The Next New Syrian Girl
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Khadija Shami is a Syrian American high school senior raised on boxing and football. Saddled with a monstrous ego and a fierce mother to test it, she dreams of escaping her sheltered life to travel the world with her best friend.
Leene Tahir is a Syrian refugee, doing her best to adjust to the wildly unfamiliar society of a suburban Detroit high school while battling panic attacks and family pressures.
When their worlds collide the result is catastrophic. To Khadija, Leene embodies the tame, dutiful Syrian ideal she's long rebelled against. And to Leene, Khadija is the strong-willed, closed-off American who makes her doubt her place in the world.
But as Khadija digs up Leene’s past, a startling and life-changing discovery forces the two of them closer together. As the girls secretly race to unravel the truth, a friendship slowly and hesitantly begins blooming. Doubts are cast aside as they realize they have more in common than they each expected. What they find takes them on a journey all the way to Jordan, challenging what each knows about the other and herself.
Fans of Samira Ahmed’s Love, Hate, and Other Filters and Tahereh Mafi’s A Very Large Expanse Of Sea will love Khadija and Leene’s sharp-witted voices in this dual POV narrative. The Next New Syrian Girl is a poignant and timely blend of guilt, nostalgia, devotion, and bad-ass hijabees.
Release date: March 14, 2023
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Print pages: 417
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The Next New Syrian Girl
I pounce toward the man holding the round black targets. Each explosive jab, hook, and uppercut fires my hostility at the padded mitts, whittling them down until they are scraps of neoprene and leather.
Lightning hands. Nimble feet. Stretched breaths. Every movement unleashes a pent-up emotion. My heart beats against my chest in a wild rhythm, my spirit uncaged from arguments with my mother and microaggressions with strangers.
“You’re good,” my trainer, Jerr, says, ending the session and resting his strong hands at his sides. My eyes trail the pads. “Take a look in the mirror. Your scarf is coming loose.”
Reflexively my hands shoot up to my slipping headscarf and I stuff my light-brown bangs back in. Blood rushes to my cheeks from exertion. I train beyond my physical limits because wearing a scarf doesn’t restrict me; it makes me train that much harder.
I’m the first and only Muslim girl to train at Jerr’s Boxing Gym in the palm of Michigan’s mitten. A healthy dose of post-9/11 hate, among other factors that give Muslim girls a bad rep, mixes me into an alt-American cocktail that’s a little hard to swallow, but I own it. Because if I can’t own my baggage, then it’s only a matter of time before it’s used against me.
I shadowbox a five-punch combination imagining the faces of my everyday opponents.
“Hey,” Jerr calls out as I begin to unwrap my hands. “Twenty minutes on the bag.”
I frown at it longingly, hanging there in its 120-pound black leather glory. “I can’t, I have another… engagement,” I say dubiously.
“No excuses. You told me not to let you leave till your two hours are done. They ain’t done yet,” he says as he helps a scrawny boxer with his wraps.
I swallow my pride and it drops down my throat like a bullet. “It’s a thing for my mom,” I mutter, desperately hoping he won’t give me a hard time. Earlier, my mother asked me to swing by her friend’s house for a small dinner tonight, and I couldn’t wiggle my way out of it. I never can.
Embarrassment knocks the composure off my face when Jerr chuckles. “Best not be late for her, then.”
Even Jerr knows the severity of an Arab mother’s word. I contemplate ghosting her, knowing I’d suffer an earful of it later. I pull the ends of my hijab to tighten it over my hair again and stretch my DRI-fit shirt to loosen it over my curves.
Hijab—noun—he-jaab—/hē-ˈjäb/: the traditional covering for the hair and neck that is worn by Muslim women.
That’s God-blessed Merriam-Webster’s definition because they’re about as deep as an oddly tinged kiddie pool.
