February issue 2010
A Search for God and Meaning
Ali Eteraz’s Children of Dust: A Memoir of Pakistanquite vividly depicts the life of a Pakistani educated in a madrassa and raised in a rural Pakistani community who migrates to America for a prosperous future. His years in America see a series of events, from a somewhat horrific immigration to a confrontation with secular culture, social and academic university life, and reformation Islam — all of which transform Eteraz’s impressions of what the Muslim world ought to be striving for, and what is best for Muslims in general. The book’s strength lies in its ability to show the diversity of the Muslim community, which, in a world rife with generalisations, stereotypes, and misrepresentations of Muslim life, religion and culture, is much needed. It is not so much “wildly entertaining” as author Murad Kalam exclaims, as it is onion-like, revealing a new layer with each turn of the page.
Children of Dust opens with a description of Pakistani village life in Sehra Kush. There are stories of encounters with angels and mythical genies, black-magic inducing aunties, everyday life revolving around folk tales and legends and Quranic narratives of the prophets. In this environment, one meets Abir ul Islam, Eteraz as a child. The ‘fragrance of Islam,’ as the name suggests, has a particular significance for his life narrative. Eteraz explains that at the Holy Kaaba, on the annual Hajj pilgrimage, his parents had made a covenant with God, that because he was born male, serving Islam would be his ultimate fate.
But while serving `Islam’ — which is not to be equated with serving God — is quite a noble pact and does act as a major theme throughout the memoir, it also leads to a number of problems. With Eteraz growing up at the time of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and in an area rife with mujahideen stories floating around, conflating serving Islam with taking up arms seems to have been quite commonplace. For this reason, Eteraz explains, his parents’ decision to send him to a madrassa was not too radical.
Of course, the experience, Eteraz writes, was life-altering. Daily recitations of the Quran according to its proper vocal pronunciations (qira’at) and using the washroom according to the Sunnah standards, besides other related activities, were uplifting. But the negatives, he explains, greatly outweighed any positives. Constant disciplinary actions, such as beatings with a wooden stick for mispronunciation of Quranic verses, though quite amusingly told, were hourly occurrences. In a few instances, a local qari used his position of authority to sexually abuse his students, one of whom was a close friend of Eteraz. In another incident, another qari used his daily meetings with Eteraz to pass out love letters to his mother. These, and other experiences, ultimately depict madrassa life as backward and somewhat barbaric.
But his time at the madrassa, although life-altering, is but one of many stages Eteraz passes through. With his father having been accepted for immigration to America, Book II sees Eteraz and his family leaving for and settling in Alabama, the ‘Bible belt’ of the West. The descriptions of the dramatic changes in both Eteraz’s and his family’s lifestyles as a result of their move are particularly interesting. Eteraz relates how his mother soon left her ‘village-oriented’ Islam for the new Salafi Islam she saw floating about around her. Devouring writings by proclaimed Salafis such as Bilal Phillips and others, she saw herself as a champion of her new-found faith, and sought to share it with others in her community. Eteraz’s father, on the other hand, opted for an Islam in line with conventional American life — seeking to bridge gaps rather than distance himself from his new American community. His numerous confrontations with and denunciation of the Salafis are rather amusing and do speak of the diversity inherent within Muslim culture. But the differences in Muslim communal obligations never cloud what both parents felt was best for their children. Both, Eteraz writes, quite clearly demarcated for them what was halal and haram. And since television, which airs a number of sexually explicit shows, was haram, Eteraz writes that his parents had adopted an extremist stance. The use of such terms is noteworthy for those critical categories associated with such evocative terms.
