Mongrel. by Sayra Begum. Knockabout Comics. London. 2020, 264pp, $21.99
In Mongrel, Sayra Begum presents the reader an honest and in-depth look at a Muslim family from Bangladesh. Begum takes a very straightforward, blunt, and fresh approach to issues of race, gender, class, and religion. At the heart of her story is the conflict that the protagonist must navigate as she straddles two worlds coming from her mixed-heritage background: Bengal Muslim on her mother’s side; British-Anglo on her father’s side. In Islam, it is understood that a Muslim man can marry a non-Muslim woman. However, it is forbidden for a Muslim woman to marry a non-Muslim man. And yet this is exactly what happens in Begum’s story. Shuna is the daughter of such a forbidden union. When history is set to repeat itself with Shuna determined to marry David, a non-Muslim man, it is Shuna’s mother who is at the center of the conflict, making unfair and impossible demands upon her daughter.
Drawn is a style that evokes a dream-like sketchbook come to life, the reader is swept up into the immersive world of Mongrel. What strikes me about this graphic novel, what makes it remarkable, is its authenticity, commitment, and vision. It is not often that we, as general readers, have an opportunity to become privy to the everyday life of a Muslim family in such an accessible format as a graphic novel–even though there are well over a billion followers of Islam. With all the heated talk about diversity and inclusion on the table, it’s ironic. That said, we can all be grateful for this insightful work.
Now, let’s allow the book to speak for itself with some samples and quotes from the pages of Mongrel…
“The front door of Shuna’s family home acted as a gateway to Bangladesh. Nothing haram passed through this door, this was a devout house. When Shuna walked through this door, she switched her rebellious face to her pious face, which eagerly absorbed the teaching of the Prophet, striving to be a good Muslim girl. The switching between these two faces became increasingly difficult as they grew further and further apart.”
“‘Yes, yes, yes I’ll marry you!’ I said to David. Although, after the celestial shock wore off and dull reality set in, I realised there was a slight problem. I would have to tell my very traditional parents that I was going to marry a non-Muslim and confess my secret life.”
“It’s my wedding day. My parents are absent. I’m not surprised. Why would my parents want to celebrate their daughter being damned to an eternity in hell fire?”
Ultimately, Begum keeps it real. People are not saints. They can be very contradictory and self-destructive. They can also find a way out and to a healthy place for self-reflection. We are embarking upon a new cycle of calling out authority and demanding all sorts of change. What we mustn’t forget is to dig deeper and calmly remove the obstacles that lead to someone being seen as the Other or as the mongrel. Sayra Begum’s graphic novel is a step in the right direction. As I stated earlier, we don’t often have such a window specifically into the Muslim world. But you can also say that these kind of gems only come around every so often. I think of such landmark works as Blankets, by Craig Thompson, which dissects a Christian upbringing; and I think of Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi, the last great work to take an idiosyncratic look at any religion in a significant graphic format. These gems take time and they come along it their due time. Now is a perfect time for Mongrel.
A note, especially to readers in the United States: you can find Mongrel at Amazon right here.