MAY 27, 2016
TO MANY AMERICANS, Canada is placed fittingly above us on the map, as a better, enlightened version of ourselves. From the country’s inception, understood in shorthand as a bloodless revolution, to its national healthcare adopted long before our still contentiously embattled Obamacare, in our imagination Canada appears more progressive and socially aware than the United States. If we know anything of the unsolved deaths of indigenous women we gloss over it. We do not think about their national security or machinations of national surveillance; our border fixations and struggles with immigration are focused to the south. Instead, each time the US political machinery threatens or angers us, there is a predictable grumbling about plans for moving north — as well as a crazy presumption that Canada would be willing to have us.
Perhaps some of us do know that Toronto, with its many immigrant communities, is one of the most diverse cities in the world. It is this multicultural place, where populations connect and collide, that Ausma Zehanat Khan’s novels investigate and reveal.
Khan burst onto the mystery scene with last year’s spectacular debut, The Unquiet Dead. In that novel, drawing from her expertise in war crimes in the Balkans and her scholarship in international human rights law, she brings echoes of the anti-Muslim Srebrenica massacre to life in contemporary Canada. We meet Canadian-born Detective Esa Khattak — one of Khan’s two series protagonists — in a quietly compelling first scene of quotidian ritual: the evening prayer. As a non-Muslim reader, I found this opening startling with its intimacy of religious ritual and the unfamiliarity of Khattak’s touchstones: his Maghrib prayer, his janamaz beneath him. To what images do we have to compare this religious devotion? Countless TV shows and movies portray Muslim prayer as something exotic, or worse, vaguely menacing and threatening. Yet this scene centers us inside the psyche of our protagonist — Khan embeds us within the multiple identities of our Esa Khattak: Muslim, Canadian, detective. Multiple selves and their contradictory demands form an essential theme of the series, whether it is hidden past identities, as in The Language of Secrets, the conflicting identities of the detective, or the differing voices within the greater Muslim community.
Like Khan’s first novel, The Language of Secrets is loosely based on real events — in this case, the attempted crimes of the Toronto 18. Khan again explores the diverse residents of Toronto, but this time instead of a single Muslim group, as with the expats of former Yugoslavia, we find the many voices of Islam, critics and believers. In Secrets we learn of the ummah, a term for the global Muslim community, embodied by the congregants — Somali, Greek, Iraqi, and Canadian — at the mosque Masjid un-Nur. This particular mosque, it turns out, has been targeted as the cell behind a major and looming terrorist threat. It has been secretly infiltrated by INSET, Canada’s Integrated National Security Enforcement Team. Khattak bristles against the Anti-Terrorism Act and other bills legislating unchecked surveillance powers, but surveillance of the Canadian Muslim community is the foundation of his work as head of the Community Policing Section.
When INSET’s inside man, Mohsin Dar, is murdered, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police bring in Khattak, unaware that the two were once close friends as younger, more idealistic men in college. To Khattak’s dismay, he and his partner Sergeant Rachel Getty are asked less to investigate the murder than to contain the situation and mollify community members. INSET’s priority is to close in on the cell’s leader, the Iraqi terrorist Hassan Ashkouri, and halt his cataclysmic plans, only weeks away from fruition.
The news of Mohsin’s death staggers Khattak. Their friendship ended as Khattak became the head of the CPS, and Mohsin accused him of being “the house Arab.” That he had himself joined the RCMP shocks Khattak. As he contemplates the political differences that ruptured their friendship, he thinks, “They had plumbed the shape of the future through the silhouette of their dreams. They had never been as far apart as either man had later believed.” He defies his superiors and asks Sergeant Getty to enter the mosque as a querying convert.
