Syed Masood’s The Bad Muslim Discount is named after the rationale the capricious landlord gives for allowing one of the main characters to live there; they meet in that run-down building nearly halfway through the novel, after they are propelled to life in the US. Surprisingly, it is not a love story, but rather gathers more and more interconnections as it proceeds. Anvar Faris is a clever Pakistani boy (the “bad Muslim”) who struggles against the expectations of his religious mother, and Safwa is a girl left to contend with her abusive father after her mother and brother die in Afghanistan.
Anvar’s father decides to move the family to America to avoid the increasingly stifling conservative religious environment; his wife, as a devout Muslim woman, is not thrilled about this. Anvar is somewhat at odds with both of them, and finds no solace in his “perfect” brother, for whom following rules seems simple and desirable:
My brother Aamir … remains a stinking little turd muncher. Before I go on, I should mention that I am the lone skeptic when it comes to Aamir Faris. He has gone through his life checking all the right boxes that a model desi boy should check … Somehow he’s always been popular too. Aamir is well liked at the mosque because he volunteers there. He organizes community events for young kids, all while praying five times a day and banking every optional prostration along the way … Aamir Faris, in short, uses dull crayons but he is relentlessly fastidious about coloring inside the lines.
Anvar ends up pursuing a career in the law, which had allowed him to garner some community recognition when he defended an alleged terrorist, but his lack of general professional success leads him to rent an inexpensive room in the same building where Safwa ends up living once they escape Afghanistan. Her father’s decision is influenced not so much by a desire for freedom as by the reasoning that to avoid bombing by the Americans, it would be best to live in the US; they would not bomb their own country.
Their landlord forms a link between them, and also recognizes the predicaments they are in, with the canny wisdom of an elder. To Anwar, he says:
“You are different. You don’t fight others. You fight the Great Jihad. The Prophet said that the fight inside a man, the fight for his soul, is the greatest struggle of all, yes? The fight between the white brown man and the brown white man. The fight between the good bad man and the bad good man. I see it in you all the time. That is why I let you stay in my building for cheap. To see how it ends.” He smiled at me. It was a kind expression. “Right now, I think it is not going so well.”
Safwa’s characterization is somewhat less detailed; we see her trying to balance her grief at her mother’s death, with regret at leaving her ill older brother who died, with a sense of some responsibility toward her father and nascent independence. Perhaps this is simply a reflection of a person who has not been given the opportunity to explore and develop her own preferences, and ends up having to quickly categorize each person she meets as friend or foe. When leaving Afghanistan, even a simple ride becomes tinged with danger:
It was only when we were outside the city that he finally decided to say something. “You’re a pretty girl.” I didn’t reply. That was not the kind of comment I wanted to invite. “How old are you? Come on. No harm telling me. Fifteen? Sixteen? It’s a sweet age.”
“Just drive.” I said it like an order, with confidence I didn’t feel. He laughed. It was an inappropriately happy sound, and it unsettled my heart. “I like you. I’ve always liked serrated knives.”
The novel is studded with vignettes of other characters, that similarly capture different aspects of the Muslim-American diaspora. Their responses to being in America and their views of the government are influenced by both the American involvement in wars of the Middle East and pursuit of fundamentalist terrorists, the history of the 9/11 attack, as well as the final setting of the novel during the 2016 Presidential election and the institution of the “Muslim ban.”
Syed Masood’s personal experience living in Northern California, and day job as an attorney, provide additional atmospheric detail to Anvar and Safwa’s lives in America. Still, the pull of their cultural traditions remains as they forge ahead in a new country. As their quixotic landlord says to Anvar: