Many months ago, I met a Muslim with a very compelling, grounded, and soulful take on sexuality. Thinking that her view needed to be aired, to be shared with the world, I asked her earnestly to write for Altmuslimah.
Without a pause, she shook her head. “There are a lot of people saying a lot of things,” she said. “But it’s the people who matter who need to say them.”
* * *
Last week, I resigned from my position as editor of Altmuslimah. As I went through knowledge transfer tasks and goodbyes, I found myself thinking of that woman’s words.
My Altmuslimah career began when they picked up a post of mine and I became an on-call writer for them. In December 2012, I joined their editorial team. I found myself in an epicentre of a fascinating discourse on being Muslim today. I reviewed books, got acquainted with talented writers, and interviewed amazing women such as Tayyibah Taylor. I even flew to D.C. last year for our annual retreat, hosted graciously by the Editor-in-Chief, and spent two incredible days with my highly intelligent, talented, and insightful colleagues.
Recently, however, I started to realize that this role didn’t mean to me anything it itself; rather, I wanted it to mean something for me. I started to think a lot about the limits of what I can offer and of certain mediums themselves. This tweet is a perfect illustration of the kinds of issues I pondered:
The “more than a hashtag” part is tough for me, both theoretically and practically. There is a world of people out there–most depressingly, community elders –who see online platforms like these as just a group of subversive women chattering amongst ourselves. Whatever their reasons are, the reality is: they will keep calling the shots for generations to come. Part of my wake-up call was realizing that such individuals and the communities they influence will never take endeavours like Altmuslimah seriously. If I ever thought they would, it was because I had socialized myself, through my work there, into being around people who talk and think like I do.
I’m ready to be de-socialized now, whatever that means in cybersphere. I want to join the land of the living, of Muslim friends who have never heard of the Mipsterz video or the storm around the Abu Eesa controversy, or don’t make such a fuss about every hijabi athlete or the Muslim marriage crisis. For a while, it was cool to be hearing about everything Islam and gender in its glory and ugliness. But exposing myself so much to that discourse was draining. I don’t doubt that there are hundreds or thousands of seeds being planted via Altmuslimah’s work. I just don’t think I’m meant to do the planting anymore.
I think back to the woman that I talked to, how she, just like me, struggled to have her faith to align with her lived reality to what she knew to be true in her deen and spirit.
There are indeed a lot of people saying a lot of things, and maybe I should not worry about helping everyone say those things. Maybe it’s time for me to just be, and to embrace whatever fills up the space where Altmuslimah used to be.
It’s a delayed farewell, but one I deliver with relief.
The alarm bells should have gone off when I saw the words “modesty experiment” in the opening sentence, but maybe I was too curious too notice. The author, Lauren Shields (who, it turns out, is making a writerly career out of her nine months of dressing modestly), spoke of how refreshing it was to let go of her “Beauty Suit”:
I learned that looking good isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when it becomes the cornerstone of your identity — like the advertising industry tries to convince us it is — then you’re doing nothing but damage to yourself.
It’s a wickedly delicious piece, a piece that made a hijabi like me say: “yayayyay that’s me down with objectificationz!”
And then, as though I had inhaled a slice of cake far too quickly, I started to feel a little queasy.
It’s nice to think that as a woman who covers to be modest, I’m consistently focused on “something else, something more important than what [is] trendy.” But ten years into the hijab, a soul-gripping battle with it, and evolving with and through it, here is what I say: Dressing modestly isn’t about being above it all. Also: framing it as though it is is insulting to women who do dress up, bare some skin, and do so with their self confidence intact.
I can appreciate the writer’s relief at unburdening herself from societal expectations, but there’s also the other side we need to remember: in several places, modest dress is used as a means for controlling women and dictating their worth. To these women, dressing up is the means of resistance, just like modest dress is a means of resistance for Shields.
Plus, dressing modestly can correspond heavily with looking frumpy and unkempt. Yes, there are hijabi fashionistas, but there are also hijabis who, in their religious zeal, forgot what it means to pluck one’s eyebrows, exercise regularly, or buy clothes that suit one’s body shape.
