Ali Eteraz has long established himself as one of the more insightful writers with regard to the complications of Islam and politics within Pakistan. His memoir shows his real gifts with narrative. The prose is absolutely lyric, sprinkled with deep memories and leavened with a sense of humor. The courage of the story comes from its sharp and slightly dark wit, and the reader is engaged by Eteraz’s search for answers to questions both cosmic and individual. The book consists of five sections, each of which takes one name he has given to himself. Every identity represents a step in his process of taking his proper place in Islam, Pakistan and America.
The first section of the book is called “The Promised – Abir ul Islam.” The literal meaning of this is the “perfume” of Islam and is a reference to the hopes that his parents had held that he would lead a pious life. For example, his father established a “mannat,” or a promise with God, even before his birth. His mother took him on the hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) when he was just an infant, and she touched his chest to the Ka’ba wall while there. The purpose of this is to receive a blessing from Allah with resolve and reverence for his faith. For the author’s first three decades, that promise was the driving force behind his decisions.
Coming of age in a desert village in Pakistan, Eteraz embraces life as a boy and young man with his parents, surrounded by the strict love that comes with growing up in a Muslim home within a larger Muslim country, governed by the additional superego that comes from having a ring of grandparents, uncles, cousins and aunts all around one. His evocations of living in the rural parts of Pakistan, particularly those memories that involve his mother Ammi show the way that life and more teachings from the Qur’an integrate in one’s life. The legends from the Jinn and Islam give him instruction in the proper way to lead his daily life. His madrasa education is rather short (and not particularly kind), but when his father earns a permit to carry out his career in medicine in the United States, the family leaves almost immediately. This shows how powerful the dream to come to the United States is. Of course, not every immigrant has Alabama in mind when thinking about idyllic parts of the United States.
The second part of the book is entitled “The American – Amir.” This refers to the family’s series of moves as they look for the right opportunity. They finally settle in Alabama, which is the heart of the American Bible Belt – not a place particularly welcome to Muslims. As a result, he decides to alter his name legally to Amir. The purpose of this is to create some distance between himself and the growing fundamentalism that his parents are showing in response to the culture around them. This fundamentalism is causing him a great deal of stress, as he is going through his own teenage timidity with the attendant sexual fears that go along with that. The most enjoyable part of this book is the building tension between his own impulses and the desires of his family. You certainly don’t have to be a teenager to understand the difficulties that go along with finding your place within your family and establishing yourself as an individual, particularly when the mores of your family are causing you acute embarrassment.
The third section of the book is “The Fundamentalist – Abu Bakr Ramaq.” He leaves Alabama for one of the places in the United States that is most nearly opposite to the sleepy doldrums of the American South – Manhattan. He has come here to attend college, and his name changes another time now that he has found that he is a direct descendant of Abu Bakr Siddiq, one of the companions of Mohammed and Islam’s very first Caliph. Learning this about his family history leads him to a new fundamentalism of his own, and he takes on this new name, which literally means “spark of light” and refers to the new passion that he currently exudes for the Muslim faith. The most interesting elements of this part of the book include his delving into his own faith and taking on its two primary opponents: secularism and extremism. On the one hand, he views Osama bin Laden as more of a charlatan than anything else, taking advantage of the beliefs of the passionate to fuel his own movement as a messianic pretender. On the other hand, he takes a look with the Satanic Verses of Salman Rushdie and places them side by side with the writings of such Muslim thinkers as Zaid Shakir, who makes the claim that the secular is not in harmony with Islam. Ultimately, Eteraz concludes that the actual conflict is between religion and reason. While reason does provide a sort of liberation, this independence actually becomes a bane that creates separation between the present and the future, in the sense that the physical world has a clear point of separation from the afterlife, just as Creation has a clear line of demarcation keeping it back from reaching the Creator in most cases.
Eteraz’s journey into fundamentalism is not without its humorous moments. He grows a scruffy beard and has some hairy encounters (no pun intended) with women, before he decides to take a trip back to his native Pakistani village to find a wife who is pious and Muslim and to track his lineage. However, he finds out that he is not really a descendant of Abu Bakr Siddiq but instead is a descendant of Abu Bakr Siddique, a convert from Hinduism. His status as an American brings him into the crosshairs of the Taliban, and it is only an intervention by Eteraz’s uncle, who uses his military unit to escort Eteraz and his family out of the country, that keeps things from becoming bad in a hurry.
The fourth section is called “The Postmodern – Amir ul Islam” (literally, the Prince of Islam). This title combines his given and assumed name, and the implication is that he reclaims Islam to turn it into something more doable for him. His failed attempt at finding a pious life in Pakistan eats away at him, but he ultimately blames the backward country and the closed minds of those there for not recognizing his own piety. He transfers from college in Manhattan to a Christian college in Georgia and takes up philosophy as his major, mostly to irritate the religious. His tools for revenge against the fundamentalists are a study of postmodernism and sex.
Because he still has that promise his father made bearing down on him, he gains the presidency of the campus Muslim Students Association, and he leads the Friday campus prayer, advises others as an imam, champions the cause of the Palestinians at the beginning of the second Intifada, so that people will see and believe his Muslim credentials. However, his religion is not a sincere relationship between Allah and himself but instead a façade for all other Muslims on the planet to see instead of seeing him. Finally, he graduates and moves to DC to begin a fellowship for future lawyers with the Justice Department. This is just a few months before the 9/11 attacks.
This leads to the fifth section: “The Reformer – Ali Eteraz,” and this last name means “noble protest.” He basically walks away from his duties as an associate with the Justice Department and begins his ploy to rescue Islam from what he terms “idiots.” His job, money, apartment and family all fall away from him. He leaves his faith behind and moves to Vegas, where he spends a few months in squalor and depression. Then he renews his mission and goes to Kuwait to gather Arabs to join him in reforming Islam. His dream is a think tank that would turn Islam into a faith of peace, equality and justice, so that he can fulfill the promise his father made for him. His friend Ziad is his alter ego who really doesn’t care about reform, viewing Islam more as a tradition than anything that influences his modern life. The interaction between the reformer and the rake permits him to begin his life again, once more as an innocent.
This book spoke volumes to me about the power of religious faith in shaping people from the very beginning. The experiences that Eteraz has show a commitment to authenticity in all that he does; even his phases of rejection show anger about how things ought to be.
Eteraz, Ali. Children of Dust: A Portrait of a Muslim as a Young Man. New York: HarperOne, c2011.