Ayesha, At Last by Uzma Jalaluddin (Book Review)

Ayesha, At Last is a 2018 novel by Uzma Jalaluddin, a Canadian Muslim. It is her first novel. The publisher stresses that this is a Muslim version of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. This comparison is very unfair to Austen’s great masterpiece and sets readers up for disappointment. The story is a melodramatic and unrealistic soap opera with unbelievable characters and events. The dialog is atrocious. The hero is an absolute bore and the heroine is best described as an impulsive non-Muslim teenager who happens to wear the hijab, neither of them having any of the depth and sophistication one expects from Jane Austen’s heroes. But if you can get over these things and treat the novel as just another below-average contemporary novel with elements from Pride and Prejudice thrown in, you will be able to enjoy an entertaining and thrilling tale. If you read novels merely for entertainment then this book fits the bill. But if you expect something more than entertainment, something that expands your ideas and makes you look at life and people in a new way as Jane Austen’s novels do, then this book has nothing to offer.

Ayesha is an Indian immigrant living in Toronto. She is a high school substitute teacher and poet who falls in love with a conservative Muslim man named Khalid who has a very large beard and wears a traditional Muslim skullcap and white robe even to work. In their early interactions Khalid manages to offend and anger Ayesha in numerous ways, while falling in love with her by steps. There is much argument and misunderstanding. Just as Ayesha and Khalid reach a point where they are ready to accept each other romantically, Khalid’s wicked and domineering mother Farzana finds out about their relationship and quickly arranges an engagement party with Ayesha’s beautiful but spoiled cousin Hafsa. Khalid at first thinks his mother has arranged an engagement to Ayesha due to a case of mistaken identity, but when he finds out the truth he goes along with the engagement because he thinks Ayesha has been leading him on for the sake of her cousin. Meanwhile the villain of the story, Tarek, tells Ayesha about a scandal in Khalid’s family and insinuates that Khalid had been supportive of the banishment to India and forced marriage of his sister Zareena after she had been discovered pregnant.

Ayesha concludes that Khalid is a monster, coward and hypocrite and calls him all of these adjectives when he proposes to her (while still being officially engaged to Ayesha’s cousin). Right after the rejection Khalid goes on to tell Hafsa that he is breaking up with her. In anger, Hafsa runs off with the villain Tarek without telling anyone. Tarek convinces Hafsa that he loves her and that they will have a secret wedding very soon.

Khalid writes Ayesha a long letter in which he explains what really had happened with his sister, showing her that he wasn’t the monster she had thought him. Eventually Tarek returns Hafsa to her family, and it is discovered that he had been the lover of Zareena, Khalid’s sister. He had done all of this in revenge for her banishment and forced marriage. He also manages to destroy Khalid’s mother’s reputation by manipulating her into playing a video of him telling a packed mosque all about Zareena’s treatment.

Once Hafsa is back, she quickly gets engaged to Masood, an eccentric and buffoonish wrestler and life coach who doesn’t mind the scandal surrounding her. Meanwhile, Tarek manages to save Hafsa from even a greater scandal by taking down Tarek’s pornographic website where he had been intended to show nude photos of Hafsa that he had taken while they had been together. Tarek uses the help of his Persian friend Amir and Ayesha’s computer geek brother Idrees. During Hafsa’s wedding, Khalid and Ayesha meet. She tells him she is grateful for his saving Hafsa’s reputation, and they quickly agree to get engaged.

The story is very exciting in the second half of the book, it is almost like a thriller. I found myself forgetting all the major criticisms I had of the book and simply enjoyed the story, regretting that it was to end soon.

Now, onto my criticisms.

Ayesha

The heroine Ayesha is nothing like Elizabeth, the heroine of Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth is a beautiful example of Christian sense and maturity. Reading her dialog is honey to the mind and soul. She is the very best of Christianity “made flesh”. Ayesha, on the other hand, represents Islam only by her hijab. Islam is only relevant to her as a problem she has to overcome. We do not see anything at all that shows Islam to have made her in any way different from the typical Western girl.

A person expecting to see a Muslim alternative to Elizabeth is therefore going to be sorely disappointed. There certainly are Muslim girls who are just like Elizabeth and I have known some in my extended family. Westerners would be right to conclude that Islamic culture is inferior to Victorian Christianity if the best we had to offer were girls like Ayesha. As someone who has actually lived in a very Pride and Prejudice-like atmosphere in my Iranian-Kurdish culture, I find the culture represented in Ayesha, At Last highly inferior.