I do that, and, circumstances permitting, I try and go a step further. So I can actually highly relate to the burdensome primping the writer describes in depicting her pre-modest life. Yes, I, a person who dresses modestly, also have to undergo considerable effort in looking nice. And I do so not for other’s attention: at least I hope not.
I do so because the face, the body, is a canvas. And God has bestowed us means of expressing our individuality, so many ways of showing the world what makes us us.
Let’s not paint any group of people with the same brush and try to take shots at people’s intentions for dressing the way they do. In any case, I suspect that the criminally trendy are not guilty of wanting attention nearly as much as they are guilty of lacking an imagination, lacking the depth of the spirit that outwardly manifests in a precise combination of hair, makeup, facial hair, clothes, and accessories.
Please note that this book is a thriller-fantasy genre blend. I don’t read those genres, so I may not be the best judge of the book in that regard. However, there is a significant device used that led me to ponder the implications of reading this book as a Muslim.
The book begins in griminess and heartbreak. Alif is an Arab-Indian living in one of the poorest districts of a large, nameless state in the in the Middle East. “Alif” is actually a screen name for his hacktivist activities, which involve protecting a variety of commercial and political entities subject to censorship by the state. He is betrayed by his lover and exposed to the Hand, the state’s digital security force and is forced into being a fugitive. In the process, a strange book is thrusted upon him. Titled Alf Yeom, or A Thousand Nights, it is a centuries-old narration by jinns that is transcribed by humans, imbibed with cryptic meanings, and, apparently, capable of elevating humankind to unprecedented technological heights. Or descent into complete chaos. As Alif struggles to understand the power of this book and out of the reach of the Hand, he finds himself in the company of jinn. Some of those jinn are helpful, others are mischievously vague, and some are outright demonic.
What I loved most about this book is how it enmeshes the spiritual and the digital. A toothless dervish blesses a USB key. A jinniya (a female jinn) who collects information in all forms tells Alif that “with the advent of what you call the digital age you have breached a kind of barrier between symbol and symbolized . . . it may mean you have grasped something vital about the nature of information.”
One of the most memorable passages in the book directly refers to one of the themes of this blog: living in strange times. A sheikh tells Alif that
We don’t live in ordinary times . . . I know it’s common for old people to complain about the modern moment, and lament the passing of a golden age . . . but in our case, my boy, I think I am not mistaken when I say that something fundamental has changed about the world in which we live. We have reached a state of constant reinvention. Revolutions have moved off the battlefield and on to home computers. Nothing shocks one anymore. We are living in a post-fictional era. Fictional governments are accepted without comment, and we can sit in a mosque and have a debate about the fictional pork a fictional character consumes in a video game, with every gravity we would accord something quite real.
I also adore Dina’s character and her embodiment of niqabi badass-ity. I’m still recovering from the the character Rabeya in The Taqwacores. Her bad-assity ventured too far near offensive territory. Hence, I needed another niqabi fictional character like Dina to counter her. I did, however, feel that Dina’s character development is a bit hasty (a concern I’ll discuss further below).
Dina gives Alif a searing critique when he suggests that they burn the Alf Yeom:
You can speak casually about burning the Alf Yeom for the same reason you’d be horrified if I suggested burning The Satanic Verses–because you have reactions, not convictions.
This made me think of how “Muslim rage” can be so reactionary, and the pitfalls of perpetual skepticism. Arguing for the sake of arguing cannot possibly be a sign of one with taqwa. Along with Alif, I felt that Dina called me out, too. (If you’re surprised by this, that’s because you have not seen the tiffs my mother and I have.) I was extremely humbled by this realization and am so glad that I could make such a personal connection to dialogue.
One of the turning points in the book starts with Alif’s realization about how he can penetrate the Hand’s digital fortress. This realization comes about—wait for it—when he hears the sheikh speak of how there are endless interpretations to the verses of the Quran, all existing simultaneously, without contradiction. What follows is a magnificent description of a two-day hacking session, where Alif’s creation is said to be a giant construction, and the Hand is anthromorphized as a beast. Wilson’s affinity for the comic book format, which often traditionally involve action and head-on battle with evil forces, are fully evident in this epic scene.
