Orphaned Maha lives in her grandparents’ house in Durban, where she has everything she needs, except her parents, who died in anti-apartheid protests. She has a perfectly nice life in a strict but well-off Muslim household, though her great-aunt and cousins next door are uniformly vile. If she were living with them she’d be Cinderella. Maha is a self-absorbed and rather blinkered teenager, focused on her own feelings and oblivious to other people’s sufferings, though she can be shaken out of this by her good-natured chaperone Zeenat. She takes everything in her life for granted: so far, very teenage.
Her Muslim family shapes her life completely. Maha’s mother eloped with a man who wasn’t Cape Indian but Cape Coloured (I’m using the terms used in the novel), so Maha is mixed race, and proud of it. Her grandfather’s strictness about prayers, and his removal of Maha’s father’s surname when he arranges her first passport, mould her expectations of a restricted life under his sharp eye. He refuses to let her go to any of the universities that have offered her a place, sending her to a girls’ madrassah instead. Maha realises that she will have to hold out for a husband willing to allow her to study, so she can transfer the burden of asking permission to him. This would seem like a grim future for women from outside this culture, but Lee’s skilful writing normalises Maha’s life completely, to let us experience her restrictions alongside her otherwise normal teenage crushes and agonies over boys.
Yes, boys. Maha’s unmarried teenage years are simply drenched in hormones. While she is a good Muslim girl, more or less, she has remarkable access to sexual advances. She is taken to Jeddah on pilgrimage, and is very nearly completely seduced by a Saudi prince who announces that he wants her as his second wife. Once she’s got out of his room, she won’t have anything to do with this, but they telephone each other for years. The brother of the madrassah teacher is all too willing to be led along by Maha’s flirtation practice, which is slightly shocking considering he’s just been released from his own madrassah. Hormones will out, and it does seem unhealthy not to allow them to. While The Story of Maha is not, primarily, The Story of a Muslim’s Girl’s Sex Life, it is undoubtedly focused on Maha’s need for emotional and physical completion, to the exclusion of almost everything else. Suitable music tracks and books of the period are slotted into the exposition where needed, to round out this lively character’s preferences, but she comes alive most in her actions: how she gets home from the nightclub on her own without trouble, how she negotiates the unwanted advances of a girl friend, how she treats Zeenat, and learns from her rebukes, and her easy, friendly relationships with her grandparents’ servants.
The political dimension of Durban in the 1970s and 1980s is filled in with back story fragments of Maha’s parents’ lives. She herself knows enough not to drive her car with the windows down, but otherwise she seems oblivious or indifferent to street riots and demonstrations. Or is she just passive? She’s a highly protected and highly privileged young woman, with absolutely no agency, no choices in her life. All she is expected to do is wait for marriage, and the trials by cooking and the social catastrophes that she endures in the courtship process are highly entertaining. The Story of Maha is written entirely from within one girl’s restricted perspective, to whom nothing very much out of the ordinary happens. The only consequence of her near-seduction by the Jeddah prince is a splendid wedding-present: he may as well be a dream for all the influence he has on the plot. Nothing shakes Maha’s life or her expectations of her future; she barely has any dreams of what she might do, because marriage has to be got through first before she can have a life of her own, with the right husband who will allow this. Yes, that’s an oxymoron. In the end, Maha’s Islamic studies give her the knowledge to make sure her marriage will work for her. I have no idea if Maha’s feminist solution is used by less well-educated women in real life: this is a cultural norm we have to guess at, if we’re not Muslim. This novel is not about how Maha shapes her life, because she doesn’t: she simply avoids catastrophe. Its charm is in showing what a Muslim girl’s life was expected to be, and the daily details of Durban life and slang (thank you, glossary). Maha is a sparky character, revelling in bad language as an expression of rebellion, alongside her radical, punkish but still correctly Islamic dress. Her story is absorbing and delightful. The sequel, Maha Ever After, will undoubtedly be gobbled up.
Sumayya Lee, The Story of Maha (2007 Kwela Books) ISBN 0 7957 0245 0, 978 0 7957 0245 7