There are parallels between Mohsin Hamid’s dark narrative, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), and Ali Eteraz’s equally troubling novel, Native Believer. Perhaps you remember Hamid’s main character’s increasing disaffection with the United States—in part triggered by 9/11—and his eventual decision to return to Lahore, the city of his birth. Eteraz’s main character (known as “M”) grew up in Alabama, in many ways becoming as American as apple pie. He effaced any connection to Islam long ago—or so he thought—marrying an American Southern belle, named Marie-Anne, and supporting her career, as well as her health problems that have left him, if not emasculated, then at least playing second-fiddle. He describes himself as “a man who ate the West, breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”
In short, he doesn’t care a hoot for his Muslim background. Or so he believes.
An incident occurs early in the story, however, that gets him thinking. He and his wife host a party, including in the guests M’s boss, George Gabriel, at the consulting firm where M works. There’s a curious incident when George looks at one of the bookcases and notices the works of Goethe and Nietzsche. George describes the two writers as “Gods among men….” Then he looks at the top shelf at the back and asks about a little pouch covered with dust. Although M has forgotten about it, he knows that it is a miniature Koran, inside the pouch, left there by his mother. George is aghast, and he asks his host,” You’re putting something higher than Nietzsche?” A few minutes later, he will reveal that his mother was a Nazi and—worse—when M goes to work the next day, he is fired. M’s best friend interprets the incident as a clear example of discrimination and recommends a lawsuit, but M replies, “I’m not about to go around claiming anti-Muslim discrimination when I’m not a Muslim.”
As further explanation, he observes, “For a brief instant, earlier in the decade, there had been a moment when I had been forced to confront the question of Islam. But not for very long. When the towers fell I simply attested to myself that I wasn’t a Muslim—There’s no known god, nor is there an unknown god, and if there must be a god, then all are god—and moved on from any feeling of complicity or guilt or involvement. I decided that I was nothing but a millennial, identified by my income, my profession, my consumption habits, living in this post racial America which through the burning of a Bush had become enlightened enough to follow a man from the Nile despite the fact that his name evoked not one but two of America’s enemies. Then Marie-Anne had gone on to get a job working at a firm whose stated goal it was to keep America safe [by marketing drones], and there came to be an additional buffer between me and Islam. As long as I didn’t do anything to willfully attach myself to Muslims, I had figured I would be secure.”
Eteraz’s novel asks what Muslims must do to themselves in order to be successful in the United States—deny their heritage? Buy into America’s war machine? Watch as the Middle East goes up in flames? Once unemployed, M meets other assimilated Muslims, who have similarly effaced their roots. One of these acquaintances, named Ali, believes he has solved the dilemma by making porn for Muslims. According to Ali, “To be a Muslim was not a physical confinement. It was an invisible concentration camp, where the bulk of our time was spent with each other, talking about ourselves, as if we were inherently problematic, in need of a solution. Maybe that was the nature of the twenty-first century incarceration. It made you gaze at your own reflection, over and endlessly, until your existence became a torture, until you became unbearable even to yourself, until you loathed yourself and longed to be who you were not.”
Ali also makes what he describes as “terrorist porn” and he openly supports a gay rock group—both designed to flaunt his ethnicity and “turn the war on terror into a joke….” Another one of Ali’s pranks is to project passages from the Koran on Philadelphia’s public buildings, including Constitution Hall. M can’t quite decide what his relationship with Ali should be. And his relationship with Marie-Anne has become equally complicated and non-sexual. For several years, she has suffered from a cortisol imbalance that has convinced her that should she get pregnant, the risks will be enormous.
All of these characters and their relationships with one another slowly move toward the novel’s central premise: “There was a kind of deception in being a moderate Muslim.” But how else can Muslims survive in America? That’s the truly disturbing aspect of Native Believer, along with a shocking conclusion that will leave you breathless. I can’t say that I find that ending convincing, but I understand the enormous pain that Ali Eteraz’s narrator has experienced trying to cope with America post 9/11.
You have been warned: read at your own risk.
Ali Eteraz: Native Believer
Akashic Books: 271 pp., $15.95