Sorrows of the Moon
Reviewed by Sameer Rahim in The Times Literary Supplement
Iqbal Ahmed’s original vision of Tower Hamlets had been one of small villages nestling around the Tower of London, but after his migration from Kashmir this image adjusts to a picture of jostling, high-rise tower blocks. On his first visit to East London a taxi driver informs Ahmed that “ ‘fifty thousand Talibans’ ” have taken over the area. But the man has misread the Bengali men’s traditional white beards and skullcaps for the clerical garb of the Afghani student radicals. Ahmed’s double vision and the taxi driver’s mistake are the kind of ironies that Sorrows of the Moon dextrously picks up, as it examines the melancholy lives of ten London immigrants.
The arc of each chapter follows a settled course. Ahmed bumps into an old friend or is introduced to a potential one; then the frustrations of their misplaced lives are detailed with tactful restraint. Harrow-educated Zakir, known as Zack to his friends, is estranged from his “semi-literate” Pathan father when he marries a Czech girl. Only her parents attend their wedding; a civil marriage when they were expecting a Catholic one. Despite rebelling against marital tradition, Zack “could not find a place among the City workers who met in pubs during lunchtime”. His cultural assimilation goes too far for his family, but not far enough to blend in with his host community. Nigerian Solomon leaves his wife and children in Abuja, but then struggles to find a job in his new home. He is tipped off that cultured Londoners who have seen Death of a Salesman “sometimes take pity on a person who knocks at their door and buy what he has to
offer”; but mostly they don’t. Asian shopkeepers nervously explain to him they run a family business, whilst making sure they keep a sharp eye on his movements. Eventually Solomon becomes a restaurant doorman who must learn quickly not to confuse a guest’s wife with his mistress. Things look up when his priest overlooks strictures on bigamy and marries him to a Nigerian girl from his local Church. The couple are pleased to move from Tottenham area where knowledgeable taxi drivers rarely venture.
The rhythm of these lives is repetitive but never dull. Ahmed writes in clear, measured sentences which avoid pronouns or synonyms; in one paragraph he repeats “Brick Lane” seven times in fourteen lines, as one might while learning a new language. This quiet insistence and control is a skilful counterpoint to the half-grasped world of the immigrant. Each person’s story, like each repetition, clarifies and reinforces what has gone before. Ahmed is reticent about his own origins, and only on the final page does he recall “moonlight strolls in Srinagar” as he walks across a clear and silvery Hampstead Heath. Like Baudelaire’s sorrowful moon he “drops a furtive tear” for his homeland; but perhaps we are left with a sliver of hope in the image of Ahmed’s old moon and his new united in single vision.