Novelist Tahmima Anam Asks: Who Is 'The Good Muslim'? Against the backdrop of the aftermath of the war for Bangladeshi independence, the central characters in Tahmima Anam's novel — a brother and sister — take very divergent religious pathways. The author discusses the idea of a family rebuilding as their nation does the same.
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Revolution And The Question Of 'The Good Muslim'

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Revolution And The Question Of 'The Good Muslim'

Revolution And The Question Of 'The Good Muslim'

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. How do people start over after the rush of revolution? Today, we're watching that scenario play out across the Middle East and North Africa. Tahmima Anam's new book, "The Good Muslim," describes a different place and a time well before the Arab Spring. It's set in Bangladesh and it begins as that country's war of independence ends in 1971. The family at the center of the novel struggles with their country's new identity as well as their own, especially the main characters, a brother and sister, Sohail and Maya. Tahmima Anam joins us from the BBC studios in London. Welcome.

TAHMIMA ANAM: Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: First of all, I wonder if you could tell me about the good Muslim of the title.

ANAM: Well, the title is meant to ask a question, and as you read the book you can ask yourself which of the characters is the good Muslim. And there's one character who's deeply religious who would be the obvious candidate, but it's quite complicated because he practices a form of religion that is very alienating to his family. So, I suppose the book is sort of asking the reader to challenge that notion of what is a good Muslim. Is it the practicing Muslim; is it his sister, who's very progressive and a-religious? So, I suppose the title is meant to really, to raise those questions.

WERTHEIMER: You move back and forth in the book mostly between 1972 and 1984.

ANAM: The war actually ended at the end of 1971 with Pakistan kind of surrendering and, you know, East Pakistan then became Bangladesh. So, the two characters and the whole family basically have emerged from this really traumatic event when the novel opens.


ANAM: And 1984 is a time when there is a dictator in power. And when the novel ends, that dictator has been ousted and it's been really interesting for me kind of witnessing this Arab Spring that's happened over the last few months in the Middle East because in Bangladesh we too had a mass uprising against the dictator, and because of that we've had 20 years of functioning democracy.

WERTHEIMER: I must say that in addition to the sort of the politics and the politics of religion, you deal with a lot of other uncomfortable and very contemporary topics: nation-building, which is a painful experience in your book and as we are seeing in news stories every day...

ANAM: Sure.

WERTHEIMER: ...the traumatic experience of emerging from wartime, remembering everything that you have seen and everything that you have done and what a terrible experience that can be - rape as a weapon of war. I mean, you deal with all these issues.

ANAM: Yes, absolutely. I was reading the Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif said recently that a revolution is not an event, it's a process. So, for these characters who have just come out of the war, building the nation, having an identity, a cohesive identity, and certainly handling the traumas of the past, those are sort of the main preoccupations of the characters.

WERTHEIMER: There is a little paragraph on page 91. The heading of the chapter is "April, 1972." Could you read that for us? It's about the conversion into a good Muslim of one of the main characters.

ANAM: (Reading) Sohail's friends couldn't understand his conversion because they hadn't really grasped what had come before. They had thought his life was full of happiness. They used words like jolly and cheerful to describe him. Happy-go-lucky, happy and lucky, jolly and laughing, bell-bottomed, rock and rolled before he found God. They remembered how good looking he was and that he showed his teeth when he smiled. Had they known him better, they would have seen that the teeth, the smiling, the happy and the lucky had been taken by the war.

WERTHEIMER: I was sort of taking this a tension between the very conservative Islamist sort of Muslim that Sohail becomes and a more sort of worldly practice, I guess.

ANAM: Yes, absolutely. Well, you know, because the novel is set in Bangladesh, all the characters are Muslims. So, they represent different ways of practicing the faith. And the central tension in the book is between Sohail and his sister Maya. Basically, they live through this war of independence and they both fought in the war. And his sister feels deeply betrayed by the fact that her brother turns to religion because they were revolutionaries, they were Marxist, they were definitely sort of fighting against these kinds of religious doctrines. But she is also a Muslim, and so is their mother, who is sort of quietly practicing in the background while the battle is going on between the brother and sister.

WERTHEIMER: The main voice in the book is Maya, the sister.

ANAM: That's right.

WERTHEIMER: And through her you introduce another subject of tremendous tension, I guess, in the Muslim world, and that is the role of women.

ANAM: Yes, absolutely. Because she experienced a lot of the freedoms of fighting in this war, she emerges from it with a very strong sense of her identity as a woman and she really believes that it's one of her roles to promote the rights of women in her country because the country has just been born. So, she becomes a doctor and she becomes a kind of crusading social activist. So, I really wanted to show that in fact even though she comes from this very conservative society that in fact she espouses a lot of the hopes and dreams that women all over the world have, including, you know, in the Western world.

WERTHEIMER: You're not so much writing about a particular family as you are writing about the country and the times?

ANAM: Well, the story is about the family, but of course there is this whole other country in the background. So, I suppose there's a sense of the larger nation and the larger world but the main story is essentially about this family.

WERTHEIMER: It does seem to me, though, that you could read it that the brother, the conservative Muslim, represents one approach that Bangladesh might take and the sister another.

ANAM: Yes, absolutely. I mean, Bangladesh is 40 years old this year and we've had a lot of different kinds of political movements. Mostly they've been secular but there have also been periods in the last 40 years when there have been kind of uprisings and different kinds of religious groups, you know, coming to the fore. So, this kind of tension of having a more mainstream, you know, practicing Islamic identity and then a more political Islamic identity is one that definitely still exists in Bangladesh.

WERTHEIMER: Tahmima Anami, her newest book is called "The Good Muslim." Thank you very much for talking to us.

ANAM: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.

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