English essay – Hanif Kureishi’s “My Son the Fanatic”

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Analyse how Hanif Kureishi’s “My Son the Fanatic” represents and explores conflicting notions of modern British identity. As well as ethnic and racial tensions, you might look at questions of generational difference, gender, religion, empire, class. Use textual evidence from the story to justify your interpretation, and pay attention to literary strategies such as structure, diction (language choice) characterisation and narrative structure.

Hanif Kureishi’s “My Son the Fanatic” is a story of two competing and irreconcilable ideals: Parvez’s, in his dream of providing for his family and putting his son through college, and Ali’s, in the passion and zeal of a fiercely anti-Western strain of Islam. Both men have similarly incompatible notions of Britain and ‘Britishness’: for Parvez, Britain is both the dream of the perfect life and the constant need to satisfy that dream. For Ali, Britain is a “bottomless pit”[1] of corruption and sin, guilty of oppressing Muslims around the world. In his narrative, Kureishi explores issues of identity and empire and artfully creates a fractured relationship that allows for consideration and analysis of these themes on both an individual and a societal level.

The most obvious clash in the story is that of identity, and indeed the conflict is centered on competing notions of Ali’s identity. Parvez sees his son as the fulfillment of his ‘British dream’, excelling at cricket, swimming and football, achieving straight As in school, studying accounting at college and on track to “get a good job…marry the right girl and start a family”[2]. The conflict arises when Ali begins to turn away from his father’s dream, breaking up with his “English girlfriend” and throwing away his possessions, stating that “there are more important things to be done.”[3] However, it is not just Parvez’s ‘British dream’ that creates conflict, but also his conception of what ‘Britishness’ is: Parvez orders his wife to cook bacon and pork sausages, forbidden by Islam, saying “this is England. We have to fit in!” Ali, conversely, sees Britain and the West as immoral, oppressive, corrupt and “a sink of hypocrites, adulterers, homosexuals, drug takers and prostitutes.” Ali’s identity is not British, nor does he really see himself as his father’s son. Instead, Ali seems to define himself in opposition to his father’s ideal: other than the “Western materialists” with which his father is “implicated”, against drinking, gambling and socializing with women, and as persecuted and oppressed by a country he has never left.
It is both useful and interesting to note how Kureishi frames the various aspects of this. Parvez is immediately introduced to us as a father, but is also identified as a taxi driver, and as one of many Punjabis working at the same cab company. The order in which Kureishi reveals the aspects of Parvez’s life are in order of their significance to the narrative. Parvez the father is the protagonist of the piece, it is his friends in the taxi world that advise him on his course of actions (much of which takes place in the cab itself), and finally it is Parvez’s Punjabi heritage which not only leads Ali to Islam, but also creates the conflict between father and son in Parvez’s failure to strictly adhere to the religion of his homeland. It is worth noting that, until Ali is discovered to be praying, there is no mention of Islam at all – until this point, this story follows a familiar father and son relationship. By leaving any mention of Islam until the audience is introduced with the characters, Kureishi is aiming to establish his characters as familiar and relatable before introducing the less familiar and more alien in Islam.

Although published in 1994, “My Son the Fanatic” provides an interesting analogy when considered in relation to the events of July 7, 2005. Parvez’s violence towards his son at the conclusion of the story is analogous of the violence of the terrorist attacks on the London Underground, and is testimony to the potentially disastrous consequences of society’s failure to understand the beliefs and attitudes of other people.[4] The bombings on the London Underground were orchestrated by four British men of Pakistani parentage (like Ali in the story), all were unknown to intelligence agencies, and were involved in cricket clubs, football clubs, local council and local primary schools. The similarities between these four men and Ali are too great to ignore, and while we do not know much about their philosophy and ideology, it is not a stretch to imagine it being similar to Ali’s.
Ali is full of rage at the perceived sinfulness of Western culture, and speaks of the “millions and millions of people” that share his beliefs. In the story Parvez is struck dumb and makes no further attempt to understand these beliefs, or even to discuss or debate them. His reaction is, instead, to consider evicting his son from the family home, and ultimately his inability to understand leads him to resort to violence. Although not directly representative of the behaviour of Western governments towards Muslim fundamentalists and extremists, the twentieth century is full of occasions of gross intolerance and a failure to enter into any sort of dialogue concerning the perceived injustices inflicted on the Middle East by European and American nations. Ali feels so strongly about these injustices that the entire concept of his British identity becomes abhorrent to him, and he rejects every single aspect of it. Although it would be a mistake to read this story as Kureishi’s comment on Western-Islam relations, the eerie similarities between Ali and the London bombers reveal that Ali’s situation is not a fictional one, and that there are indeed instances of similar home-grown radicalization.

Islamic fanaticism, so often seen as ‘other’, was given a British passport in July 2005. Although not intended as such upon its publication almost fifteen years ago, Hanif Kureishi’s “My Son the Fanatic” can now be viewed as a remarkably prescient and indeed prophetic examination of home-grown radicalism and extremism. Kureishi’s is a story that deals with the incredibly complex notions of individual and national identity, ethnicity and race, among many others, through the relationship between a father and his son.

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