This book is best enjoyed as a fantasy/thriller novel, which means that it is more plot-oriented than literary. But I am not sure how I feel about some of the implications of that. For a nonbeliever who treats this book as a true-blooded fantasy, they may swallow this representation of other world of the jinn, hook, line and sinker. They temporarily suspend the outside world while living this story, and cheerfully put it away once it is over.
But can the same be said for Muslims?
When you are growing up in a Muslim-majority community, jinns are talked about in hushed voices, in a way that one might relate ghost stories with complete conviction. I feel that this attitude (although it may be more of a cultural than a religious attitude) is out of sync with the treatment of the jinn in this novel. In this story, a jinn is a being whose place of abode almost all of the main characters enter into fairly easily. They can be communicated and bargained with, even called upon in times of need. And there’s something a bit off about the nonchalance with which this happens. For an entity that we don’t have too much knowledge of, it feels as if the book goes too much into describing them.
As the sheikh in the book says, “We are not meant to fear [jinn] because they are powerful, but because we ourselves are so easily mislead.” Perhaps, this depiction of will unintentionally mislead us. While having living, speaking nonhuman characters works well for the purposes of a fantasy novel, it does not mesh well when it involves a fundamental article of belief. For a Muslim must believe in the jinn, whether or not she chooses to dwell on them.
Are the world of the unseen and its inhabitants something like what the author describes in this book? Are they an interplay between fur, claws, shadows, and smokeless flame? They vcould be. They could also be a thousand different other possibilities, all existing together, without contradiction. But I’m not sure we have the capacity to retain all those possibilities. We are beings who seek representations, generalizations. We drawn to depictions of people, places, and things from works that affect us deeply. (Try to think of the Titanic disaster without thinking of the James Cameron movie. Not easy, is it?) So it bothers me that the book has now given a concrete definition, a description, of the world of jinns. Will this mean that we will unconsciously start thinking that we have more knowledge of the unseen than we actually do?
I do want to emphasize that I am very, very happy with the subject matter of the book and cannot be more thrilled that some of the main characters in the book are jinn. What I can’t help pondering, though, is that they exist in the novel in between a fantastic and a matter-of-fact way while they should be more real. My personal preference would have been a magical realist treatment that takes this existence as reality, but that is a too tall an order for a book of this genre. Perhaps another more literary novel can attempt this treatment.
On a different note, I also felt that the character transitions of the female characters were rather abrupt and didn’t take place in a very organic manner. (If you have not read the book, you may want to skip the rest of this paragraph to avoid spoilers.) The impressions I had of them in the beginning and towards the end of the book completely changed, but there was too much happening in terms of plot for me to understand or fully process the changes. Dina, for example, goes from being a fiercely religious character who thinks The Golden Compass is blasphemous to a sharply-witted woman who easily lays out Alif’s lack of convictions. Intisar goes from being a brilliant scholar and an enchantingly and inaccessibly beautiful aristrocat to a hollow, selfish, and petty girl who refuses to marry Alif because she didn’t want to “not have nice things.” Even if Alif’s change of perception in regard to these two women partially explains their drastic transitions, I still felt somewhat cheated as a reader, as though I was never supposed to see the two women the way I did at the beginning of the novel.
This is a marvelous story, a highly recommended read for anyone even mildly interested in a fantasy novel with refreshingly original characters in a currently relevant political context. I cannot be more thrilled that the book has met with so much mainstream success. I love that these characters now exist in the literary world without apology. I love its recurring Islamic motifs and its relevance to the digital age. I was terribly morose when the book finished, because, for now, I’m not sure I can have a similar reading experience again.
This startlingly lovely book gracefully and tentatively walks the tightrope between being a gentle narrative and a grimly realistic testimony to the growing divide between the East and West.
