The hope implicit in Version 1.0 of this review was informed by a chance encounter with Kamila Shamsie on my flight to a Colorado learning circle I had designed and where I was going to co-facilitate. The theme of the circle was “Emotional Intelligence: From Self-Awareness to Empathy.” The serendipity of being seated next to air-borne Shamsie coupled with time in the learning circle with like-minded grounded friends and colleagues, left me hopeful that if we take a moment to step into someone’s shoes, we will have greater self- and other-awareness; and if we are prepared to walk a mile in their shoes, to imagine that we are that person, then we can empathetically immerse our selves into other lives. After all, isn’t that the contract we readers and writers make with each other? Writers create distant but recognizable worlds populated by compelling characters; and readers enter into those worlds and are hopefully changed by the characters’ transformations.
But after putting the review on hold for a couple of months due to unexpected travel for my consulting practice, I found myself channeling the title of sociologist Paul Gilroy’s defiant There Ain’t no Black in the Union Jack. My hopefulness had morphed into a disquieting anger. And as with the stages of grief, my emotions went through stages: from hope to sad hopefulness to hopeful sadness to hopeful anger to angry hopefulness, and finally simmering into anger. The United States has angry, American, black brothers protesting brutal cops by marching through streets plaintively announcing that “Black Lives Matter;” Shamsie’s novel has a British angry brown sister protesting the death of her twin brother by rejecting grief and sharpening “her teeth on [rage’s] gleaming claw;” and I, a middle-aged observer of ancient and modern inequalities, channel the world’s fiction into a reviewer’s fading hope and rising anger.
My flight to Colorado had been unexpected because I was taking a sabbatical from flying due to a painfully slow recovery from shoulder surgery. Changes in the cabin’s air pressure exacerbated the sharp pain in my arm. The rotator cuff’s immobility had been so intense that for months I had not flown, not driven a car, and not even shaved my facial hair. But the learning circle summoned; so I packed, and unpacked for my flight.
Yes, I unpacked before my wife drove me to the airport. She had packed a makeshift pulley rope which I use for physical therapy, Tiger Balm for my sore muscles, and a heat pad that mitigates the discomfort of high-altitude pressure change. While the balm remained mixed with my toiletries stashed in the regulation-size Ziploc bag, the rope and the heat pad were removed; better to suffer physical pain, rather than risk the universal brown traveler’s humiliation at the probing hands of Homeland Security.
Ever since the numbers 9, 1, and 1 transmogrified from a helpline for all Americans into a never-ending war against Islam (and seemingly by extension against brown people taking flight), I have developed an ever-evolving protocol to mask my undeserved guilt and thus minimize interrogation at airports:
- Smile broadly
- Stay pleasantly unthreatening
- Soothe with small-talk about the weather and sports
As the post-9/11 weeks became months, years, and are becoming decades, I’ve found that it is not only my undeserved guilt that has been masked; it has also been my much-deserved anger. Goddammit! This is not the world Muslims (or fill in the blank with Christians, Jews, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Hindus, atheists, or agnostics) deserve!
But it is the world of Kamila Shamsie’s remarkably unsettling Home Fire, which opens with a rather settled sentence: “Isma was going to miss her flight.” The reason for the flight is quite understandable: Isma is leaving England to pursue a sociology doctorate in Amherst, Massachusetts. The reason for the missed flight is anything but understandable: airport security interrogating innocent brown people who dare to fly. “She had expected the interrogation, but not the hours of waiting that would precede it, nor that it would feel so humiliating to have the contents of her suitcase inspected. She’d made sure not to pack anything that would invite comment or questions – no Quran, no family pictures, no books on her area of academic interest.” Good God! When did a holy book become a threat? And photos of loved ones left behind? My anger subsided a bit when I laughed at the thought of subversive sociology taking down the ascendant America of Donald Trump. But Shamsie’s book is not about dark humor; it demands that the reader confront a state of being in a darkened world: “The official was doing that thing that she’d encountered before in security personnel – staying quiet when you answered their question in a straightforward manner which made you think you had to say more. And the more you said, the more guilty you sounded.”
