‘What do you say to your father when he makes a speech like that? Do you say, Dad, you’re making it OK to stigmatise people for the way they dress? Do you say, what kind of idiot stands in front of a group of teenagers and tells them to conform? Do you say, why didn’t you mention that among the things this country will let you achieve if you’re Muslim is torture, rendition, detention without trial, airport interrogations, spies in your mosques, teachers reporting your children to the authorities for wanting a world without British injustice?’
If you’re nineteen and female you’ll get some version of a hard time for whatever you wear. Mostly it’s the kind of thing that’s easy to shrug off. Sometimes things happen that make people more hostile. Terrorist attacks involving European victims. Home Secretaries talking about people setting themselves apart in the way they dress. That kind of thing.’
~Aneeka (Antigone) to Eamonn (Haemon)
‘We’re in no position to let the state question our loyalties. Don’t you understand that?
~Isma (Ismene) to Aneeka (Antigone)
Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire is a 21st Century rewrite of Sophocles’s Antigone. It perhaps isn’t the best book on the 2017 Man Booker longlist, if measured by pure literary merit, but it may very well be the most important and thought provoking.
Studying Antigone in preparation for Home Fire I was struck, as I imagine Shamsie was, by the contemporary relevance of three key Greek concepts, left untranslated in the version I read.
1) the ambiguous use of the word nomos, which to Antigone denotes customs and values, but to King Creon the laws of the land.
2) Antigone’s prioritisation of philia (obligations to friends, family) over obligations to the state, and Creon’s explicit rejection of that stance: “Whoever deems a philos more important than a fatherland, this man I say is nowhere.” Or, as in Seamus Heaney’s rewrite of the play, which forms the epigraph for Home Fire:
The ones we love . . . are enemies of the state.
3) Most strikingly in a 2016–17 context, Antigone’s lament that she is a “metic, not among the living nor among the dead.” In modern day parlance, she is essentially proclaiming herself a citizen of nowhere, to use the accusatory phrase used in 2016 by the newly appointed British Prime Minister towards those who would calls themselves citizens of the world.
Shamsie relocates Antigone to Britain in the second half of the 2010s, and her conflict is not just between family and state but also between one’s religious and cultural beliefs, particularly for British Muslims, and both family and state. She also addresses the troubling question of why young people are, despite the well documented excesses of the regime, attracted to leave their country of residence and their families and journey to Islamic State.
In her retelling Creon becomes Karamat Lone, newly appointed British Home Secretary (one of the four great offices of state) and with his sights on even higher office:
The accompanying article described the newly elevated minister as a man “from a Muslim background,” which is what they always said about him, as though Muslimness was something he had boldly stridden away from. Inevitably, the sentence went on to use the phrase “strong on security.”
In the real world, 2017 Britain is a country where, on the one hand, London has (since the first draft of Home Fire was written) elected an openly Muslim mayor despite a “dog whistle” campaign by his opponent to try to link him to Islam extremism, but on the other hand, where someone running to be a new Member of Parliament in 2010 — and now a senior Cabinet minister — felt obliged to announce at the hustings:
My own family’s heritage is Muslim. Myself and my four brothers were brought up to believe in God, but I do not practice any religion. My wife is a practicing Christian and the only religion practiced in my house is Christianity. I think we should recognize that Christianity is the religion of our country.
And also where, in 2014, the then Home Secretary — now in 2017 the Prime Minister of the “Citizens of Nowhere” speech — introduced powers to strip dual citizens suspected of involvement in terrorism of their British nationality. In the novel, Kamarat Lone, goes further:
The day I assumed office I revoked the citizenship of all dual nationals who have left Britain to join our enemies. My predecessor only used these powers selectively which, as I have said repeatedly, was a mistake.
Home Fire — as with Preti Taneja’s recent wonderful retelling of King Lear, We That Are Young — is told in five sections, in the third person from the perspectives of the key characters:
– Isma (Ismene), a young woman and LSE trained sociologist
– Eamonn (Haemon), son of the Home Secretary
– Parvaiz (Polyneices), Isma’s 19-year-old younger brother
– Aneeka (Antigone), Parvaiz’s twin sister, studying law at LSE, and
– Karamat (Creon), whose Irish wife Terri fills the role of the prophet Teiresias
The novel opens with Isma at Heathrow undergoing an interview from British immigration authorities, although she is actually leaving the country to start a Ph.D. in America. In the 21st Century security state any Muslim leaving the country, particularly with Isma’s family background is potentially open to suspicion as to whether their ultimate route might be Islamic State; indeed, unknown to anyone but his very close family, Isma’s brother, Parvaiz, has done precisely that.
’Do you consider yourself British?’ the man said.
‘I am British.’
‘But do you consider yourself British?’
‘I’ve lived here all my life.’ She meant that there was no other country of which she could feel herself a part, but the words came out sounding evasive.
The interrogation continued for nearly two hours. He wanted to know her thoughts on Shias, homosexuals, the Queen, democracy, The Great British Bake Off, the invasion of Iraq, Israel, suicide bombers, dating websites. After that early slip regarding her Britishness, she settled into the manner that she’d practiced with Aneeka playing the role of the interrogating officer, Isma responding to her sister as though she were a customer of dubious political opinions whose business Isma didn’t want to lose by voicing strenuously opposing views, but to whom she didn’t see the need to lie either. (“When people talk about the enmity between Shias and Sunni, it usually centers around some political imbalance of power, such as in Iraq or Syria—as a Brit, I don’t distinguish between one Muslim and another.” “Occupying other people’s territory generally causes more problems than it solves”—this served for both Iraq and Israel. “Killing civilians is sinful—¬that’s equally true if the manner of killing is a suicide bombing or aerial bombardments or drone strikes.”)
There were long intervals of silence between each answer and the next question as the man clicked keys on her laptop, examining her browser history. He knew that she was interested in the marital status of an actor from a popular TV series; that wearing a hijab didn’t stop her from buying expensive products to tame her frizzy hair; that she had searched for “how to make small talk with Americans.
The dangers of “Googling while Muslim” feature frequently in the novel, fears which Shamsie admits dogged her when researching the novel (see this interview with Vogue).
I was very aware of Googling while Muslim while writing this book. When I started to research, I would do stupid things, like look at three relevant websites, then go look at some really trashy celebrity stuff for a while. There was a part of my brain that was saying, what will I say if intelligence agencies come to my door and want to know why I’m looking up this stuff?
Most strikingly, from the same interview:
Q: Would you have published Home Fire before you had the security of knowing you were a British citizen?
A: No, absolutely not.
In America, Isma suddenly encounters a handsome youth, in a rather Mills and Boonesque moment.
By mid-afternoon the temperature had passed the 50° F mark, which sounded, and felt, far warmer than 11° C, and a bout of spring madness had largely emptied out the café basement. Isma tilted her post-lunch mug of coffee towards herself, touched the tip of her finger to the liquid, considered how much of a faux pas it might be to ask to have it microwaved. She had just decided she would risk the opprobrium when the door opened and the scent of cigarettes curled in from the smoking area outside, followed by a young man of startling looks.
She soon recognises him as Karamat Lone’s son:
Eamonn, that was his name. How they’d laughed in Wembley when the newspaper article accompanying the family picture revealed this detail, an Irish spelling to disguise a Muslim name – Ayman became Eamonn so that people would know the father had integrated. (His Irish–American wife was seen as another indicator of this integrationist posing rather than an explanation for the son’s name.)
There is history between the two families. Isme, Aneeka, and Parvaiz’s father Adil Pasha had been a jihadi himself: their last contact with him a phone call from Afghanistan in late 2001. In 2004 they found out, from a fellow prisoner now released, that their father had been captured in early 2002, imprisoned and tortured in the Bagram Theater Internment Facility, and then died on route to Guantanamo. A friend of the family contacted a cousin, now the local MP — one Karamat Lone, then at the start of his political career — for help in finding where his body might be, but he refused: “They’re better off without him.”
One issue Shamsie faced in re-writing Antigone was how to incorporate the incest/father murder of Oedipus, Polyneices’ and his sister’s father: changing this so that father and son are both jihadis, was a very neat solution, and does away with the fourth sibling Eteocles (killed by Polyneices in the play) as Parvaiz’s unpardonable sin, rendering him a non-person in Karamat’s eyes, is joining Islamic State.
The destiny of sons’s to follow their father is a key theme of the novel, albeit one that I struggleda little with as so manifest in a 21st Century context. As Eamonn tries to explain to one of the sisters:
For girls, becoming women was inevitability; for boys, becoming men was ambition. He must have seen her look of incomprehension because he tried again. ‘We want to be like them; we want to be better than them. We want to be the only people in the world who are allowed to be better than them.’
