Enter Once Were Radicals. Perhaps it was the hint of B-grade horror movies in its subtitle that made it seem accessible, or perhaps it was the ludicrous cover image of the author – dark-skinned, bearded and brandishing an automatic weapon, but wearing a boxing kangaroo T-shirt, one cricket pad and a Gen-X smirk in front of a bullet-pierced rifle-range target. Whatever, this is book broke through my worthiness barrier.
Irfan Yusuf, Pakistani Muslim from North Ryde, former member of the Liberal Party, old boy of St Andrew’s (Anglican) Cathedral School, blogger (in fact, the book has its own blog), winner of the Iremonger Award for Writing on Public Issues the year my niece Paula Shaw was runner-up, has written a kind of demotic Apologia Pro Vita Sua, an extended episode of Pizza with political Islamic writings in place of bongs.
The comparison to the Apologia isn’t as far-fetched as it might seem. Compare John Henry Newman’s opening words
I cannot be sorry to have forced Mr Kingsley to bring out in fulness his charges against me. It is far better that he should discharge his thoughts upon me in my lifetime, than after I am dead.
to the way Irfan Yusuf begins his acknowledgements:
Believe it or not, the first person I’d like to thank is the former US President George W. Bush for popularising the clumsy term ‘Islamo-fascist’.
Both writers take personally the insult – of untruthfulness and terrorist tendencies respectively – to their religion, and respond with what Newman described as ‘draw[ing] out the history of [his] mind’:
I will state the point at which I began, in what external suggestion or accident each opinion had its rise, how far and how they were developed from within, how they grew, were modified, were combined, were in collision with each other, and were changed; again how I conducted myself towards them …
In Yusuf’s case this is a history of growing up as a middle-class immigrant in Sydney, revisiting Pakistan a number of times as ‘an Aussie kid’, gradually learning to distinguish among the interpenetrating religious heritages of his South Asian ‘uncles’ and ‘aunts’, going to Muslim youth camps, learning parts of the Koran by rote in Pakistan and at home, reading books given him by his Wahhabist aunt, toying with conversion to Christianity, engaging passionately with Islam in a number of ways in his teenage years, and in the end achieving an impressive equilibrium. He is given a copy of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, but his parents remove it deftly before he can read any of it; he reads The Satanic Verses, and his mother objects because it might interfere with his studies.
As one who was deeply involved in Catholic matters in my teenage years, I could relate to young Irfan’s trajectory, including the bit that involved learning by heart slabs of text in a language he didn’t understand. Even though I’d be hard pressed to name withy any confidence even one of the authors who attracted him to political Islam, the sheer complexity of his reading is in itself instructive: everybody knows there’s not just one Islam, but following the teenage Irfan’s quest made the complexity of Muslim cultures tangible, almost tasteable.
The Pizza connection: Once Were Radicals is at times very funny, with plenty of a specifically Australian quality of ethnic self-mockery. Yusuf impresses on us early in the book that his mother is highly educated, and that she made a calculated decision to speak Urdu in the home so that her children would not lose the language of their cultural heritage, and there’s no disrespect in his lampooning of her heavily accented English in the rest of the book. Lakemba’s Sheikh Hilaly features in one or two scenes whose comic effect couldn’t be further than the pot-shots taken at him by journalists and aspiring satirists: he treats a young bikini-clad Australian woman with friendly courtesy, and tells his astonished teenage charges:
Ostraalyan beebul goodh, nice friendly beebul. Wee Muslim fighth thoo mush. Vee should lurrn from za Ostraalyan beebul how show respect.
All of this is pretty much what I expected of the book after hearing the author speak at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. I didn’t expect to be moved to tears. It’s against my religion to tell how a book ends, but I can tell you that for me this one did end in tears.