Young Adult Literature

A Muslim Teen Finds Her Voice in Post-9/11 America: Read an Excerpt from HOPE ABLAZE by Sarah Mughal Rana

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Always books. Never boring.

After Nida, a young Muslim woman whose uncle was wrongfully imprisoned during the war on terror, is illegally searched while attending a political rally, she writes a blazing poem that goes viral during the run-up to the presidential election. Then she learns that she has won a poetry contest, which she never entered, and her life is turned upside down. As if that’s not enough, she then loses her ability to write poetry!

As Nida navigates the pressure of her family’s expectations and the pains of racism and Islamophobia, she finds her true identity and the magic of self-expression.

Hope Ablaze is Sarah Mughal Rana’s debut novel, available February 27, wherever books are sold.

On my commute home from visiting Mamou, a massive crowd surged around Wirth Park for the evening political rally downtown. Police patrolled the perimeters as signs were pushed into the grass by the Democratic Party volunteers. I kept myself busy by swiping through my phone.

Amma messaged me, ranting how her client asked for a steep discount like every other customer. But we couldn’t comply when our landlord was pressing us for our late rent.

As I asked how the rest of the delivery went, my phone buzzed, the adhaan for Asr reminding me of the evening prayer. I hurried down the field toward the park. Cars swerved to a stop as a group of joggers cut across the street. My knees bounced to an R&B playlist humming through my earphones, my nose wrinkling at the scent of gasoline permeating the air.

On my right, hoopers were trading insults in a game of one-on-one. Their curses echoed through the quad alongside a stereo blaring Kendrick. As I passed, they rattled the fence before hooting and cheering, each friend gassing the other up.

In my distraction, my foot snagged on a yard sign, scuffing a poster of Mitchell Wilson.

There were dozens across the park. From what I recalled, Wilson was a Democratic candidate in the upcoming Senate election, a war veteran of the Afghan invasion, and a liberal man who envisioned a better state that would reflect our changing values— or so claimed the evening news, according to Aunty Nadia.

The primaries of the US Senate election would determine which candidates would make the final ballot. Tonight was Mr. Wilson’s political rally.

Wilson seems like a decent enough man, Amma had once said. When I demanded why, she retorted, Jaanu, he took the time to visit our mosque more than once, he cares about the Muslim vote.

It would be my first time voting because my eighteenth birthday was in a matter of days.

My phone buzzed again with a second reminder to pray.

I gazed around. Police milled on the sidewalks, directing traffic on the blocked roads. At the far end of the park, the border of trees was bereft of people. After locating a spot, I laid out my silk pocket prayer mat from my bag. Every Muslim knew the ideal criteria to pray in public: in a park and under a tree. I pulled out my black abaya from my bag, buttoning it over my jeans before tightening my dark hijab. Then I raised my hands to begin the worship.

Suddenly, something gripped my shoulder, jerking me from prayer.

“Hands up. Hands up.

“What?” I turned but the hand shook my body. Roughly.

Two men loomed above my mat, their shadows swallowing me. My tongue went dry when I took in their jet-black uniforms and the walkie-talkies looped around their hips blaring ear- shattering static. Their eyes scoured the length of me, lingering on my hijab.

They were cops. “Hands up.”

My hands lifted. Slow and visible, like I was taught.

Nida, this shouldn’t be new to you. The morbid thought didn’t ease my panic.

“Do you see that?” snapped the cop on the left, his dark hair swept under his cap. “She has one of those. Check it.” He jabbed a finger at my scarf.

I flinched.

“Hands up higher,” he barked.“I won’t repeat it again.”

“Yes, sir,” I said automatically. That’s another rule that my uncle had taught me. There were many rules. Make sure your mouth is shut, my Mamou’s warning thudded in my chest. Make sure you obey.

His words weren’t just fusses and fears, they were cynical prophecy.

Don’t move, Nida. Do. Not. Move.

The cop on the right suddenly tugged on my hijab. “We need to search you.”

“Search me?” “Yes, for security.”

My hands began shaking hard. The full reality of what was about to happen hit me at once.“Sir, but why?”

“Stay still!”

My lips opened, different words somersaulting over and over in my head. If I don’t say anything, they’ll remove my hijab.

