Eteraz’s Children of Dust: Review [Part 1]

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. Children of Dust.jpg 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.

Ali Eteraz.jpgWhat 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.

20 thoughts on “Eteraz’s Children of Dust: Review [Part 1]

  1. Keep the shitty rants on this comment thread halal. I have no problem deleting and banning at the slightest provocation.This is a fantastic book, so please don’t derail the conversation into anti-Muslim diatribe.

  2. The idea of ‘The Clash of Civilizations’ is too often referenced even by its opponents. I don’t dispute its core tenets but for the fact that the west does not qualify as a ‘civilization’ in the classic sense as much as its a massive business interest. The Clash of Business interests with Civilizations would be more apt.

    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.

    The problem lies mostly with the strong institutions of Political Islamic that would not allow individualized versions to grow in a vacuum of influence by branding such interpretations as heretical. I believe muslims need to weaken these institutions or learn to ignore them completely. In India Shahrukh and Salman Khan can visit temples and still publicly claim to be muslims and common muslims can frequent Sufi shrines without being accused of shirk. It can only happen in countries where the institutions of Political Islam are marginalized because of more powerful economic and social idioms that act as an alternative for people trying to accommodate a muslim identity without becoming expedients in the cause for Global Political Islam. Also another important precondition is creating an environment of trust and fairness so that temporal grievances don’t give Political Islam a chance to claim representation of the victims by repeating conspiracy theories like ‘Islam is under threat’. Which is why crimes against Muslims in the form of riots and petty prejudice need to stop. It will weaken Political Islam that is looking for the Bomb and has been very successful in holding back the growth of democracy and progress in the Muslim world. Political Islam has nothing to contribute to the world and will lead it into the Dark Ages. Treating Muslims fairly alone can make their conspiracy theories seem redundant and help trounce it.

  3. 1) ali has a facebook update that said he’d be in san fran on nov. 19th, but his events page you linked to says philly on the 19th. i trust facebook since the wall posting was on the 9th of october (if ali shows up on this thread i’m sure he’ll correct me).

    2) i haven’t read the book yet, but reading the summaries i can’t but help reflexively try to figure out what’s based on reality and what’s not from what i know about ali :-)

    3) might want to link the book image to his website or amazon or something. generally a reflex by a lot of people to click that in the hope of being sent to more info. as it is, just the image.

  4. 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.

    In my experience, the problem is weighted more on the orthodox beliefs of the Muslim community. Its there that the complexes about what you can be, how you should act, what you should think, reside. About your sexuality, your identity, your place in the world. Its also there that the warped ideas about American and Western society originate – that it is essentially a contaminating, corrupting den of immorality. Despite parents or grandparents making the free choice to move to land called America, or any other nation in the West, and still condition their children into the narrow, reflexive cultural prejudices and identities of Islam. This is the source of the schizophrenia that exists – a constant unease and self-perpetuating alienation and self-pity.

    Living in the West as the children of immigrants is all about adjustment, and the adjustment has to begin with the migrating generation. Ali’s book sounds interesting – but the chronicle of his experiences growing up an American, with fundamentalist parents at home makes me shake my head in recognition. Seen, heard, experienced that story a million times.

  5. By the way, even if the experience of Hindus and Sikhs living in the West is different in perspective, degree and proportion, there are still resonances of this narrative that many will identify with. The intensity levels might be different, but the echoes are still there.

  6. . Ali’s book sounds interesting – but the chronicle of his experiences growing up an American, with fundamentalist parents at home makes me shake my head in recognition.

    just a note, be careful about assuming that the stuff in children of the dust is based directly on ali’s real life as a 1:1 correspondence. for example, i didn’t get the impression that his parents could be easily characterized as “fundamentalist” from what he told me about them (not much to be fair) last we talked.

  7. razib, the point about indoctrination and conditioning their children in the home to the reflexive cultural prejudices and complexes of their religion in a land away from the societies of Islam remains.

    As to being wary of the authors real life as a 1 : 1 correspondance – you take whatever covenant he has made with the grey areas of experience and life in the prism and perspective in the memoir as his written truth and respond to that template. Not the Ali Eteraz as he exists in your reckoning, but as he exists on the page. That is what he has rendered. That is his truth contained there.

