by Kamila Shamsie
288 pp. Riverhead Books $16.00
It took the withdrawal of the Nelly Sachs Prize to make me familiar with the fine literary achievements and compassionate politics of Kamila Shamsie. Selfishly, I cannot thank the Dortmund City Council enough for its outrageous behavior, evidently canceling the award because a right-wing newspaper outed Shamsie as a supporter of the BDS movement. I can imagine Shamsie’s feeling of hurt as well as disappointment as this incident unfolded. In her novels, she has manifested an uncannny awareness, more so than any writer I have encountered, of the precarious existence of ethnic, gender, and civilizational outsiders, especially Muslims, if they happen to reside in the supposedly once more tolerant West. Her words of eloquent response to the Dortmund about-face express both her magnetic literary personality and moral intelligence:
“It is a matter of great sadness to me that a jury should bow to pressure and withdraw a prize from a writer who is exercising her freedom of conscience and freedom of expression; and it is a matter of outrage that the BDS movement (modelled on the South African boycott) that campaigns against the government of Israel for its acts of discrimination and brutality against Palestinians should be held up as something shameful and unjust.”
Germany seems particularly susceptible these days to Islamophobic tropes, especially those given traction at the expense of Muslims, Palestinians, and immigrants. It seems that even 75 years after the Holocaust the German political establishment is still attempting to convince themselves, as well as the State of Israel, that the Holocaust was a national anomaly. Seeking to prove the unprovable, Germany and Germans have chosen to fall in love with Israel precisely because it is the nation state of the Jewish people, and for this reason alone it can do no wrong as we all know that love is blind. In their vain effort to make such a surreal posture credible, Germany insists on going even further, as if to drive the point home to any doubters, by converting Israel’s critics into Germany’s adversaries, somehow forgetting that the locus of the anti-Semitic gene present in the German body politic is situated on its far right, and is definitely not to be found even among the most uncompromising supporters of the BDS movement. To suggest otherwise, as is the inescapable implication of the Dortmund action, is to slander a writer of exquisite moral sensitivity. Her actions as a citizen exhibits a strong bond between her sense of right and wrong that infuses her novels and her nonviolent engagements on the side of justice for the Palestinian people. Bonds of this nature are what keep democracy alive, and should be celebrated now more than ever, not condemned.
Evaluated from a more humanistic perspective, this incident confirms the impression that Germany as a nation has learned nothing from its past. To side with Israel is to side with an apartheid government that imposes a regime of daily victimization upon the Palestinian people (treating them as enemy aliens in what once Palestine!). To regard those who oppose this Israeli behavior as if they are the miscreants is to learn nothing from the rightly repudiated German past. It is to be complicit in its repetition.
Under these circumstances, my expression of personal gratitude to Dortmund may seem odd, yet it is quite easy to explain. If it had not been for the withdrawal of the prize, I would not have become an avid reader of Shamsie. The prize might have caught my wandering eye, as should earlier some of the dazzling reviews of Home Fire, but with a busy life along with an array of self-indulgent distractions, I would almost certainly not have taken such a drastic step as to acquire the novel, and then find myself so overwhelmed by its literary quality and brilliant commentaries on the human condition that I immediately obtained, and then read with uncharacteristic concentration, Burnt Shadows in two ten hour days of uninterrupted reading. Reflecting on this experience, which I wish is being replicated by others shocked into a similar response to mine, I became appreciative that, depending on circumstances, we sometimes become more intellectually and culturally indebted to acts of negation than to those of affirmation. It may be that those favoring the Dortmund jury reversal supposed that withdrawing the prize would have the valued added of lessening interest in Shamsie’s writing, and instead it seems to be spreading the word that she is a great writer!
