A Pakistani-American physician experiences the post-9/11 backlash against Muslims in this short novel.
Osama Ali Khan is a revered interventional cardiologist who is based at the University of Denver’s Center for Cardiovascular Diseases. Tall, charismatic, with a “typical Kashmiri Punjabi debonair look to him,” Osama appears to have the world at his feet. This tale, which spans five decades, recounts the young doctor’s arduous journey to success, beginning before his birth with his family’s move to the United States. Osama’s parents have a tempestuous marriage that leads to divorce and, at 18 months old, he is left to be raised by his grandparents. He rarely sees his parents. When his father promises to spend Halloween with him but then doesn’t show up, Osama experiences his first panic attack. He attends regular therapy sessions, and in time learns to cope with his anxiety disorder. He grows into a stellar student and is accepted into medical school at the University of Michigan. It is there that he meets Sarah Suleri, a dazzling political science major of Pakistani-Italian heritage. Their friendship develops into a romance, and suddenly Osama’s life is blissful. Without warning, the atrocities of 9/11 change everything. Osama is asked by another student if he’s a terrorist. Faced with prejudice and racial profiling, Osama sees his mental health start to deteriorate and his relationship with Sarah come under strain. Akhtar (Miseries, Illusions and Hope, 2016, etc.) adopts a no-frills narrative, yet the bluntness of her writing, particularly in terms of mental health, has impact: “It doesn’t matter if an anxiety attack lasts a day, a week, or even a month. It makes a human being perplexed—as if he doesn’t fit into the world anymore.” The author is deeply in tune with her characters’ mental states and is always able to convey them concisely. Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close explores the personal psychological ramifications of 9/11 in far greater depth, and in comparison, Akhtar’s offering is more akin to a paint-by-numbers love story. Nevertheless, this is a captivating and imaginative narrative with a strong message that could benefit from being fleshed out further.
A thought-provoking and engaging, if somewhat scant, exploration of complex racial and mental health issues in America.