We chatted to the author and UK Bureau Chief of the Foreign affairs journal, Politique Internationale about her book Exiles from Paradise .
Could you explain a bit more about what Exiles from Paradise is about? Exiles from Paradise is about the friendship of two young Franco Iranians experiencing an identity crisis aged 24. After graduating from Yale university, Farhad decides to take a trip to Iran, to finds his roots. There he discovers that his family ancestors successfully fought the first terrorist sect in history, in 11th century Persia. Envigorated by a sense of this glorious past, Farhad heads to London where he becomes first a researcher for a think tank and then a university professor. His first research mission is to investigate the rise of radical Islam in the UK, a pursuit which becomes the driving force both for the novel and for Farhad’s own existence. His travels Isfahan, Tehran Paris and London are both an introspection and a critical analysis of the cities he visits.
Farhad’s friend, Reza, has also moved to London, in his case to become treasurer of a charity organization. In the course of his research, Farhad discovers that the foundation Reza has joined is in fact a cover for terrorist activities and that an attack is being plotted for central London. He feels duty bound to inform Reza of what he knows to infiltrate the foundation in an effort to avert the plot. The novel finds in Reza’s ambivalence and torn loyalties the dilemma of those who have taken refuge in the West but form a grudge against it.
Through the friendship of these two young men, whose destinies diverge in spite of their common heritage, ‘Les Exilés du Paradis’ plunges the reader into the heart of the great confrontation that places enlightened Islam up against obscurantist radicalism.
What made you want to tell this story? I realised after 9/11 and other terrorist activities that our societies had become imperiled. In the eyes of the West, the entire Muslim diaspora was becoming associated with terrorism. There was a sense that it was being judged differently and that divisions were forming where none had existed previously. This, I felt, was precisely what radical Islam wanted to achieve. I was inspired to tell a story as remedy, one that engendered a better understanding of the different cultures of Muslim populations living in our countries, their background and who they really are. Beyond its action and suspense, the novel seeks to illustrate cultural differences and the difficulties faced by young urban Muslims in finding purpose in the West. We hold ourselves out as multicultural societies but we still need to make an effort to understand one another and find tolerance, if we are to enjoy a harmonious coexistence.
It’s incredible how much research you must have done. Did you enjoy that aspect of it to put the story together? Yes I did enjoy it immensely. I was motivated to conduct this research because I wanted my readers to get to know Muslims, their different cultures, even their culinary preferences but also their mentalities their attachment to family values and their religion. I learned a lot in the process. Not only about Persian culture, Pakistan history and the Koran, but also about the way their religion, Islam was conveyed to exiled Muslims in our modern societies. Researching for the book, I realised how some Mosques were infiltrated by radical movements and how dangerous it was for mainstream moderate Muslims who wanted to attend balanced prayers on Friday evening. They would trust the local Imam who was in fact paid by foreign countries to preach radical Islam and Wahhabism. At the time, I was appalled to see that government officials and politicians didn’t realise the level of infiltration of radical Islam. I also realised that our democratic institutions and our love for freedom made us particularly vulnerable and weak in face of the threat. It was dangerous to allow radical movements to freely preach such disturbing messages. Non integration, blind belief against free will. Exactly the contrary to what the enlightenment has taught us and in contradiction with the foundations on which our societies are built. But now it is common knowledge and politicians in continental Europe and the UK are aware and laws have been passed to limit foreign influence and investments in religious buildings and teachings. I am not sure how much better a position we are now in as the infiltration is deep and stays in the minds of many people but at least people are more conscious of it than ten years ago when I began this novel.
How did you feel about writing a story that was inspired by other people’s experience of being ostracized? I am particularly sensitive to stories about people being displaced and exiled, because of my Jewish background. Although I am third generation French and my parents and I were born in Paris, my ancestors who lived in southern Spain for several centuries were expelled under the Spanish Inquisition of 1492. They then lived, generation after generation, in the Ottoman Empire, which was at the time extremely open to different cultures and religions (unlike the current Turkish regime, I might add). At the beginning of the twentieth century, my forbears resettled once again, this time in France, but were forced to flee during Nazi occupation. My father was a teenager and he came to Manchester with his parents and family. They were very well received and were always grateful to the British people. He insisted that all his children came and studied in the UK. I went to Oxford, my sister to LSE and my brother to Bath University.At Oxford I met my future husband, Nader, an Iranian refugee whose family had just fled the revolution. I guess I could relate to what they were going through because of my own family history, although I never experienced it myself.
What do you hope that readers will take away from the novel? I would like readers of my novel to find greater openness toward other cultures and to understand that most Muslim living in our countries want to live in peace, and make a life for themselves and their families in our countries. Some of them feel totally out of place and unwelcomed. Our attitudes towards them is important. The more they feel ostracized, the more they become the easy prey of radical Islam, even terrorism. But the responsibility must also be shared as shown in the novel, it is up to Muslims themselves to keep a watch and prevent the most vulnerable elements within their own communities from turning to radical Islam. In my novel Parvez, the Chelsea local grocer, loses a son, enrolled in a terrorist cell. Together with the main character, he organises a neighbourhood watch to ward against the further rise of radicalism. This is an uphill battle and British Muslims must feel sufficiently part of this country to join in.
What is next in store for you? I have just completed a new novel which is called the ‘Voices of the Forest’ and deals among other themes with the healing power of trees and plants. The story is about a young British woman, Vera, who inherits a farm in Kenya and befriends there a British botanist and a Kenyan shaman, who work to protect local healing plants from being patented by the international pharma companies. By chance when I begun to write the novel, three years ago, a whole part of the book was about a virus attacking the respiratory systems and my heroes were discovering ways to cure the virus with plants. Since then, I have understandably decided to shorten this part in the book.
Usually my inspiration comes from the indignation this time I was the realisation the healing plants used by locals in the developing world were since the DNA discovery, being patented by pharmaceutical companies in the West. I feel like writing a novel will be an eye opener and will prevent the revenues of these plants being stolen from them. This new novel is being published in France in September, and I sincerely hope it will also be translated and soon published in the UK.
By Emma Clarendon
Exiles From Paradise is available to buy now.