Circassians! The father of Allie, title character and first-person narrator of Courtney’s novel, comes from a Circassian family. They’re an ethnic group originally from the Northern Caucasus. After their encounter with an expanding Russian Empire went the way of most encounters between small peoples and the empire, the vast majority of Circassians were expelled to the Ottoman Empire. Most contemporary Circassians live in Turkey, with a smaller population in Russia, and still smaller but historically significant groups in Jordan and Syria. Allie’s extended family hails from Jordan, where various older relatives were prominent enough to have known the royal family personally.
More importantly for Allie, her father is an American academic. As a result, her immediate family (she’s an only child) has been peripatetic as she has grown up while her father moved from one academic appointment to another. Her mother’s work as a therapist has been flexible enough that the family could follow the professorial lottery. Which, with a tenure-track job at Emory University, Allie’s dad appears finally to have won. Allie has reacted to her family’s journey by becoming adaptable, with a knack for fitting in nearly everywhere and a genuine interest in the people she gets to know at each new stop. The down side, understandably, is that she sometimes wonders who she really is beneath all of the personas she has tried on.
Allie’s mom grew up a white Christian in Florida and converted to marry Allie’s dad, Mo (short for Muhammad). Crucially for the story, the protagonist presents as white: Circassians are literally Caucasian, and genetics made Allie a redhead. She’s not obviously from a Muslim background, and her father became increasingly secular over his adult life.
All-American Muslim Girl begins with Allie halfway through her first year in high school in the fictional north Atlanta suburb of Providence. In the first chapter, Allie and her parents fly to Dallas, where their extended family — “still jet-lagged from Saudi, Jordan, London, and New Jersey. Everybody is a cousin, or a friend of a cousin, or the cousin of a friend—and they all go back decades, most to the old days in Jordan” (p. 13) — is gathering to celebrate New Year’s at the house of one of her aunts. Parts of the reunion read to me like the large, Southern family events I went to as a kid. People everywhere going in and out; music; generations; teasing, sometimes gentle, sometimes more barbed; relations of semi-understood provenance (Aunt So-and-So who’s actually a second cousin); and lots of food. Of course for Allie’s family, the conversations are going in three different languages: English, Arabic, and Circassian. The decor is different, with a lot of vivid colors and Koran verses, though naturally the two aunts’ houses that Allie visits in Dallas could hardly be more different from one another.
Courtney does not specify the time of All-American Muslim Girl but it’s relatively recent. She doesn’t specify events in the larger communities of state or nation, but fear of and antipathy toward Muslims is part of the background of everyday life. Allie recounts several incidents from her childhood, and the book opens with an unpleasant incident on the Atlanta-to-Dallas flight that Allie defuses with her intelligence, openness, and, not to put too fine a point on it, whiteness.
Look, I did what I had to do. If you break open your moral piggy bank and spend a little, you’ll buy a lot of goodwill in return.
I’ve paid frequently over the years—turning the other cheek, smiling at offenders, pretending I don’t mind, laughing.
Do you feel comfortable? How can I help? Here, that ignorance mist be superheavy—let me carry that burden for you.
Thing is, my emotional piggy bank is running out of change. Soon, I might not have anything left. (p. 8)
Allie doesn’t quite fit in with her extended family either. Her father did not teach her Arabic beyond some very basic points, so communication with the relatives is either in English of very limited. Allie feels that most keenly with her grandmother, who has very little English. They love each other dearly, but can’t communicate beyond a certain ritualized pattern. Most of her extended family is also religious in some degree. Since the recent passing of Allie’s grandfather, Mo, as the oldest son, is the notional head of the clan. But he’s a scientist, he married an American, he’s slightly outside too, and Allie feels that as well.
Much of the action of All-American Muslim Girl takes place in and around school. Allie has a good friend, Wells, who becomes a boyfriend over about the first third of the book. He has a complicated family too, and friends he has mostly outgrown but to whom he still feels loyalty. There are lots of great little bits through out the book, like when the French teacher says, “D’accord, y’all. Très bien.” (p. 219) Those moments make the novel’s tone breezy, even when the feelings are big and the issues are serious.
Allie’s series of decisions to claim her Muslim identity more publicly and to explore what her religion means to her drive the story. Should she tell her dad that she is praying? How can she not tell him, her special bestie? How can she tell him when he has so emphatically chosen science over Islam? What about her boyfriend? Can she even have one? Can she be a strong and modern woman if she accepts the views of people who say she shouldn’t? Why do women and men pray in separate parts of the mosque? Who are her real friends? What about when her friends have different views about fundamental questions? Even, or especially, if the rifts are among her Muslim friends?
These are just a few of the questions that Allie tackles over the course of the book. Nor does Courtney ignore the roles of class and money, which I can say from some experience are important in prosperous Atlanta suburbs. She also gets the Southern inflections on dealing with difference.
I enjoyed the heck out of All-American Muslim Girl, liking Allie every bit as much as Courtney intended her readers to like Allie. I also appreciated that Courtney wrote right to the emotional heart of her subject; I think a novel aimed at an adult audience (this one is presented as YA) would be more self-conscious, or that it would feel the need to be harder on its characters. Courtney shows that there are plenty of ways for conflict to emerge, even without having horrible people on the page. I’ve also been the dad living a long time in a foreign country, teaching his kids a second language (English is of course a lot more privileged than Arabic, let alone Circassian; though I think my kids would have gotten a kick out of knowing a language that’s basically a secret code), trying to pass along traditions from the old country, knowing they will always stick out a bit from the kids whose families are all from around here.
And when I worked in Moscow, one of the supervisors was a woman who was tall, blonde, blue-eyed, and wore a hair covering. I never knew her well enough to learn her story. But maybe somewhere there’s an All-Russian Muslim Girl showing more of the ways to grow up in the twenty-first century.
Doreen called All-American Muslim Girl a five-star personally beloved read. Her review is here.