‘Children of Dust’ traces roots of Eteraz’s skeptical relationship with Islam

Jennifer Shore | Staff Writer

Ali Eteraz’s memoir, Children of Dust: A Memoir of Pakistan, chronicles the author’s journey from his dedication to Islam as a child in Pakistan to his coming of age as a Muslim-American — but don’t call it his life story.

“I am hardly old enough or interesting enough to tell my life story,” Eteraz said. “Children of Dust is only about a first-generation immigrant’s evolving, sometimes loving, often skeptical, relationship to Islam and Muslims.”

Eteraz, whose book is the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle selection for Week Five, will be speaking on the “nexus of immigration and Islam” at 3:30 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy, which complements the morning lecture platform theme of “Pakistan: Straddling the Boundary Between Asia and the Middle East.”

“One of the things that we’re trying to understand is the relationship between Pakistan and the United States during this week, so everyone is going to approach this differently,” said Sherra Babcock, director of the Department of Education.

But Eteraz is glad his book was selected for the character and his spiritual privations instead of some “forced politicization” — something that leads him to be selective in his public speaking. Chautauqua will be his first event in two years.

“I am obviously very grateful at the opportunity to speak here,” Eteraz said. “As an immigrant, it is maybe even more rewarding when a place so connected to American history reaches out to you. I think every immigrant at some point feels if his new home is really his home. It is nice to be given an affirmation of that.”

Children of Dust covers Eteraz’s relationship to Islam in five parts. But he emphasizes that the book doesn’t cover his entire life, and he hopes people understand the memoir is just a piece of it.

“Our pasts aren’t a big bucket of water that we can just spill out at will,” he said. “Our pasts are more like hair. You can follow one strand back to the root but you have to exclude a lot of others to do so. I only wrote about one strand.”

Children of Dust came out of meditation, Eteraz said, after he created a blog in 2006 to express his skeptical relationship with Islam, which turned him into an activist and Islamic reform pundit.

“This wouldn’t have been such a bad thing, except I started having success and places like Jewcy Magazine, The Guardian and The New York Times began discussing my ideas,” Eteraz said. “At that point I was like, wait, this was not why I started my blog; it was supposed to be about me — and idols.”

He turned inward, shut down the blog and focused on himself, and his memoir was published in 2009 — but it didn’t stay under the radar.

“Right after my book came out, the British counter-terrorism unit decided to include my old blog among those that they were ideologically profiling, which led to the Times of India — the most read paper in the world — to falsely declare me an ‘extremist,’ ” he said.

As far as being smeared, insulted and berated, Eteraz said because of his wide-ranging blogging, he has seen it all.

“Simultaneously being declared a Mossad agent, an Iranian agent, a CIA asset, an Islamic fascist, a leftist-Marxist and a sympathizer of extremists is extremely funny to me,” Eteraz said. “There should be a board game out of it, similar to Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? It would be a good way of teaching people geography.”

Eteraz wrote what he called an “intensely private book about being a Muslim” during a time when those with Muslims names are under scrutiny — especially those writing creatively. He reiterates there is only one mention of Sept. 11 in his book, and he wrote the book to give insight to his upbringing and relationship with Islam.

“Some people feel that this book is very self-indulgent,” Babcock said. “Other people think that it is a real insight into the development of a young Muslim, and other people think that is a coming-of-age story that could be in any faith.”

Although religion is the book’s backbone, Babcock said the memoir can relate to anyone who has challenged his or her faith and changed 180 degrees on a viewpoint.

Eteraz is currently in a “state of fermentation,” and he prefers to “sit on the balcony, smoke some shisha and listen to Begum Akhtar’s rendition of ‘Ibn e Mariam Hua Kare Koi’ — or some early ’90s R&B.”