Bought 31 Jul 2010 – Waterstones 3 for 2

There’s a story behind the purchase of this one before I even get to the review!  We were in town on a Saturday morning, M wanted to look in Waterstones and of course we started to graze around the 3 for 2 offers on the tables.  And, again of course, I could only find two I wanted.  A gentleman approached me, clutching a book.  This turned out to be the author, Sagheer Afzal.  Published by one of the smaller houses and without budget for a book tour, he was (legally!) hanging around the ground floor of Waterstones, trying to persuade people to buy his novel.  As I a) admired his courage and persistence and b) had the book on my wishlist anyway, I accepted a copy and had it signed.  Well done for converting a chat to a sale!

So, I thought I’d better read it quickly, as Sagheer wanted to know what I thought of it.

In a word, it was excellent.  It did start out a little slowly (oddly, given it involved some cross-dressing and a police chase).  I felt at first that it was a little over-written and self-conscious (as first novels are often are), but as we got to see more of Musa, the hero of the book, training at a British Madrasah but always questioning his elders, and the people around him, especially Mufti Bashir, head of the madrasah, and more particularly as we followed Musa home when it’s suggested he leaves for a while after a minor incident involving a veil, the book grew on me and took a hold on me. 

Here’s a description of Musa’s family home: "Small to begin with, the house stayed small as Aboo was completely against the idea of extensions and now it was cluttered with over-large furniture. The front room had been the scene of many great and epic dramas and accordingly gave you the feeling that you were walking on a holy battlefield."

We meet Musa’s family, including the wonderful, feisty Shabnam and brother Suleiman with his shady business dealings.  The patriarch of the family arrives from Pakistan and decrees that he will give Musa thirty days to find his own bride, otherwise he will be presented with a girl from their village.  Here the fun starts, although there is a sharp edge that hints at things to come.  Musa, his new boss, the hilarious geezer-with-a-heart-of-gold Babarr and a couple of other well-drawn characters start to use various channels to find a girl for Musa, from friends-of-friends to internet dating and even phoning up Aunty on Zee TV.  Meanwhile, Shabnam starts a romance of her own, and Babarr finds a need for meaning in life and sets up an Islamic school.

While the amusing search for a girl goes on and the characters become more real (I’m sure I’ve seen Babarr in my gym!), the book differentiates itself by having a deep and heartfelt strain of spirituality and religion running through it.  Afzal cleverly presents both different groups of Muslims (men and women) and their discussions and opinions on various topics such as the veil, by inserting some of the discussions from the Islamic school into the narrative.  This theme takes on an almost ritual setup as Musa encounters his female equivalent at the school, Khadija, after each discussion.  And the interweaving of these two strands makes it an unusual, affecting and deepened story.  

When events come to a head for Musa, Shabnam and Suleiman, who has a very interesting encounter that changes his life, the plot twists seem believeable.  Afzal writes women’s thoughts equally as well as men’s.  He narrows in on the narrative through vignettes of people in the street very competently, and I’m looking forward to his next work(s).

If you like Bali Rai or enjoyed Londonstani, and appreciate their urban look at British Asian life, or you’re interested in the Quran and its application to everyday British Muslim life, or you want to know what being a British Muslim might feel like, or you are  a British Muslim and you want to see some of your experience and community reflected on the printed page, then this is the book for you.  It’s the book for lots of other people too, and I really hope it gets the exposure and success it deserves.