My heart has broken twice over while reading Written in the Stars. Once when I felt Naila's hopelessness as she was drugged and tricked into an arranged marriage and raped by her husband, and once when I realized how Naila might not be able to return home in this new version of reality that we are living in.
I am writing this review on January 29, 2017. Two days ago, people seeking refuge and safety, as well as residents just trying to get back home, were barred from entering the United States if they came from specific countries. Some people are still being held prisoner in airports. I am afraid. And I am angry. I am angry that people are being hurt because of where they were born. Because their skin is brown. Because they dress differently and pray differently. I do not believe that politicians can make this world any better--as I see it, they are only making things worse. But I do not have to be political to feel broken. I only have to be human.
Naila's story is not unique, nor is it relegated solely to Pakistan or to Islam. As Aisha Saeed points out in her Author's Note, forced marriages happen across all cultures and religions. How can we stand by and watch people trying to escape horrors that we cannot even imagine be turned away from safety? How do the people making these decisions justify it in their hearts, if they have any?
Saeed has written a powerful story in simple, spare prose. Naila's parents are from Pakistan, but they moved to Florida, where she grew up. Not wishing to lose their traditions and culture, Naila's parents have been very strict. She cannot date, she cannot be alone with boys, she cannot go to dances. She is expected to marry a good boy after her parents indulge her by allowing her to go to university, where she plans to become a doctor. But Naila has a secret, and his name is Said.
After she's caught sneaking out to be with Said at prom, Naila is whisked back to Pakistan with her family for a long overdue visit. Said sneaks her a cell phone with an international sim card so they can keep in touch during the month she'll be gone. After enduring dozens upon dozens of boring "parties" with people she does not know, Naila learns the truth from her cousin Selma: she is not leaving Pakistan. Her parents are marrying her to the person who pays the most and is worth the most. She frantically contacts Said, who tries to get the U.S. Embassy involved, but Naila would have to travel to Lahore from her family's rural village.
One botched escape attempt later, Naila's chachi (uncle) beats and drugs her for the length of her engagement, and forces her to sign her marriage contract. She's then taken away and deposited at the home of her new husband, Amin. Although Amin is initially kind and gentle, his overbearing mother nags him so much about consummating the marriage that he rapes Naila, and she is completely broken. After that, she gives up hope of ever getting out of her personal hell.
Except one day, at the market, she sees a face. An impossible face. One with a beard, but one that she would know anywhere. It's Said, come to take her away. Only his presence is more of a danger than anything Naila has faced so far. Her uncle will, quite literally, kill her if she shames the family. Will she risk death in order to live again?
I am haunted by this book. Saeed is a master at conveying deep emotion in simple phrases. I felt Naila's pain and terror and hopelessness. Naila, a caged bird. Naila, abused and broken, but still willing to fight.
In the end, Amin saves Naila from being beaten to death, and she escapes back to the States with Saif. Her life is not perfect. It is not a fairytale. She lost so much: her innocence, her autonomy, her parents, and even the baby she was carrying. Life with Said is hard work, but it is good work. But.
But what if Pakistan were added to the list of banned countries? What if Naila were there, trapped and alone, with no hope of ever returning again? Naila, a girl born in the United States, told she was not welcome. Told that she would be better off being abused by her mother-in-law and living with a man she cannot love. Told that being a prisoner in another country was safer than allowing her to come home.
Truly excellent books should touch you deeply. Written in the Stars has shaken me to my core. It has also made me determined to fight for others, especially those who have had their voices taken away. You are all welcome with me.