Shaila Abdullah’s “Saffron Dreams” is a moving, sensitive and eye-opening novel about Arissa Ilahi, a young Pakistani woman living in New York City, who loses her husband in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Towers. While the novel has scenes in Pakistan prior to the 9/11 attacks, the focus of the novel is Arissa grieving for her lost husband, Faizan, her efforts to get her life back together in a country whose people are becoming intolerant and prejudiced against Muslims, and being a single mother to a newborn son with multiple disabilities. Along the way, Arissa learns to find support in loved ones, especially her in-laws, and to sever dysfunctional relationships, even with family members. Despite many difficult decisions she must make for the independence of herself and her son, Arissa remains strong and hopeful.
The September 11th attacks are wounds still healing in the United States. Readers of “Saffron Dreams” will better understand the grief experienced by those who lost loved ones during that critical time. The novel also offers insights into Islamic, particularly Pakistani, culture and the difficulties faced by immigrants to the United States in their efforts to assimilate yet retain parts of their culture. As Arissa notes in the novel, immigrants come to love both lands as their own.
“Saffron Dreams” is as American a novel as any written because the immigrant experience is an integral part of the American story. The novel is part of Modern History Press’s “Reflections of America” series, and its young female Pakistani narrator provides a unique perspective on how Americans are still trying to cope with and interpret the events of September 11th and the wars that have followed. While the story is not as full of dramatic conflict as other recent Middle-Eastern immigrant novels such as “The Kite Runner,” the internal conflict of Arissa is just as moving and perhaps more meaningful to readers who will see in Arissa someone not so unlike them, someone who simply wants a better life for herself and her child.
At the background of the novel is the theme of the value and importance of each human life. Arissa is determined to carry on her husband’s legacy, to make sure his life is remembered and valued. At the urging of her mother-in-law, she decides to complete her husband’s novel, “Soul Searcher.” Equally, Arissa makes the decision to give birth and raise her child despite his disabilities. Through it all, she learns to value her own life, not allowing prospective lovers, dysfunctional family members, or Pakistani and American culture to control or define her future or identity. Arissa’s story shows the individual importance and value of each person. Her voice is so distinct the reader is surprised to recall that “Saffron Dreams” is a novel rather than a personal memoir.
Author Shaila Abdullah was born in Karachi, Pakistan but now lives and works as a freelance writer in Austin, Texas. While she did not experience the terrorist attacks of September 11th firsthand, her experience as a Muslim woman who immigrated to the United States speaks for many men and women who have left their native lands to seek a better life in the United States despite the additional difficulties it can cause. Abdullah’s previously published short story collection “Beyond the Cayenne Wall” received laudatory reviews for its depiction of Pakistani women struggling to define themselves as individuals against the barriers imposed by the traditional wall that separates the acceptable from what is considered sinful in their societies. Like the veil the Pakistani women wear, the wall prevents them from exploring who they really are.
Now in “Saffron Dreams,” Abdullah returns to her topic of Pakistani women with an in-depth portrait of one woman trying to reconcile her new freedoms with her Pakistani culture and the prejudice of many Americans toward the Muslim religion. “Saffron Dreams” captures the tone and emotions of the early twenty-first century, while leaving the reader much to think about in terms of what it means to be an American, what the future of America may be, and the hope that exists in future generations. Abdullah’s writing offers a new and intriguing perspective on the American experience, one I hope to continue enjoying in future novels from her.
Modern History Press (2009)