The Black Album: Between Liberalism and Fundamentalism

By Kabir Altaf

… ‘Please excuse me,’ Riaz was saying to Brownlow. ‘But you are a little arrogant.’…. ‘Your liberal beliefs belong to a minority who live in northern Europe. Yet you think moral superiority over the rest of mankind is a fact. You want to dominate others with your particular morality, which has—as you also well know—gone hand-in-hand with fascist imperialism.’ Here Riaz leaned towards Brownlow. ‘This is why we have to guard against the hypocritical and smug intellectual atmosphere of Western civilization.’

 … ‘That atmosphere you deprecate. With reason. But this civilization has also brought us this –’

‘Dr. Brownlow, tell us what it has brought us,’ Shahid said.

 …On his fingers he counted them off. ‘Literature, painting, architecture, psychoanalysis, science, journalism, music, a stable political culture, organized sport—at a pretty high level. And all this has gone hand-in-hand with something significant. That is: critical enquiry into the nature of truth. It talks of proof and demonstration.’

 … ‘And steely questions. Without flinching. Questions and ideas. Ideas being the enemy of religion.’

‘So much the worse for the ideas’, Riaz said, with a snort.

Hanif Kureishi, The Black Album, pgs. 96-99

Living in Pakistan post September 11th, it is impossible to get away from debates about the increasing “Talibanization” of society. The comment sections of online English-language newspapers are filled with what passes for discussion among those who advocate for the secularization of society and those who advocate for a return to “Islamic values”. This “discussion” usually consists of nothing more than one side calling the other “liberal fascists” and the other side responding by calling their opponents “Taliban apologists”. The same “discussions” occur on social media such as Facebook.  Pakistani novelists too have attempted to tackle the issue of Pakistan’s involvement in the US-led “global war on terror” and the increasing religiosity of urban middle-class “educated” youth. For example, this theme forms much of the narrative of Mohsin Hamid’s 2007 bestseller The Reluctant Fundamentalist, recently made into a film. However, in my opinion, the best novel to examine the dialectic between liberalism and fundamentalism and the struggle in one man’s soul between these two polar opposites, was actually written long before 9/11.  This novel, published in 1995, is Hanif Kureishi’s The Black Album.

The Black Album is set in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell and the year of the fatwah against Salman Rushdie. The novel tells the story of Shahid, a second-generation British Pakistani from a reasonably well-off background (his family owns a travel agency in Kent) who has recently moved to London after his father’s death.  He has enrolled at a local college to study Literature and it here that he meets and falls in love with his college lecturer Deedee Osgood (who, in the novel’s dialogic structure, represents the forces of liberalism). At the same time, he also falls in with a crowd of Muslim students led by the charismatic Riaz (this group represents “fundamentalists”).

The Black Album can be called a “novel of ideas” and Kureishi devotes considerable narrative space to letting his characters debate their opposing viewpoints. The scene excerpted above occurs in Chapter 9, about a third of the way through the novel. The main speakers are Dr. Andrew Brownlow, a Marxist lecturer at Shahid’s college (and Deedee Osgood’s estranged husband) and Riaz, Shahid’s fellow student and the leader of the Muslim group.  Though the protagonist, Shahid, is present in these scenes, his role at this point is to act as an observer of the debate between Brownlow and Riaz.

Brownlow (rather inadvertently) opens the debate by stating that he wishes he could be religious, but having read Bertrand Russell at the age of fourteen, it is impossible for him to believe in God.  He then goes on to call scripture “magic realist tales from distant centuries” as well as claiming that believers have an “infantile dependence” on their religion (97).   Through this dialogue, Kureishi characterizes Brownlow as a rather typical Marxist intellectual of his time. It was Marx, after all, that famously called religion “the opiate of the masses.”

Naturally, Riaz holds such views in contempt and argues against them, telling Brownlow that his views represent those of a liberal minority (as against the vast majority of the world’s population which believes firmly in their religion—whatever it happens to be). He also reminds Brownlow that such disdain for “native” religion has gone hand in hand with the exploitation of Britain’s former colonies.  He further goes on to characterize the “intellectual atmosphere” of Western civilization as “hypocritical and smug” (99). This remark obviously provokes Brownlow to respond (rather patronizingly) with a list of the glories of European civilization, chief among them the development of the post-Enlightenment concept of critically applying reason to phenomena that were formerly held sacred.  He states “Ideas are the enemy of religion”.  To this, Riaz offers the rejoinder “So much the worse for the ideas” (99).

This scene is a fairly typical example of the dialogic approach that Kureishi uses in his novel. Another way that he comments on the increasingly religious nature of the Pakistani immigrant community in Britain (and in Pakistan in the 1980s) is by opposing Shahid’s new friends to his nuclear family. For example, Shahid’s sister-in-law, Zulma, is described as follows:

She came from a prominent, land-owning Karachi family, and like other such types, lived part of the year in Pakistan and the rest in England. In Karachi she zipped around the camel-carts and potholes in an imported red Fait Uno, a Hermes scarf knotted around her head. In London she went to her friends’ houses and pursued the shopping, gossiping and general trouble-making-in-other families she enjoyed so much. She was light-skinned, beautiful, Zulma, but never beautiful enough: it took her two days to prepare for a party. She brushed her hair, of which she had sufficient for three people, with a hundred strokes and washed it only in rain-water (85).

