Sunday, December 11, 2005

The perplexity of being Shahid Hasan


I have been reading The Black Album (don't get much time, so the pace's been slow) and wrote this on its beginning. Now I am nearly at the end, and a few passages just can't escape mention. They portray the confusion of a very British youth, who must however submit to the dictates of his rather-enforced Muslim identity. The context is the burning of The Satanic Verses by a band of fundamentalist students on Shahid's campus. shahid has befriended these guys, all Muslims, and known as "the brothers", to help him find his feet in the new city.

he wanted to appear neutral but knew that wasn't possible. It wasn't as if he felt nothing, like many of the people looking on. If anything, he felt ashamed. He was someone who couldn't join in, couldn't let himself go. Perhaps that's why he had enjoyed Deedee's drugs so much.

the guy is treading the juddering gulf between scepticism and cynicism. He longs to give in to the latter, but having been a good student to Deedee Osgood, he knows he cannot. It would be the easy thing to do: a sign of his intellectual bankruptcy. It is this ideological (and in Shahid's case existential too) choice that's raking him over the coals. He is so visibly caught in the web of logic versus passion, he tries retaining his sanity by asking himself:

was he better because he lacked their fervour, because he was trying to slink away? No; he was worse, being tepid. He was not simple enough!

shahid's dilemma is further compounded by his love for Deedee and the demands that his family place on him. His brother is in the grips of a gang-war and at college, he has to bear the reactionary fulminations of the pompous Riaz.

kureishi has written a quite good novel, elaborating on the dilemma faced by Muslim youth in western societies. The easiness of the prose hides the ominous fact that the line between fundamentalism and terrorism is thin, and this precisely is the conflict within Islam. It's a treatise on how things are not always what they seem on the surface and in the clash of cultures, the ultimate victim is not religion, not identity, but freedom.

to me personally the novel was both an act of fiction and a reminder of the events that shaped Muslim identity in the aftermath of the fatwah on rushdie's head. I have not read satanic verses, but books like the black album make you wish you had. Though not engaging on an emotional plane for obvious reasons, it is still a good read if you wish to explore the genesis of a certain cloistered mentality.

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