Posted by: dougery | February 9, 2009

Unintentional Segue

I just finished a terrific novel about a bunch of Muslim punk kids in Buffalo, NY. Suffice to say I am a pauper when it comes to knowledge of Islam, and for that matter, punk rock. Sure, I’ve listened to some punk music, and even seen a few shows here and there, but never really encountered the lifestyle or spent any amount of time immersed in the culture. But Buffalo, I remember you. And I used her as an anchor for this story. Because even though I didn’t know what this or that Arabic greeting meant (but looked up a great many on Wikipedia when I had the opportunity) and even though the thought of sleeping on a floor littered with greasy pizza boxes and empty beer bottles with dozens of other drunk punks is an awful experience I can’t even properly imagine, Buffalo comes very easily to mind.

Aside from being a very Buffalo novel, the Taqwacores is also very much a young man’s novel. Much like Islam and Punk are ‘scenes’ dominated by men. Yes, there are exceptions, and the burqa clad feminists of the novel are integral to the story to be sure, just as bands like Bikini Kill and X-ray Spex are keystones in the history of punk music. But the novel is written by a man, narrated by a man, and its depiction of women is sometimes deeply disturbing. Particularly the young narrator’s sexual fantasies.

Never as ‘good a Muslim’ as he thinks he should be, Yusef is surrounded by fuck-ups ten times as boldly ‘un-Muslim’ as he is (kids drinking, smoking up, getting tattoos, most importantly of all, fucking out of wedlock), but when Yusef ‘discovers’ masturbation towards the end of the novel, it’s very telling what he fantasizes about. About stealing in late at night to some anonymous young woman’s room, about ogling her, then feeling her up, and then unloading on top of her, never inside, and it never seems like the woman in his fantasies is doing anything at all other than being a groping board to be painted. I realize male sexual fantasy, in particular masturbation, is kind of a one person sport, but geez is Yusef’s choice of ‘inspiration’ a wee bit demeaning.

To be fair, Rabeya, the novel’s strongest female character is pretty kickass. A burqa with punk band patches sewn all over it? And the novel has been lauded by feminists and even credited by Asra Nomani as first presenting her the idea for women-led prayer, leading to a historic woman-led congregation on March 18, 2005. The confluence of Punk and Muslim culture seems especially fertile via the trangressive attitudes of the former and the stereotypically dogmatic attitudes of the latter, and when a girl lifts her veil and sucks off a guy on stage the shock value alone is a huge punk -rock fuck you, and a huge fuck you to Islam as well, but is that really empowering to women? I suppose the fact that she then turns and spits onto the taqwacore equivalent of Nazi skinheads and incites a riot might adequately have turned the tables but still, the scene is a complicated one and not easily picked apart.

Anyhow, back to the title of this post, the “Unintentional Segue.” It appears that for the month of February i’m destined to read novels obsessed with masturbation. I’ve been meaning to read a Roth book for some time, and Portnoy seemed the logical jumping off point. Little did I know…

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