Serious story, with humour
A student at the Madrasah, where students of Islam study to become the next wave of mullahs (who are knowledgeable in and teach holy law), Musa is a reflective, philosophical thinker or The Reluctant Mullah. This curiosity leads him to try on an abayah one of his friends has bought for his mother to explore what it is like for a woman to experience life from within this identity- concealing clothing. Musa’s reputation until this point appears to be unblemished and, in fact, he wins a poetry competition and becomes the pride of his family. When he is caught in the abayah after a run-in with the police, he is released from the Madrasah to discover for himself exactly what it is he wants.
His grandfather, the patriarch of the family, has decided marriage is what Musa needs to conform to the life planned for him, whilst Musa has a more idealistic approach to the prospect of life, marriage and the future. His adventures in finding a bride range from hysterically funny to embarrassingly cringeworthy, but will tradition win over his less than pragmatic approach?
Musa’s character is infinitely appealing: he is idealistic, proud yet humble, mischievous, dreamy and creative. Afzal has created a character which transcends religion although this plays a significant role in the plot of the novel. Musa could be of any number of faiths or cultural backgrounds as his story will resonate with anyone who acknowledges the expectations of the society within which they live. The introductory paragraphs may indicate that this is a story about a young man who is struggling with the confines of his faith, the expectations of his family and the restrictions imposed upon him by his culture.
Yet Afzal develops his other characters around Musa’s character, providing not only comparison and contrast but a representation of family life within the Muslim faith. The grandfather represents the ultimate authority, Musa’s sister is resentful of her own fate but doesn’t know what else she wants to do, Musa’s mother is a traditionalist but somehow resigned, his father struggles to impose his paternal power over the family, Suleiman is the family whipping boy etc. The subplots which involve these peripheral characters to the protagonist are every bit as engaging, if not at times darker than Musa’s story alone.
At times, the story, dialogue and narrative are hilarious. They cross cultural and social boundaries as they represent the universal struggle of child against tradition or parental desires. The plot is serious but delivered in such a way that the message is conveyed through humour, an effective technique to reach a wider audience.
Musa’s ultimate fate is similar to that of his Madrasah teacher, Mufti Bashir. The tale comes full circle and there is a somewhat poignant irony in the parallels one can see in the life of Musa and his mentor.
For a first novel, Afzal has demonstrated he has an enviable talent for characterisation, plot development, highly amusing anecdotes and a wonderful writing style. A fabulous read and suitable for young adults and above.
Review by Danielle Mulholland
© media-culture.org.au 2010