Perhaps, if writers in Britain had not organized a joint letter of solidarity with Shamsie to the London Review of Books, the abstraction of learning about a cancelled prize would not have overcome my habitual sloth, and I would have moved on. I was also drawn to look for myself at the work in question by Shamsie’s unrepentant response, defending her BDS support as something she did as a citizen, which in any event should have had no bearing on whether her novel was more deserving of recognition than were the other short listed competitors for the prize. Until this happened, I would have thought the Nelly Sachs Prize honored literature, rather than kneeling at the altar of political correctness. From now on whenever Germany does something similar, I will do my best to make them pay, not only by joining the protest, but by embracing the work that they repudiated. Let these prizes remain noteworthy, but only if future cancellations serve more as magnets than as repellents. My fear is that foundations and selection groups that give such prizes will in the future become more wary, do their homework better, and bypass candidates whose sympathies with the Palestinian struggle might stir the waters of controversy. It is worth realizing that much of the evil in the world is what is done off-camera, behind closed doors, and we who wish for other realities, never get wind of what is going on. Self-censorship may be more destructive of freedom of expression than censorship. Dortmond’s rationale for retraction can be discussed, rejected, overcome. If Home Fire had been quietly put aside by the jurors in their deliberations, it would have aroused no protest, enlisted no new circle of admirers, and no positive voices reminding us that BDS is dedicated to nonviolent liberation, nothing more, nothing less.
Yet before touching on the qualities that make me so admiring of Home Fire, I would comment a bit more on what seems like a panic attack. We need to ask what made the folks in Dortmund act so inappropriately as to make themselves appear both craven and foolish? At first glance, it seems that these days right-wing pressure works more often than it should, although ironically, it is the far right that is the incubator of real anti-Semitism. The true face of Jew hatred revealed itself in the very recent Halle incident in which a right-winger aimed to slaughter Jews at a German synagogue on the Yon Kippur holiday. Further, even granting the Zionist feverish campaign to brand BDS as expressive of the so-called ‘new anti-Semitism,’ to treat Shamsie’s support of a cultural boycott as enough to induce the city of Dortmund to withdraw the prize seems to signal societal panic, maybe a reaction to the rise of the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim AfD (Alternative for Germany). It is of more than passing interest that the AfD was not content, as were the mainstream German parties in the Bundestag, with calling BDS ‘anti-Semitic’ but wanted the non-violent movement formally banned altogether. The resolution adopted in May 2019 by a rare cross-alliance of political parties was itself a lamentable response to pressures being exerted by Zionist groups may have set the stage for the Dortmund retreat. It was followed shortly by a similar action in Aachen where an award was withdrawn from Walid Raad, an Lebanese innovative artist with a world reputation because he reportedly refused to denounce BDS, carrying the imperative of political correctness a menacing step further.
Part of the dark charm of Home Fire is a tribute to Shamsie’s ‘see it all eyes’ that illuminate the complexities of Islamic jihadism, how it appeals to those ‘out of place’ around the world, wounding and rupturing the flow of life for those burdened and blessed with a hybrid ethnic, religious, and class identity. Shamsie tells us that her narrative inspiration for Home Fire is the Greek play of Antigone where a heartbroken sister defies her uncle, Creon, the king of Thebes, by burying her rebellious brother who died on a field of battle, and thus declared a traitor by Creon; by law he was denied the right of burial and his body left to rot on the battlefield until he was restored to dignity by the defiant Antigone. Sophocles depicted this classic instance of overriding the law of the land by acting in obedience to the transcendent law of the human heart, given concreteness over the centuries by natural law jurisprudence and more recently, by the universal principles of human rights. Shamsie imparts her meaning by choosing a tag line from Sophocles that appears alone on a page preceding the novel: “The ones we love.. are enemies of the state.”
