Kamila Shamsie, Home Fire

Aroosa Kanwal (Quaid-i-Azam University)
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Home Fire (2017), Kamila Shamsie’s seventh novel, has won numerous awards - the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction; the 2018 Hellenic Prize; and the 2019 Adab Festival Getz Pharma Prize. It was shortlisted for the 2017 Costa Novel Award; the 2018 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature; the 2019 Liberaturpreis; the 2019 International Dublin Literary Award, and was longlisted for the 2017 Man Booker Prize. Shamsie was born and raised in Karachi and is a writer of Muslim origin. She has lived in Pakistan, Britain, and the United States, and this hybrid background is reflected in the global sweep of her novels. She now resides primarily in London.

Taking inspiration from Sophocles’ tragic play Antigone, Home Fire narrates the events that lead the protagonist, Aneeka Pasha, and her family to encounter the fate of Antigone, as suggested by the novel’s epigraph from Seamus Heaney’s 2004 translation of the play: “The ones we love […] are enemies of the state.” Shamsie reimagines King Creon as Karamat Lone, the British Home Secretary, whose replication of “Heaney’s poetic rendition” – “Whoever isn’t for us / Is against us” – captures the fate of “Post-9/11 Antigone” (Chambers 7). In Sophocles’ play, Antigone is forced to choose between submitting to King Creon’s edicts or following her own conscience and the religious law that demands the burial of her brother Polyneices, declared a traitor by the hypocritical tyrant Creon. Antigone rails against the verdict of Creon, defing the consequences that she may face – if she is killed she feels “that death will be a glory” (Sophocles line 86). In Home Fire, Aneeka, like Antigone, sits with the corpse of her twin brother, Parvaiz. She refuses to leave him to rot until she is allowed to take him to their homeland, Britain, even if it means opposing her sister Isma (Ismene in the play) or resisting Karamat’s decision to deny Parvaiz his funeral rites.

Home Fire spans five locations (Karachi; London; Amherst, Massachusetts; Istanbul; and Raqqa, Syria) and is divided into five sections. Each section is focused on a different character and narrates the story from their perspective: Isma Pasha (the eldest sibling and a devout Muslim on her way to Amherst College to study sociology); 19-year-old Aneeka (Isma’s rebellious, opinionated, and beautiful younger sister who is pursuing a Law degree); and Parvaiz (Aneeka’s twin brother whose sense of ennui leads him to follow the dark legacy of his jihadist father). Despite the absence of his father (Adil Pasha) from his life, Parvaiz bears the burden of his father’s name and his terrorist activities, as he will always be “the terrorist son of a terrorist father” (Shamsie 171). Aside from this family unit, the other sections of the novel are narrated by the British Home Secretary Karamat Lone (a Pakistani-born Muslim) and Eamonn (a Londoner and Karamat’s son with an Irish American woman). Known as “Lone Wolf”, Karamat distances himself from his Muslim roots and, since “his first term as an MP” (35), strategically brands his religion as regressive and misogynist to prove his assimilation into the white British community.

Home Fire opens with Isma missing a flight to the USA due to two-hours of intense Islamophobic interrogation at Heathrow airport. The episode situates minority ethnic identities within multicultural British society and the extensive questioning covers her “thoughts on Shias, homosexuals, the Queen, democracy, the Great British Bake Off, the invasion of Iraq, Israel, suicide bombers, dating websites” (5). The increasing surveillance of the three orphaned siblings is situated against the backdrop of the radicalization of young British Muslims, lured into ISIS; the performance of Muslim identity and citizenship; and racial prejudice and assimilation. Veiled Muslim women are emblematic of “fraught context[s] where Muslim ‘others’ are frequently the objects either of exclusionary and stigmatising discourses and practices, or of a well-intentioned curiosity that can tip into a fetishization of difference” (Ahmed 4). Shamsie ironically gestures towards this difference by referring to it as the danger of “Googling While Muslim” and depicting how Aneeka’s life is made into a public spectacle when she is dubbed by the tabloids as ‘Aneeka “Knickers” Pasha’.

After the Heathrow airport investigation, the narrative focuses on Isma’s student life in Amherst under the tutelage of her mentor, Dr Shah. In a café, coincidently she meets Eamonn and he seems to be a familiar face. This marks the beginning of the devastating entwining of Pasha and Eamonn’s British Pakistani Muslim families. After a series of encounters, Isma gets to know that Eamonn’s Muslim name, Ayman, is changed to Eamonn so that “people would know the father had integrated” (Shamsie 15–16). Isma does not reveal to Eamonn that she knows about his family until he discloses that his father has been appointed the new Home Secretary. As a result of their regular encounters over coffee, Isma falls in love with Eamonn, with no expectation that it will be requited. However, the last meeting between Isma and Eamonn at her flat ties together the fates of the two families. Intrigued by the picture of ravishing Aneeka, Eamonn decides to visit her family home in Preston Road, London, under the pretext of delivering a packet of American chocolates (M&Ms) from Isma, instead of posting them. This is the beginning of a secret love affair between Eamonn and Aneeka. Aneeka’s insistence on secrecy is indubitably purposeful. Being a Muslim woman who wears hijab, she will never be able to win favour from Eamonn’s influential political father, Karamat Lone, who warns young British Muslim students:

don’t set yourselves apart in the way you dress […] the ideologies to which you attach your loyalties. Because if you do, you will be treated differently – not because of racism […] but because you insist on your difference from everyone else in this multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multitudinous United Kingdom of ours. (87-88)

