Farina is the deeply cynical and unhappy daughter of Bangladeshi parents. Living in a Muslim ghetto in a large Canadian city, she eschews university and instead gets a full-time deli job to fund her independence. Farina’s best friend, Sabrina, is the product of a similar household, though poorer and full of violence. Together they contemplate freedom, which they find to be necessary, dangerous, but mostly expensive.
After a brief and humiliating experience as a stripper, Sabrina realizes there is a way for her and Farina to join the lucrative sex industry without selling themselves: they will become pimps. Their friend Imrana, less self-assured and more studious, is given a low-paying administrative role in the new entrepreneurial endeavour.
An escort service called “The Harem” can be interpreted as a deliberate middle finger to the Orientalist conception of subservient Eastern dream girls (though the friends note that a white, Western standard of beauty is still mandatory). Here, the Eastern girls are in charge. Their independence is also a counterpoint to the sudden media attention on Muslim women after 9/11, an event that takes place roughly halfway through the book.
Around white women, Farina and Sabrina feel superior, jealous, annoyed, and oppressed, but always definitively apart. Farina contemplates white “trophy wives” who are obligated only to “keep fit and spread their legs.” Although she sees in them a comfortable bourgeois freedom she will never have, Farina also comes to understand the challenges involved in transactional relationships, be they marriages that ostensibly offer women security, or – most obviously – the realm of prostitution.
The Harem forcefully expresses the experience of being a child of immigrants, unable to find fulfillment in either the parents’ culture or the adopted one. Fazlul is at her best when describing the interior life of her difficult protagonist, using direct language to examine the places where race, class, and gender intersect. The novel is unflinching in its documentation of the raw frustration of a life lived on the margins.
But the book is not a didactic makeover story. Over the course of the novel, Farina simply and dispassionately gathers information with which to confront the harshness of the world. The Harem is realism at its most honest and messy.