Back in 2009, when Shelina Janmohamed penned her memoir Love In A Headscarf, the publishing industry was forced to open its eyes to a gap in the market for books written by women who come from minority communities, mostly identifying as South Asian and Muslim. More than a decade later and we have seen a number of books in the mainstream featuring female characters by authors from South Asian backgrounds and identifying as Muslim both here and in the UK such as Ayesha At Last, Home Fire and Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged written by Ayisha Malik, who has also written the book under review here, This Green And Pleasant Land.
In Babbel’s End, a village near Birmingham, trouble begins to brew as Bilal Hasham finds himself at a crossroads contemplating his life after his mother’s death and, wishing to live upto her deathbed request, proposes building a mosque. All hell breaks loose at the hands of the villagers and amidst all this, Bilal’s personal life seems to be unravelling.
Having previously read Ayisha Malik’s other books, I was surprised at the plotline and considered This Green and Pleasant Land to be beyond the scope of her usual genre of writing. It appears that I was mistaken, not because it was beyond Malik’s scope, but that any expectation that Malik would write the book as a nuanced and mature analysis of what it means to be a British Pakistani Muslim in a quintessentially English village was quite rapidly extinguished.
As soon as the book begins, it becomes immediately apparent that the story is about the British Pakistani experience with Punjabi roots, perhaps a reference to the author’s background, bringing in the occasional supplication in Arabic to bring an element of ‘Muslimness’ to the story.
The book starts off with Bilal’s mother’s last words “Babbel’s End…is your Africa”, a rather tone deaf reference to Christian missionaries given the brutal history behind the dissemination of Christianity across the African continent that enslaved millions and erased its rich history of the multitude of African cultures. That such a reference is then compared as noble and synonymous with spreading the message of God exemplifies that Malik never intended faith and God to play a part in This Green and Pleasant Land.
Although intended as a modern comedy, the 4-5 star ratings and reviews from authors such as Beth O’Leary and Jonathan Coe are perplexing and point towards the possibility that This Green and Pleasant Land may be something of a curate’s egg – something that is quite obviously poorly constructed but is praised for some superficial element of its redeeming qualities, which in the case of This Green and Pleasant Land came in the form of comedic outrage from the caricaturised villagers of Babbel’s End.
The book is quite naturally riding the crest of a post-Brexit wave where community tensions have been at an all time high and discord is easily sown through the village with the suggestion of a mosque’s construction throwing Bilal and his family immediately into the realm of suspicion and foreigner as xenophobia and racism rears its ugly head. Ayisha Malik, however, skims over these thorny issues to present them as absurdities instead of addressing their serious social impact especially when, at its climax, a crowd of pro-mosque protestors and national media descend on Babbel’s End.
If Bilal’s life wasn’t already turbulent enough, his elderly aunt, Rukhsana, is thrown into the mix when she comes to stay in Babbel’s End, something he reluctantly allows yet takes little responsibility for. At one point he considers Mariam selfish when, while cooking dinner, she wonders how much longer his aunt will stay and points out that she’s doing all of Rukhsana’s care making Bilal an incredibly unlikeable protagonist and a poor representation of British Asian men. As far as Mariam goes, there’s little to get to grips with as a character as priority is given to the storyline of the mosque and Bilal and Mariam’s marriage is more of an afterthought. We’re already aware that Mariam is distracted and acting distant with Bilal and while the source of her distraction becomes apparent later in the story, the lack of a backstory of their relationship leaves something a little wanting.
More light needed to be shed on how Bilal and Mariam married given that his conservative Pakistani background would have been a cause for all sorts of cultural barriers in marrying a divorced woman who already has a child from a previous marriage. The reader is deprived of what would have made for an interesting subplot and a crucial element to understanding the couple’s difficulties. Bilal’s stepson, Haaris, brings some light relief to the family dynamic and bears up well when he is ostracised after word gets out about the mosque proposal.
Quite naturally, the ramifications are felt by the entire Hasham family who are immediately considered outsiders in spite of leading a life indifferent to faith.
While Ayisha Malik tries her best to illustrate that even the slightest expression of being Muslim results in overt Islamophobia, the message somewhat falls flat. Had she portrayed a family with a more obvious manifestation of faith with strong foundations in the community, it would have been a far more powerful story but it feels difficult to sympathise with Bilal given his seemingly agnostic approach to faith and it becomes apparent that This Green and Pleasant Land is not portraying Islamophobia or anti-Muslim sentiment, but playing out racism experienced by British South Asians (or simply those with Brown skin) couched in anti-Muslim sentiment to justify anti-Brown racism. This distinction isn’t made clear and it’ll remain unclear to most readers who aren’t familiar with the discussion and debate around what entails Islamophobia, especially since the APPG definition has muddied the waters further offering no further clarity and received criticism over concerns in its lack of inclusivity of the wider British Muslim community.
Essentially the problem lies in the idea that opposition towards the building of a mosque is couched in Islamophobia but this would only be accurate if mosques were viewed by the author as a strong representation of British Muslim diversity rather than cultural community centres run by particular ethnic communities. There is evidence to confirm that Malik views mosques as the latter when the imam she chooses to write up is of a South Asian background from a mosque in Birmingham and therefore cements the image that the only Muslims who are worthy of holding a monopoly over Islam in Britain are South Asians, in spite of the ethnocultural diversity of Muslims in Birmingham. This is not the first time Ayisha Malik has written about British Muslims from a singular community.
In Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged, the protagonist is from South London, a highly diverse area of London with a history of Afro-Caribbean communities present in Clapham and Brixton and a more recently-settled Somali community in Streatham. Oddly enough Sofia doesn’t encounter any member of these communities in spite of socialising quite regularly with friends in bright and bustling Tooting. Curiously, of the friendship group, none belong to the aforementioned communities and one has to wonder why. In spite of the author herself being from South London, she struggled to write a single Black Muslim character into any of her novels. Moreover, the only presence of a Black Muslim comes in the form of a ‘Somalian’ (as written in the book with the actual correct term being Somali) girl being part of the Babbel’s End mosque protest.
All of this serves to affirm the biases and lens with which This Green and Pleasant Land was written and offers evidence that the book is written in a South Asian context more than in a broader context of faith and godliness applying to British Muslims. The entire framing of Malik’s view of Britain’s Muslim community infers that South Asians hold a monopoly over Islam and its practice asserting a fallacy that to be Muslim is to be Brown or Pakistani. This is further illustrated by the mention of ‘inoffensive mosque initiatives’ such as ‘chai-at-the-mosque’ and whether the Muslims attending the proposed mosque of Babbel’s End would be ‘tandoori-chicken-but-without-the-Christmas-hat-wearing sort’ implying that to be Muslim is rooted in South Asian culture rather than in godly faith practices. Additionally, the use of the term ‘fundo’ which is used by Mariam after the village’s adverse reaction to the mosque proposal leaves the Hasham family as outcasts; Bilal responds with “that’s a bit extreme” and it remains unclear as to the context of ‘fundo’. Colloquial for fundamentalist, the term has often been used in the past in a range of ways to define someone who is perceived to be overzealous in their application of faith, including those who fulfil the obligatory pillars of faith such as prayer and fasting. However, what is absolutely clear is that the author chooses to mischaracterise people using terribly reductive language that could possibly feed into damaging stereotypes.
Beyond the criticism that This Green and Pleasant Land feeds into the Orientalist gaze, there is very little to do with God in the book. Ironically, it seems that the only person who has a handle on faith and God is Reverend Richard more than the characters who claim to be Muslims.
Looking more objectively at the plotline, it becomes clear that the story is overarchingly about Bilal’s mid-life crisis coinciding with the aftermath of the death of his mother and his guilt over not being able to live upto her expectations as playing the part of the archetypal, devoted Pakistani son to his mother. The building of a mosque is apparently meant to be a form of repentance for Bilal’s mum given the way her son turned out, but its inclusion in the story alongside identity politics seems a crude way to explore these issues when the story could and would have been much stronger without those elements. They end up serving as distractions away from any potential the plot had in helping Bilal patch things up in his personal life. The addition of his aunt, Rukhsana, moving into his home is a superficial attempt at bridging the gap and soften an incensed Shelley, but the language barrier of a woman who has spent 40 years in Britain with literally no command of the English language is unrealistic as well as ridiculous. Shelley doesn’t welcome these interactions and only refers to Rukhsana as a friend after her death making the so-called friendship more contrived than based on a foundation of shared experiences or interests.
Delving deeper into the story, the reactions of Babbel’s End residents such as Shelley and Mr Pankhurst are reminiscent of an EDL or Britain First propaganda video displaying that these attitudes are very much true to form in many parts of Britain, yet such a parody of English villages erases and isolates Muslims who are very much part of their village community. Putting aside the Daily Mail-esque sequence of events escalating to a national media crisis, there are many redeeming characters such as Richard, Anne and others who offer the Hasham’s their support which is among one of the book’s stronger points. But yet again, Malik misses the mark by not being able to expand on the basis of these relationships and the foundations they were formed on thus losing out on a contemporarily diverse fiction that might have paved the way for writing about South Asians and/or Muslims without the need to refer to those identities. Quite disappointingly, Muslim identity is offered up as the ‘Other’ and culturalised as Pakistani or South Asian erasing the vastly diverse nature of British Muslims and their experiences.
The argument that Ayisha Malik’s books are not to be taken seriously or to be taken with a pinch of salt could have been considered had she not used Muslim identity to generate attention for her books to a mainstream market. Had this been a book of a middle-aged man straddling dual cultures between his Pakistani mother and cultural protocols he was raised with alongside his position in an English village and cultural outlook on life, it could have been a searing narration on generational differences between immigrant parents and British-raised ethnic minorities.
Parodying both ethnic and faith communities using damaging stereotypes and assumptions is often weaponised by the Right to affirm their own biases and put them into action.
More worryingly to note is that a book about Muslims without the mention of God, faith, prophets, scripture and everything that makes up the believer’s conviction in God demonstrates an attitude among some of those who claim Muslim identity to strip it down to essentially nothing but their own ethnocultural practices.
British Muslim activists often lament the external criticism from the media and politicians as a threat to the existence of Muslims in Britain. If we needed anymore evidence of how the culturalisation of Islam within Muslim communities is damaging the faith of our subsequent generations, This Green and Pleasant Land, at its very core, is written evidence of an insidious secularisation of Muslim identity where turning to God is only reserved for older generations while their children claim Muslim identity by heritage, but refuse to refer to the Most High.