“Concessions,” by Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali

“Concessions,” by Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali.
Novelette. Published in Strange Horizons, March 2017.

Join our discussion below, in the comments!

This one’s garnered a fair bit of attention, and a wide range of discussion! Here’s Jonathan Strahan singling the story out on Twitter:

A.C. Wise outlines some of the story’s strengths and themes:

The story shines in its relationships – between Bilqis and Sule, a relationship palpably suffused with love; between Bilqis and her mentor Miriama, a relationship of respect, but weighted with expectation; between Bilqis and Isa, her mentee, a protective relationship; and between Bilqis and Dorian, a relationship between colleagues turned deadly and sour. (…)
The question of spiritual survival (i.e. faith) versus physical survival (i.e. the ability to make a living) plays a central role, showing the potential complications and conflict inherent in the relationship between the two in a post-apocalyptic setting.

Charles Payseur has a lengthy and worthwhile review. Here’s one of his observations:

It’s a tense story, with a bleak landscape of encroaching desert and devastation and people living on the fringes, having to decide between living on their own terms and being able to contribute to larger solutions. I love how the story takes a complex approach to that idea, to the conflict of living free from concessions versus engaged in work that suits your skill and ability. For Bilqis it’s not that delivering children in the desert is not valuable work, but given what she might do…

Rocket Stack Rank gives “Concessions” a full five stars. They describe the story as “Sophisticated and Moving, with Good Characters,” and writes:

Every event is nicely foreshadowed. For example, we’re warned about the “catchers” long before we meet them. Bilquis moans that the hinterlands aren’t fit for good fruit (i.e. a child) and Miriama tells her the fruit doesn’t need to stay put (i.e. she could move away). (…)
The entire story is rich with metaphors. For example, Bilquis already has several “children”: Isa, most obviously, but also children of families she’s helped, like little Bilquis.
In the short space of this novella, some of the characters become very vivid. Isa, Sule, Miriama, and Bilquis herself. And the narration and dialogue are perfect.

Alexandros Zochios reviews the story for Tangent Online, describing it as “a story with deep political messages [that] provokes the reader to take sides.” Some of Zochios’s observations on the story:

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 Mithila Review have interviewed Muhammad-Ali, on this story and her other work.

It was incredibly important to me to write a story about a Muslim woman. First of all, I want to write the types of stories that I would like to read. (…)
I wanted Bilqis to reflect back the same types of emotions that every other human being experiences. I wanted her humanity to be the first thing any reader recognizes about her.
As for Bilqis burying her religion, she didn’t. Not really. She buried the outward signs of her faith, much like her mother did, much like so many Muslim Americans do in order to safely interact in a society that isn’t always tolerant and welcoming. Bilqis resigned herself carrying that faith in her heart. And… in subsequent stories, that may become a problem for her.

What did you think? Read the story, and come discuss with us in the comments!


5 thoughts on ““Concessions,” by Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali”

  1. Payseur’s comment doesn’t really match my reading, though.

    He describes Bilqis as motivated by the medical research she’s capable of doing; as feeling wasted in exile. I didn’t read that in the story at all. I understood that Bilqis’s pregnancy — particularly once she confirms its health — is what forces her hand. She’s conceding, not for her own sake, but for the sake of her child.

        1. Hmmm. Really? That seems to me like a big assumption to make, of someone who went through the emotional roller coaster of a partner’s pregnancy and miscarriage, multiple times. I’d think that would make this sting more, not less.

          I read Sule as resigned, accepting that losing Bilqis is inevitable; it’s in her nature. It’s harder for me to say the same about his own child — unless we start assuming stuff like maybe Sule doesn’t care too much about having a child and is fine with Bilqis keeping it, or maybe Sule thinks the city is the best option for the child, or… something.

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