Long-distance Nationalism in Brick Lane and In The Light of What We Know

A Nationalistic Approach of In The Light of What We Know and Brick Lane. Despite being citizen, The Dilemma of Exile is always with the characters of both novel .

In twenty first century, the concept of nationalism has taken various forms because of the
globalized and geopolitical issues where long-distance nationalism or diasporic nationalism
becomes one of the most important and focused nationalistic form in diaspora literature. Zia Haider and Monica Ali‟s novel In The Light of What We Know and Brick Lane respectively, are very significant examples in forming the idea through different transnational characters, who are equally connected to the ancestral home land and the current home, living as a citizen. Though this requires a very strong connection with the imaginary homeland, even more than the geographical location they are living in, but these long-distance nationalists do not want to get back to the ancestral homeland. Both the novels In The Light of What We Know and Brick Lane coincidentally share common affinity for Bangladesh, ancestral homeland of most of the characters. This chapter intends to explore the features of long-distance Nationalism considering Nina Glick Schiller‟s article “Long-distance Nationalism” to show that Rahman and Ali‟s characters are mentally and voluntarily connected to the ancestral land. Despite being distanced from the homeland, they keep good connection while living in transnational settings. Long distance nationalists believe that they share some common understanding of classical nationalism such as history, identity and territory but in terms of relationship, long-distance nationalists
differ. They hold citizenship in their current living state but the ancestral homeland requires
loyalty from them. This chapter will also deal with transnationalism, one of the latest school of nationalism, to get into the core of today‟s nationalism to show that characters of In The Light of What We Know and Brick Lane deal with long-distance nationalism while living in multicultural and transnational western setting but in the meantime holding their nationalistic sense.

Transnationalism inevitably creates crisis of identity among immigrants and it is the most
confusing theory among the schools of Nationalism, hence we can understand that this is a
concept of globalized nationalism which gives us a multicultural identity and even an immigrant may follow the culture of his or her living land but forgetting about the ancestral land and the culture are beyond our imagination. Trace of cultural and national value will never be lost and it will be a concern for the identity and existence of the individual. Diaspora literature always keeps tracking the existence and the belongingness of diaspora community which indicates the deep connection with their imaginary community. In In The Light of What We Know is a diasporic journey where the unnamed narrator and Zafar, is lost in his own transcultural existence. Though Zafar being, an English citizen, claims to be an English man, he fails to become a part of the English elites. On the other hand the unnamed narrator never claims to be an American and not even a Pakistani, so his identity is in a condition like a pendulum swinging in a transnational culture. In Brick Lane we come up with the same idea of a transnational community, confused with their own identity and suffering from the lack of pure nationalistic sense. One instinct is common among most of the characters in both of these novels, a sense of ancestral homeland to which they need to be loyal, this is one of the most important fact of long-distanced nationalism. Nina Glick Schiller points out” that, “Long-distance nationalism is a set of identity claims and practices that connect people living in various geographical locations to a specific territory that they see as their ancestral home.”(570). Identity depends on various factors and the concept of identity comes from a long history of ethnicity, ancestry and race. It is not necessary to maintain the culture and customs of the imaginary land while they are living in a transnational setting but still any transnational character will definitely be loyal to the ancestral home and will contribute in many different ways, like voting, lobbying, contributing money which are closely connected to the classic notion of nationalism. Schiller said in her essay that, “Actions taken by long-distance nationalists on behalf of this reputed ancestral home may include voting, demonstrating, lobbying, contributing money, creating works of art, fighting, killing and dying. Long-distance nationalism is closely connected to the classic notion of nationalism and the nation-state” (570-571). These are the similar thoughts shared by Anderson who said in his book Imagined Community that the part of the national fraternity can “willingly die” (7) for such limited imaginings. If we get back to the history of Bangladesh, the liberation war was terrifying and freedom fighters fought for the nation. People care about their nation more than their lives because of nationalistic sense. Citizens who are living in the land are willing to die for the nation because independence is another form of safety and freedom from other nations and individual who intend to harm the mother land. Loyalty and patriotism unite immigrants for loving the ancestral home. For long-distance nationalists, contributing money and lobbying are the best ways to help the ancestral land. In In The Light of What We Know, Mohammad Jalaluddin financially contributes after the American invasion of his mother nation. Though he lives in America and does not need to get back to his country but still, his mother land pulls him to reconstruct the country. Zafar comments that, “Beginning in the autumn of 2001, Afgani-born professionals working in public policy or international development, numbering a few, scattered across the globe, were drawn into the incipient reconstruction efforts after the American invasion of their mother country” (133). They also lobby for the benefit of their mother nation so that the home nation can stand out from the Waste it has become for the neocolonial greed of West. On the other hand, in Brick Lane, Channu‟s intention of contributing to his mother land provides the fact that he is a long-distance nationalist and he thinks as the colonialist thought before like British benefits from Indian subcontinent.

