Rebels by Accident offers a bird’s eye view of the 2011 Egyptian revolution. The bird is a 15-year-old American-Egyptian who is initially embarrassed, frustrated and often angered by all things Egyptian, especially her Egyptian-born parents. Miriam’s first act of rebellion is to follow her best friend Deanna to a forbidden party that included beer, police and a jail cell. Miriam and Deanna’s parents decide to respond by sending both girls to Egypt for the rest of the school year, where they are to be under the watchful eye of Miriam’s grandmother – the one Miriam’s Baba says “rules with an iron fist.”
Although the book has a rather formulaic beginning –beer bashes, restrictive parents, insecure teens confronting questions of popularity and acceptance – teen readers may well identify with Miriam and Deanna precisely because of these opening salvos. Children of immigrant parents may feel a particular affinity when Miriam announces, “I don’t want to look like I’m Egyptian. I don’t want to walk like one or talk like one or be one. I just want to be what I am. American.” But as soon as the girls get off the plane in Cairo, the story picks up drama, surprise, Egyptian news and culture – and even starry-eyed teen love.
Sittu – Miriam’s grandmother – is far different from Miriam’s imaginings, sharing stories not only about Miriam’s father and the unexpected reason he moved to America in the first place but also the travails of Egypt’s early feminists, including a relative who was president of the Egyptian Feminist Union in the 1920s. “Feminism and Islam are not like oil and water,” says Sittu, “they are like the trees and the air…one can’t exist without the other. Islam is about equality and justice, so I can’t see how you can be a good Muslim without being a feminist.”
Bits of pure Egyptian lore and universal common sense are sprinkled throughout the story line. Author Patricia Dunn lived in Cairo and her writing reflects her knowledge of cultural details, including the fact that Egyptians know the best mangoes are, of course, in Egypt! University student Hassan explains to Miriam that her “sittu loves you, but she just may not show it in a way you understand. You see, sometimes we are hardest on the ones who mean the most to us. Our expectations are higher.” Miriam sees the same phenomenon in her parents, but Deanna adds, “Well for the record, it’s not just an Egyptian thing. My mother’s on my case all the time.”
There are encounters with young Egyptians making choices about participating in demonstrations to oust then-President Hosni Mubarak, discussions about the wisdom of American teens showing up at those protests in Tahrir Square and frightening consequences when Deanna actually does. Miriam is forced to grow up even more when she accompanies her grandmother through a medical emergency.
As a coming of age novel, Rebel by Accident will keep young readers turning the page but also raise challenging topics that can prompt discussion, from civic engagement to world events to a more nuanced understanding of cultural appreciation and parental guidance. Recommended.
Reviewed by Karen Leggett Abouraya
Published in Africa Access Review (January 5, 2015)
Copyright 2015 Africa Access