The home fire is the updated version of Antigone, which has transported from ancient Greece to todayr’s London and the main characters were British-Pakistanis. This premise forms the basis for Kamila Shamsier’s 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 doesnt stand alone without reference to the original the novel has some interesting insights on what it means to be British and on Islamr’s place in todayr’s UK.
Sophocles tragedy centers around the conflict between Antigone and Creon, her uncle and the ruler of Thebes. Antigone desires to bury her brother Polyneices according to the religious law while Creon refuses to grant permission since he considers him to be an enemy of the state. In Shamsier’s novel Home Fire, Polyneices becomes Parvaiz Pasha, a young Londoner who becomes radicalized and leaves to work in the Islamic Stater’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 Creonr’s refusal to allow Polyneicesr’s body to be buried in Thebes is like Karamatr’s order to abolish British citizenship from those dual nationals who act against the interests of the UK. Thus, after Parvaizr’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 brotherr’s actions.
Shamsie recounts her story in five acts, and each one is narrated by a different character with their own take on events; Isma, Eamonn lone, Parvaiz, Aneeka, and Karamat Lone. 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 mediar’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.
Shamsier’s characters are all three-dimensional and none of them are entirely heroic. Unlike Antigone, Aneeka uses sex to try to achieve her objectives, becoming involved with Karamatr’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, attracts 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 doesnt 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 the other Shamsier’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 Parvaizr’s case, he is a young boy who has never known his father, himself a jihadi, a fact that Parvaizr’s mother and sisters never discussed, fearing the negative consequences for the family. When an older man comes along and asserts that Parvaizr’s father was a hero, Parvaiz is naturally drawn to him and led down the path to radicalization. In Shamsier’s narration, even the jihadi is a somewhat sympathetic character. His motivations are understandable though his actions are reprehensible.
Oppose 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: dont 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, 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 shouldnt freely express their religion is problematic, there is something to be said for greater assimilation into the societies in which Muslims find themselves. Karamatr’s most problematic action is the abolishing 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.
Shamsie concludes with Karamat Lone, whose unstable status at once inside and outside British mainstream culture remixes that of Isma. Shamsie is sympathetic to the vulnera bility of his position, to the risks he takes to realise his ambition to be a man assured of his own power. But she is also alive to the hypocrisy and absurdity generated by his constant compromises. Out walking beside the Thames, he notices a brown-skinned jogger and identifies him as a potential threat, asking his security detail: That one too Muslim for comfort? To which his guard replies: That one was Latino.
These shifting perspectives serve deeper purposes. In terms of pure narrative excitement, they trap characters between competing loyalties. I admit it, Eamonn confesses near the end of the novel. Ive been [ ] caught between the two people I love most in the world: my father and my fiancee. But this narrative relativity also encourages the reader to interrogate their own preconceptions, not to mention the shallow newspaper head lines Shamsie parodies on several occasions.
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. Home Fire is impressive comparing to Antigone because in its final pages, deeply moving a complex, heartbreaking meditation on the ties that bind, no matter how hard we struggle to be free. By turns deeply humane and provocative, Shamsie has reinforced her reputation as one of the worldr’s most arresting writers.
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