Ayesha is not a very likable person either, at least not in the first half of the book. She breaks a ceramic mug and leaves it strewn all over the street, potentially damaging people’s car tires. She is irresponsible enough to leave a classroom unattended in order to hide herself in a bathroom stall to write poetry. At times she is as irresponsible and impulsive as a Western teenager. But I did grow to like her once I got over my disappointment and stopped to expect her to be a Muslim Elizabeth.

Khalid

The male hero of the story, Mr. Darcy’s equivalent, is 26-year-old Khalid. But he is far more reminiscent of Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice than Darcy, at least in the first half of the book. I couldn’t help laughing when the author writes on page 141 that to Ayesha, Khalid was unlike any other man she had ever met. Are the choices of Indo-Pakistani girls living in the West so depressingly limited that Khalid should appear as anything but the most average Muslim male you can think of?

Mr. Darcy’s trouble in Pride and Prejudice is that he has very strong opinions and is not shy to express them, causing people to view him as rude and heartless. Khalid’s trouble is quite the opposite; he has zero opinions of his own and insults people by expressing his opinions bluntly. He says “I’ve never had a girlfriend. How could I possibly know what I want in a wife?” He goes on to say that his mother can choose better for him. Even at the age of 15 none of my high school friends (who were good and dutiful Muslim boys) would have been so oblivious and immature to say something like that with seriousness. They would have gotten over this type of thinking in elementary school. What an insult to my high school friends!

The dialog

The biggest problem with the book is the dialog. There is no other way to express it: it is horrendous. The editor who allowed such dialog to go to publishing should find another job; it is as if she knew nothing of one of the most elementary points of novel-writing. To give an example:

"I grew up in a very diverse neighborhood, so I'm used to living and working with people of different ethnicities and cultures," Clara said.

Page 20.

A person may write something like that in a job application. Writing it in an informal email would make people smirk. Saying it out loud–but no human would ever say something like that out loud without causing hilarity.

And here is Khalid talking like teenager trying to write a self-help manual with a thesaurus:

"Your presence in a relationship is not indicative of commitment but rather inertia. Standing before your friends and family and pledging your love and loyalty is an essential ingredient for a long-lasting union.

Page 164.

Indicative? Inertia? Long-lasting union? People never use words like that when talking.

And here is a Indo-Pakistani aunty talking:

Finally, she should show a deference and modesty of character. She must not speak when her elders are talking. She must be quiet and refined, never gossip or joke.

Page 75.

Not even a professor will use a word like “deference” in conversation.

Since no humans speak this way, it is clear that the author never imagined her characters actually speaking the dialog. A reader imagining the characters actually speaking the dialog aloud will find unintended hilarity on almost every other page.

Unreal behavior

Tarek puts his hands around Ayesha’s shoulders to lead her to somewhere quiet to chat with her. No self-respecting Muslim woman would ever let a man touch her casually like that. The book is full of such actions that never take place in the reality of a Muslim community.

On page 88, the wicked white woman Sheila says to an employee,

Not a word of this to anyone, [u]nless you want your life to become very uncomfortable.

Unreal elements like this quickly turn the novel into a soap opera. At one point Ayesha wakes up in the women’s section of the mosque and sees Khalid looking at her. Immediately she says to him, “Were you staring at me?” What kind of Muslim woman shames a Muslim man like that? Unbelievable and gross.

And then there are the horrible Indo-Pakistani aunties we meet. Here is one talking after coming to see Ayesha and her family to find out if she is a good fit for her son:

We have a few more girls to see today. We will be in touch if Masood thinks you will be a good fit for the position.

And here is Khalid’s mother talking to Ayesha:

When Khalid spoke about the teacher who was helping him plan the conference, I knew it was time for him to get married. Before he was duped by a pathetic spinster pretending to be more than she was.

Page 201.

The crudeness, rudeness and the complete lack of good manners among the Indo-Pakistani mothers makes them look like Neanderthals compared to the classy and sophisticated women of my Iranian-Kurdish background. The book confirms the worst stereotypes Westerners may have about Muslim women. This type of behavior can be expected among the lowest class of Iranians, but not among the affluent “gentleman class” that is the equivalent of the society portrayed in Pride and Prejudice. Maybe the author is simply caricaturing legendary bad aunties that she has never met in real life. I really hope so.

