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on 18 May 2014
I came to Stranger to History, Taseer's debut work after being thoroughly impressed by his piece on Sanskrit where he bemoaned the loss of a whole body of linguistic structure and culture thanks to colonialisation. It was personal, curious and his sentences encased within them a quiet tragedy that had me in thrall at his talent.

In this unusual part-biography, part-travelogue, he turns a journey of meeting his politician father in Pakistan who had estranged him in his childhood into an odyssey that would inform him about what being a Muslim in the current world entails. This decoding of contemporary Muslim identity and reality by virtue of travel and interviews in key Muslim nations (Turkey, Syria, Saudi Arabia Iran, Pakistan and other undocumented detours into Jordan and Yemen), would in his tentative plan, help him bridge the gulf of empathy for a father who is a warden and defender of an Islamic republic for decades. It would also, he hopes, help him complete his own sense of self as a Muslim: a name and a religion that has been little more than a nebulous patrilineal label from an absent father owing to the effect of having grown up in affluent, secular India and received further education and moorings in the world in more liberal societies.

This quest for personal actualisation and an ethnic understanding are both deep and compelling journeys and they ground this sometimes meandering, but never short of insightful book. Except for the novelistic flourishes in which Taseer waxes a sentence almost always too long on describing appearance of real people and the rhythms of landscape, he is in his element. Drawing upon his formal training in politics and journalism, his continuous mission to pin down the present and future aspirations of the hoi-polloi and spokespeople in Islamic lands leads to searching conversations and informed conclusions. He might just offer his reader glimpses, but his subjects are chosen with care and the wisdom yoked from interactions is articulated with pragmatism. I enjoyed how his clear-headed, direct questioning on the idea of the ideal Islamic way of life always met with an impasse as the answering man (from a Syrian cleric to his father) entered into a rhetoric constructed totally of convenient historical retellings and amorphous utopian dreams. Without being sensationalist, Taseer manages to make the reader see the fallacies of such utopias in the everyday corrosive realities within inward-looking and self-serving Islamic states with defined borders: Pakistan and Iran, both struggling with the modern "world system".

Punctuated with these socio-political musings, his personal journey tore into me, both in how earnestly he pursued his imagined redemption and how he fielded the rebuffs and snubs with absolute decorum. For his sake, I felt myself punching in the air as the bittersweet realisation in the denouement dawns on him as he sits next to his father watching Benazir Bhutto's funeral on live television. Like all journeys, he is a different man at the end of his. He sees things and people differently. The veil has dropped. He has gained in knowledge and lost in innocence, but it feels right. This is how things usually are. Life for rational thinkers is filled with many such obstacles of ossified structures and mind-sets. But the journey to reason must go on.
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VINE VOICEon 28 May 2009
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Aatish Taseer was born to an Indian mother (Sikh) & a Pakistani father (Moslem). He grew up with his mother in India as his father abandoned them when he was 2 & refused to have anything further to do with them.He had a non-existent & later difficult relationship with his father (the author seems to point that it is mainly due to his father's political position & being a Moslem).
He thus decides to go on an Islamic journey through Moslem countries in order to understand his father's culture & religion.
He recounts his journey mainly through Turkey,Syria,Mecca,Iran & Pakistan (where he meets his father in Lahore); he talks about these countries' cultures,politics & people's views of Islam; ending the book with the assasination of the beloved Benazir Bhutto.
*He has travelled through other Islamic lands but has not written about them).
He interviews ordinary people, religious people & tells of his encounters with those in authority as he travels through these countries. I feel this was the most important part for me as it gave an eye-view point of what it's really like to live in these countries,their cultures & customs; especially Iran as it's a very supressed country where people have no freedom.
I felt this book was more about how Islam has influenced politics & Islam's role in politics. For example he talks a lot about the development of politics in Pakistan, how the Islamic revolution has affected Iran, how the West (& politics) is viewed by extremist Moslems & also the cultural & political reltionship between Pakistan & India.
I was disappointed with this book mainly becuase it felt more like a book about politics (something I have no interest in at all)than anything else.
I had expected a book about how a man relates emotionally to his father & how being a Moslem has affected this reltionship (he DOES refer to this topic but not much).
I was struck by how brave & honest he is as he tells it exactly like it is. Also, he has an amazing ability to remain detached & non-judgemental about his experiences & encounters & yet remain very much interested & enthusiastic.
I liked the author as he knows what he is writing about, but wouldn't read this book again as it's too focused on politics in Islamic countries. I was very interested in the part about Iran as it's a more personal account & tells you about what the average person goes through in everyday life; which is something difficult to find out about.
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on 25 March 2009
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Books on discovery are not easy things to write as Aatish Taseer shows in `Stranger to History'. This is a book about not only discovering Muslim countries, but also about Taseer discovering more about the religion, his family and himself. The book moves from travelogue to inner journey constantly and depending on what you are interested the books quality will alter accordingly. Taken as a travelogue book Taseer proves an accomplished writer and paints a rich sense of time and place in countries including Turkey, Iran and Pakistan. However, it is soon apparent that the book is far more about Taseer's inner journey than is outer one.

