2014 saw the Muslim community in Britain under the spotlight like never before. The media was awash with Islam and Muslim related stories and unfortunately for the most part it wasn’t good. Paedophile grooming gangs, the trial of Lee Rigby’s killers, the beheading of a British aid worker somewhere in the Syrian desert, all stories bearing the same inescapable punchline – ‘British Muslim’ is an oxymoron. In this regard I thought Tamim’s novel was a welcome breath of fresh air and, if you’ll pardon the pun, a novel way of exploring the question of Muslim integration in Britain. Although, presented through the narratives of fictional characters, the dialogues are real enough. Real enough that most British born Muslims – especially those of a South Asian background – will readily identify with them and real enough that non-Muslim readers are presented with a kind of listening-behind-the-door insight into the internal discussions of the community.
I heard about this novel as a result of the (inordinate amount of) time I spent on Twitter in 2014. I made a promise to the author, Tamim Sadikali that I’d read it and post an honest, frank review – so here, goes…
From the get go I loved “Dear Infidel”. The opening scene provoked a wry smile upon my face for as well as mirroring my own life experiences of the period it also sets the tenor for pretty much (barring some auto-erotic antics) everything that will follow. The struggles of five very different British Muslims trying to reconcile their twin identities certainly made for a captivating tale. What lies within is a veritable kaleidoscope of competing sentiments – love, longing, expectation, bitterness, disappointment, despair and resignation, with hope being most conspicuous by its absence. Being British and Muslim in 21st century Britain is far from straightforward. The story itself centres around a family reunion on Eid ul-Fitr, 2004 and what happens when five British Muslims attempt to make sense of it all.
Adam is the first of the five we are introduced to. In his thirties and working for a financial institution, he is perhaps the most religiously inclined of the five characters. He follows the news of the ongoing Iraqi insurgency with keen interest and in the opening scene of the novel is caught out doing so by his boss in the company of prospective clients. Fortunately no major harm incurs to the company and as a result he escapes with a minor private reprimand but it leaves you questioning why a Muslim watching a mainstream news channel on the company’s in-house screen should be a cause for consternation at all? Had Adam been white and non-Muslim would it have evoked the same response?
Adam’s character is representative of a growing segment of the British Muslim community. The trappings of middle class affluence combined with an outward veneer of ‘Britishness’ serve to mask an underlying sense of “otherness”. While queueing, understatement, perhaps even tea & cucumber sandwiches, might be part of their repertoire so too are Shariah law, the Ummah and Jihad – but only when amongst “their own”. Jokes about Miley Cyrus’ latest outfit or debates on Chelsea’s chances in the Cup may well feature at lunchtime but over the dinner table it’s very much about Abu Ghraib, the Taliban and the niqab.
Adam we learn is married to Nazneen. She is the only female character out of the five. Clearly from a liberal upbringing she is educated and career focussed. At university she engaged in a long term consummate relationship with a handsome non-Muslim, Martin, who even after her marriage to Adam, intermittently occupies her thoughts. The death of her grandmother during her final year at university causes her to pause and reflect on her life; consequently she decides that year to fast Ramadan and re-engage with her religion. Shortly after splitting with Martin she encounters Adam at her local gym going on to marry him, mostly because he is respectable, decent and above all, Muslim. As the story progresses, however, it is evident that she doesn’t share the same passionate connection with him as she did with her former lover nor can she ever hope to. The depiction of Muslim woman – non-Muslim man relationships has historically been a risqué subject and in India to this day has the propensity to inflame communal tensions. What differentiates Nazneen’s tale from her Bollywood counterparts is that she ultimately chooses her religion and her community over love. She harbours a deep seated disdain, bordering on hatred, for Indians – presumably in this context meaning Sikhs and Hindus – yet a close affinity towards the British. Something about the British insouciant attitude towards love and life clearly appeals to her. There is a marked power disparity in her marital relationship and in the aftermath of a family row during which she confronts Adam over his previously undisclosed desire to relocate to a Muslim country, she ends up walking out on him. Adam’s subsequent self-debasing demeanour and attendant craven apologies paradoxically both comfort and repulse her. Ultimately they serve to confirm what she has known deep down inside from day one – that he will never prove to be the man she truly wanted to be with. A real man simply wouldn’t behave like that.
Salman is Adam’s brother and if a single word was required to describe his story it would be, “bitterness”. The sentiment is pervasive throughout his narrative like an enveloping mist on a cold autumn morning in rural Yorkshire. For Salman is bitter about his “useless” 2:2 accountancy degree from a low ranking university, even more bitter that it didn’t even get him a job in accountancy, bitter about his ‘career’ as a passport control officer at Heathrow, bitter about his average looking wife, bitter that he isn’t accorded more respect from his parents (a result of his low paying job he infers) and bitter about being a Paki in a white man’s country. His jaundiced attitude towards his cousin, Pasha is evidently born of jealousy – of his well-paid job, his BMW, his self-confidence and the respect he seems to command from others. All of this only serve to reinforce Salman’s sense of bitterness towards his fate and make him question why his cousin has been blessed by providence despite his overt irreligiousness. The relationship between the two is palpably tense. There is also an element of hypocrisy in him and it’s clear he often uses Islam as an excuse to cover his personal failings. It’s one thing to never want to be an accountant because of your Islamic ideals, quite another to try, fail and then use Islam as a convenient excuse. In one breath he asserts his desire to have bought his son an expensive present if he could but have afforded to yet in the next casts his alternative gift of a Qur’an as some form of moral stand against the turpitude of the materialism so prevalent within British society. His terse, testy exchange with a pregnant lady at a bus stop reveals a similar sense of inward alienation from wider society as his brother’s with his parting words to her exuding the jaundice that seems to have interpenetrated his soul.
