Strange Horizons, March 6 & 13, 2017
Reviewed by Alexandros Zochios
“Concessions” by Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali was published in two parts. Dr. Bilqis Jihada Haq was self-exiled from her technologically advanced birth city and now lives in the desolate settlements in the desert. There she earns people’s respect for her healing abilities and her valuable assistance to the very few mothers who are able to give birth to live babies. Her skills encompass both her medical knowledge as well as her training on channeling the “aether.” She soon finds out that she is also carrying a fragile life inside her, an unexpected gift for her and her adored husband. However, the dangers that threaten them along with her remorse for her past actions (a member of the scientific development team of a promising nano vaccine that turned fatal) press her to make hard and emotional decisions.
It’s a story with deep political messages and provokes the reader to take sides. Sides in a world split into two as the aftermath of the Creed War. We only get a few glimpses of what the Creed War was about. We suspect that it was a war against specific religions although it’s not clear enough who was the opposing force against, for an example, Islam. We understand that the followers of Islam have lost the war and are forced into exile. An exile away from the technologically advanced city. The defeated opposition must live in a fruitless land that may have been a by-product of the war. The devastating situation in which the people live makes it impossible for the reader not to sympathize with them, although those now outcast were given the option to stay in the city if they were willing to deny their faith. The author presents us with a dilemma. Would we stay with the winners in a city that thrives due to technology and medical advancements but with the condition of not expressing our faith (since the author doesn’t mention if there is any ruling or dominant religion in the city, the ban of expressing someone’s faith could be for all religions. This is, for example, the tendency of the E.U. as we see from its recent rulings) or do we stay in a place where electricity and running water are scarce but having the freedom to carry the symbols of our religion. By looking at the great disadvantages in the last choice, we realise that we have an unfair dilemma. A dilemma imposed on the doctor who has chosen to keep her beliefs.
The greatest asset of the story in matters of writing technique is the descriptions. Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali describes this barren world with rich similes and expressions that add energy, as well as beauty, transforming it into a less sterile and harsh land. She communicates her main character’s affection for the settlers and her husband almost seamlessly, thus making the reader care for this world and understand what is at stake when the time comes for Bilqis to make her choice.
What also got our attention was the character’s faith. Bilqis doesn’t practice her faith like the others. She has broadened it by incorporating other practices as well (such as the “aether,” the energy which surrounds us, for the process of healing and which may not be accepted by the rest of her companion settlers). What we miss, however, and fail to see, is how the settlements are organised. Is there an hierarchy? We are not sure what type of Islamic teachings are followed (although the main character wears a hijab). At some point we learn that the doctor is at risk of being exiled because of her dealings with the “witch,” Miriama. Does that mean that there are some religious laws that must not be broken? Finally, the cause of the world’s current circumstances related to the low pregnancy rate is explained at the very end of the story. But it only adds to the story’s allure as we have already invested in the character and her fate.
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