Book review: What Muslim identity means around the world

24th Apr 2020
Book review: What Muslim identity means  around the world

The Invisible Muslim – Journeys Through Whiteness and Islam. By Medina Tenour Whiteman. 255 Pp. February 2020. Paperback. Hurst Publishers. £14.99

I rolled my eyes when I was assigned this book, expecting yet another story of a forever-shunned Muslim torn between two cultures. I was pleasantly surprised. Set in Whiteman’s extensive travels this autobiography pulls you into her journey within, against a backdrop of her trips through Zanzibar/Kenya, Istanbul, Sarajevo, Tibet/Ladakh and Iran.

It’s a tale of a white Muslim woman born into a family of Sufi converts, who stands out among Muslims who do not accept her as their own, but she can never fully belong to her surrounding White-quintessentially British-countryside community. It is this discomfort, of not belonging to either camp that frames this book.

Throughout the book, Whiteman talks about the Veil (with a capital v). The veil, always seen as a symbol of Islam; but for her, the Veil is about the moments when she has felt divided or separated due to race, gender or faith amongst other factors.

She continuously attempts to breach this Veil, to find unison with other Muslims or the other groups of people that she finds herself belonging to. ‘The Veil between Us and Them is not the wall that certain politicians would like to materialise in breezeblock and razor wire, but a semi-permeable membrane, a theatrical scrim that turns transparent when a light is shone through it from the other side.’ (p. 237) It is a fascinating use of the word, as the veil between the self and the divine is profoundly central to the Sufi practice of Islam.

Her first stop was Kenya and Zanzibar, where she is invited to spend the weekend in the village and describes a bit of her journey.

‘Next to me sat a woman, with a remarkably acquiescent chicken in a carrier bag on her lap, its head protruding through a hole in the plastic…. I was struck by the strange camaraderie of being squashed into a small, sweaty space, the dignified patience of strangers who neither negated each other’s experiences nor fussed. ’(p. 42)

In one instance, she attempts to wear a kanga (a local fabric) on her head and is asked why she is covering her head. She replies, ‘because I am Muslim.’ The men then go on to question why she isn’t doing it properly, and that they could see a bit of her hair. To which she tartly replies, ‘Dini yangu moyoni mwangu, siyo nyweleni yangu.’ Translated as ‘My religion is in my heart and not my hair.’ (p. 53)

There is always the presence of the Veil, between her and fellow Muslims when she attempts to be more visible, but that same Veil is also there when she has to hide the fact that she prays or fasts from her peers.

Her sass has me cheering for her, and her consciousness of her white privilege shores up the victim card which many Muslim writers revert to in their autobiographies. ‘White Muslims are protected by our white privilege, because of which our religious aberration can be forgiven. At the same time, white Muslims disrupt the notion that Muslims are foreign Others.’ (p. 165)
She profoundly explains an immigrant’s relationship with a country which was not always home for their parents. ‘The UK might not be the genetic parent of most British Muslims, but it has been a wet nurse, one that feels often more familiar than an absent parent who isn’t always easy to understand.’ (p. 170)

This book was wonderful to read, her use of exquisite language, delving into the history of Muslims in the areas that she travelled is deeply appreciated. This formula lends itself to a wonderful travel book which gives vivid (and hilarious) descriptions of spaces, and the generous serving of history adds profoundness to her experiences.

If you fancy a few adventures in the safety of our current self-isolation, this is the book for you.
Aasiya I Versi

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