A marvel: something you find amazing. Even ordinary-amazing. Like potatoes—because they make French fries happen. Like the perfect fries Adam and his mom used to make together.
An oddity: whatever gives you pause. Like the fact that there are hateful people in the world. Like Zayneb’s teacher, who won’t stop reminding the class how “bad” Muslims are.
But Zayneb, the only Muslim in class, isn’t bad. She’s angry.
When she gets suspended for confronting her teacher, and he begins investigating her activist friends, Zayneb heads to her aunt’s house in Doha, Qatar, for an early start to spring break.
Fueled by the guilt of getting her friends in trouble, she resolves to try out a newer, “nicer” version of herself in a place where no one knows her.
Then her path crosses with Adam’s.
Since he got diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in November, Adam’s stopped going to classes, intent, instead, on perfecting the making of things. Intent on keeping the memory of his mom alive for his little sister.
Adam’s also intent on keeping his diagnosis a secret from his grieving father.
Alone, Adam and Zayneb are playing roles for others, keeping their real thoughts locked away in their journals.
Until a marvel and an oddity occurs…
Marvel: Adam and Zayneb meeting.
Oddity: Adam and Zayneb meeting.
This book resonated in chambers of my heart I’d never known existed. It stirred memories too deep to claim, and it all poured out of me and onto every surface, taking something vital with it. There is still an expansiveness in my chest that reminds me of how important voices like these are, for readers like us. This feeling is a language all its own: to reach and find, to be reached for and found, to belong to a mutual certainty.
Love from A to Z is one of the most unapologetically Muslim books that I’ve ever read, and I’m so glad it exists.
So, what’s this book about?
S.K Ali’s newest offering to the YA literary landscape arrives through the voice of Zayneb, an eighteen-year-old Hijabi, who got suspended for confronting her teacher with his Islamophobia. Zayneb’s parents send her to Doha to spend two weeks with her aunt, and they do it in the spirit of hope: that Zayneb could rest there, and push the sour remains of her anger and frustration to the back of her mind.
Zayneb might not be the kind to bandy about words like fate and destiny, but she would not deny that it is something of that kind that drew Adam to her path. Zayneb and Adam meet on their flight to Doha, and ever since, they seem to be on a glorious, relentless glissade on a straight track for each other.
Zayneb and Adam are both stretching thin with the effort of shoring up their dam—but the enormity of their weariness is lapping at the edges. Zayneb’s suspension went down like a mouthful of thorns, and when all her anger was sucked away, it left a void. Adam is a college student who stopped going to his classes when he’s been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis—the same disease that took his mother’s life, and who is wrestling with the reluctance to tell his grieving father and sister about it.
The more Zayneb and Adam’s secrets remain unuttered, the more they wither and turn inward, becoming difficult to coax out. No wonder then that they both keep a journal of Marvels and Oddities where they can take anything a little out of the ordinary and embroider it into the pages, and where their feelings, like magma, rising, could find a place to erupt. With every conversation and every traded truth, Zayneb and Adam carry a torch down to the deepest, darkest dungeon of each other’s selves. But soon, the seed of difference they had been ignoring up until that point grows into something that threatens to topple them both.
Love from A to Z is quietly powerful. It has something like tears and something like laughter and something that isn’t either, something profound and primal and pure. It’s a masterful, unsparing exploration of the distorting weight of prejudice, discrimination, racism and Islamophobia, and a remarkably lifelike portrait of what it’s like to be Muslim today.
Reading this book, a few things came home to me—things I had always known but that had to been buried under the days of my life. It was as if a clawed hand had sunk its talons into my mind, cutting through memories, letting emotion bleed. One memory, in particular, suddenly afflicted me afresh as poignantly as if it happened minutes before.
I think I must warn you—this is going to get very personal.
I used to put on a hijab for most of middle school and high school before I took it off when I was around 17—a year before I immigrated to Europe for college, and about two years after I was selected, the only freshman, to attend a European festival for high school students in France.
