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ESSAY: Muslim life writing by Claire Chambers

September 16, 2012


During the first seminar of a recent academic year, I used an icebreaker which involved the students saying their names and what sort of books they liked. One 18-year-old male English Literature student memorably replied, “I don’t really like reading… Maybe sporting biographies?” While some might interpret his comment as philistinism, I prefer to see it as a perceptive reflection on the current popularity of what is known in academia as the auto/biography (autobiography and biography). Sportsmen and women, celebrities, cultural icons — anyone who has written (or ghostwritten) a memoir. Many unknowns are at it too, as the rise of interest in books and courses about ‘life writing’ indicates.

Yet, Hanif Kureishi — himself the author of a thoughtful autobiography, My Ear at His Heart — writes in one of his essays about “the falsity, or impossibility perhaps, of an autobiography, of the belief that one can say, ‘I am speaking the truth,’ and be sure that that is what one is doing.… It might have to be admitted that the ‘truth’ of an artist is more likely to be discovered in their fiction than in other direct witness.”

This comment indicates that the autobiography form is not separable from fiction without difficulty. Autobiographies and novels both fuse fact with fiction and blur distinctions between narrator and author, so that often readers are dependent on the authors’ and marketers’ choice of a label. For example, Ahdaf Soueif’s In the Eye of the Sun is a novel, but Sara Suleri’s Meatless Days is a memoir. It could as easily be the other way around.

But what ‘truths’ or ‘fictions’ are conveyed in the popular autobiography by writers from Muslim backgrounds? Many auto/biographical texts about Muslim women may be categorised as misery memoirs, describing the abuse, forced marriage, or kidnapping of the passive, oppressed Muslim female. In her ghost-written autobiography, The Caged Virgin: A Muslim Woman’s Cry for Reason, for instance, Somali-born, Dutch and now US resident Ayaan Hirsi Ali makes the dubious claims that Muslims view the Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) as being infallible, and that Islam is dominated by tribal Arab sexual morality. She also describes her experiences of abuse apparently sanctioned by Islam:

“When we were living in Ethiopia my mother did not want my sister or me to attend school. We were going to be married off within a few years anyway, so what good would all that knowledge be to us?… But my father insisted that we go to school… He also declared himself dead set against our circumcision. What he doesn’t know is that my grandmother secretly arranged to have it done behind his back.”

It should be noted here that doubt has been cast on Hirsi Ali’s forced marriage asylum claim in Holland (see Bina Shah’s essay on, while female genital mutilation, which Hirsi Ali states is carried out “in the name of Islam” is a cultural practice followed also in non-Islamic African cultures and rarely amongst Muslims outside of Africa and some parts of the Middle East.

In Maha Khan Phillips’ satirical novel Beautiful from this Angle, the protagonist, a wealthy Pakistani socialite from Karachi, tries her hand at writing a novel in the style of woe-is-me narratives such as Hirsi Ali’s:

“When I announced that I would be going to uni, my father screamed for two weeks and told me they had already found me a husband… (Note: Research has shown that there are two types of oppressed women — the ones who are princesses in their own countries, and the ones who are foreigners suckered into entering a Muslim country and are never able to leave. Oppressed women trapped in Pakistan always come from either Birmingham or North England. Look on the Internet for some Birmingham street names).”

The character’s ‘research’ correctly identifies two common trends within life writing on Muslim themes: firstly there is the theme of the kidnapped Arab princess. This is a theme also to be found in ‘desert romance’ fiction, featuring the sexy but authoritarian sheikh, probably inspired by the framing narrative of King Shahryar and his beleaguered wife Shahrazad from The Arabian Nights. British-Syrian novelist Robin Yassin-Kassab observes that “the ‘Arab World’ sections of many bookshops could be renamed ‘Harem Fantasy for Whites’, concentrating disproportionately on more or less fraudulent revelations of the ‘Princess’ variety”.

Phillips also gestures here towards another common strand in Muslim life writing: the forced marriage plot, which involves the British protagonist being tricked and sent back to the subcontinent into an unwanted marriage with a stranger. To these two dominant genres, we can also add the memoir about domestic or sexual abuse, such as Anon Beauty’s Not Easily Washed Away: Memoirs of a Muslim’s Daughter, and the Christian conversion narrative, such as Bilquis Sheikh’s autobiography (which continues the trend for long titles), I Dared to Call Him Father: The Miraculous Story of a Muslim Woman’s Encounter with God.

Amongst male autobiographies, another mini-subgenre is developing, which documents the author’s flirtation with extremist Islam, often while at university, and his growing disillusionment and eventual departure from the movement. This is exemplified in Ed Husain’s The Islamist and Russell Razzaque’s sensationally titled Human Being to Human Bomb, books by two British-Bangladeshi authors which deal to greater and lesser degrees with their brush with Hizb-ut-Tahrir while at universities in London. Tacitly countering the ‘Islamist’ subgenre is a small number of memoirs about the wrongful imprisonment of supposedly radical Muslims in GuantánamoBay and other legal black holes, of which the most famous is Moazzam Begg’s Enemy Combatant.

There are also well-known autobiographies by Sarfraz Manzoor, Shelina Zahra Janmohamed, Rageh Omaar, Yasmin Hai, Imran Ahmad, and others — writers now in their late thirties or early forties, many of them also with a background in journalism, who were children in the 1980s, young adults in the 1990s, and came of age when 9/11 made them increasingly conscious of their religious background. For the most part these texts exemplify ‘Indo-chic’, or more accurately what I would call ‘Muslim Kool’, placing discussion of music, fashion, night life, and university study alongside analysis of identity politics, Thatcherism, the Rushdie Affair, 7/7, intergenerational conflict, and Islamophobia. (My use of the term ‘Muslim Kool’ adapts two sources: firstly, ‘Cool Britannia’, the media brand name used in late 1990s Blairite Britain, and Asian Kool, a documentary film by Paul Moseley about the bhangra music scene at the turn of the millennium). Many of these writers criticise abuses that attach to Islam while remaining alert to stereotypes of the religion from the outside.

Life writing by Muslim-heritage authors is, then, a genre with various subcategories, including the wrongful imprisonment memoir; the literary memoir; and the subgenre ‘Muslim Kool’. In many of the misery memoirs in particular, Islam is presented as an undifferentiated monolith. As we have seen, writers such as Hirsi Ali seem to have a clear and absolute concept of what Islam is, and it usually appears inimical to women. More recently, however, autobiographies such as Janmohamed’s Love in a Headscarf are emerging, which pivot on the narrator’s journey towards Islam as a civilisation or a religion, rather than towards ‘freedom’ and secular life.

Claire Chambers teaches Postcolonial Literature at Leeds Metropolitan University and is the author of British Muslim Fictions: Interviews with Contemporary Writers