“ Author: Sagheer Afzal / 400 pages / Publisher: Halban Publishers / Released: 11 Feb 2010 „
~One young man losing his way~
Musa is a holy young man, but he's also a bit of a rebel. He has learned and memorized the Koran and spent several years at a religious school or madrasah training with a view to become a religious leader. However, despite being deeply religious he has a reputation for not always taking things quite as seriously as his teachers expect. When he and his friends accidentally cause a security alert after repeating Musa's prize-winning poem over a Skype link to relatives in Pakistan - the word 'laden' being picked up as code for Osama Bin Laden - the boys get taken for questioning by the police. Of itself, their behaviour would be enough to raise the eyebrows of the teachers but to make things worse Musa just happened to be dressed as a woman at the time. No, that's not meaning he was in a skirt and blouse or anything, he just puts on the long black robe, head-dress and veil that his friend had bought for his mother. Musa is asked to leave the madrasah and reconsider his future.
Musa's family are a caricature - a collection of classic British Pakistani clichés that make you wonder if any family could really be that dysfunctional and that capable of ticking all the cliché boxes. Musa's big brother Suleiman is financially supporting the family by less than legal means. Musa's sister Shabnam doesn't dress modestly and is wrestling with the issue of whether or not to sleep with her black boyfriend. And of course poor old Musa is faced with having to find a new way in the world, learning the value of hard work rather than intellectual study whilst working for an aggressive builder called Babarr.
His grandfather Dadaji comes to visit from the ancestral village back in Pakistan. Dadaji is a man with a mission and a determination to marry off these wastrel British grandchildren. There's a cousin back home in Pakistan who's lined up for Musa but Musa thinks that Allah will provide. After Musa tells his grandfather that he wants to find his own wife, he enters into what's little more than a 'bet' (surely there's something in the Koran against such things) with Dadaji. Musa has total faith in Allah to find him a wife and agrees that if he can't find someone in one month then he'll go along with the arranged marriage.
~Hunting for love under pressure~
Babarr, Musa's builder boss, is a rough chap but he's trying to ease his path to paradise by building and running an Islamic centre. He asks Musa to lead discussion groups at the centre which is attended by a mix of holy men, 'rude boys' (think Ali G doing his impression of a Pakistani teenager) and so-called 'coconuts' (It's never explained but it's common slang for Asians who've adapted 'too much' to the British way of life - brown on the outside but white in the middle). At the same time Musa's friends, family and colleagues are working flat out to try to find him a wife and we get some rather funny accounts of meetings with different girls and their families. Some are too 'immodest', others only looking for a British passport, one is holy but 'too black' and some are just not interested in poor Musa. He's got his holiness and a cute face but some would prefer a doctor, a dentist or a lawyer rather than a labourer. Of course, as happens in the case of so many romantic novels, the reader won't find it too hard to work out who good old Musa will end up with but I doubt that anyone will predict the ending beyond the wedding ceremony.
The Reluctant Mullah is set in the British Pakistani community and it's a brave but muddled piece of writing. On one hand it's trying to be racy and a bit shocking. There's plenty of swearing and shagging around amongst Musa's new friends and the inclusion of themes around drug dealing and pre-marital sex are somewhat at odds with the strong sense of tradition and culture. There's a lot of interesting coverage of key topics of interest to British Muslims and, let's be honest, British society in general and these topics are handled through debates which Musa and his female counterpart lead at the Islamic centre. I found many of these very interesting and enlightening. Debates about how women feel about the veil, how both sexes feel about their lives in Britain post 9/11, about the importance of prayer were fascinating but somewhat at odds with the thread of Musa's hunt for love. Towards the end I felt the book became a bit too 'preachy' and a bit dull.
~Simultaneously both profound and frivolous~
There are some very tough topics covered in the book. The racist issues of 'brown on black' and 'black on brown' racism are there and I don't think a 'white' writer would get away with the sort of racism shown by the British Pakistani characters. The book addresses issues of conflicts between the old and new worlds and it raises contrasts between traditional ancestral ways and the challenges of living in 21st century Britain as well as the degrees of assimilation of different sub-groups of the British Muslim community. Racism and prejudice are rife and redemption sometimes comes from unexpected angles. Suleiman's illegal lifestyle is dealt with sympathetically not through the mosque but through his contact with a Church of England priest, and there's an interesting story line which develops about the missing eldest brother, a man who walked out one day and left Suleiman to shoulder the burden of becoming the eldest son. The book challenges the ideas of arranged marriage not just from the perspective of the British-born husband-to-be, but also shows it's no great shakes for his Pakistani arranged bride who equally isn't keen on the idea.
The reason for the title becomes apparently only in the last couple of pages. I'm always rather sceptical about 'happy ever after' ending but even I was shocked by the twists and turns of the last half dozen pages.
I'm still not sure who the author had in mind as potential readers of this book. It starts out very 'laddish' - language and behaviour that might appeal to readers of classics like Gautam Malkani's 'Londonstani' - develops into a poor 'chick lit' style romance with lots of predictable directions, and yet sneaks in some interesting debate about the life of British born Muslims. I liked the debates, despised the romantic story line but quite enjoyed some of the colourful, crazy characters. It's hard to imagine that this will tick all the boxes of any reader because it's just so diverse.
For those who know a little about Islam, it's very interesting in parts. For those who know little or nothing, there's nothing much to alienate you - it's not one of those books with too much of the 'lingo' to leave you wondering what's going on. For the religiously inclined Muslim, I can't help thinking that the brash behaviour of the characters will be a turn off that might mean they don't reach the philosophical and religious discussions. I picked up my copy in a remaindered book store for £2 instead of the cover price of £8.99. I wouldn't have paid full price and I don't plan on taking the book home with me now that I've finished it. It was fun, I learned a bit but it's not great literature and I wouldn't go out of my way to hunt down other books by this author.
The Reluctant Mullah
Published by Halban