4 out of 4 stars
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A historical and ethnographic novel, Talk Till the Minutes Run Out by Benedicte Grima is based on the author’s fieldwork conducted over ten years in Pakistan’s Swat Valley and another ten years embedded in the Pashtun exile community in the U.S. People who enjoy reading immigration literature will easily recognize its prevalent themes: alienation, ambivalence, assimilation, cultural pluralism, and identity crisis. An excellent read, this novel ensnares the readers with the moving tale of an aging exile who finds himself in a place where he never feels at home.
Located in northern Pakistan, Swat Valley is taken over by the Taliban as their center of operations and recruitment. Swat Pashtuns are caught between the Taliban and the Pakistani Army soldiers sent to retake control of the region. Nur Ali and his family despise both parties. They accuse the former of disrupting their agrarian lifestyle and interfering with their independence. They equally blame the latter for abusing their power in their attempt to identify Taliban sympathizers. Driven by the need to support his extended family, Nur Ali decides to relocate to the U.S.
When the novel begins, the protagonist is in an American inner city 7-Eleven where he has been managing the night shift for over 13 years. Although far away from home, Nur Ali never stops behaving as the clan leader or the qaida. He always talks till the minutes run out on the pre-paid cards he uses to call his wife and other relatives. Wrongly accused of supporting the Taliban and pursued by the Pakistani authorities, Nur Ali initiates a request for asylum. However, unexpected events force him to reconsider his decision.
The main thread of the narrative takes place between 2009 and 2011, yet the story on the whole moves back and forth in time and place. All chapters have alternating titles: “Pakistan Before”, “Pakistan Now”, and “7-Eleven.” As a consequence, the third-person narrator focuses on three distinct directions. At first, he uses Nur Ali’s longing for his homeland to retrace his childhood and adolescence years in Swat Valley. Secondly, he relies on Nur Ali’s daily conversations with his wife Shahgofta to keep the readers updated on the current political, social, and economic situation in Pakistan. Lastly, he skillfully describes Nur Ali’s position in the Pashtun exile community.
Benedicte Grima’s greatest achievement in this novel is to have realistically portrayed the exile community. After 9/11, the assimilation process characterizing the first and second-generations of immigrants came to a halt: “Suddenly all Muslims became the enemy, all were assumed to be associated with al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and terrorism in general.” (p. 13) The novelist does a great job of capturing the immigrants’ reactions to the change of attitude. Some, like Nur Ali, completely failed to integrate and remained faithful to their cultural heritage. Others, like the Afghan couple’s teenage son, could not stand the rejection and social alienation and found some comfort in extremist propaganda.
What I particularly liked about the novel is the honest, unbiased presentation of the facts. Benedicte Grima does not take anybody’s side. On the contrary, she pictures Nur Ali and his view of the world from an objective perspective. Coming from a traditionalist Muslim family, Nur Ali does what his own father has done before him. He assumes his role as clan leader and provider for his family. His love and concern for his wife and children are deeply touching. However, he is also the representative of a patriarchal society in which women are forbidden to circulate in public on their own and are stoned to death for infidelity. Obsessed with the idea of male authority, Nur Ali is also extremely vulnerable in an alien environment. He grows a long beard he refuses to shave as a sign of rebellion and a token of his endless affection for his own culture. Heavy-hearted and homesick, he misses his youngest son’s birth and his elder sons’ marriages, but rejoices in friendly chats on Pashtun customs, language, poetry, and popular music.
Apart from those interested in immigration literature, readers of historical novels with an emphasis on culture-specific elements will definitely add this novel to their reading lists. Even if the protagonist has strong Muslim beliefs, he also has respect for other religions and cherishes his relationship with his Pashto-speaking Christian co-workers. In other words, there is no hint of disrespect for people of different religions. Since the editing errors are reduced to merely a few typos, I am giving Benedicte Grima’s novel 4 out of 4 stars. Last but not least, I am recommending it for the elaborate treatment of the displacement topic and the nuanced characterization of a man who puts his family above everything else.
Talk Till The Minutes Run Out
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