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Book Review

‘Stranger to History’ by Aatish Taseer

Aatish Taseer, son of an Indian Sikh mother and a Pakistani Muslim father, explores the Islamic Middle East.

Theo Winner

Aatish Taseer, son of an Indian Sikh mother and a Pakistani Muslim father, explores the Islamic Middle East.

‘The ability to look hard at your own faith, to reject it, to consider another: I sometimes thought I must have traveled through a good part of the Muslim world in search of this intellectual openness and not found it until now.”

So writes Aatish Taseer about his meeting with a woman in Tehran, one of dozens of encounters in his travels across the Muslim world chronicled in “Stranger to History,’’ his impressive first work of nonfiction, published three years ago in Britain and now debuting here. That sentiment drives the eight-month quest by Taseer, author of the novels “The Temple-goers” and “Noon,” as he wrestles with his — and his father’s — relationship with Islam and with its often-contentious intersection with the modern secular world.

“Stranger to History” by Aatish Taseer.

“Stranger to History” by Aatish Taseer.

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Raised in Delhi by his Sikh mother in the absence of his Pakistani Muslim father (who identified intensely with the faith but wasn’t particularly religious), Taseer was never comfortable fully embracing Islam — not just in the strict religious sense, either, but culturally as well. “The hold of the religion, deeper than its commandments, of religion as nationality,” he writes, “was something that I, with my small sense of being Muslim, had never known.” In order to clarify his thoughts and piece together his familial history, Taseer embarked on a journey across the Muslim world, traveling through Turkey, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Pakistan, ultimately to Lahore, where his politician father, who had long ago separated from his mother, lived. (There is a helpful map for those unfamiliar with the geography.)

In Syria, Taseer experienced first hand the violent upheaval caused by the Dutch cartoon mocking the prophet Muhammad, and in Saudi Arabia, he acknowledged the restrictions of Saudi society but realized that it was a highly significant place in the history of Islam, not just due to Mecca and Medina, but also because “[n]either Islam nor the Prophet ventured much further than Arabia during his lifetime.” In Tehran, he was taken aback by the landscape: “Nothing seemed old, nothing especially modern, nothing particularly Iranian, nothing so Western; it was a bleak, unplanned vista without landmarks, a city on the edge of history, free of the stamp of any one culture, free of design, guided only by human multiplication.”

Throughout his trip, Taseer refuses easy answers, provoking dialogues, some more heated than others, with Muslims across a wide socioeconomic spectrum: devout believers, extremists, intellectuals, laborers, homosexuals, and others. In the process, Taseer takes on a host of touchy subjects, including religious ritual, fundamentalism, racism, classism, the blurring of religious and political motivations, the India-Pakistan partition and uneasy current dynamic between the two countries, and the significance of broad historical trends on the developments of various world religions.

Interwoven into the travel narrative is the author’s autobiographical story, his wavering sense of identity and how his father contributed to his sense of self and his inability to reconcile with his Muslim roots. The author is both philosophical and practical in his questing, and in comprehending how he became estranged from his father, he ultimately realized that “what had seemed personal at first had since shown itself to contain deeper religious and historical currents.”

Considering the plight of his father’s country, he writes, “I felt Pakistan’s problems were not simply administrative, but existential: that the original idea on which the country had been founded — the idea of a secular nation for Indian Muslims — had eroded; and that nothing had come in its place, save for an ever closer adherence to religion.”

This root problem, the “violent imposition of religious perfection on the modern world, driven to illogic,” forms the core of Taseer’s illuminating book, one in which questions of religion, culture, and history undergird the author’s absorbing quest for familial and spiritual enlightenment. Ultimately, the journey winds back to his father, who was assassinated in 2011, an event that occasions Taseer’s eye-opening new introduction to this American edition.

Eric Liebetrau, the managing editor and nonfiction editor of Kirkus Reviews, can be reached at eliebetrau@kirkus.com.
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