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Sunday, November 30, 2014

Burnt Shadows--Kamila Shamsie

There was a section in this novel which struck me as a page from my own life. It occurred towards the end of the story when an American asks an Afghan—Have you ever read the Quran? To which the Afghan replies-- Of course I have. And the American retorts-- Have you read it in a language you understand? The Afghan states unequivocally-- I understand Islam.

I had similar arguments with a man who I once loved more than anything else in the world. For approximately three years I tried to understand him and Islam. He was a Thai Muslim and I was the all-knowing Westerner who tried to square my love with his religion. This literary exchange made me realize how foolish I was to think that my reading of the Quran in English translation meant anything compared to his life raised in the faith.

This novel brought so much back to me, opened so many ideas about my own past; places I have lived and histories that in some way intersected with my life although they were distant in time and space from my own experience.

The novel begins in Nagasaki, before the atomic bomb and after. My life has been touched by this history, in a round about way, as the lives of anyone with a connection to Japan since the bombs dropped has been affected by those few days before the end of the war in the pacific.

That war, the surrender of the empire, the resulting impact on the Japanese psyche, touched my life in the person I chose to father my children-- much as the impact of those last day touched the lives of children born to, or related to, characters in the novel, who had never walked under a Japanese sun.

The thread in the first half of the novel that tied the main characters, almost all who were in exile from their homeland, was very engaging and when the story shifted to the next generation I almost put the book down. But soon I was drawn into a Muslim world where, although there was war and death, there was also a hint of that acceptance and love that I had experienced in the Thai Muslim communities that had once been part of my every day life.

I have never felt more love from strangers than in those small rooms and cinder block houses on dirt tracks in the jungle or small housing projects on the outskirts of Bangkok; peace be with you-- said my new brothers and sisters. I miss waking up to the call to prayer and the feeling it gave me to see an old man, one of my traveling companions, unfurl his prayer mat at the break of dawn when we stopped at a roadside gas station.

When I read this book I thought of how many people would read it and miss this point-- although the writer shows you the love that exists, even in the heart of a tacit supporter of the Taliban in Kabul-- I predict very few westerners will be able to accept it. In general, westerners fail to see the humanity of jihadist. I think that only when we can see them as people, try to understand their motivation, will we be able to end the so-called war on terror.

Of all the themes in this novel, the most important one, in my reading, is the possibility to look beyond fear, hate, class, and religion and find a brother/sister.

Being part of a Muslim community was one of the most important events in my life. It taught me to see the most demonized people of my time as part of my heart. I am forever grateful.

It was the image of the burnt cranes that drew me into this novel. I expected to be disinterested in the portion that I knew was coming at the end of the tale; that section dealing with 9/11. I have hit the saturation point on that topic, but this was not what I expected. It reminded me of a part of my life I don't think about often enough and the people that taught me how a true believer really acts, lives and loves in the world.

I hope other readers will see this in the characters of Abdullah and Ismail and give them their full attention. There is the potential for greater understanding here; I encourage everyone to take the opportunity.

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