Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire: A Modern Antigone

By Kabir Altaf

Imagine what Antigone would be like if the action was transported from ancient Greece to today’s London and the main characters were British-Pakistanis.  This premise forms the basis for Kamila Shamsie’s most recent novel Home Fire, which updates Sophocles’ tragedy and sets it in the contemporary context of the War on Terror and the struggle of European countries to deal with their citizens who join the “Islamic State”.  Though ultimately a derivative work—one that doesn’t stand alone without reference to the original—the novel has some interesting insights on what it means to be British and on Islam’s place in today’s UK.

Sophocles’ tragedy centres around the conflict between Antigone and Creon, her uncle and the ruler of Thebes. Antigone desires to bury her brother Polyneices according to religious law while Creon refuses to grant permission since he considers him to be an enemy of the state. In Shamsie’s update, Polyneices becomes Parvaiz Pasha, a young Londoner who becomes radicalized and leaves to work in the “Islamic State’s” media unit in Syria. His sister Aneeka (Antigone) first tries to enable him to return to the UK without facing charges and later to bring his body back to London. Her opponent is Karamat Lone, the British Home Secretary, himself of Pakistani and Muslim origin.  The equivalent of Creon’s refusal to allow Polyneices’s body to be buried in Thebes is Karamat’s order to rescind British citizenship from those dual nationals who act against the interests of the UK.  Thus, after Parvaiz’s death in Istanbul, his body is sent to Pakistan instead of the UK.  Aneeka then travels to Karachi to sit in protest outside the British Consulate until the government allows the body to be returned to the UK.  Her sister Isma (Ismene), on the other hand, attempts to distance the sisters from their brother’s actions.

Shamsie’s characters are all three-dimensional and none are entirely heroic or villainous.  Unlike Antigone, Aneeka uses sex to try to achieve her objectives, becoming involved with Karamat’s son Eamonn (Haemon). In the original play, Antigone is engaged to Haemon, but she sacrifices this relationship to fulfill her obligations to her brother.  Aneeka, in contrast, seduces Eamonn as part of a plan to bring her brother home. Though she does eventually fall in love with him, her initial actions cast her in a manipulative light—she prays and wears the hijab yet doesn’t seem to have problems with premarital sex.

Like Aneeka, Karamat is also a complicated character.  He is an integrationist who distances himself from his Muslim background and marries an Irish woman. He gives his son an Irish name, Eamonn, rather than the Arabic Ayman. Yet, he confesses that in times of stress he often finds himself unconsciously reciting the ayat al-kursi.  Asked in an interview to respond to the accusation that he hates Muslims, he replies “I hate the Muslims who make people hate Muslims” (231).  Shamsie heightens the dramatic conflict by giving the Creon character a Muslim background and depicts that type of Muslim and British-Pakistani who believes that in order to advance in mainstream society, he has to distance himself from his religion and be more loyal than the King.

One of Shamsie’s most interesting departures from Sophocles is providing a bigger backstory for the Polyneices character.  Sophocles begins his story after Polyneices is already dead, so we never learn what drove him to become an enemy of Thebes. In contrast, Shamsie shows the reader the process by which Parvaiz is radicalized, and thus highlights how lost and vulnerable young men are often exploited and brainwashed into waging jihad.  In Parvaiz’s case, he is a young boy who has never known his father, himself a jihadi, a fact that Parvaiz’s mother and sisters never discussed, fearing the negative consequences for the family.  When an older man comes along and asserts that Parvaiz’s father was a hero, Paraviz is naturally drawn to him and led down the path to radicalization.  In Shamsie’s narration, even the jihadi is a somewhat sympathetic character. His motivations are understandable though his actions are reprehensible.  

One of the main themes of the novel is how Britain treats its Muslim citizens.  The story begins with Isma at the airport, enduring a lengthy interrogation that causes her to miss her onward flight to the US, where she plans to pursue her Ph.D.  The interrogation is particularly fraught because of her family background, though the experience of being questioned at Western airports is one familiar to many Muslim travelers.  More problematic is the media’s demonization of British Muslims. As Isma recalls a conversation she had during college: “The 7/7 terrorists were never described by the media as ‘British terrorists’. Even when the word ‘British’ was used it was always ‘British of Pakistani descent’ or ‘British Muslim’ or, my favorite, ‘British passport holders’, always something interposed between their Britishness and terrorism.” (38).  Later, Aneeka refers to the perils of “Googling While Muslim”, a nod to state surveillance of Muslims for any sign of extremism.

Diametrically opposed to the sisters is Karamat, who tells students at a Bradford school: “You are, we are, British. Britain accepts this. So do most of you. But for those of you who are in some doubt about it, let me say this: don’t set yourselves apart in the way you dress, the way you think, the outdated codes of behavior you cling to, the ideologies to which you attach your loyalties. Because if you do, you will be treated differently—not because of racism, though that does still exist, but because you insist on your difference from everyone else in this multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multitudinous United Kingdom of ours” (88). While telling Muslims that they shouldn’t freely express their religion is problematic, there is something to be said for greater assimilation into the societies in which Muslims find themselves.  Karamat’s most problematic action is the rescinding of British citizenship from those dual nationals who act against British interests.  Rather than dealing with why some young British Muslims are alienated from the larger society, this action simply ignores the problem by retroactively defining them as un-British.

Home Fire makes an interesting companion to Antigone though most of the power of the novel comes from seeing how Shamsie has updated that great work of world literature.  Without the literary resonances, the novel would simply be another work that attempts to deal with jihad and the place of Islam in the West, themes worked and reworked by many Pakistani novelists writing in English.

Kabir Altaf graduated from George Washington University with a major in Dramatic Literature.

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One Response to “Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire: A Modern Antigone”

  1. sohailkizilbash Says:

    I enjoyed reading this review.

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