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You Think You Know Me: The fraught self-discovery of a young Somali woman in London


Aisha Yusuff
Thursday June 22, 2023

Book Club: Ayaan Mohamud's debut novel focuses on a young Somali woman in London who learns to stand up for herself. The book's authentic portrayal of the British Somali community helps the reader understand the challenges of Islamophobia in the UK.


As the novel progresses, Hanan finds the strength to speak up against hate and fear [Usborne Publishing]

In her remarkable debut novel, You Think You Know Me, Ayaan Mohamud crafts a compelling story that explores the intricacies of identity, faith, resilience, and the power of love in the face of debilitating hatred.

Using a simple yet lyrical and poignant writing style, Mohamud delves into the world of Hanan Ali, a 17-year-old Somali girl living in bustling and diverse London.  

"You Think You Know Me is not only a tale of personal growth, self-discovery, and experiences with Islamophobia but also a reflection of the immigrant (and refugee) experience"

The book does not waste time with its main gist as it immediately introduces readers to the Islamophobia that Hanan experiences in school while trying to maintain academic excellence and ace her admission tests for medical school.

Since starting school in London after arriving with her family ten years ago, Hanan keeps her head down and lives by the Somali phrase “af daboolan dahab waaye” (a closed mouth is gold).

So, whenever the Islamophobic jibes get to her, she reminds herself that keeping her mouth closed will bring her closer to becoming a medical doctor.

Operation 'Hanan Keeps Quiet' is on until the tragic event near her school, of a mugging-turned-knife-violence. The perpetrator of this horrible crime happens to be a Muslim, and the innocent victim is a kind old white man.

So, like clockwork, the media attempts to paint the perpetrator as a religious extremist, and the number of hate crimes directed towards Muslims increases rapidly – so does the Islamophobia that Hanan and her fellow Muslim students experience.

It is against this backdrop that readers get a closer glimpse into Hanan’s life and how she attempts to forge a new path for herself.

Hanan is a sensitive and relatable character. Her experiences mirror the typical first-born immigrant daughter reality that many PoC British girls and women can connect with.

It is so easily missed that throughout the book, I did not put a name to it until Hanan’s mother said “I don’t want you to worry anymore Hanan… I know that you’ve had to worry about everyone else for too long … but I want you to know that’s my job, macaanto”.

For most of the plot, Hanan does the emotional and physical work of keeping the family functional to relieve her overworked and underpaid mother. Not to say that her siblings, like her twin brother Hussein, did not have the same sense of filial duty, but it is more pronounced in Hanan – because of that “first-born daughter” syndrome.

An intriguing part of witnessing Hanan’s character growth comes when she struggles with conflicting emotions after a traumatic Islamophobic event.

Upon realising that ‘keeping her head down’ and being the token Muslim still does not protect her, Hanan is angry, and her anger burns everything in its wake. “Anger becomes an ugly, dangerous thing when you fling it around with your eyes closed” – it is in these beautiful words from her mother and the selfless and loving legacy that her father taught her that Hanan eventually finds the strength to sort through her emotions.

With prose that is both elegant and introspective, Mohamud guides us through the labyrinthine corridors of Hanan’s mind, exposing her innermost thoughts, her anxieties, worries and especially her grief – both the freshly encountered and the previously repressed.

Readers also get a backstory of how Hanan and her family came to live in London, after fleeing their home country in search of safety – and I believe this is such an important part of this book because it explores the refugee experience. Mohamud handles this backstory in a tender and nuanced way.

Through Hanan’s lens, she paints a beautiful picture of Somalia, while not mincing words when describing the violence that came with the war. The aforementioned is consequential because it ensures that her portrayal of Somalia did not fall into romanticisation nor cater towards a demeaning narrative.

"While the novel explores serious themes, Mohamud infuses the story with several moments of humour and tenderness. The dialogue between the characters is natural and engaging, providing an authentic look into the lives and experiences of the British Somali community"

I also like that Mohamud does not actively use the word “refugee” to describe Hanan and her family. Rather, she details their journey out of Somalia, in a way, shifting the focus – away from how politicised (and sometimes criminalised) the word “refugee” can become – to the reality and dangers of the journey people are forced to take to become refugees in the first place.

Through the loss of an important member of the Ali family, Mohamud even highlights the unexpected dangers and senseless violence that people often encounter on that journey.

While the novel explores serious themes, Mohamud infuses the story with several moments of humour and tenderness. The dialogue between the characters is natural and engaging, providing an authentic look into the lives and experiences of the British Somali community.

"Bringing history to life is perhaps not the primary job of fiction, but it is definitely one of the more powerful and magical aspects of stories." https://t.co/I7uow4bXmG

The supporting characters also add depth and richness to the story. For instance, Hanan’s sisters – Sumaya and Hafsa – are delightful young girls who brighten up the story with their childish innocence and banter.

Their grandmother, Abooto, is another character that adds much-needed comic relief with her teasing and the various ways she ensures the children of the Ali family remain in touch with their Somali heritage.

Hanan’s best friend, Andrea – whose unwavering loyalty and love provide Hanan with a vital safe space – is another brilliant character. One strength of You Think You Know Me lies in how Mohamud uses these colourful supporting casts to portray how human character can be a thing of choice.

This book also excels in its portrayal of supportive and kind Muslim men in the head of the Ali family, Aabo, and Hussein. Hanan especially shares a tender, vulnerable and solid relationship with her brother.

There are many scenes in the book where his support single-handedly helps Hanan overcome tough situations.

In Aabo, Hanan also finds a robust moral compass and a pure understanding of love, kindness, and forgiveness – all of which help her become a better person. It is reassuring to see such tender Muslim male characters who have unproblematic and staunch relationships with their womenfolk.

Last but not least, Mohamud also uses You Think You Know Me to subtly address the reality of how poverty and peer pressure entice many young – often Black or PoC – boys into gangs and knife violence.

You Think You Know Me is not only a tale of personal growth, self-discovery, and experiences with Islamophobia but also a reflection of the immigrant (and refugee) experience.

Through Hanan’s eyes, Mohamud invites readers to confront their assumptions and preconceived notions, challenging us to question the way we treat ourselves and others.

Aisha Yusuff is a book reviewer with a focus on African and Muslim literature. Her work can be found on @thatothernigeriangirl as well as in digital magazines like Rewrite London.