As I see it, Zia Haider Rahman debut novel In the Light of What We Know (2014) turns on a high voltage light bulb of knowledge to eliminate the darkness of a diasporic heart, but ends up reaching a destination preordained by the inevitable darkness of religion. The unnamed narrator unfolds the story of his friend Zafar, a Bangladeshi-British banker-cum- mathematician- cum-lawyer- cum eclectic thinker, who trots around the globe chasing his 'homing desire.' A citizen of the world in all possible ways, Zafar has Bangladesh, London, Boston, New York, Afghanistan, and Pakistan in his roster of home. A child of rape during the liberation war, he has no familial attachments with the homeland (where his unmarried mother was raped and impregnated by a Pakistani soldier during the war, who then gave birth to him, and later handed him over to be raised by an uncle), or with the adopted home in London. If only he could call any of these places his home, his self-seeking journey might have come to a hopeful end. Exiled and homeless since birth, Zafar turns his life into a mission for truth or knowledge, home or hope.
A Bangladeshi by birth, who becomes British, and then lives in the US and later spends time in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Zafar belongs to a category that Robin Cohen calls “a diaspora of a diaspora.” Cultural identity, Robin Cohen explains in Global Diaspora, is constructed through a blend of memory, fantasy, narrative, and myth. Zafar cannot go home because he does not have a home to return to, and because he does not have one, he invests a lot of himself into constructing an identity that is a blend of knowledge, memory, and fantasy. In his pursuit, Emily Hampton-Wyvern becomes an allurement, an interpolation of a home; and in order to actualize his homing fantasy, he inadvertently engages with her in a game of “Empire and the Ego” (222). Emily and Zafar are at a loss [or lost] and spend a lifetime in pursuit of meaning that always seems to be attainable only when they live at a transit point—in a nation-state that belongs to none of them. They are displaced but they have no homeward journey to complete. They are fixed in their state of displaced nothingness, and despite the fact that one of them may have functioned as a catalyst (Emily) while the other becomes an intermediary (Zafar), they both fail to resolve the issue of their isolation from society, from culture, or from each other.
Knowledge is a burden. The unnamed narrator and his friend Zafar display visible signs of exhaustion for carrying that overloaded burden all their lives. The narrator's mundane marriage and his apparent betrayal of friendship stamp the label of failure on his overtly ambitious and elitist life. Zafar, on the other hand, fails to comply with the overwhelming burden of his cognitive load and ends up in a psychiatric facility. However, the whole extravagant pursuit of knowledge seems meaningless at one point when Zafar's knowledge of metaphysics, mathematics, science, literature, philosophy, and history are all reduced to one simple question: “Do you know the Shahadah?” (311). Zafar is asked that question by one Dr. Reza Mehrani, at a private gathering in Colonel Sikandar's residence. After Zafar recited the correct English version of the Shahadah, Dr. Mehrani acknowledged him by saying, “You are one of us because you are a Muslim and you are from here” (322). Even though Zafar protested the statement by saying that he was a Bangladeshi, his protest was merged into a silence after another guest by the name of General Khan dubbed Bangladesh as 'a wound of betrayal of East Pakistan' (322).
With the proclamation of the Shahadah, Zafar's religious identity superseded his national one and he became a liaison for the Muslims who were working together for the greater good of the Muslim brotherhood of Afghanistan and its surrounding region. However, the irony lies in the fact that Zafar never believed that Islam could hold answers to all his questions. In an earlier conversation with the narrator, Zafar stated, “I believed that Islam's response to the pursuit of meaning was not to provide answers but to drill and drum men into forsaking meanings for ritual and habit” (167). But in the end, it is the ritual of knowing his Shahadah that rewarded him by making him a member of an imagined community of brotherhood, disregarding all his past identities. Because he was fortunate to be a part of the real “good” Muslim community, and because he earned the trust and protection of Colonel Sikandar, he walked unharmed through the fragile door that separates the jihadists from the Muslim allies of the Western world.
In a conversation with Zafar about his visit to Bangladesh, Zafar's fiancé interprets his visit to Bangladesh as a “romantic journey home,” and makes a typical orientalist comment, “I'm curious to know what it's like to go back home” (375). Emily threatens Zafar's volatile identity and brings him face to face with his horror of living a homeless, rootless life - as a British, Bangladeshi, Muslim man - serving successfully as a diasporic “Native Informant” because of his credibility as a Bangladeshi and a Muslim.
Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness has provoked many a writer from across the globe to open a diverse channel of discourse on postcolonial politics. Take, for example, Tayeb Salih's Season of Migration to the North (1969), which explores the diasporic dilemma in the context of Conradian-Fanonian-Freudian-Saidian psycho-sexual discourse, and W. G. Sebald's Austerlitz (2001), which plunges into the dark histories of exile and holocaust. And in Zia Haider Rahman's novel, Conrad works as a signifier of the irredeemable gap between the protagonist's oriental reality and his fiancé's occidental fantasy. But isn't Zafar Rahman's protagonist an oriental Kurtz of the post- 9/11 era, whose epiphany of 'the horror” is analogous to his pursuit of the knowledge of darkness?
Fayeza Hasanat teaches English at the University of Central Florida and writes creatively.