Native Believer

Native Believer

by Ali Eteraz


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Shortlisted for the 2018 Saroyan Prize, presented by Stanford Libraries

"Native Believer stands as an important contribution to American literary culture: a book quite unlike any I've read in recent memory, which uses its characters to explore questions vital to our continuing national discourse around Islam."
New York Times Book Review, Editors' Choice

"M.'s life spins out of control after his boss discovers a Qur'an in M.'s house during a party, in this wickedly funny Philadelphia picaresque about a secular Muslim's identity crisis in a country waging a never-ending war on terror."
O, the Oprah Magazine

"Native Believer is a page-turning contemporary fiction that addresses burning issues about the very essence of identity, and without question Ali Eteraz is a writer's writer, one whose ear for the English language is just as acute as fellow naturalized Americans Vladimir Nabokov (born in Russia) or Viet Thanh Nguyen (Vietnam)."
Los Angeles Review of Books

"[A] poignant and profoundly funny first novel....Eteraz combines masterful storytelling with intelligent commentary to create a nuanced work of social and political art."

"Eteraz's narrative is witty and unpredictable...and the darkly comic ending is pleasingly macabre. As for M., in this identity-obsessed dandy, Eteraz has created a perfect protagonist for the times. A provocative and very funny exploration of Muslim identity in America today."
Kirkus Reviews

"In bitingly funny prose, first novelist Eteraz sums up the pain and contradictions of an American not wanting to be categorized; the ending is a bang-up surprise."
Library Journal

"Who wants to be Muslim in post-9/11 America? Many of the characters in Ali Eteraz's new novel Native Believer have no choice in the matter; they deal in a variety of ways with issues of belonging and identity in a society bent on categorizing, stereotyping, and targeting Muslims."
KPFA Pacifica

"Ali Eteraz is a pen name that means 'Noble Protest.' In his darkly funny debut novel, the protest may not be entirely noble, but it is essential—the story follows M., a Philadelphia man who is Muslim by birth but not by belief. When he gets fired for owning a copy of the Quran, his life spirals out of control as he tries to find some semblance of a place in the world."
Literary Hub

"A sad, funny, and haunting novel that debates what America is. The novel captures post-9/11 U.S. in a brilliant satire . . . With the groundwork laid for an ending that will surprise readers, Native Believer offers no pat answers about being Muslim in America, but it does pose a lot of good questions."
Rain Taxi Review of Books

Ali Eteraz's much-anticipated debut novel is the story of M., a supportive husband, adventureless dandy, lapsed believer, and second-generation immigrant who wants nothing more than to host parties and bring children into the world as full-fledged Americans. As M.'s life gradually fragments around him—a wife with a chronic illness; a best friend stricken with grief; a boss jeopardizing a respectable career—M. spins out into the pulsating underbelly of Philadelphia, where he encounters others grappling with fallout from the War on Terror. Among the pornographers and converts to Islam, punks and wrestlers, M. confronts his existential degradation and the life of a second-class citizen.

Darkly comic, provocative, and insightful, Native Believer is a startling vision of the contemporary American experience and the human capacity to shape identity and belonging at all costs.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781617754364
Publisher: Akashic Books
Publication date: 05/03/2016
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Ali Eteraz is based at the San Francisco Writer's Grotto. He is the author of the coming-of-age memoir Children of Dust (HarperCollins) and the surrealist short story collection Falsipedies & Fibsiennes (Guernica). Eteraz's short fiction has appeared in the Chicago Quarterly Review, storySouth, and Crossborder, and his nonfiction has been highlighted by NPR, the New York Times, and the Guardian. Recently, Eteraz received the 3 Quarks Daily Arts & Literature Prize judged by Mohsin Hamid, and served as a consultant to the artist Jenny Holzer on a permanent art installation in Qatar.

Read an Excerpt


This is the story of an apostate's execution. It begins two years ago, under Mars, when I invited the people of Plutus Communications to our apartment and served prosciutto palmiers, braised ram shanks, and bull-tail stew. The aim of the festivity was to welcome, to bewitch, to charm one George Gabriel, the Philadelphia branch's new boss sent from New York. By appealing to him I hoped to circumvent the hierarchs who had prevented me from getting my own team at work, who had sequestered me in the wrongly named Special Projects.

The deeper I got into my thirties — the decade where choice replaces chance as the Prime Mover of life — the better I became at such supplicatory hosting. I wore charcoal slacks and an off-white cardigan with silver buttons. In America, those who want something have to dress like those who already have everything.

