Thursday, August 09, 2012

The Perfect Gentleman by Imran Ahmad

The Perfect Gentleman: A Muslim Boy Meets the West by Imran Ahmad is the story of the author's life as a Pakistani son growing up in London from his birth in the early 1960s (we are age mates) to his early adulthood. I can't recall a more compelling read in the memoir genre.

Imran's life is very normal, but it's his internal debate about religion that is so fascinating. His family is more "ethnically" Muslin than religiously Muslim and, to compound the confusion of being an expatriate, he is sent to Church of England Schools. Along the way he encounters many "American-style Christians" who have a fervor and language of faith that is totally foreign in neutral, nominally Christian Great Britain. While the Queen DOES go to Church regularly and does still mention God in things like her Christmas Broadcast, her subjects generally give most things religious a pass--with Church topping the list. Imran is unsettled by the evangelizing of these outspoken Christ followers and begins to wonder what he believes. Through the book he explores commonalities of the major faiths and brings up a number of things that sent me scurrying to the internet to learn more. I have often wondered some of the same things--like how come we do so much of what PAUL says and seem to ignore much of what JESUS taught? But that's another post for when I fell like being flamed. (I'm a Christian, I go to Church, I read my Bible, I pray, I believe, I accept.......)

He also tells a few antidotes that prove that "fanatics of a feather flock together" or that "flawed minds think alike." Or, as I'm hardly the first or only to notice, how much similarity there is between far-right Patriarchal or Quiverfull Christians and those at the same end of the Islamic spectrum.
“…an Arab man in a shabby gray suit and open-necked shirt starts ranting and raving in the lobby of the mosque. What is the cause of his distress?  A Pakistani wedding is taking place in one of the mosque’s large basement halls, which has been rented for this purpose. …What has ignited the rage of the Arab man is that these Pakistani women are dressed inappropriately. I see nothing unusual of un-Islamic about it. They are wearing brightly colored and loosely flowing shalwar kameez, with matching scarves and rather a lot of makeup and jewelry. There are no breasts, buttocks, navels, arms or legs on display at all. This is not good enough for the Arab man…. Because he is an Arab, his cultural preferences supersede those of the Pakistani women—he is empowered to define Islam however he sees fit. Even though these women are not going anywhere near the prayer hall, he is ranting that they should not even be in the lobby of the mosque dressed so provocatively. He takes his rage out on a younger man, who he says hould go up to these women and tell them what they are doing wrong (it being inappropriate for the older Arab man to engage in such direct conversation with young women). Unsurprisingly, the young man is reluctant to do any such thing.” (p. 293).
Cover! Cover! Cover your bodies ladies! Don't tempt innocent men who cannot be expected to exercise appropriate good manners and self control in your presence! As Imran points out--the women were not in bathing suits or lingerie, but were perfectly dressed to attend a wedding held in a religious building. But, Imran makes the huge point that  CULTURE, gets added into so much of what we see as "religion." No where in the Bible, for example, does the word "modestly" appear.Yet the far Christian right makes a mantra out of modesty! The man in the antidote is an Arab. Arab women, in some countries, cannot got out of their own homes with out being covered head-to-toe with even a fabric "grill" covering their eyes. Fine--if that's the law of the land. But the story is taking place in LONDON--a Christian Country only in that they still have an official Church. How absurd would it be for Pakistani women, with no such tradition or mandate, to come to a wedding in a for-the-most-part SECULAR WESTERN country in a burka?? But the man had to have a fit over it!  Sounds just like a few too many far-right sermons to me!

Then there's the whole arranged marriage thing. Poor Imran has a difficult time shopping for a bride. His "wish list" is pretty short: good looking, educated, employed. Lies are told about how smart, educated, etc., each young lady is forcing the search to continue. One family even wants to change his name! It weirds the bride-to-be-out that he has her brother's name.Finally an "acceptable" partner is found who will enable Imran to breathe easier financially (he's paying for a house in London) and for him to, at long, long last, have sex. Oh and he doesn't alienate his family, either, which is good since they live around the corner!
White people, Christians, Westerners—whatever we call them—they marry ‘only for love.’ We marry for anything except love. They seem really happy; we seem always stern and serious. The traditional Indiana or Pakistani bride is required to keep her gaze lowered and look sad. That’s probably because she really is sad. She has not one iota of freedom or free choice in her life. Nobody asked her what she wants out of life. She probably doesn’t even know, herself—she never had  a chance to think about it, to thy things out. ….her first duty is to reproduce, and it better be a boy. (p. 311-312)
 This passage could have been written by any of the major Christian "Patriarchs" (or their ever-blogging wives) today. Here's the Patriarchal or Quiverfull version of that last quote:

When other people marry it's ‘only for love.’ We marry for anything except love. Marriage is, after all a sacred covenant and a transfer of authority over the woman from her father to her God-sent husband. The bride is required to be radiant. [Note: Though she may be confused or sad or terrified]. She has had not one iota of freedom or free choice in her life. She may know absolutely nothing about her "wedding night" and what it will involve. Nobody asked her what she wants out of life. She probably doesn’t even know, herself—she never had  a chance to think about it, to thy things out. ….Her first duty is to reproduce, and having a girl first is her best hope of having some help with the next thirteen or fourteen kids she bears. She may have been shamed for noticing her changing body, been the object of inappropriate attention from brothers or family friends and been told it is her fault for being so immodest. She has likely not been allowed to think of who she'd like to marry, but will have been made to pray for him since she was a toddler.
Her new husband may be totally uneducated, but will have "skills" and "wisdom" and will be expected to provide for her and an endless string of children without incurring any debt. He may have been rigorously grilled on his religious beliefs, but not necessarily examined for the TRUTH of his character. He may know nothing about his wedding night and what is expected of him except that he finally CAN ..... He has had barely one iota of freedom or free choice in his life unless it was proposing an acceptable idea for a business that will eventually employ his own children. Nobody asked him what he wants out of life. He probably doesn’t even know having never had the time alone to think about it. His desires for military service, a career requiring college or even for something as simple as to have a room of his own have been squashed as "worldly" or "dangerous" before he was set back on the Bible & Skills treadmill.

Imran's book shows me not so much how Christianity and Islam DIFFER (and there are significant differences) but how much we are alike. How "most" do the decent thing, mow their grass, pay their taxes, pray to their God in their way and leave others to do the same. Then there is that "freak fringe" that wants to control seemingly only for the reason that "misery loves company." I recommend this book to an American Christian. Imran is a eloquent writer, a gifted story teller, and an astute observer of contemporary culture. Read The Perfect Gentleman.


Susan said...

That sounds so interesting! Several thoughts -- I kept thinking of a Pakistani girl I give piano lessons to. She is 11 and has basically no interest in piano, but comes because (I assume) her parents (both doctors) want her to. She always keeps her eyes lowered, hardly responds to questions, etc.
I also was struck by the author's intrigue at seeing fervent Christianity. I remember, during my teen years, when my Italian penpal and her friend came over for a month. They were so shocked and impressed with our church because people there really seemed interested in them, gave them a reception when they went back home, etc. They said over and over how in Italy people went to church but it didn't really mean anything to them personally (similar to England maybe??).
Your connections to the quiverful movement are fascinating too. I will have to read this a second time. Lots of meat here.

Hopewell said...

Church is just an "obligation" to most. There is a fledgling movement to open Churches in tune with what we see here in the U.S. but people aren't exactly flocking to them! Most Churches are old, main line liturgical services rather than "WORSHIP" in the outgoing way we do here.