Abbas El-Zein, Leave to Remain (UQP 2009)
There was a piece on the news recently about a conference on Islamophobia. My lay thought on the subject is that the best way to make headway against that polysyllabic malady is to make friends with actual flesh-and-blood Muslims. A probably less efficacious but also less challenging cure might be to read books by Muslim writers. Irfan Yusuf’s Once Were Radicals is a case in point. So is Leave to Remain. Both books are memoirs by Australian Muslims who were born elsewhere, both deal with what it means to be Muslim and ‘of Middle Eastern appearance’ living in Australia; Irfan Yusuf comes from the rough and tumble world of blogdom and doesn’t know when to write ‘my friend and me’ rather than ‘my friend and I’, whereas Abbas El-Zein is a university professor and novelist, parts of whose book have appeared in literary journals. Once Were Radicals did a beautiful job (for me at least) of ‘de-Othering’ Islam – that is to say, I felt that the author had done a brilliant job of bridging the Islamophobia chasm. I approached Leave to Remain expecting something of the same, for a different generation, a different national background (Yusuf left Pakistan for Australia when he was a small child; El-Zein was an adult when he came here from Lebanon).
Paradoxically, even though Abas El-Zein’s childhood and youth in war-torn Lebanon could hardly have been more different from mine in what someone has called the cotton-wool peace of White Australia, I had much less of a sense of chasms being bridged with this book. Perhaps that’s because Yusuf’s memoir deals largely with his adolescent exploration of Islam, which is still pretty much a closed Book to me; while El-Zein identifies unwaveringly as ‘an adherent … to Enlightenment ideas and practices concerning the secular state, pluralism, science and technology’, close to my own cultural identity.
The book has elements of biography, but is actually a collection of personal essays with a stage of the writer’s life as subject and springboard. It’s divided into two parts, of roughly equal length: the first, ‘Origins and Departures’, takes us up to the 32-year-old El-Zein’s arrival in Sydney in 1995, the second, ‘Unhappy Returns’, deals mainly with his return visit to Lebanon and his responses to the wars that have afflicted that part of the world since. I don’t have time to say much more than that there’s some wonderful writing and give some samples.
On his adolescent anti-Americanism (which he repudiates as naive, but records all the same):
As a teenager, I worried about America because I could not understand how it could show off its wealth so casually on screens around the world. Was it not afraid of exposing itself, of being so present in the lives of so many individuals, a presence which was all about America itself? Once, during the war in Beirut, my mother told my teenage sister not to go out with too much jewellery round her neck because the only men she would be likely to attract were robbers. I thought America could benefit from a little talk from my mother. Not that America was likely to grant an audience. America was a blind Narcissus, constantly playing mental images of himself with no hope of seeing himself, let alone anyone else, because he was Narcissus and because he was blind. America could not see. It was made to be seen.
On the War on Terrorism:
A Manichean view of history – in which ‘we’ are indisputably good and ‘they’ are inherently evil – remains the West’s dominant form of expression about terrorism, post–September 11, and barely disguises its racial overtones. It is one of the mysteries of our time that the Soviet nuclear warheads and the IRA campaign on the British mainland, to name two relatively recent threats, did not cause nearly the same ‘existentialist’ panic that a Middle-Aged tribesman has succeeded in inflicting on the West’s collective psyche from his remote hideout in Afghanistan. For all the atrocious deeds of Al Qaeda and European Jihadists in New York, London and Madrid, who does seriously believe that they pose a threat to our existence in the West?
There is a wonderfully comic–grotesque description of his first walk from Redfern Station to Sydney University a few weeks after his arrival in Australia. ‘There was more mutilation around this street than I could live with,’ he writes – and we remember that this is a man who grew up in a civil war. He writes beautifully about his parental anxieties: his little son Ali announces with glee that his name can be found in the word Australia, and a few days later, just as excitedly, that it’s also in Alien. He writes graphic and instructive accounts of religious practices, especially of the Shi-ite festival of Ashura – mentioning in an aside that the public bloodletting that is so alien to Western sensibilities may well have been imported into Islam from the practices of Catholic Spain.
Incidentally, the book was designed, beautifully, by Jenny Grigg, who has been responsible for some of Australia’s most beautiful books (she redesigned The School Magazine ten or so years ago).