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A Memoir Of Pakistan, Islamic Fundamentalism

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A Memoir Of Pakistan, Islamic Fundamentalism

Author Interviews

A Memoir Of Pakistan, Islamic Fundamentalism

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TERRY GROSS, host:

Ali Eteraz says his new memoir is about what happened when he loved Islam with affection, with torment, with stupidity, and with an ardor bordering on obsession. It's also about trying to figure out his identity growing up in Pakistan in the '80s, attending a madrassa, then at the age of 11, moving with his family from Pakistan to the U.S. He was living in New York on 9/11, and after the attack, his ambition changed. He wanted to reform Islam. Eteraz is a graduate of Emory University and Temple Law School. After working in corporate litigation, he turned to writing about Islam and Pakistan. His articles have been published in Dissent, Foreign Policy, AlterNet, altMuslim, The Guardian, and Pakistan's English-language daily, Dawn, and he has his own blog. His new memoir is called "Children of Dust."

Ali Eteraz, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. ALI ETERAZ (Author, "Children of Dust: A Memoir of Pakistan"): Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: You know, your story strikes me as the story of a lot of American kids and teenagers, in that so many Americans struggle with their identity and they try on several different personalities when they become teenagers and different styles of dressing, sometimes different names or nicknames until they finally figure out who they really are. It seems to me you did that, but every step of the way it was about your relationship to Islam. Is that an accurate description?

Mr. ETERAZ: That's absolutely accurate. I went through numerous phases, all relating to types of Muslim identities that I adopted and it wasn't something conscious. It wasn't that I set out to do something along those lines, but it ended up becoming that because, for better or for worse, Islam in America and across the world has such diversity and plurality that I could often find myself into various different ways of being Muslim.

GROSS: Now, your father made a pilgrimage to Mecca before you were born. What did he vow on that pilgrimage?

Mr. ETERAZ: Well, there were two significant pilgrimages in a very early stage in my life to Mecca. First one was just my dad. And he went there and he basically said to God, you know, please give me a son. And if you give me a son, then I'll make sure that the son becomes a servant of Islam. And the second pilgrimage was after I was born. We, as a family, all three of us went to Mecca again. And then my mother, along with my dad this time, sort of affirmed the fact that I was a boy, and therefore, that first vow would have to be upheld.

GROSS: Did your parents try to do anything to help you fulfill the vow that your father had made, that you would be a servant of Islam?

Mr. ETERAZ: Absolutely. You know, they enrolled me in religious schooling pretty early.

GROSS: Madrassa?

Mr. ETERAZ: Yes. Madrassa, as well as private tutors, as well as just at home.

GROSS: The impression I took away from your description of the madrassa was that it was a really punitive place, a physically abusive place. And my impression was that you had more to say about that than what was actually taught there. What were your impressions of the school?

Mr. ETERAZ: The madrassa, in a way - so, you know, I was really young - I was about eight or nine. And it had such an atmosphere of almost totalitarian power over you. You know, you went in there, you just felt crushed. And I went in there as someone who sort of agreed with the idea of going there. You know, I was kind of okay with it, whereas, my friends and people around the neighborhood, they really didn't like to go. And I went in there as someone who was very comfortable learning about Islam. I thought I would just be learning the Quran and I would do well. That was really the entirety of my point of view.

And I went in there and it just kind of blew me away as to how not only regimented everything was - and the regimentation occurs through discipline via theology. So you're supposed to wash your hands and feet in only one particular way when you're doing the ablution. You're supposed to bow and then the instructors will check if you're bowing correctly. I mean, if your back is not perfectly straight then you - depending on their mood, you might be disciplined, right? You had to sit and this is described in the book. You know, you have to sit a particular way, and describe it in the book, it was not something that everyone can do, you know? So all of these things kind of occurred at the madrassa as soon as I went.

And then, there is the whole coming to the Arabic language thing, which is not our native language in Pakistan. We speak Urdu or Punjabi and Arabic is pretty foreign, so...

GROSS: So you're at a disadvantage as a Muslim just by virtue of the language that you spoke.

Mr. ETERAZ: Right. Right. But that's all of us. And so all of us - because none of us spoke Arabic, you know, we learned that lesson very quickly. And it took away immediately from any interest I had from the Quran. It took away from any interest that I had - oh, well I'm going to learn Islam. It just kind of -that's the stuff you start fixating on, you know? It's just this little, little things. And the way you urinate, for example. What things you say before you go to the bathroom. All these things kind of coalesced and just give you such a feeling of fear.

GROSS: Since you had such a bad experience at the madrassa when you were a boy...

Mr. ETERAZ: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...why did you kind of stick with Islam? I mean, like some people, if they have a bad experience at a religious school, they leave and they're never going back to church or synagogue or, you know, whatever their religion is. But you, you know, you kept changing your relationship to Islam but staying very committed to it.

