Under their skin

The Black Album
by Hanif Kureishi

Despite having been written 15 years ago, this book is very relevant to the world of today, giving a frighteningly believable insight into the world of British Asians. I say “frightening” because the story’s main theme is Muslim fundamentalism and it definitely gets scary.

Shahid was raised in well-to-do south-east England and moves to London to study at college and get away from the family business. He is tired of being looked down on for his bookishness and wants to experience “real life”. Quiet and studious, he finds himself a little lonely and excluded, so when a group of British-Asian neighbours led by the charismatic Riaz reach out to befriend him, he is eager to please them. Although it is clear from the start that the relationship is all about what they can get from him (his clothes, his typing skills, his links to some college professors, his good looks) Shahid doesn’t seem to notice the bizarre nature of their interaction and agrees to everything he is asked, even when it places him in danger.

At about the same time, Shahid’s favourite college professor Deedee prompts the start of a relationship that is almost the opposite in nature – it is loving, giving, free-spirited, frenzied, with a cacophony of drugs and wild parties interlaced with their bedroom adventures. It is against college rules, which concerns Shahid, but it is also against Allah, which concerns his new friends and his life turns into a tug of war between the two.

Set in 1989, one of the main storylines is the fatwa against Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses. Though he and the book in question are not named directly, his previous works are and the themes of the book are discussed a lot. The fundamentalist group are keen to get behind the fatwa and have the book banned in their district, despite not having read it. This is the point when Shahid tries his hardest to stand up to them, touching as it does directly on something that he loves dearly. The other time that he argues hard in favour of something is when he is asked to give up his music collection, including his dearly beloved Black Album by Prince.

The central themes of religious groups trying to change the world to fit their views and book banning/censorship are interesting ones but frustratingly, as is too often the case in life, they are not really debated here. Too few of the characters are willing to openly debate matters so attempts at discussion quickly flounder.

What this book does not include – and I would have to guess that this is deliberate – is any more moderately religious characters. There are fundamentalists and there are non-believers. At one point Shahid’s sister-in-law berates him for going to the mosque to pray, saying that she thought he was raised better than that. The viewpoint is very much that religion is for the uneducated, the great unwashed, and is essential to teach them basic morality and keep them in line. But once a person has money and education it becomes useless, or worse, dangerous.

In fact there are few if any moderate characters. Deedee’s life is outrageously liberal, a sea of raves, sex and drugs. Shahid’s brother Chili also seems to be caught up in this world of drugs and is spiralling downward from what was once a comfortable married life. I suppose this is to make Shahid’s choice more even, because he is so level-headed and rational that it would be hard to believe he’d stay involved with the fundamentalists if he had a more straightforward alternative. But that might also be a more interesting story, if the author had had to dig down into what would keep Shahid with the “brothers” if the alternative wasn’t a level of drink and drugs that’s beyond the average student life, so far as I’m aware. Maybe the author is trying to be equally stereotypical on both sides of the coin. There are no greatly sympathetic characters.

The threats and violence escalate, making this work better as a thriller than as a social study. There is a prescient storyline about a bomb in a London tube station and Shahid walking miles across the city in the aftermath. It’s never clear whether the bomb is related to fundamentalism or race tensions, but that’s certainly the implication.

There are moments of humour. The book begins with one of the “brothers” persuading Shahid that he has lost all of Riaz’s clothes, so Shahid will have to give him all the clothes he wants. Later on a local Muslim claims to find a message from God in an aubergine and the vegetable becomes a minor attraction, with attempts to get in installed in the town hall. But each of these is bound up with threats and violence, so that the ridiculous becomes something more frightening than if it were rational.

It’s a well written book, full of passion and anger, but it’s not an easy read. I found it hard to sympathise with Shahid for getting into trouble by failing to say no at key points. He is too meek and obedient a hero for my taste, though that’s probably supposed to be a product of his upbringing.

Published 1995 by Faber and Faber.

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