A New Book, Don't Panic, I'm Islamic, Fights Ignorance with Hilarity and Wit
It’s hard to say whether carrying a copy of Don’t Panic, I’m Islamic, a new collection from Saqi Books, will get you pulled aside by airport security. A previous Saqi art-and-essay collection, Syria Speaks, did garner special attention for British psychotherapist Faizah Shaheen, who was pulled off her flight for carrying the book.
Most of the thirty-some pieces of prose, poetry, and art in Don’t Panic, I’m Islamic, Words and Pictures on how to stop worrying and learn to love the alien next door, edited by Lynn Gaspard, are loudly and resolutely secular. This is despite Omar Hamdi’s fun-poking at academia, “Islam Is Not Spiritual, But It Is a Useful Identity.”
Yet that doesn’t mean you’re safe with airport security. The book, jacketed with Chant Avedissian’s delightful Arabic-alphabet art, opens with two breezy essays about the manifold joys of passing through US border security. If your security agent has a sense of humor, you’re good. But if your agent takes Arwa Mahdawi’s opening essay seriously—particularly her list of “words to be alarmed by”—be sure you don’t let slip an inshallah. That’s one of Mahdawi’s alarm-bell words, the first of which is “Allahou Akbar.” The comic author defines this phrase as “I’m going to kill every infidel in this room right now,” while inshallah means “I’m going to kill every infidel in this room right now. Hopefully, maybe, we’ll see.”
After fun art by Avedissian, there’s another airport-focused essay. Karl Sharro, the humorist behind @karlremarks, reproduces an airport-security discussion of the sort he describes as “the most intimate encounter you will have with a stranger, short of a blind date.”
The way to survive this encounter, Sharro suggests, is “to approach it as if you are preparing to play yourself in a black and white movie about your own life. A somewhat two-dimensional character that would appeal to the US embassy officials.” In the end, Sharro’s advice straddles an uncomfortable space between the satiric and the useful.
If your security agent flips past Sharro’s essay, they’ll stumble over a craggy black-and-white “colouring book” art. These pages, from artist James Nunn, feature both a “vet” and an “extreme vet.” (Veterinarians, of course.)
Hazem Saghieh’s is the only essay translated from Arabic, by the talented Elisabeth Jaquette, and it’s staged as a discussion between the author and a bus driver, Abu Mustafa. The two are in Lebanon, where a new Pew poll suggests around 43 percent of the population thinks Donald Trump is a strong leader, while only 28 percent think he’s competent to rule a country.
Abu Mustafa is one of these, at least at the start of the essay. He suggests Trump’s political and financial winnings are clear proof of his genius. But in the end, Abu Mustafa changes his mind. He likens Trump to Ghaddafi, hinting towards a similarly grisly end. This might not go over well with your security agent, as they flip through your copy of the book.
Saleem Haddad’s “Do I Understand You Are A Homosexual, Sir?” is another story set around a conversation with a security agent. Here, the story’s narrator is pulled out of line while attempting to board his plane. The tension between the narrator’s internal and public voices provides a wonderful friction, particularly as—when he’s asked about contact with Islamists—the narrator remembers his sexual encounter with a “Misratan militia dude” under a bridge.
Because of “new regulations,” the security agent must ask Haddad’s narrator, “‘…do you feel yourself to be more Libyan, or more homosexual?’” The narrator attempts to take the question seriously, offering a 90% queer, 10% Libyan equation. Finally, the agent allows the narrator to board with an earnest, “‘Say… it must be tough to be a homosexual over there, no? So much hate and fear…’”
Leila Aboulela’s story is the first to break sharply with the comic tone of the collection. Her story, “Majed,” beautifully and sympathetically inscribes not just committed belief and believers, but adherence to Islamic law.
If your security agent takes the time, they might really enjoy this story, which is narrated by the titular Majed, a Sudanese man living in Scotland with his Scottish wife. They have two kids together as well as two are from her previous marriage, before she converted to Islam. As the story begins, Majed’s wife, who has re-named herself Ruqayya, is about to empty his bottle of Johnny Walker into the sink.
Unlike many stories about white converts to Islam, this narrative doesn’t mock Ruqayya’s strong belief. It holds a great respect for her, both as she appears through her husband’s eyes and as she stands outside him, in the narrative. For most of the story, the reader is poised to sympathize with Majed’s drinking and to find Ruqayya a bit rigid. But the painful, sharp ending upends our certainties.
Like many other contributions to this collection, Aboulela’s story is interested in humor. But here, humor is portrayed as a defense mechanism, and a somewhat shabby one at that. “The hahaha of laughter covered problems. Hahaha had wheels, it was a skateboard to slide and escape on.”
Aboulela’s story is, at first, a shock to the system. Yet it’s also both clever and playful to have a critique of humor embedded in a collection that’s mostly crafted in a tone of high hilarity.
Playwright, short-story writer, and scientist Hassan Abdulrazzak’s “Tuesday’s Child” is both funny and moving, taking place just after 9/11. Initially, our narrator seems all sense and sensibility, particularly in contrast to his workmate Jaafar, who doesn’t realize he should avoid his hometown Hizbullah website after the 9/11 attacks. But post-9/11 fear changes the narrator, and he morphs into a different person.
After a four-panel cartoon by Eli Valley, the collection takes another sharp turn into Moris Farhi’s surreal paramilitary fable, “Of Dolphin Children and Leviathans.” It returns to high comedy with the relentlessly funny Sayed Kashua, translated from the Hebrew by Ralph Mandel.
In the end, the collection puts out its wheels and lands with a short story that straddles humor and aphorism, Sjón’s “The Muslim: A Cautionary Tale,” translated from Icelandic by Victoria Cribb. This story begins when the titular Muslim and his mosque fall off the back of a lorry and are placed, by the narrator’s wife, in east-facing part of their garden.
Most of the collection is funny: indeed, the book’s London launch event is framed as a comedic showdown where Don’t Panic contributors Omar Hamdi, Esther Maniro, and Amrou al-Kahdi “battle it out to win a visa,” judged by fellow contributors Bidisha and Karl Sharro. At the July 26 Shoreditch event, the three contestants will “fulfil various challenges, including answering green card application questions, delivering Fox News-approved headlines in the style of Sean Spicer and performing standup.”
Yet strangely and sometimes wonderfully, the collection isn’t all fodder for laughs. Perhaps this is what will baffle your airport security agent the most. And, in the wake of their confusion, you will be delivered safely onto your plane.