It wouldn’t have killed them to add the reasons that I wear it or that I don’t have to wear it in front of women, male family members I can’t marry, or my future husband. Not at home and obviously not in the shower. And it doesn’t make me any hotter than everyone else on a blistering day in July. Something, anything more would have made this hijabi’s life a lot easier.
Hijabi—noun—he-jaab-i—/hē-ˈjäbi/: invented Arabic-English blend word denoting a woman who wears the hijab.
Badass hijabi—expression—/bad-ˌas hē-ˈjäbi/: Khadija Shaami. Boxing beast. Me.
And with that thought, I roll my neck and loosen my muscles. My mother will have to wait. This badass hijabi has twenty minutes left of her workout.
I know that tone. My mother’s web-like mind has already conjured a full-length lecture, not of why she is disappointed, but of how, if I lived my life differently, fate would be aligned in such a way that I would have arrived at this dinner on time. Then my mother would be content with my daughterly duties, and fate would change to be in my favor. And by fate, I mean God.
Mama leans over the passenger seat of my matte-black Mercedes G-wagon to shelter her white hijab from the rain. The indoor car lights shine on her pale skin, the chiffon fabric messily tied beneath her chin to cover her tightly curled hair. As soon as I’d put my car in park, she raced to meet me outside the dinner host’s home, likely to prep me for how she wants me to behave inside.
“You’re late,” she chides me in Arabic. “I’ve been here for over an hour.”
“Maybe you just arrived here early,” I say, injecting cheeriness into my tone in the hopes that I’ll get off easy.
“I told you this ‘azima starts at five o’clock,” she continues regardless.
“You also told me it was a small dinner,” I groan. The lack of parking space out front suggests otherwise.
“You wouldn’t have come if I told you anything else.”
“So you tricked me?”
“Bala masskhara.” She snubs me even though I’m not being ridiculous at all. “You’ve been out all day. I hope you prayed at that gym. I tell you all the time, that gym is not close enough to home. I don’t want you to stop on the side of the highway for prayer when you run out of time. I heard a girl in Texas did that once and was attacked.”
I grab my bag from the back seat to hide my eye roll. “Mama, don’t believe everything you read on WhatsApp.” The messaging-app-turned-Arab-news-forum is a great source of my pain. “Besides,” I add, “I did pray. There’s an area at the gym for salah for some of the guys, too.”
With my mother, I always speak Arablish because, though she chooses to speak Arabic with me, our communication is a work in progress.
‘Arablish—blend—aa-rab-lish—/a-rʌb-lɪʃ/: a kind of mixed language that switches between Arabic and English.
‘Arablish with Mama—a conundrum—/a-rʌb-lɪʃ wɪ
mama/: yani she just speaks at me oo I can’t get a kilma in edgewise.
I’ve tried it all. Straight-up English, straight-up Arabic, and once I babbled in French for an hour to try to convince her that she had broken me.
“I told you to stop fighting at that gym,” she goes off again, mislabeling my boxing for the umpteenth time. I can call my boxing “fighting,” but when she says it, it chafes my brain. She shudders. “And especially not with all those men. Find yourself a lady fighter or whatever it is you call them.”
“Jerr’s is the only gym I can afford,” I remind her with a huff. “Since you won’t pay for me to go to the gym in Rochester Heights, I make do with what I have.” For some chores and gym maintenance, boxers box at Jerr’s for free. No need to charge Mama’s credit cards.
“A proper Syrian girl doesn’t fight,” she insists.
“I guess I’m an improper Syrian girl then.”
“You were raised by Syrian parents, so you are as Syrian as us.”
“Technically I’m a half-baked Syrian girl who was raised in America.” I shrug at her, the words pricking me in the sorest of places. Because no matter how much I can try to please Mama, she will always want me to be more proper Syrian like her.
So I stopped trying.
“I didn’t raise you to fight,” Mama reiterates. “I’m not pleased, Khadija.”
“But it pleases me to box.”
She turns up her nose. “You don’t want to make your mother proud.”
