Good Muslim, bad Muslim: A look at Kamila Shamsie's new book

The beauty of Home Fire is almost too much to bear.

 |  Rough Cut  |  6-minute read |   31-07-2017
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"My sister lives in America, she’s about to have a child there – did you or your b**nchod brother stop to think about those of us with passports that look like toilet paper to the rest of the world, who spend our whole lives being so careful we don’t give anyone a reason to reject our visa applications. Don’t stand next to this guy, don’t follow that guy on Twitter, don’t download that Noam Chomsky book?"

That's the voice of a young Pakistani in Karachi, speaking to his cousin from London.

There are two ways of being Muslim in the West now. One is to assimilate fully, be a "good" Muslim, the kind the West can show off as a symbol of its generosity, and the other, to stay separate, resolute, apart, be the "bad" Muslim who refuses to be grateful for the chances he or she has got in the New World. Few have been able to mix the best of both worlds, and Kamila Shamsie's stunning Home Fire is about just such a conflict.

The Pashas and the Lones are separated by class, luck, and London's geography that determines who studies where with whom. The Pashas, three orphaned children, raised by the kindness of neighbours and friends, with Isma, the eldest, just 28, just starting to taste the freedom of the scholar's life in America, leaving behind her young siblings, twins Aneeka and Parvaiz, 19, one smart and driven, and the other dreamy, left abandoned by what he thinks is desertion by both the women in his life.

The Lones are shiny, happy people, the toast of multicultural Britain, the wife an American interior designer with a chain of stores, the husband Karamat, the new home secretary of Britain, and possibly the first grandson of a colonised nation who could occupy 10, Downing Street.

The children, Eamonn and Emily, beautiful, posh, gilded, loaded with Mummy's money. Their father has left Preston Road, where the Pashas live, far behind in his ever onward quest for the top job.

But then, of course, the paths of the two families collide. As they have in the past once before.

Aneeka and Eamonn fall madly in love, she a beautiful hijab-wearing, namaaz-performing scholarship student at LSE, he an entitled Sloane Ranger taking a year off to travel. She's 19 and he is 24, but in many ways she is the wiser and more mature, having seen trauma from close quarters.

Her father became a soldier in someone else's war, abandoning the family, leaving his wife a nervous wreck and his children forever stigmatised. Her brother Parvaiz, a quiet boy in love with the sounds of the city, is more sensitive than she is, and may not quite survive the emotional alienation from his twin. When he follows in his father's footsteps, it is almost too much for his shattered family to bear.

How that affects Aneeka, Eamonn, and the careful construct of Karamat Lone's ambition is the core of this marvellous novel. Impossible loves and impossible dreams. How do we reconcile them in a world that refuses to go beyond stereotypes, that refuses to understand humanity, that turns its face away when confronted with the ugly truth - who is right in this war of faiths?

Why should ordinary people be cannon fodder in the building and sustaining of empires, whether now or in the past? Why do people choose to give up their land of birth?

hf_073117010059.jpgFew have been able to mix the best of both worlds, and Kamila Shamsie's stunning Home Fire is about just such a conflict.

As Lone thinks aloud at one point in the book: "(he was) a child of migrants who understands how much his parents gave up – family, context, language, familiarity – because the nation to which they first belonged had proven itself inadequate to the task of allowing them to live with dignity."

And how instead of shelter, often the West ends up throwing migrants back into the ghettos they want to escape.

Lone's world offers the hope of integration. As he tells an impassioned crowd in a speech: "There is nothing this country won’t allow you to achieve – Olympic medals, captaincy of the cricket team, pop stardom, reality TV crowns. And if none of that works out, you can settle for being home secretary. You are, we are, British. Britain accepts this. So do most of you. But for those of you who are in some doubt about it, let me say this: don’t set yourselves apart in the way you dress, the way you think, the outdated codes of behaviour you cling to, the ideologies to which you attach your loyalties. Because if you do, you will be treated differently – not because of racism, though that does still exist, but because you insist on your difference from everyone else in this multi-ethnic, multireligious, multitudinous United Kingdom of ours. And look at all you miss out on because of it."

And then there is the outmoded worldview of Farooq, the ISIS recruiter: "They want you in the house, doing their shopping and mowing the garden, so they’ve tried to keep you a boy, a child in need of a mother. That older one particularly, you know what I mean? The one who claims to be a good Muslim, and thinks she has the right to decide whether or not you can live in your own house. Tell her it is written in the Quran, 'Men are in charge of women because Allah has made one of them to excel the other.' And by Allah’s law, you, not your women, dispose of your property."

The venality of social media, the rank opportunism of British tabloids, the cloak-and-dagger world of Westminster politics, the fear mongering about Muslims which makes travel a nightmare for the average, law-abiding citizen of the world - listen to Shamsie describing Isma's journey to America. "Seeing her raise a hand in welcome, Isma understood how it might have felt in another age to step out on deck and see the outstretched arm of the Statue of Liberty and know you had made it, you were going to be all right."

It is the "othering" that goes on, hour after hour, day after day, year after year, the indignity of being spat upon in the metro for an attack you had nothing to do with; of being asked whether "you feel British or American" though you were born there; of being among people who tiptoe around your religion; of having to explain why you don't drink, or why you wear a hijab or why you pray, it is this that is as great a curse as the terror unleashed in the name of a religion by those who least understand its fundamentals.

Shamsie quotes a line from the Quran: "La yukallifullahu nafsan ilia wus-ahaa. Allah does not burden a soul with more than it can bear." The beauty of Shamsie's world, with its all too real echoes, is almost too much to bear.

Read it and prepare for a flood of tears. I'm still reeling.

Also read: Why Haruki Murakami's Men Without Women does not disappoint


Kaveree Bamzai Kaveree Bamzai @kavereeb

Editor-at-Large, India Today Group

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