Mr. ETERAZ: Absolutely. Because I felt that I owed something to Islam. I owed my allegiance to it. I felt like I needed to remain committed to it because that's where I was supposed to be. And that's kind of my mission, if you will, to remain involved, to find myself within Muslim communities and be involved. And I do think that if I hadn't left Pakistan and come to the U.S. I may have veered away from Islam like many youngsters who remain in Pakistan do. I recently met some of these guys in Dubai, and they had also gone to madrassas, you know, as little kids and now they're atheists and they just have no interest in Islam. And they never had maintained any interest in it, right? But I felt like once I came to the U.S. it got reinforced.

GROSS: How?

Mr. ETERAZ: Well, because when we came to the United States we were - first of all, we were economically down and, second of all, we didn't really have a sense of Pakistani identity and we didn't really know what American identity meant. So, the thing that kind of we grasped on to was Islam. And that was just like self perpetuating, you know, reinforcing thing that we encountered over and over. And it was available. All over New York there were mosques that you could go to, little study circles that you could attend. And Islam became the identity marker as opposed to, hey, I'm Pakistani, or hey I want to be an American, right? I was just like, oh, I'm Muslim. That's why I am. I'm in the land of non-Muslims and I'm a Muslim. That's who I have to be.

GROSS: You're living in a neighborhood in New York with Hassidic Jews, Italians, African-Americans, Albanians, very multicultural…

Mr. ETERAZ: Very multicultural.

GROSS: …area.

Mr. ETERAZ: Yeah.

GROSS: So when people identified you as Muslim, was it with respect or derision?

Mr. ETERAZ: It was with disinterest. People didn't really used to care that you were Muslim.

GROSS: This was before 9/11.

Mr. ETERAZ: Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. ETERAZ: This was like early 90s, you know…

GROSS: Oh, right.

Mr. ETERAZ: The only real thing that they could even associated with me was Apu from "The Simpsons," and he's Hindu, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ETERAZ: So, it was just one of those things that never really manifested itself.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You were back to Pakistan briefly.

Mr. ETERAZ: Yes.

GROSS: And suddenly you were the American.

Mr. ETERAZ: Right.

GROSS: And a lot of your friends and their friends had turned against America, more or less holding you responsible…

Mr. ETERAZ: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: …for everything they didn't like about America. And suddenly, you, the person who's kind of still alienated in America is in the position of defending it? Can you talk a little about being in that position?

Mr. ETERAZ: Yeah, absolutely, I mean, like I described in the book. I first went to Karachi, which is a big, big city on the coast in Pakistan and once I got there I was like a gas at their Westernization, you know, I was like my guy, you guys are still American and, like, what it is wrong with you? Why don't you have more Islamic flavor to your life? What's with all the MTV style shows? Why don't you guys go to the mosque more? That was really my perspective. And then I go down to Punjab, back to my family in the rural areas. And suddenly, like I said, I meet these proto Taliban guys and they try to trick me and they try to play games with me - mess with my head about how I'm a CIA agent, All-American, how I'll never fit in with them, how I'm responsible for having brought upon, you know, the missile attacks that Clinton had launched against Afghanistan, and a lot of these other things.

And I suddenly become stand in for the entirety of the West. And that struck me as completely crazy because in New York, right, I was better than the Westerners. I was Muslim. And now all of a sudden I was a Westerner. You know, that has not gone away to this day. That idea where a Muslim is not allowed to be an individual and is not allowed to - it hasn't really gone away. I feel like even today, especially after 9/11, I'm almost always standing in for somebody's historical grievances. And in some cases fundamentalists think that I, by virtue of certain adoptions of, you know, American culture, I am now responsible for the - whatever atrocities that their people have suffered.

And then non-Muslims, who are prejudiced towards Muslims, just look at a public Muslim person like me, and then they'll say, well, you represent all the vile things that Muslims have done to us.

GROSS: My guest is Ali Eteraz. His new book is called, "Children of Dust: A Memoir of Pakistan." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Ali Eteraz. His new book is called, "Children of Dust: A Memoir of Pakistan." It's about growing up in Pakistan in the '80s, then moving with his family to the U.S. at the age of 11. He describes himself as having been devoted to Islam with an ardor bordering on obsession, until later dedicating himself to reforming the religion. You describe 9/11.

Mr. ETERAZ: Yeah.

GROSS: Second plane hits the tower.

Mr. ETERAZ: Yeah.

GROSS: Second plane hits the second tower and you're thinking - I hope these aren't Muslims.

Mr. ETERAZ: Right.

GROSS: Why did that go through your mind?

Mr. ETERAZ: I just felt like there was going to be a massive…

GROSS: First of all, you suspected they were Muslims, otherwise you wouldn't been…

Mr. ETERAZ: Right. No, I - yeah, my first reaction was, it's got to be Muslims. Like I just, you know, because going back to what those guys have been talking about in Pakistan, I just felt like, it has to be. And then I was like well, I hope it's not. And all of a sudden - I'm a public Muslim. I mean, every Muslim is now, you know, thus stand in for what has happened.