Eamonn remains ignorant of Aneeka’s intention to seduce him. However, their forbidden love, which is meant to influence Karamat to allow a safe passage for Parvaiz to Britain, turns out to be devastating for both families as soon as Karamat discovers that Parvaiz has joined Daesh ISIS, the media arm of a jihadist group in Syria.

Parvaiz follows in his father’s footsteps (he abandoned his family to become a jihadist and fight in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Syria) and this reflects the ways in which the marginalization experienced by British-born youth can lead them towards radicalization, and the novel suggests that such an act is bound to have repercussions for British Muslims. As Aneeka’s cousin grumbles when it dawns upon him that Aneeka plans to take Parvaiz’s body after his death to Britain:

My sister lives in America, she’s about to have a child there – did you or your bhenchod brother stop to think about those of us with passports that look like toilet paper to the rest of the world who spend our whole lives being so careful we don’t give anyone a reason to reject our visa application? Don’t stand next to this guy, don’t follow that guy on Twitter, don’t download that Noam Chomsky book. And then your brother uses us as a cover to join some psycho killers. (209)

The lives of Adil’s family are complicated by the fact that their father was a jihadist. Nevertheless, Shamsie deftly juxtaposes the personal and the political to avoid any sweeping generalizations and stereotypical representations of the radicalization of Muslims in Britain or western prejudices against Muslims. Claire Chambers describes Parvaiz’s dilemma in the novel as:

a crisis of masculinity precipitated in part by fellow British-Pakistani Farooq’s charming machinations that recruit him to Daesh, combined with his sisters’ decision to sell the family house against his will. The final trigger to depart for the Islamic State comes when his twin Aneeka does not comply with his text message begging “Please come home”, after he has been physically tortured in Farooq’s tawdry flat. (5)

Numerous personal and political reasons underpin Parvaiz’s transformation from a bookish young man into a jihadist. Being the son of a man on an MI5 list, Parvaiz is treated with suspicion, experiences surveillance, and, for Islamophobic reasons, is searched twice. He is a misguided youth, affected by his truncated childhood and the departure of his elder sister and mother figure, Isma, and his lack of ambition makes him easy prey for the crafty ISIS recruiter, Farooq.

What he has been told about his father – whose “secrecy had lived inside the house too, [as his] mother and Isma both carried an anger toward Adil Pasha too immense for words” (Shamsie 126) – is in sharp contrast to what he learns about him from Farooq. Farooq uses Adil’s reputation as a jihadist – “those stories of his father for which he’d always yearned” – to lure Parvaiz into his group. Parvaiz sees this as an opportunity to meet men who knew his father (128). When Farooq narrates Adil’s unflinching courage and bravery during torture at Bagram air base and his death en route to Guantanamo to highlight the courage of Pavaiz’s father who fought injustice, he reminds Parvaiz of “how to be a man” (128). In one of the most intriguing episodes of the novel, to help Parvaiz understand “those larger responsibilities than ones his wife and mother want to chain him to” (128), Farooq replicates the torture his father has experienced during his jihad on Parvaiz. To the reader’s bafflement, Parvaiz embraces the torture with pride and “rather than running as far from his tormentors as he can, he finds himself hungry for more” (World Times n. p.). As Shamsie comments, “if you look at the ISIS propaganda a lot of it has to do with a sense of belonging, state building, a lack of racism. So, I was interested in who would be targeted by that kind of propaganda” (quoted in East, 2017, n.p.). Inspired by ISIS propaganda, Parvaiz finally joins Farooq in Raqqa as Mohammad bin Bagram and is recruited to the “media wing” of the Islamic State in Syria. Ben East rightly observes that “it’s the search for masculinity and identity in a world seemingly set against them which is the most powerful allure of jihad”.

Significantly, Shamsie does not reduce radicalization to a one-dimensional construct that has its roots in religious violence. Instead, she captures a multi-dimensional perspective on radicalization by suggesting that it can be informed by emotional alienation, vulnerability, or a feeling of powerlessness, as we observe in the case of Parvaiz. No wonder then that Parvaiz, a reluctant fundamentalist, soon becomes disillusioned by the particular brand of violence that he witnesses in Raqqa. The “sound effects of beheadings, crucifixions, whipping” (Shamsie 169) that Parvaiz is expected to record make him contemplate “how to break out of these currents of history, how to shake free of the demons he had attached to his own heels” (171). When Parvaiz goes on to witness Farooq talking about himself in a swaggering manner, with “his chest out forward in a way that Parvaiz had once thought of as impressive and now saw as ridiculous” (177-178), he pleads to return to Britain.

