Children of the Dust: A Portrait of a Muslim as a Young Man by Ali Eteraz is an interesting personal account revealing spiritual journey and growth of a young Muslim man in Pakistan and the U.S. The story reveals desire and fear of Eteraz as a young boy looking forward to live a fulfilling life as a servant of Islam amidst the earthly temptations and questions about his identity. This is reflected through the changing identities across the five parts in which the story is told. For instance, in the first part of the book he is called Abir ul Islam, which directly implies he is a disciple of Islam. His father promises to dedicate his son to serve Allah throughout his life, and this complicates boy’s life as seen in subsequent parts where he moves to the U.S. and tries hard to fit in another identity. This essay closely reviews Children of the Dust: A Portrait of a Muslim as a Young Man by Ali Eteraz in terms of the portrayal of a journey as a common motif in religious writings. The paper also analyzes Eteraz and his family’s experience of Islam ethos in both Pakistan and America, Eteraz’s experience of the perception of Islam in different segments in America, and lessons that could be taken from his experience.
Journey tends to be a common motif for spiritual writings, as it plays an instrumental role in indicating the transformation that individuals undergo in terms of their self-understanding, religious maturation, and in-depth understanding of their religions. For instance, protagonist’s journey from childhood to adulthood becomes clear when his father makes mannat with Allah which presupposes that his son would be His servant throughout his life. During the covenant with Allah, Eteraz’s father says, “Ya Allah! If you give me a son, I promise that we will become a great leader and servant of Islam”. With this promise, he is committed to offering his son to serve Allah. Nevertheless, this covenant inspires and haunts the main character throughout his journey to adulthood as he maintains a closer relationship with God. In his early childhood in Pakistan, he keenly listens and connects to the contemporary Pakistani stories from his father and Quran tales from his mother. These events facilitate his initial understanding of Islam, as he gets an opportunity to join madrassa where he is taught of the essentials of the religions. He tries to rebel because of the beatings he gets from his madrassa teachers. His journey into adulthood is also exhibited during his time in college in Manhattan where he rediscovers himself as a descendant of Abu Bakr Siddiq prompting the change of his name to Abu Bakr Ramaq. At this juncture in his growth to maturity, his self-understanding and understanding of Islam transform effectively because he uses his rejuvenated faith to denounce any form of secularism and extremism. This is directly exhibited in the scene where he states that Osama Bin Laden is an opportunist and a messianic pretender. His continued growth from childhood to maturity enables him to understand himself as an individual. Eteraz concludes that he is not limited by his father’s understanding of religion.
Moreover, his journey from Pakistan to America shapes his self-understanding, understanding of Islam, and spiritual maturation. While still in Pakistan at an early age, he is taught about Islam by his father and mother. This sets the ground for his understanding of Islam because he learns its values and gains the morale to join madrassa. However, the journey to America seems to change his overall evolution in terms of self-identity and spiritual maturation. His family lives in the Bible Belt where he faces challenges while trying to adapt to the new environment with diverse religious views. In fact, he alters his name from Abir ul Islam to Amir to dissociate himself from his parents’ increasing fundamentalism. This is illustrative of his evolving self-understanding as an individual, as he wants to be alone. His spiritual maturation and continued understanding of Islam during the journey from Pakistan to America is reflected through his assertion. Therefore, the journey from Pakistan to America opens up his mind and allows him to be independent as a person in terms of religious matters. He does not need to be guided by his parents on the matter of spirituality again.
Eteraz and his family’s experience of Islamic ethos are quite different during their residency in Pakistan and America respectively. Ethos in this context would refer to the character of Islam in Pakistan and the U.S. Accordingly, Eteraz and his family’s experience of Islamic ethos in Pakistan could be described as harsh and extreme. In tandem with his explanations, the Islamism in Pakistan is quite harsh and extreme to individuals. For instance, as a child, Eteraz could attend madrassas where he is forced to narrate the Quran and endure harsh beatings for any mistakes made. In the course of later stages of his life, he encounters a harrowing experience where fellow Muslims narrowly kill him for suspecting he is a U.S agent. The character of Islam in Pakistan is quite complicated for Eteraz and his family.
