by Safia Fazlul,
Toronto, ON: TSAR, 2012
180 pp, $20.95
Safia Fazlul tackles the huge issue of contrasting cultures in her debut novel, The Harem. The narrator and main character, Farina, tries desperately to reconcile a desire for freedom with conflicting value systems. At eighteen, she is determined to get away from her controlling parents and make her own way in the world. Farina was born in Bangladesh, but her parents immigrate when she is a small child, so all she really knows is her new home. Farina and her two girlfriends, Sabrina and Imrana, are at odds with the conventions of their Bangladeshi parents and neighbours in the fictional suburb of Peckville.
The girls are frantic to taste freedom, to live on their own, and to do what they want. They rail against the strictness of their parents who are devout Muslims. And because they are girls, their lives are even more circumscribed than those of the boys they know. All three make a series of bad choices in the mistaken belief that they are exercising free will. Their rebellion takes the form of alcohol, drugs, and sex. Fazlul pushes them to an extreme when Sabrina decides to start up an escort agency—The Harem–and talks her friends into helping her in the business.
Sabrina argues that selling sex is a choice that women can make to exert their own power and autonomy. While the plan is for the three friends to run the agency and to hire other young women to be the escorts, Farina is deeply conflicted about the Harem, recognizing the essential hypocrisy of the business endeavour. It’s clear that choice is not what drives the escorts. They are generally young women with no marketable skills. They can make more money selling their bodies than they can any other way, and so they are caught in a financial trap. Farina thinks, “Girls pimping girls—there’s something really disgusting about that. I could and should back out right now, but I need the money. Money is freedom on this side of the world, you either milk or get milked.” She is not happy with either situation.
Fazlul does a good job of showing Farina’s confused feelings. Sabrina and Imrana respond to their circumstances in different ways and appear more as ciphers than as fully realized characters. Adding to the cast of characters are various parents, neighbourhood “Aunties” who keep an eye on everything, Farina’s predatory boss at the deli, and Farina’s friend Ali, a good Muslim boy who hangs out unbelievably with a pack of vulgar guys.
The language used is raw. The world the friends inhabit is emotionally cold and essentially nasty, and the invective reflects that. Sabrina, in particular, is foul-mouthed. She is also emotionally scarred and so far down a dark path that it’s unlikely she can turn her life around. Fazlul tends to write short, choppy sentences with tough language. All three girls are in need of love, but only Farina seems to realize that her parents, especially her mother, love her. But parental love comes with the ties of discipline, and Farina needs to learn what is valuable in her life and what is not.
The Harem is a bit rough in places and occasionally sentimental and melodramatic, but the subject matter is gripping. The question of what freedom is infuses the novel with an engaging gravitas. And trying to understand the cultural conflicts that immigrants must face is essential.
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