Brother Alive is the story of three adopted brothers – Youssef, Dayo and Iseul – who live above a mosque with Muslim cleric Imam Salim in Staten Island, “New York’s most disregarded borough”. The imam, who hides elements of faith and sexuality and a mysterious past in Saudi Arabia, tells the second of three parts in the novel. The first and last are narrated by Youssef who, in a letter to his niece, describes a chaotic childhood and the brothers’ adult search for answers about the imam.
Meanwhile, Youssef, deprived of paternal love, speaks of “Brother”, a shapeshifting entity that might show up as a swamp monkey or an alley cat, and which must be fed – with knowledge, emotion and attention.
The strongest section is the first, where Khalid calls into question America’s self-congratulatory obsession with itself, its unique brand of patriotic nationalism – a prideful “us vs them” that elevates success while preaching an impossible dream. This is particularly notable in New York, an exalted city where dreamers go in search of their nirvana. Youssef is from the disparaged Staten Island, an apt metaphor for the no-frills, gritty migrant experience, including Muslim communities post-9/11. Despite the book’s heightened narrative and far-fetched elements, it’s refreshingly authentic: migrant life is not euphoric, it’s a stateless limbo.
The book’s epistolary format makes it prone to drawn-out passages but the writing is bold and large, the prose often imaginative. Yet it’s the smaller moments that truly land. When Youssef relates how a person of colour calls him a “sand n*****r”, he observes that the man “drove away, bitterly satisfied”, his bumper sticker promising 9/11 won’t be forgotten. Youssef laughs about it but also splinters the idea that the poor and people of colour behave as “vacuous moralists”, or that they’re unified. “If America is practised at anything, it’s forcing its misbegotten children to vie for preference.”
Youssef’s world is far from bland, but its despondency can be a drag at times. Perhaps the greater issue is that Brother Alive buckles under the weight of its bustle. The narrative often lacks a clear focus in its ambitious desire to cover so much ground: the psychology of belief, fatherhood, queerness, relationships, identity and belonging, as well as the connective tissue between the modern superpowers Saudi Arabia and the United States.
Despite this, Khalid’s curious voice makes him one to watch, not only for his fluent prose but because of his vulnerable questions and reflections on how we live.
Ultimo Press, 352pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 3, 2022 as "Brother Alive, Zain Khalid".
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