Tamim Sadikali’s Dear Infidel explores the dynamics of two British Muslim families, cousins, as they prepare for Eid ul-Fitr and look back on the events which have shaped them. I found it both absorbing and unsettling.
Aadam, a software developer, is preoccupied with Iraq and the War on Terror (the novel is set in 2004). Initially I could sympathise with his irritation at the gung-ho news coverage, and apparent indifference to Iraqi deaths, but some of his thoughts were more challenging:
9/11. 9-fucking-11. Would he live to see another day, Aadam wondered, when he wouldn’t have to see, hear or read about someone, somewhere, still bleating on about it? (p. 22)
Salman also identifies strongly with his Muslim identity, and his attitude is supremacist:
It was the best thing he did to break from that life. Leave the British to drown in their own swill. Salman felt privileged – saved. Unlike Pasha, still lost somewhere in that Saturday night, the bloody coconut. Brown on the outside and white on the inside. There really was nothing worse. (p. 31)
If the novel’s comparatively traditional and religious characters are rather unsympathetic, the more liberal members of the family don’t represent an immediately obvious improvement. Imtiaz is addicted to pornography to a bizarre degree, and there aren’t many other dimensions to his character.
Pasha is more successful in life than Imtiaz, although he too has largely rejected his religious upbringing. He has been living with his non-Muslim girlfriend for four years. However our glimpse into his initial response to her is quite disturbing:
[British girls] had a rawness, a baseness, a kind of prostitute-quality that really worked for him … And instantly he recoiled. She stank. She was giggling and for a second time he came close to violence, but again he pulled back. He studied her ethnic features, her blotchy pink arms and her pink, pink skin. (p. 83-4)
His thoughts are echoed by Imtiaz, who only goes for ‘dirty white chicks’ (p. 128).
Nazneen, the only female character we really get to know, seems in some ways more level headed than the men, but she too has a very intolerant streak, and holds racist views towards Indians.
I found the concluding section the most successful part of the book; here the disagreements between the cousins come to a head and they engage in a long, tense debate about identity and terrorism, expressing views which sometimes surprise both each other and the reader.
Although it certainly can’t be argued that Sadikali sees his own community through rose-coloured spectacles, the non-Muslims also seem to come off rather badly in the novel, in particular the two characters who enter into relationships with Muslims. When they first meet, Pasha’s partner Jenny (about whom we learn almost nothing) calls him a ‘Paki’ and asks him whether he going to find ‘a nice Pakistani bride’. Nazneen’s former boyfriend, Martin, is introduced in flashbacks which make him seem intelligent and sympathetic. But when they finally reconnect, and speak on the phone at the end of the novel, he comes over as a blinkered bigot:
‘It’s been crazy round my area today. Really mad.’
‘Oh yeah? How’s that?
‘The Asians. There’s lots round here. There’s some festival every other week. (p. 185)
This exchange didn’t seem fully convincing, given that he is speaking to an Asian woman from a Muslim background, his former partner. He goes on to say that he has really taken against religion, but his rhetoric goes beyond mere new atheism, and he embarks on a crude anti-Muslim rant.
The novel made me reflect on the experience of anti-Muslim bigotry. Early in the novel Aadam, travelling home from work, assumes that the ‘suits’ on the train would prefer to sit next to a drunken Chelsea supporter than next to him (p. 12). I thought – and still think – that he was being oversensitive. But even if unwelcome looks or remarks are uncommon, it’s perhaps inevitable that they colour one’s expectations and attitudes.
Sometimes Dear Infidel maps uncomfortably closely onto both anti-Muslim and ‘anti-kaffir’ stereotypes. It was hard, at least at first, to sympathise with anyone. I was expecting – and in some ways would have preferred – a narrative which tried to elicit warmer responses to people from different parts of the Muslim (and non-Muslim) spectrum. But perhaps such a novel would have been less interesting.