Art imitates life in C.R. native's debut novel

Cedar Rapids native Jennifer Zobair’s writes from personal experience. (photo by Brian Zisk)
Cedar Rapids native Jennifer Zobair’s writes from personal experience. (photo by Brian Zisk)

Cedar Rapids native Jennifer (Zizka) Zobair can relate to the character Amra Abbas in her debut novel “Painted Hands.”

Abbas works 90-hour weeks trying to make partner at her Boston law firm. Zobair graduated from Georgetown Law School and worked long hours as a corporate and immigration lawyer. Like Amra, when Zobair thought of her future family life, “it had never occurred to me that I was going to do anything other than take maternity leave and go back to work.”

But both women had a change of heart after starting a family.

“(My husband and I) adopted our oldest son and I got pregnant at the same time — and I was working. I wasn’t prepared for how much (having a family) was going to affect me and how much I was going to want to be part of that.”

The exploration how our priorities — and dreams — change as we age is central in “Painted Hands.”

The novel also explores many of the misconceptions we often have regarding gender, politics and religion.

Amra’s best friend Zainab ends up falling for Chase, a character who is “Conservative, charming, but someone who engaged in anti-Muslim bigotry,” which leads to some pointed conversations.

“When I started the book, I wasn’t sure how it was going to turn out. If they could even find common ground to be friends, let alone fall in love.”

But Zainab and Chase continue to talk. And the banter — and friendship — that follows leads both characters to become more open-minded and learn that there are many ways to be conservative, and many ways to be Muslim.

“There’s this really narrow image of what a Muslim woman is… . I don’t see a diverse experience of Muslim women in fiction. Muslim women are often seen as someone who needs saving from their religion, and those aren’t the kind of women I know.”

Zobair referenced a recent Gallup poll that found Muslim American women “are more highly educated than women in every other religious group except Jews, with 43 percent of Muslim American women holding a college or postgraduate degree, compared with 29 percent of American women overall.”

The fact that Muslim women “are educated, with high-powered jobs,” Zobair says, “is not what people expect.”

The stereotypical view of Islam is also not the religion Zobair knows, having converted 16 years ago.

“Although some people in this country routinely conflate my faith with terrorism, I am very moved by the part of the Quran that states that if you kill an innocent person, it is as though you have killed all of mankind, and if you save the life of an innocent person, it is as though you have saved all of mankind.”

While the characters’ various faith journeys are central to “Painted Hands,” so is the deep friendship between Amra and Zainab.

“I think as adults it’s easy to get caught up in our families… . But we are more than just mothers and wives and co-workers, and I think we’ve got to develop and maintain the friends who see us as individuals and nurture our dreams.”By exploring all aspects of her characters — including friendship, family, faith, and career — “Painted Hands” serves as a realistic depiction of the modern Muslim American woman.

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