When I met Ali Eteraz in 2008, he was well known throughout the blogosphere as an ardent voice for Islamic reform. Eteraz was also café-hopping across Center City, working on his first book, Children of Dust. Today, Eteraz comes back to Philadelphia for a reading of that book, Children of Dust, a “darkly comic” memoir that recounts his experiences with Islam.
In the book, Eteraz recounts his sometimes-stormy relationship with Islam. It begins with his childhood in Pakistan -- where his father dedicates him to Islam and sends him to a madrassa for Quranic studies -- and goes on to humorously recall the struggles Eteraz faces as an awkward teenager after his family moves to pre-9/11 Bible Belt America. The book chronicles Eteraz's desperation as he tries to reconcile his faith and his new culture -- at one point even going back to Pakistan to find a pious Muslim wife. It tells the story of one Muslim man’s religious evolution -- from fundamentalist to reformer.
PW: You’re only 29, why a memoir and why now?
AE: Because there are no coming of age memoirs about being Pakistani and Muslim-American that are funny and human. Most of the stuff is about terrorism and fanaticism and scary ayatollahs, and in the process all the fun has been described out of Pakistani and Muslim lives. While there were crappy components in my life, there were many other interesting ones and I wanted to chronicle that my life was as normally abnormal as everyone else's.
PW: What about the response to Children of Dust surprised you the most?
AE: I am surprised to learn that people can actually see how difficult it was for me to put myself out there and how willing they are to share their own weakness with me. It is like a big therapy session for all the religion-obsessed overly-strung-out former fundamentalists. I did not expect that my silly little story would generate such intimacy.
PW: Children of Dust touches on your enrollment in a madrassa in Pakistan and your fundamentalism during your time at an elite East Coast college. Most people wouldn't find those settings funny.
AE: Oh they are. Anytime you get the immigrant experience, add political upheavals, add religious obsession, and add funny names, you get funny stories. I just chronicled what I saw.
PW: As a Pakistani-American, what do you feel is the greatest threat to Pakistan right now?
AE: I am one of those people who believe that Pakistan's turmoil is not existential. Pakistan won't fall apart. It’s got a few cracks here and there but from what I have learned about Pakistanis, terrorism is just a side-show to them. Americans want Pakistanis to be obsessed with fighting the Taliban but I think the Pakistanis have it right. They party, they eat, they go to work, and in their free time they curse the Taliban. I'm sorry but every Pakistani is not a warrior on behalf of American political interests or revenge fantasies. Party on, Pakistan.
PW: You wrote part of Children of Dust in Philadelphia. How did Philadelphia inspire you?
AE: For writers who take long walks during their writing -- which I am --Philadelphia is probably the best city in America. It’s so small and cozy and there is so much age and character in the buildings. I was constantly inspired. I could have used being able to look at more unmarried cute girls, though. Why are all the hot girls in Philly wearing a rock?
PW: Last week, Tunku Varadarajan wrote an article for Forbes magazine called “Going Muslim” about Fort Hood shooter Nidal Malik Hasan. In it, he blames political-correctness for the tragic events in Texas. Response?
AE: Tunku wants people to start using the term "going Muslim" instead of "going postal." Very immature. Ironic too. Have you actually seen Tunku? Tunku is a bearded dude from a group whose members regularly get attacked because people confuse them for Muslim. Should he really be trying to stoke paranoia and suspicion?
PW: Your writing avatar, ‘Ali Eteraz’ means “noble purpose.” Why ‘Ali Eteraz’? On blog posts you’ve been mocked as wanting to be the “savior” of Islam…
AE: I chose the name at a time in my life when my idealism had become a sort of crack. I wanted to stand up against all the Muslim fanatics who were giving Islam a bad name. I was like the Muslim GW Bush. I was using religion to cover up my own personal angst. Thankfully through telling the story of my life I found some peace. But the name stayed with me. As for being mocked for being a savior of Islam, of course I wanted to save Islam. All my life I had been told that serving Islam was the most important thing I could do, often by precisely those people who were upset with me.
PW: So how about them Phillies? Did you follow the World Series?
AE: Philadelphia is the closest to a home city I've ever had and I am a huge fan of the Phillies and Eagles. I was very disappointed when those hegemonic Yankees won the series. But we'll be back next year…
Gabriel García Márquez, 1927-2014