Love from A to Z by S.K. Ali is an #OwnVoices Islamic young adult contemporary romance novel about two Muslim teens that end up meeting by happenstance on their journey to Doha, Qatar right after experiencing some frustrating events in their personal lives. For Zayneb, it’s suspension after an Islamophobic teacher retaliates against her in class. For Adam, it’s a medical diagnosis that is heartbreakingly close to home. Through their blossoming bond, they find the comfort and the strength they need to confront their tribulations. With this book, S.K. Ali has once again shown me just how much of a phenomenal author she is and that she shall forever be one of my favourite writers.
What really surprised me about Love from A to Z was how much I needed this book in my life. Not only is the story fiercely feminist and warmheartedly romantic, it is also brilliantly genuine and unflinchingly honest in its portrayal of the black and blue punches of life’s many obstacles, particularly when we are feeling lost and trying to find our way out of muddy waters. That coupled with the excellent Muslim representation, both with regard to multigenerational and converted Muslims, beautiful female friendships, compassionate family values, and the breathtaking scenery of Doha—Love from A to Z has easily become the best book that I have read so far in 2020.
I picked this book up shortly after a medical revelation and some heart-wrenching news about my health. While I was searching for a fluffy-feel good experience, what I received was a dose of reality and catharsis in a way that I was desperately reaching out for without realising it.
With Zayneb, it was learning to sort through difficult circumstances, particularly ones where hate and prejudice are concerned, without losing one’s sense of self and moral values. The character flies out to Doha shortly after getting suspended, where she spends her time doing some much-needed soul searching as well as trying to figure out how to resolve the issues between her and her Islamophobic teacher without losing her integrity. The things that help her the most is glorious wisdom from a relative, a blossoming intimacy between a handsome young man, and new friendships in unlikely places. They help open her mind to the world outside of her bubble back home, which in turn help her to look at the situation in ways that hadn’t occurred to her before.
I think this message is extremely powerful. It can be so easy to get caught up in the pain and suffering that comes with being rejected and beaten down, both psychologically and physically, with regard to hate. The anger floods into our hearts and blurs the rational lines within our brains. We act on pure impulse and emotion, which more often than not can lead to decidedly negative consequences, as Zayneb quickly learns. Having courage and strength doesn’t come from fighting with equal hatred or brutality, but stems from finding the calm within ourselves; to embrace compassion and intelligent discourse in the face of terrible discrimination, which usually requires us to be more open-minded and willing to change the way we perceive the world around us. Being the bigger person doesn’t mean ignoring the problems and walking away, rather it revolves around not resorting to ferocious animosity to resolve a fight ignited in said animosity. It can feel like a basic common-sense notion, yet in a world where the lines between compassion and subjugation keep getting bolder and scarier, usually due to narrow-minded ignorance, it’s not always an easy practise.
The world is a mysterious place. On the one hand, its size can be measured and recorded and verified. Its marvels and oddities captured in complex, empirical detail. On the other hand, its size is relative to our mind’s perception of it. Its marvels and oddities only extending to how far our vision goes. For some of us, this means the world is small, including only those we see as belonging to it. People related to us, people who look like us, dress like us, think like us. For others, it’s medium-size and includes those we connect to through some similarity, some trait that pings familiarity within, which then allows us to overlook the differences between us and them. And then there are those who see the world as huge, as the actual size it measurably is. Huge enough to include vast differences, people with nothing in common with one another except a beating heart and a feeling soul, these two—heart, soul—being the strongest connection between us all.”
Then we have Adam, whose point-of-view that I related to the absolute most. His diagnosis brings up a plethora of memories and emotions that he is struggling so very hard to sort through. Toss in the fear of how it shall impact his loved ones—his father and younger sister— it leaves Adam with an emotionally evocative ride of sadness, overwhelming defeat, and soul-crushing grief to quarrel with.
I was diagnosed with an incurable illness a week before I began reading this book. Reading about Adam’s frustrations with processing through the type of future he would have due to his diagnosis ripped me into pieces. There is one specific scene where he finally reaches a point where he just needs to cry. He recognises that it is a necessary part of living, to allow yourself to feel the pain deeply and completely. It’s the only way to move forward. When I read this scene, it was the very first time that I cried since getting diagnosed. I had prayed to Allah and spent all my energy being strong for the loved ones around me, which prevented me from letting the shock of everything to fully sink in. But when it finally did, I cried for hours. I hugged this stunning book to my heart (ironically), and I cried and cried. It was extraordinarily cathartic.
Through Adam’s journey, I learned that lesson of needing to hurt, which allowed me to accept that the people around me also needed the same thing. To hurt is to heal, and hurting does not equate to being weak. It doesn’t make someone incapable of surviving or being a strong pillar of support for others. It merely means that we are emotional and sentimental beings with an enormous capacity for empathy, which is what helps us to help others. It’s such a beautifully and inspiring message, particularly during times of great adversity.
The romance is the third part of Love from A to Z that is positively marvellous. There is no insta-love dynamic. It’s a sincere story about two people who build a friendship through natural flowing, engaging and charming conversations, which occasionally had its hiccups. They both respect one another and are cutely curious about each other’s personalities, families, interests, and faith. Adam never treats Zayneb like she’s inferior to him because she’s a woman, or for wearing a hijab, or even for having a somewhat strong personality at times. Likewise, Zayneb never disrespects Adam or thinks of him as a lesser Muslim because him and his family converted to Islam rather than being born into it like she was, or because he has a physical ailment.
So many books treat converted Muslims like they aren’t authentic or genuine representations of the faith and it is so hurtful to read those narratives. There is a strong misguided perception within the community that if a person chooses to convert to a specific religion then they must have an ulterior motive. Yet, that is so, so far from the truth. We get to see that here with Adam and his family. Adam, his father, and his younger sister are wonderful Muslims. They pray together and talk about the faith together. The scenes where Adam’s father has his little sister give dua are delightfully heartfelt. It was a scene that shocked me.
As someone who was born into Islam, I was never allowed to experience that sort of equality with regard to faith in my house when I was a child. There were rigid gender roles that made me feel like an inferior being quite often. But to witness it in these pages, it gives me so much hope and helps me to see that Islam is a comforting and uplifting faith, more so as it evolves with its people through time. Even better, to see it in converted Muslims, to feel their joy and their love of Allah as being no different than other Muslims, was damn near perfect and the most stunning part of this entire incredibly magnificent novel.
Love from A to Z is exceptional. The characters, the story, the relationships, the portrayal of Muslims who are existing and being happy and so full of warmth in their identities, even while they deal with life’s uglier tribulations, the romance—it’s all so, so beautiful and I am so grateful to S.K. Ali for gifting us with a story of this calibre. I feel like I have been waiting my entire life for a book such as this, which is exactly how I felt when I read her debut title, Saints and Misfits, and is one of the many reasons that I respect her so much. She breathes life into my soul with every book that she writes and she’s such a blessing to the literary world, especially for young adult readers everywhere.
If you like contemporaries and feel-good romance narratives that are wonderfully feminist and centred on family values amid a pursuit of individualism in a world that makes that quite challenging, then please read this novel. You will almost assuredly walk away with the marvels of faith, hope, and love.
5 blue scarves outta 5!
This is an #OwnVoices review for the Muslim representation.