I found `Stranger' a difficult book to read on a couple of levels. Firstly, it is very much about the Muslim faith and how it fits in today's world. I was interested in knowing more, but I felt that perhaps Taseer expected his readership to know a lot already. I found myself confused on occasion as Taseer only starts to explain things around 100 pages in. I suspect that most people who will pick up this book will already have an interest in the subject matter so this will not be a problem. The second problem I had was the depressing nature of the book. I do not know if it was intentional but Taseer paints a bleak picture of most of the Muslim people he meets on his journey, it felt uncomfortable at times to read about a blinkered viewpoint or overt racism. However, it would not take you long to find a similar viewpoint from any traditional Anglophile.

I do think that `Stranger' was a book worth reading as I know a little bit more about the Muslim faith and some of the Muslim countries now. The elements of the book that stood out for me were Taseer's descriptions of events from the news including the London bombings and publishing of cartoons in Scandinavia. At these moments the book came to life and I really learnt about other people viewpoints. However, these moments were all too fleeting as seemingly Taseer was more interested in talking about himself and his situation. This may have been the inspiration behind the book, but not a very interesting element. Also I believe that Taseer's attraction to his father may leave some reader a little sad. Just because someone is your parent does not make them wise or intelligent, a lesson that more people need to learn.
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VINE VOICEon 26 April 2009
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There are many forms of journey, physical, emotional, even spiritual and Aatish Taseer's account of his travels through the middle east takes in all of these and more. Challenged by a father he never knew as a child about his true understanding of his faith, he set off on an journey through the ancient Muslim heartland to gain more of an insight into the faith, culture and politics of his religious path. The goal was to ultimately arrive at his estranged fathers door both an older and wiser man and able to converse with him on an equal footing.

It is an Islamic Odyssey, of sorts, but also one filled with childhood reflection as well as exploring the ideological diversity and ranging attitudes within Islam today. It is also a journey to discover who his father actually is and ultimately how that would impact on their eventual meeting. It is the sort of book that makes for excellent reading for anyone , within the faith or otherwise, who wishes to learn more about modern Islam, from a grass roots level, rather than from a scholarly or theological view point.

Stranger to History is a very readable book, one that combines the descriptive eloquence of the travel writer and the overview of a cultural historian, sort of Colin Thubron meets V.S. Naipaul. Any writer who has the ability to conjure up two such names obviously has a positive future ahead.
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on 23 March 2009
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When Aatish Taseer was young, his parents split up. Consequently, he was raised by his Sikh mother in Delhi, India. His father is a Pakistani, and describes himself as a cultural Muslim. Taseer is now in his twenties having had little contact with his father growing up. Being circumcised into the Muslim faith he feels different in a generally non-Muslim country. On his travels he hopes to finally meet his father and ask him some important questions about his identity.

Taseer travels to the countries of the Middle East. He tries to get a sense of what life is like for the people living there. Due to his background, he has a unique perspective on things.

His personal story and insider viewpoint make his journey more meaningful than most travelogues. Consequently, the book is that little bit more interesting.

Taseer has a good way with words. He paints a vivid picture of the places he goes to and he introduces us to some great characters he meets along the way.

The story moves along at a cracking pace and the book is hard to put down. Taseer comes across as intelligent, sensible, and sensitive to the different cultures. He is understanding and never judgemental. This is a very enjoyable read.
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on 5 August 2009
I found this book a page turner. Aatish Taseer is a master of detailed description and of dramatic tension. He sets off on a journey West to East across the Muslim world, looking for a deeper understanding of the faith of a father whom he has hardly ever met. Gradually as we accompany him through his adventures, he tells us about the relationship of his parents and of his own sad attempts to make meaningful contact with his absent father. His account does not claim to be an exhaustive academic study of Islam, based on research. The picture he paints is vivid - far more vivid than tables and pie-charts - but anecdotal. What is revealed by the anecdotes, piled up chapter by chapter, is the extreme diversity and contradictions as well, confusingly, as an underlying unity, contained within what we think of as Islam. It also becomes clear to how great an extent what Aatish Taseer initially calls "culture" is deeply steeped in international politics.

I learnt a good deal about Islam incidentally while driven by curiosity about his quest to find
himself and his father. This drip feeding of information while keeping the reader engrossed by the underlying narrative reminded me of "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance`' and of "Sophie's World".

