Six Questions: Guest post by Yusuf Toropov

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Today I am delighted to welcome to my blog Yusuf Toropov whose debut novel, ‘Jihadi’, will be out in paperback next week. You may find my review of this impressive book here. Read to the bottom of this post to find out how you may win a copy.

Yusuf is an American Muslim currently living in Ireland. Here he has provided answers to:

“Six questions people ask me about Jihadi: A Love Story”.

1. Why did you call it that?

Because the word ‘jihad’ carries a root meaning – personal striving in any important area of one’s life – of which some people are unaware. Because the book deals with struggle and striving, and also with competing definitions of love.

2. What’s the book about?

Any novel that’s worth reading, I think, gets to be about a number of different things. If I had to pick four things that this one is about, they would be: justice, extremism, the fragility of the human mind, and love – specifically the various things people do in the name of love for other individuals, or their love for certain causes. The novel follows people who are pushed to the brink because they have to deal with those issues, and it looks at their choices.

3. What happens in this story?

Thelonius Liddell, also known as Ali Liddell, is a former US intelligence agent accused of terrorism. His memoir, discovered in his prison cell after his death, suggests a more complex picture. The memoir weaves its way through Thelonius’s nervous breakdown, his botched overseas mission, his broken marriage, and his conversion to Islam. But someone is writing annotations to his manuscript, and the reader has to sort out which voice to trust.

4. Why is the story told in two voices?

I wanted the book to examine extremism without flinching, and I wanted to show its human impact. I wanted to look at how even an action that someone might think of as insignificant can have a ‘butterfly effect’ – can create a tidal wave of dark consequences that takes on a momentum of its own. That’s a scary thing, and it’s happening more and more these days, and I felt the book should look at why that happens.

A big part of why it happens, in my opinion, is people developing competing narratives about what’s going on and what it means, and then insisting on the reality of one narrative. So I decided to write from two perspectives, from the viewpoints of two different people who got caught up in that kind of wave.

5. What gave you the idea for this book?

The best answer I can give you is that the book was its own idea. It kept on bugging me to be written, and over a period of eight years I just ran out of ways to ignore it.

The second-best answer I’ve got is that I am a Muslim, and the so-called ‘war on terror’ or whatever we are choosing to call it now, has been a strange and disorienting experience for Muslims in the United States. So I felt I had to write a story that was equal to the strangeness and disorientation of the past decade and a half, one that would share a perspective I wasn’t seeing in mainstream media accounts of extremism.

The stories that move me most as a reader are ones that take me into the mind and spirit of someone I thought I knew, maybe someone I imagined I had nothing in common with, and give me a sense of common humanity with that person. I don’t have to like the person or approve of the choices he or she makes, but I can feel what the person feels, and I can go on a journey I might not otherwise have made. And I can draw some conclusions of my own.

That’s what the big driving idea for this book was, the reason I kept working on it: Give people a point from which they could draw their own conclusions about extremism and why it happens. Yeats said, ‘All empty souls tend toward extreme opinions’. I wanted the novel to follow the process by which certain souls empty themselves.

6. Is the book pro-terrorist?

No. The fact that such a question even comes up (and it does) suggests to me that a conversation about the issues this novel focuses on is really quite important now. It’s a conversation that needs to happen on a global level. So I say let’s start it. People hear a word like ‘Jihadi’ and they come up with their own meanings, or the meanings others have conditioned them to associate with the word.

I started a discussion group on Google Plus, My Jihad Is … which ties in to the Council on American-Islamic Relations campaign to get some deeper understanding of what jihad really is. You could even see this novel as an extension of that campaign. I’m fine with that. And I look forward to the discussion.

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This post is part of the Jihadi blog tour. Details of the other blogs taking part are listed below.

9781910633311    JIHADI Blog tour Banner

Jihadi is published by Orenda Books.

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To win a copy of this book, follow me on Twitter: Jackie Law (@followthehens) and retweet the relevant update on my feed before 8am GMT on Wednesday 24 March 2016. This giveaway is open internationally.

Book Review: Jihadi

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Jihadi, by Yusuf Toropov, is not an easy book to get into but will reward the persistent reader with the satisfaction of having consumed an impressive work of literature. The narrative hooks brought to mind the Fibonnaci sequence. After a slow start the plot gathered pace until it was necessary to pause from time to time to absorb the multitude of ideas being conveyed. It is a layered and nuanced study of how society may be manipulated to further a cause.

The book is set out as a memoir written by a treasonous American operative during his incarceration in a secret government facility. The prologue suggests that this man, Ali Liddell, died during his interrogation. His executioner is now reading his words, making notes as they go along.

The notes appear personal and unhinged. The note writer listens to music and finds meaning in the lyrics to fit their desired interpretation, one of the more bizarre elements of the book. Perhaps it demonstrates that any words may be twisted to support an argument.

The story is a jigsaw puzzle. Pieces are offered out of order and must be slotted together until gradually what is being assembled becomes clear. It is set in the Islamic Republic and in America. Murders are planned and carried out in both locations.

Thelonius Liddell is a secret agent who kills on government orders. He has returned to his wife in America following a mission that did not go as planned. He appears to be suffering from something like PTSD. His wife, Becky, has a brain tumour that mimics schizophrenia. Her husband and father have tried to keep this prognosis from her that she may better enjoy whatever time she has left.

Liddell’s mission brought him into contact with a devout follower of Islam named Fatima. Fatima’s pregnant sister, her husband and mother-in-law have recently been killed by a shell fired from an American tank. Another shell killed a toddler and injured his eight year old brother. These events set in motion an uprising within the Islamic City where Fatima lives and works.

The story revolves around the intelligence services on both sides, the soldiers tasked with maintaining order, and the radicals who initiate the uprising. Among the Americans are those who think that any and all Muslims should be killed as they present a threat to civilisation. Among the followers of Islam are those who think that any and all Americans should be killed for similar reasons. It is clear that neither side truly believes in the tenets they espouse but use them to garner support for their cause, believing that the end justifies the means. The end they are looking for may be boiled down to personal gain.

What is being explored is the nature of terrorism and the personal cost to individuals on both sides of the hatred being whipped up by their leaders. This is not a new supposition but is presented in such a raw and compelling framework that it commands careful consideration. It does not, however, read as a political diatribe but rather as a study of humanity. The instinct to preserve, to seek control and to follow the herd are recognisable. There are also moments of humour in the tale – I chuckled at the reference to White Walkers.

Jihadi is strap-lined A Love Story. Just as the reader will question what is right or wrong, good or evil, so they may question what it means to love. Whatever language is spoken or creed followed, to seek to control, to dominate, is to accept submission. Where force is used suffering will follow, and it will not always be the ‘others’ who will suffer.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Orenda Books.