Arab Muslim Writing in Britain

by Claire Chambers

Since 1855, both orthodox and non-practising Arab Muslim writers have produced an exciting, politicized, and high-quality body of artistic work. Among other aims, it seeks to portray the concerns of British-based members of the transnational faith group, or ummah. My research indicates that, particularly in the years following the riots in northern England in 2001, the attacks on America later that year, and the onset of the so-called War on Terror, British literature, film, and media have become increasingly preoccupied by Islam. In fiction at least, the strategies for representing Muslim communities are beginning to undergo significant alteration. Following the turning point of the Rushdie affair and accelerating since twenty-first-century wars of questionable legality, a surge in Islamophobia, the Arab Spring/Winter, and the refugee crisis, growing numbers of writers are representing specific British Muslim communities in a more nuanced way than had been attempted previously. Non-Muslim authors such as Martin Amis, John Updike, and Ian McEwan zero in on the figure of the terrorist. Arab Muslim writers tend to look at Islam in subtler ways, while often remaining highly critical of the religion's practices and accretions. Novelists such as Leila Aboulela and Robin Yassin-Kassab repudiate as distortions of the religion's pluralist history attempts to constrict Islam into an exclusive, singular identity.

The South Asian community constitute the biggest and most recognizable Muslim migrant population in Britain. However, Arabs, Yemenis in Britainespecially Yemenis, have also come to Britain in relatively large numbers since the late nineteenth century. In 2002, Caroline Nagel estimated that there were 200,000 Arab people in Britain, most of them Iraqi, Lebanese, Egyptian, and Moroccan. By 2011, when the British Census included 'Arab' as an ethnic category for the first time, numbers had risen to 230,600. This makes Arabs one of the largest immigrant communities from outside the Commonwealth living in Britain today.

Since the discovery that the 2005 London bombers (none of them from Arab backgrounds) were 'home-grown', cultural commentators such as David Goodhart and Trevor Phillips have argued that multiculturalism is to blame for alienation, a lack of community cohesion, and even terrorism. However, I follow Tariq Modood in arguing just the reverse, that more rather than less multiculturalism is needed, if Britain is to inculcate a genuine (and necessarily diverse) sense of citizenship in its populace.

Literature plays a significant role in this multicultural project. As Gerrit-Jan Berendse and Mark Williams indicate, cultural Final Cover Designrepresentations are central to the process of 'conceiving an altered reality' in our changing post-Cold War, post-Arab Spring political order. Given this centrality, it is important to realise that literary representations of British Arab Muslims have a long history. In my book Britain Through Muslim Eyes: Literary Representations, 17801988, I argued that the academic oeuvre on British Muslim writing too often assumes that this literature is a contemporary, broadly post-9/11, and Anglophone phenomenon.

Ahmad Fāris al-Shidyāq (1805–87) was a well travelled Lebanese Arab writer, translator, and public intellectual. He was originally from a Maronite Christian background but converted to Islam in the 1850s. Al-Shidyāq spent several years in various British cities and villages, and in September 1851 became a British citizen. The fourth and final volume of al-Shidyāq's entertainingly meandering Al-Sāq 'alá 'l-Sāq or Leg Over Leg (1855) contains a comic, semi-autobiographical account of his time in England and Paris. Available in English for the first time in 2014, Leg Over Leg demonstrates that few writers have the sheer chutzpah that is conveyed in al-Shidyāq's protagonists the Fāriyāq and Fāriyāqiyyah's bawdy verbal jousting.

Egyptian author Yahya Hakki wrote his novella Qindil Umm Hashim or 'The Lamp of Umm Hashim' during the Second World War. In this text, Ismail leaves behind his unofficial fiancée Fatima in order to study ophthalmology in an unnamed city in England. Fatima is suffering from a degenerative eye infection. On his return to Egypt, changed by his scientific studies and a relationship with the coolly rational British woman Mary, Ismail is horrified that his mother is treating Fatima's eyes with apparently holy oil from the saint Umm Hashim's lamp. Angered by this 'superstition', Ismail destroys the revered lamp. After nearly being lynched for this iconoclastic act, Ismail uses Western medicine to treat Fatima's eyes, but their deterioration continues. On the blessed 27th day of Ramadan, Ismail has a vision of a light in the square. Out of this he develops a context-specific practice of 'medicine and science […] [with] the support of faith'. Hakki's extended metaphor about light and darkness, sight and blindness is illuminated by Islamic spiritual thought. Faith is juxtaposed with reason, but only faith is completely underpinned by God's light.

No analysis of Arab Muslim writing in Britain would be complete without discussion of Tayeb Salih's groundbreaking Arabic-language Tayeb Salih novel, Mawsim al-hijra ila al-shamal or Season of Migration to the North (1966). In this seminal and much-studied text, Salih depicts the cultural dislocation experienced by two rural Sudanese Muslims during educational stays in Britain and their respective returns to Africa. As with Haqqi's novella, this novel focuses on the educated Arab man's homecoming. Salih takes the well-worn trope of the love affair between a Muslim and a European woman and puts it together with the figure of what Sumita Mukherjee terms the 'England-returned' migrant, in the process turning them into a worst-case scenario of passion, violence, and madness. As Frantz Fanon so powerfully demonstrates in The Wretched of the Earth, the colonizer is 'the bringer of violence into the mind of the native'. The central character Mustafa's actions are sadomasochistic because he has been worked on by cultural, economic, and political imperialism underpinned by racist ideology: all extremely violent forces.

Next, Cairo-born, London-resident writer Ahdaf Soueif published her collection of eight stories, Aisha, in 1983. The transcultural influences from Soueif's dual lives in Britain and Egypt are clearly evident in the book and her English-language fictional oeuvre as a whole. As with most of the writers discussed here, it is difficult to pin her down as a writer portraying Britain, since her writing refuses to be confined within national borders. Published between 1983 and 1999, her fiction − which also includes the novels In the Eye of the Sun (1992) and The Map of Love (1999) − explores British–Arab cultural and sexual encounters. Soueif's political interventions in the form of her non-fiction writings (including the recent Cairo: My City, Our Revolution) and founding of a Palestinian literary festival, Palfest, have been equally influential.

I want to argue that the Rushdie affair has been more of a turning point on perceptions of and by Muslims in Britain than 9/11. As such, I IRAN REVOLUTIONbriefly turn to the British-Asian Salman Rushdie's controversial novel The Satanic Verses (1988) and the intellectual heat generated in the Rushdie affair from 1989 onwards. The novel is about Indian, mostly Muslim, migration to the UK; multicultural London; and the loss of religious faith. It contains a notoriously intangible section in which the character Gibreel, who is psychotic, has a dream about someone called 'Mahound', which is an insulting Orientalist term for the Prophet Mohammed. Whether by Rushdie himself, or Gibreel, or his illness, it is difficult to say, but Mahound is portrayed as a paedophilic libertine and a ruthless businessman. Drawing on the much-discredited myth of the Satanic Verses, suggestions are made that sections of the Qur'an were dictated by the devil, and prostitutes impersonate the real wives of Mohammed.

Such depictions caused great offence to many Muslims, particularly those from the subcontinent, where the Prophet is held in especially high veneration. The Satanic Verses itself, as well as the affair with which it is famously associated, marked a watershed and according to Talal Asad has been used 'as a stick with which to beat the immigrants'. The affair cast a long shadow over subsequent literary output and perceptions of Muslims by non-Muslims. From the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s, such writers as Hanif Kureishi (The Black Album), Zadie Smith (White Teeth), Martin Amis (The Second Plane), Ian McEwan (Saturday), John Updike (Terrorist), and Sebastian Faulks (A Week in December) depicted Islam rather reductively, typically as a marker of fundamentalism or terrorism.

However, authors such as Leila Aboulela, Fadia Faqir, and Robin Yassin-Kassab are writing back to these stereotypes. Aboulela's AboulelaChambersPhotofiction unusually focuses on characters' journeys towards religion, rather than away. Her debut novel The Translator (1999) is about a love affair between a Sudanese translator, Sammar, and her employer, the Scottish lecturer Rae Isles. It is set in Aberdeen and Khartoum, and Aboulela has described the book as a Muslim Jane Eyre because it pivots on Sammar's dilemma that she cannot marry Rae until he converts to Islam. Aboulela's next novel Minaret (2004) traces the Westernized protagonist, Najwa's, downwardly-mobile journey from her privileged position as a Sudanese minister's daughter, to exile as a domestic servant to an Arab family in London when a coup dislodges her father from power. During this descent, an unfurling religious understanding sustains Najwa and consoles her for her losses. For Aboulela's characters, Islam is an apolitical code of ethical behaviour and a central marker of identity in the fragmentary world of migration, asylum, and family disintegration.

The 2007 novel for which Jordanian-British author Fadia Faqir is best known, My Name is Salma, also deals with Arab migration to Britain. The novel's protagonist, the Bedouin woman Salma, claims asylum in the UK, because she has had a baby out of wedlock and her brother and fellow villagers will 'shoot [her] between the eyes' if they find her. Yet she struggles to find the correct language for the immigrant officer she meets on entering Britain. He becomes impatient when she informs him that she wants to go to '[t]he river meets sea', rather than 'Exeter'. In this troubling encounter, it becomes clear that asylum seeking involves performativity, which itself, as Judith Butler puts it, entails 'neither free play nor theatrical self-presentation […] [but] a regularized and constrained repetition of norms'. Clearly, a person is not born a refugee, but becomes one.

In his acclaimed debut novel The Road from Damascus (2008), British-Syrian novelist Robin Yassin-Kassab treads a careful middle Robin Yassin-Kassab - official photoground between Rushdie's condemnatory depiction of narrow-minded, rules-based Islam, and Aboulela's celebration of identity-forming religion. The Road from Damascus is a novel of ideas and, as such, its Muslim characters enunciate diverse and often clashing views of Islam. For instance, Sami has his secularist assumptions challenged by Muntaha's decision to wear the symbolically-charged hijab. Like many Muslim women, she sports this garment against the wishes of her husband. Similarly, a binary that is constructed between story-telling and religion in a lecture given by a writer named Rashid Iqbal is suggested to be a false one. The parallels between this fictional British-Indian character and Rushdie are indicated by his 'hooded […] eyes' and in the fact that he is a 'postmodernist, controversialist' who is the author of several books which sound suspiciously anti-Islamic. The Muslim convert respondent to Iqbal's lecture furiously counters by evoking 'the spicy mix that was Islamic Spain. […] [T]he Greco-Judaic-Indo-Persian masala of medieval Baghdad. […] [S]yncretism and Sufi visions and Muslim travelogues'. Ultimately, the novel indicates that Islam, far from being opposed to narratives as Iqbal claims, is actually replete with them.

To conclude, literary representations of the disputed category of 'British Muslim' have undergone substantial change since the publication of Ahmad Fāris al-Shidyāq's Leg Over Leg in 1855. Early texts such as those by Hakki, Salih, and Soueif were preoccupied by the effects that a sojourn in Britain had on characters' return to their home countries, rather than being interested in Britain for its own sake. The turning point marked by The Satanic Verses and its political fallout led to non-Muslim preoccupation with the stock figure of the Islamist in the 1990s and 2000s. Over the last two decades or so, however, many Muslim writers have explored Islam in the UK without shirking exploration of the social problems it has accreted, and while maintaining a gradated sense of the British Muslim community's multifaceted nature.