What S.K Ali Learned When Writing ‘Love from Mecca to Medina’

By Amani Salahudeen

March/April 2023

S.K. Ali’s upcoming book “Love from Mecca to Medina” is a part of Salaam Reads, a Simon & Schuster imprint that focuses on publishing books by Muslim authors. 

Islamic Horizons talked to Sajidah (S.K. Ali) about her book, which recounts the journey of Adam and Zeynab, a married couple who goes on umra and finds their faith tested.

Amani: Can you please tell us something you learned about yourself while writing the sequel, “Love from Mecca to Medina”?

Ali: Sure! I was truly scared to discover that it’s really hard for me to write villainous characters. Not to give any spoilers, but there’s a character who’s supposed to have been more monstrous than she ended up being — because I kept empathizing with her, inadvertently giving her the gift of nuance. And so, in the end I left her ambiguous, meaning it’s up to each reader to make sense of her actions. Were those actions done with ill-intent or in another spirit? (To clarify: I did write a monster into “Saints and Misfits,” but he didn’t get much page space, so I didn’t have to ponder on him too long.)

Amani: When you started drafting “Love from Mecca to Medina,” did you already have an idea of how Sausan was going to be included? I love that she’s a constant reoccurring character in all your books.

Ali: I had an idea that Adam and Zayneb would meet up with Sausun (who’s part Saudi) in Saudi Arabia when they went on umra, but not her role in the story. I can’t plan Sausun’s actions ahead of time. As I mentioned elsewhere, she has a mind of her own and once she knows where she’ll appear, she just comes on the page and does her thing. 

Amani: Can readers expect any stark differences in the story’s tone from the first book to the sequel?

Ali: There’s more spirituality in this book due to the setting and the nature of the couple’s journey. But there’s also romance, heartache and love — the best of the A-and-Z dynamics, the way they just make complete sense to each other and need each other to be truly at peace in the world. I love writing their love story.

Amani: In an IG story, you mentioned that readers will get to see Janna (from “Saints & Misfits”) again. How old is she now, and how have things changed for her since “Misfit in Love”?

Ali: In “Love from Mecca to Medina,” Janna is nineteen going on twenty. She’s stronger in terms of her place in the world and being open to people — especially to one person she met during her brother’s wedding in “Misfit in Love.” No spoilers, but expect two love stories to continue in my latest novel.

Amani: What inspired Bertha Fatima’s name? She’s one of the best side characters from “Love from A to Z,” and I’m excited to see her again in “Love from Mecca to Medina.”

Ali: I love when pets have interesting names. “Bertha” seemed to be an interesting name for a weak, stray animal you find behind a dumpster (like the cat Adam’s mom found when she was around Adam’s age), that you hope gets stronger. This original Bertha was the name inspiration for Adam and Zayneb’s cat. The “Fatima” part of the name came from Zayneb being inspired by the Muslima who established the world’s first university [Ed. note: Fatima a-Fihri, who founded what is now the famous al-Qarawiyyin University in Fez, Morocco]. Thus, Bertha Fatima is a name with two inspirations, doubly blessed. (This backstory can be found in “The Eid Gift,” a free novelette hosted by my publisher at Rivetedlit.com that continues Adam and Zayneb’s story after “Love from A to Z” and before “Love from Mecca to Medina.”)

Amani: What was it like to write Adam and Zeyneb now that they’re no longer in high school?

Ali: It was challenging, because college experiences are so different for people. Also, I didn’t want to solely bring in my own college experiences, which were pretty amazing overall but wouldn’t have brought in the necessary tension I needed for Zayneb’s storyline. So, I interviewed young people in college and out of school in general (as Adam is) and asked what they found difficult, what they were grappling with. 

Amani: Adam’s sister Hanna is an important character in the series. Do you think there will ever be a story focused on her or on another side character like Sausan or Nuah?

Ali: Hanna has a story coming out on May 9, 2023! She’s one of the four points of view (POVs) in “Grounded,” an adventure set in an … airport. (Side note: What is it with me and airports?). 

In terms of stories with other characters, no. I think the Janna-Zaydam universe is complete. I finished “Love from Mecca to Medina” in a way that wraps up the storylines. 

Amani: Do you have any favorite reader interactions?

Ali: I’m happy that my books have resonated with so many young readers and that every day they write to tell me how they saw themselves in these stories. Each and every one of those messages touches my heart and helps me continue writing. As someone who felt erased from my wider society growing up, it’s really important to me that no other young reader feels that way. So, ultimately, all reader interactions are valuable to me. 

Amani: Can you reveal any of the books you’ll be working on after “Love from Mecca to Medina”? 

Ali: I’m working on a humorous historical novel with a friend who I absolutely love. We are having so much fun with it, and I hope we get to share it with the world. It makes us laugh out loud and long, and we want readers to do the same! 

Amani: Did you consider any alternate endings?

Ali: Not at all, actually, as I always try to set out to write a book only when I know what the ending will look like. In this case, I wanted two endings to Adam and Zayneb’s story. So, I put one in the last chapter of “Love from Mecca to Medina” and one in the epilogue. (Therefore, you get a two-for-one deal with this book — preorder now!)

 Amani: What are some of your favorite bookish tropes? 

Ali: I’m the worst person to ask this question to. For some reason, I can never see a trope playing out right in front of me even when I’m reading what others claim is a most-tropey book. Was I sleeping during that unit in English class or during that discussion on #bookstagram or #BookTok? I know not. All I know is that people have called Adam and Zayneb’s love by different trope names, and I embrace all of them wholeheartedly and say, yes, you’re right! It is exactly that trope! And that other one too! 

Amani: What does literary success look like to you, and has it changed since your debut novel?

Ali: To me, literary success is being able to do this on a full-time basis without hustling too hard. I’m still far from that. I currently have too many projects on the go so that I can earn a living properly. That said, not everyone quits their day job to write stories full-time. I needed to do that because it was too draining to continue as a second-grade teacher with all the energy that entails and the preparation time involved, while parenting too — all while paying the sort of attention needed to continue a writing career that had opened up for me later in life. 

I was terrified that doors would close if I waited too long to produce another novel, so I took the plunge and left my full-time career for this other full-time career — one I absolutely love, but is, in all-honesty, a lot of sustained work without security. I should add here that I was privileged to do this because I have a husband who works full-time who wholeheartedly supported me leaving my job to pursue a dream that was not necessarily financially solid. (So, thank you for buying my books — they keep me writing!) 

Amani: What’s one writing session essential that you can’t live without (e.g., cat, coffee, food, drink, music playlists, snacks)?

Ali: My desktop computer, which has no social media accounts and fits snugly into a cubicle-like space. It keeps me away from distractions.

 Amani: Audiobooks, physical books or e-books?

 S.K. Ali: Physical ONLY! I write too much on screens to read for pleasure on screens too. 

 Amani: Other than writing, what other hobbies do you have/would like to share?

Ali: Art of all sorts. And I mean all kinds. Like, if you were to go through my art cupboards, you would unearth artworks from over the years made using a wide variety of mediums. It’s my truest joy and simplest way to de-stress. 

Amani Salahudeen (B.A., The College of New Jersey, ‘20) is currently pursuing a master’s degree in education at Western Governor’s University.

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