The Coming of Age of an American-Islamist Radical Recruit

Laleh Khadivi. (Author Photo)

Sometimes we turn to fiction for the things we don’t understand. My favorite novels are about a lunatic, a pedophile, twins with an incestuous relationship—Don Quixote, Lolita, The God of Small Things, respectively. These books have brought me to the shores of the unforeseen and the unexplainable. Looking at things from the other side of the mirror has value; this is what we’re after when we read fiction—we want to be taken far away, and we want to return, with something new to show.

The third in a trilogy following three generations of Kurdish-Iranian men as they leave their homeland and take on new identities, Laleh Khadivi’s A Good Country gets at our most modern interrogation—what is the path to terrorism, how does it unfold, and how is it possible?

'A Good Country,' by Laleh Khadivi.
'A Good Country,' by Laleh Khadivi.

If you’ve ever wondered about these questions, this is the book for you. An unblinking coming-of-age portrait of an American-islamist radical recruit, A Good Country is a heartbreaking story you won't soon forget.

“This was high school,” Laleh Khadivi writes. “You started out as one thing and ended as something else.” In A Good Country, Khadivi explores teenagedom as a phase of combustion in this story of a young Iranian-American boy’s radicalization. Born in an affluent community in Orange County, Reza Courdee goes from model immigrant, to stoner, to a boy shunned by his friends and targeted for his skin in the wake of a terrorist event, to a young man searching for what is right and wrong, true and false. In this search, he chooses a path which happens to be a false promise.

It is hard to imagine, at the book's onset, how Khadivi will get from one end of the social spectrum to the other -- from the inconsequential pressures of a sunny high school and prospects of Bay Area Ivy Leagues to war-torn Syria, where Rez’s boundless dreaming bottoms out as he realizes he’s signed up to join a radical Islamist militant group, and that the new country promised, the great utopia, does not exist.

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Somehow we get there, and it’s because Khadivi is a magician. Written, I would say, with a scalpel, Khadivi is equal parts teenage-boy whisperer and magic-ball seer. The book opens:

They told him it was the best, there was nothing better. After they started, at twelve and thirteen and fourteen, his friends tried to convince him to try it. Rez, dude, they’d say, it’s no big deal. You don’t puke. You don’t pass out. No one can even tell. It’s like daydreaming, like that second just before you fall asleep, but for hours, they said, for the whole of eighth grade, their eyes glazed with the shine of the newly converted, and by tenth grade they gave up, and now, start of junior year, it was habit to make fun of him every time there was occasion, every time they circled up to light and puff and smoke, these friends.

In the background of this book, between the lines, Khadivi seems to be asking: what is a good country? Is it the America of Rez’s father, which Rez disrespects by getting a B in History? Is it his white friend Kelly’s America, of “the network of invisible sewers gushing under everything and the fair laws over them all, good police who don’t fuck with you for no reason”?

It is not the America, Rez concludes, that turns on skin color after a terrorist attack, where a man at a car casually walks by and spits on his father’s shoe. It is not America “the pressure cooker.” It is certainly not Mexico, whose decorative skeletons and poverty “freak him out.” At times Rez believes it might be the ocean, where he surfs, where “the water turned the same navy as the sky and when Rez paddled out far from the breaks to take a rest, the water grew still and he saw little flecks of stars in the ocean, their shimmer mixed with the easy rolls and laps of the sea. Sandwiched, he thought, folded in, a galaxy above, a galaxy below.”

Currents and waves off Baja coast in Mexico as seen from NASA's space station by astronaut Tim Kopra.
Currents and waves off Baja coast in Mexico as seen from NASA's space station by astronaut Tim Kopra. (Wikimedia Commons)

Those who study recent history know that in 2014 ISIL claimed the city of Raqqah as the Caliphate, the capital of the Muslim state. It was supposed to be the return of a great Muslim capital, a new state built from the ground up, land reclaimed, a place where Muslims could finally have brotherhood and be in peace. The ISIL propaganda attracted a wide range of Muslims, who flew to Raqqah to be part of the birth of the new city, but it was always an empty promise built on genocide. We may imagine Rez as one of the foreigners who flew to Raqqah looking for such a sense of place.

A good country, Khadivi seems to argue in this complex, hypnotizing novel, is a state of belonging. Wherever that feeling is missing, that’s where a good country fails.

'A Good Country' is out now from Bloomsbury and is available where books are sold. Laleh Khadivi lives in Northern California.

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