Last Updated on February 26, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1264
Chapter 2: On Autobiography; or, Bin Laden
A decade after the September 11 attacks, Ayad wrote a play which was eventually performed around the world. After viewing it, audiences always wanted to know how much of his own views and experiences were reflected in the characters and conflict of the play. Ayad often found himself deflecting these questions, quoting D. H. Lawrence, who cautioned, “never trust the artist. Trust the tale.” The play reflected the divided loyalties of immigrants like Ayad’s mother, whose voice was directly integrated into his play.
When she was a young girl, Fatima experienced the horrific realities of war. She walked the streets where the body parts of Sikhs littered the ground. She saw mothers holding disemboweled children. Her favorite aunt was raped and beaten to death; in retaliation, her own family dragged a Hindu boy back to their home and attacked him with an ax. Ayad’s mother grew up with an understanding that good people could kill and could be killed. Because of her experiences, she was also worried about India for the rest of her days and was deeply troubled by how little most Americans knew about the Partition of India. The battles which emerged from this conflict had forever shaped her own life.
Fatima met Latif Awan, a fellow student who was already betrothed to his second cousin, during her first year of medical school. In diaries Ayad read following her death, Fatima’s deep love for Latif became clear, and Ayad became convinced that Latif, not his father, was the true love of his mother’s life. Latif was a big but gentle man who was also a practicing Muslim, unlike Sikander. While Ayad’s father enjoyed whiskey and cards, Latif devoted himself to serving others while also maintaining a devoted life of prayer and fasting. When he moved from Trenton to Pensacola, Latif began a free clinic on Sundays so that he could help the poor obtain medical care. While visiting the Awans, Ayad fell on a fish hook and visited Latif’s clinic; he was struck by how “at home” Latif was in the clinic, surrounded by people who needed him.
Latif and his wife, Anjum, had four children: twin boys followed by two daughters. When the Awan family visited Ayad’s home just before Christmas break, Ayad was surprised that Ramla, who was the Awans’ older daughter, wore a hijab, which was a “more restrictive form of head covering.” Fatima and Anjum sometimes wore dupattas for the sake of fashion. Ramla told Ayad that she didn’t like the hijab; she enjoyed American culture and had already memorized most of Michael Jackson’s album Thriller, despite her father’s refusal to allow her to purchase it. Latif was growing more strict with both his children and himself; he had begun wearing a jalabiya, a long, free-flowing gown that symbolized a deepened commitment to his faith.
It was during this visit that Latif began hinting about returning to Pakistan, a view that his wife did not share. America had begun to help in the fight against Russian forces in Afghanistan; Latif predicted that if Afghanistan fell, Pakistan would be next. He began to envision the ways he could help “back home.” Anjum reminded her husband that there was work to be done in America as well; Latif responded that simply sending money was no longer enough. Exasperated, he conveyed his true fear that he was losing his sense of identity the longer he stayed in America. Fatima agreed with Latif, telling the group that regardless of the length of time they all stayed in America, it would...
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never be their home. Sikander disagreed with his wife, asserting that he loved America in ways that he never loved Pakistan.
Latif chided Sikander’s beloved “freedom to be rich,” but Sikander responded that the opportunities in America went beyond wealth. In America, he had access to labs and to an unrestrained mentality that didn’t exist in Pakistan, whose culture he characterized as lacking “creative instinct.” Anjum challenged her husband about the fate of their children in Pakistan; his response was that they would feel less “confused” there. Hafsa, the younger Awan sister, was excited about returning to Pakistan, but Ramla fled from the conversation, screaming that she hated it. Later, Ayad would learn that Latif’s head cook had been caught sexually assaulting Ramla.
The Awan family soon moved to Peshawar, receiving money from America to treat wounded mujahideen fighters through his clinic. It was rumored that his clinic was also used as a meeting point between American forces and the Afghan tribal powers who fought against the Soviets. Latif’s sons would eventually join combat; one became involved in opium production and died of overdose, and the other became heavily involved with leaders who would become powerful during the Taliban era. Anjum became weary of the fighting and believed men simply longed to kill each other.
Traveling through the Atlanta airport in 1998, Sikander was shocked to see Latif’s photo on CNN. The headline labeled him as a “terrorist spy” and showed a photo of bin Laden in Latif’s clinic. Ayad learned that Latif had been shot by the CIA as he left home one morning. The report did not mention that Latif was an American citizen. Latif’s murder was agonizing for Fatima, who refused to leave her bed for days. She turned her anger towards Bill Clinton, who had recently admitted that he had lied about his affair with Monica Lewinsky. She saw the murder of Muslims as a “distraction” from his own political struggles.
Ayad challenged his mother’s views, asserting that there are no friends in politics and that “everybody is using everyone else.” Fatima retorted that Ayad had changed and was unable to see how Americans viewed the blood of Muslims as “cheap.” Referring to bin Laden, she said, “He’s right. They deserve what they got. And what they’re going to get.” Ayad would use these words in his play to reflect the complicated response of the Muslim world after the September 11 attacks. The symbolism of America as a place of refuge had been exposed as a myth.
The Awan family reflects the conflicting divisions in identity that are common to immigrants. While Latif continues to feel a deep connection to Pakistan, his wife sees the opportunities in America as beneficial to their children. Latif’s decision to begin dressing in a way that reflects his faith—and his insistence that their oldest daughter do the same—becomes a physical manifestation of his inner turmoil. He feels compelled to help people, particularly those who are economically disadvantaged, and his heart particularly longs to serve those who are struggling to survive back in Pakistan. He views his children’s worries as frivolous, their frustration over the marshmallows in their Lucky Charms cereal becoming a symbol for the excess and superficiality of American culture.
However, when Latif moves his family back to Pakistan, there is no fairytale ending for this quest. His children face new struggles, including drug addictions and sexual assaults that they may have avoided in Pensacola. Yet as Fatima points out, “You can only regret what you chose not to do.” Anjum’s regret is clear after their return; her will was undoubtedly forced to bend to that of her husband, and her physical appearance deteriorates quickly. After his death, she learns that her naturalized citizenship has been revoked, and she is unable to return to the country which she never wanted to leave.