9/11 looms centrally in H. M. Naqvi’s love song of New York City and the subsequent loss of that adoration after the twin towers collapse. As an American, I can’t help feeling a terrible sadness at the precarious lives of anyone perceived to be an Arab in the United States ever since the terrorists brought down the towers. We’ve never been a particularly tolerant country, but over the years you’d like to believe that racial profiling would become less frequent, rather than more–as appears to be the reality.
I’m not talking about Naqvi’s Home Boy as much as I am about Muslim friends and Middle-Eastern students I’ve taught for years. All of this xenophobia, today, is wrapped up not only with fears of terrorism but also with rabid attitudes toward immigrants, often inflamed by our elected leaders. Which is only to say that the dark ages so many Americans fear will be spread by the Other is more often than not an inner darkness within the perceiver.
Three Pakistani young men with good American educations–one, in fact, in the final stages of his PhD—celebrate the diversity, the vibrancy and the uniqueness of New York City until the wake-up call in September of 2001. Sure, they drink, run around with women, and take occasional drugs, like most American males of their age, until their lives are turned upside-down in the weeks after 9/11. There’s been so much written about American reactions to the event, but probably most of us have thought little about immigrants who also love America and, because of their looks, suddenly found themselves in a dragnet of draconian possibilities.
One of Naqvi’s main characters states the issue directly: “Those bastards…they’ve fucked up my city! THEY’VE FUCKED UP EVERYTHING!”
Exactly. The issue could not have been articulated more precisely. The main character, a.k.a.., Chuck, compares the 9/11 terrorist attack to his father’s death: “I remained in a daze for weeks.” Anger became focused on the Arabs who committed the act, thereby changing the lives of all decent men of good faith, not just the xenophobes who already had nothing decent to say about people who look differently.
Sadly, things get worse. Because of a series of mishaps involving a visit to the house of one of their friends outside of the city, federal agents arrive and, after taking one look at the three men, assume they must be terrorists. Three men together can’t be anything but a sleeper-cell. As Chuck reflects, “No matter what I did, I couldn’t change they way I was perceived.”
Worse, they are carted off to jail and placed in isolated cells, where they are roughed up and humiliated both verbally and physically. When Chuck mutters something about his rights, one of the agents responds, “You aren’t American! You got no fucking rights!” Then he’s called a series of derogatory terms, including “Bumfuckistan” and “sand nigger.” Things get worse, though two of the three of them are released after a few days, their feelings about the United States shattered forever.
Oddly, the book might have become nothing more than a screed, but Naqvi is an enormously gifted writer. He makes the streets of New York City seductive, unforgettable. The three caballeros themselves are always colorful; the patois they speak rich in irony and undertone. Their friends (only some of them from the Middle East) are Metrosexuals and/or Metrostanis. There’s also poignant humor and inventive plotting that acts like a glue strip, seamlessly connecting incident to incident.
Best of all, for this reviewer, was the first time encounter of a Muslim with my name. Asked how he could possibly have his name, Chuck responds—in typical laconic Naqvian prose: “The etymology of my ostensibly all-American sobriquet had been informed by my mythical appetite for mother’s milk. Apparently, I was known to feed up to thirteen, fourteen times a day. Although Ma never denied me her sore, bitten breasts, she figured there was something awry, and after consulting with aunts and squawking sundry, she took me back to her old-school Anglo gynecologist at the hospital. ‘Madam,’ he stated, ‘the child latches ineptly. We can work on that. But there is no cause for alarm. You have, I believe, a very affectionate son.”
That latching tendency may also explain why the writer decides to make Chuck into a home boy—home, of course, being Pakistan.
H. M. Naqvi
Shaye Areheart Books, 274 pp., $23
CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.