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Deep in the Sahara

By: Kelly Cunnane
illustrated by: Hoda Hadadi
Formats: Hardcover, eBook
Imprint: Schwartz & Wade
ISBN: 9780375870347
2013-10-08 - $17.99

"Poetic language, attractive illustrations and a positive message about Islam, without any didacticism: a wonderful combination," declares Kirkus Reviews in a starred review.

Lalla lives in the Muslim country of Mauritania, and more than anything, she wants to wear a malafa, the colorful cloth Mauritanian women, like her mama and big sister, wear to cover their heads and clothes in public. But it is not until Lalla realizes that a malafa is not just worn to show a woman's beauty and mystery or to honor tradition—a malafa for faith—that Lalla's mother agrees to slip a long cloth as blue as the ink in the Koran over Lalla's head, under her arm, and round and round her body. Then together, they pray.

An author's note and glossary are included in the back of the book.

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December 03, 2013


★ Lalla, a little Mauritanian girl, gets her heart’s desire when she shows her mother that her faith is important to her.

Lalla sees her mother, her big sister, Selma, her cousin Aisha, her grandmother and all the other women in her West African town all wrapped in malafa, the colorful veils that wrap from head to toe. She wants to look beautiful and grown-up too, but each female family member tells her that wearing the malafa is more important than beauty, mystery, being a mature woman and even tradition. When Lalla figures out for herself that the malafa is central to the religious practice of Muslim women in her region, then her mother joyously wraps her in “a malafa / as blue as the Sahara sky / as blue as the ink in the Koran / as blue as a stranger’s eye.” The author notes that she changed her opinion regarding the wearing of veils for religious reasons when she lived in Mauritania and wrote this book to share the joy she observed. The collage illustrations done by an Iranian artist show the colorful cloths of “lime and mango,” the beautiful women wearing the veils in different ways and the details of the houses.

Poetic language, attractive illustrations and a positive message about Islam, without any didacticism: a wonderful combination. - Kirkus Reviews


★ Cunnane (Chirchir Is Singing) introduces a Mauritanian girl who’s fascinated with the malafa, the veil the women in her family wear. The second-person narration (“you watch Mama’s malafa flutter as she prays”) presents the veil as desirable rather than confining and describes the girl’s wish to wear it so she can be beautiful, like her mother, or mysterious, like her sister. Her relatives reject these superficial reasons. It’s not until the girl shows she understands the malafa as a sign of Muslim belief (“Mama… more than all the dates in an oasis, I want a malafa so I can pray like you do”) that Mama gives the girl one of her own. The warm, affirming portrait of Islam (“A malafa is for faith”) makes this a valuable resource for both Muslim audiences and a broader readership interested in potentially unfamiliar customs and observances of faith. In Iranian artist Hodadi’s U.S. debut, her round-faced characters and affectionate scenes of Mauritanian family life (drinking tea on cushions, carrying trays of goods to market) keep the atmosphere friendly and lighthearted throughout. – Publishers Weekly


★ ”In a pale pink house the shape of a tall cake,/you watch Mama’s malafa/flutter as she prays./More than all the stars in a desert sky,/you want a malafa so you can be beautiful too.” Mama cautions Lalla that a malafa is for more than beauty. The pattern continues as Lalla envies her sister’s sense of mystery, the market ladies’ femininity, and her grandmother’s air of ancient tradition until she gets a malafa of her own, “as blue as the ink in the Koran” so she can take her place beside her mother for the evening prayer. Cunnane has a strong connection to Africa, having lived in both Kenya and Mauritania, the setting of this lovely original story. Like For You Are a Kenyan Child (S & S, 2006), this book incorporates authentic cultural details in both the poetic text and the evocative illustrations. Local Hassaniya words, for example, appear naturally in the text, and are helpfully defined in a glossary. Cut-paper collage illustrations feature boys in turbans, men hurrying to prayers, and women dressed in brightly colored swaths of cloth, enlivening the browns, greens, and adobe brick of the desert background. An author’s note acknowledges that she’d believed the wearing of the veil was repressive to women until she understood it was a “relaxed and colorful expression of…faith and culture.” Perhaps this upbeat picture book about a mother welcoming her daughter into their community of faith will engender a more positive attitude toward women who choose traditional dress in the modern world.– School Library Journal


★ Lalla lives in Mauritania where the sun burns, the sands shift, and all answer the call to prayer. It is her wish to wear, like the women around her, a malafa, or airy, colorful cloth worn over clothes and covering the head. Lalla wants to wear the malafa for its beauty, but her mother explains that the cloth’s purpose is “for more than beauty.” She tells her sister, Selma, that she wants to wear it to be mysterious; Selma laughs and says that isn’t a good enough reason. Neither is Lalla’s desire to transition from a girl to a woman. Only when she tells her mother that “I want a malafa so I can pray like you do” does she receive her coveted cloth. Cunnane explains in an author’s note that when she first lived in Mauritania, she believed wearing the veil was repressive, but the people’s “relaxed and colorful expression of their faith and culture” changed her mind. She will certainly make readers think about their preconceived notions thanks to a text that is as thoughtful as it is charming. Hadadi, who is Iranian, creates paper collages with a whimsical beauty that workwell with the story’s  sense of longing. The women, all individualized, exude true warmth, and readers will feel a quiet satisfaction when Lalla joins them. A special offering. – Booklist