Salha Al Busaidy tackles tough topics of life, death and identity in 'The End of Summer'

The author's debut novel takes a stark yet humorous look at Zanzibari-Omani life in flux

Salha Al Busaidy’s debut novel, 'The End of Summer' tackles issues of migration, gender, race and ethnicity with equal amounts of levity and humour. Photo: Salha Al Busaidy
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“The house is heaving with people humming with gossip and Quran,” writes Salha Al Busaidy, describing the atmosphere before a funeral. It is a scene that encapsulates the relationship between culture and faith, which she explores throughout her debut novel, The End of Summer.

The story follows 22-year-old Summer, who has recently died. Her soul lingers near her body, witnessing her family’s reaction to her death, while recalling the moments and relationships that shaped her life; trying to figure out how it came to such an abrupt end.

Summer is a flawed and complex character who is not only grappling with depression, substance abuse and an identity crisis, but who is also burdened by a dark secret.

Her mixed Zanzibari-Omani background reflects Al Busaidy’s own heritage. “Representation matters; I wasn’t seeing people like me, and it’s no surprise — the Zanzibari-Omani mix is not common,” she tells The National.

“I felt that this mix, with the immigrant status of our parents and the dual upbringing of my generation was a source of confusion for us. I realised quickly that this duality was not exclusive to us, nor was the idea of huge, ridiculous families.”

'Representation matters,' says Al Busaidy, 'I wasn’t seeing people like me, and it’s no surprise — the Zanzibari-Omani mix is not common.' Photo: Salha Al Busaidy

Having lived in the UAE for 18 years, Al Busaidy, who is also a singer, dancer and yoga teacher, moved to Zanzibar last year. She conceptualised her novel in 2019, began writing it amid the Covid-19 pandemic and completed the manuscript seven months later. The book was published on September 23 by The Dreamwork Collective and while it may be fiction, it's laden with social commentary on culture, family, faith and feminism.

The end of Summer

Author: Salha Al Busaidy

Pages: 316

Publisher: The Dreamwork Collective 

As Summer experiences a “conveyer belt of memories”, from her childhood to the final night of her life, readers become intimately acquainted with her grandparents’ love story, her closeness with her younger sister and her parents’ tumultuous relationship — and the impact these have on Summer.

At one point, Summer recalls a quote that she once wrote as her Facebook status: “One day your life will flash before your eyes. Make sure it’s worth watching.”

Al Busaidy says: “Summer may not be an exemplary role model, but I hope that people can see that we are a product of our childhood, upbringing, the adults around us."

While the subject matter is deep, Al Busaidy injects humour into dark places. Her use of colloquial, often colourful, language also helps readers form a connection with the text, and with Summer.

She explores how older generations enjoyed various indulgences before turning to a “wave of religious zeal” that they then imposed on their children, but Summer separates this from the fundamentals of her faith. “I love being a Muslim. I love my religion in its purest form,” she says.

Faith is a theme explored frequently in the novel, as Summer is forced to confront her own ideas of spirituality. Lessons from the Quran are woven into her spiralling thoughts as her soul follows her body to its ultimate resting place.

“I had so much to say about being a cross-culture kid, about growing up unheard, seeing hypocrisy in culture, in religious practices, in social norms,” explains Al Busaidy, who includes a tirade about female modesty early on in the book, as well as the qualities men often look for in a wife.

This disconnect spills out in The End of Summer when one climactic conversation unfolds between three generations of women in Summer’s family who finally uncover her secret and react in ways that reflect their own ages, biases and beliefs about women’s roles in family and society.

“I mention several times the way I believe patriarchy has changed the pure teachings of all faiths to benefit men,” says Al Busaidy. This even applies to some parts of the wider Muslim world, she adds — an observation that resonates with the ongoing protests in Iran, triggered by the death of Mahsa Amini, who was arrested by the country's morality police for wearing "unsuitable attire".

“Women are respected and given rights in Islam; but then we see atrocities committed against us in its name every day. Honour killings, enforcing or preventing the wearing of hijab, beatings, double standards." She adds: "We must not stay silent."

As she reflects on her life and death, Summer cycles through her family dynamics, her beliefs and her struggles. Out of all, however, perhaps what stands out the most is a simple quote: “One day your life will flash before your eyes. Make sure it’s worth watching.”

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Updated: October 03, 2022, 12:53 PM
The end of Summer

Author: Salha Al Busaidy

Pages: 316

Publisher: The Dreamwork Collective