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This Green and Pleasant Land

de Ayisha Malik

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Accountant Bilal Hasham and his journalist wife Mariam plod along contentedly in the sleepy, chocolate box English village they've lived in for ten years. Then Bilal is summoned to his mother's bedside in Birmingham. Mrs Sakeena Hasham knows she is not long for this world. She has a final request. Instead of whispering her prayers in her dying moments, she instructs her son: You must go home to your village, and you must build a mosque. Mariam is horrified. The villagers are outraged. How can a grieving Bilal choose between honouring his beloved mum's last wish and preserving everything held dear in the village he calls home? But it turns out home means different things to different people.… (mais)
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This Green and Pleasant Land tells the story of Bilal and his wife Mariam, both second generation Brits, whose parents immigrated from Pakistan. When Bilal's mother dies, her final request is that Bilal build a mosque in the sleepy southern village he moved away from Birmingham to start a new life in. As Bill faces the question of what it means to belong, he comes face to face with years of doubts and fears he has never addressed, and as he moves forward with the mosque he will have to face more than just his insubstantial fears.

This book is brilliantly written, using humour and amazingly depicted cultural scenes to talk about some very important current issues. The tone and setting are spot on – as a foreign-born British citizen who has lived here for the past 15 years, I recognise every detail of the village and people Malik describes, and see myself in many of them. The subtle cultural humour had me laughing and cringing accordingly. The way she pinpoints British nuances and subtleties in simple and recognisable ways is astounding and brilliant. The passages from Shelley's perspective particularly had me laughing at almost every understated line. Although I don't know much about Pakistani culture, I could tell that she wrote about it with the same cuttingly accurate subtlety and affectionate humour.

I love the way that this book makes you think and examine your own views as you read. There are so many challenging passages. The reaction of the town to Bilal's proposal is both understandable and shameful. Yet, when I look at the words without bias I recognise some of the same thought-processes and hypocrisies exhibited by Shelley, Copperthwaite and co. in myself. I loved the gentle challenge that this book provides to look at yourself without fear, and to recognise that change is possible, no matter how old or set in your ways you are. Both Shelley and Khala Rukhsana are beautiful examples of that.

I am also in love with the way that Malik gets across what I believe to be the biggest overlooked principle of today, which might just have to power to save us all if we could uphold it – You don't have to share someone's beliefs or lifestyle in order to love them, respect them, honour them and help them to share equal freedoms and rights with you. Reverend Richard Young and Bilal's strong friendship was one of my favourite sub-plots of the book. They are both just men, whose religious beliefs don't have to alter their regard for each other or the lengths they will go to in order to support each other. As an Anglican myself I was so impressed and appreciative of Richards character and stance in this book. He isn't threatened by the chance for Muslims to have their own place of worship in his village, because they deserve a sacred space just as much as the Christians do.

I will admit that it took me some time to get into this novel, but once I made it 50 or 60 pages in I was hooked, and by the end I really didn't want the story to end. The characters and setting are so familiar and if not always lovable, at least understandable.