It’s not inaccurate to say that this book is about a woman’s conversion to Islam, her move to Egypt, her marriage to an Egyptian Muslim, and her struggle to come to terms with the American/Muslim/Egyptian dimensions of her existence. I feel, however, that even that description alone does a disservice to this story. There are so many ways Wilson could have written a book that fits this description. The precise way she wrote it and her specific treatment of her subject matter, however, are what make this book a must-read for both Muslims and non-Muslims. Here is what makes it so:
The Muslim and non-Muslim reader of this book is on equal footing. I’m ashamed to admit this, but I assumed that I was not the kind of reader Wilson was writing for. I thought that her treatment of Islam’s tenets and history would be very basic, and that this would be a mere readable and feel-good record of her cultural immersion. I was so glad to be proven wrong: her account and writing can be revelatory for readers of all faiths. She remarks, for example, on the fact that the Islamic calendar are not fixed, and therefore occasions like Eid can occur during any season, reflecting that God does not want us to worship nature or become to attached to the material, even if it is through associating a certain type of season with a holiday. Such a description is only one example of how she can introduce a fact about Islam while introducing a refreshing perspective for a practicing Muslim.
The author is very honest about her romantic relationship and her struggle with it. I loved this honesty, which is more heartfelt than raw, and I loved how she is very upfront about the realities of loving someone from a vastly different background. It isn’t for no reason that love blossoms between Wilson and the man who would become her husband: they are passionate about Islam, about Egypt, about art and spirituality, and both are anomalies in respect to their indigenous cultures. He is amazingly tender towards her (he’s so dreamy) and they have a beautiful wedding. I really, appreciated, however, how Wilson makes a point that love stories, even in memoirs, often miss out on: love is a struggle. The more disparate your backgrounds, the greater a struggle it is. She writes: “Love is not a benign thing. No corner of my life remained unaltered by the consequences of what I loved. The most wonderful thing that had ever happened to me brought me neither peace nor comfort. But it did bring me Omar. And that was more than enough.”
She gives a similar treatment to the Egyptians and Iranians portrayed in the book. All too aware that she does not speak for them, she carefully presents their attitudes and norms without apology and with careful explanation from within the cultural framework. In fact, she goes even further by posing some striking perspectives when it comes to being a woman in an Egyptian society:
When people wonder why Arab women defend their culture, they focus on the way women who don’t follow the rules are punished, and fail to consider the way women who do follow the rules are rewarded. When I finished an article or essay, all I received was an e-mail from an editor saying, ‘Thanks, got it.’ When I cooked an iftar meal during Ramadan, a dozen tender voices blessed my hands.
Her description of Cairo is magnificent. Really, I’m at a loss to explain what made it so wonderful. I’ll only say that if I ever visit the city, I’ll make a point of re-reading the book and mapping out the monuments, buildings, and cafes she describes. I also greatly admire her for refusing to life the insulated life of an expat in the city and getting as close as she could to experiencing life as an Egyptian woman.
This, a passage that made me experience a deep sense of kinship that had me reeling for days:
In her book The Trouble with Islam, Irshad Manji smugly announces that . . . ‘it was Islam’s job’ to keep her from leaving the faith. I never thought it was Islam’s job to keep me. My faith was not a contract, not a deal; there were no clauses I expected God to abide by and which, if violated, would give me an excuse to back out. . . It was certainty that animated me; it was certainty that allowed me to watch the progress of the extremists and feel anger and disgust, but never disappointment. It was not my place to be approving or disappointed: I had submitted too completely for either. Through the bile and ignorance of the radical imams and self-righteous apostates, through the spin of the news networks and the pomposity of academics, I saw a straight, unwavering line. How could I be disappointed? I did not believe in Islam; I opened my eyes every morning and saw it.
I have often wondered how it is that I could be confronted with a stream of staunch disbelievers, radically liberal reformists, and pathological conservatives and still believe. I now understand, for Wilson articulates in this passage what I could not put words to even after years of thought.
I don’t think it’s very often that one can get the kind of nuance and beauty in nonfiction this book offers, especially in nonfiction about transnational Muslims. By sharing her story, Wilson gives sensitively and remarkably-framed insights into the struggles of Egypt, the real struggle for the soul of Islam, and the turmoil that comes with being a Muslim who is forever battling the opposing sides of her cultural and spiritual heritage.
So far, I’ve talked about Muslim women and the female experience a great deal. Writing and meditating about stories I can identify with, however, has made me curious about the experiences that I cannot speak for. And that curiosity starts at home. What does it mean, I have wondered, to be a Muslim man?
