Muslim bad girl Zainab Mir has just landed a job working for a post-feminist, Republican Senate candidate. Her best friend Amra Abbas is about to make partner at a top Boston law firm. Together they've thwarted proposal-slinging aunties, cultural expectations, and the occasional bigot to succeed in their careers. What they didn't count on? Unlikely men and geopolitical firestorms.
When a handsome childhood friend reappears, Amra makes choices that Zainab considers so 1950schoices that involve the perfect Banarasi silk dress and a four-bedroom house in the suburbs. After hiding her long work hours during their courtship, Amra struggles to balance her demanding job and her unexpectedly traditional new husband.
Zainab has her own problems. She generates controversy in the Muslim community with a suggestive magazine spread and friendship with a gay reporter. Her rising profile also inflames neocons like Chase Holland, the talk radio host who attacks her religion publicly but privately falls for her hard. When the political fallout from a terrorist attempt jeopardizes Zainab's job and protests surrounding a woman-led Muslim prayer service lead to violence, Amra and Zainab must decide what they're willing to risk for their principles, their friendship, and love.
Jennifer Zobair's Painted Hands is The Namesake meets Sex and the City, an engaging and provocative debut novel about friendship and the love lives of American Muslim women.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.94(w) x 8.34(h) x 1.12(d)|
About the Author
Jennifer Zobair grew up in Iowa and attended Smith College and Georgetown Law School. She has practiced corporate and immigration law and as a convert to Islam, has been a strong advocate for Muslim women's rights. Jennifer lives with her husband and three children outside of Boston, Massachusetts. Painted Hands is her first novel.
Read an Excerpt
THEY HAD TALKED about marrying a white man, but Amra never thought they were serious, not even when fed up with the proposal-slinging aunties who showed up at weddings and holiday celebrations with wallet-sized photos of eligible doctors and engineers, their particulars scribbled on the back (5'11", MIT, owns home or Stanford Medical, 33, professional wife okay). It was simply a way to vent. Because sometimes she and her friends needed to say something after the Ramadan parties and family celebrations, where the men always ate first and never helped clean up. It was just a bluff, the threat to marry outside of their culture, or so Amra thought until the Friday after Valentine’s Day, when Rukan rushed into Khao Sarn twenty minutes late—Amra and Zainab had already finished their miang kum and were attacking the fried tofu—and, without taking off her coat, flashed an enormous diamond ring.
Amra didn’t know what to say. All she could think of was the Home Shopping Network and a laboratory. Which, unfortunately, opened the floor for Zainab.
“What the hell is that?”
“Nice, Zainab,” Amra said. “What would her father say if he could hear you?” Rukan’s father did not tolerate women who swore. When they befriended her that first earnest year at Smith, despite Zainab’s prodding, Rukan couldn’t even say “crap” until the second semester.
Zainab nodded, like she was glad Amra had asked. “I think he would say, ‘What is that ring doing on my daughter’s finger and it better not have come from that goddamned kafir.”
“Adam isn’t a kafir,” Rukan said. “He’s an Episcopalian.”
Zainab rolled her eyes.
“It counts,” Rukan insisted. “You know, People of the Book? Christians and Jews. And Sabians.” Rukan frowned. “What even is a Sabian?” Amra shrugged. Zainab shot Rukan a look suggesting it couldn’t possibly matter, at that moment, what a Sabian was.
“Rook, even if it counts,” Zainab said, “it doesn’t help you. In your father’s world, Muslim men can marry Christians and Jews. Not Muslim women.”
“Some scholars say that women can, too.”
Rukan sighed and turned to Amra. “How bad do you think it will be?”
“With your parents?” Rukan nodded. Amra searched for the right words. “I think they’ll be caught off guard.”
Zainab laughed. “Really, Amra? You think?”
Rukan slumped in her chair. “Well, they’ll just have to deal with it. I’m getting married.”
“To Adam,” Amra said.
“Yes, to Adam. Should I agree to some arranged marriage instead? To some guy who’s only after my father’s money?”
“Of course not.” It was a false dilemma, Amra knew, the idea that those were Rukan’s only choices. “It’s just so … sudden.”