We had a conference call with the organizers of the festival, and they had made it clear that I would be expected to take off my Hijab once there. Something about making people “uncomfortable”. After a few other flimsy excuses, some scattered awkward laughs, and twelve expectant pair of eyes zeroed in on me, I nodded. At the time, an uneasiness stirred inside of me, a flutter of unhappiness. “This is a wrongness”, a voice in the back of my head whispered, but I was too young—perhaps even too craven—to put up much of a fight, to ask what was so threatening about a piece of cloth wrapped around my head, or to even fathom how incredibly, flagrantly, unbelievably Islamophobic that was. I still remember looking around, expecting one of the adults in the room to speak up—one of the seniors, my teacher, the principal. It had taken me years to understand, and still longer to unravel my feelings about it when I did. It’s the kind of memory you smash down whenever it tries to well up. But when it does, a burning disappointment and anger fills you, quick as the strike of a match. Don’t get me wrong, the festival turned out to be a lot of fun—it’s just that sometimes my recollection of it tastes too much like ashes.
What happened that day remained an arrowhead in my side, buried too deep to dig out. A large part of my decision to take off my Hijab, I had realized years later, could be so easily traced back to it. When I doffed my Hijab, I was thinking that life had enough hard edges without someone seeing the scarf around my head and considering me less than they were. And I cannot tell you how abound my heart is with so much awe and respect for all my Muslim soul sisters who don their Hijab every day and stand defiant in the face of hatred. You are the strongest people I’ll ever know.
I didn’t have to open my mouth or do anything for people to judge me. I just had to be born into a Muslim family and grow up to want to become a visible member of my community by wrapping a cloth on my head.
I just had to be me.
I’m telling you this because the condescension and malevolence that Zayneb is continuously made to endure struck me, but it didn’t surprise me. Like a reaction you’re used to but that hasn’t lost any of its sting. I don’t think I could have contemplated such cruelty, were my mind not full of the sight of my own past experiences, had the recent terrorist attacks in New Zealand not woken an old emotion, one I had never had much use for: Fear. The kind that clams down on you like a vise. The kind that seeps into the marrow of your bone and becomes as much a part of you as your molecules.
Reading Zayneb’s story, recognition blazed inside me, sharp as a shock. It felt like my insides were bruised, a weariness in me so great I thought I would sink into the earth. Because I knew. I understood. I know what it’s like to have a churn of fears sitting deep in your gut like swallowed stones, and inexorably, they’d start grinding together to gnaw at you from within. Inside Zayneb, something was coiled, growing tighter and tighter with every scathing remark, every micro-aggression, every new injustice. It’s the whimper that never quite turns into a scream. It’s crying out, but your screams are silent even to yourself. An unutterable weight of sorrow falls upon me at the knowledge that there are millions of Muslims whose experiences can be so easily placed alongside Zayneb’s, alongside my own. It isn’t fair, and it smites my heart.
Love from A to Z is also a bold and illuminating tale of a young man diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The author handles Adam’s story with such respect and delicacy, gently spooling out his struggles and triumphs in the face of the disease. I really liked Adam’s character. I’m a sucker for soft boys, and that’s exactly what Adam is. He’s a study in kindness and tenderness, and his hand is an open, fluent kind that anyone can read upside down.
Although this novel confronts, with boldness, weightier subjects—Islamophobia, the unhuman treatment of migrant workers in the Middle East, drone strikes in Pakistan—it’s at its heart a love story. I love Adam and Zayneb’s relationship. How they were slowly probing the delicate hyperspace they sketched between them, in the manner in which you’d explore a fragile trust. Adam, although he’s also Muslim, cannot really perceive how different his experience is from Hijabi women who have to weather so much more on a daily basis. But Adam eventually learns to listen. Similarly, Zayneb cannot put herself in Adam’s shoes either—all she can do is be there for him. Mostly, I love that both had their own stories in the years and days before they became part of one, and it’s a marvelous thing when they join it and we come to the meeting of the waterways. I love how their personal, separate struggles in the world do not change their moments together, the comfort they contain, or the fixed point they represent on the tangled structure of their lives. Their story left me with hope in the place of…everything else.
Overall, Love from A to Z is a brilliant, beautifully written and developed novel, and I’m excited to see what conversations it provokes. Highly recommended!