“She could be hiding anything in there. Remember, we can’t take risks with Wilson’s rally,” his colleague said before pulling a walkie from his belt. “There could be others.” His gaze locked with mine.“Who else is with you?”

“No one!”

But he was already gazing around as if hunting for another hijabi. “No acquaintance? Collaborator? We had a security alert of a threat. And then we found you here.”


At my hesitation, he nodded at his colleague before nudging my backpack.“Search it all.”

If I was hiding anything dangerous under a flimsy piece of cotton on my head, then what was I hiding under my shirt? Inside my pants? My socks? What about the rest of the visitors of the park playing behind me? What were they hiding?

Why was I singled out?

It didn’t matter that I was on public property outside the vicinity of the political rally that was scheduled to be held in several hours. I’d learned since Mamou’s arrest that the little details never mattered when it came to people like us.

One of their hands grasped my hijab and my desperation kicked in and I tried to keep my tone calm. “Sir, please, I could show my ID, and proof of my residence. I only came here to pray. I have to go back home.”

But the cops barely registered my words.

He yanked my hijab, unraveling the material—unraveling my dignity. Now I only wore a white headcap. I felt bare naked. Violated.

It was the equivalent to the cops forcing me to undress. I’d spent years covering my hair, only for the authorities to treat the decision like it was nothing.

“Please.” My voice caught.“I came to pray, on God I swear.”

His eyes were cold and a fathomless black. His feet were rooted to the ground. Nothing I said could’ve moved him.

Amma might’ve told me to comply, to forget Mamou, and oaths, and Ameens, but I had rights.“Please,” I tried one last time. “Not in front of everyone.”

He cocked his head.“Why wear it? You’re in America now.”

In any other circumstance, I’d have scoffed, As if I wasn’t born in this country, but at the moment, all I could think of was my exposed hair. My hands reached to cover tendrils of it. It was an instinct; I moved before my brain caught on to the action.

The officer’s hands shot out, wrenching my arms down, painfully.

“Elijah, what’s the delay?” a new voice interrupted from behind the cop.

It belonged to a man flanked by two security personnel. My jaw dropped. It was the same man I’d seen in those blue posters. Mitchell Wilson, the Democratic candidate. He was tall like my uncle, with a protruding gut, dressed in a checkered suit as charmingly gray as his hair, and a snug blue tie. If I were younger and asked to draw what an American politician looked like, it would be him.

My heart still raced, palms clammy, but I was less afraid. See- ing him brought me an awkward sort of relief. Didn’t Amma say he’d visited our mosque?

“Who’s this young girl?” Mr. Wilson’s sharp gaze assessed the situation, the cops poised above me. He appeared almost disinterested.

“A suspect who isn’t complying with security standards. We had an alert. Then we found her,” the cop in front of me reassured him.

If I wasn’t paralyzed by fear, I would’ve laughed. Security standards? I was a high school student. But my bravado dissipated as quickly as the wind.

Mr. Wilson’s brows pinched together as he studied my black abaya and hijab. His frown deepened.“That burka, it’s like she’s a bank robber,” he murmured to himself.

It took a moment for me to register his comment. I gaped at him. To make sure I wasn’t imagining this.

“Exactly, sir. She was making her way to the rally with her flag, sir.”

“Flag?” I shrieked.“What flag? This is my prayer mat!” But it was like I wasn’t there. One of the cops kicked the mat forward, his heel dragging it on the dirt, before tossing my scarf down as if they were weapons.

“There’s been a misunderstanding. That’s my hijab and mat!” Mr. Wilson waved his hand dismissively.“Oh, you poor thing.

I find it unacceptable that someone is wearing this burka in a country of human rights. This is a place of values, not a place to promote barbarism. There’s no need for your father to force you to wear it, you can come out of it now.” His words were calm, like he knew better, making it feel worse. He nodded at the cop. “I’ll meet you back at the rally, Elijah. Thank you for your work.”

His security personnel nudged him forward toward the rally’s setup. Mr. Wilson was nonchalant, with that grin of his, that confident tone, as if he hadn’t just shattered a girl’s worldview.

“I can’t stand Muslims,” his security guard remarked, and Mr.

Wilson casually smiled. My body was numb. What just happened?

From Hope Ablaze by Sarah Mughal Rana. Copyright © 2024 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.