“Please. You go to weddings all the time where the bride and groom have spent all of three hours together.” Rukan took off her coat, finally, and pushed it over the back of her chair. She seemed to notice the food for the first time and spooned some Chinese broccoli onto her plate. “It’s been almost three months,” she said. “That’s practically a lifetime in our community.”
Amra didn’t disagree. But Adam was not from their community. “I’m sorry,” Amra said. “You’re right. Three months is more than enough time to fall in love.” Rukan nodded and took a sip of her water, staring at the wall on the other side of the restaurant.
“So,” Zainab said, “when do we get to meet the kafir?”
* * *
Amra didn’t check her voice mail until she was back in her office. Her mother had called twice and sent one text during lunch: Salaam, Beti. Where are you? Please call, ASAP. Amra had discreetly texted back, asking if it was an emergency, while Rukan talked about reception venues and tiered cakes. It is not emergent, her mother replied, but urgent.
She smiled at her mother’s precise response. Growing up with her mother, an English professor at NYU, meant not being allowed to say “snuck” instead of “sneaked” or “ironic” to refer to a coincidence. It did, however, mean scoring a perfect 800 on the verbal SAT.
Amra closed her office door and dialed. Her mother picked up on the first ring, and Amra could picture her in her study, her hair pulled into a loose bun, her black reading glasses perched on the end of her nose, making comments in careful, slanted script on her students’ papers. The entire wall behind her mother’s desk was covered with a sea of books arranged by subject—gender studies, politics, linguistics. On the antique end table near the door, she displayed a signed first-edition copy of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own in the original cinnamon cloth. The wood floor of her mother’s office was covered with a maroon Tabriz rug, on which Amra played as a child while her mother graded papers and prepared her lecture notes. It was where she learned that women’s work mattered, that a mother was also someone who did interesting and important things outside of the home. Amra grew up wanting to be just like her and had tried to forge a similar space in the spare bedroom of her Back Bay condo. Somehow, it fell short.
“Beti,” her mother said, “what are you doing the weekend of March tenth?”
Amra didn’t need to check. “Working.”
“I knew you were going to say that. I have a better idea. Why don’t you come home for a couple of days? Let me pamper you. All those long hours. You need a break.”
“I can’t. I have two deals closing that week and Eric is going on vacation.”
“Eric,” her mother scoffed. “The man who cannot bother to learn your name after four years?” It was true. Eric still mispronounced her name, rhyming the first syllable with “Sam” instead of “sum,” giving it an odd, southern twang even though Eric was from Scarsdale. “It’s pronounced Umruh,” she’d tried to explain during those first grueling weeks and then given up.
“If that man can go away for seven days,” her mother continued, “surely my overworked daughter can take one weekend off.” Amra looked at her desk—the neat piles of manila folders, the stacks of merger and acquisition documents, the pink message slips her secretary placed in the tray as Amra had instructed (urgent ones on the left and in descending order of importance)—and wished it worked that way. Amra wasn’t up for partner for two years, and until then she was yoked to Eric’s slightest whim. But Amra knew such explanations would only upset her mother further.
“Maybe I’ll come over the Easter holiday,” she said. “Things should settle down by then.”
“Easter? Amra, I need you here on the tenth.” Her mother’s tone became less conversational and more infused with purpose.
“The Syeds will be in town.”
“Which Syeds?” Amra knew about fifty Syeds.
“Don’t you remember? From our first apartment on Ninety-first Street. Dr. Syed and his family. You used to play with their daughter, Maha.”
Amra remembered. Who could forget Maha with her little notepads, watching the other children, scribbling furtive notes. Once at a wedding, Zainab grabbed Maha’s yellow tablet, stood on a chair, and read its contents. It turned out to be a list of various children’s names and a chronicle of their indiscretions. Maha had cited one boy for staring at a girl, Zainab for swearing, and Amra for “acting like she is better than everyone on the planet.” “You’re recording our sins?” Zainab had asked incredulously. Maha just shrugged and said the angels were doing it anyway. It was at Maha’s house, years later, that Amra got her first period and the ever-prepared Zainab led her to the bathroom for a crash course in tampon wearing. Maha caught sight of the white tube and told her father that the girls were smoking. Because of Maha, Amra had to endure Dr. Syed banging on the bathroom door while Zainab held it shut long enough for her to get her pants up. Amra had been mortified, but Zainab simply deposited the cardboard applicator in Dr. Syed’s hand as they passed him and said, “I think this is what you’re looking for.” The only good part about Maha was her brother Mateen, with his Shahid Kapoor good looks, but he was several years older than the girls and never paid them any attention.
