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Iqbal: A Novel


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Book Review

Iqbal: A Novel by Francesco D’Adamo has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.

Plot Summary

Fatima is a child slave in Pakistan. Bonded to Hussain Khan three years earlier to pay a debt her parents owed the moneylenders, Fatima spends each day weaving carpets in a factory with other children. At the end of each day, if the work is up to his standards, Hussain Khan erases one of the lines representing Fatima’s debt from the slate that hangs above her loom. But somehow all the lines on Fatima’s slate are never erased, nor are any of the other children’s lines.

Iqbal is thin and sad, but somehow different. Despite being chained to his loom, he seems unafraid of Hussain Khan. He is talented and works more quickly and accurately than any other child in the factory. The night he arrives, he shares his story with the other children. They learn that Iqbal volunteered to be bonded to a carpet maker for $26 dollars so his father could purchase medicine for Iqbal’s brother. The child slaves tell him that he will soon pay off his debt and return home, but Iqbal denies it. The debt is never paid, he claims. Fatima doesn’t want to believe him. Iqbal secretly tells her that someday he will run away and take her with him.

Work continues as usual. Rumors circulate among the children that Iqbal is weaving a Blue Bukhara, a carpet with a particularly complicated pattern. Karim, the teenage overseer, believes that Hussain Khan will cancel Iqbal’s debt when he finishes the carpet. Iqbal continues to deny that the debt will ever be erased, and the children begin to resent him. Fatima, however, talks with Iqbal every night.

One morning, foreign buyers arrive at the factory. Hussain Khan wants everything to be perfect, but Iqbal deliberately cuts the Blue Bukhara into several pieces. The damage is irreparable, and Iqbal is dragged into the Tomb, an empty cistern in the middle of the courtyard. Hussain Khan uses the Tomb to punish the children with solitary confinement and deprivation. The atmosphere in the factory is somber as the children worry about Iqbal’s survival. Only Karim remembers anyone being put in the tomb in mid-summer before—a child slave who was carried out five days later, sunburned and defeated. At Fatima’s insistence, several children sneak food and water to Iqbal. He emerges three days later, recovering quickly thanks to their nightly visits.

Because of Iqbal’s courage, the children are less afraid. Iqbal begins weaving another Blue Bukhara, and the children start to talk about the future — something they had previously been afraid to do. Iqbal promises Fatima that they will fly a kite together someday. Then he runs away.

Hussain Khan searches fruitlessly for Iqbal for two days. Iqbal returns of his own volition on the third day, bringing two policemen with him. Fatima watches them hand a struggling Iqbal back to Hussain Khan in exchange for two small stacks of money. Iqbal is sent to the Tomb for so long that Fatima loses track of the number of days he is there. When Hussain Khan returns from a business trip and checks the work, he finds that Maria (a small girl who never speaks) has woven a kite into her design. He is furious and shouts that he will send her to the Tomb. The other children come to her defense and tell Hussain Khan that if he sends Maria to the Tomb, he should send them, too. Pale and angry, Hussain Khan releases Iqbal from the Tomb. He is tired and hungry, but alive.

That night, Iqbal shares the story of his escape with the children. Afraid to return home, where Hussain Khan would find him, he had sought work in the market. While unloading watermelons, he had heard a speech from a member of the Bonded Labor Liberation Front of Pakistan. The man had said that child slavery was now illegal, and Iqbal had told his story to the police who brought him back to Hussain Khan. Iqbal shows them a flyer from the Liberation Front, but no one in the factory can read — except Maria.

Although she has never spoken to them before, Maria begins to speak and is a capable teacher. Within a year, every child in the factory can read the flyer and the address printed at the bottom. Iqbal escapes during the commotion surrounding a brawl among the children. He returns with a magistrate and Eshan Khan, the leader of the Liberation Front. The children are freed.

Unsure of where to go, the children are taken back to the Liberation Front headquarters until they can be returned safely to their families. They are washed, fed and given comfortable sleeping quarters.
Iqbal keeps his promise to Fatima, and they spend an afternoon flying a kite together as, one by one, the children are returned to their families. Soon only Iqbal, Karim, Fatima, and Maria remain. Iqbal visits his family briefly, and then returns to stay with Eshan Khan and help free other child slaves.

Iqbal studies hard, hoping to be a lawyer one day. He also takes pictures as evidence against other factories that exploit children. He speaks up in the Liberation Front meetings and gives a speech in the market. Newspapers interview him, but as the Liberation Front’s cause becomes more popular, violence directed against them also increases. Life at the Liberation Front headquarters becomes increasingly precarious.

Iqbal must travel abroad when he wins Reebok’s “Youth in Action” award. He makes speeches in Europe and America. The day before he leaves, Fatima returns to her village. She hears nothing from Iqbal for months and dreads what may have happened.