That’s why I was very excited about reading the just-published All-American: 45 Men on Being Muslim. The collection contains a vast array of essays from Muslim Americans who are poets, doctors, businessmen, fathers, religious leaders, political activists, and artists. They come from a mashup of highly varied religious and ethnic backgrounds and political allegiances. The only thing constant in throughout their narratives is their self-identification as Americans. Yet, as Wajahat Ali states in the introduction, “the American Muslim men profiled within these pages eradicate antiquated assumptions of what it means to be ‘Muslim,’ ‘American,’ and even a ‘man.’” Without a doubt, the book delivers as promised, opening the eyes of both non-Muslim and Muslim readers to how diverse and multifaceted the Muslim American male experience can be.
I now realize that as I read the collection, I was more sensitive to the “Muslim male” aspect of the essays than their “American” dimension. (It was simply a matter of personal preference, perhaps due to the fact that I didn’t grow up in North America and can’t relate to “Americanness.”) Furthermore, I feel the more effective stories were those that were focused on one topic or one incident, particularly those dealing with spirituality and the meaning of manhood. I’d like to pay homage to some of the most memorable essays in this collection by recalling what made them special to me:
Haroon Moghul’s essay “The Faith that Faith Produced,” the first piece in the anthology, opens with a chillingly honest admission: “I was washing dishes in the kitchen when I stopped believing in God.” He continues to recount the implications of disbelief, illustrating how it was not until he suffered from spiritual angst and self-doubt that he truly start believing.
In “On Baseball and Islam in America,” Shahzad Hussain Abbass makes a memorable comparison between teaching his young son to bat and to stand still in prayer.
Baraka Blue writes beautifully in “Manhood” about how visiting Muslim-majority countries made him reexamine his own masculinity. He was struck by the easy physical intimacy between heterosexual men as well as their lack of self-consciousness about shedding tears during heartfelt prayer, realizing that these are manifestations of the genuine love fellow Muslims have for one another and Allah.
“Muslim After Midnight” by Obaid H. Siddiqui was definitely one of my favorite essays in this collection. He recounts a single incident of racist tension and the interior dialogue that goes takes place in his mind during the event. I feel that the piece illustrates the confusion and self-assertion that takes place in the head of a Muslim American man when his “belongingness” is questioned.
Tynan Power’s “Stepping Across the Gender Divide,” is a fascinating and must-read account from a transgender Muslim who experienced what it was like to be a Muslim woman before he became a man. He recalls the ambiguity and confusion of his transition in a way I will never forget: “At what point, exactly, was I considered a man? When was I to guard my modesty from the navel to the knee instead of by drawing my veil down over my chest?”
Michael Mohammad Knight’s “From Islam to Islam” was one of the few essays that managed to have considerable breadth while leaving the reader with a single, pointed message. It spans the story of his conversion and his experience with numerous Muslim sects and perspectives, concluding that for him, to be Muslim is to find peace in confusion.
These are just a few gems from an impressive collection written by even more impressive and accomplished men. One needs to only look at the biographies of the contributors to know that their stories and successes are a great source of inspiration for those of us who want to make a difference for our ummah.
One of the shortcomings of this collection, I feel, were the stories that seemed a bit vague and unfocused in their subject matter. They just seemed to skim cover personal and professional history, religious beliefs, and how those don’t conflict with their belonging to United States and being American. Although I was interested in reading such pieces at first, after a certain point, they all started to sound the same.
In this great review of the book for Altmuslimah, Abrar Qadir highlighted another important caveat about this collection: the voices in this anthology largely come from highly successful professionals. My concern with the book is an extension of that: it seems to cater not just economic privilege, but social accomplishments. Every contributor had a lengthy and impressive biography teeming with degrees, titles and awards. As happy as I am that there are so many accomplished men in the Muslim community, I feel like having one overachiever after another also contributed to the tendency for for some essays to just be lists of accomplishments, making them alienated rather than more familiar.
Abrar mentioned the missing voice of the “taxi-driver or mini-mart owner, those who bear the brunt of the ‘go back where you came from’ rhetoric this book is designed to combat.” Along with this omission, I feel is that of another kind of contributor I’d like to have heard from: the guy from I.T. who can’t wait for his World of Warcraft session and pizza at the end of the day. The one who didn’t have a chance to make a difference and be recognized for it, who just does his part by being a great son, brother, friend, and colleague.
