“Islam, for her, was reminiscent of a childhood memory — so very familiar and personal but also somehow vague, far removed in time and space. Like a cube of sugar dissolved in her coffee, there and not there.”
A polaroid photograph of three young Oxford students and their University professor falls to the ground following a physical altercation with a vagrant. The polaroid, a relic and painful reminder of a scandal involving the novel’s protagonist, Peri, sets the stage for the reader to cross three distinct time frames. These include the present day affluent Turkish housewife at a grandiose dinner with flashbacks to her childhood in the 80’s and subsequently at her University days in the early 2000s.
Peri’s earlier life has been one of a child in a dysfunctional family, amidst ongoing conflicts between her atheist nationalistic father and her devoutly religious mother. The conflict between her parents and ultimately in her understanding of religion swung back to the nature of God, and thus, the seeds of curiosity of the divine were sowed at an early age for Peri.
When she gets to Oxford, she befriends two women who are poles apart in their ideologies just as much as her parents were. Shirin, an outspoken atheist with origins from Iran and Mona, an American-Arab devout Muslimah with strong feminist principles. Shafak describes them as the Sinner, the believer and the confused.
Other than sharing bonds of a friendship, they also share the same classes with professor, Azur. An eccentric and unorthodox teacher who has had polarising descriptions from monster to saviour. Handpicking his students for these seminars, he will take them through seminars on scientific studies on the nature of God – and thus we work through the novel, with a climax of betrayal, anger and annihilation.
As a book this was an easy enough read. The themes present are all pertinent to the modern day muslim; gender identity, religiosity and the conviction of faith. Shafak humanises her characterises and does this effectively as the protagonists are not simply good or evil, rather, portray the ups and downs of being human. I felt, however, that the book did not explore any of the other characters with real justice, with the exception of Peri. As my housemate put it so eloquently, “the book was not about the three daughters of Eve, it was only about one daughter of Eve”.
The book hinged on an alleged scandal between Peri and Azur. In fact, I would go as far as saying, most of the novel hinged on the character of Azur. This is an outrageous professor, of sorts, however, his actions, his outlooks and his behaviour have a reasoning and an important backstory. Despite this significant past, the reader is not able to empathise with him as his narrative is portrayed towards the very conclusion of the novel. I feel Shafak did not do justice to the final conversation between Peri and Azur – it was too incomplete.
I felt the sinner, the believer and the confused represented not distinct women or even their beliefs, rather, succinct histories of nations embodied in the human form. You have Peri, who lives in a space where orthodoxy and secularism meet, often, not successfully. To sum it up in one word, Peri’s life and existence has been one of doubt. Shafak argues, and argues quite well, that doubt is indeed a good thing in faith. Positive reinforcement in any group, order or institution is dangerous – and thus one must keep that in check through questioning, debate and learning.
If I lament on an example closer to home, it would be the age old topic of sectarian Islam. The Sunnis disagree with Shia’s, the Shia’s disagree with the Sunnis, and both of these groups actively denounce Ahmaddi’s as non muslims. Prominent figures from Pakistan have been outspoken in condemning and calling upon a fatwa and eradication of the Ahmaddi sect. Leaders, scholars and prominent Ahmadiyya figures have been attacked and killed. The 2010 massacre of an Ahmaddi mosque in Lahore left approx 90 people dead and almost 300 injured.
Another example is the persecution of Hazaras. People of Hazara origin are Shias native to Afghanistan and thought to be descendants of Genghis Khan. Historically they have been sold as slaves, ordered to be killed in the 1900s by the Emir of Afghanistan, and they continue to be attacked and discriminated against in Afghanistan and Pakistan. These atrocities are all examples of convictions that people have had in their beliefs.
Shafak also examines the identity issues that each of the three women have, and in doing so, she is able to show the three dimensional nature of women who have a rounded identity, of which Islam (or the lack of it) is a minor fragment. This is something to be valued in the book. I might have a partiality in this opinion, however, many exchanges with non ethnic individuals has led me to believe that it is difficult for many people to see past colour or the assumed faith. Certainly, this is also the case in reverse. However, the world has incredibly polarised views of Islam – and their idea of what it is. Unfortunately much of this has been fuelled by media. The blame entirely cannot lie with sensationalised news. One cannot also exclude the relationship between major incidents across the world and extremists who do this in the name of religion. Undoubtedly, the strongest correlation of major terrorist incidents have had links to self proclaimed Muslims.
It is futile to make arguments that Islam or religion does not advocate extremism or death. This is known amongst believers and amongst those who have working knowledge of the facets of this faith and its history. However, very many Muslims remain in awkward conversation cliffhangers when asked about their faith… often having to defend themselves or worse still, convince society that they are the “moderate muslims” who are not terrorists.
On a final note, I wholeheartedly embrace the idea of a Muslimus Modernus, a Muslim and modern mix. Groups cannot work successfully or flourish if they are not “modern” and if they actively reject the world in which we live in today – an important lesson for anybody belonging (or not) to any religious (or not) institution.