Title: Deep in the Sahara
Author: Kelly Cunnane
Illustrator: Hoda Hadadi
Publisher: Schwarz & Wade Books
Review Copy: Digital ARC from Edelweiss & a library copy
Availability: On shelves now
Summary: Lalla lives in the Muslim country of Mauritania, and more than anything, she wants to wear a malafa, the colorful cloth Mauritanian women, like her mama and big sister, wear to cover their heads and clothes in public. But it is not until Lalla realizes that a malafa is not just worn to show a woman's beauty and mystery or to honor tradition—a malafa for faith—that Lalla's mother agrees to slip a long cloth as blue as the ink in the Koran over Lalla's head, under her arm, and round and round her body. Then together, they pray. -- Cover image and summary via Goodreads
Review: Deep in the Sahara is a beautiful book in more ways than one. The text is lyrical and almost sings. "Trees of red flowers bloom with heat. Acacia pods rattle, and fruit bats sleep." My fifteen year old picked it up and started reading silently, but then decided it needed to be read aloud. I loved that she read it to me. We agreed that it sounds like poetry even if it isn't labeled that way. The illustrations are fantastic too. The endpapers look like cloth and the rest of the book is filled with wonderful scenes created with collage. The colors are vibrant and the patterns are interesting, but not so busy that they are distracting. Each character in the story is unique and I loved seeing the individual women. The video below introduces the artist and shows a bit of her technique.
The story itself is also beautiful as we see a young girl yearning to be like the women around her with their lovely malafas. This is a coming of age story and it is a story of women. I loved that the entire book is showing how the women in the community support a young girl. Lalla is finding out about wearing the malafa from the many women in her life. In the author's note at the end, Cunnane explains that she lived in Mauritania for a time and the people there taught her about the Muslim faith and how they lived it. She wanted to write this book to share what she had learned especially since before she lived there, she had believed that the veil was repressive to women and after sharing in their lives, her opinion had changed.
Cunnane was writing as an outsider, but she has been traveling, teaching, and living among many cultures for years and writes carefully with much research and seems to have worked closely with the people she is representing. The book appears to be done very respectfully and in a spirit that celebrates the culture.
I am looking forward to sharing this with my students and will likely pair it with Time to Pray by Maha Addasi and/or The Swirling Hijab by Na'ima B. Robert, two books that also touch on the subject of Muslim prayer from a female perspective.