She means I’d make her proud if I were more proper Syrian like her. But if I give up even an inch of my territorial control, no matter how sensible, Mama would move on full offensive to ensure that I never boxed again. This weekly conversation barely travels from Mama’s core principle: Her daughter, of all people, should not box.
My mother stares through me, her round hazel eyes speaking volumes. Finally, she tilts her head and I know she has elected to ignore the wasted exchange. She does a once-over of my appearance and smiles.
God bless. I was positive she’d hate my ‘abaya despite its masterfully sewn black fabric adorned with dark glittering beads and pearls across the sleek shoulders and down the pirate sleeves.
“What are you wearing under your ‘abaya?” my mother asks, practically beaming.
“Some sweats. I’ll k
eep the ‘abaya on inside. It looks nice,” I reply.
“Terrific.” Her excitement bubbles and she throws a gift bag that I didn’t notice she’d brought out here into my lap. A smiling sun and laughing baby stare up at me. “I brought you a change of clothes just in case you came dressed like you usually do.”
My hope plummets. “And how’s that?”
“Like you’re either going for a run or going to a funeral. Now get dressed. I’ve already told them I have a daughter with colored eyes and blonde hair, and they’re excited to meet you.”
“They?” I yell after her as she marches in the light rain back up to the ‘azima. My grip tightens around the bag, and the baby’s face wrinkles beneath my fingers. They. The marriage aunties for whom grand ‘azimas are opportunities for young women to be paired with their golden-boy sons. They obsess over the genetic makeup of their future grandchildren that forms the stereotypical jackpot: white skin, colored eyes, and light hair. In response, my mom exaggerates the lightness of my features to fit their standards.
Exasperated, I throw the contents of the bag into my car and cringe at the peach-colored flare skirt and ruffled red blouse debased by tiny black cherries. Maybe I do dress like I’m always going for a run, but maybe I’m running to my own funeral. Cause of death: motherly smothering.
I slam the door shut and jump into the back seat, resigned to Mama’s fashion choices. As long as I live under her roof, I have to follow her orders until I am married to a man who will then presume to give me his own orders.
With those old-school expectations, any boy of Mama’s choosing would be in for one helluva ride. Naturally, my crushes are nowhere near Mama’s sphere of influence.
I jump out of the car with my ‘abaya covering the costume I managed to get my head and hips through. I make my way up the mini cul-de-sac to the house, and with the Arabic pop music pumping at this ‘azima, I don’t bother to knock.
House is a small word for this place, but mansion is presumptuous. A very large house, but a medium mansion, places like this are where most Syrians in Rochester Heights call home.
I push open the metal-spired, wood-framed glass door that looms in height. Stepping onto the marble interior, I try to slip in unnoticed, but my eyes catch at the mirror in the foyer, placed awkwardly at the bottom of a winding staircase.
The light bends and curves my reflection, and I freeze at the distorted mirror image. I am darker and taller, and my black hijab comes apart at my neck. My hand shoots up to fix it, but I feel the fabric still draped across.
I realize it’s not my reflection. It’s a girl with jet-black hair contrasting against a maroon-colored pantsuit, her bloodred lipstick and dark angled eyebrows stark against her muted skin. She remains motionless, her lips pressing into a thin line and her face becoming longer and more pained as time passes.
A chill stands my hairs on end. Turning away from her, I leave the image of the haunted girl at the bottom of the stairs.
Inside, I locate my best friend as quickly and discreetly as possible, pulling her into one of the rooms open for guests to get de-‘abayaed. And yes, Merriam-Webster, that is now a real ‘Arablish word.
“Do not laugh,” I warn Nassima as I remove my scarf and ‘abaya. Hijabs come off as soon as hijabis arrive at these female-only ‘azimas.
‘azima—noun—aa-zee-ma—/ʕa-zi-ma/: house party or event to which an invitation is extended.
Arab ‘azimas—Arablish expression—aa-rab aa-zee-maz: over-the-top house parties that range from just coffee to full-on extravaganzas that put regular affairs to shame.
