Stranger to History: A Son’s Journey Through Islamic Lands (Review)

August 20, 2011

Book cover for "Stranger to History" by Aatish Taseer.Title: Stranger to History: A Son’s Journey Through Islamic Lands

Author: Aatish Taseer

Publication Year: 2009

Pages: 336

Genre: Non-Fiction

Source: Review copy from the publisher

From the cover:

As a child, all Aatish Taseer ever had of his father was his photograph in a browning silver frame. Raised by his Sikh mother in Delhi, his Pakistani father remained a distant figure, almost a figment of his imagination, until Aatish crossed the border when he was twenty-one to finally meet him.

In the years that followed, the relationship between father and son revived, then fell apart. For Aatish, their tension had not just to do with the tensions of a son rediscovering his absent father — they were intensified by the fact that Aatish was Indian, his father Pakistani and Muslim. It had complicated his parents’ relationship; now it complicated his.

The relationship forced Aatish to ask larger questions: Why did being Muslim mean that your allegiances went out to other Muslims before the citizens of your own country? Why did his father, despite claiming to be irreligious, describe himself as a ‘cultural Muslim’? Why did Muslims see modernity as a threat? What made Islam a trump identity?

This book had a lot of “stop and think” moments. Usually, these were to do with things people said to the author about what it means to be Muslim, but it also had a lot to do with the difference between being “Indian” and being “Pakistani”.

I’m not sure if that was the author’s intention, but it’s something that really stuck out for me. Taseer didn’t really seem to “fit in” in a lot of places because of being Indian. For example, even though everyone in Pakistan told him that since his father was Muslim, that means he was Muslim, even if he had never practiced Islam, they all also treated him as “lesser than” because of his Indian citizenship.

In the end, even after all the different countries and different versions of Islam that Taseer experienced, it was still the idea of Pakistan as a Muslim nation that really hit home for him. It seemed to exemplify his father’s birthplace and the irreparable differences between them.

One of the more interesting quotations from the book, for me at least, was this:

“The problem with us,” he said, “is that somewhere along the way we stopped being a country guided by an idea and just became a place where people lived.”

That remark stopped the idealogue’s torrent; he seemed to sense that he’d said a painful but amazing thing. So many places were just places where people lived, but Pakistan, which was made for an idea, and which had broken with history for that idea – which, if not for that idea, was just a handful of Indian Muslim states, with linguistic and cultural differences – depended on it for its survival.

Stranger to History is interesting on many layers, but the one most interesting to me, personally, was that of the struggle to find an identity that fits, and then the continuous struggle to have those around you accept that identity. It wasn’t about his search for the meaning of “being Muslims” that really drew me in, but his search for the meaning of being someone’s son.

Rating:


This book is a part of the Ramadan Reading event happening here this month.

You can find other posts in the series by clicking on the image to the right, or by taking a look at the schedule of posts and reviews.

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