Many will find Laleh Khadivi’s approach to the American coming-of-age story both disturbing and offensive. But A Good Country, centered on a young American teen radicalized by none other than upper-class America, couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time.
When most Americans hear the word “terrorism,” a specific image unfortunately comes to mind. Khadivi’s novel subverts that image in practically every way, first by presenting us with a privileged high school kid who wants what we believe most high school boys want in America: to fit in, to get the girl, to hang with his friends. If he manages to make his (non-religious, Iranian) parents proud while doing so, it’s cool…but it’s not a priority. That he will, by the end of the novel, leave his Laguna Beach home and head to Syria to become a member of a foreign terrorist organization is almost unbelievable—and would be, if Khadivi didn’t present her story as one where religious radicalization is almost as inevitable as teenage love.
At the beginning of A Good Country, Rez and his friends—white stoner, surfer types—are defined more by the privilege afforded them as the children of wealthy parents than by anything else. They attend a school full of one-percenters, and Rez fits right in, especially once he starts smoking pot and having sex. The opening to his story reads like the script for another teen movie about wild and pretty California teens who exist in a world where race matters as little as politics and religion.
At least it seems that way. As is the case with other dramatic stories about American teen life, something happens that turns the protagonist’s high school experience upside down. But in this case, that something is the fear, anger and very American racism that are always bubbling beneath the surface.
When the Boston marathon bombing occurs, one of Rez’s white friends, whose brother ran in the marathon and barely survived the attacks, leans into racist tendencies Rez previously had the privilege of ignoring. Khadivi couples this real-life event with a fictional massacre in Rez’s town, which leaves his entire school—best friends included—pointing fingers at him and other students with any connection to Islam and the Middle East.
Regardless of the fact that Rez has never stepped foot in a mosque, he’s now considered a Muslim. And in the America Khadivi presents to us, every Muslim is looked at as a terrorist or terrorist adjacent (sound familiar?). Rez soon discovers that he will never get to be one of the guys again, will never pass through airport security as he once did, will never have a neighborhood cop politely hand his ID back to him.
The people you come from, your mother, your father, their families, the people you know at your fancy school, the rich Indian and Lebanese and Syrian immigrants just like you, are not the pride of this country… The American dream will never play all the way out for you. Do you understand?
The abuse (subtle, overt and violent) Rez suffers has severe effects. And Fatima, the girl he’s falling for, is so moved by her experiences that she takes up the veil, urging Rez to consider his own relationship to Allah and society. But Khadavi has a patient pen, and she takes her time bringing Rez to his ultimate decision. Throughout much of the novel, he tries to hold onto his youthful, American oblivion, rejecting Islam altogether, even as some of his friends (driven by the newly emboldened white racists targeting them) are moving towards it. It’s specifically his relationship with Fatima that leads him to do the previously unthinkable and begin to study Islam.
But the Rez we’ve always known in the novel is young, immature and predominantly guided by whatever a girl wants to give him and whoever his friends want him to be. In other words, he’s an average teenage boy with somewhat average ambitions. So it makes sense that, as his would-be-girlfriend becomes more dedicated to Islam and open to radical interpretations of the Qu’ran, he’d follow along.
Rez’s initial experiences with Islam introduce him to a religion centered on love, self-improvement, brotherhood, sisterhood and peace. But because he seeks to reject an America that he feels is rejecting him and because Islam—like many other religions, including Christianity—emphasizes the importance of masculinity, Rez is drawn to a movement that promises to make the world a better place for Muslims. And it also promises that those boys who join will instantly become men, worthy of God’s love—and romantic love, too.
Even as Rez makes the decision to join the men “building” a new home for Muslims in Syria (men who are really just one of many groups fighting for power in the war-torn country), the lessons America has taught him remain in place. Love (and sex, or possession of a woman) is everything. Related to love is masculinity—and his ability to prove that he has it in abundance—which is also everything.
A Good Country has the daring to suggest that America and many of its ideals are just as volatile as radical Islam, with its emphasis on hyper-masculinity where violence is power and the conquest of the female body is the be-all, end-all. And for immigrants and those who aren’t white and male, there lies an even stronger drive to prove one’s American-ness by embracing its ideals, even to the point of radicalization (and certainly to the point where such an embrace is detrimental to oneself and one’s own culture).
So in the end, when Rez chooses to join a terrorist group in Syria, the reader can’t help but notice that he’s making the kind of choice that this good country would approve of—if only he’d been joining an American army and training to kill America’s enemies instead. But the ideology—that God is on his people’s side and theirs alone, that the blood they will shed is for the righteous cause of freedom, that their women must be protected against outside forces—well, that’s as American as apple pie.
Shannon M. Houston is a Staff Writer on Hulu’s upcoming series The Looming Tower. She is the former TV Editor of Paste Magazine, and her work has appeared in Salon, Indiewire’s Shadow and Act and Heart&Soul. She currently has more babies than you. You can follow her on Twitter.