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Socialist Review Index (1993–1996) | Socialist Review 185 Contents

Socialist Review, April 1995

Talat Ahmed


Black to basics


From Socialist Review, No. 185, April 1995.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Black Album
Hanif Kureishi
Faber £14.99

‘Militant Mohammedans’, ‘religious zealots’, ‘uncivilised heathens’ – these are just some of the more colourful adjectives used to describe Muslims in the West. Faced with this xenophobia and racism, it is hardly surprising that some young Asians turn to their religion with a vengeance.

Six years ago the publication of The Satanic Verses came to be viewed by some as yet another example of the West battering Islam and tragically Salman Rushdie became the object of Muslim venom. These themes form the background to Hanif Kureishi’s new and exciting book, The Black Album. As with much of his work, the hero is pulled in many conflicting directions in his attempt to make sense of the world. The central character, Shahid, is torn between the ‘brothers’, who want to kill a blasphemous author for dishonouring Islam, and his hedonistic lifestyle as a student in a London further education college.

Shahid is disillusioned with family life in middle class suburbia. His brother Chili is a boozy womaniser who deals drugs to supplement his income, his mother runs a respectable chain of travel agents in Sevenoaks and his late father believed that immigrants only had to assimilate in order to be British. In school Shahid is a victim of racial abuse.

Faced with this, he flees Kent for the bright lights of Kilburn. He hopes to avoid racism and meet new friends. Shahid is searching for something and he finds it in Riaz, a religious intellectual who appeals to Muslim students to forsake the evils of Satan and follow the ‘path of God’.

Initially Shahid is attracted to the group by Riaz’s uncompromising condemnation of the West, the hypocrisy of Britain – its racism and enslavement of the poor. He is impressed when the ‘brothers’ go to the East End to protect a Bengali family from Nazi thugs. However he doesn’t want to give up alcohol, drugs, books or his girlfriend Deedee, who is also his lecturer. She represents everything the brothers detest: liberalism, promiscuity, and ‘godlessness’. All these contradictions come to a head when a copy of the blasphemous book is burnt in college and Shahid is forced to take sides.

Kureishi depicts very well the contradictory nature of religion. We are shown how the brutality and emptiness of capitalism can lead someone like Shahid to look to Islamic ideas as a solution. Islam and the group appear to give him a sense of purpose as well as a means of combating racism, but it is a solution that is going nowhere. Kureishi reveals how the radical language of fighting and oppression can quickly lead to attacks on other victims in society – women, gays and radical authors. Kureishi brilliantly illustrates the complexities of the Rushdie affair and the many pitfalls liberals and some on the left fell into. He exposes the cynicism and hypocrisy with which Labour politicians denounce certain books in order to court Muslim votes.

All this makes for a very funny and exhilarating read. My only criticism of the book is its portrayal of the left. For Kureishi the 1989–90 East European revolutions and the collapse of Stalinism are synonymous with the failures of socialism. Shahid’s lover and a fellow lecturer are former ‘party’ members whose lives are shattered by these events. One character resolves this by siding uncritically with the Islamicists, even encouraging book burning. Deedee retreats into liberalism and condemns Muslim students as irrational and intolerant. She even calls the police to arrest students on college premises. Despite this flaw, the book is Kureishi’s best work – entertaining and vibrant.

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