Kansastan by Farooq Ahmed
About a decade ago I wrote a short story titled Cold, partially influenced by an email I once received from a friend’s mother, who asked for a clarification whether or not Muslim children were routinely taught by their parents to kill Christians whenever and wherever possible as per their religious obligation. Up until then, I had never taken seriously the possibility that there existed people in the US who promoted such a level of bigotry, ignorance, and hatred. Since then I have paid a bit more attention to the paranoia regarding the implementation of sharia law and fearmongering about the increasing numbers of Muslims in the US.
According to an estimate by Pew Research Center, by 2050, “the U.S. Muslim population is projected to reach 8.1 million, or 2.1% of the nation’s total population.” Thus, it is plausible that Farooq Ahmed’s hilarious novel Kansatan owes its birth, in parts, to the absurdity of scaremongering, that’s manufactured by certain groups, about Muslims one day taking over America, and in parts to the lowliness of those (politicians, think tanks, or religious leaders) who bait gullible Americans with the ideas like jihad and sharia law.
Apart from the implausible narrative arc executed convincingly, the novel derives its strength from two main sources.
The novel begins with Kansas being a Muslim territory with perpetual animosity towards a neighboring state of Missouri and its inhabitants, who are the ultimate other. It is a lens which the colonial powers, such as England and France, have polished over the last three hundred years when looking at their colonial subjects. The protagonist, an orphan who remains unnamed, arrives at a decrepit mosque, run by an elderly imam, who hopes to position the mosque and himself as the center of resistance to, and victory over, the neighborly savages and terrorists. The orphan is given tasks, a place to sleep at the top of a minaret, and ample time to bloat in his mind his importance to the events going on around him. Halfway through the novel, enter the congregants at the mosque, the protagonist’s aunt and cousin, Faisal, a few years his junior. At some point, there also arrive a father and his daughter whom our protagonist falls in love with, with some semblance of reciprocity, it seems. But as Faisal’s star gradually rises, culminating in a stature reminiscent of a prophet, with some unintentional help from the protagonist, the latter falls prey to jealousy, which eventually erupts on the day Faisal and the woman, the orphan’s amour, get married. The unnamed protagonist not only manages to choke Faisal to death, but he also succeeds in siring a child with Faisal’s wife, after having intoxicated the two during a celebratory feast. Events cause our protagonist to run away in an effort to reach a neighboring state, less hostile than Missouri, only to be caught by mercenaries loyal to the imam and Faisal’s mom, his aunt, who has become imam’s closest political adviser and confidant. He is locked up in his room atop the minaret where all his attempts at escape come to naught. Except near the end, which leaves the protagonist as much confused and disoriented as it does the reader, intentionally. The effect is humorous.
Apart from the implausible narrative arc executed convincingly, the novel derives its strength from two main sources: Firstly, it constantly alludes to Biblical and Quranic (and occasionally others as well) references, blurring the scriptural lines. Secondly, the text’s postmodernity as Farooq Ahmed creates a Möbius strip out of past and future, utopia and dystopia. Sandwiched between the two are further layers of historical references ranging from Taimur the Lame to prophet Abraham/Ibrahim, Sarah, Hagar, Mother Mary, prophet Ishmael/Ismail for discovering the bounty of water, and John Brown, who led anti-slavery raids and was tried for treason and killed. Farooq also teases the mythology of the Immaculate Conception by juxtaposing the two births, that of Faisal’s and of his child’s.
Supported by Farooq’s verbose, often ornate, and classical-sounding English, the narrative gives off the effect of being a Biblical or Quranic theme park built by Hollywood which is comic and delightful most of the time. If I am not mistaken, Farooq’s style flirts with Rabelais, tiptoes around Swift and Rushdie, while aiming for his own unique register. The narrative, at times, however, sags under the weight of its weighty, magniloquent, and archaic sound. The references to verses create a comic effect, without the reader ever being sure whether they are made up or borrowed from holy books. It is a stroke of genius when Farooq makes the reader realize that the verses were, for the most part, a result of the internal mechanism, thus prompting our jealous hero to admit to himself that he might actually be the Almighty. On the other hand, the repetition of the Would that, and that too no less than 48 times becomes tiresome despite being occasionally funny.
If I am not mistaken, Farooq’s style flirts with Rabelais, tiptoes around Swift and Rushdie, while aiming for his own unique register.
Many readers familiar with the history of Kansas will lean towards thinking that Farooq has recreated the early history of that state by replacing the political conflict with that of religions, but I am tempted to see it as an effort to recreate Islam’s nascent days or, by extension, those of any new religion that finds itself surrounded by hostility to the newly emerging doctrine and gaining traction. Farooq shows us that any movement, be it political or religious, has a human dimension where personal and political jostle for space. Faisal’s murder by the protagonist is a case in point and in making that point the author also shows that real prophets not only survive murder attempts, but also might have blood on their hands. The fact that our protagonist is the survivor, not Faisal, opens up the possibility that in the days to come, our Tamerlane (the one who walks with a limp) might be destined to survive past humiliations and lay the foundation of a lasting order. This, again, invokes an invert of the famous clash between Tamerlane and Bayezid I, nicknamed Lightning, the fourth Ottoman ruler, who died in Tamerlane’s captivity. But Tamerlane, the conqueror of the world, and his empire soon withered while Ottomans were able to pick up the pieces and go on to rule for another five hundred years, till the First World War.
One lingering, troubling aspect of the novel that demands further discussion is the dynamic between the protagonist and his beloved, who carries his child. In one chilling scene, she tiptoes to the imprisoned orphan only to inflict further pain on him by whispering that the boy is being named after the dead prophet, not the real father; a punishment for the act of rape, which the orphan committed after intoxicating the newlywed and killing the groom. Neither the narrator nor the author deal with this issue in any meaningful way and that is problematic for a modern text, even if it blurs the line of past, present, and future.
It may be a stretch but it is fairly possible that Farooq, while swimming in the western tradition, has tried to humanize an image that was far too often dehumanized.
Finally, the question of not naming the narrator of Kansastan! Although the words such as Islam or Muslim do not appear in the text, the word mosque appears over one hundred and fifty times. Although Muhammad preceded Islam, logic cannot be applied to the narrative arc of Kansastan. It could be that the main character is loosely based on the founder of Ismaili faction, who, when defeated by the Mongols, unleashed their ferocity on the bewildered Crusaders. The lack of naming notwithstanding, the main character is not a stand-in for Muhammad, though it is probable that Farooq is engaging with a very long tradition of Muhammad’s image in western literature where the prophet is often depicted as an Antichrist, a buffoon, or a charlatan. Written around the fourteenth century, Langland’s poem, Piers Plowman, situates the prophet beside Payment and her father Falsity before denouncing false prophethood. Dante places Muhammad in the lowest circle of hell. Voltaire wasn’t much better. It may be a stretch but it is fairly possible that Farooq, while swimming in the western tradition, has tried to humanize an image that was far too often dehumanized. Or, as someone said about cigars, the narrator is just an unnamed narrator who pleads for our empathy. The result is quite gratifying. It’s an intellectually stimulating novel that forces the reader to deal with allusion on multiple levels. It deserves a literary audience. Independent bookstores should take notice of Kansastan.