Amra sighed. “I doubt that Maha cares much about seeing me.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” her mother said. “She worshipped the ground you and Zainab walked on.”
“She had a funny way of showing it.”
“Yes, well, children can be funny. Shall I make your shuttle reservation or will your secretary take care of it?”
Copyright © 2013 by Jennifer Zobair
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
In this groundbreaking debut novel, Jennifer Zobair weaves together the friendships, careers, and romantic relationships of three Muslim women, illuminating the points of intersection with nuance, empathy, and a writing voice that shines. PAINTED HANDS is a book for people who love richly drawn characters and tight, riveting storytelling. As the novel's heart and soul, Amra has worked years of grueling hours for the chance to make partner at a prestigious Boston law firm, only to fall hard for Mateen, a childhood acquaintance who may have more traditional expectations for the woman he marries than Amra wants to acknowledge. Amra's best friend Zainab is a gorgeous, suffer-no-fools politico spearheading a Massachusetts Senate campaign, whose Islamic faith is a convenient target for Chase, the up-and-coming, conservative radio host whose lifelong ambition is checked by his growing attraction to the strangely familiar, and magnetic, Zainab. Amra's law firm colleague, Hayden, has become an unlikely convert to Islam after years of being marginalized by men. While her new religion is a salve to her loneliness, Hayden has drifted into a more fundamentalist sect of Islam led by Fareeda, a woman who abhors Muslim feminists like Zainab and is all too eager to shape Hayden's interpretation of what a "true" Muslim woman should be. Throughout the novel, Ms. Zobair highlights the Pakistani and Indian practice of women dyeing their hands with henna before the wedding of a family member or friend. Amra and Zainab have maintained a lifelong tradition of embedding their dearest, most secret wish somewhere inside this intricate pattern of loops and swirls. And that's how reading this book felt: like a beautiful secret unfurling across the pages, drawing me nearer to these smart, vulnerable, and very human characters in a story as original as the woman it paints, and as universal as the heart's desires. With PAINTED HANDS, Ms. Zobair has lit one more light for hope and understanding in this fractured world. I highly recommend it.
Can I admit that I was dubious? I read the first chapter of Painted Hands with skepticism fully engaged. Second chapter, too. But somewhere around the third or fourth chapters, Jennifer Zobair’s Painted Hands transformed my doubt into something akin to astonishment. I was reading a book about attractive, accomplished women juggling careers and families and husbands and lovers, and enjoying that book immensely. I didn’t expect to do so. Sure, Jennifer Zobair’s a friend, and I admire her way with words, but I started Painted Hands hoping — at best — to maybe enjoy a book that was outside my comfort zone. I ended up loving it — and wondering how in the hell that happened. It begins with a tight storyline and accomplished storytelling, and then combines several imaginative characters, and a deep, yet gentle immersion into a lovely, colorful and occasionally opaque culture that most of us know too little about. The plotting in Painted Hands is intricate, but not to worry, for the author keeps the pace brisk and fluid. The story follows the lives of three Muslim women — Amra, Zainab, and Hayden – during a volatile time in their lives. The stories weave together gracefully, like the gorgeous henna designs lovingly painted on a South Asian bride’s hands on the day she is to marry. Amra, the book’s sweet center, has worked for years to garner success, and now sits on the cusp of partnership at a prestigious Boston law firm. But when a childhood friend returns to her inner circle as a successful and handsome businessman, she’s not ready for the waves of emotion that engulf her. That he finds her charming, but doesn’t know about the sacrifices she’s made to have a career, is just the beginning of their story. He also carries secrets, including a more traditional view of Islam than she expects. If Amra is the novel’s sweet center, Zainab brings fire and spice. She’s the book’s most complicated character, and her scenes spark with electricity. She’s working a Massachusett’s election campaign for a smart, but incautious, post-feminist businesswoman who actually answers questions from the media. Zainab must be brilliant and occasionally ruthless to keep pace, and she’s constantly switching play books to keep her candidate in the race. At one point, she turns to a highly-educated — and occasionally racist — right-wing radio host for a favor, and finds that Chase Holland is far more complicated and intriguing than he appeared at first blush. Hayden is the book’s lost soul, the woman who makes many wrong decisions, and through whose eyes we see a vision of religion as filtered through a fundamentalist prism. I found so many things to like in Painted Hands. The story is smart and topical, and the characters are richly, and lovingly drawn. I loved seeing Islam through Jennifer’s eyes, and learning more about what it means to be a Muslim in America today. It all works seamlessly because Zobair’s prose is subtle and refined, and so many scenes are touched by nuance that you might very well want to read it again.