Finally, Maria sends a letter that explains Iqbal was killed in a drive-by shooting while bicycling through his home village. She is still living at the Liberation Front headquarters and plans to attend university in Iqbal’s place and become a lawyer. She begs Fatima to tell Iqbal’s story to everyone so his memory will be kept alive.

Christian Beliefs

Iqbal visits his family for Easter, which is referred to as a Christian festival. He goes to church on Easter Sunday, the day he is murdered. Iqbal remembers his father saying that by God’s grace their land could provide abundantly for a family. (This mention of God may refer to the Christian God, but it might not. The book is vague about this.)

Other Belief Systems

Fatima’s mother and grandmother taught her that dreams come from heaven. She also says that Hussain Khan, his wife and Karim curse in a way that true believers should not. She speaks of hearing spirits in the country and believes that they are part of nature, not something to be feared. She also remembers eating mutton that the women in her village prepared for Choti Eid, a holiday that celebrates the end of Ramadan.

Friday is mentioned as the holy day of rest. The Muslim precept against the consumption of alcohol is mentioned. On two occasions, Fatima hears a muezzin calling people to prayer. Hussain Khan calls on Allah and the Prophet.

In her letter to Fatima, Maria describes other child slaves who rebel or run away as being Iqbal. She tells Fatima to share their story so they can always keep Iqbal at their sides.

Authority Roles

The children’s master, Hussain Khan, is cruel and manipulative. He uses verbal coercion and slaps with his hands to keep his young charges in line. Serious offenses are punishable by a stay in the Tomb. He lies to the foreign buyers, telling them that the children are his apprentices.

Karim, an older child slave whose fingers are too large to tie the threads on the looms, acts as an overseer for Khan. While he spies for Hussain Khan and frequently insults his charges, he also puts ointment on their bleeding fingers and tells them stories about movies he has seen at the theater in the city. He reluctantly helps them take food and water to Iqbal in the Tomb and deliberately delays telling Hussain Khan that Iqbal has escaped a second time.

Eshan Khan, a leader of the Liberation Front, has endured persecution for his actions, but still embodies perseverance and enthusiasm. Fatima says that he becomes like a second father to the children he rescues. He is also reckless, like Iqbal, who repeatedly endangers himself to rescue children after he is freed.

After he destroys the Blue Bukhara, Iqbal assumes a role of silent leadership within the factory. Because of his example, the other child slaves become less afraid of Hussain Khan and begin working together to help others. They bring food and water to Iqbal, save Maria from being sent to the Tomb and help Iqbal escape a second time. Despite rebelling against his enslavement, Iqbal models courage, hard work and justice. He inspires the people around him to do the same.

Maria also emerges as an unexpected authority figure when the others learn that she knows how to read. She teaches them the alphabet by writing on the dirt floor and won’t tolerate laziness or nonsense from her pupils. When Iqbal is killed, she decides to attend university so she can be a lawyer and free all the child slaves in Pakistan

Profanity & Violence

The word h— is used several times. Hussain Khan’s wife refers to the child slaves as d–n children. God’s name is misused. Several times Fatima mentions that Hussain Khan swears, once misusing the name of Allah and the Prophet.

The numskulls (children who work slowly and poorly) sleep chained to their looms. Iqbal is similarly chained so he won’t run away. All of the child slaves get blisters on their fingers, and Fatima describes cutting them open with a knife to ease the pain. Hussein Khan forcibly drags Iqbal into the Tomb. Karim tells the others about a child who refused to work and bit Hussain Khan in the arm. He was whipped repeatedly and sent to the Tomb in the middle of summer. While he was there, the heat caused his skin to peel away.

The children hear gunshots and see people making threatening gestures during their stay at the Liberation Front headquarters. Iqbal returns from an investigation with a black eye, a cut cheek and a smashed camera. Someone throws incendiary bombs at the headquarters. A director at a brick factory that is under investigation shoots at the people from the Liberation Front.

Iqbal is killed in a drive-by shooting. According to Maria, he was shot four or five times and lay dead in the street while the rain washed away his blood.

Sexual Content

Fatima has nightmares of Hussein Khan caressing her with his oily fingers.

Discussion Topics

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Additional Comments

Iqbal: A Novel is loosely based on the life of Iqbal Masih, a Pakistani child slave who became an activist. He was murdered in 1995 at the age of 12.

Drugs/Alcohol: Hussain Khan has tobacco-blackened teeth. Iqbal and Fatima hear a drunken man muttering in the night.

Theft: Ali steals oranges from Hussain Khan’s garden to take to Iqbal when he is in the Tomb. A child slave suggests they run away and become bandits, robbing the food trucks that come into the city.

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