Home Fire breaks the widespread stereotypes built around Muslims in the West.
Left me awestruck, shaken, on the edge of my chair, filled with admiration for her courage and ambition. ~ Peter Carey
What draws people to derive pleasure from literature, poetry, comedy or cinema is association – to identity, culture, food, language, objects and even sounds.That is precisely what this book does for Muslims in the West. On one side, we have seen the political damage led by the anti-immigrant, conservative stance and on the other, the best of arts and literature by way of association and representation coming from the people of colour in the West. Earlier, one such example I had observed was of Chile’s oppressive dictatorship of Pinochet post 1973, where beautiful and heartbreaking art emerged from the repressed, prisoned and tortured cells of dissenters displayed at the Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos, in Santiago de Chile, in comparison to the modern art emerging in fairly stable and democratic 1990s. In today’s political climate with leaders like Theresa May and Trump, art is flourishing with Riz Ahmed bagging the Emmys to an impressive list of authors in the Man Booker Longlist 2017 that speak to the people of ethnic origins. Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie is one such story set in Britain, and while the main characters belong to London’s largely South Asian ethnic locality of Preston Rd, Wembley, it can be easily relatable to any Muslim from US, Australia or rest of the Europe.
A five part novel that started off as an idea for a play is based on Sophocles’ 5thC BC Antigone that explores a conflict between affirmation of individual’s human rights and control of state security. It starts with the story of Isma, the older sister and an orphan, who is moving to Massachusetts from London to study a PhD in sociology after raising and mothering her twin siblings Aneeka and Parvaiz, both nineteen. On her way, Isma is detained at Heathrow airport for interrogation by her country’s own security officials on specific questions ranging from politics, to her opinions of Shia and Sunni, the great British Bake Off, the Queen and the measure of her own Britishness and Muslimness. The three siblings born and raised in Britain have never lived in Pakistan, and have associated with no nationality other than being British but by the sheer sound of Isma’s name and her headscarf, wrapped around in a turban style, she is subjected to stereotyping and questioning that makes her miss her flight – an experience too familiar with the members of my own family from the Pakistani side.
Riz Ahmed and Himanshu Suri’s British-Pakistani–American band Swet Shop Boys composed a song on the same theme calledT5, focusing on the airport security aka TSA experiences of young men in stubble at JFK departure terminal 5.
Upon arrival in Massachusetts, Isma meets Eamonn Lone, spelled with an E not an A to sound like an Irish version of a Muslim name. Eamonn is the son of the UK home secretary Karamat Lone, an ex-Muslim British Pakistani, also raised in Wembley, but who has moved away and married Terry, an Irish American woman. There are stark similarities in the immigration stance of the fictional UK home secretary and the present British PM, the then home secretary during Shamsie’s first few years in the UK. Isma and Eamonn find comfort in each other’s friendship while being homesick through the summer by associating each other with Londonness that is home. Later Isma asks him to deliver a packet to her twin siblings back home in London.
In today’s political climate with leaders like Theresa May and Trump, art is flourishing with Riz Ahmed bagging the Emmys to an impressive list of authors in the Man Booker Longlist 2017 that speak to the people of ethnic origins.
Shamsie has written a light-hearted skittish character of aunty Naseem, a stereotypical Pakistani aunty from Gujranwala whose home depicts the same visual and sensory aesthetics as any South Asian diaspora families living in the West including my mother’s home – complete with perpetual hospitality towards acquaintances and newly arrived families from the subcontinent, calligraphic Arabic scriptures, a vase with plastic flowers and the all-time present aroma of spices in the kitchen even when there is nothing on the stove. Even Eamonn, a part Pakistani who supresses his identity in his Notting Hill social groups, feels compelled to let out a precarious shukriya (thanks) while reaching for a second samosa with tea in aunty Naseem’s presence. This is where he meets Isma’s younger sister Aneeka, a law student at LSE who now lives across the road with neighbour aunty Naseem. After Isma leaves, Eamonn develops a capricious intimate relationship with her. Eamonn is most unprepared when he finds Aneeka praying first thing in the morning after spending the night at his apartment. All while keeping things unpredictable and secretive – especially the information why she had never met her father, who had died on his way to Guantanamo and had fought in Bosnia, Chechnya, Kashmir and later in Afghanistan, and now, is trying to save her twin brother in Raqqa.
The damage has reached the critical mass where no one can ignore this rhetoric of political urgency and its consequences using the unchecked stereotypes built around Muslims. This rhetoric isn’t new but only getting worse and novels such as Home Fire help break such stereotypes, which is needed now more than ever.
State surveillance and control also takes a central role stemming from the play Antigone that controls the right of a sister allowing to mourn and process her twin brother’s death, to do one last thing for the dead – a burial in her home country Britain. A funeral is one such ritual that has penetrated every culture in the world and since the process never took place for her ‘disappeared’ father, Aneeka is fighting for it with her everything, including Eamonn and his father Karamat Lone. Anything but similar to the dystopian novel, 1984, or The Handmaid’s Tale, Shamsie has shown life as it is for contemporary Muslims in the West by throwing in phrases like GWM: Googling while Muslim, an acronym used to self-censor while being keen on keeping up with news from Iraq or Syria and consciously adding celebrity gossip to search history to ‘normalise’ internet browsing patterns.
The beauty of the prose is breathtaking in the way Shamsie describes grief and loss and unmatched biological desire to protect siblings. In particular, the onomatopoeic sketching of the twins as they associate a particular sound with a specific emotion and consciousness nudged my hyper-sensitive self as I relate with fragrances in the same way.
His response, in 1995, to Shamsie was because the rhetoric created in the West, for example, of a Kalashnikov and a Minaret being in the same picture on the front cover of the Time magazine, needed to have alternatives.
Traversing through the central themes, and of associations, Shamsie’s characters are all British and all Muslims, but each one extremely different from another. While each of the five parts is written from a different character’s point of view and with different types of Muslimness, the book gives insight into different individuals of Muslim identities ranging from Karamat, a part of the Western establishment, Eamonn, Aneeka, Isma to Parvaiz, an alienated young teenager. The novel shows how damaging it is to Muslims in the West when they are painted using the same brush while believing that identities such as British or European cannot be conjoint with Muslims. These carefully constructed characters that are full of depth collide together in a literally explosive ending.
In one of her interviews, Shamsie discussed meeting with Agha Shahid Ali, the Kashmiri-American poet in the 1990s, and asking him why, in every event, he mentioned that he was a Muslim and a Shia, while personally being secular. His response, in 1995, to Shamsie was because the rhetoric created in the West, for example, of a Kalashnikov and a Minaret being in the same picture on the front cover of the Time magazine, needed to have alternatives. So next time, when someone hears the word Muslim, instead of picturing a radicalised man in their head, maybe, they will picture a poet. The damage has reached the critical mass where no one can ignore this rhetoric of political urgency and its consequences using the unchecked stereotypes built around Muslims. This rhetoric isn’t new but only getting worse and novels such as Home Fire help break such stereotypes, which is needed now more than ever.