The story of Adam and Eve is a story of immigration.
They were a pair of individuals who moved to a new state from their state of origin.
Yet monotheistic faiths don’t look at Adam and Eve as immigrants. If anything, the faiths look at them as fallen people, people who lost out, people who are in this state but long to go back to where they were before.
However, as a nation of immigrants, we Americans believe that immigration works another way. We believe that most people stay in the new state, they adapt to it, they become it.
There have been few monotheists willing to characterize Adam and Eve’s immigration in this kind of American light, because to give preference to this world implies reducing the importance of the afterlife. One of the people to go against the monotheistic consensus was Indo-Pakistani poet Iqbal. Adopting the point of view of Adam and Eve looking back to Eden from Earth, he writes in his book Moonbeams Over the East:
Thou didst create night and I made the lamp,
Thou didst create clay and I made the cup,
Thou didst create the deserts, mountains and forest,
I produced the orchards, gardens and groves,
It is I who turn stone into mirror,
And it is I who turn poison into antidote
And in Tulips of the Desert, he goes on to have mankind say to God:
I taught the proposition of the revolving earth.
I donned the lens of far-seeing reason, and taught the world the secrets of gravity.
I capture rays and the restless lightning, making this earth the envy of paradise.
This very creative notion, this spark, of erecting a competitor to Eden, then, is at the heart of the immigrant’s dream. It is a dream based on getting a better life than the one you had. It is an ambitious dream. It is a dream that aims at excellence.
But just as Adam and Eve brought the creative spark with them to this world — the one that allowed them to transform this place and make it a competitor to Eden — they also brought the devil, the destroyer, the despairer, Iblis. From the moment of their arrival, they had to decide which element from their past life they would give primacy to. Would they develop the faculty of reason to make codes of ethics, or would they use it to rationalize stealing from one another? Would they use the power of language to write songs about creatures living on Earth, or would they agitate one another into invasion and pillage?
The immigrants who have come to America — whom novelist EL Doctrow describes as “the hordes who keep this country alive, who run down the gangplank and kiss the ground” — have also contained the duality of divinity and devilishness.
It was immigrants who escaped religious persecution in the Old World. Yet it was immigrants who persecuted ordinary women as witches in the name of religion. It was immigrants who pushed into the frontiers and helped to drive out Native Americans. Yet it was immigrants who pushed into the frontiers and laid railroad tracks. It was immigrants who brought the atomic bomb that won the war at such a huge human cost. Yet it was immigrants who were interned in that same war.
As an immigrant from Pakistan, from a religious Muslim family, most of my dualities have played out within the context of Islam. My book, Children of Dust, I think, does a fair job of depicting some of these contradictions. In section II, you see me as a new immigrant in America. You see my family and me turning to Islam to justify a sort of spiritual ghettoization from a society we largely didn’t understand; but you also see us turning to Islam to acquire a community in this country where we had no friends and often felt lonely. In Part III, you see a different paradox in my personality, again playing out within Islam. On the one hand, you see me in New York City, turning to Islam to assert and define myself as a Muslim American, but doing so in a very exclusionary and narrow-minded way. On the other hand, you see me traveling to Pakistan and, because of the way I felt Islam was being manipulated there, realizing that I was an American first, and a Muslim after that. Part IV and V offer similar comparisons. In Part IV, the duality that plays out is between hypocrisy and leadership. In Part V, the duality is about the question of whether the goal in life is to reform others or yourself.
Understood like this, I think most people would agree that the challenges I faced were not exotic, they were even kind of mundane — it is obvious my struggles are universal struggles that occur in the coming of age of many American males.
Of course, the difference is that my struggles take place within an Islamic space, which is looked at suspiciously, which is not known, which is considered foreign, which is associated with agitation. I think we are reasonably aware that this has to do with 9/11, and the multiple wars in multiple Muslim-majority countries that the United States is engaged in, which are not looked at too fondly by the Muslim-majority world.
However, this tension is also there because of what occurred before the past few decades, including hostage crises, attacks on our soldiers, our attempts to dictate other people’s politics. It also includes events in the United States, whether it was Louis Farrakhan’s sermons, Malcolm X’s activism and Cassius Clay’s conversion to Islam and stance against the Vietnam War. In other words, many things have gone into creating a certain wary disposition between mainstream American culture toward those with Muslim names.
These are not little things we are talking about. These are big things. War. Invasion. Vengeance. Resentment. They include racism and the legacy of slavery and the much longer competition between monotheistic faiths.
When confronted with such big challenges, the natural response is to ask: What can be done about it? What should be done?
But I can’t answer those questions. The best I can offer is a cautionary note, one with two parts.
One part is to advocate skepticism. When people come to you and say they have a way of bridging or linking or connecting civilizations and ushering a new peace, be wary. They may simply be offering such sentiments because they think it is important to create a sense of hopefulness, in the pursuit of which they are willing to turn a blind eye to issues of accountability and justice. They want us to become so obsessed with looking to the future that we simply forget the past, which, I’m afraid to say, is neither possible nor fair. The past is full of hurts and pains. It can’t be elided.
The second part is to advocate even more skepticism, this time toward people who say the world is defined by eternal conflicts and we must pick sides. These people seem to be of the opinion that if hatred and enmity existed before, they will exist forever. They eliminate the possibility that by grappling with our prejudices and the sins of our ancestors, human beings can in fact create new conditions for the future. To believe in the impossibility of human progress is to believe in nothing, to be a nihilist. It is the worldview of the weapons dealer.
If it sounds like I am inviting you to a place where you are alone with your questions, then you’re right. What our world needs is not more people purporting to lead us to the light, but more people who know how to make themselves into what Nietzsche called “a dancing star” — an entity that glows with its own light, not the easiest thing. You must contend against the vortex inside you, against the dead matter that surrounds you, against the hole that others create to drown you in, and even against being subsumed into someone else’s light. You must have the capacity to create your own time and your own gravity. You must be able to find your center and hold onto it even when the entire universe starts to shake and asteroids of doubt and fear rain on your soul.
It is not an easy project. But if Adam and Eve could take this untamed world and make it a competitor to Eden, then perhaps becoming a star is not entirely out of our grasp. It is as the poet Mahmoud Darwaish, echoing Shakespeare and Iqbal, once wrote:
It is for you to be, or not to be,
It is for you to create, or not to create.
All existential questions, behind your shadow, are a farce,
And the universe is your small notebook, and you are its creator.
So write in it the paradise of genesis,
Or do not write it,
You, you are the question.
What do you want?
I wish I could say I had a method, a prescription for such sovereign acts of creation. But I don’t. As anyone who has read my work likely knows, I am just an immigrant trying to fend off the devil.
But as we know from Adam and Eve, so are we all.
Ali Eterez as guest columnist at TIM adapted this column based on a speech he delivered at the Hall of Philosophy at the Chautauqua Institution in 2012. Founded in 1874, Chautauqua is dedicated to the exploration of the best in human values and boasts the oldest book club in the United States. Eteraz is the author of the surrealist short story collection FALSIPEDIES AND FIBSIENNES (Guernica Ed), and the darkly comic memoir CHILDREN OF DUST (HarperCollins). In 2014 he won the 3QD Arts & Literature Prize judged by novelist and NYTimes book columnist Mohsin Hamid. Eteraz’s story about migrant laborers in the Persian Gulf was recently published by the Chicago Quarterly Review.