Reading Shamsie made me recall my experience 30 years ago when I read Toni Morrison’s Beloved. The novel made me realize, although growing up in the racially self-righteous, self-segregated liberal confines of Manhattan, that until I read Beloved, I had never grasped the existential horrors of post-slavery racism in the United States, especially throughout the South, and more subtly in the rest of the country. Similarly, until I read Home Fire I never thought empathetically about the intimate lives of terrorists and their loved ones, pitting love within a family against what the state decrees as the limit of acceptable conduct and the moral ambiguities arising from the dreadful harm done to innocent others by terrorist violence, whether by the state or its enemies. The perpetrators are also victims, and the victims can become perpetrators propelled by a vicious retaliatory logic that finds words to justify even beheadings; a jihadist in Home Fire says this: “..what you do to ours we will do to yours..” In other words, when we free ourselves from liberal forms of political indoctrination to experience the radical and reactive otherness that produces delicate negotiations between love and law the simple verities of moral truisms evaporate before our eyes. If we nurture our spiritual selves, a formidable challenge, those brave enough would almost always choose the path cleared by the heart rather than mechanically adhering to the cold logic of those who insist on observing the law however unjust. A signal achievement of Home Fire is to weave a credible tale of such nurturing through the selfless passions of Aneeka, a luminous being, compelled by sibling love to respond to her hapless terrorist twin brother, Pervais. The fact that Aneeka is studying in London to become a lawyer, while Pervais is enchanted by digital mysteries of recorded sounds, somehow heightens the tension between law and love, with a romanticized forgetfulness when it comes to prudence in a public domain of discriminatory vigilance in the world after the 9/11 attacks.
Shamsie has produced a moral fable for our times. It is given novelistic and societal complexity by the apparent innocence of the twins, Pervais killed by a colleague in the course seeking to come home to Britain because after becoming disillusioned by his exposure to ISIS, and Aneeka herself defying a vindictive British law denying any right of return even to British citizens if officially declared to be terrorist suspects. With deep symbolic resonance, the corpse of Pervais was sent to his ‘ethnic home,’ Pakistan, where Aneeka traveled to perform her own version of a sacred burial ritual. We are told in a sprightly Note of Acknowledgement at the very end of the book, in case it did not earlier cross our minds, that Shamsie’s work was foreshadowed by the exploration of these themes in Sophocles’ most memorable play, Antigone. Even though I studied Greek theater literature as a student some decades ago, I admit that I never on my own drew the connections between Home Fire and Antigone, and when instructed, I found it worth knowing, but quite irrelevant to my intense enjoyment of this extraordinary novel. The idea of loyalty to love by performing a proper burial may retain a certain symbolic relevance in our world, but it is less inscribed in the modern sensibility than it was in ancient times when such ritual matters were regarded as concerns of ultimate significance, although Shamsie brings it to life because the characters and plot are so emotionally enveloping.
I found Shamsie’s electric feel for language, including the radiance of the conversational dialogue and the creation of vivid and sympathetic characters interacting in the course of an ingenious plot that addressed several distinctive themes of this particular historical moment are some of the elements that make this novel so exciting as a de-Orientalizing work of fictive art. By reading Home Fire we learn what is excluded from reading newspapers or listening to politicians. Shamsie has a special talent for conveying the wonderfully non-conformist dimensions of human lives struggling for meaning and love in our chaotic, confused, and violent world. Even the older sensible sister of the twins, Isma, burdened with parenting them from their childhood, gives principled prudence its due, and yet the book opens ironically with Isma’s own interrogation ordeal at Heathrow as she departs Britain to earn a graduate degree at an American university. Her extremely unpleasant exit experience results from nothing more incriminating than her racial and religious identity, and more plausibly, by her being marked for special attention at immigration portals due to their awareness that her abandoning father died an al Qaeda militant en route to Guantanamo.
This novel was for me an experience of adult education at its best as well as an absorbing artistic reading pleasure. What we learn, above all, is that judging and assessing others from their outside appearances and external criteria produces false impressions that often lead to tragic outcomes. We also learn that grief, forgiveness, and empathy are among the most powerful private emotions that contrast favorably with the cruel opportunism of those who hitch their wagon to the conventional wisdom of state power as intrusively enacted in ways that disrupt the lives of gentle people.
Dortmund was quite right to select Home Fire for a literary award, which also informs us deeply about the vulnerability and fragile live of those at the Muslim edge of Western societies, especially if they are unwilling or unable to compromise beliefs and identity. Kamila Shamsie teaches us by her artistry to understand better the worlds we so unknowingly inhabit. We should also pause long enough to notice her way of living, feeling, and acting as if humanity was her true native country.