First, I want to say that I really did eventually enjoy this book but OMG, the parts I hated were so aggravating!
I think about 75% of my irritation with the first half of the book would have been eliminated if this had been marketed as a contemporary romance instead of a Young Adult. Because not only are Zayneb and Adam in their 20s when this novel starts, they’ve also been married for a while, so it’s deeply weird that this book is marketed at teens instead of a general audience.
But here’s the other weird thing. If I’d known this was meant to be a romance novel, with a HEA or HFN guaranteed, I would have been mentally prepared to put up with the absolute shit decisions our protagonists make over the course of the story, all in service of “not worrying” the other. The genre is well known for its manufactured drama, and if I had been assured that the protagonists would sweetly reaffirm their commitment to each other by the end, I wouldn’t have felt so stressed out at how deeply stupid they were being in the process. I want Muslim novels and Muslim romances to succeed, but going in cold (i.e. not having read the first book in the series — I meant to, but my TBR pile is too large!) made me fear that this would be a cautionary tale against getting married young and for lust-filled reasons.
Because, y’all, the way I fumed at how Adam and Zayneb didn’t seem to understand that the point of getting married, in all religions, is to share your life with someone. And that means being honest and open and vulnerable, and not being so arrogant as to think you know so much better when it comes to things that affect you both as a couple that you make selfish, unilateral decisions. Muslim marriages aren’t primarily about having halal sexy times, but the way Adam and Zayneb were acting through the first part of the book made me believe that they were just being dumb fundies about sex and nikah.
Fueling my ire was the fact that, on top of making questionable decisions, they were just communicating so poorly. It’s my absolute least favorite romance-conflict trope. Compounding their inability to listen or talk to each other (like, when Adam suggests the umrah to Zayneb, she’s taken aback but quickly says yes, which he totally ignores, like wtf?!) is the fact that they’re both deeply privileged in having parents who care about their physical and emotional well-being, and they completely refuse to be vulnerable to those parents either. What is this shit?! How am I to care about two people who are so deeply wrapped up in themselves that they continually make the worst choices because they think they can handle everything by themselves?! It was the only thing that made me think that maybe this book should be YA, if the protagonists were going to be so damn childish.
Things get better when Adam and Zayneb are reunited on the umrah, and the conflicts become much more understandable. Sarina angling for second wife status was totally the Muslim version of thot, and a welcome addition to the Western canon of writing. S. K. Ali’s occasionally awkward prose finally settles in and truly glows when discussing the umrah and the holy cities of Mecca and Madinah. I did my umrah and haj training in high school, but the instructors were always so portentous that it made the whole thing seem like a drag instead of the magical experience of community that Ms Ali portrays in this book. For that alone, I’d highly recommend this novel to any reader, Muslim or otherwise, despite the manufactured romantic conflict.
And in addition to the rad global Muslim representation, I really appreciated the chronic illness rep viz Adam’s multiple sclerosis. It was also pretty great to see criticism of exploitative Islamic governments (even if I did roll my eyes at Adam’s whataboutism) and Zayneb’s very Muslim commitment to feminism and justice. Would definitely recommend this book to any reader who isn’t driven absolutely up the wall by the poor communication trope.
Love From Mecca To Medina by S.K. Ali was published October 18 2022 by Salaam Reads and is available from all good booksellers, including