  8. Out of curiosity, does he explain in the book why he uses a pen name? It didn’t seem out of place in his early blogging, where people take on all sorts of names/identities, but it seems odd for a published book.

  9. Out of curiosity, does he explain in the book why he uses a pen name? It didn’t seem out of place in his early blogging, where people take on all sorts of names/identities

    The five chapters in the book are titled after the five names he’s used over his life time and used as a way to name personalities (His birth name, the name he legally changed it to as a teen when he didn’t want to keep his given name anymore, etc…) So names are an important component to how he constructed the book and distinguished life stages. I can ask him why he did that in the interview though!

  10. @ aliyah “Despite parents or grandparents making the free choice to move to land called America, or any other nation in the West, and still condition their children into the narrow, reflexive cultural prejudices and identities of Islam. This is the source of the schizophrenia that exists – a constant unease and self-perpetuating alienation and self-pity.”

    Are you sure this “struggle” or “schizophrenia” as your put it only affect Muslims? May we extrapolate this hypothesis to say, Africans and Christians in Europe or America? If Christians in America or Europe are against gay marriage – they are not being viewed with the same prejudice as the newly arrived immigrants. I assumed according to you – only the natives are allowed to define the social fabric of the society. All of us chose to migrate to America for many reasons – not just to accept what the liberals defined as “tolerance”. When Americans and Europeans migrate to other countries – they still bring with them their culture and prejudice.

  11. 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.
    Muslim or non-Muslim, this is the story of a South Asian American’s

    I’m sure the prose is beautiful but is this dogmatic view of the world of ‘one of us’ and ‘not one of us’ yours or of AliEteraz? maybe that’s your point of view, but either way it makes me uncomfortable. is dealing with the not-chosen people (sic) such an uphill battle or a matter of revulsion? i’ve read ali eteraz’ blog in the past and foudn it thoughtprovoking and aesthetically appealing. so perhaps i’m infringing on your personal struggles – and it was alluded in the write-up – but shit’s bound to fly when you countenance the right to self-expression against a (sic) faith that demands conformity.

  12. not just to accept what the liberals defined as “tolerance”

    My experiences have nothing to do with what liberals define as ‘tolerance’….they are to do with the backward, intolerant, oppressive mentality of certain cultural and religious attitudes, and the values and tolerance that I am a part of? I define my hard earned and hard won values against them. Nobody gave them to me.

    This is the typical relativist line of rhetorical negation used to slander anyone who challenges the old ways. Address it to the author of the book, he has written a whole memoir about it.

  13. on one point you wrote:

    @Aliyah “they are to do with the backward, intolerant, oppressive mentality of certain cultural and religious attitudes, and the values and tolerance that I am a part of?I define my hard earned and hard won values against them. Nobody gave them to me.”

    and then this:

    “This is the typical relativist line of rhetorical negation used to slander anyone who challenges the old ways. Address it to the author of the book, he has written a whole memoir about it.”

    typical relativist? tsk..tsk..the “coral reef of thoughts after all”.and you called others schizophrenics? Pot and Kettle.

  14. Mr. Eteraz is a gifted writer. I thought the story was very readable. I had certain expectations from the prologue and from the book’s promotion materials. I expected to read about a person whose grew up indoctrinated in religious extremism and militancy. What I found was a sad tale of sexual abuse, physical abuse, deprivation, peer pressure, identity crisis, and the general angst of growing up as a non-white, non-Christian in America. Mr. Eteraz has a lot of guts for putting his sometimes sordid life experiences on display at such a young age. I hope his book is very successful. I’m certainly encouraging people to read it.

  15. Rcvd book as a Christmas present. I did not find the book terribly engaging.
    It would have been helpful to add a glossary at the back with many of the arabic words used. Reading this book is often an effort like reading an adlib book. You are stuck rereading to make sure you are getting a gist os the context of the terms layered throughout.

    It does give the sheltered Christian a view of how a muslim can be turned to be so hateful and violent. Understanding is the first step to finding a solution for some of the senseless, cruel violence done in the name of allah.

    Peace to everyone.

  16. You guys are bunch of dishonest selfproclaimed journalists. We have to see who will win at the end. You are just like Ali Eteraz, a liar and dishnoest. You failed to post my previous comment. I have so many people visit theopenwar.com and every one had the freedom to say what they want…No editing as we are comitted for honesty.

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