Nassima purses her lips to hold in her laughter at my expense. “You look like you’ve run from the convent and this is your first night out.”
“The nuns advised me to come to one of these ‘azimas. They said an auntie might fall in love with me and let me meet her son if I’m lucky,” I say sarcastically. She covers her painted smile with her hand as I tug at the alarmingly red fabric folds around my neck.
I flatten my short, wet hair in anticipation of the curls that’ll seize as it dries. We wander through the marbled hallways lined with classically Syrian white sheepskin rugs, gawking at the estate’s all but homey feng shui.
A wealthy Syrian home is like a bougie four-star hotel where sagging couches are strictly forbidden and the sound of guests banishes unopened mail and other clutter to unfrequented corners of the house. The luxury of the royal family and all nobility was re-created out here in Detroit among the Syrian American Women’s Club of Rochester Heights.
Following the volume of the music, Nassima and I solve the house’s maze to the end goal, the hub of all socialization: the kitchen. My sensory input would go into overload, but with my years of experience, I’m now immune to the effects of a Rochester Heights ‘azima.
Rochester Heights ‘azima—novelty: a goddamn Golden Globes after-party experience.
The excess of food skirts the line between indulgence and wastefulness, with triple the amount of cooked meat needed for the number of guests. Everyone looks like they have sticks down their spines to project a seamless image of etiquette while Louis Vuitton bags swing from wrists. The people who invented gluttony forgot to put a disclaimer that this display of wealth turns stomachs and makes it difficult to breathe.
Surprise, surprise, I’ve resorted to boxing and snapping at bystanders.
I pick up a gold-rimmed plate and circle around the island, which is blanketed with stuffed grape leaf towers, cheese and meat pastry arrangements, and vats of rice-filled intestines and beef ravioli floating in yogurt.
“Whose house is this?” I ask, starting my plate off with tabbouleh. All the estates and ‘azimas started to blur together circa 2012.
Nassima shrugs. “I heard it’s a get-to-know-you for a Syrian family that just moved here.”
“Of course it is. You’re more than enough diversity for them,” I say. Nassima and I roll our eyes until they’re underside our heads. These separatist ‘azimas are meant for the families of doctors and engineers of select Levantine states: Syria, Lebanon, Palestine. Sometimes they’ll include Jordan or Egypt, but God forbid they stray too far geographically.
Nassima sighs, finishing off her plate with red pepper and walnut paste. “I try my best to culture you, I really do.”
I purse my lips in an air kiss. “Bah, merci, mon petit chou.”
“Anytime, my little cabbage,” she says with a smile.
Nassima is the only reason I’ve been able to survive this side of Rochester Heights. When I was little, I used to stay at her house for hours after school, and those years left me with a secret mode of communication that no one in my family could decode: French.
And though Nassima’s family has the social standing, she’s Tunisian, about one or two countries too southeast for the “in-group.” But since Mama and I are close to the Abous, Nassima and her mom get special treatment that comes with a stream of gossip that follows them
year-round. The women of Rochester Heights get catty when it comes to my mother—their queen—and her favor.
It really is even more petty than it sounds.
We pass by a horde of girls pulsating to the music in a mini rave bubble. Nassima and I share a chaise beside floor-length windows.
“Don’t they ever get sick of it?” I ask, glancing over my shoulder at the girls and then flitting my gaze back outside the windows at a lake glittering in the moonlight. Every Arab house in Rochester Heights overlooks a lake as if it were regulated by the state’s covert Arab American HOA.
“Sick of what?” Nassima strains her voice to be heard over the music.
“This high-society act we’re fronting,” I say. “It’s always the same. Huge fancy houses, over-gassed luxury cars, slowly surrendering to diabetes.”
Nassima’s eyes crinkle. “The extravagance is how Arabs survive the Mild Midwest.”
I laugh. “Well, I’m over it. I’m ready to see the real world.”