A Journey Through Homeland 

Rahman‟s novel finds out its journey through Bangladesh, a nation where Zafar was born
in the time of Liberation war. Being a war child Zafar suffers a lot about his diaspora nationality too. It is the responsibility toward any migrated individual to stay connected to the imaginary homeland through any kind of contribution and Zafar‟s journey as a diaspora nationalist is not a significant one but it will definitely help us get into its core. Zafar is a second generation immigrant in England and his parents are mostly loyal to the imaginary homeland. To analyze the diaspora identity where national borers never delimit membership in a national territory, a person may live in a different country and can still be connected with the imaginary homeland. First generation immigrants are naturally connected to the home nation where second generation or later generations are connected through their understanding of root and identity. And a long-distance nationalist may never live in the home nation but it never abrogates the relationship between them. Nina Glick Schiller says that,

National borders are not thought to delimit membership in the nation. The members of the nation may live anywhere around the globe and even hold citizenship in other states. This does not in the view of long distant nationalists, abrogate the relationship between members of the nation and their national homeland (571).

If a member of a nation lives outside the border, she/he does not become an alien because the nation never abrogates the relationship between the members of the nation and their national homeland. The relationship between a nation and the member is like a relationship between mother and son or daughter. Wherever s/he lives, the relationship never ends. Rahman introduces many characters who are nicely maintaining the connection to their home nations. Zafar, maintains a very good connection with his ancestral land. Though it is really hard for him to identify Bangladesh as his home but his feeling of nostalgia gives us a hint that how much he feels for Bangladesh. Zafar is never disconnected and not even the nation disconnects him from the land. Though his upbringing in a western country has created a lot of complications but it is his transnational identity which affords him to a critical view of his own cultural identity so the connection is often seen as blurred. Bhaba has pointed out that “literature, specifically postcolonial study looks into issue of migration from a critical point of view as opposed to a holistic one. Literature studies the phenomenon of transnationality to give it recognition of the more complex cultural and political boundaries that exist on the cusp of these often opposed political spheres” (173). He also suggests that, “migration, diaspora, displacement, relocation” gives cultural transformation a complex form that shares a transnational dimension” (172). While
living in a transnational setting and maintaining ancestral value and culture, inevitably becomes complex for an individual to maintain a pure cultural value. What is politically correct in West, may become politically incorrect in East, So always, there is a political and cultural boundary among westerners and others which cannot be broken. In that case immigrants, living in western countries like Britain and America, have cultural and existential crisis and complexities which neither can be solved nor can be left unsolved.

Colonialism has left us a very complex power nexus where sub-continental people, after
the colonialist left, become accustomed with the master and slave relationship as it was in the time of colonialism. The superiority complex has taken root into the heart of the colonized. In The Light of What We Know, the author is terrified with the idea of superior ideology, Zafar‟s British citizenship and transnational identity has given him a behavioral syndrome called “Shahib Syndrome” which makes him aspire to belong to British society with elites. David Maine commented on In The Light of What We Know,

While living in Pakistan for ten years, I often noted how a certain class of sub-continental man was prone to what I called “sahib syndrome” – the need to sit in a drawing room and pontificate, at length, about this or that issue. Everyone else was expected to listen and agree. I have never met Rahman, and I‟m sure he‟s a terrific guy, but man, he has a bad case of sahib syndrome.”

As the novel implies, characters are connected to the western culture and believes in western supremacy. Cultural hegemony, crucially brainwashes the mind of colonized and makes us believe that the western culture is the most civilized culture. People from the colonized countries, either living in the mother land or living abroad, accept western culture and try to carry that culture for self-satisfaction. The Sahib syndrome among people living at home or abroad is very common. Zafar finds western culture as the preferred one and follows accordingly, but his Asian ethnicity brings him down to what he really is. He is even ashamed of his parents because of their short comings and cultural difference. The narrator says, “I believe that while he was ashamed of his parents, he was more ashamed of being ashamed” (7). His connection to the home nation is also the same, and that is why he is ashamed of recognizing Bangladesh as his home rather he identifies himself as British. The syndrome was with him when he came to Bangladesh. The smell of the food being cooked was “terrific” and he describes the event as he is a British. Zafar quotes, “The stallholder was frying a mixture of onions and chickpeas with some spices, and the smell was, as Brits would say, terrific. I had eaten nothing more all day than the mango the boy had given me” (81). Despite having Bangladeshi parents, his attitude shows, the arrogance of a British sahib. The attitude of Zafar is more dual nationalist than transnational‟s. Because he has soft corner for his ancestral homeland and in the meantime, he dislikes the culture of the homeland which makes difficult situation for Zafar. On the other hand, the unnamed narrator does not call America as his home. The feeling of transnationality completely
rejects a particular identity but transforms them into transnational beings. This sentiment makes a very complex identity in Rahman‟s unnamed narrator and Zafar. Zafar is connected to his ancestral land but the narrator is not connected and never shows his nationalism. Zafar, has undoubtedly been portrayed as a modern man with dilemmas that are not only irresolvable but also difficult to express or understand. The shifts in narration from Zafar to his unnamed friend reveal Zafar‟s experiences of transnational dilemma which evokes his duel nationality.