It is precisely at this point in the novel that the stories of the two families are shown to be inextricably entwined. It is out of her desperation to get her beloved twin Parvaiz back to Britain that Aneeka seduces Eamonn. Contrary to Aneeka’s expectations, she is not only subsequently humiliated in the media as “Hojabi! Pervy Pasha’s Twin Sister Engineered Sex Trysts with Home Secretary’s Son” (204), but she is also categorically denied the right to get Parvaiz back because their lives are deemed unworthy of protecting according to “Mr British Values. Mr Strong on Security. Mr Striding Away from Muslimness” (52). The situation immediately situates Parvaiz within the binary of “Good Muslim, Bad Muslim” (Mamdani, n. p.). He is systematically denigrated and labelled as “the other”. Karamat, “strong on security” (Shamsie 34), strips Parvaiz of his British citizenship, and he is killed by Daesh in front of the British consulate in Syria while attempting to escape Farooq. Here, assimilation, patriotism, and loyalty to Britain become central to the story. The dead body of Parvaiz is sent to Pakistan, his “ethnic home”, and through subtle allusions to Aneeka’s sense of justice for her brother, the reader is reminded of the crux of Antigone:

In the stories of wicked tyrants, men and women are punished with exile, bodies are kept from their families – their heads impaled on spikes, their corpses thrown into unmarked graves. All these things happen according to the law, but not according to justice. I am here to ask for justice. (224-225)

As an unfearful citizen of Britain, Aneeka challenges the surveillance of Karamat Lone, who is shown to hold no “power over her internal choice nor the public’s rebuke of the system, which, in turn, leaves his political future questionable” (Bordas 148). The emotions of grief and empathy are contrasted with the cruel opportunism of the narcissistic Karamat. However, when the sisters encounter him towards the end of the novel, his moral dilemma is displayed. Firstly, when Isma’s presence in his house makes him uncomfortable, as she is a reminder of his secret impoverished life in a cramped flat in Bradford which he had hoped to leave far behind – “something passed between them – it wasn’t about sex, but something that felt more dangerous. She was familiar to him, a reminder of a world he’s lost” (Shamsie 238) – and secondly, when Aneeka travels to Karachi because she cannot imagine losing “her ever-present partner in crime, the shadow who sometimes strode ahead, sometimes followed behind, without ever becoming detached from their twinness” (75). Finally, Karamat receives a coup de grâce from his son, when he calls his father’s actions nothing more than personal animus.

At the end of the novel, when Parvaiz’s corpse is delivered to a park near British Embassy in Karachi, the narratives slides in an emotionally enveloping way towards a calm, albeit tragic, denouement – “In the whole apocalyptic mess of the park the only thing that remained unburied was the face of the dead boy”. Aneeka dauntingly approaches the dead body, her palms resting on the forehead of “what had once been her twin” (223). For a few moments, the only noise that is audible is

a howling noise, the wind raging, and then a hand plucked away the white cloth and the howl was the girl, a dust mask on her face […] A howl deeper than a girl, a howl that came out of the earth and through her and into the office of the home secretary, who took a step back. (224)

Aneeka is bound to embrace the same fate as Antigone. Trapped between the personal and the political, Aneeka embraces grief as “the deal God struck with the Angel of Death […] Grief was what you owed the dead for the necessary crime of living on without them” (193). Confined by his conflicting loyalties for the two people he loves most in the world (his father and his fiancée), Eamonn leaves Britain to comfort Aneeka in Karachi. Before being engulfed by conspiracy and death, they become true lovers in the park, and he too commits the necessary crime of embracing grief, at least for a moment.

Works Cited

Ahmed, Rehana. “Towards an Ethics of Reading Muslims: Encountering Difference in Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire.Textual Practice, 2020.
Bordas, Zachary Vincent. “Constant Surveillance: Criticism of a ‘Disciplinary Society’ and the Paradox of Agency in Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire.Postcolonial Interventions, vol. 4, no. 2, 2017, pp. 114-56.
Chambers, Claire. “Sound and Fury: Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire.” The Massachusetts Review, vol. 59, no. 2, 2018, pp. 1-18.
East, Ben. “Kamila Shamsie: Tension in Society, family and faith.” Arts and Culture, September 2017, .
Mamdani, Mahmood. Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror. Pantheon, 2004.
Shamsie, Kamila. Home Fire. Bloomsbury, 2017.
Sophocles, The Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus. Translated by Robert Fagles, Penguin, 1982.
“The 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction goes to Kamila Shamsie for Home Fire.” World Times, August 2018.

2881 words

Citation: Kanwal, Aroosa. "Home Fire". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 19 January 2021 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=39081, accessed 14 July 2024.]

39081 Home Fire 3 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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