Children of Dust, prominent writer Ali Eteraz’s recently published memoir, provides an excellent example of a Pakistani-American Muslim in search of his own self-identity. Eteraz’s prose is a delight to read—I randomly started reading a segment from the middle of the book upon its arrival and proceeded to read a good chunk before realizing that I should start reading it from the beginning. I found his descriptions of cultural experiences as an immigrant growing up in the United States to be reminiscent of my own cultural and religious experiences as a second-generation immigrant. In the prologue to his memoir, Eteraz explains:
This book is about a thoroughly Islamic childhood and about a boy’s attempt not merely to know his identity, but to assert his sovereignty. (Some parts of it are about the girls he met along the way).
While the book’s emphasis is on Eteraz’s own personal upbringing and understanding of himself, I was intrigued by his relationships with girls and women throughout the course of the memoir. In Children of Dust, girls and women serve as mere sexual interests for Eteraz—he is unable to form long-lasting relationships with women without sexual motives. Even with sexual motives, he is unable to form any kind of healthy relationship with women.
Eteraz describes his first sexual experience when he is seven years old living in Pakistan: “I learned of sin from a girl named Sina.” He has Sina undress and exposes himself to her. Eteraz does not elaborate on a prior, non-sexual relationship with her (or with any other girl, for that matter). His mother admonishes him: “Good boys don’t play games with girls” (19). The disturbing episode during his childhood foreshadows his subsequent relationships with women: they merely serve a sexual purpose in Eteraz’s relationships.
While a university student, Eteraz describes several other sexual experiences with Muslim women he encounters. Eteraz, rather intriguingly, mentions his interest in “targeting” Muslim women:
Muslim girls were my immediate “target,” because there were certain in-built advantages I could exploit. First, my aura as a “pious brother” was still intact. That reputation allowed me to…initiate conversations with girls without having them think that I was hitting on them. (240)
Eteraz finds his exploitation of Muslimahs a thrilling endeavor, as he assumes an entirely noble personality when meeting women—Eteraz relishes his power to potentially deflower women who appeared to be sexually unavailable.
He later comes to realize, however, that:
Persuading girls to abandon the strictures of Islam…was not ultimately satisfying. I couldn’t boast or gloat about it to anyone. I couldn’t celebrate my success. The secrecy ruined it. What was the point of having power over another human being if it couldn’t be publicized? (246)
For Eteraz, sexual behavior is the way in which he is able to “have power over another human being”—a power he realizes he is unable to portray freely due to his religious restraints. Forming a healthy relationship with another human being would require a lack of power, which Eteraz is unable to display until the end of the book (where he, as an expat in the Middle East, forms his first true friendship).
While I enjoyed reading Eteraz’s prose and his journey towards his “sovereignty,” I found his relationships with Muslim women were disappointingly abysmal—Muslim women merely serve a sexual purpose as an unattainable ideal and a way to feel “power over another human being.” Why is this still happening?
Granted, the experience represented here is Eteraz’s own and not necessarily reflective of a larger group. All in all, Children of Dust was an excellent, albeit frustrating read for this Muslimah.
You can read Part II of the review here.