I am sure I am not alone in having to admit to having only superficial knowledge of Islam. This book has provided me, not only with a deeper understanding of its teachings and practices but also reminded me of the perpetually hovering influence of global politics. Whether you classify it as autobiography, travel writing, adventure or politics, it's a good read.
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VINE VOICEon 7 April 2009
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This is a tough one to review. I really liked the idea of it, and initially I was gripped, but it gradually lost its hold on me till near the end I was reading it in small parts over a long span of time.

It doesn't seem to be entirely sure what it's about. It's about a son's journey to understand his father and their estrangement, yes, but it also tries to be a travel book and an exploration of religion and how it can be warped, but doesn't fully satisfy any of these angles. As previous reviewers have said, some of the places the author travels to get a lot of book time, others very little or are simply mentioned in passing. The description is often beautifully written, though the transition from travel writing to sudden philosophical musings about what it means to be culturally Muslim, etc, seemed quite jarring.

The author does write negatively of the corruption and misinterpretation of Islamic doctrine in countries such as Iran, though his attack feels somewhat tepid, as if he's afraid of being TOO negative. After reading about how Iran rules its people I was left seething in anger and I wanted to see that reflected by the author.

Despite its flaws, the book is still an intriguing read and I recommend it for those interested in, or trying to learn about, Pakistan and India and Partition. The author's exploration of why Pakistan seems to function worse than India makes for educational and insightful reading. The ending of the book is mildly haunting, though I would've liked to read more about the author's personal experience of being in Pakistan at the time of Benazir Bhutto's assassination.

All in all, a read that might appeal to those interested in India and Pakistan, and Islam and the Middle East, though don't expect a completely satisfying travel book, or a completely satisfying exploration of Islam.
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VINE VOICEon 16 April 2009
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It is a book that manages to grasp a mere shadow of its true potential, and leaves one with an appetite for more, only to find empty, occasionally rambling and pointless prose in place of more meaty words and soul nourishing details and adventures.
This is a story of one man reflecting on his life and travels, one made without the presence of his father, a figure ever present in the books background, but never in actual place, and the places he has sen and been to.
Some descriptions leave you wanting more and are fascinating; For example his trip to the Holy city of Mecca, as well as his brush with Iran's secret police, while others are more ordinary and everyday travel tales and, it has to be said, occasional mind numbing detail as well.
So, in conclusion, interesting, but not the best travel book, and the growing up wthout a father seems somehow squeezed in there simply to be in there... so to speak.
Make your own minds up!
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on 25 February 2009
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I'm slightly in awe of Taseer's style and courage in producing this very personal memoir of his journey across the Islamic world, in search of his elusive father (and maybe a bit of self-acceptance) as well as a better understanding of Islam. I'm also a little frightened that he's done all of this while only in his twenties, and very much looking forward to any future books or journalism that he produces.

I found the book fascinating, informative and very compelling reading. It hits just the right note between providing helpful background context and coherent factual description, but equally doesn't shy away from exploring personal opinion and feeling. The whole book is written very clearly and logically. Its structure follows Taseer's journey from the UK across much of the Middle East, in chronological order, interspersed with short narratives about the author's richly complex family history, memories of growing up and sense of religious and cultural identity. It's all very personal, which to my mind makes this quite a brave book.

One of its strengths is how it is able to prise out the emotive issues that make religion generally, and Islam specifically, such a loaded topic at times. Taseer has what seems like a remarkably accepting, non-judgmental approach - which doesn't mean to say that he agrees with everyone he meets, but does mean that he is able to bring a more empathetic, personal and understanding tone to topics that are often highly-charged and political.

Taseer seems acutely sensitive to the personal and emotional aspects of religion and politics. He is also able to tease out the differences between culture and religion, which often overlap to some extent.

That said, the book doesn't consider the issue of gender in as much depth as I would have expected. This is in many ways a very male-focused book. I don't mean this in a bad way (and in fact it's such a personal look at the issue that of course it has to come from a male viewpoint) but you may be disappointed if you pick up this book hoping for an exploration of what it means to be Muslim and female in the 21st century. It's kind of a trade-off - it's a wonderful book because of how personal it is, yet that is also sometimes a bit limiting.

Overall, a fantastic book that I want to buy for so many people I know. I liked the fact that it didn't offer easy answers, but did ask a lot of the most important questions. It really broadened my understanding of the Islamic world and made me start thinking about my own concepts of faith, culture and government - and how all of these link together in an increasingly connected, globalised world. I hope it receives the acclaim and success that it deserves.
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VINE VOICEon 24 April 2009
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This book did not really grab me from the outset, and reading it was a bit of a struggle. That said, if it is aimed at an adult market, it serves a purpose. The recollections seem disjointed in some respects, but that may be a deliberate ploy, as the author seeks to communicate how his own lack of understanding of 'being a Moslem' made him feel disjointed.

Overall, I regret to say that this is not the sort of book I would read for pleasure.
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