At the Crossroads
Children of Dust: A Memoir of Pakistan, By Ali Eteraz, HarperOne (October 2009)
Halfway through Ali Eteraz’s Children of Dust there are a series of scenes in which the author, while studying at a Methodist college in Atlanta, discovers post-modernism. In spite of his rigid belief in Islam, he finds himself intrigued by the post-modernists’ secular rationalism. Soon, influenced by this newfound philosophy, he abandons some of his more orthodox religious practices—like maintaining a strict distance from the opposite sex and avoiding nightclubs.
Only a few weeks later though, despite the growing rift between him and Islam, he nominates himself for the post of president for the college’s Muslim Student Association. When he wins, he tries hard to find ways to make Islam—and consequently, himself—relevant to other Muslim students on campus.
These scenes best encompass the tenor, the very essence, the raison d’être of the book; they show, in a nutshell, the constant dilemma in Eteraz’s life, between being a good Muslim and a freethinking modernist.
Yet this story is not Eteraz’s alone.
It’s also the common narrative of an entire generation of American Muslims. All the themes in Children of Dust—the tug-of-war between the liberty, secularism, and sexual freedom of the West and the conservatism, faith, and security of Islam; the equal temptations of fundamentalism and complete abandonment of religion; and the dilemma of trying to define yourself in societies that see you in absolute terms (either only Muslim or only American, never both)—also belong to the second-generation Muslim diaspora, still struggling to find their identities in post-9/11 America. And Ali Eteraz, through this honest, searing, darkly comic autobiography, has become one of the first authors to give that experience a clear voice.
Eteraz’s memoir starts off in Lahore, Pakistan where we learn of a pact Eteraz’s father has made with Allah: that if God presents him with a son, he will ensure that the son becomes a leader and servant of Islam. This covenant is a recurring theme, a cross that Eteraz must bear for the rest of his life. Every time he strays from the path of righteousness his father’s voice whispers into his ear, reminding him of his destiny.
We follow Eteraz and his family as they move to the harsh Pakistani desert, where, as a little boy, the author learns of Islam’s jinns and demons, of angels and of the fear of burning in hell. He attends—and is relentlessly beaten up at—an Islamic madrassa. The family then relocates to America, settling down in Alabama, where begins Eteraz’s long journey of finding his place between Islamic piety and American modernism. Over the course of that journey, he plays many roles—sometimes the rebellious teen, desperate to unshackle himself from his family’s backwardness, and at other times, the religious zealot, refusing to shake hands with girls. Sometimes the sexually curious adolescent who writes erotica and trawls AOL for cyber-sex, and at other times, the bearded 19-year-old, who travels to Pakistan in search of a hijabi (head-covering) wife. But none of these roles, that border on elaborate games of dress-up, seem to quite fit.
After 9/11, Eteraz, who has by then settled into life in New York as a rich lawyer, reinvents himself yet again, this time as an Islamic reformist. Eventually, that experiment fails too, resulting in a climax that is both surprising and poignant.
Besides its obvious relevance as an expression of Muslim-American identity, Children of Dust is an important book because it also helps us understand why Islam sometimes engenders such fanaticism in its followers. Eteraz’s childhood is filled with tales of the punishments that will meet him in hell and on the Day of Judgment. War is a repetitive motif in all the stories told to him as a child, and he grows up fantasizing about defeating the infidels. When his mother tells him that on the Day of Judgment, a mahdi (or messiah) will liberate only the good Muslims from the Dajjal (or Satan), little Ali concludes that the only way to be safe from the hellfire is through prayer and penance. When his teacher at the madrassa beats him up, he blames it on his being a bad Muslim and vows to study harder. Finding out that his ancestors were probably Hindus, he rues that he came from a “dark and illiterate man…a nothing.” Fear, shame, and humiliation, and a belief in Muslim superiority seem institutionalized in Islamic culture.
The book is not without its flaws. Eteraz’s constant conversions often lack sufficient background context to explain the sudden metamorphoses. While the narrative moves easily from one avatar to another, there is little insight into why Eteraz keeps going back and forth, switching suddenly from a pro-Palestine student organizer to an almost irreligious law student who is eager to leave his past behind. (We can infer that this is a result of the constant search for an identity, but the book itself doesn’t offer that analysis at any point).
Still, Children of Dust deserves to be celebrated more than criticized. It is a wonderful articulation of the confusion and vulnerabilities that go into the creation of a young Muslim zealot, and it is a rare insight into the dilemmas of the Muslim-American community. It comes at a time when there is a brewing cultural movement amongst second-generation Muslim-Americans. From the birth of Taqwacore, the Islamic-punk rock sub-genre to the sudden flood of Muslim American comedians like Tissa Hami and Usman Azhar, it is clear that young Muslim-Americans want to be heard. They want to tell their stories and it would do well for America to sit up and listen. Eteraz has told his well.