Sunday Salon – Review of “Children of Dust: A Memoir of Pakistan” by Ali Eteraz

The Sunday

Ali Eteraz’s coming of age memoir takes us from his upbringing immersed in conservative Islam in Pakistan, to his education in philosophy and postmodernism in the West, to his epiphany about who he is when he is back in the Muslim world.

Eteraz has no qualms about showing us all his wavering, flaws and warts. It’s a big risk with a memoir, because readers might not like him enough to continue. But we get something valuable if we stay the course: Eteraz is without a doubt an interesting person, and moreover shares with us an inside look at a childhood overshadowed by Islamic teachings and religious madrassas (schools), and some plain language elucidation about the Quran and Islam.

I loved learning more about Islam. I had no idea, for example, that the Prophet Sulayman is none other than who we in the West call Solomon, son of King David (Daud), or that Isa, son of Maryam is the same as Jesus, son of Mary. I had thought that the Quran is considered holy in the same way the Bible is considered holy, but I learned differently. Eteraz explains:

“The Quran existed jointly with God. Timeless, immutable, perfect, the Quran was all Allah (though not all of Allah was the Quran). Allah had poured it through the mouth of Muhammad, and as it existed on paper now was how Allah intended for the Quran to look, taste, and sound. The Quran was the Islamic equivalent of Christ. The act of repeating the Arabic words, as they passed through the mouth and throat and echoed in the chest, was a form of transubstantiation: a way of making what was divine enter the human body.”

Well, you can certainly see why mistreatment of the Quran at Guatanamo by Western soldiers was such anathema to the prisoners there.

Eteraz’s memories about madrassas are pretty frightening. Young boys were physically abused – beaten, humiliated, harangued, even in one case raped. He doesn’t claim all madrassas are like this, but the ones in his experience certainly were. (The beatings were justified as helping to prepare the boys to serve Allah later in a greater capacity by being prepared for life’s pain.) No wonder this boy grew up to change his name to Ali Eteraz (“noble protest”) and to challenge the authority of ultraconservative Islam.

And yet, Eteraz has trouble escaping fundamentalist Islam’s noose. His friend Ziad observed:

“You have to ask yourself what you’re fighting for, Ali. Are you an enemy of Islamic fundamentalism simply because it pisses you off, or do you actually support liberty? If it’s the latter, why do you have to talk about Islam all day? If it’s the former, you have to ask yourself why you let your life be controlled by being pissed off. Or . . . maybe you’re just desperate to be relevant.”

Talks with Ziad, many as emotionally charged as this one, eventually lead Eteraz to understand what it is he believes.

Ali Eteraz

Evaluation: The press release on this book characterizes it as “astonishingly honest” and “darkly comic.” I would agree with the former, but with the latter I would only accept the word “darkly.” I thought it was a sad book. I found many elements of what happened to Eteraz to be horrific. Even his parents, seemingly very loving, instilled fears and expectations in him about religion that I thought tended toward the abusive. This book reminds me of Foreskin’s Lament by Shalom Auslander. Auslander also decried the deleterious and pervasive effects of an orthodox religious upbringing. No matter how he tried to reject it, it continued to inform his existence. I would say that Auslander’s book is more accurately described as “comic” however. But both of these books teach by example that bringing up children to fear God by issuing threats and inculcating stories of the harm their sins will bring upon the world is destructive to the human spirit.

Rating: 3/5

Published by HarperOne, 2009


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17 Responses to Sunday Salon – Review of “Children of Dust: A Memoir of Pakistan” by Ali Eteraz

  1. bermudaonion says:

    I love memoirs so this book appeals to me. I think I would have to be in the right mood to read it, though, since it seems so dark.

  2. This book has come into my radar recently and I want to read it so much.Therefore, I was so glad you included it on your blog this week.
    Your review was great and I loved your analogy and the perspective you shared:

    Well, you can certainly see why mistreatment of the Quran at Guatanamo by Western soldiers was such anathema to the prisoners there.

    This really makes soooooo much more sense now, and I like you had no idea that the book was so sacred.
    Thanks for sharing. Wisteria

  3. EL Fay says:

    I learned quite a bit about Islam just from reading your review. Memoirs aren’t something I usually read, but this one definitely sounds worth it.

  4. susan says:

    I have this book, too. I loaned it to a co-worker.

    I discovered a few years ago that I really enjoy memoirs. I don’t mind flawed characters or flawed real folk. Neither do I think one represents all so I’m very interested in reading this young man’s experiences.

    Thanks for the review.

  5. Nymeth says:

    It does sound sad – but interesting and enlightening too. I’d love to learn more about Islam, so I’ll keep this in mind.

  6. Julie P. says:

    I have this book in my TBR pile. It definitely sounds interesting.

  7. Staci says:

    Your insight into this book has captivated me….this is on my list to read next…great review and I look forward to reading this one.

  8. diane says:

    I wanted to read this one, but a sad book, is not what i need right now. Thanks for the honest review.

  9. Rebecca says:

    I have this book and need to get to it. But I do not need a sad book right now. This is the first holiday season without my father and he was diagnosed the day after Thanksgiving, so it is already a sad time. He died in late January so hopefully by February or March I can get to it. I hate that I am having to put it off, but I talked with the people who sent it to me and they said it was okay so I am relieved for that. What graciousness when you are trying to promote a book, right?

  10. Gavin says:

    This sounds like an interesting book, and learning about Pakistan and other countries in that area of the world is important.

  11. Alyce says:

    I learned a lot about Islam when one of my friends converted, married a Muslim man, and moved to the middle east. This book sounds like it might be a little too dark for me.

  12. Valerie says:

    This looks like an interesting book. I wonder, though, if it gives the impression that all believers of Islam are of a fundamentalist bent. There are many, many moderate and secular Muslims out there. If I read this, I think I would be most interested in his religious viewpoints; it certainly seems like his life experience shaped his opinions a great deal.

    • Valerie,
      I don’t think he ever makes it seem as if he is talking about more than his own personal experiences. Even though he didn’t talk specifically about more moderate believers, he did make it clear that there were a variety of interpretations from which to choose, although his parents seemed to gravitate toward more fundamentalist options.

  13. jovenus says:

    I loved learning more about Islam too. This sounds amazing, although Pakistani brand of Islam is not a good representation of what Islam should be! I will look this book up definitely.

    Coincidentally I just finished the book “The Road to Damascus” yesterday, a man’s journey on finding his own identity in his adopted land. See my review soon.

  14. softdrink says:

    The real Jill is back! 😉

    This actually sounds fascinating…I’ll have to add it to the non-fiction TBR pile.

  15. Lisa says:

    Oh darn! I passed on this one and now I’m going to have to go buy it because it sounds great.

  16. Bookjourney says:

    This is on the shelf and I need to get to it soon. I am really interested in this story.

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