Nadeem Aslam’s passionate condemnation of Islamic extremism in The Golden Legend ought to answer the question of where are the Muslim critics of fundamentalism. In four earlier novels, Aslam (who is Pakistani) has stood, almost single-handedly, as the voice of reason, writing about a troubled area of the world still almost totally misunderstood by the West. He’s a brilliant novelist, one of two or three truly great writers in the world today. His work reminds me of Orhan Pamuk at an earlier stage of his career. And, yes, like Pamuk, Nadeem Aslam ought to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. There’s a precedent for this because Pamuk was in his early fifties, in 2006, when he was recognized with the award. Aslam has just entered his fifties.
Let me be clear that Aslam is equally harsh in his indictment of the West and what it has done (and continues to do) in the Islamic world. The Golden Legend begins during an innocent moment in a fictive city named Zamana, in Pakistan, when school children are on the streets, in a human chain, moving books from an old library to a new one. “The majority of the library’s books had already been taken to the new premises. The volumes in the Islamic section were the ones that would be moved this morning. Since each one of these texts contained the names of Allah or Muhammad somewhere, it had been decided they should be taken from one building to the other by hand. In a truck or cart the risk was too great of something coming into contact with uncleanliness.”
Massud and his wife Nargis (who are both in their fifties and architects) observe the human chain of children transferring the books, but then, suddenly, a vehicle driven by a Westerner stops near-by. The children look at the white man curiously. Then a motorcycle drives up and a shooting match begins that results in Massud’s as well as several other bystander’s deaths. How ironic that just before he died, Massud had been handed a large book he recognized as having been “written by his father, [and] published the year Massud was born.” The Westerner survives and frantically begins making calls on his cell phone.
From this incident of street terrorism, Aslam will build a complex narrative involving Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, the government’s complicity with the CIA, the conflicts between Muslims and Christians, and—above all—books, literature, and their influence on human lives. Contextually, in an interview, Aslam has explained the inspiration for his novel. While he was still writing his previous novel, The Blind Man’s Garden, “the governor of the Punjab province in Pakistan…was murdered by his bodyguard. The governor had objected to Pakistan’s blasphemy law, a law that is being misused. You can go to a police station and say I heard my neighbor say something rude about God or Muhammad, and the police arrest the neighbor and you can move into his house. Innocent people are dead or in jail because of that law.”
The abuse of the blasphemy law is carefully woven into the structure of The Golden Legend. First, the government asks the families of the people murdered on the street by the American to forgive him so that he can be sent home. Nargis is intimidated by a man from the country’s intelligence services who wants her to agree to this plan. She was born a Christian, and although she accepted Islam when she married Massud, she never told him about her Christian past. The intelligence man roughs her up and later threatens her with exposure. Massud and Nargis for years have employed a Christian family to work for them. The wife, whose name was Grace, was murdered, some years ago, and her husband, Lily, has begun a secret liaison with a Muslim woman, who has also lost her spouse. Such an arrangement is obviously forbidden. The imam of the local mosque has recently begun making announcements, identifying people who have broken the blasphemy laws. Lily, after being accused of sexual relations with the Muslim woman, has to run for his life, and during his flight a riot erupts that results in the deaths of several other Christians in the city’s minority community.
To complicate things even more, Helen (Grace and Lily’s twenty-year-old daughter) also begins a relationship that bridges religious differences. After the riot, both Helen and her father become wanted suspects with posters of their faces plastered throughout the city. When tensions heat up, the intelligence man threatens Nargis with death because she has sheltered Lily and his daughter. Obviously, there is no way this story can end happily, especially the tensions between the Muslims and the Christians. Aslam develops these conflicts in seemingly insignificant, minor incidents that act as counterbalance to the more significant threats against the novel’s main characters. For example, a boy who looks as if he might be ten years old, approaches Helen with a knife, threatening to stab her. When Helen asks what he is doing, the child responds, “I have to see [if] Christians have black blood.” These are the kind of details that Aslam adds to his story, seemingly minor but horrible in their implications.
There are dozens of similar brief incidents, illustrating Muslim misunderstandings and stereotypes of Christians /Westerners. The same holds true for Western views of Muslims. The ignorance of the each other has emerged from centuries of prejudice, intolerance, and a continued lack of curiosity about the Other. I’d also call it a failure of our religious and educational constructs. It’s much easier to hide within one’s prejudices than confront them with reason. To the remark that Islam is not compatible with the modern world, a policeman in the story remarks, “There is only one place where Islam and the modern world can meet—and that’s the battlefield.” Shockingly, it appears that current residents of the White House and their advisors also support this statement and—worse—want to hasten the day of reckoning. If this is the way our most powerful leaders act, what hope is there for the common man?
The novel addresses not only Muslim/Western conflicts of ideology and theology but also the centuries of tensions between Hindus and Muslims. In one of the most disturbing vignettes in the novel, after they have caught a Christian (accused of blasphemy), Muslim police stand around him in a circle and shoot him with their guns, believing that killing an infidel will take them to paradise. “All their lives they had lied, deceived, been envious, neglected prayers and fasts, and had disrespected their elders and brutalised innocent fellow Muslims and engaged in sordid acts, they had struck women, they had sodomised children, they had stolen from the sick and the hungry—and here was salvation, the instant guarantee of Paradise.” Isn’t this also the logic of the suicide bomber? (In The Blind Man’s Garden, Alsam exposed the duplicity of this practice by noting that imams do not pick their own children for such acts.)
Finally, there is the question of literature, books, that permeates the entire novel, beginning with the students passing books to one another as they are moved to the new library. The 987 page book, That They Might Know One Another, that Massud was holding when he was shot, written by his father, was a history of mankind’s ability to live in tolerance in spite of our differences, “the hidden or forgotten contributions that one set of humans had made towards the happiness and knowledge of another. Traditions and histories had always mingled, and nothing in the East or the West was ever pure.” Nargis took the book (which was illustrated) home with her. When the intelligence officer came to visit her several days later and convince her to pardon the American who shot her husband, and when he sensed that she would not accept his offer, he took out a knife and began mutilating the book, cutting out illustrations of human figures (which Islam forbids) and destroying the binding. His intent is clear: we can also destroy people if they do not do what we want.
All that happens early in the story, shortly after Massud is killed. And afterwards, Nargis, and Helen, and Helen’s Muslim lover will slowly repair the book’s binding, using golden thread to restore the beloved volume to what it was. Nargis reflects on the incident repeatedly, one time musing, “Some things were more beautiful and valuable for having been broken.” Late in the novel, Lily (who is illiterate) will remember what Helen told him on one occasion, “When Genghis Khan’s forces invaded Zamana in 1221, the commander had ordered every book in the city to be burned….” Books, the written word, are a force to destroy ignorance, bigotry, and prejudice. No wonder that one of the first thing dictators do is destroy them. How chilling that sentence is today when we live in the country where the president does not read books and believes that the National Endowment for the Arts and the Humanities, and NPR, ought to be eliminated.
Nadeem Aslam’s The Golden Legend is a magical book, but also a pragmatic one, offering hope in the face of violence and tragedy, bigotry, and intolerance. Aslam’s writing is lyrical and expansive, luminescent, replete with stunningly beautiful passages. His characters resist oppression, growing in strength and dignity as they refuse to bend to hateful authority. Aslam dares to write about the forces that, if left unchecked, will destroy the world. Not everything is ugly or hopeless. As he tells us, even a damaged rose still has perfume.
Nadeem Aslam: The Golden Legend
Knopf, 319 pp., $27.95