“I’m on board. Europe and Tunisia with my bestie. A little bit of Turkey, see the sights—”
“Meet some Syrians who don’t own at least two cars. The whole shebang.”
“Exactly what we need to kickstart our post–high school lives.” Nassima grins, then lowers her voice. “Except you’ve got your mom you need to convince.”
“Khadija!” As if on cue, my mother’s singsong voice fights its way to me through the music, the dancing, and the distance. She’s as fine-tuned as a military radar. “Khadija!”
“God bless,” I groan.
“I’m always praying for you,” Nassima calls after me. She pouts on my behalf as I tear myself away from my dinner.
“Here she is.” My mother has her superstar smile on as I approach the dining table, rows of occupied chairs surrounding her. Her friends all nod to welcome me, but I know the drill. I make my rounds, giving each auntie a kiss on either cheek.
“Assalamu Alaikum khaleh” is the standard greeting, a forced smile tagged onto it.
Khaleh—noun—khaa-ley—/xaːle/: literally mom’s sister, one’s maternal aunt.
Khaleh—title: missus or auntie, said before an older woman’s name out of respect. Omitting it when talking to my mother’s friends would be like wielding the axe at my own execution.
They carry on, and I don’t interject even as the conversation shifts to me, knowing better than to give the hard-to-please khalehs more ammunition to criticize me with. Instead, I stand awkwardly while they discuss the merits of my studies and make remarks about my body.
“She’s so skinny mashallah,” someone says, intending it as a compliment.
“A little broad. It must be those muscles from all that fighting.”
They take turns comparing woes of raising teenagers in America. This is their Mothers Anonymous meeting, but I’m invited to sit in and nod. Mama has no anecdotes of her own, none that she would share, anyway. We are the 1950s nuclear family, no problems, no complaints. To disrupt that image is a felony.
I huff quietly, tilting my neck to the side, and I see an older woman teetering on a chair pulled up to the edge of the dining table. Though her eyes are observant, she tangles her fingers in the ends of her long hair, hinting that she’s not listening. A wave of snickering ripples through the khalehs, waking the woman from her daze as she raises her eyes and catches mine.
Her eyes are hooded, under eyes permanently shaded. Sun spots riddle her brown skin, and her hair is dull and frizzy in contrast to every other khaleh sporting heat-damaged curls.
“Oh, Khadija.” Mama gestures to the woman who watches me from across the table. “This is Rana Taher. We’re welcoming her to the community with this ‘azima.”
“Ah, this is your daughter,” Khaleh Rana says, her voice raspy and thick with a Damascus accent. Her eyes brighten. “Thank you so much letting my daughter and me stay in your home for a while. I’m so grateful your mother could take us in while we get settled in Detroit.”
My world freezes. I glance between Khaleh Rana and Mama.
Mama chortles. “Ah, Rana! I haven’t even told her about that yet.” Mama turns to me. “Looks like we’ll be having new housemates! And it’s great because she has a daughter your age!”
Khaleh Rana suddenly sits up in her seat. “Ah, here she is.”
My mouth twitches as time resumes and a girl approaches. I blink at my earlier reflection from the bottom of the stairs. The reflection that wasn’t really a reflection floats over to Khaleh Rana and sits in a chair beside her. Her black hair falls in straight sheets framing her cheeks. Her dark features paint her face in defined strokes, her olive skin strangely colorless in hue.
Like a ghost’s.
Khaleh Rana gingerly holds her daughter’s hand, but the girl doesn’t swat or recoil, instead letting her hand rest in her mom’s.
We hold each other’s gaze. Goose bumps spread over my arms, and I can’t shake the eerie shift in the air. It now feels as though time is rushing past us, as if hours and seconds and minutes could slip through fingers.
The girl recovers more quickly. Locking eyes with each khaleh, she doesn’t extend her hand like I’ve been taught. Instead, in a voice as raspy as Khaleh Rana’s and with a winning grin, she greets them in her nuanced Arabic artistry, “Assalamu Alaikum, I’m Leene. T’sharra
fna. What a happy opportunity to meet you all.”
