Race. Religion. Immigration. Identity.
Rare is the news bulletin these days that doesn’t contain reference to one of these hot button topics. But behind the headlines, the day-to-day realities of life for second generation migrants are far more nuanced than the headlines might suggest.
Enter novelist Ayisha Malik. The South London-based writer’s bestsellers, Sofia Khan is Not Obliged and The Other Half of Happiness, have already won countless awards and plaudits for their very modern depiction of life as a British Muslim woman. Now, in her third novel, This Green and Pleasant Land, already longlisted for the Diverse Book Awards 2020, she turns her eye to the complexities of integration in rural Britain.
Out in paperback today, the novel follows accountant Bilal Hasham and his journalist wife, Mariam, as their quietly happy lives in the sleepy, rural village of Babbel’s End are upended by the death of Bilal’s mother, Sakeena.
Having summoned them to her death bed, Sakeena surprises the couple with her final wish – that Bilal build a mosque in his picture postcard hometown. When he decides to honour her plea, Miriam is as horrified as her neighbours and Bilal soon finds himself forced to choose between his community and his own cultural history.
Today, in an exclusive extract from the novel, we join This Green and Pleasant Land at the moment the couple find their lives inextricably changed…
This Green and Pleasant Land
Sakeena Hasham had the ability to linger in a person’s psyche like a vaguely traumatic experience. For 63 years she’d been the rare combination of practicality and hopefulness, reality and dreams. Her dreams, unfortunately, hadn’t quite worked out. Real life had cast shadows over the rainbows she’d wanted to chase when she first left Rawalpindi, Pakistan, for Birmingham all those years ago.
Now, she was lying in the ultimate shadow of death. She clutched her son, Bilal’s, hand with her own slight and withered one, squinting at him before raising her hand to his face. “Beta,” she said. Her boy was in her home, once more, enclosed within the patterned walls, treading the green carpet she’d had for too many years. “Maybe grow a beard?” she whispered hopefully.
He took a deep breath, pursed his lips and nodded.
Bilal looked too polished for this place. His wife, Mariam, sitting in the chair in the corner, clearly knew it, the way her sharp eyes darted around, taking in the surroundings. Well, to hell with her! What did Mariam know about struggle and sacrifice? What did even Bilal know?
Rukhsana sat on her other side, wiping the tears from her eyes with her dupatta, and Sakeena wished, amongst many other things, that her younger sister wouldn’t give way to her tears so often.
“Bilal has forgotten everything I taught him,” whispered Sakeena to Rukhsana. “Who wears a suit to visit their dying mother?” Rukhsana burst into sobs.
“You will look after your khala?” said Sakeena to Bilal. “The way I have looked after her?” Bilal swallowed hard and glanced at his wife. “Yes, Ammi. Of course.”
Next was the tricky part, but since when did trickiness bother Sakeena? She was about to give her son the task she knew would bring him back to the most important thing in life: faith. It was ridiculous the way he’d abandoned everything about it when he moved to that absurd village, Babbel’s End, eight years ago. He’d been determined to open up an accountancy firm. As if numbers were more important than God. Well, he might be successful now, but still. What a decision! Didn’t he think about the significance of living in a place that hinted at the end of something? She was no fatalist but even she had her limits.
She sighed inwardly – Bilal never did think about the important things like symbolism. To think she had cultivated forty years of her life with her son in this multi-coloured city. For him! She’d not have him be the only brown face for miles: as conspicuous as he was invisible. And she wasn’t illiberal – she’d made sure from the beginning that Bilal had a mix of friends, unlike other children who were encouraged to ‘keep to their kind’. No, she made cucumber sandwiches for his white friends and jerk chicken for the black ones. If he’d brought any Chinese or Japanese friends home then she’d have made noodles or sushi, or whatever it was they ate. She had noticed Bilal’s cheeks redden at her culturally presumptive ways, but she was his mother – she knew what he needed, even when he didn’t.
When her husband had left her in the first year of their marriage she knew she would have to make sense of things on her own; to understand. Understanding, her local imam had told her, was the key to everything. Especially the afterlife. Which was puzzling because how could you understand something you’d never experienced?
Sakeena stared at her son with a hint of wonder. “Who are you?” she asked finally.
Bilal looked stricken and glanced at Mariam again as if she would have the answer. “Ammi,” said Mariam, stepping forward to hold her dying mother in-law’s hands. “He’s your son. Remember?”
Sakeena waved at her as if swatting a fly. Then, straddling life and death, Sakeena’s vision became clouded by a black fuzz instead of the light she’d always anticipated. “Listen to me,” she said urgently.
