So many young children take the devotions of their parents somewhat methodically — mechanically — with little desire for deeper understanding. Religion is far too complicated. Its dull rituals merely interfere with a child’s desire to roam about the neighborhood and interact with other playmates or simply play with their imaginations.
Not so with author Ali Eteraz, who invites us to look inside his mind, the psyche of a child whose thinking is dominated from birth by the Islamic religion. In Children of Dust, Eteraz’s parents have made Islam and many of its divergent beliefs such a centerpiece of his everyday life that the impressionable youth becomes obsessed with it. When visiting Mecca, they had rubbed their son’s chest against a black corner of the sacred Ka’aba, Allah’s dwelling place on earth, naming him Abir ul Islam.
From his earliest memories when he is told his name Abir ul Islam means he will be great before Allah and men both on earth and after death, this young boy’s life is profoundly influenced by his parents religion. He adopts it with all its strict methodic prayer rules, social compulsions, and anathemas toward those who do not practice Allah’s commands. He readily accepts women wearing a chador (covering the face and body below eyes) or niqab (covering face above eyes) to hide their beauty as the Quran dictates.
Sent to a madrassa where he can memorize the Quran and thus be blessed in a special way by Allah both on earth and after death, Abir rebels against the savage beatings given readily to boys who do not recite promptly or correctly at his school. He questions more the manner in which the Quran is taught, rather than the difficulty of memorizing the entire book.
Although he blames a life threatening fever on a jinn (a devil), chances are that the author’s bout with typhoid probably came from the unhealthy living conditions imposed on his family. Pops, as Abir calls his physician father, never really establishes a profitable medical practice due to intense competition from traditional Pakistani healers.
For most of Abir’s early life in Children of Dust, his family is extremely poor living in squalid conditions in some of the poorest neighborhoods or districts. Here, open sewer ditches fill with household waste and animal and human excrement. These ditches barely carry away the refuse they contain. Planks of wood served as bridges to cross the ditch. Prior to Abir's illness, he had accidentally stepped into one of these sewage ditches.
In 1991, according to Children of Dust, the Eteraz family finally gains entrance into the United States after Abir’s father receives a medical residency. Abir attends high school in Alabama where he becomes fearful of losing Allah’s graces after interacting with American youth, both boys and girls. Now he becomes increasingly fundamentalistic in his Islamic religion.
Where the Quran upholds all forms of bodily purity including a provision where a single drop of urine on ones clothing or flesh would make the entire body unfit before Allah, now Abir’s life is surrounded with young women flaunting their “filthy” sexuality in openly charming yet damning ways. Abir reads volumes of hadiths (collection of Muhammeds sayings) to help organize his growing mental radicalism.
His mother, who formerly enjoyed a freer understanding of Islam, now turns dramatically against all forms of Western secularism: dancing, movies, plays, music, pictures, television, paintings, family portraits, etc. She begins dressing in a hijab (head covering) claiming that “women who don’t wear the scarf are not true Muslims.”
During his college years in Manhattan, Abir concludes that Islam is the superior religious interpretation for mankind. He returns briefly to Pakistan seeking a dutiful woman with similar religious sentiments, hoping a wife will satisfy his intense sexual urges. A marriage, he thinks, will keep him faithful to the Quran’s teachings and in Allah’s special favor that was given him as an infant when his parents touched him against the Ka’aba seen in the picture.
Yet, Abir begins to hear stabbing contradictions to his religious formalism. He learns about atrocities committed in the name of Islam by agents who clearly consider themselves religious fundamentalists. He finds it impossible to rationalize their actions with the Quran. Bombings and killings even if they are to thwart tyranny and oppression (whyislam.org/Jihad), still cannot fit Abir’s religious philosophy of life.
His mind reels at the thought that Allah could ever condone such activities such as the bombing of the twin towers on 9/11. He is jolted into passionate consolation for the thousands who died, and into abject hatred for the Islamic fundamentalists who claim responsibility in the name of his very own God.
Children of Dust is a highly intelligent read where I gained an incredible amount of knowledge about Islam, Allah, the Quran, and Muslim thinking from the thoughts of a man who has spent his life trying to align strict Muslim beliefs with the modern world. I admire him for disclosing his beliefs. His prose flows effortlessly even though it includes many italicized unfamiliar words which are cleverly explained without parentheses.
After a lifetime of thinking that such a restrictive Middle East dress code was imposed on women by tyrannical men, I actually hunted and then read, for myself, the actual verses in the Quran which describe Allah’s prescriptions for dress. Although I cannot condone them any more than I can ignore the Bible’s Yahweh who not only ordered but sanctioned slaughtering captives, I can now see why so many other requirements and rituals such as prayers, fasting, legal issues, punishments, marriage details, and the like, flow from a belief in the Quran as Allah’s Holy Word.
Children of Dust will make you feel you’ve experienced living within the hot and dusty confines of Pakistan, especially its poverty stricken areas. It will open up to you the frustration faced by a true Islam, who is attempting to practice a holy life in the United States, even though his very religion is decried by the ignorant. It will appall you with the harsh task at a madrassa as youth attempt to memorize, word by word by word, the Holy Quran. It will forever trouble your mind, just like it stressed author Ali Eteraz, that the word Muslim, a beloved word which should be at the very foundation of a fundamental world order of love, has become in the minds of so many, a fundamentalist’s word for tyranny, hatred, and terror.