Salaam and Greetings of Peace:
Ali Eteraz is a thoughtful, intelligent, and at times, bitingly funny writer. His very popular, now defunct blog, in which he wrote both comic and serious essays about Pakistani politics, Islamic sexuality, and extremist militancy, led to his eventually becoming a contributor to The Guardian UK and writing articles for such mainstream venues as Dissent, Foreign Policy, and The Huffington Post.
In Children of Dust: A Memoir of Pakistan, Eteraz reveals his true gifts as a storyteller. It is a delight to read and utterly charming, lyrically written with exuberant good humor and insightful remembrances. It is also a brave book, driven by a keen and sardonic intelligence, and as he grows and gropes for personal and cosmic answers, one cannot but admire his daring. We root for him to succeed.
The book is broken into five parts, each signified by a different name he takes for himself, each identity a stage of his coming to terms with Pakistan, Islam, America, and his place in each.
The first part of the book, The Promised – Abir ul Islam, (literally, Perfume of Islam), evokes his parents’ hopes for him of a pious life; his father made a mannat, a Covenant with God, before he was born:“Ya Allah! If you should give me a son, I promise that we will become a great leader and servant of Islam.” His mother then went on Hajj with him as a baby and rubbed his chest on the wall of the Ka’ba in Mecca, so that Allah might bless him with reverence and resolve for his religion. And this covenant did indeed guide his life for the next thirty years.
As a boy growing up in a Pakistan desert village, he joyfully embraces the sweetness of his youth and young manhood among his mother and father, Ammi and Pops, with all the love and strictness of a Muslim family in a Muslim country, surrounded by various grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. I especially loved his descriptions of life in rural Pakistan and of his wonderful mother Ammi, weaving lessons from the Koran with folk stories of Islam and the Jinn into daily living, which inhabited both reality and imagination in his young world. After a short and rather brutal madrassa education, that part of his life ends when his medical doctor father, Pops, gets a visa to work in America, and the family departs for every immigrant’s dream destination, Alabama.
In the second section, The American – Amir, the family moves repeatedly seeking opportunity, finally settling in the Bible Belt. In Alabama (Allahbama) he enters High School and decides to legally change his name to Amir to distance himself from his parents’ growing fundamentalism amid his teenage shyness and sexual angst. It is the shortest section in the book, but beautifully captures the growing tension between him and his family and him and his loins.
In book three, The Fundamentalist – Abu Bakr Ramaq, he is off to college in Manhattan, his name changed once again after discovering he is descended from Abu Bakr Siddiq, the truthteller, a companion of the Prophet and the first Caliph of Islam (peace and blessings be upon them both). This revelation spurs his own fundamentalism, and he becomes Abu Bakr Ramaq (“spark of light”), representing the passion he now feels for Islam. One of the most intriguing parts of this section is his exploration of his faith, and confronting two of its greatest opponents – extremism and secularism. He dismisses Osama bin Laden as an opportunist and another in a long line of messianic pretenders. And his reading of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses juxtaposed with Islamic thinkers such as Zaid Shakir, who claims that secularism is un-Islamic, convinces him that the real battle is between Islam (and by extension all religions) and reason. The liberating freedom that reason gives is a curse that separates the here from the hereafter, the creation from the Creator.
After growing a scanty beard, and following a series of truly hilarious misadventures with the opposite sex, he finally journeys back to his desert village in Pakistan with his mother and younger brother to find a pious Muslim wife and trace his noble lineage. But he finds out that he is not only unrelated to Abu Bakr, but is in fact descended from a Hindu convert that changed his name from Savekhi to the close sounding Siddique. He is then threatened by Taliban-style thugs just for being an American, and the family must be hastily escorted out of town and out of the country by his uncle’s military unit.
The fourth book, The Postmodern – Amir ul Islam, (literally, Prince of Islam), a combination of the his assumed and given name, suggests that he is reclaiming Islam only so that he can internalize it into something more manageable. He is crestfallen at his failure in Pakistan, blaming its backwardness and close mindedness on not being recognized for the pious Muslim he thinks himself to be. He willfully transfers to a Christian university in Atlanta and sets out to study Philosophy, especially Postmodernism, the bane of Islam and religion in general. He is admirably honest in exposing his failure as the result of his own ego trying to impress others with his piety, a common young pretension, concluding that Islam and its most ardent followers in the mother country have failed him. Postmodernism is his revenge. And sex.
Yet he still carries the weight of the covenant made before he was born, so to accomplish this double and conflicting task, he strives for and becomes President of the MSA, the Muslim Students Association. He becomes BMOC, Big Muslim on Campus. Leading the Friday prayer, lecturing and give advice as an imam, taking up the Palestinian cause at the start of the second Intifada, he desperately tries to convince himself and everyone else of his Islamic credentials. In still seeking his own Islamic reflection in the mirrored approval of other Muslims, his religion becomes not a sacred obligation between himself and Allah, but a status conscious mirage between himself and every other Muslim on the planet.
Finally, he has had enough. After graduation, he moves to Washington DC, having obtained a fellowship for aspiring lawyers with the US Department of Justice. A few months later, the planes hit the Pentagon and the Twin Towers on 9/11.
At last we come to The Reformer – Ali Eteraz, the fifth book, wherein he takes his final name, which means “Noble Protest”. After 9/11, he ignored his work as a legal associate, and wrote, researched, and formed friendships on the internet in preparation of his obsessive drive to save Islam from it “idiots.” In the process, he loses his job, his apartment, his money and his family. He abandons his faith and moves to Las Vegas, Sin City, an almost perfect metaphor. After a few months of despondency, the reenergized reformer travels to Kuwait to convince Arabs to be part of the reformation of Islam. While staying with his friend Ziad, he plans an Islamic think tank of brave and accomplished Muslims to combat the loud militancy of the extremists; he schemes to reinvent Islam as a religion of equality, peace, and justice to fulfill his covenant. Ziad is a modern Muslim who couldn’t care less about such reformist ideas, and acts as his alter ego. Their brotherly back and forth finally breaks through the cycles of transformation and allows him to start over.
While visiting his mother back in California, Ali Eteraz comes full circle: “My little Abir,“ she say. “You grew up all these years, just to become innocent again.”