And incomprehension cuts both ways: Eamonn tries, and fails, to understand how it might feel to be Parvaiz or his sisters:
He tried to imagine growing up knowing your father to be a fanatic, his death a mystery open to terrible speculation, but the attempt was defeated by his simple inability to know how such a man as Adil Pasha could have existed in Britain to begin with.
I won’t spoil what happens in the rest of the novel. Shamsie is to be credited for managing to:
– adhere faithfully to the original, even incorporating nods to signature elements such as the dust storm that appears at one crucial moment, yet
– maintain narrative tension — it is typically only afterwards that one recognizes how the action follows the play — and
– update the play’s themes for a 21st Century setting — for example, the role of Coryphaeus and the chorus is taken by the press — and highly topical issues.
The novel has some powerful things to say about dual nationality and identity, and the approach of allowing each character their perspective provides a relatively balanced view, albeit clear that Shamsie’s sympathy’s are not with Karamat Lone’s approach to stripping those joining Islamic State of their citizenship and their right to return, even for burial when dead, to the UK.
She also, through Parvaiz, provides insight into what draws young people to Islamic State, drawing on the interviews in Gillian Slovo’s verbatim play Another World: Losing our Children to Islamic State. She describes a recruitment video for Islamic State; note the dissonant images of violence interspersed with the idyllic scenes:
Men fishing together against the backdrop of a beautiful sunrise; children on swings in a playground; a man riding through a city on the back of a beautiful stallion, carts of fresh vegetables lining the street; an elderly but powerful-looking man beneath a canopy of green grapes, reaching up to pluck a bunch; young men of different ethnicities sitting together on a carpet laid out in a field; standing men pointing their guns at the heads of kneeling men; an aerial night-time view of a street thrumming with life, car headlights and electric lights blazing; men and boys in a large swimming pool; boys and girls queuing up outside a bouncy castle at an amusement park; a blood donation clinic; smiling men sweeping an already clean street; a bird sanctuary; the bloodied corpse of a child.
Or as Parvaiz puts it rather more simply when he arrives in Raqqa:
Despite his disquiet at the spiked heads and veiled women, the blue skies and the camaraderie of the men slumped in beanbags promised the better world he’d come in search of.
And the book also doesn’t spare those who make life more difficult for their fellows by their own actions. As a Pakistani relative of Aneeka tells her when she arrives in the country as the novel reaches its dramatic climax:
Did you or your bhenchod brother stop to think about those of us with passports that look like toilet paper to the rest of the world, who spend our whole lives being so careful we don’t give anyone a reason to reject our visa applications. Don’t stand next to this guy, don’t follow that guy on Twitter, don’t download that Noam Chomsky book. And then first your brother uses us as a cover to join some psycho killers, and then your government thinks this country can be a dumping ground for its unwanted corpses and your family just expects us to jump up and organise a funeral for this week’s face of terrorism.
And now you’ve come along, Miss Hojabi Knickers, and I have to pull strings I don’t want to pull to get you out of the airport without the whole world’s press seeing you, and it turns out you’re here to try some stunt, I don’t even know what, but my family will have nothing to do with it, nothing to do with you.’
I said at the review’s start that this wasn’t perhaps the best book on the Booker shortlist measured by literary merit alone. As per the example quote above, the Isme section has tinges of a Mills and Boon romance and that focusing on Parvaiz elements of a cheap Clive Cussler thriller (per Gumble’s Yard’s excellent review here).
However, the writing becomes more powerful in the latter two sections, as it move on to both the highly personal and yet public anguish of Aneeka, interspersed with excerpts from tabloid newspapers (who rename Aneeka “Knickers” and Parvaiz “Pervy” as they seize with glee on the sex scandals in the story) and then the political machinations of the Home Secretary. And it struck me that the style choices in the first sections may have been that: choices, with Shamsie using the character’s own worldviews to color her third-person narration.
Overall, Home Fire is a novel I would be happy to see win the Booker, albeit there are many other strong books on the exceptional 2017 list: Autumn (review here), Reservoir 13 (my personal favorite; review here), Solar Bones (review here), Exit West, and Lincoln in the Bardo (review here) would form the rest of my personal shortlist.