The Legacy of Shame, with Kamila Shamsie (A Book Review of ‘Home Fire’)

Book Reviews, fiction, Fiction

“I pledged to ISIS in January 2015 and left in March,” said Raad Abdullah Ahmad, 31. “My family disowned me after that. Imagine having no family. I left because I didn’t like what they did to people.”

ISIS Fighters, Having Pledged to Fight or Die, Surrender En Masse (NYT)

When I read the lines above in a NYT article, my thoughts immediately went to Parvaiz Pasha, a fictional character in Kamila Shamsie’s book Home Fire: A Novel (Amazon | Indiebound) which was long-listed for the Man Book Prize for fiction.

Since I migrated to the U.S. in 2004, the political reality of the country has always stayed the same: at open war. Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria. Taliban, Al Qaeda, ISIS. That has translated to war against Muslims, officially ordained as “terrorists” by the West.

My coming-of-age story is marked by this reality, a young Filipino immigrant slowly understanding the social pathology of violence, of the industrial military complex, of the other-ing of militants who essentially wanted the same thing the U.S. did.

In Home FireI was able to get a glimpse of the story behind Parvaiz’s decision, a British Pakistani who was recruited to a militant group on accounts of being the son of a famed jihadi warrior. Shamsie takes her readers beneath the layer of what we see on our TV screens, or what politicians have chosen as their generic anti-terrorism mouth pieces.

Parvaiz’s dad brought shame to their family, after joining a militant group himself. His involvement was immediately frowned upon, he was disowned. As a child, the boy took great pains to conceal his father’s identity, and it was only when he met another elder, a father figure who intentionally tried to recruit Parvaiz did he realize what his father’s work meant to other people.

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These responsibilities were what estranged the father from Parvaiz’s twin sister Aneeka and older sister Isma. The legacy of their father loomed in the household, a cause of great shame to both women. The story centers on these three characters, as Shamsie skillfully adopts and mimics their struggle as a Greek tragedy. She hones in on their relationship, illustrating the ebb and flow of simultaneous allegiance and estrangement.

Sunday Spotlight: To Choose What to Never Forget

Sunday Spotlight

I woke up pained and heavy this morning, with the weight of a sprained ankle slowly clearing the fog of my senses. A headache that was all too familiar arrested my attention, with the mere thought of caffeine temporarily soothing the pain. The trek to the kitchen was unsuspectingly laborious but the sound of drip-drip-drip was gratifying like no other. I checked my phone. Pained or not, this reflex of checking in with the world through social media was a constant.

The first picture on Instagram that popped up was Teju Cole’s:

teju

Source: Teju Cole’s Instagram

Never forget.

But the truth is that we forgot instantly. The pain of loss would always be remembered. The wounded know their wounds. Who in our open city did not wake up heavy and sad this morning? Memory is permanently dyed with any personal experience of horror. And the State, meanwhile, reliably organizes its pieties.

What we forgot was that meaningless violence—counterviolence, strategically misdirected violence—was the one thing to never forget. We forgot that defending the principle of the equality of human life was the core meaning of never forgetting. We forgot that to forget this principle was to obliterate both the Other and the Self. Never forget, more than the transparently false operation this and operation that military slogans, has been the vengeful motto under which this obliteration continues incessantly. Never forget, with its moral weight and ethical force, became the shield for any and every forgetting.

We forgot instantly, are still forgetting, because callousness is no less contagious than courage. The infamous day was not the culmination of a certain phase of mercilessness. It was its beginning. Weeping, mourning, me, mine, our, ours, but not them, not them, forgetting, forgetting, and all the while saying: never forget.

It wasn’t until I saw this photo that I was reminded of what day it was. The phrase “Never Forget” instantly conjured up images of Americans panicked in New York City that day in 2001, as I watched from a small television screen in our kitchen at Apalit, Pampanga. My dad was sipping his coffee while my mom was sitting at the kitchen table, both their eyes glued on the video loop of planes crashing onto the towers that the local cable news kept playing.

It didn’t make sense to me then that the benevolent United States of America would be the bearer of such horrific blows to its people, its honor, its dignity.

And then I moved here three years after that. My formative years in the Bay were filled with anti-war protests and literature by Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky. While the tragedy of the American lives lost to 9/11 was imprinted in my mind, I was slowly  becoming more aware, more alarmed by the implications of what followed after.

There were memorials, conspiracy theories and more protests. It wasn’t too long before the ‘U.S. War on Terror’ became a norm, used to justify every military offensive and operation by the country. As these wars increased, so did the number of civilian lives lost around the world.

I’ve been reading Cole’s book Known and Strange Things for a while now, savoring every essay as much as I can. In one essay he also published on The New Yorker, he wrote about the drone attacks authorized by Obama that his Cabinet goes over weekly. I read this essay yesterday, before I sprained my ankle, while sitting in a car that was making its way through coastal California.

I was in New York City on 9/11. Grief remains from that awful day, but not only grief. There is fear, too, a fear informed by the knowledge that whatever my worst nightmare is, there is someone out there embittered enough to carry it out. I know that something has to be done to secure the airports, waterways, infrastructure, and embassies of our country. I don’t like war; no one does. But I also know that the world is exceedingly complex, and that our enemies are not all imaginary. I am not naïve about the incessant and unseen (by most of us) military activity that undergirds our ability to read, go to concerts, earn a living, and criticize the government in relative safety. I am grateful to those whose bravery keeps us safe.

Reading this a day before the 15th year anniversary of 9/11 was uneventful, but the blaring truth of Cole’s words are searing. And this truth, the horrible truth that I am a part of as a citizen of this country, is what I choose not to forget.