Reading Asghar and Zahra, Sameer Rahim’s sparkling debut novel about a young British Muslim couple’s seemingly mismatched marriage, is to be subtly reminded of Vikram Seth’s epic A Suitable Boy – once described as “a love story with little love and no sex”. Mercifully, Rahim does not stretch his pages to Seth’s 1,349, but he injects this deceptively light, bustling comedy of manners with just the right amount of uncertainty, thoughtfulness and provocation.
The novel opens on the wedding day of Zahra Amir and Asghar Dhalani and ends with a funeral taking place at the same mosque almost a year later. Conflict and unease are evident from the first chapter. The couple prepare to marry in the new, bigger and better-attended mosque, where Asghar’s father is a prominent member, but without the presence of Zahra’s father, whose stubborn loyalty is firmly with the old mosque, which he feels Mr Dhalani led many of their community to reject.
Asghar, 19, is a quiet, unremarkable second-year business student. Zahra, 22, has a Cambridge economics degree and a promising job in an investment bank in the City. The latter appears, on the surface at least, more confident and well informed about the world outside their west London suburban community, where they have been vaguely aware of each other since childhood, and she finds Asghar “a bit fundo” (fundamentalist) in his religious leanings. So why, after only three dates – instigated by Asghar through Facebook – has she agreed to marry him? In attempting to answer that question, Rahim takes a mischievous approach with a top note of seriousness as the novel progresses from wedding to honeymoon and the first year of married life.
The couple are awkward and offhandedly affectionate with each other, and their wedding night, which – if not quite up to On Chesil Beach levels of newlyweds’ misunderstanding – sets the scene for months-long chastity. Their passionless honeymoon near Cordoba in Spain is hijacked first by the guesthouse’s genial English expat host Ian, who romanticises their culture and religion, and then by local mosque leader Tariq, a Spanish-born radical convert (or as he self-describes, “revert”) to Islam, with whom, despite Zahra’s scepticism, Asghar is instantly intrigued. He will go on to encounter Tariq in more unsettling fashion back in London a few months later, when the marriage is at its most vulnerable.
Rahim gives us equally weighted perspectives, written in the third person. It emerges that Zahra and Asghar both feel like outsiders in their community. Their East African/Ugandan backgrounds form the basis of a precarious but important social structure – Asghar’s father has become a successful local businessman, building up his own painting and decorating company; Zahra’s is an overworked doctor. Both their mothers are traditional housewives – stalwart, loving, vivacious – and while Zahra feels aloof from Asghar’s “interfering” family and comes across as a something of a snob, Asghar in turn feels looked down on by his in-laws, who clearly cannot imagine what their academic daughter sees in him.
They each struggle not to be infantilised by their parents. Through marriage they have achieved a form of escape, the freedom to at least to have their own home (a tiny flat in Kilburn), but they know next to nothing about each other, in part due to Asghar’s immature idealisation and Zahra’s self-denial.
Zahra’s university experience at Cambridge had often felt like a form of social experiment with her as its uncomfortable subject. There she met Krish, a relaxed law student from Manchester whose family was Hindu. Attracted, infatuated and disturbed, she attempted to ignore her own desires by swiftly marrying a man from her own community.
Asghar, meanwhile, who is unable to communicate properly with his wife, becomes increasingly drawn to the comradeship of the ridiculous but sinister Tariq and his militant followers, who bond with secret meetings and outdoor assault courses, their messages conveyed in WhatsApp groups with innocuous-sounding names such as “Chillin’ in the Chilterns”.
Rahim adroitly tracks Asghar’s lack of self-assurance back to a racist, bullying headmaster at his private school, which prefigures Zahra’s later manipulation by her line manager at work. But it is the underlying issues, the often “parallel selves” of modern Muslims that are most sensitively and – as the story reaches an unexpectedly moving conclusion – effectively portrayed in a novel of charm and compassion.
Asghar and Zahra
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This article appears in the 26 Jun 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Restraining order