And here is Ayesha speaking with Khalid after discussing setting up a mosque conference:

Khalid, we're too different. This isn't ... real. Please, just let me go.

Page 119.

What on earth? I cannot imagine even the most mentally disturbed and immature Muslim girl to speak like that, acknowledging that he has a romantic interest in her out of nowhere, when their relationship is supposed to be formal and professional.

And here is Tarek, a respected Islamic conference organizer, talking to Ayesha in the presence of Khalid:

How can I focus when you're such a distraction?

Page 148.

And here are Ayesha and Khalid supposedly having a classy and subtle romantic talk where they cannot acknowledge their attraction for each other. This happens during an extremely unreal scene where Ayesha’s grandmother agrees to teach traditional cooking to a completely random and unmarried stranger (Khalid). A real Muslim grandmother would consider it completely scandalous to partake in this set up, but she happily goes along with it.

"I'm the doomed spinster. When I finally have the time to look for a husband, I'll be thirty-five and all the good men will be taken. Maybe if I'm lucky, I'll find a second cousin in India who will marry me for my Canadian citizenship."

Khalid was doodling in his notebook. "Or you could look around right now," he said slowly, and Ayesha felt her hand tingling from where they had touched.

"Khalid ..." she began, but Nani [Ayesha's grandmother] was back.

The obviousness and crudeness of Khalid’s hint that Ayesha should be considering him as a romantic interest makes one want to gag.

The lack of Christian charity

Besides all the character and narrative failings of the story, there is also a serious moral failing that shows the author to have little of Jane Austen’s spiritual maturity. The author has no empathy for her “wicked” characters, who are all pure evil. The only “normal” people, the only humans, are the people immediately surrounding the heroine: herself, her mother, her brother Idrees, her grandparents, her friend Clara, and Khalid and Hafsa once they are humanized by Ayesha. Everyone else is a vacuous cookie-cutter stereotype. The author is unwilling, or unable, to see the world from the eyes of any of the other characters except at rare moments. Only the people she likes are really human, and those she doesn’t are judged as soulless robots filling this or that role, only good for judging, criticizing, parodying. This lack of empathy for most of flawed humanity is typical of many Muslim intellectuals and is troubling.

If you cannot empathize with your typical and bad characters, if you cannot see how you could have been exactly like them in alternative circumstances, then you have a lot more to learn about being human, a lot more before you are truly mature and able to elevate others. Standing before Jane Austen I feel safe, no matter how much is wrong with me, I know she will see me as a human that can be empathized with. Before Uzma I feel utterly insecure; which one of her stereotypes do I fit so that I can be shoved and dismissed into that category, to be ignored, parodied: Muslim male type C.

In other words, what the author lacks is Jane Austen ‘s wonderful Victorian Christian charity which we also see in George Eliot, the willingness to see every human, and I mean every human, as infinitely worthy, irreplaceable. Austen has taken to heart the Christian principle to treat others as you like to be treated yourself (as best stated by Kant), and that includes racist and “Islamophobic” white women and controlling and domineering Indo-Pakistani mothers. If you want to know a person’s spiritual maturity, see how much humanity he or she attributes to the people he dislikes and disagrees with. So the general treatment of flawed Muslim society is definitely not Austenian, quite the opposite. I know Austen will have it in her big heart to love me even if she knows I’m a sexist, prejudiced and arrogant male. A mother’s unconditional love is extended to all; knowing that no one is wholly bad and that everyone, no matter how bad, was at one point an adorable infant dearly lovable to a mother.

The author’s idea of a good ending is that Khalid’s poor mother Farzana, after losing her husband and daughter, also loses Khalid who moves out of her home, so that she is left alone in her house; her reputation shattered and her husband and children taken away from her. This is absolutely tragic, but the author’s complete lack of empathy for Farzana makes her rejoice in such an ending.

Conclusion

I don’t believe in holding Muslim writers to lower standards, so I haven’t tried to moderate my criticisms. But this is the author’s first novel and it is to be hoped that she can improve on the aforementioned points in any future novels she writes. There was one line in novel that greatly impressed me, describing what it feels like for a Muslim woman to meet an interested Muslim man for the first time during the formal rishta ceremony where the man and his family observe the woman:

Ayesha looked at the clock. Only five minutes had passed. She had forgotten how uncomfortable it was to go on a blind date in front of her entire family.

Page 110.

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