The dying wish of Bilal’s mother Sakeena, a pious Muslim who had come from Pakistan to Birmingham many years ago, was that Bilal should build a mosque in the very English village of Babbel’s End (it seems to be in Dorset), where he was living a very secular and westernized life as an accountant and was a respected member of the parish council, whose members never thought of him as a Muslim.
Bilal had loved his mother. He now copied her eccentricity of digging a grave in the garden and frequently lying in it to contemplate. More important, he also felt bound to fulfil her dying wish, though the only Muslims in the village were himself, his Muslim wife Mariam who was a local journalist, his eleven-year-old step-son Haaris, and his pious aunt Rukhsana, who lived with the family since she had had a fall in the house in Birmingham which she shared with her sister Sakeena. The novel hinges on this decision, which, like the eccentricity about the grave, I found hard to believe in. He would do another unbelievably stupid thing to raise money for the mosque: his mother would have been appalled.
When Bilal proposed at the parish council the building of a mosque in the village, he met with incredulity and indignation from the chairwoman, Shelley Hawking and many other members, though Bilal had a few friends who supported him – though even some of these said things they would never have said before. Shelley called an emergency meeting which was attended by people of neighbouring villages. Bilal was suddenly seen as an outsider and as the spearhead of a Muslim invasion, and so was his wife. Mariam, though she prayed and ate halal, had also felt quite integrated, was upset by her husband’s announcement, but was now associated with him. She had more of a fighting spirit than he had, and thought him feeble for not wanting to go to the police when graffiti appeared on his door. Unpleasant incidents follow each other. Some of them are farcical, without detracting from the bigotry on display.
Haaris’ friendships at school were affected for a while, and the boy drew nearer to his real father, who had access to his son and who, since his divorce, had become more religious and wanted to make his son aware of his cultural heritage. The villagers’ suspicion of a Muslim invasion was reinforced when Rukhsana invited two aunts from Birmingham to visit her in Babbel’s End, and these arrived with their Muslim driver.
All this while the local vicar, Richard Young, had been a strong supporter of Bilal’s; but he really made things worse: casting Bilal and Mariam in a Nativity Play he was producing (again it is too hard to believe either in his idea or in the willingness of Bilal and Mariam to take part), and even fuelling the flames by suggesting, when Bilal gave up the idea of building a mosque as being just too difficult, that one of the two churches in the village, which hardly anyone attended, might be turned into a mosque.
One of the scenes had been recorded on an iPhone and then went viral on YouTube, provoking a host of Islamophobic comments and bringing swarms of journalists to the village. Muslims, too, visit the place, and so do demonstrators of liberal-minded Christian-Muslim Alliance.
One aspect that is sometimes farcical, but is wholly positive, is the portrayal of Rukhsana. She spoke and understood very little English, but her generous heart understood a lot. She took a liking to Shelley, did not seem to be put off by the latter’s stiff resistance, and gradually won the friendship of that angry woman. Rukhsana’s role is one of the factors that contributes to the healing of the antagonisms in the village. Another is a threat to the character of the village from an outside source. So we do have a happy ending all round – though again I have to say I found it hard to believe in it, in view of all that had happened before.
There are several sub-plots in the novel. A major one involves Mariam’s feelings for her ex-husband; others concern feuds between some of the villagers; marital disagreements among them; two delinquent youths; a mother grieving for her dead son and the vicar’s affection for her.
It seems to me that the book loses some steam towards the end; and in any case I can’t believe in Bilal, the central figure. So, although it reads well and its heart is in the right place, I can’t really rate it very highly.
- Paperback: 464 pages
- Publisher: Zaffre (5 August 2019)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1785767526
- ISBN-13: 978-1785767524
- Product Dimensions: 15.3 x 3.2 x 23.4 cm
- Boxed-product Weight: 508 g
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