Book Review: Nevien Shaabneh’s ‘Secrets Under the Olive Tree’


‘This week, I am excited to write about Secrets Under the Olive Tree, a book about a Palestinian-American girl written by a female Palestinian-American author. As a passionate champion of diverse narratives, I think it is incredibly important to have narratives by writers who belong to the communities they are depicting. I believe this adds to the authenticity of the work and helps to eliminate stereotypes that so often occur when others take on the role. Especially where stereotypes about Muslimahs are concerned.

For Secrets Under the Olive Tree, the main character Layla is introduced early to adult themes and situations she doesn’t know how to cope with. Treated as an unwanted addition in her family, and threatened by her father for something she has no knowledge of, Shaabneh makes the reader concerned for Layla’s welfare from very early on. Her mother tries her best to protect and include her, struggling under the threat of domestic violence and an alcoholic husband. She lacks any power to ease Layla’s situation at home. For the most part, she is submissive to her husband and his requests. This representation, although adding to the homogenous view of the oppressed Muslim woman, is also an acknowledgement that real life problems exist. Married off early to someone she does not choose, Layla later discovers secrets about her husband that make it impossible her to remain with him. Layla must discover the secret her family have kept from her that ultimately provides the answer to both her past and her future. Layla’s vulnerability is apparent in a scene where she sits in the street in the rain, unable to go home to a family who will only disown her. Her rescuer comes in the form of female Muslim charity worker, Wafa who helps people who have run away from home or need assistance by providing supportive charity services for those in her community. It is refreshing to have such a positive contributor to society who is portrayed as caring, sensitive and non-judgmental.

The diversity in representing female Muslims in America doesn’t stop there. Wafa and Layla visit a poetry night one evening, organized by a younger ‘inner city Muslim activist group’. There, we are introduced to more Muslims who do not conform to the typical stereotype including the depiction of the character, ‘Aya’. She has a strong voice on stage and overwhelms Layla with her words. Aya dresses uniquely and has ‘a bohemian flare about her that [Layla] had not seen before in a Muslim woman.’. These varied depictions help to portray Muslim women as a diverse group, united by their faith but not by their dress, attitude or any other factors that tend to form the stereotypes we are often used to reading and seeing in the mainstream. One commentator on Goodreads agreed that the book; “helps debunk and shed light on the common misconceptions about Islam, Middle Eastern men and women, and the stereotypes that surround them.“‘

For every negative role model or representation in the book, there is a positive counterpart. For example, when it comes to marriage, we have different representations of marriage in the Muslim community. As a counterpart to Layla’s own parent’s unhappy marriage we have the happily married couple of Layla’s friend, Hanadi, who represent the positive; ‘Mr. Ayad tenderly took his wife’s hand and kissed it…she asked for a drink of water and he immediately stood up and walked to the kitchen.’ By offering counterparts to each negative scenario, the book infuses the reader with hope and erases any typical stereotypes one might be expecting.


Read the full review via Muslimah Media Watch

Published by Shereen Malherbe

Shereen Malherbe is a writer & author. Her novel, Jasmine Falling has been voted as one of the top 20 Best Books by Muslim women. Her second contemporary fiction novel, The Tower, was published by Beacon Books on April 2019. Her first children's book, The Girl Who Slept Under The Moon is out now.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Nevien Shaabneh’s ‘Secrets Under the Olive Tree’

  1. Isn’t it a sad state of affairs though when we have to be on the lookout for depictions of Muslim women that are not narrow and stereotypical? One of the problems I feel, is that English language readers tend to expect a certain depiction to fit what they perceive to be true. I don’t think the situation will change much until more Muslim women are writing and being translated from the Arabic too. Publishers are perhaps partly to blame for preferring stories commonly referred to as ‘misery memoirs’ – ie, suffering protagonists facing plenty of conflict in their lives, and we all know what that means when it comes to Muslim, female characters! Nice review, Shereen. I’m interested to know about the author of this book.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for your comment, Safia. It is a sad state and you are right about the industry; if you don’t conform to stereotypes, your chances of publication are severely limited.
    The author, Nevien is a great writer and I felt so engaged with the characters in her book. She is also very supportive and is reading my newly released book at the moment so I am both nervous and excited to hear her thoughts!

    You can find the rest of my review and all her details here at the end of the article:


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