Painted Hands provides a fascinating peek inside a world most of us aren’t privy to. Author Jennifer Zobair, a Muslim convert, eschews convention and breaks stereotypes, telling stories of people who cross traditional lines, or are tempted to. A Muslim feminist works for a Republican political candidate. Traditional Muslims romance inside and outside their religion. Although the author is liberal she seeks to provide a balanced perspective, for example introducing a pundit who became conservative when he decided “the market was as good an arbiter of the whole efficiency/equality question as any bought and paid for politician.” Readers must decide for themselves whether the pundit deserves what he gets in the end. Reaction to events of the past dozen years or so has contributed to the dehumanization of Muslims. This book shines a different light on the subject. It is populated with Americans both ordinary and extraordinary who happen to practice a minority religion, who embrace a culture most other Americans consider exotic, who worry when the actions of a few threaten to taint them all. Painted Hands has been called groundbreaking, and that it is. Reviewers will infer various themes, and I suppose most or all of them will have some validity: that the book pushes boundaries, poses questions about where lines ought to be drawn; that it takes on religious and political institutions; that it tests the definitions of piety, feminism, etc. To me there is a theme that is deeper than all of these, namely the book explores the responsibility one has to his or her own core values, and the possible consequences of exercising choices in the matter. The story could have centered around any religious or political divide, could have taken place anywhere on earth, and the message would be the same. Some readers will naively call Painted Hands a love story, and they’ll be more right than they know.
Chick-lit Muslim style. Having suggested this for a multi-cultural book group that I attend, I was initially concerned that it was too much of a chick-lit read. However, as I got more involved in the story, the significance of the Muslim angle became more apparent and the resulting discussion was fascinating. Two of the main characters, Amra and Mateen, are Muslims from American Pakistani families. Their meeting is orchestrated by their parents, although they had known each other as children. Amra's best friend, also since childhood, is Zainab, assistant to a Republican election candidate, she works long hours like Amra, who is hoping to become the partner in a law firm. Amra's colleague, Hayden, a native American, does not have a Muslim background but decides that Islam will give her the security and support that she feels her life lacks. This is a story of young people working high powered jobs and trying to juggle work, play and relationships alongside one another. It has added interest in that the issue of their religous upbringing creates additional problems. The backlash of bigoted comments from Chase, a right wing radio broadcaster, and a Muslim led bombing, sends the community spinning off in different directions and Muslims are forced to feel the need to defend themselves against unjust accusations. One of the members of our discussion group had lived as a Muslim in America and she could vouch for the accuracy of the sentiments expressed in the novel. Living in Dubai, we are used to the various types of arranged marriages and versions thereof, so that came as no surprise, but I was shocked by the extreme anti- Muslim sentiments expressed at times. The author is herself a convert to Islam, with a Pakistani husband, and I suspect that the character of Hayden might be somewhat autobiographical. In some ways this book was a bit unconvincing, particularly around the marriage that Hayden embarks on and her ultimate reaction to it. The ending was a bit open, leaving the reader to surmise how each relationship might progress into the future, which was mildly frustrating but did provide another point for discussion. As the first book for this author, it was well worth the read. Hopefully her future novels will be even better and I shall be looking out for her next publication.