Pasha is the archetypal coconut of the five. Now pushing 40, his good looks and laddish attitude meant he had little trouble attracting female attention as a young man. He is the exact opposite of the feckless, forlorn character that is his brother, Imtiaz. Long since having moved up north he barely maintains contact with his family and is wholly unconcerned about their affairs. He lives with his long term girlfriend, Jenny towards whom he seems to have mixed emotions. Even though he is “well-integrated” nevertheless every so often he is reminded of his belonging to a minority community and like a recrudescent rash it intensely irritates him every time. His first romantic encounter with his girlfriend is described in some detail: her casual racism in describing him as a ‘paki’ is matched by his observation, albeit unspoken, that British women have a certain baseness, a kind of prostitute-quality, about them. For all Pasha’s pretensions to Britishness, subconsciously he knows he will always be as Jenny described him, ‘a paki’ – a fact that doesn’t sit well with him. Realising that his family will never countenance his marriage to a non-Muslim woman he consequently makes no attempt to acquaint her with them. Throughout he steadfastly refuses to lay the blame white British society for its prejudice against Muslims; believing it instead to be a wholly understandable reaction to the behaviour of the Muslim community.
Imtiaz represents something of an enigma but one that doesn’t provoke a great deal of interest. The brother of Pasha (cousin to Adam and Salman), he is a bachelor and a recluse with an acute pornography addiction. I was initially disposed to believe the social ineptitude towards the opposite sex that clearly blighted his adolescence was a result of his Muslim upbringing – although against this we learn that his father is clearly liberal in his outlook stating that he brought his sons to England to be English, not Pakistani. What we do know for certain is that at 35 Imtiaz is almost beyond redemption. It will take a miracle to save him and there doesn’t seem to be one on the horizon.
As the Eid day progresses tensions begin to rise between several of the characters and after dinner that evening these finally erupt into a heated altercation around the kitchen room table, triggered by a seemingly innocuous invitation to watch the Hindi classic, “Pakeezah”. Salman’s vehement objections to watching the movie begin with the moral – it being the story of a harlot after all – and end with the political: the 2002 anti-Muslim pogroms in Gujarat, India. Imtiaz, as befits his effete character, quickly exits the scene leaving the remaining four viz. Salman, Pasha, Adam and Nazneen embroiled in an increasingly bitter debate. The raw anger exhibited by all four participants radiates through their every words and one gleans the distinct impression it is providing a degree of catharsis for each of them. Years of pent up frustration spontaneously find expression in a torrent of accusations, barbs and caustic ripostes. Who is to blame for the rising tide of anti-Muslim sentiment in the West? Are Muslim acts of terrorism and Western foreign policy morally equivalent and equally reprehensible? Just who won’t accept who in Britain and do British Muslims have a future in the land of their birth? By the end of it both Pasha and Nazneen have stormed out of the house and the illusion of the happy, united Muslim family is exposed for the (fastidiously painted) trompe l’oeil that it is. It seems that in 21st century Britain not only is religion dividing Muslims from infidels but also Muslims from Muslims. What are the solutions? The author leaves this for the reader to ponder upon as our sojourn in the lives of the five ends abruptly shortly after this juncture but not without tragedy for one of them.
Complaints wise I feel that for the type of novel the author has set out to write, there are actually precious few to be made. First off, perhaps the relationships between the characters wasn’t elucidated as clearly as it might have been and it needed careful, repeat reading for me to ascertain how precisely each of them was related to the other. But then again maybe I’m just stupid. Secondly, I felt the character of Imtiaz was largely extraneous to the story. I’m sure many 2nd generation British Asian Muslim men in their mid to late 30s can relate to his awkwardness around white girls at school – I know I can – but aside from evincing us of the perils of pornography addiction I’m not sure Imitiaz’s woes contributed to the overall storyline. His vignette of middle aged despair strikes me as somewhat incongruous in the enclosing context. Pasha’s relationship with his girlfriend is left somewhat vague and I felt that perhaps it could have been expanded upon a bit more – in particular how does the growing disconnect between Muslims and the rest of British society play out in their household? Even if Pasha is a coconut I’m sure the tensions pervading wider society must at some point find their way into the microcosm that is his relationship with Jenny? Lastly, in select parts I found the narrative a little tedious, especially some of Nazneen and Imtiaz’s reminiscing.
Overall I found “Dear Infidel” an engrossing read which will likely appeal, albeit in different ways, to both Muslims and non-Muslims. The language employed is beautifully descriptive, evocative and urbane yet also, when occasion demands, raw. Perhaps too raw in places for some Muslims’ palates but necessary in order to capture an accurate picture of our real life emotions and reactions which very often are raw and visceral. Perhaps doubly so if one happens to be a British Muslim of South Asian extraction. If the author’s idea was to convey the depth, complexity and inner-turmoil of his characters then he succeeded admirably leaving our conscience seared with a deep sense of empathy for each of them. Although occasionally humorous, there is a deep sense of foreboding that overshadows this tale; the dark clouds hanging over it leave the reader constantly anticipating the stentorian thunderclap that will herald the start of the storm. In the end it never materialises but nevertheless the darkness persists leaving the reader desperately searching for some salvific hint of sunlight. Some of the truths it reveals about the respective prejudices of Asian Muslims and White non-Muslims towards each other will undoubtedly prove uncomfortable to many but it is only through such candid introspection that a workable paradigm for peaceful co-existence might possibly be attained.
In summation, a superb debut effort from Mr Sadikali and I eagerly anticipate his next offering.
Follow the author on Twitter: @TamimSadikali
Purchase a copy of ‘Dear Infidel’ here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Dear-Infidel-Tamim-Sadikali/dp/1906190704/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8