But Ali‟s protagonist, Nazneen has rather a different feeling about her home land and she
expresses her thought about Bangladesh without any hesitation, she imagines getting back to the place where she had her pleasant childhood. There are so many memories which always connect her to the mother land but the only trouble is getting back to Bangladesh requires more money which they do not have. At the beginning of the novel, Nazneen talked a lot about getting back to Bangladesh but eventually she turns to become independent and decides to live in London. Unlike Nazneen, Karim has the same dilemma that Zafar has. His feeling of motherland is tied to Britain rather than Bangladesh and he is ashamed of being Bangladeshi like Zafar. His desire to become pure British is his sahib syndrome which changes after he understood the value of his religion and culture. He turns out as an activist to protect Muslim community in London. Another character, Chanu who thought he will become a big man in London because he has a degree in English literature fails to build his career as he dreams. He praised Britain and British values but later on he becomes more intimate with the feeling of returning to the country eventually because he feels safe and honored in Bangladesh. The connection between the nation and Ali‟s characters are not hostile rather a sweet one gives Nazneen a feeling of nostalgia.

Concern of Exile 

The novel is mostly based on Zafa’s fluctuating narrations that moves through time,
philosophy, mathematics and politics. It is hard to keep track of his narration. He starts talking about maps that brings the subject of nation and colonialism and then shifts to Gödel‘s theory of philosophical mathematics suggesting that nothing we know is absolute. Everything has its limitations, especially knowledge that sometimes solely relies on the imaginary boundary of territories. The narrative style of Zafar seems to build a connecting route to each of the subjects like politics, mathematics and philosophy. Throughout the novel we can understand his anxiety and his constant feeling of „exile‟ from Said‟s essay and Eliot‟s poem shows his paranoia about the uncertainty of his place whether he can be considered to be inside or outside the western world. The book starts with an excerpt from Said‟s Reflections on Exile saying,

Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted. And while it is true that literature and history contain heroic, romantic, glorious, even triumphant episodes in an exile‟s life, these are no more than efforts meant to overcome the crippling sorrow of estrangement. The achievement of exile are permanently undermined by the loss of something left behind forever. (1)

Zafar‟s experience of the feeling of exile is an healable wound that threatens his existence which Rahman has introduced in the beginning of the novel. Though it is not political but his self and his true home is never found out because of his transnational identity. This is not only Zafar‟sself-bestowed identity but also the other immigrants living in the western world. The sadness that is carried by all these diaspora inhabitants can never be comforted but creates a massive effect on the transnational world. In this system of transnational and transcultural community, long-distance nationalism can be the only option to be connected to the ancestral home land. On the other hand, in Brick Lane, Karim is the alternative to Zafar who aspires to belong to the British society and recognizes that the British culture and life style is far more superior than any other culture. Similarly, Karim is a second-generation migrant born and brought up in London, though seemingly British, he cannot be seen as rooted in the host nation. If abroad is considered as the antonymic opposite of home then unhome occupies a dislocated space that is in between home and abroad. Though Karim is lost in this transnational world but his eventual action goes in favor of his ancestral and religious belief. Karim‟s outfit and moral standing was totally different but when he joined the Bengal Tigers he changed overnight. The transformation that he has for the benefit of the Muslim community in London, is influence by his root and culture. The narrator says, “Karim had a new style. The gold necklace vanished; the jeans, shirts and trainers went as well” (312). While Karim transformed because of protecting the
Islamic value, some of the parents told their daughters to leave their headscarf home.
Demonization of Islam at home and abroad by western countries after 9/11, becomes serious and transformed the world in many ways. Long-distance nationalists highlight what is wrong and they even go against their own community to protect the larger picture of the community. In Brick Lane,the post 9/11 world becomes vulnerable for Muslims living in western countries, particularly in Britain and America and plenty of organizations were opened for protecting Muslim communities. This part highlights the common benefits for the Bangladeshi immigrants living in Brick Lane, and it considers common descent, blood and the Bengali race. Karim says, “We are taking a vote. What are we for? We are for Muslim rights and culture. We are not protecting our local ummah and supporting the global ummah” (198). So this proves that the long-distance nationalist always works for the benefit for their own community and the community must share a common descent and race.

