Pop Culture

Muslim Impossible: Ruqaya Izzidien and Reviews of Bad Books

M. Lynx Qualey

Staff Writer

M. Lynx Qualey is the founder of ArabLit.org, a website that brings together translators, authors, publishers, critics, academics, and readers around discussions of Arabic literature in translation. She works as a book critic, reader, editor, and ghostwriter. You can follow her at @arablit.

In May 2019, novelist Ruqaya Izzidien launched the website Muslim Impossible. The new site reviews fictional Muslim and Arab characters in film, TV, and literature. But unlike the iconic American Indians in Children’s Literature site (AICL), run by Jean Mendoza and Debbie Reese, Muslim Impossible is only looking at bad books. Izzidien reviews depictions that are “unbelievable, poorly-researched or prejudiced.”

Izzidien is an acclaimed author. This year, she made the shortlist for the Betty Trask Prize for her debut novel The Watermelon Boys. But while she’s writing more fiction, she is also focused on bad book reviews.

I was excited when she launched the site, as I’m a fan of AICL, which launched in 2006. Mendoza and Reese’s reviews of books that depict American Indians are invaluable to the children’s literature community. Although Izzidien hasn’t yet reviewed children’s books with “unbelievable, poorly-researched” Muslim characters, it’s definitely a need.

Where did ‘Muslim Impossible’ come from?

According to Izzidien, she had been mulling this project over for a long time. “It first came to me as I read historical novels set in the Arab world, expecting to see stories about Arabs.” But ultimately, she said, she found “their narratives sidelined by the British/ European/American protagonists.”

That was part of the spark behind her novel The Watermelon Boys, historical fiction set in WWI-era Iraq. It was also the spark behind Muslim Impossible.

But it wasn’t an easy decision, she said. She took her time before she decided to launch the website. “But I passionately felt that there needed to be an outlet to hold to account those who choose to promote prejudiced depictions.”

Five Bloodied Swords

In her reviewing system, Izzidien doesn’t give a book or film stars, diamonds, thumbs-up, or thumbs-down. Instead, she gives each up to five bloodied swords.

The swords are for exoticism; typecasting characters as violent; one-dimensionality; false complexity; and laziness. The latter, she writes, is “possibly the most shameful of all, for poorly-researched language, culture or clothes, including the hijab.”

Thus far, the most she’s given is four. Five would be pretty hard to achieve, since “false complexity” rarely goes alone with one-dimensionality and laziness. So what is false complexity? “A good example of this is the Spanish TV show Elite, which has a hijabi character that faced believable prejudice, but who also was thrust into an exotified and highly problematic scene that transformed a show that attempted to highlight Islamophobic stereotypes into one that participated in them.”

“I’m considering amending the starring system to allow for more variety,” she said. “But I can also think of a few books and older films for which I’d throw out the rating system and award the full five swords anyway.”

Does this mean non-Muslims shouldn’t write Muslim characters?

No, Izzidien said. There’s nothing inherently wrong with writing about another culture. If you or I want to write a book with a Muslim character, she isn’t going to stop us.

However, she said, it requires research. “You don’t write a novel about a surgeon and then make up medical procedure without checking your facts and asking a specialist. That’s what I’m calling for—that those who choose to write—or produce films and TV series—about communities that they don’t belong to do us the courtesy of researching their stories and involving in the process someone who does have that information, experience and context.”

As for the future, she plans to release a new review every other Monday.

“In the coming months, I’ll be reviewing films and TV shows you’ll have heard of, and some books I guarantee you’ll wish you’d never heard of,” she said.

And if you’ve seen a particularly egregious depiction of a Muslim or Arab character in fiction? “I’m also always happy to receive suggestions for content to review through the blog.”

You can follow Muslim Impossible at @Muslmpossible.