Ali Eteraz is a name well known to the blogosphere, and of course, Sepia Mutiny. A Pakistani-born Muslim American, lawyer, writer, and activist, Ali’s writing has often been quoted here at Sepia Mutiny, and this Oct 13th Ali’s highly anticipated memoir Children of Dusthits a bookstore near you.
Children of Dust: A Memoir of Pakistan is a about a Pakistani male’s journey of autonomy set against the backdrop of global Islam and located deep inside Pakistan’s colorful but thus far neglected international diaspora. The timely piece of literature provides an engaged look at the pain, pathos, and laughter among Muslim-American lives otherwise obscured by abstract ideas such as “the clash of civilizations” and “the war of ideas.” … With gentle self deprecation Eteraz tells the story of every young person trying to figure out what they believe about religion, people, and life.[harper]
I’ll admit it, I opened the pages to Children of Dust with reluctant apprehension. But from the first page, Ali reels you in to a tale, beautifully prosaic, human, and intelligent. Intertwined with Islamic scholarship, youthful eagerness, self-effacing arrogance, defeated hopefulness, and sardonic humor, Children of Dust presents the struggles of a youth being raised Muslim and American and all the issues that come with it. The words are brilliantly laced, and easy to read. I found the book difficult to put down, staying up all night with a cup of chai engrossed in the adventure of Ali’s life. There was more than a few times where I verbally exclaimed or laughed at what I was reading. Broken into five parts, the book begins with the tale of Ali’s dad entering a covenant with Allah that if he should be given a son, he promised the son would become a great leader and servant of Islam. Ali was born soon after and his life carried the burden of the covenant for the next thirty years. Children of Dust documents his life of twists and turns as he struggles to fulfill this promised legend. The first part of the book explores his years as a child in a Pakistan village in the desert, complete with a madrassa education, and the fantastical tales of being possessed by jinns, visited by angels, and death by black magic. The second section of the book brings him as a teen immigrant to the Bible Belt dealing with the contradictions of fundamentalist parents at home and an American teen life. In the third part, on a college campus Ali comes to term with his internal struggles between sexuality and piety which ultimately takes him at the age of 18 to Pakistan to find a hijabi wife – but while there he discovers the cracks to his construct of Islam and the fluid nature between orthodox and heretical. The book ends beautifully, with only an ending that you can hope all people, Muslim or non-Muslim, can realize at some point in their life.
This book has been quoted by critics as a “journey” book — i.e. “the journey of a Pakistani immigrant.” I’d like to challenge this notion. There’s no real “journey” that takes place, but rather this is the story of simply “being”. It’s a story of the constant struggle of simply trying to create yourself and find meaning in ones own life. There is a universality to this tale that all people can relate to, it’s only that in this particular case the lens it is looked through is Islam.
As an American Muslim, we are often told how we are supposed to act, feel, believe, both by the orthodox beliefs of the Muslim community or by the narrowly scoped American community. I see this here at Sepia Mutiny often – as the token Muslim blogger in this space, I’ll get comments about how I’m “too Muslim” or “not Muslim enough” or the worst, committing taqqiya and spitting heretics. Too often our Muslim-ness is up for debate by others, and we ourselves are never given the freedom to explore what it means to be Muslim by our own rules, learnings, and understandings – we are always on the defense. Being an American Muslim is boxed into black and white, the freedom to explore gray simply isn’t a choice.
What Children of Dust achieves is to tell the story of one person being in the gray. There’s nothing static about being a Muslim American; it’s not a set typecast, but a continuous struggle of exploration of the self. Islam is more than spiritual, it’s a cultural and political identity as well. I saw a lot of similarities between Ali’s exploration and Michael Muhammad Knight’s Impossible Man, also a memoir of youth discovering faith and Islam. Both books start from birth, tell tales of childhoods that take them to the extremist side of Islam with a madrassa education, to hooking up with ho-jabis in the backseat of cars at Islamic conferences, to exploring the margins of Islam – for Knight it was NOI and 5%-ers, and for Ali it was to being a reformist. They both have hypersexualized stories rooted in the otherization of women in Islam and both books highlight stories with risky stark honesty that could be fatwa-worthy. Additionally, in this post 9/11 world where Islamic identity in the media is so driven by that day, it was refreshing to read both in Children of Dust and in Impossible Man the story of Islamic youth identity construction and exploration before that fated day.
I would highly recommend Ali Eteraz’s Children of Dust, particularly if you are a fan of the burgeoning South Asian memoir genre. And I’m not just saying that because the book was sent to me for free (there, does that take care of full disclosure?). Muslim or non-Muslim, this is the story of a South Asian American’s discovery of self and I’m sure that’s a story that every Mutineer can have compassion for.
But you don’t have to take my word for it. Children of Dust will be hitting a bookstore near you on Oct 13th. Stay tuned here at Sepia Mutiny for an interview with Ali Eteraz later this week. Also, be sure to check out Children of Dust‘s event site for book tour listings – the most recent one in NYC on Oct 15th with Asia Society. Finally, follow Ali Eteraz on his site or by twitter.