It’s doing something that we want. You’re putting another book into a Muslim family’s hands and into their household. And it’s not just another – Ramadan or Eid book – which is not the say that we don’t need those books, we do.

Sara: And it’s not a Ramadan book, it’s a book that can be a normal, everyday book.

Ariana: Exactly. Because it has those elements that also conveys those precious times of Ramadan and Eid, and it’s Ramadan now, those feel good times into every day – it’s like bringing in Christmas or those times that just make a child feel warm and special. It’s super important. It’s a great addition to get with the other one, and I feel like this one is stronger. Maybe it is because of the diversity element, but you can read it with even more nuance, than just looking at it as a book.

Hadeal: I also enjoy the formatting a lot. I think the layout and the message is so well put together.

Sara: I love the arch in the mihrab and how dimensional it is.IMG_9419

Hadeal: It all just falls well together. It feels very purposeful.

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*We are completely wrong and Khan clarifies in her interview with us that it is in Zanzibar.