Book Review: The Study Circle

“There was something fundamental at stake. Deep-seated ways of looking at the world that were at odds.”

The Study Circle, by Haroun Khan, is set in a South London housing estate of graffitied tower blocks where the simmering resentments of a second generation immigrant Muslim community are approaching boiling point. Harassed by the police on the streets and passed over for employment due to their names, the young men are urged by their parents and religious leaders to remain calm and obliging. The story is a powerful evocation of the day to day challenges which make this entreaty such a tough ask.

Ishaq, Marwane and Shams have been friends since school. The former two now attend a good university while Shams struggles to find a job. After several false starts he agrees to run deliveries for Mujahid, a local hard man and ex-convict trying to provide for his family any way he can. Sham’s new role brings him into contact with vocal supporters of the EDL. When the police and then a man claiming to work for MI5 question Shams he must make difficult choices.

For several years Ishaq has regularly attended a Study Circle. Here he and like minded peers from his community listen to a speaker, Ayub, as he reads from revered texts, and talks through the basic tenets of the Islamic faith. Ishaq wishes to be a good Muslim, striving to improve piety and character. His ideals are tested by the realities of blatant animosity that impacts his day to day experiences. Government, the media and those in positions of authority are increasingly strident in their prejudices and fear of followers of Islam.

Ishaq’s parents wish him to complete his degree, get a job, marry, have children and make a good life for himself by keeping his head down and acting compliant. Ishaq is questioning if he can live this way. On the estate are the likes of Mujahid who believes power and thereby rights and respect can only be earned through open displays of aggressive strength. The behaviour of the police and security services suggests they think along similar lines.

As a reader it took some time to engage with the tale being told. The incremental plot progression is cushioned by lengthy sections of dialogue. These conversations are the beating heart of a story whose aim appears to be to increase understanding of Muslim attitudes and resentments in Britain. There are misapprehensions on both sides. What is offered is nuances to counter the broad brush strokes more widely reported.

The young Muslim men observe the white people they regard as oppressors. They decry the drinking and gambling just as the white people they encounter decry their insistence on halal meat and proscribed attire. Ishaq recounts overhearing elderly neighbours share a moment of tenderness commenting that he had, up until this point, been unaware that white families were capable of being like this together – that they could ever act as his family did.

What comes to the fore is how little either side understands the other. The Islamic community preaches peace and patience yet there is so much anger boiling over at each provocation. The men on both sides resort to violence to protect what they regard as their innate rights. The white people demand assimilation while the Muslim community wish to be left to live according to their beliefs. Within each side are the few whose arguments are fuelled by hate.

The immigrant parents, who moved to Britain for a better way of life, berate their children for not making more of the opportunities thereby offered. The children berate their parents for not understanding how frustrated they feel at being treated as a threat by a white community granted the power to subjugate. Frustration, fear and aggression build to confrontations that, inevitably, spiral out of control.

Misunderstood prejudices explored include: traditional attire, including the head coverings worn by some Muslim women; FGM; the treatment of child abusers; arranged marriage. I would have liked more prominence given to female characters but this is a story of young men fighting for a place in the world they believe they deserve. Ishaq is torn between demands for loyalty to those he has grown up with, and the chance of a better way but only for himself.

This is a carefully crafted story on the reality of living as a Muslim man in working class Britain. The tinder of cultural and political persecution, enacted in the name of national security, builds dangerously in a community whose choices are limited by racial discrimination. The schisms created by interpretations of religious teachings add a volatile flame.

A story that works to provide a fair representation of both sides of a serious contemporary issue. This was an eye-opening, searingly relevant read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Dead Ink

Book Review: Born on a Tuesday

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Born on a Tuesday, by Elnathan John, tells the story of Dantala, also known as Ahmad, who was sent from home by his father for Qur’anic training while still a young boy. He learned quickly, albeit at the end of a whip. When the story opens his six years of training has finished and his father is dead. Instead of returning to his village and mother he has joined a street gang who earn food and money through violence. Political candidates make use of these young people to obtain votes and further their careers.

Ahmad becomes involved in an incident where he attacks an old man with a machete before seeing a friend shot and killed. He is offered refuge in a mosque and meets two very different and locally influential men – Malam Abdul-Nur and Sheiki Jamal.

Sheiki becomes Ahmad’s mentor, providing food and lodging in exchange for the boy completing tasks around the mosque. Here he meets Abdul-Nur’s younger brother, Jibril, and they become friends. Jibril helps Ahmad to learn English as well as encouraging him to sample more worldly pursuits.

