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Sunday, November 1, 2009

Children of Dust

A Memoir of Pakistan

By Ali Eteraz

HarperOne. 337 pp. $25.99

Ali Eteraz has been a devout Muslim, a disillusioned skeptic and everything in between. Throughout his meandering spiritual journey, his faith has given him great pride and contentedness but has also been a source of deep shame, anger and frustration. This emotional struggle is the backdrop for his memoir, "Children of Dust," which chronicles his childhood in Pakistan, his family's immigration to the United States and finally his return to Asia as an adult.

Eteraz grew up attending a madrassa in rural Pakistan, where he spent his days memorizing the Koran and enduring harsh beatings for his mistakes. When his family relocated to Alabama during his adolescence, he struggled to fit in with his peers while adhering to the strict religious practices his family enforced. "I was too embarrassed to admit to non-Muslims that it was Islam -- archaic, anachronistic, exotic Islam -- that controlled me," Eteraz writes. "Admitting that would lead me to be viewed as an outsider -- and I wanted nothing more than to be American."

From there, you might say Eteraz got religious whiplash: He describes periods of intense absorption in the dutiful practice of Islam, followed by phases of doubt and cynicism. In particular, he deeply questioned his faith after a harrowing trip to Pakistan, where he narrowly escaped being killed by fellow Muslims who suspected he was a U.S. agent. Finally, the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks changed his worldview definitively. "I felt an unbridgeable distance from those militants across the globe that I'd long ago felt drawn to and then, more recently, had felt pity for," he writes.

Amid all the soul-searching, Eteraz manages to amusingly describe his teenage antics and poke some fun at himself for all the superficial ways he tried to make friends envy him for his piety. These honest details make his story even more compelling.

-- Sarah Halzack halzacks@washpost.com

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