Book review: An American muslim teen turned militant in Laleh Khadivi’s A Good Country

Laleh Khadivi explores how Islamophobia and extremism feed off each other, in a timely novel about an American boy-turned-militant.

Faced with growing hostility in the US, Iranian Kurd-American teenager Rez goes on a surfing trip to Bali, where his faith awakens, with far-reaching consequences, in A Good Country. Sonny Tumbelaka / AFP
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Rez (or Alireza) is growing up in comfortable Orange County, California, where high school students drive their own cars and can afford to stay in hotels. His parents are Kurdish immigrants from Iran, although Rez considers himself, at first at least, to be thoroughly American. The United States, as his father says, is “a good country”, deserving of its citizens’ gratitude.

The environment is multicultural, but there is also the issue of turf. The Mexicans stick with the Mexicans, the Vietnamese with the Vietnamese, and so on. Rez hangs out with white friends – all of them called Pete – until a disastrous road trip causes him to be ostracised. Then he befriends Arash, a Syrian-American boy, and continues his old pursuits – smoking, listening to hip-hop and chasing girls.

His ethnic identity is therefore already an issue, but it becomes more urgent when a fellow student’s brother is injured in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. Unable to reach the Chechen brothers who perpetrated the atrocity, this student galvanises a harassment campaign against Rez and other students of Muslim-origin.

In the wider society beyond school too, Rez’s name and appearance lay him open to suspicion and hostility.

When Arash’s academic prospects are abruptly blighted, he turns to Islam for solace. Rez and his girlfriend Fatima try to understand. They visit a mosque where, although Rez doesn’t know how to pray, he finds kindness, dignity and – something related to turf – brotherhood.

A surfing trip to Indonesia reinforces this sense of Muslim solidarity. Indonesian society is friendly and peaceful, or in Californian language, “chill”. The United States, in comparison, “seems like a pressure cooker”. In an Indonesian mosque, Rez feels “a door, long closed, had opened in him, and his soul stepped through”.

Back in California, he is pulled between different categories of friends who, though pursuing remarkably similar lifestyles, move towards polarised ideologies. One set watches videos of extremist sheikhs calling for revenge; another plays video games in which the targets to be destroyed are Muslim civilians.

Add to this discomfort a general ignorance of Middle Eastern politics. Syria is “some ugly civil war that no one in America paid attention to”.

The narration, it must be said, sometimes seems similarly ignorant – author Laleh Khadivi suggests ISIL fought Assad for Raqqa. In reality, of course, ISIL seized Raqqa from the opposition militias that had previously defeated Assad.

Soon, Arash travels to this “capital of a country with no borders”, an alternative version of the “good country”. Reza is intrigued, and starts his own research. “Come fight and live and thrive in a place where you can be a real man,” an online propagandist urges. This line is particularly attractive to an adolescent whose most pressing self-directed question is “How to become a man?”

Sometimes Rez’s transitions in belief seem too abrupt and not entirely credible. It is somewhat implausible that he wouldn’t be deterred by evidence of ISIL atrocities, which he doesn’t so much justify as immediately forget. Despite his difficult social status, he is not a character filled with rage, and therefore seems an unlikely candidate for terrorism.

But this may well be Khadivi's point. In A Good Country, the third novel in a family trilogy (the first two are set in Iran), she shows that some western recruits for ISIL are driven not by evil but naivety, peer pressure and the second-generation immigrant's sensation of being out of place.

Khadivi writes eloquently of the tyranny of cause and effect, both geopolitical (terrorists seeking revenge for wars which in turn were prosecuted for the sake of vengeance) and social.

The latter is portrayed by Rez’s encounters with official and popular racism, and cleverly dramatised through subtle and lively dialogue.

Khadivi skilfully highlights the small racist comments in conversation which only the (racially) sensitised notice. Her book teaches how Islamophobia and extremist terrorism feed each other, and how similar their mode of thinking is.

Despite the depressing topic, there is a great deal of fun in this book. The whole fizzes with a youthful energy appropriate to its young protagonists.

The characters have the stamp of reality – Rez’s quiet mother and disciplinarian but caring father are particularly well-portrayed. There is also a great deal of beauty in the pleasing rhythm of the sentences. The descriptions of surfing, for instance, are good enough to fascinate even somebody who’s never thought of trying it.

A Good Country is necessary reading for our violent and increasingly interdependent world in which the endless chain of cause and effect risks becoming a downward spiral.

Robin Yassin-Kassab is a regular contributor to The Review and the co-author of Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War.