The background to the unfolding tale is one of hardship and violence. Muslim belief in northern Nigeria, where the story is set, is becoming polarised and fragmented with Shiite leaders encouraging their followers to rise up against the more moderate Sunnis who they accuse of pandering to the infidil. With poverty rife there is much dissatisfaction within the wider population which religious leaders use to feed their cause.

The upbringing and lifestyle in this land appears to accept aggression. Children are routinely beaten by their fathers, wives by their husbands. With such familial violence experienced as a means to force compliance it is understandable that many grow up regarding force as appropriate when trying to exert influence.

I know little of Islamic teaching but have lived amongst religious extremism in Belfast and can appreciate how those brought up to fear for their eternal soul if they do not adhere to a certain doctrine can struggle to escape its shackles. Ahmad is devout but to the teaching in which he was raised. When large swathes of the population live with limited education, perpetual hunger and daily hardship, it is little wonder that they will listen to those who promise improvement in this life alongside rewards in the hereafter.

The writing avoids judgement presenting Ahmad’s life and thoughts in a spare but always considered narrative. Whatever one may think of religion it is easy to empathise with the boy’s hopes and fears. His story is poignant and it is hard to see how the denouement could have been avoided given the violent backdrop to his tale. Living as I do in a society that chooses to demonise without attempting to further understanding of other cultures, I found this an enlightening and noteworthy read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Cassava Republic.

Book Review: Chains of Sand

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Chains of Sand, by Jemma Wayne, tells the loosely connected stories of families whose lives are affected by the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine. I know little about this highly contentious region, despite having worked on a kibbutz near Gaza many years ago. I had hoped that this book might offer some enlightenment.

From the minuscule knowledge I have of Jews I assumed that, apart from the black suited and hatted Orthodox variety, they were generally well educated and intelligent. I therefore struggled to empathise with these Jewish characters. They appeared overly bound to tradition, family and religion. Even those who believed themselves liberal struggled with the ties of ritual. They viewed themselves as Jews first, believing themselves assimilated in their host nation yet living largely amongst people like them.

Of course, we all gravitate to those who share similar values. Perhaps it was the incursion of religion that discomforted me.

The theme throughout the story is one of belonging and the disconnect some feel to the lives their loved ones expect them to live. Many young people rebel against the demands of the previous generation. This tale vividly demonstrates how difficult cultural bonds are to break.

Udi is an Israeli Jew born to Iraqi parents. He has been damaged by his experiences fighting for his country, as all young Jewish Israelis must do. He dreams of moving to England where a similarly aged cousin has made a prosperous life for himself. Udi compares this to his own prospects and plots his escape.

Daniel is a financially successful investment banker in London who believes a move to Israel could give his life the depth and meaning it lacks. His grandmother is a concentration camp survivor, his best friend a British Muslim. His sister is engaged to a gentile, a choice he supports but struggles to consider for himself.

Kaseem is an Arab Muslim living in Jerusalem. Despite graduating near the top of his university class he cannot find the work he expected his qualification to bring. He rails against the discrimination he must live with due to his race. When he meets the beautiful Dara, an artist from a supposedly liberal Jewish family, they both discover that prejudices are difficult to overcome.

The challenges of living in Israel are well evoked. The young people struggle with the responsibility they feel towards their families. However accepting the men may think themselves, they still expect to dominate. The girls are beautiful and strong but also tied to tradition. Only Udi’s sister, Avigail, seems willing to truly challenge the patriarchy, and she pays a terrible price.

Daniel’s family at first appears to have fitted in well to British society. As the story progresses it becomes clear that they choose to exist within the confines of a Jewish community. When Daniel decides to join a rally he cries out for peace whilst planning to join the Israeli army. The juxtaposition is telling.

The course of all the characters’ lives, the expectations they have for themselves and for those around them, was, for me, summed up as a metaphor in a comment made about birthday presents:

“Gifts are funny things. I know you’re meant to try to think of something the receiver would like, something they would want, nothing to do with you, but it never works that way. There’s always a not-so-subtle hint of the giver in there, an intimation of their perception of who the receiver is, or who they wish them to be.”

Each of the younger family members struggles with the disconnect between what they think they want and the mould their family is trying to push them into. The three young men’s view of themselves is a deception. Prejudices picked up from the cradle run deep.

Even though I was often discomforted by the content, the quality of the writing is impressive. These are difficult issues to explore and the author does not flinch from presenting differing points of view. Her sympathy appears to be with the Jews, but she vividly portrays Palestinian issues. Having said that, I feel no closer to understanding why this region evokes such widespread ire when the world is full of troublespots, or why the Jews have been singled out so often and by so many for persecution.

An interesting and challenging story that is well worth reading. I would now like to peruse more of this author’s work.