Though these characters are living in between the host nation and the imaginary
homeland and they claim loyalty from both because they do not understand their own belonging and existence, they live in an utterly confusing state of transnationalism. Schiller has pointed out that, “By knowledgeable estimates tens of millions of people are long-distance nationalist, claiming loyalty to two countries” and “this kind of belonging often exists in the realm of the imagination”(571). There are millions of people like Zafar and Karim in the world, claim to belong to two nations but the terror associated with the loss of the recognizable self becomes dynamic when it leads the individual to build a bridge between the two spaces of the home signified by the private sphere, and abroad signified by the public sphere. The bridging becomes a pragmatic act because home exists as a sublimated presence even in the unhomed space, thereby weakening the intensity of dislocation. Bhabha‟s explains that, “This kind of confluence and mingling can be understood as the kind of “unhomely” (13) space that occupies either the uncomfortable position of the private or the public sphere and creates a feeling of exile without being rejected by those nations. In Brick Lane, the Bengali Muslim community lives together in Tower Hamlet and always maintain their own culture. Though other people are also living there but a significant portion of Bangladeshi people are there. Long-distanced nationalists create their own presence in the host nation as a community and keep their national culture in focus. So it is a little Bangladesh in Brick Lane protecting their own national value but at the same time these immigrants are loyal to the host nation as well. It is often seen that a minor community sticks together for their own protection and cultural values. Schiller points out, “They may instead organize common cultural or social projects that promote the interest of the member of the diasporic population wherever they have settled”(571). So the main purpose is to promote a nationalistic agenda in another nation they call their host nation. This type of community also runs some cultural or social projects that may help the nation or a particular community the home nation has commonality with. Ali‟s important character Karim is connected to an organization which is working to protest the western invasion of Afghanistan. They collect funds for helping
Afghanistan, a Muslim nation devastated by the neo-colonial agenda of the west. Karim‟s ideas about the state of Muslims all over the world rouse in Nazneen a sense of community beyond Towers Hamlet. Brick Lane comments on Nazneen saying “She learned about her Muslim brothers and sisters. She discovered Bosnia” (259). She donated money for the children in The Gaza refugee camps. The contribution for the children of Gaza highlights another feature of long-distance nationalism, despite being Bangladeshi immigrant, living in Britain they contributes because of the same religious and continental tie. The community which is to keep the Bangladeshi people and culture protected is beyond Brick Lane. It touches international boundaries. The idea of „common blood‟ or common descent are important identical scale for long-distanced nationalism which are also common to the concept of nationalism. The diaspora keeps ties with them in terms of descent and revitalized identities. This concept gives an identity to these transnational citizens according to their race which is believed to be pure. Getting back to home seems like a process of purification. Because the root of the diaspora nationalist depends on his or her home nation. The essay mentions, “To legitimize the connection among the people who can claim membership in the transnational nation-state, long-distance nationalists often
highlight ideas about common descent, blood, and „radicalized‟ identities that have long been a part of concepts of national belonging. They claim that people share a common history and political destiny because of “blood ties”(574). So long-distance nationalists focus on their blood connection to find out national belonging and this is the proper way of recognizing people and their root. Zafar‟s journey to Bangladesh reminds us of his affinity for his root and identity. Zafar goes on saying, was in great tranquility when he was in Bangladesh. On the other hand, Chanu in Brick Lane says as a Long-distanced nationalist that pull of the land is stronger than the pull of the blood. Racial understanding comes from nationalistic sense which is constructed on the basis of the root of blood and blood connection comes from a land called home.


Long-distance nationalism is the latest form of nationalism which is the creation of
diaspora culture and transnational identity. In the globalized world, people live with the crisis of identity and cultural value but people do not leave their roots completely. The idea of home for immigrants is an idea of great value because it reminds us of our existence and root. People who live in a distant land do not forget about the imaginary home land rather they stay faithful and connected. A long-distance nationalist keep good connection with the ancestral land and contributes to the nation s/he feels as the actual home. Brick Lane and In The Light of What We Know introduce us to a transnational world where a nationalistic ideology fades away but the relationship to the homeland remains. Characters of Ali and Rahman are truly connected to the imaginary homeland while living abroad and contribute in different ways. The affinity they have for Bangladesh inevitably proves their nationalist contribution to the Bengali race and community. Contributing with money, lobbying, and protecting Bengali community are the basic contributions of the long-distance nationalist in these both novels.


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