READ A NOVEL about religious terrorism these days, and chances are there will be an unintended resonance with a real-life incident. A few days after last month’s terror attack at Istanbul airport, I was a third of the way through Tabish Khair’s Jihadi Jane, reading a brief passage set in the same location. Nothing dramatic happens, but this is the story’s transitional moment, the point of no return for its two young protagonists. The narrator, Jamilla, and her friend Ameena have just arrived in Istanbul from England, with the intention of travelling on to Syria, becoming ‘jihadi brides’ and joining the Daesh movement that will soon be better known as ISIS. The airport is their last contact with the world they have left behind, as well as a pathway to the possibilities ahead. Imagining a scenario where life met fiction, I couldn’t help thinking: what if the terrorists had launched their attack while Ameena and Jamilla had been here, thus inadvertently killing two of their own future recruits?
The book’s first few chapters have already given us the bare bones of the friendship between the two girls as they go to school together in Yorkshire. Ameena, a child of divorced parents, leads a relatively liberal life—smoking cigarettes, she has boyfriends— compared to Jamilla, who is from a conservative family, headed by a father who mocks ‘convent-educated Indian Muslims’ and laments that he has to live in a godless country. But soon Ameena’s views about faith become more hard line than Jamilla’s, and the two friends are seduced by the idea of joining the Islamic State. Their point person is a vibrant, seemingly good-hearted woman named Hejiye, whom they meet on the internet, and who runs an orphanage in the Syrian heartland.
These early sections set up the story by reminding us what religion can mean to different people. It can be an extension of the loyalties you feel towards your parents and their histories; a source of personal solace when you suffer heartbreak; something that binds you to a larger group; or even just a way to pass time. And each of these imperatives can lead to something intense before one realises it. What combination of factors, personal and political, led Ameena to become so radicalised that she lectures other devout Muslims on the proper way to break the fast? How is fanaticism born? One chapter ends on a chilling note, with Ameena disapprovingly saying, “We Muslims get more fussed about what’s proper than about faith”—a variant on the idea that the strictures of ‘divine revelation’ from hundreds of years ago should take precedence over everything else, even commonsense humanity.
Khair has always been a sensitive storyteller, even when dealing with dark subjects. Jihadi Jane doesn’t have the formal experimentation of his early novels The Thing about Thugs, or Filming. Nor does it have the humour of How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position, a book that also touched, more obliquely, on religious fundamentalism. But that was a story located in a safer setting and was largely about toying with readers’ expectations; Jihadi Jane takes us straight into the heart of darkness with two young women who are barely prepared for what is to come. What they know, or think they know, is how difficult it is to live as a Muslim woman in the West, feeling constantly judged by those who assume that you are oppressed; and how this can make you more rigid and defensive about your culture, including the less savoury aspects of it. As Jamilla puts it, they are two girls fresh out of school, looking for ‘a life that made sense’.
In some passages I felt like Khair was using a naive narrator as a convenient tool to spell things out for the naive reader
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What they find is a physical as well as a spiritual wasteland. In one of the novel’s most affecting moments, Jamilla, meeting Hejiye for the first time, asks about the cat whose photo she saw on Hejiye’s Facebook account. Having made this journey to a new life in the name of ideology, she is still searching for a familiar, anchoring experience. Instead there is desolation (the words ‘meager’ and ‘meagerness’ occur more than once in her descriptions of the landscape around the orphanage), there are people who have little time for the seemingly trivial but necessary minutiae of life, because they always have their eye on the large picture; on what was revealed to their people by God, and what their duties to this revelation are today. Hejiye’s reaction is interesting too: she doesn’t at first understand what Jamilla is referring to, and then tells her the cat had vanished. We are left to consider the possibility that cute photos on social media might be one of the snares that draw people into the fundamentalist fold.
Jamilla’s desire to connect with the cat finds an echo in an important subplot later in the story. After Ameena, fortified with a packet of fake hymens so she can pretend to be a virgin, marries a jihadi named Hassan, she becomes protective towards a 10-year-old servant boy. The boy, being from a tribe of ‘devil-worshipping’ Yazidis, is regularly bullied by her husband. There is some obvious symbolism here—the child as the innocent who must be saved from evil, Ameena as the saviour putting her own life in peril— but this plot strand adds heft and immediacy to her actions in the final, breathless passages of the book.
It’s fun to imagine what Jihadi Jane might have read like if it had been in the voice —complete with Yorkshire dialect—of the volatile Ameena, whose experiences are more dramatic. But the book’s tone is shaped by Khair’s decision to make the moderate, grounded Jamilla the narrator. Her voice combines gullibility and pedantry, especially as she starts to grasp the implications of her new life. ‘It did not make sense any more, this intense hatred and violence being practiced in the name of a religion that stood for peace.’ (What had she expected, exactly, when she signed up to become a ‘militant bride’?) In some passages—such as the one where she admits that the secular world, for all its flaws, at least afforded one the chance to be exposed to a variety of views—it feels like Khair was using a naïve narrator as a convenient tool to spell things out for the naïve reader. However, Jamilla is also disarmingly hesitant and self-questioning, often using phrases like “Looking back, I wonder why I…” and marvelling at her own past innocence. It is indicated that she is telling her story to a novelist who, in a public speech, cuttingly suggested that people who ran off to join terrorist groups should never be allowed to return to civilisation. Her story, then, is both a self-lacerating confession and a plea for understanding.
At times I felt that by offering us two easy targets for our loathing—Hassan as a glowering villain whose blood-thirst flows from some dark well in himself rather than from genuine belief; Hejiye as a manipulative authority figure who lets others perform sacrifices—Khair was being a little soft on religion itself, its millennia-old capacity to provide a conduit for the blackest impulses in human nature. But perhaps one should make the necessary distinction between author and narrator. The words we read are Jamilla’s, and while she gains in wisdom over the course of the story, she won’t relinquish her faith. Speaking of the world she left behind for ISIS, she says: “I had so often rejected that world for being imperfect and thus an affront to the perfection of my God, but its human imperfection was exactly what I had grown to respect in this place where all talk of perfection and purity led directly to suffering, mistrust, destruction and death.”
Reading this, a part of me wished Jamilla’s epiphanies had taken her one step further: making her see that religion by its very nature (not just its supposedly ‘corrupted’ variants) lays the bricks for that narrow road. But of course she is under no obligation to share my atheist feelings on the subject. And eventually, it is a testament to Khair’s storytelling skills that a reader who feels very differently about faith than Jamilla does find aspects to be stimulated and moved by in this story about one woman who finds dramatic redemption and another who is destined for a lifetime of soul-searching.