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BOOK REVIEW: Life after Ali by Rashida Tayabali

Inspired by her own real-life experiences, Rashida Tayabali’s first novel is about the unique challenges that come following a devastating loss

Reading Time: 3 minutes

 

The story begins with Tasneem, a mother of two adolescent children, attending her husband Ali’s funeral at a mosque in Sydney.

Ali’s sudden and untimely death due to a motor vehicle accident has left her floundering in darkness.

In Life After Ali, writer Rashida Tayabali describes in very realistic terms the shock, the fear, the uncertainty and the agony experienced by a woman who has lost her partner unexpectedly. Having experienced such devastating loss herself, Tayabali is able to write with candour about her character Tasneem’s struggles to accept her hew life.

As a widow, Tasneem had joined a group of third-class citizens that everyone pitied and no one wanted to be. Widows were placed at the bottom of the social pecking order in their small community, while newlywed brides sat right at the top, loved and adored for their bright, shiny new beginnings. Widows had no right to voice wishes and desires. The part of Tasneem that was once vibrant had to disappear. She was forbidden from wearing bright colours or jewellery or makeup. Her laughter wouldn’t reach its usual pitch and she wouldn’t be able to fully express her joy at even the smallest things. Everything in her life had to be subdued. Like a TV turned down to its lowest sound and colour setting.

Tasneem’s unique experiences give us a sneak peek into the special challenges that come with her devastating loss.

As she prepares for Iddah (a compulsory mourning period of strict isolation for Muslim widows), she’s attending to the nitty-gritty of insurance and banking and getting the plumbing fixed as a single parent in a western country.

Tasneem’s younger sister Insia flies down from Los Angeles to support her. Insia initially discourages Tasneem from Iddah. ‘What if you don’t do the Iddah? Why subject yourself to restrictive isolation in a room for four months with no contact at all with the outside world? It does not make sense to me.’

However, Tasneem persists, and Insia stays back to help her complete her Iddah.

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The first half of the novel is realistic in its portrayal of grief, loss and trauma. It is moving to read of Tasneem’s long days in isolation within the confines of her room, her loneliness and trepidation at managing life on her own, and her struggles to find an identity for herself and a career path. She also has to support her children to come to terms with their own colossal loss.

And yet, it is heartening to see Tasneem adapt to the changed circumstances: particularly noteworthy are her attempts to boldly stand up for herself in the face of jibes and taunts of some of the more conservative women in her small community.

That there is a world beyond her little community that accepts, supports and encourages her, is also redeeming.

Life After Ali offers a glimpse of the private lives of modern Muslim women, their thoughts and their strength shining beneath their hijabs.

Even as Tasneem accepts the reality and makes peace with life, a friend from the past – an old love, no less – reappears. It’s her sister Insia’s plotting.

Tasneem is unsure how to respond to Fiaz. Tasneem and Fiaz had to sacrifice the deep love they had for each other as she was already betrothed to Ali.  Tasneem was not brave enough to confront her parents.

At their meeting in Sydney after two decades, Tasneem says to Fiaz, ‘I understood too late that my sacrifice so many years ago had been hollow – for reasons that seemed honourable at the time. But I didn’t dare to face my family then. I lost you and the chance to live many happy years with you.’

The second half of the novel becomes rather predictable. The conflicts faced by teenagers brought up in traditional households in tight-knit communities, the challenges of moving countries in middle age and other realistic issues are dispensed off easily, seemingly swept under a magic carpet.

The sisterly bond between Tasneem and Insia is well developed while other characters remain in the periphery. Ali, though not a live character in the novel, is portrayed almost as a saint: he has a premonition of his untimely death and wants to make amends for the errors he never committed. His letters to his wife and children seem a bit contrived.

How does Tasneem’s life unfold?  Is she brave enough to accept Fiaz’s proposal? Reading Life After Ali is the best way to find out.

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