As a Peace Corps Volunteer in the 1960s, I learned about culture shock. First, working with Quechua-speaking indigenous people in Ecuador, whose lives were unfathomable to me. And again when I returned to the states after nearly four years abroad, paralyzed by the unimaginable variety of choices in an American supermarket. But my experience was immeasurably milder by comparison with that of my father’s parents, who fled to the United States in 1901 from a pogrom in the Russian Empire. And so must be the case of today’s immigrants who arrive here from Central American countries in the thrall of drug traffickers or the teeming cities and war zones of the Middle East. In the stories he tells about two young Muslim immigrants in San Francisco, Syed M. Masood brings that shock back to mind in The Bad Muslim Discount.
The black sheep and the dutiful daughter
Anvar Faris and Safwa lead very different lives growing up. In Karachi, Pakistan, now the world’s seventh largest city, Anvar lives a life sheltered from violence and poverty with his parents and older brother. He’s the black sheep in the family, the bane of his mother’s existence because he fails to follow the strict Muslim rules she imposes on everyone else. By contrast, living in Baghdad with her brother Fahd and her stern father, Safwa experiences the American invasion as a child. Then her father, who years earlier had answered the call to jihad in Afghanistan, is captured and tortured by US troops. Abu Fahd (“father of Fahd”) turns cruel after his release and forces her to live under the veil and devote her life to caring for her dying older brother.
In Masood’s fast-moving account, we follow these two engaging Muslim immigrant teenagers as they establish shaky new lives in San Francisco. Eventually, the two families both end up as tenants in a rundown old apartment building owned and run by an Indian Muslim immigrant. There, Anvar and Safwa’s lives intersect in tragedy.
The Bad Muslim Discount by Syed M. Masood (2021) 354 pages ★★★★★
From Karachi and Baghdad to San Francisco
The author, himself a Pakistani immigrant to the United States, deftly conveys a sense of life at the turn of the century in Karachi and Baghdad and later in San Francisco. The sights and sounds and smells of the two Middle Eastern cities come through clearly. The story is laid out chronologically, with sections labeled “The Opening, 1995-2005,” “The Zugzwang, 2005-2010,” “The Crowning, 2011-2016,” “The Trap, 2016,” “The Blitz, 2016,” and “The Endgame” shortly after the election of Donald Trump as President. The section titles represent the stages in a winning game of checkers, which Anvar learns from his beloved grandmother, Naani Jaan. And Naani Jaan never loses.
Each of the principal characters in The Bad Muslim Discount rises from the page fully formed. The two Muslim immigrant teenagers themselves, Anvar and Safwa. Their parents, Bariah and Imtiaz Faris, and Abu Fahd. Naani Jaan. Zuha Shah, the girl Anvar falls in love with as a child in Karachi. Qais Badami, the cruel young man who arranges Safwa and Abu Fahd’s emigration to the United States only after Safwa agrees to sleep with him. Anvar’s observant brother, Aamir. Gentle Ahmed Sama, the African imam at the local mosque in San Francisco, And the landlord, Hafeez Bhatti. Together, these characters convey a sense of the great diversity of the Muslim community in America.
About the author
Syed M. Masood’s publisher reveals on its website that he “grew up in Karachi, Pakistan. A first-generation immigrant twice over, he has been a citizen of three different countries and nine different cities. He currently lives in Sacramento, California, where he is a practicing attorney.” As Masood himself writes on his own website, “Living among different people, in different countries at fascinating times in their histories, has shaped both my view of the world and my writing. Ultimately, human beings are the same everywhere (despite the fact that they tell themselves, everywhere, that they are different from each other), and the theme of this fundamental human unity informs everything I write.
“As to my life outside of writing, I went to the William and Mary School of Law, and before that attended the University of Toronto, where I studied English Literature. I am currently practicing as an attorney and must ‘measure out my life in coffee spoons’ on a daily basis.”
The Bad Muslim Discount is Masood’s second novel.
For more reading
This is one of The best books of 2021.
Another recent book I’ve read about recent immigrants is The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life by Lauren Markham (“Illegal immigrants” come to life in this sensitive personal account). It’s nonfiction but in many respects reads like a novel.
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