“It’s in the Quran. La yukallifullahu nafsan ilia wus-ahaa. Allah does not burden a soul with more than it can bear.”
Isma, p. 49
Home Fire is the newest novel by Kamila Shamsie, a self-identifying Muslim and British citizen. The sometimes-lyrical text covers an ambitious amount of territory from the seduction and recruitment of young men into the ranks of the Islamic State, the relationships of fathers and their male children, the pull of sibling love, and the terror of idealism when mixed with radicalism. These are ambitions that the text surprisingly lives up to, and never disappoints.
There are stories we come upon that are more difficult to write about than others. As a person who is an atheist, and especially as someone who puts the “Trans” in LGBTQ, religion is never a phenom I feel comfortable commenting on. I often feel the duty to critique the Christian messages I was raised to believe in lieu of my new-found critics, the Christian Right Wing. I am also hyper-aware of distortions and attempts by our own president (45) to create cultural mistrust and add to an existing (but growing) surveillance state as response to America’s “War on Terror.” Just reading the book was an emotional journey. The characters’ anxiety fueled my own disquieting emotions. Or perhaps it’s just the well-plotted energy that was woven into every passage that had me biting my nails and nervous about who was watching my search results.
“I was very aware of Googling While Muslim,” Shamsie said about her experience of researching her new novel. She even slipped this ideology in as a character line, with a clever acronym, GWM; the paranoia of a police state focused like a laser on who you just so happen to be. This passage is very telling that the author has identified that some Muslims, despite being British citizens, live as a feared and misunderstood under-class; forcing many to take up allegiances against their own international heritage in order to avoid any degree of the Islamic hate aimed at them as a whole. Isma, the eldest sister is a very dutiful daughter of the British State, but also a very devout family woman, and a Muslim. Her hijab and patience both increase a rage that can be felt by authority; seen early in the novel when she is harassed at the airport for no actual reason.
Isma is the primary family connection for her younger siblings, twins Aneeka and Parvais. This relationship births the conflict rampant throughout: the children, all offspring of a known jihadist whom no one speaks of out of shame, living in a world where they are seen as outsiders in their own home. In fear, they hide the knowledge of their father. A well-kept secret until one day Parvais meets an older man named Farooq who knows more of his past than he himself does. This is an easy in for the extremists: all they have to do is build a myth of a hero already mystified in a young man’s mind, and then prey on his masculinities. The new Home Secretary, also a Muslim, views the responsibility of citizenship from a radically different lens. Parvais, once aware that his future as freedom fighter was an illusion, finds that he is not so easily welcomed home as he would have liked to have thought.
This was a feeling I could relate to: The idea of being a second-class citizen in your own home, and that even your birthright of citizenship is nothing in a world increasingly focused on Nationalism and a blind allegiance to religious leadership. North America and the MAGA-era will be remembered for many appalling reasons, but one that will leave a lasting impression on me is how Christianity has become a radical phenom sponsored by the State, and how conservative leaders have seemed to redefine the fabric of American Citizenship to suit their political agendas. Muslim women like Ilhan Omar (Democrat, U.S. Representative, born in Pakistan) are at this very moment being ostracized in the Conservative media for remarks about the 9/11 attacks on New York soil. In a speech to other Muslim Americans at a CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations) meeting, Omar stated that, “some people did something” (my emphasis), referring to the fall of the Twin Towers, in a similar way that then-president George W. Bush was quoted by Omar in a Tweet (below) stating that, “The People… And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear from all of us soon!” Two very similar quotes, but one is being taken through the ringer by conservative lawmakers today, seemingly because she was “Discussing 9/11 While Muslim.” This level of Islamophobia can be seen in both America and its once motherland Great Britain with startling similarities in narrative.
“The ones we love… are enemies of the state.”
Epigraph, Sophocles, Antigone, translated by Seamus Heaney
The men of the book make up much of the time spent, and a lot of the interactions are based on female reactions to male actions. Eamonn, the stunningly handsome son of the Home Secretary, is busy making his life as separate from the Muslim identity as he could in order to save face with his British identity. Karamat, his father, is the man of indifference to anything outside of nation and duty thereto. And, finally, young Parvais, a naïve 19-year-old boy who loves to record random sounds, is foolishly on a quest to find his place in life as a hero like his father before him but is completely lost on what makes a hero. His talents end up drawing him close to one of the horrors of this group’s activities: media footage of executions for fear mongering. These men live in a world where British colonialism has brought many nations together under false pretense, and we can see the stress in the fracturing line of patience as U.K officials tire of anything not connected to Queen and country. With terrorism rampant in Europe, and Brexit in full debate, the stage is set for political unrest, cries for assimilation and statehood, and the lines between right and wrong are being fully tested on both sides of the war.
Structurally, the book was fashioned after the classic Greek tragedy, Antigone, and even staged in five acts very similar to Sophocles (and imitated well past Shakespearean times). According to a video interview uploaded by the YouTube channel Foyles (link below), Shamsie did not know at first how she was going to write the book. She thought at first it would be narrated from Isma’s point of view, but she knew quickly that there were things that Isma did not know that the story needed to tell. “At some point it just became clear, that I would give each one of them their own section.” She says that after devouring many versions and translations of Sophocles’ text, she found it the most valuable to simply put the play away and continue writing from her characters’ standpoints. But the connection to tragedy could not be escaped. SPOILER ALERT: the book ends on a note of mystery, before a violent act, somewhere between hubris and catharsis. Aneeka’s acts of protest are met with the hate and misunderstanding that beget all tragedy. The silence of the television report that sets the final stage of the “play” mirrors but also distorts Parvais’s connection to soundscapes, as well as his final work as a member of the media unit for ISIS. All of this plays out in the way that Antigone foretold long ago.
This novel was the result of craft, and Shamsie is clearly a structuralist with strong foundations. Her ability to tell a possibly controversial story with respect, dignity, and such a profound truth is indicative of the strength she’s able to bring to these female characters.
“Grief heard its death sentence the morning you both woke up and one was singing and the other caught the song.”
Home Fire, p. 188