Painted Hands by Jennifer Zobair is the engaging, twisting narrative of an unlikely set of characters: Zainab Mir, the high-powered glamorous head of a Republican political campaign; Amra Abbas, workaholic lawyer who puts in brutal hours in the hopes that she’ll make it to partner of the firm; Hayden Palmer, fellow lawyer, party girl and unlucky in love; and Chase Holland, radio show host and golden boy for bigoted neo-cons.
Painted Hands falls somewhere between the categories of ethnic fiction and Muslim chick-lit; yet such a characterisation does not give justice to the story’s ability to draw the reader in and impart lessons so subtly that it takes a moment to even realise it.
There’s something for everyone in the narrative– Zainab is unabashedly secular, yet her brief brush with members of a local masjid reveals the hurt she feels at having herself, her work and even her sexuality openly judged and condemned by those who know nothing about her. Amra is both relieved and afraid to get married, in love with her fiancé but unable to confess the extent of her obsession with work; and, later, when she becomes a mother, struggles to know what she wants in comparison to the pressures of those around her. Chase Holland makes his living bashing Islam and Muslims, but finds that his bluster is harder to keep up around Zainab’s fiery challenges. Hayden takes her shahadah (declaration of faith) and is drawn into a circle of conservative immigrants, who briskly arrange her marriage and prod her into their own type of activism.
The series of events that brings them together in the most unlikely of conflicts is a fascinating journey that culminates in an intriguing, unexpected crescendo that is as poetic as it is dramatic.
The weaving of every thread of the narrative echoes the complexity and beauty of the henna patterns that the book is named after. Politics, culture, religion and romance are entwined and explored; the relationships between the characters and their struggles link to each other subtly yet meaningfully. No conflict is over-simplified or glossed over and although the book – and its main characters – are distinctly liberal, there is enough nuance and honesty in it that it can truly appeal to a wide and varied audience.
Although the characters are fictional, their stories are reflections of reality. Muslim women come from backgrounds as varied as those of Zainab, Amra and Hayden and have lives that are just as complex and rich as theirs. Painted Hands is both an acknowledgement and appreciation of what it means to be a Muslim woman in the modern Western world.
AnonyMouse (Zainab bint Younus) is a young Muslimah who has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember. She writes for SISTERS Magazine, SaudiLife.net, and blogs at www.thesalafifeminist.blogspot.com