Although his elementary and high school years are marked by a number of sexual fantasies, this changes after Eteraz, during his university years, learns that he, as a Siddiqui, is a descendant of the Caliph Abu Bakr. Because of the Abir ul Islam name, alongside issues of identity and social standing, Eteraz very quickly opts for an ‘Islamic’ identity. Clothed in its garments, he champions all things Islamic and denounces everything associated with the West and secularism. Much like his mother before him, he opts more for hardline Salafi Islam. Living with a Salafi Muslim roommate, Moosa Farid, Eteraz’s conversations with non-Muslims soon turn into dawa-appeals; those of the opposite sex are shunned altogether — labelled as being “wack” — and a Muslim garb, and an overall appearance of piety is adopted. These years in college are described by Eteraz as his years of Islamic fundamentalism.
Disappointed by secular culture, and no doubt by a failed marriage proposal to a Muslim woman named Bilqis, he soon decides, at the behest of his parents, to travel back to Pakistan. What he seeks from this trip is to, of course, find a pious Muslim wife. Book III thus begins with Eteraz’s astonishment at life in Karachi. Not ‘the peak of Islamic culture in an ever-flowing Islamic stream’ as Iqbal had described it, the disappointed Eteraz writes of the manner in which the Muslims around him had quite readily opted for a ‘western, secular culture,’ rather than an ‘Islamic’ one — wearing tight jeans, in his opinion, is both western and secular. Eteraz also describes the corruption apparent within his Muslim state, the rigid sectarian and communal divides, mass alienation of the poor and a clear demarcation between the classes. And in Eteraz’s encounter with the various leaders of his village, Sehra Kush — now hardcore Taliban supporters — he learns that there is a clear demarcation not only between the ‘West’ — whose embodiment is America — and Pakistan, but also between local inhabitants of Pakistan.
Disappointed by Sehra Kush’s hostile surrounding and victim of a failed abduction plot, Eteraz returns to America, finding a new love in post-modernism. Again, this is a life-altering moment. The stark opposition to power structures and the exploitation of the poor by the rich, which he discovers in the world of post-modernism, provides him a moral outlook through which he can govern his life. His years as the Muslim Students Association’s (MSA) president, as well as the various political activities he engages in while at college are described and understood by him through the lens of post-modernism.
The idea of championing the rights of the weak and shunning oppressive barriers leads the reader to the final section of Eteraz’s work — ‘Book V: The Reformer — Ali Eteraz.’ Intent on reforming Islam to include more ‘liberal,’ enlightened ideas, as well as those offered by post-modern thinkers. Eteraz decides to go to Iraq. Although the intention behind the trip is to establish a think tank for his purposed reformed Islam, his roommate and doppelganger Ziad tells him more about himself and Islam than he could ever have thought of himself.
Although Eteraz’s life is unusual in that he seems to have accomplished so much within such a short period of time, the book is more than just a memoir. It is better appreciated when placed alongside the gross misrepresentations of Muslims in mass media outlets. One notices that Eteraz, as a Muslim, is not of one mind but rather is always changing his opinion and outlook on life. To see Muslims as being of one opinion alone — fanatical or otherwise — is grossly unfair.
Children of Dust does well to depict the diversity inherent within Muslim culture by depicting the life of his own family, and his encounters with various Muslims. From his Salafi mother to his more liberal father, the rural folk of Pakistan to the club-going youth of America, the dogmatic college activists to the soft-spoken MSA ‘sisters’ — the diversity inherent within Islam is surely immense. Rather than looking at Islam simplistically, as a monolithic block expressive of one moral outlook, one should view it much like one views the West: as being symbolic of an array of different cultures and opinions. For those who depict Muslims generically as violent and militant, Eteraz offers a cogent critique. Although Eteraz does use terms such as ‘extremist’ and ‘fundamentalist’ rather loosely, his experiences in Pakistan and America do suggest that more scrutiny should be reserved for titles such as the West, East, Muslim and Islam.
But to read Children of Dust simply to find critiques of modern discourse masks much of its genius. The work, as a whole, is symbolic of a life journey in a world of confusion. In this sense, it can be read not so much as a memoir of Pakistan or a narrative of present Muslim situations or current world events, but rather as an internal discourse — a constant struggle between confusion and certainty.