Book critic Al-Shawaf's first novel, set in the tumultuous aftermath of 9/11, is an often fascinating, sometimes funny picaresque about ethnic, religious, and national identities and the ways we wear them, shed them, embrace them, redefine them.
The novel opens on Sept. 12, 2001. Hunayn, an Iraqi-born Chaldean Christian educated in Rome and Beirut, lives in Orlando and attends the University of Central Florida. Casting about for someone to talk to about the implications of the attacks for people who look like him (Hunayn is neither Muslim nor Arab, but he fears such distinctions won't matter), he goes to visit his friend Hashem—and finds him rehearsing his deportation, having enlisted a neighbor to burst into his apartment and give him just five minutes to throw on clothes and gather belongings. But that's not what happens; instead, America's slide into the hypervigilant, skeptical, xenophobic (or in some cases clumsily xenophilic) state Hunayn calls "Septemberland" takes time, and what he faces, with one horrendous exception, isn't violent discrimination. Instead, America slowly retreats toward fear, tribalism, and the unwillingness or inability to engage with the "foreign," especially the Middle Eastern foreign. In time, Hunayn decamps for Lebanon, which is no less chaotic and no less riven by religious tensions but where he feels more at home and less alone—only to have that country, too, descend into war. Meanwhile, he is casting about for a profession, working as a freelance critic, a journalist, a teacher. The novel's strength is in Hunayn's sustained meditation on the costs and benefits of ethnic, religious, and national identity and on the complexities of geopolitics. Much less persuasive—and often off-puttingly porny—is the parallel narrative of Hunayn's sexual coming-of-age.
Darkly comic, subtle, and thoughtful about geopolitics...and cringe-inducing whenever it turns to romance or the erotic.