DARK PRINCES OF DENMARK
An exploration of the post- modern Muslim experience in a Western society
This is not the best time in history to be a Muslim: The liberal space is closing in on you, and from both sides. This is so not only in the usual, expected arenas such as the US, the Middle East and South Asia, but, evidently, even in a place like Denmark— which I had always thought of as being one of the world’s most liberal societies— and which is where Tabish Khair lives and writes. Ironically, even as I was reading this book, the TV news was reporting the arrest of three men in Denmark for planning a terrorist operation. The plot obviously related back to the cartoons of Prophet Mohammad. The cartoons themselves related to… and so it goes, that ‘ clash of civilisations’, thrusting and parrying, on and on.
The scenario that Khair sets up is this: The time is sometime last year; the place is a little university town in Denmark. Three diverse characters, through a set of circumstances, are sharing a small apartment. There’s the unnamed narrator, an academic and non- practising Muslim from Pakistan. There’s Ravi, another academic and liberal Hindu from India. And then there’s Karim Bhai, a taxi driver and devout Muslim, also originally from India.
The narrative begins with the quotidian lives of these characters, their domestic situations, their work, their delicately balanced relationships. But there’s an awful claustrophobia about it all, and we sense, from the start, that Khair is setting us up for something nasty to happen. Is there more to the soft- spoken Karim Bhai than meets the eye? What exactly is the weekly Quranic study group that he hosts? What about the mysteri- ous phone callers who abruptly hang up? And Karim Bhai’s sudden, unexplained disappearances? Accompanying these questions are the ominous asides with which Khair skilfully escalates the narrative, looking back on the present from some grim, knowing post- denouement future.
Khair is a kind of literary Swiss Army knife: He has variously been a journalist, poet, essayist, playwright and novelist. How to Fight Islamist Terror is a dark, sardonic, bawdy book, whose subtext follows Hanns Jost’s wry advice to the Nazis: When you hear the word ‘ gun’, you need to reach for your culture. It is about the immigrant experience, and the nature of friendship, love and belief. I enjoyed many things about the book, especially the relationship between the Pakistani narrator and the Indian Ravi, with their shared cultural experiences and four- lettered adolescent banter (“Ravi pointed out that Karim Bhai and he, despite being ‘ bloody Indians’, would pass off for any ‘ frontier Pashtun’, while I being a bloody ‘ Paki’, disgraced my nationality and looked like a ‘ Darkie Hindoo’. That’s because, Ravi would add, this bastard is not a real Paki; he is a f*** ing ‘ mohajir’). The book reads well up to a point, but Khair is somehow unable to ultimately pull it off ( a comment that was also, incidentally, made of his last novel, The Thing About Thugs). The carefully crafted escalation of the drama loses its way, and the surprise of the ending is underwhelming.
There is a canon of fine works on post- modern Muslim experience, from Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist to H. M. Naqvi’s Homeboy. Khair’s novel is the latest exploration of this genre, though it’s not necessarily one of the best.
HOWTO FIGHT ISLAMIST TERROR FROM THE MISSIONARY POSITION
by TABISH KHAIR Fourth Estate Price: RS 450 Pages: 190