My skin crawls as the khalehs practically coo at her.
My mother included.
The American girl doesn’t sit. My instinct gnaws at me to pull a chair up for her and welcome her to the table. My curiosity begs me to ask her a thousand questions. My loneliness cries out to make her my friend.
Yet the American girl crosses her arms over her red blouse, a blouse I would have traded anything for a few years ago. She blends in with the wealth about her. Her short, light-brown hair makes her look sophisticated, though it frays as the curls dry. Despite the subdued light in this enchanting villa, her eyes shine a bright, icy blue. I’m taller than her, but her posture is faultless enough that it might make up the difference.
She is Khaleh Maisa’s daughter, and Maisa, she is the woman who told Mama to check out of the motel at once and move into her home while we get settled in Detroit. She assured Mama, who doesn’t speak enough English, that she will learn, that she will find a job, and she will be able to move on. And only when Mama moves on can I move on, too.
“I’m so excited to have you stay with us,” Khaleh Maisa says to Mama and me, her voice chirping. She nudges her daughter with her elbow. “Aren’t you excited, Khadija?”
The American girl whispers something to her mom, and Khaleh Maisa’s expression turns sour.
“Don’t be rude, we have plenty of space at home for guests,” Khaleh Maisa says, dismissing her daughter. To her friends she whispers loudly, “Kids from America can be so inconsiderate. I’m sure there’s so much Khadija can learn from sweet Leene.”
I blush on the American girl’s behalf. Mama would never call me out in front of all these people. The American girl drops her arms, balled fists at her sides.
“I only wish you had a son who could be friends with my Zain,” Khaleh Maisa adds.
Suddenly, Mama’s hand feels heavy in mine. My mouth twitches in the wrong direction, and I fear I’ve frowned instead of smiled. Mama jerks out of her trance, and I feel her grip on me tighten. I am holding her hand. Letting her know that at least I am still here.
Discomfort settles around us, and I squeeze Mama’s hand to gauge her reaction. Thankfully, the American girl grunts and says something else under her breath, which procures another glare from her mother. It saves me from failing to come up with a cordial response.
Finally, Mama answers her hoarsely, “Well thank God I have Leene here.”
I’m grateful for the time to recover, pulling myself forward from the dark corners of my mind. I flash a smile at the khalehs and lean my head on Mama’s shoulder. “I’m lucky I have you.”
“You two are precious,” Khaleh Maisa trills, a gleam shining from her eyes. The American girl’s face turns bright red, and her snake-like expression redirects from her mom toward me. I shrug reflexively. She tries to escape, but Khaleh Maisa grabs ahold of her wrist. She twists free of her and plants her feet down again, sighing dramatically. Perhaps she has somewhere better to be.
Khaleh Maisa shoots her daughter a look. “Thank God for our girls, right?” I hear a hint of sarcasm. “Our boys just give us headaches. We praise God when we get a boy, and when we get a girl we stay quiet, but the girls never disappoint. They’re the ones that stay around to take care of us.”
I nod, my mouth dry as I try not to dig my nails into Mama’s palm.
The girl who was joking and laughing with the American girl strolls up behind her with her glowing brown skin and black hair that fans over her head in tight, shiny curls.
Khaleh Maisa reaches for her hand and mine. “Nassima, this is Leene. I want you three to be friends.”
A warmth spreads in my chest. I hadn’t expected to be welcomed like this by someone like Khaleh Maisa, whose world is so distant from
Nassima’s infectious smile falters as she catches the American girl’s eye roll. “Assalamu Alaikum,” she begins. “It’s nice to meet you.”
Her Arabic is accented, and I try to place the dialect. “T’sharrafna. You’re Algerian?” I ask.
“And I…”—the American girl ruminates for a moment—“am done standing in the line of fire. ...
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