A Hero by Charlotte R. Mendel

Nova Scotian author Charlotte R. Mendel has written a different kind of novel with A Hero (2015, Inanna Publications*). It is different in that it concerns the lives of an extended Muslim family living in an unnamed post-revolutionary Muslim country. While the family is Muslim, it could be any family living anywhere, from the inner city to the suburbs. In fact, as I started reading the book, it seemed to me like a Muslim version of “All in the Family”. That is not meant to take anything away from the story Ms. Mendel has conceived. There are similarities: a conservative, outspoken family head, his timid, loving wife, and his younger, more liberal, if not outright activist children and in-laws.

Meet the Family

But this is no TV comedy, and it is no Muslim soap opera either. It is a serious under-the-microscope study of a family (considered middle-class by their countries standards) living in close conditions under the tough-loving oversight of Mohammed Al-Fakhoury, the family patriarch. The rest of his family consists of: his wife Fatima, their children Abdul and Ali (twins), daughter Zayna and baby Naaman. Then there is: Mohammed’s older sister Rana, her husband Hamid and their only child, a son, Mazin. Finally, there is the activist Ahmed, Fatima’s younger brother.

Rana leaned towards Ahmed. “I wish I could go to the demonstrations. It’s terrible to believe in something so much and not be able to participate.” Rana couldn’t go anywhere, even if they
organized a demonstration just for women. Her brother Mohammed wouldn’t permit it, and that was that.

Sources of Tension

There are several sources of tension at play against the backdrop of a post-revolutionary regime that is having increasing difficulty in subduing revolutionaries (like Ahmed) who want the next government to be a democratic one, and they want it now. Rana supports Ahmed, and would like to participate in the demonstrations too, but women are not allowed. This causes problems between siblings Rana and Mohammed and  since it is his house, his word is law. There are also other issues covered in the text, like the use of the niquab, women’s rights, and political and religious freedom. Using a middle-class conservative Muslim family allows Ms. Mendel to cleverly cover all these topics to good effect throughout A Hero.

What is a Hero?

This is the question posed by some of the characters, particularly young Zayna, the self-appointed spy of the family who listens at the doors every night so she can try to understand everyone’s feelings in order to keep household life harmonious as her father would like it to be. Of her father, Zayna thinks:

It must be very hard to behave well when everybody thinks you are unreasonable.

She scribbles all these thoughts in her journal every night. Also in her journal are four criteria for what she believes a hero is:

  1. Someone who fights for what he believes in
  2. Someone who protects his family from harm
  3. Someone who is noble
  4. Someone who helps others even when it puts them in danger

Actually, each character in the book meets one or more of the criteria, from Ahmed on one end of the scale to the women on the other. It makes for a very interesting read to see how each character develops and reacts to the worsening conditions outside the home. Ms. Mendel accomplishes this character development by making each one the main subject of a chapter so we eventually get to see the family through varying perspectives. Especially insightful are the chapters pertaining to the women. As noted earlier, Rana is the most passionate and outspoken one in the house, but timid Fatima and Zayna, the little facilitator, become more fully developed as we get to know their intimate thoughts and personal feelings.

Conclusion

I liked reading this book, if for no other reason than getting an insight into a ‘moderate/progressive’ Muslim family (Mohammed even prohibits Fatima to teach religion to their children). Living amongst daily demonstrations, machine gun fire, and killing in the streets is something we, in this part of the world have difficulty understanding. I think A Hero excels in both these areas and as such is a worthwhile read.


Charlotte R. Mendel was born in Canada, and has lived in England, France and Israel. Her first novel, Turn Us Again, won the H.R. Percy Novel Prize, the Beacon Award for Social Justice, and the Atlantic Book Award for First Novel. She lives in Enfield, Nova Scotia, with six goats, two cats, eleven chickens, thousands of bees, two children, and one husband.

*Inanna Publications is a registered charitable organization. Their editorial mission is to publish visionary books and journal issues that reflect the depth, breadth and diversity of women’s lives across Canada.

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