At the same time, I have to acknowledge that there is much benefit in having such accomplished individuals tell their stories: it makes one aware of the immense amount of work being done in business, the media, and politics by such men. Were it not for this collection, I would have may not have known about Mohamed Geraldez founding the world’s first vegan necktie company, or learned about Kamran Pasha’s approach to storytelling, or explored new avenues in music from Muslims (thanks to introductions to Baraka Blue and Adisa Banjoko). This book shows that there are endless possible paths to being Muslim and living a life that upholds Islam, however we define it. If I have a teenage son, I’m going to make sure he reads this book, so that he knows that as a Muslim man in the making, American or not, there’s a legacy he can look up to and be inspired by.
This book is a much-needed and very illuminating read for both Muslims and non-Muslims, men and women, American or otherwise. These stories are immensely heartfelt, humorous, and inspirational, and it made me very proud and happy to know these terrific men are a part of our ummah. It was a pleasure to hear from each and every one of them.
I’ll start by admitting that I haven’t read any of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s works. Knowing the basis of Submission and her simplistic, insistent blaming of Islam for the world’s evils didn’t make me very eager to read her.
Thanks to Amy’s strong recommendation and her lending me her copy of Wanted Women: Faith, Lies, and the War on Terror, I learned a lot more about Ali’s life and her rise to stardom in Western intellectual circles. There were not too many surprises in this biography. If anything, I was a little taken aback at how little she has done to implement policies and practices to curtail the violence and oppression of women.
What struck me more deeply, however, was her explanation of the Muslim women who immigrate to the West and are reluctant to let go of their faith or culturally-instilled modesty as easily as she did. In Infidel, she writes:
Islam [is] like a mental cage. . . When you open the door, the caged bird stays inside: it is frightened. It has internalized its imprisonment.
As a Muslim immigrant who strives to be reasonably self-aware about being shaped by Western culture, the metaphor of this caged bird is now what appears in mind’s eye any time I sense any kind of personal inhibition. When I seriously reconsider whether the hijab is for me and decide that it is. When I refrain from a lingering one-on-one sit-down with a man. When I am invited to a bar with a new group of acquaintances and say no (not because of being in an environment with alcohol, but because of being in such a loud environment around people I don’t know and am not comfortable with). Normally, I wouldn’t have given such choices a second thought. But now, there is a voice–call it my nafs, call it my baser self, call it my enlightened self, even–that tells me: “Shame on you for holding back. You’re that caged bird. The cage is finally open, and you just sit there.” Simply having that metaphor, that idea of a bird, is powerful in itself. It has latched onto my thinking, making my self-reflection spiral out of control into the place where there are no absolutes.
What I have to do is remind myself that the bird and the placement of it in the cage is a construction, an illustration done with a very specific agenda and view of a Muslim woman. It presumes a cage. It presumes that ploughing ahead and being in every situation I am not comfortable in is the only way to escape that cage.
But it’s powerful. So powerful that as much as stunned as I was by the naiveté of some of Ali’s stances and her presumption in extending her experience of Islam to all Muslim women, this metaphor managed to lodge itself into my way of thinking. I may disregard and dismiss everything else she says, but the image, the metaphor, of this caged bird triumphs where all of her other tools failed.
Reflecting on whether one is being true to themselves is never a comfortable exercise. But this metaphor is not a means of complete self-doubt: it is a tool for that critical self examination, an acknowledgement of possibilities I may be too afraid to own up to. I cannot completely disregard it. But I would like to understand where this metaphor is effective for me and where it isn’t. Maybe I am a caged bird in a way that so many women–both Muslim and non-Muslims–are caged birds due to societal expectations. I may never know whether it holds water as far as my life and my self is concerned. But I would like to know. I’d like a metaphor, a model, that gives an alternate explanation of me. It’s only fair that this caged bird be countered with something else, something equally if not more powerful, and something that is a source of inspiration and encouragement rather than debilitating, guilt-ridden self-examination.
I have made an exception to my rule for not writing reviews of books I disliked. I guess I can be flexible with books that deeply frustrated me and whose authors are already doing more than well for themselves.