This character, a member of the Pakistani elite, contrasts sharply with Shahid’s new friends, who are economically members of a much lower class.  Zulma’s views on religion are also worth noting. After pulling Shahid out of a “meeting” to discuss some family issues (her estranged husband, Shahid’s brother Chili, has gone missing) she takes him to her apartment in Knightsbridge. Upon finding out that he has begun associating with religious Muslims, she comments: “But you had a decent upbringing!” She goes on: “I can’t tell you the problems Benazir has had with these cunning fools. She’s such a dear girl too, and endured so much.” (187). Clearly, the Pakistani upper class of the 1980s, to which Shahid belongs, have disdain for religion (many would argue that the upper class continues to hold religion in contempt, though they may have to keep these views private).  Shahid’s flirtation with religion, then, has nothing to do with his family background, and much more to do with his need to belong to a well-defined community.

Shahid eventually turns away from Riaz and his group after they hold a public book-burning of Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. This brings me to the second major theme of the novel—the importance and power of Literature.  Shahid (who is a semi-autobiographical character based in some ways on Kureishi himself) is a budding novelist as well as a Literature student. In many ways, The Black Album is a bildungsroman (a narrative focused on the growth and development of the protagonist) or even a narrative about the growth and development of the artist.

Early on in the novel, Shahid is forced to defend Literature to one of his new friends, a boy called Chad. Chad asks Shahid why he reads fiction and Shahid doesn’t quite know how to answer him. Kureishi writes: “He looked ardently at the books piled on the desk. Open one and out would soar, as if trapped within, once-upon-a-times, open-sesames, marriages like those of Swann and Odette or Levin and Kitty, even Sheherazade and King Shahriyar. The most fantastic characters, Raskolnikov, Joseph K., Boule De Suif, Ali Baba, made of ink but living always, were entrapped in the profoundest dilemmas of living.” (20). Outside of the narrative, this is a ringing authorial advancement for the importance of fiction.

Literature is also a common bond between Shahid and Deedee and part of what makes them attracted to each other. Kureishi describes Shahid’s thoughts as follows: “But it wasn’t sensation alone that he and Deedee provided for each other. Last night when he told her about giving Chili One Hundred Years of Solitude, she said she’d recently got through The Sentimental Education…. Little Dorrit, too, she’d tried over Christmas. Serious reading required dedication. Who, now, believed it did them good? And how many people knew a book as they knew Blonde on Blonde, Annie Hall or Prince, even? Could literature connect a generation in the same way? Some exceptional students would read hard books; most wouldn’t and they weren’t fools” (134).  Asides from telling us something about Deedee’s character and her relationship with Shahid, this passage also serves as Kureishi’s lament for the dumbing down of British society in Thatcher’s England.

Perhaps the most important defense of Literature in the novel takes place at a meeting of the Muslim group that Shahid has called to discuss the group’s policy about The Satanic Verses. Riaz has reluctantly agreed to this meeting and most of the group already has their mind made up (anti-Rushdie).   At the meeting (the meeting that Zulma pulls Shahid out of) Riaz states: “And as one would deprecate a disrespectful nature in another person, it is impossible to see how such a spectacle could be valued as literature…. After all, for what higher purpose can such literature possibly exist?” (183). Shahid offers a weak reply “Surely, to tell us about ourselves?” He goes on to argue that Literature “helps us reflect on our nature” and that “A free imagination ranges over many natures. A free imagination, looking into itself, illuminates others” (183).  It is at this point that Zulma arrives and pulls Shahid away. The reader later finds out that after Shahid’s departure the group planned the book burning—the act that finally leads Shahid to turn away from them.

As a novel of ideas, The Black Album is a fascinating study of the struggle in one British Pakistani young man’s heart between loyalty to his “culture” (as defined by Islam) versus loyalty to the ideals of his adopted homeland.  Though much of the novel is specifically about the Rushdie affair, the debates about free expression and whether it should be limited or not—and if so, how much—are still current around the world.  The book burning protest against The Satanic Verses can be compared to the violent protests against the recent Youtube film Innocence of Muslims and the riots that occurred on “Love the Prophet (PBUH) Day” in Pakistan on September 21st this year. It is the strength of Literature that it enables us to see events, through the experiences and dilemmas of individuals, in a way that journalism or current affairs pieces don’t allow us to.   No recent novel about fundamentalism has been able to capture the struggle that takes place in the hearts and minds of many Muslim adolescents as effectively as Kureishi is able to do in The Black Album.

Kabir Altaf attended the Lahore University of Management Sciences and graduated magna cum laude from George Washington University with a major in Dramatic Literature and a minor in Music.


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