And I remember very distinctly that day when I was watching the programming - yes I was concerned about what had happened and, you know, that the fact that the tower has collapsed and the amount of people and the fire fighters and their bravery. You know, I was definitely following that, but there was a second threat in my head, where I was following anybody who said something to make sure that Muslims were not targeted.

There was very sudden fear that Muslims in the United States are about to be sent off to concentration camps. I mean - that - like the Internment camps of the Japanese. So, all of a sudden I felt really visible. And that visibility caused, not just me, but I'll say a great number of American Muslims, just hide - just tuck their head in and hide.

GROSS: At some point, you decided, you're going to become a reformer.

Mr. ETERAZ: Yeah.

GROSS: And try to reform Islam and to, you know, address, head on, the kind of radicalism that have become the public face of Islam to so many people.

Mr. ETERAZ: Yeah.

GROSS: And this is where you changed your name to the name that you currently use, Ali Eteraz…

Mr. ETERAZ: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Why did you choose this name?

Mr. ETERAZ: Well, I started becoming involved in Islamic reform-type movements and groups, because I felt that the worse - it started striking me that there was something more than just political conflict taking place here. I felt like maybe there was something about religion itself, that was playing a role. And I had not really been involved with anything Islamic for about five years, and then, you know, I thrust myself back into it - into again, sort of, being a Muslim activist. And, I think the Danish cartoons that occurred those, you know, the Danish newspaper, which made some caricature of Prophet Muhammad, it upset me that they were insulting Muhammad, but it felt to me that it was because of the things that Muslims had done.

So, we had kind of almost brought it upon ourselves, right? And if I wanted to restore some sort of civility amongst Muslims and non-Muslims, and I felt that I - sort of - I adopted this name, Ali Eteraz, which for me has a very, sort of, activist connotations.

GROSS: What does it mean?

Mr. ETERAZ: Well, it means the noble protest. So the word Eteraz means protest. And I felt like I was protesting not just against the kind of character-making, you know, Islam bashing non-Muslims but also the sort of - the violent fanatic extremists from the Muslim side. And it was - that space in the middle and I wanted to occupy it and I felt like we could strengthen it. And it was really just - I think, that never in my life had that original covenant that my dad had sort of entered me into, had been stronger than when I entered this sort of Ali Eteraz phase. Which is funny because, you know, a lot of the critics of my activism from the Muslim community would think that I was, sort of, veering away from Islam. In fact, I mean, I was now totally and truly obsessed as like I had never been before.

GROSS: You had a friend who told you that you - he thought you would made Islam into an idol.

Mr. ETERAZ: Absolutely. That really struck me because…

GROSS: And Islam does not allow idolatry.

Mr. ETERAZ: Right, Islam is really just big against idolatry. And I totally value that comment because I - Islam had just become an edifice, this, you know, like the obelisk in Arthur Clarke's "Space Odyssey," that big black thing that was just there. And I was always just kind of coming back to it, coming back to it and I really didn't know why. So, that final sort of change reminded me, you know what, like I have to figure some things out. And so now I'm kind of in a pretty chill place with respect Islam, at least.

GROSS: So, what is your place in respect to Islam?

Mr. ETERAZ: Well, I'm not really in the communal side of things. I don't - I rarely go to mosque. I do have a relationship, you know, with God, and I feel comfortable with that. You know, I definitely - I know that my - a lot of my outlook and a lot of my thinking is informed by Muslim traditions and Muslim cultures. And, you know, the form of prayer that I take will take that historically Muslim appearance. And I'm comfortable with that.

GROSS: So, now that the form of Islam you practice is just a very personal one, how do your parents feel about that? Do they feel like you've lost your way as somebody who your father vowed would be a servant of Islam?

Mr. ETERAZ: I don't think my parents think that. We've talked about this at length now. They are more pleased that I found a place where I could find happiness with, you know, my relationship to Islam. They are glad that I'm not coerced, you know - that I don't have a feeling of being coerced by any historical fact, you know. My mom and I talked at length. Again, you know, she was an agent for so much of my Islamic obsession, and now we talk a lot about how we got to that point and how she got to that point. So, it's kind of been an eye opening for both of us.

My dad is probably not as happy that I'm so, kind of, removed from the community, but he is not upset either. You know, I think he appreciates that I got here genuinely. And I am kind of lucky, because as I was going though my transformation, they were going through their own. And, you know, I'm sure they could write a book like this by themselves and their relationship and I think they're pretty much at ease.

GROSS: Ali Eteraz, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. ETERAZ: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Ali Eteraz is the author of the new book, "Children of Dust: A Memoir of Pakistan." You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site freshair.npr.org and you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair.

I'm Terry Gross.

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