I pulled open the curtain and confirmed the snow outside. The art museum, with green streaks in its fading copper, sat on its stony plinth like an old country dame, once a beautiful golden goddess, now crisscrossed with varicose veins, incapable of getting up. Chipped stairs fell like an aged necklace at her feet. A solitary man trudged up the steps, the gauzy snow-curtain a wedge that perforated around him. It was cold outside, but within me there was warmth.

I made the preparations alone, while Marie-Anne, my wife of nine years, after spending a week at MimirCo's headquarters in Virginia, took the train back from DC. I wondered how she would greet me. Her departure had not been amicable. When I had dropped her off at 30th Street Station I had made the mistake of gesturing toward a pair of toddlers. "Control your uterus," she had retorted. "So tired of your ovulation."

Marie-Anne wasn't expected until eight, around the same time as the guests. But she took the Acela and got into 30th Street Station two hours early. She cabbed it home and burst through the door of our apartment, throwing the luggage near the umbrella rack, shuffling my way with arms extended. She had forgotten the events of a week ago and I was ready to forgive as well. If I was ever going to persuade her to start a family, I had to show her that I was an edifice of patience and absolution, like a father was supposed to be.

"I-can't-analyze-any-more-video," she droned.

"There's my busy buzzard." I always used that phrase, partly because of the consonance and partly because her job involved hovering above others. "How is work?"

"So many feeds. We are in four countries now."

Marie-Anne's job at MimirCo involved taking notes on video collected by unmanned aerial vehicles and writing brief summaries about the hours of footage. Most of what she described were naturalist scenes, with the occasional appearance by human subjects. As a creative writing graduate, Marie-Anne was well suited to writing about topography.

"Well, now it's the weekend. Now you can rest."

"MimirCo doesn't take a day off," she said. "I brought the laptop home. I have a bunch of reports to write."

"I thought you were gonna call them vignettes ..."

"Yeah, then I can change the locations and submit them to literary journals!"

She grasped me by the waist and pulled. She was a tall, full-figured, plump woman, standing six-foot-one over my five-foot-eight. When she wore heeled riding boots, like now, I had to look up at her even more than usual.

We touched tongues because it was easier than extending our necks. She fluttered hers. When Marie-Anne was in a good mood like this — which had been rare since MimirCo expanded operations to the Middle East and Africa — her light-green eyes kindled warm and she ran her white hands through her titian hair in such a way that there was no one more enthralling.

"You didn't need to catch the early train," I said. "I have everything under control."

"I wanted to work out before the party," she said, tugging at the flesh on her waist. "If I hurry I can still get it done."

"Gotcha. Well, I hung your workout clothes in the bathroom. And your poem is in its usual spot."

She changed, put her music player on her arm, and, because it was difficult for her to bend forward and reach her feet to tug on her sneakers, sat down on the floor.

Three years ago she had put on forty pounds, almost overnight, going from a voluptuous size twelve to a hefty twenty-four. She started working out like a triathlete, but this only served to increase her weight. Twenty more pounds gained. And another ten. The doctors couldn't figure it out. Then it was discovered that it all had to do with cortisol. The hormonal steroid in our bodies that helped our ancestors scurry away from saber-tooth and woolly mammoth; the engine behind the flight mechanism; the stress hormone. Under normal conditions, after peaking during a moment of stress, cortisol was supposed to go back down, to let the body decelerate. But in Marie-Anne, after every stressful incident, cortisol increased.

"I am basically a 'roider," she'd said when they told us that her hormones had a hard time coming to rest. In fact, that was why her initial exercising had worsened her weight: it had come out of panic. The doctor said that she would only be able to lose weight if she attained perfect tranquility. Not only in the day-to-day, by way of better breathing and mental relaxation, but also by being in a harmonious mental state when she exercised. I didn't get to learn more about the problem because Marie-Anne said it made her self-conscious for me to speak with her doctors and it would be best if I left myself out of future conversations between "me and my physicians." I had respected her wishes.

As for the exercise and the tranquility, we had come up with a solution on our own. I was to write her a poem before every visit to the gym, because she said my poems reminded her of our first few months together, soothed her. Over the past three years I had written close to six hundred poems. Iambic pentameter. Blank verse. Abecedarians. Sonnets. It hadn't been easy because I was more a reader than a writer. But by studying everyone from the Elizabethans to the Germans to the Victorians and Americans, I had managed a steady output. And the tactic had been effective. Marie-Anne shed thirty pounds. She was not close to where she wanted to be, but she was on her way, there was progress. I took delight in the notion that we had united not just our wills, but even art and exercise, all to push back against the hegemony of disease. It was the kind of self-sacrificing defense that a couple could only pull off in a marriage, where the early incendiary crackle of passion turned into the more sedate but reliable warmth of loyalty, where you could trust the other person not to bail on you after you had helped them.

