By Farooq Ahmed
Rajia Hassib’s debut novel, In The Language of Miracles, reads as a post-September 11th metaphor for Muslim life in America. It is the story of an Egyptian American family, the Al-Menshawys, dealing with the aftermath of a murder, committed by their eldest son, Hossam, of their neighbor’s daughter and his onetime girlfriend, Natalie Bradstreet.
Set in the fictional northern New Jersey town of Summerset (not to be confused with the actual Somerset, New Jersey) in the run-up to the one year anniversary of the crime and a memorial service for Natalie, the novel weaves between the perspectives of Hossam’s parents, internist Samir and homemaker Nagla, younger siblings, Khaled and Fatima, and maternal grandmother Ehsan as they live under suspicion and scorn. Against his family’s wishes, Samir decides to address the town at Natalie’s memorial in an attempt to reintegrate the Al-Menshawys into the community in which they’ve lived for nearly three decades. His attempt goes predictably poorly.
Hassib’s narrative strategy is a smart one. She sets the novel in the days before the memorial, which allows the characters to reflect on the murder—a metaphor for the September 11th attacks—without having to dissect the motives for Hossam’s actions. (He appears only in flashbacks and recollections.) In doing so, she allows Hossam’s motives, which are only alluded to as being the result of mental illness, not to matter. After all, the rest of the Al-Menshawy family had nothing to do with the crime but are still entrapped by its implications. Through this strategy, Hassib personalizes the confusion, hand-wringing, and uncertainty that many American Muslims have felt in the decade and a half since the attacks. We did not commit the crime, but the burden is still both felt by us and forced upon us.
To be Muslim in America is to live under suspicion. But it wasn’t always this way. In prelapsarian times, for me being a Muslim male was never a problem itself. Few in the Midwestern American town in which I grew up could identify a Muslim, and I even recall being thanked by an elderly veteran for my co-religionists’ anti-Russian fervor in Afghanistan when I worked for a summer at the VA Hospital in Kansas City in the mid-1990s. Now, of course, everyone can identify a Muslim, even if that Muslim is actually Sikh, and Russia is not our enemy but our puppet master.
By September, 2001, however, I had moved to lower Manhattan and had just entered graduate school. Despite its reputation for being a diverse, tolerant metropolis, suspicion found me in New York. In the weeks after the attack, subway riders muttered insults, firefighters threatened to “smear my brains across the pavement,” the NYPD and FBI searched my apartment, and when I flew home for Thanksgiving, an Upper Eastside grey hair tried her damnedest to eavesdrop on my phone call. She was visibly upset when I wasn’t (for once) selected for enhanced screening.
The question then for American Muslims is that if you can accept a compliment for the perceived accomplishments of your perceived co-religionists, as I had with the veteran, then should you harbor guilt or responsibility for their ill-deeds as well? If all Muslims were good when some fought Communists, then are we all bad when some commit terrorism?
This is, of course, an absurd question, especially when considering the heterodox nature of Islamic cultures and practices across the world and the multifaceted geopolitical nature of terrorism and the war on terror. (See also Syria).
Nevertheless, guilt-by-association haunts American Muslims a decade and a half removed from 2001. Or as Hassib’s Khaled admits to a New York City barista, Brittany, who he’s befriended over their love for Lepidoptera: “They see me, they think of [Hossam]. They think of him, they think murder…. And the worst part is—I can’t shake him off. I can’t drive him away….”
You may think that this metaphorical setup would render the Al-Menshawys as archetypes, but Hassib’s novel succeeds through the richness and detail of her writing, which documents the dynamics of an inter-generational Egyptian immigrant family under one, suburban roof. The grandmother, Ehsan, anchors them to tradition, lighting incense, reciting the Quran, and baking scores of fetir el-rahmah or pastries of mercy, even as the elder Al-Menshawys eschew tradition. Ehsan’s daughter, Nagla, for example, smokes prodigiously, hates attending Friday prayers at the mosque, and doesn’t wear a headscarf. Replace grandmother with elderly aunt and fetir el-rahmah for samosas, and you essentially have my Indian Muslim American household.
The Al-Menshawy patriarch, physician Samir, is a particularly good example of how the September 11th attacks came to implicate all American Muslims. Thanks in part to the Hart–Celler Act, many skilled immigrants arrived to the U.S. in the 1970s, leveraging their education in order to create a better life for their families, as the cliché about this country goes. Many of those immigrants, like my own parents, established themselves in their communities as professionals, occasionally as doctors, despite facing racist attitudes, often from other physicians.
These immigrants reasonably thought that their vocations would earn them enduring trust, building on the stereotype of American, melting-pot meritocracy. Occasionally, this was the case. But for many American Muslims, the terrorist attacks of 2001 upended those perceptions, and they found themselves outsiders in the very communities that they had helped for decades heal.
This is where Hassib’s Samir finds himself after Hossam’s crime. Samir cannot fathom why the community turned so viciously against the Al-Menshawys: His practice suffered; his house was graffitied; and his family shunned. Undoubtedly, any family whose son commits a horrific crime would be vilified, but when the perpetrator is Muslim the implications and suspicion resonate further, capitalized on by both a political party hell-bent on finding boogeymen and a compliant and profit-starved media establishment. Dylann Roof, for example, not only did not impugn white supremacists, but his assassinations had such little impact on American thinking that a year later the nation elected a racist demagogue to its highest office.
Hassib’s Samir believes that he can change the ‘hearts-and-minds’ of Summerset residents through direct action, through a direct appeal by using Natalie’s memorial to “show that we are on the same side they are on. That we regret what happened as much as they do…. That we are not what they think we are.”
But American Muslims are no longer in that era, if it were ever possible. In fact, it has been long enough since 2001 that a younger generation of American Muslims has emerged from childhood to find themselves trapped in an increasingly hostile political climate, burdened with a crime that they have no connection to.
In a sense now, we are all Khaled, Hossam’s younger brother, who feels these implications the worst. As Hassib writes, “A year ago, his brother had pulled a trigger and unleashed a hurricane that had been pummeling Khaled ever since, snatching him off his feet and tossing him in the air, twirling and twisting him about, watching him grope for an elusive ground.” This is as apt a metaphor for Muslim life in American post September 11th as I’ve read. #WeAreAllKhaled
Farooq Ahmed, now a Los Angeles-based writer, has a B.Sc. in Biochemistry from Brown University and a M.F.A. in fiction from Columbia University. He is completing a novel set in Kansas, where he was raised, and a screenplay featuring sasquatch, although he has never met one. His work has appeared in the Financial Times, Nature, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Occasionally, he can be found online: @mcfruke