P.O.V. No.20 - Terrorism and Film

The Empty Accountancy of Things
Reasons for Fundamentalism in
Hanif Kureishi's and Udayan Prasad's My Son the Fanatic

Trine Vinter Mortensen

The recent London bombings have made the 1997 film My Son the Fanatic [1] of current interest again. England is now asking itself the question 'Why do people born and bred in England turn to fundamentalism, and against the society they were raised in?'. This question is exactly what is central in the film that is directed by Udayan Prasad, but written by Hanif Kureishi. Kureishi, who has an English mother and a Pakistani father and is born and bred in England, has been preoccupied with this question for a while. He first explored these issues in the novel The Black Album, [2] which was inspired by the fatwah issued against Salman Rushdie in 1989. A few years later he wrote the short story My Son the Fanatic, [3] which he expanded and developed into a film script under the same title.

Colonialism, Immigration and Assimilation
The central character in the film is not the son referred to in the title, but his father Parvez. In the film, the conflict between father and son is used as a backdrop for the story of Parvez's personal development, but I will focus on the conflict between father and son. Parvez is a Pakistani taxi driver who came to England to feed his family, and in Britain he lives at the bottom of society, working long hours to make ends meet. Parvez's son Farid is getting engaged to Chief Inspector Fingerhut's daughter and Parvez is thrilled, since this means that he will finally be able to climb up the social ladder. He is very eager to please Fingerhut and behaves in a submissive and inferior manner. Fingerhut, on the other hand, regards Parvez and his family with contempt, and is everything but pleased to be connected with this low status Pakistani family. This superior/ inferior relationship is replayed, though in a less obvious version, when the German businessman Mr. Schitz comes to town. Parvez offers him his services while he is in town, and Mr. Schitz calls Parvez 'little man' and Parvez behaves like a delivery boy eager to please. Their relationship resembles that of a colonial master and a native servant. Both Parvez and Mr. Schitz fall naturally into this pattern. Mr. Schitz uses Parvez, but does not respect him. However, this might not be clear to Mr. Schitz himself, since he is not unfriendly and quite enjoys Parvez's company. But the incident where he kicks Parvez in the bottom and laughs at him clearly shows a lack of fundamental respect. Parvez seeks to serve Mr. Schitz to the extent that he agrees to supply him with prostitutes for his business party. In general, Mr. Schitz exploits and uses others for his own pleasure. Parvez, though, does not feel that he is being exploited; his inferior behaviour has become internalised. Kureishi points out that "the backgrounds to the lives of these ... people includes colonialism - being made to feel inferior in your own country. And then, in Britain, racism; again, being made to feel inferior in your own country." [4] When Parvez joins Mr. Schitz and the prostitute Bettina in a comedy club he is, in a very direct manner, racially abused by the comedian. Mr. Schitz is shocked and wants to inform the police, but Bettina wryly informs him that "they were sitting at the next table". [5] Parvez and the other taxi drivers are also victims of physical racial abuse, since they are frequently attacked. As a result of this Parvez keeps a cricket bat in the taxi for protection.

Though Parvez inhabits the lower spheres of society, though he is regarded with contempt and disrespect, and though he is racially abused, both verbally and physically, he still does not turn his back on British society. He has left many old habits and beliefs behind him in order to become assimilated to the British society, and in many respects he prefers Britain to Pakistan. He sees himself as a gentleman, he enjoys a drink and he loves jazz, particularly Louis Armstrong. These virtues are not in keeping with his Pakistani self and therefore he has created a hide-out in the cellar where he drinks and listens to music - a sort of haven for his assimilated self. The soundtrack to the film highlights Parvez's two identities. The non-diegetic music is rooted in the East and represents his origins and his community, and the diegetic music is jazz, representing the Western world that he lives in now. This compound Muslim and Western identity is also expressed visually when he sips whisky wearing salwar kurta. In some respects Parvez is still a traditional man, but he feels at home in Bradford where he lives. This is evident in the scene where he drives Mr. Schitz from the airport and takes him on a guided tour of the city. When he talks about the city he talks about "our glory" (p.9), and expresses a sense of belonging.

Parvez's immigration and assimilation has not made him a happy man. He is working long hours and lives in a different world than his family and has become estranged from both his wife and son. Parvez has come to the point where he says, "Sometimes I think - if I hit that tree what difference?" (p.20). The only person he has a true relationship with is the prostitute Bettina. Their relationship is a friendship based on mutual respect and understanding that eventually develops into a love relationship.

Money Makes the World Go Around
The society that Parvez has assimilated himself to is dominated by capitalism and consumerism. He lives his life in a society ruled by money in which everything is for sale, even people. The people he meets represent different aspects of the economic system. Mr. Schitz is a businessman who is involved in the building of a large shopping centre, thus representing consumerism, and he thinks that everything and everyone can be bought. He buys Bettina and the other girls, and also Parvez's services, and seems to believe that you can make people do anything - as long as you pay them. Mr. Schitz buys and Bettina sells the only thing she has to sell, namely her body.

