Echoes of an Old Tragedy

Familiar narratives of identity get situated in the landscape of Sophocles’ Antigone in this book

Written by Paromita Chakrabarti | Published:September 16, 2017 1:43 am
As a hijab-wearing British Muslim whose father was a jihadi, Isma is wholly prepared for this, even if she never knew her father well.

Book: Home Fire
Author: Kamila Shamsie
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Pages: 272

Kamila Shamsie’s retelling of the Sophoclean tragedy Antigone hits the ground running. Isma Pasha is on her way to Amherst College, Massachussetts, US, on a student visa, when she is stopped at Heathrow for interrogation. As a hijab-wearing British Muslim whose father was a jihadi, Isma is wholly prepared for this, even if she never knew her father well. Expectedly, the interrogation is thorough. The officer wants to know Isma’s thoughts on “Shias, homosexuals, the Queen, democracy, The Great British Bake Off, the invasion of Iraq, Israel, suicide bombers, dating websites” — an expansion on themes Shamsie audits under the head “Googling While Muslim”. Eventually, Isma is allowed to go, but not before her flight has departed.

This Muslim identity and its potential to be Othered lies at the root of Shamsie’s seventh novel, which was on the Man Booker longlist this year. Having raised her twin siblings, 19-year-old Aneeka and Parvaiz after the death of their mother, Isma is finally free to live her academic dream. In Amherst, she meets Eamonn, another British Muslim, but wholly unlike her in his privileged, non-religious upbringing. They share an instinctive bond, though Isma is aware that this is a relationship with a timeline. For, Eamonn is the son of the British Home Secretary of Pakistani origin, Karamat Lone, the man who had refused to help bring her father’s body back from Afghanistan to London for burial because of his background.

In the Thebean tragedy, the young Antigone has to choose between the law of the land and the natural order. Her brother Polynices had declared war on Thebes and killed their sibling, Eteocles, in battle. By the order of the King of Thebes, Eteocles was to be buried with full state honour and the rebel brother left in the battlefield for carrion feeders, as an example of the fate of traitors. While Ismene, their other sibling, accepts the order, Antigone is determined to give Polynices a burial at any cost. In Shamsie’s retelling, Isma is Ismene, the rational and compassionate counterfoil to Aneeka’s fiery Antigone. When Parvaiz/Polynices joins the media wing of the Islamic State, forsaking him is never an option for Aneeka. And when Parvaiz cannot face up to the horrors of his chosen life, there is no doubt that Aneeka will do everything that it takes for her brother’s return – including having an affair with the Home Minister’s son; that she would fall in love with Eamonn was something she had never imagined.

The epigram at the beginning of Home Fire — “The ones we love… are enemies of the state” — is taken from Seamus Heaney’s 2004 translation of the play. In an increasingly Islamophobic world, Shamsie’s novel questions the infinitesimal fragmentation of our identities and that of the ones we love. Sister-guardian, father-statesman, twin-enemy of the state, lover-saviour, British-Muslim. In the end, who, between the State and the individual, gets to choose the roles we play and the degrees of our belonging and unbelonging? Towards the end of the novel, a cousin in Karachi asks Aneeka if she ever wondered “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.” It’s a powerful indictment of nation states that call for a monolithic, hyper-nationalistic citizenry. Where Home Fire falters is in the way Shamsie builds up Parvaiz, whose act of deviation is the pivot of the novel.

His transformation from an aspiring sound engineer to a jihadi is far too rapid and naïve to be credible. The handsome, easy-going Eamonn bumbling through life till he meets Aneeka is a familiar trope, but his father is one of the most complex and sophisticated characters in Shamsie’s trajectory. As a man who has risen in the hierarchy of Britain’s power structure, Lone has a deep understanding of his adopted nation as well as of the loss of “family, context, language, familiarity” essential for migrants in their quest for assimilation in a foreign nation. As in his public life, Lone is a bit of a “traditionalist and a reformer” in his private life, too — a father who comforts his son through heartbreaks, a husband who respects his wife’s discomfiture enough not to force her to accompany him for Eid celebrations at the homes of immigrant relatives. “On that one day of the year, his father became someone else, and it was this he knew his mother hated as much as he did. Surrounded by his extended family, Karamat Lone disappeared into another language, with its own gestures and intonations — even when he was speaking English,” reflects Eamonn. In humanising the arc of Lone’s ambition and inhibition, Shamsie skillfully steers clear of Western archetypes of “good” and “bad” Muslims.

As always, the Karachi-bred, London-based Shamsie’s prose is evocative and urgent, the grimness of the theme undercut by her wry humour. Told through five voices, her cinematic narrative paces the tension, eventually culminating in a rather predictable climax. But that is a minor quibble: it does not take away from Shamsie’s riveting examination of what happens when love, faith and society collide.

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