Whether or not you’ll find Ali Eteraz’s novel Native Believer a worthwhile read depends on your expectations. If you’re looking for a clean, straightforward book with a clear, crisp message about the challenges that American-born Muslims face, then you might not get what you’re expecting. But if you’re down for a weird, disturbing, and unsettling tale that ruminates on the identity crisis of an American man of Muslim ancestry, then you might find this book satisfying.
The book is narrated in the first person by a 32-year-old American-born man of Muslim heritage whose parents immigrated to the United States from an unspecified country located in what the book terms “West Asia.” Although he has a Muslim name (we’re told only that it starts with the letter M), he wasn’t raised in a religious household, and as an adult he’s anything but religious.
“Whether or not you’ll find Ali Eteraz’s novel Native Believer a worthwhile read depends on your expectations.”
He lives a comfortable life in Philadelphia with his white, secular wife, but everything changes the night he hosts a party for his colleagues. M’s new boss finds a Koran on the top shelf of M’s bookshelf — M wasn’t even aware the holy book was there. It turns out that unbeknownst to him, M’s mother had put the Koran there two weeks before she died. The boss accuses M of having “residual supremacism” — a drive for Islamic expansion that lingers in M’s subconscious, no matter how secular he is. At M’s next day at work, he’s fired, and it’s clear that his Muslim heritage is the cause.
At this point, your anger has been stoked. M doesn’t even identify as Muslim, much less practice Islam, yet he’s fired simply because his ancestors were Muslim. (And, of course, even if he were a practicing Muslim, it would still be wrong to fire him just for that.)
This is where the novel’s plot line gets really weird and has a decent chance of turning you off. With plenty of free time on his hands now that he’s jobless, M wanders the streets of Philadelphia, embarking on what he later terms an “interesting adventure” of the city’s various Muslim communities. He waterboards a new friend as part of an initiation rite into a group called the Gay Commie Muzzies.
He hangs out with a guy named Tot who says, “[R]ape isn’t real, rape doesn’t exist. You see, since it’s the vagina’s inherent characteristic to get wet in order to receive the penis, it doesn’t matter whether consent has been established.” M, age 32, gets oral sex from a 16-year-old girl, Farkhunda, at the mausoleum of Sufi mystic Bawa Muhaiyaddeen. He visits the set of a pornographic film featuring “a couple of Mainline widows of 9/11 who had an inexplicable desire to experience terrorist sex with Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri.” He cheats on his wife by having sex with a Muslim convert (this time, thankfully, she’s an adult at least). Finally, he does what he feels he has to do to reject the supremacy of Islam — throw his Koran into the river.
Some might find all this appealing — or appalling. I found it disturbing. (As the New York Times’ review of this book put it, “The novel’s preoccupation with violative sex makes it difficult to stomach at times. … The scene [of oral sex] is rendered in graphic detail, with minimal reflection on its broader moral implications.”)
“M’s inner monologue as he stumbles through his identity crisis provides some food for thought.”
Ironically, after chucking his Koran into the river, M gets a job with the U.S. State Department as a Muslim outreach contractor. He travels to places such as Malaysia and Indonesia and tells Muslims there that American Muslims have it great overall, despite occasional discrimination, as exemplified by his job loss. The book ends with a macabre act of criminal revenge.
Dark, disturbing plot aside, M’s inner monologue as he stumbles through his identity crisis provides some food for thought. There’s the idea that Muslims in America don’t get to define themselves; rather, they are defined by the white, non-Muslim majority, even if that definition is wrong. This results in the “pain of being perceived contrary to how you conceived of yourself in your thoughts.”
Then there’s the idea of “residual supremacy,” which Westerners impose on Muslims, according to the novel: Even if you don’t believe in Islam or practice the religion, simply having a Muslim name and Muslim ancestors means that a tiny ember of Islam glows within you, subconsciously guiding you to want Islam to be supreme. Eteraz describes it best when M thinks to himself:
[U]nderneath the cultured exterior [of even a secular Muslim] … there was a latent man, a zealot, one who drew direction from the supremacist message of the Koran, aspiring to ultimately overturn the existing bookshelf and seek out domination in the name of Allah. I had been identified as an agent of Islamic expansion, the fear of which was woven into every Westerner. … [T]he fear was the same as it had always been: Islam sought ascendance and Muslims made that ascendance happen.
The trouble with this narrative was that it didn’t apply to me. There had been a misunderstanding. I harbored nothing toward Islam, or toward any other idea in the world that might assert itself as a competitor to America. I didn’t recite la ilaha illallah, neither out loud nor in any recess of my heart. For me there was no deity but America, and this was all there was to it.
But that’s the thing about misunderstandings. Unless you have the power to take control of the one who has misunderstood, you have to participate in the misapprehension. You have to enter the prison that someone else has constructed for you.
And on the subject of prisons, being Muslim is compared to being in an invisible concentration camp:
To be a Muslim was not a physical confinement. It was an invisible concentration camp. … When I was first introduced to the invisible concentration camp I did not want to believe that it existed. But more than that, I did not want to believe that I belonged to it. But I did. A will greater than my own had determined it. Maybe it would have been better if there were actually walls all around us. Clear demarcations between the ones free to be anything and the ones limited to being “Muslim.” That way we would not have grown up thinking there were no walls. We never would have been mistaken, the way I was mistaken, and so the scar that came with getting herded wouldn’t have been as bad, as ugly.
Despite these tidbits of provocative thought, it’s unclear what overall message this novel is trying to convey, if any. Further, these stabs at insight are eclipsed by the novel’s bizarre and twisted plot line. And for this reason, the novel’s appeal will be limited to those who take delight in the weird, the disturbing, and the unsettling.
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