Samira Ahmed is a force in young adult literature, bringing voice to Muslim American teens and calling out increasingly rampant Islamophobia. In her latest novel, Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know, she combines a contemporary story with historical fiction that reaches back to Lord Byron (who bore the sobriquet that also titles the novel), Alexandre Dumas and Eugene Delacroix. Two young women are at the centers of these stories, thereby telling history from women’s perspectives.
Khayyam Maquet is the only child of immigrant professors at the University of Chicago: her mother is Muslim Indian and her father French. She is bilingual in English and her father’s French, and attends mosque with her mother. Khayyam’s passion is art history and in an application for a young scholar prize from the Art Institute of Chicago, she submits a paper that tries to prove Delacroix gave a painting to Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers among others, that is now hanging at the Art Institute of Chicago. The painting is from the Giaour series, inspired by a Lord Byron poem, itself inspired by Byron’s trip to Constantinople in the early 1800s.
Khayyam doesn’t win the prize, and is also chastised for trying to pass “slipshod research” by some of the world’s most renowned art historians. Devastated and humiliated, she is still determined to study art history after high school and even prove the Art Institute panels wrong.
Fortunately, she and her parents spend each August in Paris, so when they arrive just before Khayyam’s fourth year of high school, she can continue her research on the missing painting and learn more about Leila, a Muslim woman from 150 years earlier mentioned in Byron’s poem. On a chance meeting at Le Petit Palace, Khayyam meets none other than the great-grandson (six times over) of Alexandre Dumas, a 19-year-old who carries the name of his famous forebear. Like Khayyam, he’s also interested in art and his family’s legacy.
Interspersed between chapters narrated by Khayyam is the story of Leila, the favorite in a pasha’s harem. Leila does not bear him children, so the pasha finds another role for her: spy. When Lord Byron arrives in Constantinople, the pasha sends Leila to meet him and report back. This encounter inspires Lord Byron to write about Leila in his poem, “The Giaour”.
As Khayyam starts to uncover Leila’s story with the help of the young Alexandre, she has second thoughts about using it to advance her scholarly endeavors. She needs to decide if it’s her duty to share it with the world or if it would be more respectful of Leila’s memory to keep her secrets. To help come to some conclusion, Khayyam writes an imaginary letter to Leila:
My first instinct was to find out, then defend you, to fight for what you wanted—for your secret to be kept. I could be wrong. Perhaps after all these years, the world needs your story. You couldn’t—wouldn’t—share it in your time, but maybe I’m meant to share your words in mine. Isn’t that how history works? Isn’t that how we learn? This is one thing women can do for one another—amplify the voices of our sisters that were silenced because the world told them their stories didn’t matter.
In this her most ambitious novel to date, Ahmed makes art history accessible and uses this opportunity to discuss orientalism and Western narratives about Islam and “the East” that have been presented in art and literature while also trying to emphasise the women who have all too often in this history been minimized if not erased. But she never lets the serious subject matter get in the way of the fun and adventure, especially when breaking into old, abandoned Parisian buildings.