‘Aadam wondered whether he [the news anchor] was thinking of the wedding party that the Americans had blown up, just the day before’.
It’s the last day of Ramadan fasting, and the following day, the first day of the Eid festival, is when most of the action takes place. Two families get together to celebrate, including four cousins who have grown up and grown apart. At work Aadam faces client hostility and feels alienated from his well meaning but clumsy boss; his brother Salman ‘had a 2:2 in accounting and finance from a new uni / old poly, and it was worth shit’. Their cousins are porn-obsessed social recluse Imtiaz, and ‘coconut’ Pasha, who has a white girlfriend and barely keeps in touch with his family. The most complex character is Aadam’s wife Nazneen, the only major female character and the only first person narrator. After having embraced British culture at university, and having a semi-serious relationship with a white hedonist, one Ramadan she discovers that she wants to fast. She considers herself a feminist, but was provoked into a life change by the death of her grandmother, a woman who she doubts ‘ever did a single thing in her whole life, just for herself’.
The backdrop of the Iraq war dominates their world. It’s 2004; those of Pakistani origin are suffering from anti-Muslim sentiment following the Twin Tower attacks. Their interactions with non-Muslims are uneasy. Their world view, although mainstream in most of the Muslim world, is world’s apart from Western ways of thinking. Just as the news anchor who interrupts Aadam’s meeting is preoccupied by the US soldier and not the wedding party, so issues which dominate their lives are considered almost trivial by their white compatriots.
The family scenes are vivid and touching. On arriving back home Pasha notices that his mother’s kitchen is still stocked for a family of six.
‘Peering in he saw seven, eight, no nine tall plastic containers, all filled with different kinds of pulses. He was initially bemused. Why is mum’s kitchen so well stocked? As if she regularly cooked for six. But deep down he knew that she wanted to cook for six; that cooking for six would make her life bright. But he also knew she’d die before any of those containers needed refilling.’
He finds her laughable for including leek and potato soup in the Eid menu, but will later admit that it is surprisingly good. The dynamics between the cousins are also nicely observed; tension alternately building and dissipating as the day progresses. The grandfather who yells at the tv newscaster before lecturing his family on being a good citizen is funny and recognisable. Attempts to weave in wider issues, such as a talk show on female oppression and the obligatory headscarf discussion, sometimes feel a bit forced, mainly because there are so many of them. Dear Infidel’s problem is that it is too comprehensive: because it’s a trailblazer it has to provide its own context at the same time as telling the story, otherwise the ‘infidel’ reader will not be able to interpret it. The by-product is that the actual plot is cluttered with distractions. Less complexity, although running the risk of misinterpretation, would have made for more elegant storytelling.
Any Cop?: To read many op eds, it seems there is a gulf of misunderstanding between Pakistani Brits and the rest of the UK, and this is a valuable attempt to close that gap, and an entertaining novel at the same time. Carefully chosen words, well developed characters and engaging writing – especially the family scenes which make up the bulk of the story.