On the other hand, the Islamic ethos during their residency in America could be described as moderate. When he moves from Pakistan to America with his family, they experience a new Islamic atmosphere where there exist a certain level of tolerance and understanding. They experience a new form of Islamic perception that is ready to accommodate individuals. The protagonist sums his experience with the assertion, “I was too embarrassed to admit to non-Muslims that it was Islam… archaic, anachronistic, exotic Islam that controlled me”. This implies that the discussed experience is far much better and accommodative. In the U.S., Islam does not have many complications and is built on the grounds of openness and accommodation of individuals.
Islamic Ethos in Contemporary Pakistani Culture. Islam and Islamic ethos are expressed as transformative in the contemporary Pakistani culture. The Islamic tenets begin to change gradually during their settlement in contemporary Pakistan. They are expressed as undergoing reforms with individuals looking forward to embrace changes and move in the required direction. The contemporary Islamic tenets shift effectively from radical Islam to moderate Islam. In the end of the book, Eteraz claims, “We were all children of dust” to highlight the transformation that the contemporary Pakistani culture has undergone. Now, Islamic ethos appreciates all humanity and is not anchored on Islam as a service for Allah. It is an open religion with clear ideas of worship for individuals.
Islamic Ethos in the U.S. Eteraz’s experience of how Islam is perceived by certain segments of the American population during his residence in the contemporary America could be explained as a piety experience. Certain segments of the U.S. population perceive Muslims as pious individuals who do not engage in social events such as drinking or going out for fun. They are mostly restricted by their beliefs, while most individuals in the U.S. find this archaic and exotic form of Islam. This is reflected in the movie that Eteraz watches with his Muslim friend. In the film, suicide bombers are depicted as pious people, which is reflective of the entire Muslim community. In the course of discussing the perception of Islam, Eteraz explains, “Admitting that would lead me to be viewed as an outside and I wanted nothing more than to be American.” This implies that Islam is typically perceived as an archaic form of religion where individuals do not want to engage closely with the others in the society.
The American experience shapes and colors his spiritual journey by making him a reformist. With his new impressions, he comes to understand that real Islam is not connected with extreme behavior, but rather with being open-minded and accommodating all individuals. He comes to understand that the Islamic faith should be related with the concepts of caring for everyone and appreciating them rather than holding radical beliefs.
The primary lesson that could be learned from Eteraz and might contribute to a better social experience in the contemporary culture, as well as to the improvement of people as they undergo their own journeys of spiritual maturation is an ability to be flexible in their beliefs. Eteraz exhibits the highest level of flexibility in his religious journey. The readers could take this lesson and move on in the best way possible to establish strong relationships with other people in the community. For instance, when the main character moves from Pakistan to America, he notices certain differences in Islam and is flexible enough to embrace changes that he later takes to Pakistan as a part of the reform to create a better religious outlook.
A specific aspect of the book and Eteraz’s experience that has struck me positively is the message of keeping people’s priorities straight in the society, as they could be easily manipulated through their affiliations to a particular religion or sect within the community. This point has influenced me because it perfectly emphasizes the need for people to be consistent and not to be restricted to the perverted beliefs that tend to keep them away from other people within the community.
In conclusion, Children of the Dust: A Portrait of a Muslim as a Young Man plays a vital role in explaining Eteraz’ varying experiences from childhood to adulthood and from Pakistan to America in the course of fulfilling his religious journey. Most importantly, the story highlights continued growth and religious understanding of the protagonist who ultimately ends up as a reformer of the initial extremist beliefs he learnt in Pakistan. His maturity is critical in the whole process of understanding and personal religious growth.