H. Hayek, Huda and Me, Allen & Unwin, March 2021, 208 pp., RRP $14.99 (pbk), ISBN 9781760526023
When Huda’s parents travel to Beirut because of a family illness, they leave their seven children in the care of Aunt Amel, a family friend. But Aunt Amel sees this as an opportunity for a vacation, allocating jobs to each of the children so she can relax and be pampered. For the older siblings, their jobs fit with their talents and interests, such as doing hair and make up, or cooking, so they are initially happy to go along, but Huda (9 years old) and her brother Akeal (12) are designated butler and maid, which means they have to do the dirty jobs such as scrubbing the toilets and cleaning out the chicken coop. Aunt Amel is endlessly critical and controlling, and her expectations continue to grow, until the whole family are burnt out and exhausted. So when Huda comes up with an unlikely plan to free them all, her brothers and sisters help her out.
That plan involves Huda using her parents’ credit card to book a flight from Melbourne to Beirut for herself and Akeal. Whilst this would seem far-fetched in real life, Aunt Amel ramps up the pressure on the kids until they are desperate enough to act, and the way this trip eventuates feels very believable. Huda is also adventurous, confident, subversive, and clever, and very, very good at getting her way, so despite her age, it’s easy to picture her bringing the crazy plan to fruition.
The story is told through a dual narrative, starting with Huda and Akeal at the airport and moving forward through time as they travel to Beirut to find their parents, whilst also flashing back to Huda’s parents leaving and Aunt Amel taking over the household. This works very well, creating a satisfying, original story with plenty of action and drama.
All the characters, including secondary ones such as a taxi driver, are well-developed, and there is a strong sense of place as the story moves through Melbourne, Dubai Airport and Beirut. In a nice reversal of stereotypes, nine-year old Huda is confident and assertive with a huge personality, making things happen, while her older brother Akeal is anxious, with his little sister often looking after him. Their special friendship is very touching.
The story provides insight into what it’s like to be Lebanese immigrants in Australia, with family far away. It introduces the reader to aspects of Lebanese and Muslim culture, including food, traditional dress, and the difficulty of keeping up prayers while travelling, as well as the impact of war in Lebanon. Huda experiences racism on a flight because of her hijab and Akeal confronts the perpetrator, challenging him to reassess his behaviour. The book also raises the question of identity for immigrants – as an Australian travelling to Lebanon, Akeal wonders if he is a ‘fake Lebanese’ and whether he will fit in. At the same time, it addresses negative stereotypes of Muslims, showing a large, busy family with the usual sorts of worries, fun traditions and a strong, loving connection.
Huda and Me is a fun, exciting book that I couldn’t put down. Highly recommended.
Reviewed by Rachel le Rossignol