Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Clash of the Cultures: "The First" by Saadia Ahmed

Reena Jamil doesn’t do taboo. She’s a simple girl from a conservative Pakistani family who wants nothing more than for her to settle down and marry a nice Pakistani guy. But, unknown to her family, she falls for a white guy - something that would shock her parents. Deeply in love, yet torn over her familial duty, Reena must decide whether to pick love over obligation.

Meanwhile, her best friend, Sofia Azeem, is facing her own romantic struggles. She’s in love with her best friend from high school - but the feeling’s not mutual. Or is it?

Reena and Sofia each have soul searching to do. Should Reena choose the man she loves or accept a guy her parents would approve? Should Sofia wait for her feelings to be reciprocated or should she move on? Will each woman get a happy ending?

Its premise is a clash of cultures but The First is also a story about relationships, friendship, love, marriage, new beginnings, and most importantly, a story of hope. Saadia Ahmed’s unique cultural perspective makes this romance novella a fun and insightful read.

The transition from student to productive adult is never easy and each year there are college seniors who must face the real world where they will be absorbed into the work force, using their talents and expensive education, or find that the time and energy they expended on one college major is of little use when needing to earn a living. Add in the pressures on women especially, throughout the world, regardless of culture or tradition, to marry and become mothers. Here in the United States that pressure is more subtle but it is still very much present. In the case of the main character in this novella, Reena's conservative, traditional Pakistani parents believed that was her main calling in life.

This story is really about two Pakistani girls--Reena and Sophia--both wanting a productive life, both wanting to know genuine love in their futures, and both facing the demands of their families. Reena's first love was a young man who was not Pakistani and not Muslim, a college senior like her, and a person with whom she fell in love as he did with her. He had introduced her to his family but Reena did not reciprocate, knowing that her family would not accept him as suitable for her to marry. She also refused to be sexually intimate with him, believing that if he really loved her he would be willing to wait until they were wed. Brian's decision to break up with Reena was based on his awareness of their cultural differences and his disappointment that their relationship was not moving forward on more intimate terms. As Reena grieved deeply, Brian's roommate--a Pakistani man who acknowledged being attracted to her for a long time--comforted her and was instrumental in setting up a meeting with their families. It was during this gathering that Raheel proposed and Reena believed that her future was secured and destined to be spent with a man who loved her.

Several years later it became apparent that Raheel's attitude toward Reena had changed in that he seemed to be reverting more and more to the traditional view that a wife should stay at home and raise their children. When Reena failed to conceive, they sought medical advice and found out that she was infertile and it wasn't long before their marriage came to an end, partly because of Raheel's growing disregard for her, but also because Raheel's mother campaigned for a divorce so he could marry someone who would give him children.

All during Reena's life experiences, her best friend Sophia had been having her struggles. During her college years she had been separated from the young man she believed she loved but who appeared not to reciprocate her feelings. Should she just give up and look elsewhere? In a last ditch attempt to find out, Sophia posted a video in the internet, directed at her young man, declaring that he was the only one for her. Imagine her surprise when he shows up at her home, declaring his love for her and desire to marry her, and they begin their life together. However, marriage is not a smooth road for Sophia either. Wanting a baby so badly, Sophia allows herself to become pregnant without really talking this decision over with her husband. There are some rocky days during her pregnancy because he is understandably negative about this development in their life together, but when their daughter was born, Sophia and her husband realized how special this new life was and rejoiced in her birth.

It is not my intent to re-tell the whole story, but suffice it to say that this is a story about love, friendship, heartache, disappointment, old loves, new beginnings, and life's surprises. It is also about the ongoing struggle many immigrant individuals experience as they must assimilate their old way of life with the new culture in which they live in America--the degree of that assimilization varies from culture to culture and person to person. In Reena's case she decided to remain in the United States rather than return to a more conservative way of living, knowing that if she even returned for a visit she would not have been allowed to return to the States. This is a first writing effort and the author's writing style and ability are certainly very readable and will only improve with time and experience. This novella is an insider's view of life for two Pakistani women and the challenges they face as they move into the adult world within a foreign culture. I think the novella format just a little too brief for the story this author wished to tell--I had the feeling that she was having to skim over the top of Reena and Sophia's stories. There was sort of a "bare bones" quality to the narrative that I would have liked to see expanded and enriched with fuller character development and dialogue.

I was delighted to read and review this initial literary offering by this author and am looking forward to reading what she writes in the future as she matures in her writing style and story telling skills. And here's to remembering our "first love" and all that relationship meant to each of us. It will always be a very special time in my life and one that is the kind of memory we like to re-visit from time to time. I give this novella a rating of 3.5 out of 5.

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