BOOK REVIEW: A DUTIFUL BOY BY MOHSIN ZAIDI
We all share the very human need to belong: to our families, our clan, our culture, our tribe. Feeling that we belong is no small thing: it can feel like the difference between life or death. When we are young, we cannot survive much less thrive without belonging to our families and community, belonging is crucial. We derive our sense of safety and wellbeing in the world when we feel held and understood by our clan. Belonging protects us from feeling alone and isolated. We’ll do almost anything not to rupture our sense of belonging even if it means lying about who we really are.
Paradoxically, an equally strong human need is to be fully self-expressed in our individuality and identity even if it doesn’t align with our family or culture. And when these two needs clash, the suffering can be acute.
Born into a loving but staunchly Shia Muslim family, as the eldest son, much is expected of Mohsin: to do well academically, be successful in life, bring honour to his family, to marry and to have children. He is a good and dutiful son in many respects except for one. In his early teens, he realises with horror and shame that he feels as if he’s different from all other boys. Not only is he different, he is an abomination in the eyes of Allah, his community and his family: he is gay.
Mohsin is paralysed between the dread of losing his faith and family and the dream of living life as a gay man. It seems that only by rejecting his faith can he begin to explore what it means to live a gay life. This is so inconceivable to him, that at times suicide seems the only logical way out of this impossible conundrum, never mind that suicide is against Islam too. Caught in an intolerable trap, he asks himself; would his family prefer a gay son or a dead one?
What does the dutiful boy of this gripping memoir have to do to reconcile these two seemingly irresolvable aspects of his life? Mohsin takes us along on his quest for reconciliation and explores the themes of community vs individuality, social acceptance vs cruel exclusion through the sharply observed lenses of his personal experience, the prejudices of the communities he finds himself in, as well as the media of the day. Mohsin writes with deceptive simplicity and straightforwardness yet beneath the surface of his story lies the powerful underpinning of clearly thought-out moral concepts articulated with support from his legal training.
This was a very satisfying read, a journey of personal growth as Mohsin learns how to meet his most profound needs – to belong to his culture and to do so on his own terms.