How to imagine the unimaginable? Tabish Khair sets himself quite a task, and a particularly relevant one, in asking how young people from around the world have joined the fray in Syria and the Middle East, including a number of young women.
Khair has proved himself up to the challenge in previous novels, where he uses powers of ventriloquism to inhabit characters who may be written about and spoken of, but often do not have a voice. He jumped back in time with the amazing ‘The Thing about Thugs’ and then set ‘How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position’ in contemporary Denmark.
In ‘Just Another Jihadi Jane’ (published as ‘Jihadi Jane’ in other editions), we meet the teenage girls Jamilla and Ameena in Yorkshire, before one-third of the way through the novel, they board a plane to Turkey and then make their way across borders into Syria.
I was drawn into the story both in terms of ‘why’ (why would someone go to join Daesh?) and ‘how’ (how do people live, what are their lives like?). The prose, lucid and often poetic, and I did feel the sense of my eyes and imagination opening to what’s happening, as much as my tendency is to turn away. So, I think this is the biggest literary and imaginative accomplishment: to imagine these lives; to bring readers along the journey.
I had some minor complaints. I found it hard to match the Yorkshire dialect of the teenage girls to that of the narrator, and in fact, the narrator’s voice felt at times too mature and literary: ‘imposing on my account those nebulous feelings that were yet to take shape in me’. There is also the device of who the story is being told to (I won’t spoil that surprise), which I found somewhat distracting, conflating the reader with the assigned listener to the story, and being addressed ‘Well, you as [this type of person] expect this from my story’.
All in all, I would definitely recommend this book; images, passages and ideas will stay with you, and Khair allows a hopeful conclusion, and these dark days, hope is what we need.