Both Parvez and Bettina want to belong to society, at any cost. As David Edelstein argues, "[They] are playing by capitalism's rules, trying to get a foothold in a society that closely guards access to its more 'proper' ladders to the top" [6]. Parvez does not seem to question the society he has assimilated himself to. June Thomas points out that "for Parvez, immigration to Britain represented a decision to prioritize materialism over spirituality" [7]. He no longer has a philosophy of life and says, "All I want is to pay mortgage" (p.16). His life has become empty, except for his relationship with Bettina. She understands him, possibly because, as David Edelstein puts it, her "compromised purity seems to mirror his own" [8].

Like Father, Like Son?
During his upbringing Parvez's son Farid was also assimilated. He was even captain of the cricket team, thereby excelling at the colonizer's game. He was studying to be an accountant, was obsessed with clothes, trying to get into modelling and drinking and doing drugs - in fact, nothing in his way of life revealed that he was not Anglo-Saxon. Through this assimilated life he met Madeleine, the Chief Inspector's daughter, whom he, as the film begins, is about to be engaged to. Thereby he is finally going to enter the British society properly and Parvez is very proud of his assimilated son and thrilled about the prospects for the whole family. However, Farid is not satisfied. Somehow he feels lost in his life, and when he meets other young second-generation immigrants who have turned to Islam, they make him see his life in a new light. He suddenly sees his life, and his father's life, as being immoral and wrong. He says, "Evil is all around. The brothers have given me the strength to save myself. In the midst of corruption there can be purity" (p. 76).

Farid reacts against the emptiness in his own life and in society. Materially he has everything he could want, since Parvez is working hard to provide his only son with material goods. However, Parvez's choice to prioritise materialism over spirituality has resulted in a spiritual void, which afflicts Farid. Kureishi has said that "unlike their parents, who'd come here for a specific purpose, to make a life in the affluent West away from poverty and lack of opportunity, they, born here, had inherited only pointlessness and emptiness" [9]. Everybody wants life to make sense, and if it does not, then one has to search for meaning. Religion is that which brings meaning back into Farid's life. Carla Power argues that "rather than following their parents' immigrant path of job and measured assimilation and growing material prosperity, many have instead turned to the religion of extremism for identity and life's meaning." [10] Farid exchanges materialism for spirituality. He discards of all his possessions and says, "This [religion] is the true alternative to empty living from day to day ... in the capitalist dominated world we are suffering from!" (p. 69). As a result of his new perspective on life Farid gives up his accountancy studies, since it symbolizes everything he wants to turn away from. He states that "accountancy ... it is just capitalism and taking advantage" (p. 69) and that he does not believe "the white and Jewish propaganda that there is nothing to our lives but the empty accountancy of things ... of things ... for nothing ... for nothing." (pp. 69-70). He is disgusted by capitalism and, as Bart Moore-Gilbert argues, Farid's abandonment of his accountancy studies signals his refusal to be part of an economic system in which humans, too, are simply commodities to be bought and sold." [11]

Farid is pushed in the direction of fundamentalism both by spiritual emptiness, capitalism, and racism. Spiritual emptiness gives him the motivation to search for a new way of life, and capitalism and racism keep him, and other second-generation immigrants at the fringe of society, thereby making it more likely that he should turn against it. When they are not allowed to enter society, the benefits of that society can be seen as a provocation, since it flaunts that which they could have, but are kept at arm's length from. Kureishi argues that "the central tenets of the West - democracy, pluralism, tolerance ... - could be treated as a joke. For those whose lives had been negated by colonialism and racism such notions could only seem a luxury and of no benefit to them; they were a kind of hypocrisy" (p. xi). The fact that Farid does not feel that he belongs is made evident in the scene where he gives a Muslim maulvi [12] a guided tour of the city. This scene parallels the scene where Parvez gave Mr. Schitz a guided tour, but whereas Parvez expressed pride and belonging, Farid only expresses disgust and detachment.

Farid is treated by society as being inferior, but he refuses to be inferior. He says, "Whatever we do here we will always be inferior. They will never accept us like them. But I am not inferior!" (pp. 65-66). He is ashamed and infuriated by Parvez's submissive behaviour and lack of self-esteem in relation to Fingerhut, and later says to his father, "It sickens me to see you lacking pride." (p. 65). Turning to fundamentalism has the effect that Farid no longer feels inferior. Janet Maslin argues that, "unlike his more liberal father, he [Farid] has found a way to escape feeling unwelcome in England" [13]. However, when Farid stops feeling inferior in the British society, he starts feeling superior.