Bilal’s head jerked and she noticed his eyes settle on her locked cabinet. She found salvation in faith; her son found it in the medicine cabinet. “Remember the grave,” she said.
“She’s not making sense,” said Bilal, looking at Mariam. He’d had that look when she’d first dug a grave-shaped hole in her backyard and then proceeded to lie in it every night. “How can you really live if you don’t think of dying?” she had told him then.
She’d steeled herself against the sense of claustrophobia, imagining the dirt being thrown over her, the inevitability of leaving things – leaving Bilal – behind, and how in death nothing would matter but the good she might have done in her life.
“Ammi,” Bilal had said, looking at her lying in the ground. “You could contemplate death without being six feet under. This isn’t method dying.”
Hain? There was no method to dying. But she could concede that it was the penultimate act. Understanding. It could skip oceans and bloodlines.
“Listen to me,” she said now, bringing herself back to the present, holding Bilal’s hand with all the strength she could muster. His hand felt so powerful in that moment she was heartbroken that she would never feel it again.
This was the final hour we were all, one day, heading towards. Except she was catapulting and, quite frankly, it was making her sick. Namely because no-one was catapulting with her. She felt a pang of regret that she hadn’t lived in a way contrary to death. How had all these years passed her by?
She had so much to say about so many things. Now that it was her last chance, why weren’t these thoughts manifesting into words?
She glimpsed the faint outline of what could be a dark figure, looming in the doorway. This wasn’t the time to panic. Death was, quite literally, at her door and there was one last job she had as Bilal’s mother. She’d even forsake the time it took to say the first kalima prayer when dying. Because, yes, death is solitary but life shouldn’t be, because Bilal’s life wasn’t just his own – it was everyone’s he came in contact with. If he didn’t know who he was then how would others really know him? Understand him?
“What have we done here?” she said. Bilal leaned forward, a frown creasing his brow. If he would just lean in a little further, she could kiss the high forehead that had always given him a perpetual look of surprise. Sakeena blinked back the shadows only to have her vision hindered by spots of white light. She gripped Bilal’s arm, no longer able to see her baby boy properly.
“Who will know and understand that we’re meant to make life better for each other?”
“Ammi,” said Bilal. “It’s okay, I’m here. Don’t panic.” His voice broke and she was relieved to see there were tears in his eyes. Perhaps he regretted not coming back home sooner? Maybe he was sorry that their last game of backgammon was probably over three years ago? Perhaps, watching her slip away, he’d understand why she’d chosen to lie in her own grave.
“Build them a mosque, beta. Build them a mosque,” she said.
“Get the doctor, Mariam,” Bilal said. “Quick.” Mariam rushed out of the room.
“Ya Allah,” came Rukhsana’s voice, who muttered prayers under her breath, blowing them over Sakeena. Bilal looked at his khala, agitated. “Can’t that wait?”
“Show these people our Islam,” Sakeena continued, urgently.
“Sshh,” he urged, tears now falling freely down his face.
She hadn’t loved life in the way she’d seen others love it, she had simply made the most of what she had, but in this moment, looking at her son, she didn’t want to leave it.
“This isn’t the time to shush,” she said, her heart cracking, along with her voice. “This is the time to speak. You must guide yourself to goodness, beta. And everyone around you. Like those Christian missionaries,” she said.
“Missionaries?” he replied, bewildered.
She reached up to Bilal’s face, the boy for whom she could forsake saying the kalima because she’d die the way she’d lived: doing what was best for him.
“Babbel’s End,” she said, unable to hide the contempt from her voice – remembering the village green and rolling hills, the bustling main street with its cobbled pavements and Victorian lamp posts, its two churches (how excessive!), the way the sun would glisten on the water as all those white, white people walked their dogs on the pebbled beach nearby in their wellies and big coats. What kind of people went to the beach in the middle of winter? Then she imagined a minaret, soaring in the midst of all of this, the call to prayer drowning out the noise of all the barking dogs, and the idea brought her that ever elusive sense of contentment (which, to Sakeena’s mind, was superior to happiness). She smiled, a tear in her eye, thinking of how sad endings could be but also of the hope you could leave behind. “Babbel’s End . . .” she repeated, harnessing her last breath, “is your Africa.”
And she was gone.
“Inna lilla hai wa inna ilayhi raji’un,” muttered Khala Rukhsana under her breath.
We belong to God and to God we shall return.
So, Bilal was left with his guilt and grief, and the Arabic prayer his mum had been unable to say was on his lips for the first time since he could remember.
Because when something dies, you never know what else is coming to life.
This Green and Pleasant Land by Ayisha Malik is out today in paperback, published by Zaffre (£8.99). Buy your copy here