The Bad Muslim Discount by Syed M. Masood
Published by Doubleday Books
Publication date: February 1, 2021
The blurb for The Bad Muslim Discount calls it “hilarious” so I was ready for some kind of satirical, light, comedic look at Muslim culture in America told from the Middle Eastern perspective. I was deliciously mistaken in that what I got was a thoughtful, nuanced portrayal of two immigrants, one from Pakistan and one from Iraq whose lives unexpectedly intersect. Was it the novel I expected? No. It was so much more.
Anvar and his family emigrate from Pakistan to San Francisco in the 1990s when he is a teenager. It’s his father’s decision, made to escape the increasingly conservative atmosphere in Pakistan. He welcomes the move and embraces American culture as one more way to rebel against a domineering mother and a virtuous older brother. Life is good, especially when his best friend, Zuha, becomes his girlfriend. Until, in college, she decides she wants to adopt a more traditional Islamic lifestyle and they break up. It is an inflection point that propels Anvar even further away from a religion he has never cared about and that he now blames for losing the love of his life.
On the other side of the globe Safwa is trapped in Iraq. At 15 her father has disappeared, likely arrested by the Americans, and her beloved older brother is dying of kidney failure. She escapes to Basra where, later, she reunites with her angry, violent father. He takes her to a small village where she lives in almost total isolation. When she meets a man, her desperation to leave Iraq, to have a real life, pushes her into making a deal with him to take her and her father to America. They cannot go legally so Safwa leaves Iraq and arrives in San Francisco as Azza.
These two halves come together to make The Bad Muslim Discount a perfectly balanced novel. Anvar and Azza are diametrically opposed. Anvar is already steeped in American culture, speaks English, assimilates easily. Azza arrives illegally, with a small amount of English, wrapped in a niqab, bound to a fundamentalist Muslim lifestyle. There is no love for America in her father or the man who brings them there. Religion is a force in both their lives, but only Anvar has agency to find his own way.
Humor bifurcates the novel’s two halves with Anvar’s sarcasm-as-shield is the through line. Whether its the bitter humor of Anvar’s mother, with her religious stringency; the gentle humor of his father, who wants only to fit in; or the affable humor of Bhatti, Anvar’s rotund landlord, whose limited understanding of English doesn’t impede his understanding of human nature.
What elevates the novel is that author Syed Masood mirrors each of the characters who have humor with a character who, stripped of any semblance of wit, loses much of their humanity. From Azza’s father, a religious extremist; Qais, the man who gets them out of Iraq to Anvar’s sanctimonious brother, these men are dangerous in their narrowminded beliefs.
When I read supremely good writing I want to review it with my best writing out of respect for the author. Unfortunately, despite the clarity of Masood’s writing and the many fascinating aspects of the world he created, my thoughts are muddy and all my best words blocked. I’m left with: This is a culturally specific novel, but written with such finesse, such sharp wit and intelligence it’s universally entertaining. The Bad Muslim Discount is a gift to readers.
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*I received a free copy of this book from Doubleday Books in exchange for an honest review.*