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Friday, February 12, 2016

Review of "The Language of Secrets" by Ausma Zehanat Khan

3.5 Stars
This book brings back Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty, the police duo who handle minority sensitive cases.  This time they are asked to investigate the murder of Mohsin Dar, Esa’s estranged friend who had infiltrated a Muslim terrorist cell planning an attack on Toronto.  One of their problems is that greater value is “ascribed to the façade of Khattak’s investigation than to the actual truth it might uncover.”  Another problem is that the man in charge of unravelling the terrorist plot bears a grudge against Khattak and so withholds information.  Complications also arise when Rachel goes undercover as a potential Islam convert at a local mosque and when Khattak’s sister Ruksh becomes engaged to Hassan Ashkouri, the leader of the terrorist cell.  Can the murderer be identified and arrested and the terrorist attack prevented?

As in the first novel in this series, it is the characterization of Khattak and Rachel that stands out.  They behave consistently with the traits outlined in The Unquiet Dead.  Their relationship develops further; the partnership is “expanding, deepening.”  In this second book, Khattak’s divided loyalties are emphasized:  he is torn between his Muslim faith and his role as a detective investigating members of his community.  His actions are constantly being scrutinized and suspected by both his faith community and the police force. 

The motives of the various members of the mosque are thoughtfully dissected.  Readers will find themselves not agreeing with the actions of some of these people, but they will have a good understanding of their sometimes complex motivations.  The author insists that the reader not equate Islam with terrorism by contrasting Khattak’s moderate views with those of Ashkouri:  “It wasn’t enough to say that the same faith that had produced Hassan Ashkouri had also produced Esa Khattak, good and evil sketched out in broad strokes.  It wasn’t easy and two-dimensional like that.  It was nuanced, complex, difficult . . . Ashkouri had chosen a different path, a different means of addressing his anger and grievances, his choices vindicated by his reading of history.  Something could be beautiful, humane, encompassing.  Or it could be made ugly.  And maybe that was the lesson.  We bring to a tradition what is already within ourselves, however our moral compass is designed, whatever our ethical training is.”

The author also addresses the issue of moderate Muslims having to speak up.  She has Khattak regretting that he didn’t always do so:  “Times he should have spoken up, questions he should have asked, challenging others to an ethical reading of scripture in lieu of the tropes of dogma.  It had seemed like a burden that someone else should carry, yet he realized it belonged to him, just as it belonged to each of his coreligionists, this personal quest for an ethical life – and it couldn’t be put down by choice, not without abandoning the field to the hardened and hidebound, whose rigid conservatism and eschewal of modernity contained with it the seeds of jihadist ideology.”

My reservations about the book revolve around the plot.  There are some unrealistic elements.  For example, Rachel admits that she is not really prepared for her undercover role:  Choosing an undercover surname “was as far as she had gone in establishing her cover.  Rachel possessed little previous undercover experience.”  Why then would Khattak be “authorized to send [Rachel]” to the mosque in such a role?  Wouldn’t the agency charged with gathering intelligence and ensuring national security be wary of sending in an amateur who could unwittingly make a terrorist cell aware of its being under surveillance?  And perhaps I’m naïve but would a man in charge of bringing down a terrorist cell purposely withhold information because of his personal animosity towards Khattak, a tactic that could risk national security and the safety of innocent people?  The secrets within policing are almost as dangerous as the secrets of the terrorist cell.

I appreciated the insight offered into Arabic poetry.  For example, readers are told about the “well-established tradition of Arabic poetry, conflating the personal with the political.”  Agha Shahid Ali, a Kashmiri poet, and Faiz Ahmad Faiz, a Pakistani poet, are mentioned more than once so I was inspired to do some research.  Faiz, I discovered, was nominated four times for the Nobel Prize for literature.

Apparently a third book in the series is already being written.  In an interview with Maclean’s magazine, the author said the following:  “In my third book I send him to Iran, where Khattak, who’s from the same majority Sunni tradition as me, will be in the minority in a Shia country.  I wanted him to examine the privilege of membership in a majority tradition, where you never have to think about the feelings or the traditions of the other and see what that feels like.  I like to put him in situations where he’s uncomfortable, and has to examine his perspective and assumptions much more critically” (

The first two books of this series have sufficient strengths that I look forward to the third one.