Asghar and Zahra – a tender, clear-eyed portrait

Alice O’Keeffe in The Guardian:

Sameer Rahim’s debut novel is a tender, pin-sharp portrait of a marriage and a community. It is a wonderful achievement; an invigorating reminder of the power fiction has to challenge lazy stereotypes, and stretch the reader’s heart. Asghar Dhalani and Zahra Amir are young west Londoners, from a tight-knit but fractious east African Muslim community. They have known each other since childhood, but their families have very different approaches to the challenge of making a life in England. The Amirs pride themselves on their refinement and open-mindedness – Zahra left home to study at Cambridge, and is fond of saying things like, “it’s textbook Orientalism, Mummy”. The Dhalanis are “the most traditional of the traditional”; 19-year-old Asghar won’t eat a cheese sandwich until he’s checked it’s halal. Everyone, not least Asghar, is surprised when Zahra accepts his proposal.

The novel opens on their wedding day, and follows the progress of their “love marriage” through its first year. At first, it seems clear that they are heading for disaster. Their wedding night is a flop, despite Asghar’s frantic cribbing from an advice manual called The Making of an Islamic Marriage (“a sharia-compliant Kama Sutra”). A honeymoon in Spain heightens the tension, when Asghar befriends Tariq, a Spanish convert set on bringing back the caliphate. Zahra despairs that her new husband is “a bit of a fundo”. However, as time passes the couple inch towards mutual understanding, and it begins to seem possible that the bonds of their shared background might, after all, be enough to see them through.

…But at its core this is a book not about being British Muslim, but about the universally deep and difficult business of making a marriage work. As Zahra observes: “People talked about mixed marriages as though they only existed between people of different religions or backgrounds: but every marriage was mixed, and every one needed the same painful compromises.”

More here.