Perhaps it is every traveler’s dilemma: brown or not, do we comply with the security charade as Isma does or are we better served by embracing Aneeka’s belief that it is “important to show at least a tiny bit of contempt for the whole process?” Professional pragmatism argues for the former (I just want to reach my client site, provide consulting services, and return home); human dignity begs for the latter (I am a free person, not enslaved by the systematic horror of racist puppet-masters and politicians).
Without a hint of lecturing, Home Fire teaches the reader about how precarious life is in balancing Isma’s worldview and that of Aneeka; it powerfully sits at the tragic nexus of pragmatism and dignity. Two males play an integral role in Isma and Aneeka’s lives: their brother, Parvaiz, and their would-be lover, Eamonn. Both are dreamers who do not see the world as it is but rather how they’d want it to be. Both have the shallowness of men who are still boys. And both have the sweet attractiveness of good-looking narcissists who bring to the world a lightness of being blended with an open heart. And yet, Eamonn and Parvaiz could not be more different from each other; they are sons of Muslim men who grew up a stone’s throw away from each other in one of London’s immigrant neighborhoods but took divergent political paths. As Isma texted Eamonn about the father she, Aneeka, and Parvaiz never knew, “I envy you your father. Mine died while being taken to Guantanamo.”
Eamonn’s father, Karamat, has inexorably climbed each rung of Western society and British politics. He has married Terry, an American interior designer, and raised an ambitious lawyerly daughter as well as his aimless son whose name has been Anglicized: “An Irish spelling to disguise a Muslim name – ‘Ayman’ becomes “Eamonn’ so that people would know the father had integrated.” Karamat has become Home Minister – one careful step from the Prime Minister’s office – by making proclamations that are eerily prescient of Trumpian Tweets: “citizenship is a privilege not a right or birthright.” Eamonn’s destiny is wrapped up in the years of proximity to, and late-in-life distance from, his beloved politician Dad, a man whose own proximity to the British crown has required a distancing from his brown heritage.
Parvaiz’s destiny is wrapped up in the years of absence, and late-in-life embrace, of his Abu, Adil Pasha; but the arms doing the embracing are of Farooq, a false-father. Adil is long-dead, another anonymous father lost to “enhanced interrogation techniques.” (How blithely I have read these three words all these years without feeling the tragic pain of them, the horror of using bureaucratese to mask the terror that begets more terror.) Farooq uses Adil’s memory to recruit Parvaiz into the dark world of jihad, training Parvaiz “how to be a man.” But in the hands of Farooq’s puppetry, Parvaiz does not become his own man. Instead he becomes someone used by others: by Farooq and his radicalized ilk to become “terrifying to grown men;” and by politicians and their co-dependent media to become the “terrorist son of a terrorist father.” In his own eyes, Parvaiz “finally saw that he was his father’s son in his abandonment of a family who had always deserved better than him.”
How we as readers respond to the conflicted world of Parvaiz, Adil, Eamonn, and Karamat is likely to reflect whom we find sympathetic: Isma or Aneeka? Or perhaps there is another gaze that we as readers take: the “double consciousness” of W. E. B. Du Bois who maintained in his classic The Souls of Black Folk that the identity of those suppressed by an oppressive society is divided into several parts. Shamsie’s clear-eyed novel vividly brings to life the internal conflict of the Ismas and the Aneekas; it is a clarion call to all brown, black, and white folk to empathize with both types of sisters, to believe in a persimmon’s peace.
“Peace” is Home Fire’s layered, wistful, final word, and it brings this reader back to a belief in hope if not hope itself.
For Mangla and Madhuri, two sisters who lovingly value their commonality and genuinely appreciate their differences. And for Joe, who founded our Learning Circle on the shared belief that dialog is a bridge to humanity.