- - Wednesday, January 18, 2017



By Tabish Khair

Interlink Books, $15, 230 pages

Over the last few years the western press has been regularly punctuated by accounts of young Islamic people who have left their American or European homes to take up arms in the sea of struggles in the Middle East. Some have achieved notoriety for their savage actions; some have died, and some have simply disappeared. Few have been much beyond their teens. What has motivated them? The blanket answer has been that they have been radicalized. But why these and not the millions of other young western Muslims?

In Tabish Khair’s “Just Another Jihadi Jane” the narrator Jamilla reflects on the radicalization of her school friend Ameena, with whom she went to Syria as a potential jihadi bride when they were in their late teens. “Really what radicalized Ameena? Was it the religion she learnt in the mosque? I concede that the group I was with had probably the strictest interpretation of Islam among the many Muslims that used our mosque; so in a way I radicalized Ameena … I still do not shrug away my role in all of it, but I ask you, are you sure it was the mosque that radicalized Ameena? Why Ameena out of a thousand or more? Was it only the mosque? Was it only me and my father’s and brother’s Islam? Or was it also Ameena’s parents’ divorce? Was it the ghostly hurt and anger lurking in Ameena’s lucid eyes? Was it her lost love for Alex? Was it the way her friends snubbed her? Was it her mother’s strong disapproval of the Islamic scarf?

One factor was certainly Ameena’s personality. When Jamilla reflects on her brother Mohammad, she notes that expressing strict Islamic opinions leaves him feeling “good and righteous,” whereas such conversations make Ameena feel “bitter and restless.” When the three of them debate Middle Eastern politics Jamilla says, “The anger we expressed on such occasions felt very comfortable.” Not so for Ameena. “If A wor a boy, A’d go fight!” she says in the north of England accent typical of her native region.

By using this dialect the author highlights Ameena’s and Jamilla’s background: living in the Muslim community of a city in north of England but not “one of them” — the majority of girls who wear short skirts. Jamilla’s Pakistani father and English-born brother are taxi drivers; her mother quietly devotes herself to cooking and the Koran. Ameena’s parents are Indian: her father a well-off businessman, her mother a teacher. The young girls meet in high school, and become best friends largely through the devout Jamilla’s efforts to wean Ameena off cigarettes and boys — a goal that succeeds only when Ameena is jilted by her boyfriend Alex. Eventually Jamilla and Ameena move in together, and meet Hejjiye on the internet. Born to Kuwaiti parents in Wales, raised partly in Saudi Arabia, and now supporting her jihadi husband in Syria, Hejjiye fixes up a bridegroom for Ameena. “She will find you a good groom too,” Ameena promises Jamilla. “Not one of those flabby types who talk religion and do nowt; someone who’s willing to live t’right way and fight for t’right cause.” Soon they are both in Syria: Ameena married, Jamilla helping the cause by working in a reception center for women and children.

What is it like to be such a young woman in Syria now? This question inevitably occurs to readers of those newspapers stories about “jihadi Janes” such as Jamilla and Ameena. Tabish Khair answers it by unveiling a life that is increasingly grim, not simply because the fighting is getting closer to them but also because they are learning more about the dire fates that await so many as war rampages through the country. They are growing up, growing wiser, coming of age.

Tabish Khair’s account of his characters’ lives in the north of England and in Syria reveals conditions that are not universally, or even widely, known. In this sense, “Just Another Jihadi Jane” performs one of the traditional roles of the realistic novel: It opens a window onto another way of life. The risk for the novelist is that the educational function takes over. Though Mr. Khair does not entirely avoid this, he earns readers’ attention with his description of Jamilla and Ameena as schoolgirls, sharpens the focus when they get themselves to Syria, and delivers a gripping ending that is intellectually satisfying because it does not simplify Jamilla and Ameena. Neither is really just another jihadi Jane. Each is one particular jihadi Jane, who struggles with her own issues. This attention to multiple factors and the acknowledgment of the roles played by chance and personality makes the author’s analysis persuasive, and his descriptions of Jamilla and Ameena moving.

Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.

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