Rachel Getty is Khan’s secondary protagonist, also first introduced in The Unquiet Dead. Though resolute and unwavering in her loyalty, admiration, and support of her partner, she is able to bring fresh eyes to an investigation he is perhaps too close to to see clearly. In a wry twist, once inside the mosque community, Getty, the Maple Leafs scarf–wearing, hockey stick–swinging Canadian, becomes the outsider. In The Unquiet Dead, family dysfunction propelled Sergeant Getty’s career choice in the RCMP and tethered her to living with her parents. In this story, she has moved out and found her footing in the force, and, perhaps, in a tentative friendship she explores with Grace, an extravagantly pierced “revert” — the insider term for a Muslim convert — in the community of Masjid un-Nur.
Multihued Toronto is Khan’s territory; it is a genuine pleasure to follow the story as she weaves the characters in and out of varying communities, to watch the unfolding complicated tensions between and within these groups. We see the infighting of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, between the congregants of Masjid un-Nur, and within the families of Mohsin and our detectives. Getty no longer feels welcome in the home of her childhood; Khattak is angered to learn that his sister Rukshanda has been under extensive surveillance, but outraged even more by INSET’s motivation: they know that Rukshanda is engaged to the terrorist Ashkouri, a circumstance of which Khattak himself had no idea.
Khattak “knew what he was, what his community was. So different from what he saw on the news nightly” — through his character, Khan is able to depict Muslims in all their multifaceted humanity. She examines the challenges of holding onto one’s culture and religion in a secular world: “[A]ssimilation was never quite as straightforward as an immigrant expected or hoped for,” reflects Khattak. “The accent, the dark skin, the unfamiliar ways — the distinctive and oft-feared religious practices.”
The constant thread of “otherness” is most prominently displayed in the exploration of Khattak’s duality. Khan’s detective struggles with who he is, his private life and his public role: “Khattak felt the automatic respect for a hijab-wearing woman […] moderated by the analytical training of a police officer. A headscarf didn’t make him stop thinking, or evaluating or wondering.” Sergeant Rachel Getty is a fiercely loyal admirer of her partner, yet even she at times stumbles with Khattak’s background: “‘They’ll crucify you, sir.’ A clumsy choice of words to direct at a practicing Muslim. She realized as much as soon as the words left her mouth.” Khattak attempts to balance conflicting demands, follow directives, and soothe outraged members of the community, yet quietly investigate them, as with Mohsin’s widow and Mohsin’s father. He wants to eliminate the terrorist plot and protect his family and community, yet his motivations are suspected by those in the community, even by his own sister, as another tool of surveillance, another kind of betrayal.
As an outsider, Rachel is less constrained by identity crises and springs into action to solve Mohsin’s. Inside the mosque, she quickly makes contact with Ashkouri, who invites her into the halaqa, a study group, of Islamic poetry. Upon first setting eyes on Ashkouri, Getty finds him the handsomest man she’s ever met, with “the enigmatic face of a poet.” Poetry is a major theme of The Language of Secrets. The Punjab poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz looms large in the imaginations of Mohsin and Khattak; Ashkouri has used his work to court Rukshanda. The poetry Khan cites, as interpreted by Khattak and Ashkouri, adds Islamic historic context and insight into past and possibly future events. At their first halaqa, Ashkouri asks Getty if she comes from “mud and crime.” When she reports this back to Khattak, he connects its allusion to a cataclysmic poem, as well as its foreboding modern response A Grave for New York. Indeed, Khattak displays an immediacy, a depth of understanding of context and analysis of Islamic poetry that would challenge a scholar. He holds definitive answers to poetry’s ambiguities and the secrets within, and he uses poetry to unlock Mohsin’s secrets.
This is perhaps the book’s greatest weakness — as vast as Khan’s scope and as impressive as her intellectual and writing abilities are, she resorts to problematic plot devices. Getty is too easily and conveniently brought into Ashkouri’s study group, and while Khattak’s brilliance and insight are to his credit, he makes a final inference that borders on a prominent display of psychic ability.
Nevertheless, Khan has crafted a compelling and illuminating novel. In unwinding a terrorist plot, Khan elegantly reveals the many layers of the international Muslim community that makes Toronto its home, and she explores the complexity of its identity. In The Language of Secrets she vividly shares a complicated Canada few of us, with our naïve perceptions and our idealistic projections, pause to consider.