The Good Muslim may have the most raving reviews and literary accolades, but it also uses the device of the educated, “modern” woman who “loses” her brother to Islamic fundamentalism. Why is it that the works that show the worst of Muslims become so esteemed?
Although I had not read Anam’s preceding book The Golden Age, I read this book because I was fascinated by its premise: a woman’s struggle to find meaning in a post-war, newly-independent Bangladesh that had emerged out of one of the darkest periods of the Indian subcontinent’s history. The title also intrigued me. As someone who reviews book from a faith-based perspective, I could not not read this book.
Alas, it didn’t deliver.
One of the reasons is its tiresome motif of a “modern” woman in a “backward” society. Maya is a doctor and fiercely independent woman who left home after her war veteran and born-again Muslim brother Sohail became so distant and religious that she knew their relationship would never be the same again.
Maya is a strong female figure continuously at odds with her environment: she writes for an underground radical publication, she is banished from a village for defending a pregnant woman, she pleads with her brother to not send his son to the madrassa. Her character is strong and admirable in theory, but for someone has never been away from Bangladesh, she persistently gives one the impression of being a foreigner in her own country, and not just in the figurative sense. In a tumultuous, confused world, she is the only one who has any sense, one of the contrasts that I found suspiciously simplistic.
What’s troublesome is that it is not just the war, but the role of Islam in Maya’s household that is used to delineate the “before” and “after” scenarios in this book. Maya’s alienation has to more do with her holding onto a very, very distant past where she, her brother, and their college friends attended his debates, musical recitals, and readings, and didn’t take religion the least bit seriously. After the war, Sohail is so haunted by the atrocities he witnessed and committed that he can only find refuge in religion, causing him to completely disavow his older self. In this “good Muslim’s” universe, it is impossible for books and faith to coexist. As Sohail burns his books, the relics of his educated past, there is a haunting echo: “There can only be One.” Apparently, tawhid—belief in the Oneness of God, that everyone and everything is connected to him—has no room for a literary inner existence.
This book isn’t meant to resonate with someone who might know something of the war or its aftermath. This novel meant to resonate with Western readers who can relate enough to Maya’s carefree pre-war life and are far enough removed from her post-war reality, making it easy for them to identify with her alienation and shake their heads over the atrocities taking place “over there.” The oft-used devices are hard to overlook. Maya elicits the help of a poor boat assistant to look for her nephew, and class boundaries are dissolved in an instant: the alienated but heroic woman is given a quaintly likable, well-meaning guide in this foreign, exotic land. There is another war-damaged character whose secularism has remained intact, and his unabiding love for Maya gives the story just the right amount of hope and romance, because who wants to read a book that’s all about death and the depressing aftermath of war?
The increasingly predictable and wearisome tricks are also employed: the overbearing religious patriarch, a child’s becoming victim to a sexual predator in a religious institution, and equating religion to disavowal of all worldly pursuits. Islam’s teachings could not be further from the condition of being “Muslim” that is depicted in this book, and as it concerns me that a book that is seen to be such a literary achievement gives such a skewed depiction of what being a Muslim looks like.
While fiction can give insights into human realities in ways that other accounts can’t, this book too carelessly lopes in religion to make the suggestion that the human condition would be so much better “only if it weren’t for religion.” I completely understand and accept that there are men like Sohail who have neglected their families and found religion to be their only refuge from their torments. I even accept that religion can become a source of harm for one who has experienced such a dark side of human existence. What I find found difficult to accept was how Sohail’s PTSD and guilt get obscured in his turning to Islam. He goes from being a disturbingly anguished and complex character to a “good Muslim” who simply reinforces existing stereotypes about Muslim men being bearded, joyless, and stubbornly willful. The implication is that he becomes a neglectful father, distant brother, and absent son because religion—rather than war—made him psychologically unfit to the point of derangement.
This is a beautifully written book, no doubt. Unfortunately, however, I understood right away why it was met with so much praise: it gives Anam the license of the “exotic” writer to write a prettily tragic but inauthentic story that panders to a curiously warm receptiveness for male Muslim villains. And frankly, the title of the book is not just a misnomer. It’s an offense to those of us who inadvertently get represented through Sohail’s character.