Anar Ali’s first book is made up of a series of seven diverse and compelling stories centred on the Ismaili community, a Muslim sect with origins in India but with a wide diaspora that includes both Tanzania and, more recently, Canada. It is within and between these two countries that Ali’s stories are principally set.
Ali is a storyteller in the true sense of the word: in spare, unflowery prose she tells tales about people, tales in which events are set in motion, actions have consequences, and conclusions are drawn. Two of the stories, “Baby Khaki’s Wings” and “The Weight of Pearls,” set themselves apart in being more akin to fables than conventional short stories. In the latter, a quiet, socially reclusive boy inadvertently causes a tragedy when he becomes a victim of his own hubris during a competition to collect pearls for the community’s imam. In “Baby Khaki’s Wings,” a young girl hired to care for the baby of a couple in a distant town fears she will be accused of sorcery when she discovers the baby has grown wings and sometimes tries to fly away. Ali’s description of the wings themselves and the girl’s attempts to remove them are at once eerily visceral and heartbreaking.
In contrast to the mythical feel of the stories set in Tanzania, the four that take place in Canada are very much concerned with the practical realities faced by immigrant Muslims, most of whom are trying their hand at some form of entrepreneurship. In one story, the 40-year-old wife of an Alberta gas station owner regrets her pregnant state, worrying how they will support a fourth child with their business bordering on receivership. In another, an elderly widow whose stepson has been in a coma for 16 years makes ends meet by waking before dawn every day to cook traditional dishes for members of the community, her isolation broken only by her daily contact with the driver who helps her deliver them.
Ultimately, what all the tales share is a bittersweet poignancy that grippingly serves to contrast the strength of a culture with the fragility of its displaced individuals.