Highly recommended, especially for those who wish to examine what they think about national identity, inclusive culture, and what it means to follow your convictions in life. 5 Stars!
  TheMushroomForest | Jun 16, 2019 |
For eight years Bilal Hasham, his wife Mariam and his stepson Haaris have lived quietly and contentedly in the quintessentially English village of Babbel’s End, on the Dorset coast. By being prepared to blend in he has always felt accepted by the other residents, who never address him by his given name but instead call him Bill; he has been active in the community, serving on the Parish Council and always ready to help out fellow villagers. However, his mother Sakeena, who brought him up single-handedly following her husband’s desertion after the first year of their marriage, has never been able to understand why he chose to leave “multi-coloured” Birmingham where he was raised, to move to such a “white, white” village to open his accountancy firm. So, on her deathbed she has two requests to make of him – to look after her sister Rukhsana, his Khala (aunt) as she has always done, and to build a mosque in the village to acknowledge his commitment to Islam and his heritage. He was immediately able to promise the former, but Sakeena died before he could agree to the latter and, shocked by her request, is left struggling to know what to do. Finally, and much to Mariam’s horror, he decides he must honour his mother’s final wish but when he announces his intention to build a mosque, at a Parish Council meeting, most of the village residents are immediately up in arms! As people start to take sides it soon becomes clear that he has set in motion a train of events which will change him, his family and the village in ways no one could have envisaged.
It soon becomes clear that the villagers’ rather smug Christian-value tolerance and acceptance of this non-white family is threatened by the “threat” of a tangible exposure to another culture and religion. Following years of never experiencing any racial or religious hostility, Bilal and his family become the target of prejudice and bigotry from many of the people they had previously considered friends, and Haaris experiences bullying at school. Passions escalate still further when, following a fall, Bilal’s Khala Rukhsana moves in with the family; her traditional dress, along with her very limited English, appear to embody the very “foreign-ness” with which many residents are struggling to come to terms.
Although the author’s writing style is very light-hearted, the themes she tackles are dark and disturbing as she explores some of what it feels like to be different, to struggle to assimilate, to deal with prejudice, racism and bigotry. Through Rukhsana’s eyes she shows something of what it must be like for an immigrant to adjust to an alien culture, particularly if they are unable to speak the language and, through Bilal and Mariam’s, she demonstrates the ongoing struggles faced by first and second generation individuals who believe that they have done everything to assimilate and yet are still faced with prejudice and intolerance.
Through some of the village residents (an obvious example being Shelley, retired head mistress and Chair of the Parish Council) she explores the hypocrisy of those who claimed that their objections to the idea of a mosque are about preserving the village’s Christian heritage and English traditions and have nothing to do with racism or bigotry. She looks at how people cope with change, how they often react aggressively when feeling that their way of life is being threatened. However, by using other characters to demonstrate tolerance and a willingness to be supportive in difficult situations, she recognises that not everyone is resistant to change: some are able to manage this relatively easily, whilst others need time to reflect before being prepared to stand up for what is right.
With a light, often humorous, touch she exposes how, in the wake of 9/11 and subsequent terrorist attacks, Muslims, are often immediately seen as a threat, and how prejudice, both overt and casual, permeates our society, often lying relatively hidden until “awakened” by something perceived as a threat to traditional British values. She manages to capture that it is often the insidious, casual type of prejudice which is more difficult to deal with because it is its very subtlety which makes it so much harder to challenge.
Although there were moments when I thought that the author came close to using stereotypical characterisations, for the most part I found that she just about managed to avoid doing that, so I found it easy to find each of her cast of characters credible and, for the most part, likeable! One of the most memorable for me was gentle Rukhsana who, with her quiet wisdom and innate tolerance, embodied the traits needed to reach out to people with different viewpoints and to unite fractured communities.
I found this a very “visual” book and, having initially wondered whether I was going to find it a rather too lightweight story, I really admired, and enjoyed, the way in which Ayisha Malik was able to combine compassion and humour (some of which was of the “laugh-out-loud” variety!) with a thought-provoking exploration of identity, faith, what it means to belong within a community, to struggle with divided loyalties, to be living in times of political uncertainty, the importance of tolerance and a willingness to adapt – just some of the themes included and which would make this a good choice for reading groups.
With thanks to Zaffre and Readers First for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. ( )
  linda.a. | Jun 12, 2019 |
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Accountant Bilal Hasham and his journalist wife Mariam plod along contentedly in the sleepy, chocolate box English village they've lived in for ten years. Then Bilal is summoned to his mother's bedside in Birmingham. Mrs Sakeena Hasham knows she is not long for this world. She has a final request. Instead of whispering her prayers in her dying moments, she instructs her son: You must go home to your village, and you must build a mosque. Mariam is horrified. The villagers are outraged. How can a grieving Bilal choose between honouring his beloved mum's last wish and preserving everything held dear in the village he calls home? But it turns out home means different things to different people.

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