We have just reached the halfway point of 2019 and it is undeniably shaping up to be an interesting (or exasperating!) year in terms of political developments in Britain.
As well as the impending realisation of the Brexit vote which will see Britain leave the EU at the end of
March June October(?), the resignation of prime minister Theresa May after numerous failed attempts to secure a deal for Britain’s departure from the EU, a synchronised exodus of MPs from our two main political parties, and the resurgence of Nigel Farage into political life and his new Brexit party, the news cycles have also been filled by the potential ramifications of the wider political decisions of the past few years. With all this uncertainty bubbling under the surface, I could not have picked a better time to read Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire. Even though the book was published in 2017, it holds many parallels to the current socio-political climate in Britain.
Home Fire is a story told from the perspective of five characters whose lives collide after a chance meeting between two of them. Isma Pasha is a 28 year old graduate student from Wembley, London where she helped to raise her younger twin siblings, Aneeka and Parvaiz, following the death of their mother when Isma is 21 and the twins are 12. While completing a masters programme in the US, Isma meets a fellow Brit, Eamonn Lone, whom she recognises as the son of British Conservative MP Karamat Lone, a man of Pakistani origin whose rhetoric of assimilation, atheism, and marriage to a white woman sees him widely cast as a sellout and consequently disliked by the British Pakistani community. As they begin their acquaintaince, Isma is reluctant to tell her new friend that her father was a jihadist who died while improsoned at Guantanamo Bay and that her brother has recently travelled to Syria to join ISIS. When Karamat is promoted to Home Secretary, Eamonn returns to London, bringing with him a gift that Isma has entrusted him to pass on to her aunt in Wembley.
As the story delves into Eamonn and Aneeka’s burgeoning romantic relationship and Karamat’s disapproval of this union, we get a deeper insight into Karamat’s political ambition, the personal sacrifices he has made to find himself in a position he now feels risks being jeapordised by his son’s choice of partner, and the desperate measures he is willing to take to protect his life’s work and prove which side he’s on. Similarly, we are also given an insight into Parvaiz’ journey to radicalisation as well as his sense of despair at the changes taking place around him and his strong desire for belonging and a father figure that make him an ideal target for indoctrination and radicalisation. Through Karamat’s and Parvaiz’ differing life choices and the responses they elicit, society’s message clearly states that you are either one of us, else you are the enemy.
What I enjoyed most about the novel is that the larger proportion of it is set in London, a place that I definitely consider to be home. While I found comfort in the familiarity of the main setting, I was also mildly surprised at how foreign it felt in parts. The close-knit Muslim community of Wembley and the privileged upbringing of Eamonn and his friends are a far cry from my own London experiences. As such, where Shamsie’s story most intersects with reality for me is through a socio-political angle. A particular issue that weighed heavily on the minds of our politicians and the general public over the first few months of this year is what is to be done of ISIS fighters trying to return to Britain. Nothing has bought the question to more prominence than the attempt by Shamima Begum to re-enter Britain after travelling to Syria to join ISIS back in 2015.
When the story of Shemima’s desire to return to the UK hit the news, my initial reaction was to side with arguments that would deny her the chance to return to Britain. She had, after all, left voluntarily and, most chillingly, showed little to no concern or regret for the crimes she supported and knew were taking place while in Syria. In that sense, I would say that she differs from Parvaiz’ character, who we are told clearly regrets his decision to travel to Syria and is against the actions taken out by ISIS. However, for both the real and the fictional ISIS recruits, their actions result in the British Home Secretary, a Conservative MP who hails from a Muslim Pakistani heritage, revoking their citizenship to much public scrutiny.
As it stands, I’m still unsure of where I sit on the topic of repatriation of ISIS fighters but reading Home Fire at the point in time that I did certainly helped to add some depth and much needed nuance to the lives of ISIS recruits but also (and most importantly) to those entangled through association whether they be family, friends, or simply other Muslims. Shamsie’s novel and the individual stories she delves into have given me a better appreciation of the real personal and human cost of our political decisions. Yes, terrorism is bad and the seriousness of supporting groups that carry out acts of terrorism should not be downplayed. But beyond all the sweeping generalisations we attribute to people whose choices differ from ours, it would behoove us to consider the many shades of complexity that surround any particular issue and for me, reading the fictionalised accounts told in Home Fire unintendedly helped to broaden my horizon on a very real situation.