Taking Action
This feeling of superiority leads Farid and his new friends to take action to clean up society and function as moral guards. When Farid and his friends begin their mission he becomes a Travis Bickle figure. Kureishi and Udayan Prasad both make references to Scorsese's Taxi Driver, both on story level (the Travis Bickle figure), with music (the jazz music that functions as a leitmotif for both Parvez and Travis Bickle) and with the visuals of the film (both films show both the decay and the beauty of the cityscapes as the taxi drivers drive through the cities at night). However, Farid is not an exact copy of Travis Bickle. In My Son the Fanatic the Travis Bickle figure is split up into two: what he does (Parvez) and what he thinks (Farid). Like Travis, Farid is disgusted by the filth in the society he is on the edges of. He calls it "a society soaked in sex" (p. 64) and he does not wish to be a part of it. He says, "They say integrate, but they live in pornography and filth, and tell us how backward we are!" (p. 64). As Harvey Thompson argues, "For him [Farid], religious fundamentalism seems to offer an alternative to a prejudiced and immoral society" [14]. Farid and his friends want to clean up society. Like Travis, they see prostitutes as the scum of the earth, and attack them in an attempt to clean up the streets and purge society of its filth. Farid has nothing but contempt for his father's way of life in general, and his relationship with Bettina in particular. He says, "If you break the law as stated then how can wickedness not follow?" (p. 62). Farid uses religion to keep wickedness and corruption at bay. By turning to religion he can find purity in the midst of corruption and create order out of chaos. Fundamentalism is a way of saying 'no' to a society that is too much. Kureishi points out that "constraint could be a bulwark against a self that was always in danger of dissolving in the face of too much choice, opportunity and desire" (p. x). In his research he spoke to a young Muslim who told him that "renunciation made him feel strong ... while giving in made him feel weak" (p. ix). Even though the young men are restricted by their religion, it empowers them.

Reactions to Action
Parvez does not understand Farid and the other fundamentalists, but Bettina partly sees their motivation. She says, "Who can blame the young for believing in something beside money? They are puzzled why a few people have everything and the poor must sell their bodies. It is positive, in some ways" (p. 53). Bettina is not the only one who shows understanding. One day Parvez follows Farid into the mosque, which he has not visited for a very long time, and talks to one of the old Muslim men. He finds the young people annoying, but he also has respect for them. He says, "They are always fighting for radical actions on many subjects. It is irritating us all here, yaar. But they have something these young people - they're not afraid of the truth. They stand up for things. We never did that" (p. 58). Parvez cannot find any understanding or sympathy for Farid's new life. Bettina had advis

ed him to give Farid his philosophy of life hoping this would fill Farid's void. Parvez tells him, "There are many ways of being a good man" (p. 120). However, he is unable to make Farid listen to him, and in a fit of desperation, powerlessness and anger Parvez attacks Farid, trying to beat sense into him. The roles are reversed and Farid pinpoints this saying, "You call me fanatic, dirty man, but who is the fanatic now?" (p. 117). This final twist suggests that anyone can become a fanatic when pushed to the edge - even the liberal and good-natured Parvez. Fanaticism is born out of desperation and conviction.

Parvez and Farid both go too far, each in his own direction. Parvez chooses to be assimilated, giving up his background and adopting the British way, and Farid chooses fundamentalism, turning away from Britain and towards Islam. Their approaches to dealing with life in Britain are both extreme, since neither of them include integration. Integration means preserving one's roots while knowing, participating and becoming a part of the society one lives in, and a successful integration where Parvez had preserved his roots and not uncritically adopted anything that is British, might have prevented him from feeling that his life is meaningless. It might also have prevented Farid from feeling rootless, and it is partly this feeling of being rootless and not belonging that makes him turn to fundamentalism.

1 Udayan Prasad, dir., My Son the Fanatic, with Om Puri and Rachel Griffiths, Zephyr Films (for BBC), 1997.

2 Hanif Kureishi, The Black Album (London: Faber & Faber, 1995).

3 "My Son the Fanatic" appears in Love in a Blue Time (London: Faber & Faber, 1997).

4 Hanif Kureishi, "The Road Exactly". Introduction to My Son the Fanatic, (London: Faber and Faber, 1997), p.xi.

5 My Son the Fanatic, p. 47. (This analysis is based on both the film and the script. The two differ among themselves, but the present quotations originate from the script. Further references will appear in the text).

6 David Edelstein, "Generation Gap", (http://slate.msn.com, 1999), p.1.

7 June Thomas, "The First 7/7 Movie", (http://slate.msn.com, 2005), p.2.

8 Edelstein, p. 1.

9 Hanif Kureishi, "Bradford" in Dreaming and Scheming (London: Faber and Faber, 2002), p.71.

10 Carla Power, "The Lost Generation" (Newsweek, http://msnbc.msn.com, 2005), p. 1.

11 Bart Moore-Gilbert, Hanif Kureishi. Contemporary World Writers (Manchester: Manchester UP, 2001), p.167.

12 Spiritual leader.

13 Janet Maslin, "The In-Laws as Outlaws," review of My Son the Fanatic (http://query.nytimes.com), p. 1.

14 Harvey Thompson, "A Moving and Unconventional Love Story", review of My Son the Fanatic (www.wsws.org), p. 2.

to the top of the page