It’s a familiar distinction. While guilt is the feeling of having done wrong, shame is the feeling of being wrong, the sense of being defined by some fatal, irredeemable flaw. Understanding shame is one thing, escaping from it something else entirely.
Omar Sakr’s debut novel Son of Sin follows Jamal Smith, a young queer Muslim in Western Sydney struggling to find a way to belong in his own skin and in the world. It begins with Jamal’s determined attempt to pray correctly, even while feeling that, for him, salvation is beyond reach. The “sin” of the title refers superficially to how Jamal is conceived, an affair between his mother, Hala, and father, Cevdat. Hala has recently changed her son’s legal name from his father’s, Khan, to his mother’s, Smith, a decision that is “haram in [his Aunt Rania’s] eyes, and in Islam, to brand a boy in his mother’s image”, a frustration of patriarchal right.
Jamal’s father has fled Australia for Turkey, ostensibly to avoid paying his debts, but also to avoid the responsibility of parenthood. His mother’s presence in his life has been distant, too, as well as unreliable and volatile. As a baby, Jamal was left on the doorstep of his Aunt Rania’s house. Her family care for him as one of their own, while never quite accepting him entirely. Trauma and the unsayable hem him in.
Jamal is a highly sympathetic character, reticent and hurt, with all the wisdom – and blind spots – that shame and oppression often foster. Growing up, he spends much of his time behind the covers of a book. “As long as he was reading, he was invisible, he could see the men, hear the women, and be part of both worlds.” He “could spend a day without saying a word, trying to avoid notice, to become a hush”.
Alongside his fragile piety, Jamal is also acutely aware of a developing frisson between him and his bold and charismatic friend Bilal. Imprinted into his mind is the chorus of homophobia, the casual and not-so-casual slurs handed out by his friends and family. “He pored over every instance, every expression of language and movement, trying to calculate how much of a joke was a joke, and how much a real rope.” Jamal feels his own desire as both condemnation and promise, and it is this knot of shame and need that propels him into dangerous and ecstatic territory.
Jamal’s first sexual encounter happens, understandably, outside his home, in public; the conflicted, erotic tension stirs up all the internalised accusations, the shame. Afterwards, they leave the park, “terrified and ecstatic, broken and whole”.
At home Jamal is buffeted by raucous banter and argument, overbearing love and sudden outbursts of violence. These interactions are disconcerting and riveting in their vernacular, full of implied and overt threat as well as tenderness. Sakr’s dialogue is accomplished, the craft unobtrusive; Son of Sin (or Ibn Haram, its Arabic title) never panders to white or straight sensibilities, vividly evoking the particular tumult of Jamal’s world without superfluous explanation.
Hence, while some narrative details of the novel at first appear to be incomplete or disconnected – especially the memories of violence committed on Jamal as a child – it soon becomes clear that this fragmentation is Son of Sin’s subterranean theme. Trauma fractures the story of a life, turning memory into a threat that must be disarmed if the life is to be liveable. As Jamal works as a transcriber for a television station, he begins to realise this work is “the opposite of what he knew, which was based in forgetting, in repressing or ignoring, and slowly but slowly, the rigour of that attention was bleeding into him”.
This aching desire for integration – to know himself and where he might belong – propels Jamal to Turkey to spend time with his father, in a deeply moving and expansive section of the book. It’s here, and on Jamal’s return to his family and his friendship circle, that the many fraught, complex dimensions of coming out are laid bare.
At this meeting point of inner conflict and the outer world, Sakr’s experience as a poet manifests most strongly. Thinking of how a friend’s queerness is finally embraced by their family, Jamal is taunted by a djinn. “This is not for you, ya ibn haram. And its voice was a burning armchair, its voice was a police baton meeting flesh.”
Shame, then, is not purely religious: it is familial, social and political. Jamal is haunted not only by djinns, but also by the Cronulla riots and the police harassment of young Arab men, by the hatred stoked by the marriage equality postal survey. At school, Jamal reflects that “when they covered the ‘Arab–Israeli conflict’ in class, there was no suggestion they empathise with Palestinians, and Jamal didn’t know whether to be glad of that or not”. All this compounds his isolation.
He remembers, too, the saying of the Prophet, that “the way to paradise lies at your mother’s feet, which in Hala’s case were brown, her toenails painted pink and glittering with diamantes, fake diamonds that outlined a heart”. For Jamal, redemption is not clean, easy or abstract, but a road of painful, difficult love.
Son of Sin is an uncompromising and compassionate novel, an embrace of all those in predicaments like Jamal, and a bracing rebuke to all who fail to see them.
Affirm Press, 288pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 5, 2022 as "Son of Sin, Omar Sakr".
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