S.K Ali's 'Love from Mecca to Medina' is a Model for Writing Culture Unapologetically
In S.K. Ali’s Love from Mecca to Medina, the sequel to Love from A to Z, readers are reunited with Adam and Zayneb, a young Muslim couple navigating the turbulent waters of long-distance love.
Despite the distance between them, their bond remains strong. However, as Zayneb is struggling to find balance back in Chicago as she pursues a law degree, and Adam’s back in Doha, living with MS and currently unemployed, the pressures of life are beginning to get to them. Zayneb has plans to reunite with Adam for good when she’s finished getting her degree (in four more years), but that’s a long way from now. In the meantime, the pair make amends by meeting whenever Zayneb has a break from school—their latest plans include a getaway to meet at the Hidden Bloom Cottage in England over the Thanksgiving break.
That is until Adam’s dad makes him an offer to go on Umrah to Mecca and Medina. Though Adam is eager to see Zayneb in England, he also knows that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. He’s doing much better with his MS, and he feels he doesn’t want to miss out because he may not feel this well again in the future.
Zayneb isn’t thrilled at the idea of doing Umrah. She was looking forward to spending time alone with Adam. But she ends up going with him for his sake, believing she needs to be there for him in case he relapses.
Everything starts to go downhill from the moment the trip begins, especially when Zayneb realizes that Sarina, the only other girl Adam has ever been seriously in love with, is coming along with their group on the trip. Zayneb immediately begins to read too much into everything, and Adam remains aloof, even as his actions begin to show that his attention is focused elsewhere and not particularly on Zayneb (Sarina has opened up the possibility to Adam of being employed with her brother, which consumes Adam's worries).
Miscommunication ensues and Zayneb and Adam end up at odds during most of their pilgrimage. This lack of communication is about more than just Sarina’s strange attitude (flooding the Umrah group chat with pictures of her and Adam), but also about Zayneb not confiding in Adam about her situation back home—rumors about Zayneb misusing school funds abound at her university; her living situation, or lack thereof, as she’s currently squatting on a fellow student's living room couch. As for Adam, he’s been too afraid to confide his fears of not getting a job and not being able to pull his weight for her, not to mention feeling like a burden as his MS diagnosis might make him more reliant on her than he’s comfortable with.
Ali proves to be a talented writer, truly evoking unique Gen Z voices for the grounded Zayneb and the dreamer Adam, with prose that can plunge right to the heart without being weighed out by melodramatics. However, having read this book without first tackling its prequel made my experience a bit of an outsider’s. Though Ali takes time to fill the new reader in on Adam and Zayneb’s background story, previously constructed in Love from A to Z, I was left with the feeling of visiting an acquaintance’s home while their regular friends were over. It was hard for me to connect to the characters, or to empathize with their growth in this installment because there was something about them that never stopped feeling like they were strangers to me. I suspect it might be something I missed by not reading the first book.
The plot of Love from Mecca to Medina can be in itself a bit frustrating at times, as it revolves around the miscommunication between Adam and Zayneb—two emotionally mature and smart individuals who share a sincere and pure love for each other. For these reasons, it was sometimes difficult to suspend disbelief and accept that Zayneb and Adam would refrain from having these important discussions with each other.
On the other hand, this book is one for the reader curious about foreign cultures. Love from Mecca to Medina is deeply Muslim and unapologetic about it. The narrative describes aspects of the Muslim culture without translation—a literary move I admire—and speaks as if the reader is already in the know. This creates an immersive experience for the reader who wants to feel like a fly on the wall. Though there were lots of terms to stop and google, I find this process more effective as I’m forced to do the work rather than having Muslim culture spoonfed to me by the author (which would, on the other hand, have created a flat and inauthentic experience for the reader).
Ali’s latest novel was a profoundly educational experience for me, and, based on that alone, I consider the book full of merit. Readers familiar with Muslim culture and anyone with an insatiable curiosity for world cultures will find this book wonderfully stimulating.