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Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Review of AMONG THE RUINS by Ausma Zehanat Khan

3 Stars
This is the third book in the series featuring a Muslim Canadian police officer, Esa Khattak, and his partner, Rachel Getty.

Esa is vacationing in Iran when he is approached by a Canadian agent and a group of dissidents who ask him to look into the government-sanctioned torture and killing of an Iranian-Canadian filmmaker, Zahra Sobhani.  Among the questions he must ask is why she would have risked returning to Iran after making a film critical of Iran’s human rights record.  Esa quietly investigates in Iran while trying to avoid the attention of government handlers; Rachel and Nathan Clare, Esa’s best friend, follow up leads in Canada.

The plot is very convoluted and can sometimes be difficult to follow.  There are so many twists and turns in the investigation and so many unknowns that I was sometimes confused.  For example, cryptic messages/codes feature prominently.  Esa receives cryptic messages from an unknown writer; letters between a former minister of Iran and his activist friend could have played a role in Zahra’s capture; letters of the alphabet written on a sleeve become a crucial clue; encoded messages and drawings are written on the wall of a house; and diary entries or letters from a prisoner are interspersed throughout.  So much deciphering just gets annoying, and some of it just seems illogical.  The letters of the alphabet written on a sleeve are certainly a stretch!

What is also annoying is the many romantic tensions between characters.  Esa seems attracted to Rachel but he is also fascinated by Nasreen and finds himself thinking often about Sehr?  Rachel seems attracted to Esa but she is also interested in Nate?  Vicky and Touka are both attracted to Esa.  Nathan likes Rachel but then there’s an episode with Laine?

One of the things that the book does well is to reveal the contradictions in Iranian society.  The beauty of the mosques is contrasted with the ugly brutality of a repressive regime.  Some knowledge of Iranian history is certainly needed to understand the plot.  I knew of some of the events since I’m old enough to have lived during some of them:  the rule of Shah Reza Pahlavi, the 1979 revolution, the election of Ahmadinejad, the nuclear agreement with which President Trump disagrees.  It also became obvious to me that the murder of Zahra Sobhani was inspired by the real-life murder of Canadian-Iranian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi.  Fortunately, for those not familiar with Iranian history, there is a timeline of major political events provided at the beginning. 

The author’s sympathy for Iran certainly comes across.  At one point, she has Rachel make a telling observation:  “What must it be like to know your civilization possessed of such celestial beauty, and to find yourself the object of diminishment?”  Rachel had imagined Iran “as a place of violence and turmoil” but a visit to a mosque amazes her with its “sublimity” and “perfect cohesion of light” and “tranquility” and “dignity.”  “This amphitheater of joy” allows her to experience a “soaring elevation of spirit” and her impression of the country is changed:  “Her lens was correcting itself.”  Obviously, the author thinks that many people need to have their opinions of Iran re-adjusted. 

There is also the suggestion that many people have misconceptions about Muslims.  Esa behaves as he does because of the assumptions made about Muslims:  “Careful and measured consideration was the only way he knew to answer the assumption of Muslim rage.”  He feels he is not able to ever be totally at ease to express “the different sides of himself, the things that enriched him.”

Unfortunately, the book sometimes becomes bogged down.  There are long passages of exposition:  “There were an estimated one million Sunnis in Tehran alone who were not permitted to build schools or places of worship, or to disseminate their own religious teachings.  And though this treatment of non-Shia minorities was unjust, the fate of ethnic and religious minorities in many Sunni-majority countries was exponentially worse.  [Esa] had only to think of the violence against Shia processionals in Pakistan, or the increasingly disturbing attacks against Pakistan’s Christian and Hindu minorities.  The country’s Hazara population, who were largely Shia, suffered extensive persecution by the Taliban, that was typically met with indifference by the state.”  A discussion of religious repression in Pakistan is used to suggest that Iran’s mistreatment of its religious minorities is not that bad?  None of this has any bearing on the plot.

I would advise readers to read the first two books in the series (The Unquiet Dead and The Language of Secrets) if they have not done so.  The relationships between the characters are developed in these earlier books, and in Among the Ruins, there is repeated reference to the events of the second novel.  I did not find this novel as interesting as the previous two, but it provides wonderful insight into a culture foreign to many Canadians.