Author Kamila Shamsie reworks the Greek tragedy of Antigone

For Home Fire, author Kamila Shamsie looked at the propaganda ISIS uses to recruit members.
For Home Fire, author Kamila Shamsie looked at the propaganda ISIS uses to recruit members.PHOTO: ZAIN MUSTAFA

Kamila Shamsie's seventh novel Home Fire focuses on a British Pakistani family whose lives are scorched by extremism

Put a group of Pakistanis in a room together, says author Kamila Shamsie and "everyone has an airport story".

Interrogation rooms, missed flights, being told to fill out forms for a Pakistani despite having British nationality because "you're not British enough" - these are all awful airport experiences that friends have recounted to Shamsie, a Pakistan-born novelist who is now a British citizen.

Shamsie's Man Booker Prize longlisted novel Home Fire opens in one such airport interrogation room.

Isma, a Muslim Londoner trying to start a new life as a student in the United States, is detained and relentlessly quizzed by Heathrow security, even though this is her own nation she is trying to leave.

In her seventh novel, Shamsie, 44, reworks the Greek tragedy of Antigone for the modern age, one still reeling from Brexit and constantly reminded of the threat posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a militant group.

In the classic play by Sophocles, Antigone attempts to bury her brother Polynices, a traitor to the city, in defiance of her uncle Creon, the king of Thebes, who has forbidden anyone from mourning Polynices on pain of death.

In Home Fire, which has also been shortlisted for the Costa Book Award (Novel), young sound engineer Parvaiz suddenly abandons his sisters - his idealistic twin Aneeka and their older sister Isma, who put her life on hold to raise them - and runs away to Syria to work for the media arm of ISIS.

Pragmatic Isma, the only one of the siblings who knew their jihadist father, wants to distance her family from the affair. But Aneeka, desperate to save her twin, romantically pursues the son of the Home Secretary in an attempt to get Parvaiz safe passage home.

Shamsie, who was initially approached to rework Antigone as a play, says the story evokes for her both "timeliness and timelessness".

"I saw the ways it could work within the stories we see in the news today, but at the same time, it's a story from 2,500 years ago, about human responses and consequences that have always been around. The world does not give any indication that we've learnt anything much at all."

To trace the path of a quiet, not terribly devout youth like Parvaiz into radicalism, Shamsie looked at the propaganda ISIS uses to recruit members.

"We assume it's around violence, but it's more sophisticated and multi-pronged than many of us think," she says. "It is designed to appeal to people who are vulnerable in various ways.

"They were very much selling this idea of a utopian land of plenty where you can live a good life and be accepted without having to feel yourself as a minority viewed with suspicion."

She does not think Brexit has changed things for Muslims in Britain, mainly because Islamophobia has already been so prevalent for them in the past decade since the Sept 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the US. What is new, however, is the ever-growing number of groups who are becoming targets of racism, such as Eastern Europeans.

"What is happening is that you're seeing the ways in which racism is so poisonous because it just keeps expanding outwards," she says. "With Brexit, people who have long held racist views are feeling more emboldened to articulate them."

Characters in the book quip about the perils of "Googling while Muslim", but this was a real concern for Shamsie, who is single, while she was researching the novel.

"It's disquieting to know the extent to which that was in my head," she says, "that if I look through many sites connected to radicalisation, some red light might go off in some computer system somewhere and I'll get a knock on my door."

Researching radicalisation was not, however, the hardest part of the novel for Shamsie. This was ensuring a nuanced portrayal of politician Karamat Lone, the novel's King Creon, who has risen to British Home Secretary by being tough on his fellow Muslims.

Shamsie says many have drawn links between Karamat and British Pakistani politician Sadiq Khan, who successfully ran for mayor of London last year, around the time she finished the first draft of the novel. "But they have almost nothing in common, besides both being from migrant families," she points out.

Karamat is an advocate of the assimilation of immigrants, though others like Aneeka rail against the notion that they should have to give up their religious and cultural markers to conform to the mainstream. Shamsie sees assimilation as a "disguise".

"It's a way to say 'there are things about you that we aren't comfortable around'. If that's the case, you need to go in and see what those things are. If there are things that are criminal or unjust, they should be addressed because you shouldn't have systems of injustice.

"But you can't force people to become someone they aren't. You need a system within a country where second-generation migrants who are born in a place and know nothing else should be made to feel that there is a space for them, that they want to fit in those spaces.

"The more schools you have that are mixed in term of ethnicity and religion, the better it is for nations with large migrant populations."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 28, 2017, with the headline 'Greek tragedy in the age of ISIS'. Print Edition | Subscribe