But the fight wasn't just about me and Marie-Anne. It was about children. She told me that the doctors had said that unless she lost the weight, they would advise us against trying to have children. In fact, they said that while the child would likely handle birth just fine, because of the hormonal imbalance the weight caused, labor could be fatal for the mother. The thought of putting Marie-Anne at risk was obviously unacceptable. But the thought of going without children was unbearable as well. I was a second-generation American with dead parents. I had no aunts or uncles or siblings. I had no community. Putting children into the American bloodstream was the only way for me to have a people. I simply could not let that chance slip away. I couldn't be the end, because I hadn't even gotten to begin. My poems, therefore, were not just the soundtrack to weight loss. They were, however badly weighted, spears prodding against oblivion.

Marie-Anne went to the gym downstairs. I imagined the two security guards ignoring her as she walked past. Once she would've been ogled, their eyes peppering her rump, her waist, the palpitation of admiration thrumming through their bodies, cocks. But that Marie-Anne was gone. Now she only had bloated elbows and folded shoulders. I pictured her walking, collapsed into herself, like she was seeking to disappear into some central cavity, calling herself the Michelin Woman, Pillsbury Doughgirl, Big Bertha. Despite her self-pity, I admired her. How could she keep going like that? Making one step follow another, and all with a smile on her face? I, meanwhile, felt broken if someone didn't notice my new cuff links or a new haircut. Marie-Anne had an inner reservoir of survival that I didn't. Where other people might have scattered, she became gathered. She made me wonder if there were two types of people in the world: the lakes and the sands. If so, I was among the latter, the lesser.

I went back to the kitchen and checked on the drinks, placing the bottles of Latour and Papé Clement in line with our egg-shaped bowls with beveled stems. I found a soft cloth and cleaned each glass thrice. Then I arranged the Belgian beers purchased at Monk's near Rittenhouse, and removed every smudge from their surface.

Finally, there was the centerpiece of our wine collection, given to us as a gift by Marie-Anne's father the last (and final) time he had come up from South Carolina: a single bottle of Cheval Blanc '98. I wiped it down and pushed it to a more prominent position. Dr. Quinn had come alone, without his wife, Florence Quinn, who didn't socialize with us.

I made one more sweep of the living room. Found a couple of inkless pens, a limp headband, and an unmarked bottle of pills. Vitamins by the look of them. I put everything on Marie-Anne's desk.

It was cardio day for Marie-Anne. She came back within thirty minutes. Her round moon face, with its thickness across the neck and back of the head, was covered in a watery sheen. The cortisol spike had also made her hairier. The thick sideburns were like red steam shooting from her ears. Her scent had also thickened — a peppery ferocity. Since she started exercising her limbs had thinned out a little, but her middle was still expansive. She resembled a kind of sun-dried brick. But this was better than the ball she used to be before the exercise.

She gave me a peck on the forehead, put the poem in a scrapbook, and went to the shower. A few minutes later she came out wearing the tight purple sweater dress that I had laid out. She had added black stockings to it. She considered putting on a pair of boots and then dismissed the idea "since it's my own house." The dress was an old one, before "the great expansion" as she called it, and it was still a couple of sizes too small. I regretted my error. But I wasn't about to suggest that she should change. I was still in love with her and enjoyed the gratuitous sight of her flesh. More flesh on your beloved was just more beloved flesh.

She stood in the doorway outside the second bedroom, which doubled as our study. I came up to her and touched her hip. She playfully pushed me on the chest. But as I was fading away she grasped me by the wrist and crushed me back into herself. She put her hand on the top of my skull and turned my head toward the room.

"What is that?" She pointed to the desk I had purchased in her absence.

"Don't worry," I said. "It's not a crib."

She ignored my dig. "You got new furniture without checking with me? It looks expensive."

My tone turned into a salesman's. I walked up to the desk and waved my hand up and down its side like a showgirl. "Listen, Marie-Anne, just hear me out. Acquired in the heart of Philadelphia's historic Antique Row, this desk, this tan burr walnut desk, represents a Southern revivalist strain of design. A triple-paneled leather top, and look, just look, at these piecrust edges. And the drawers, would you believe, they have swan handles. The whole thing rests on cabriole legs. Just imagine the history that sits in the soul of this desk. Imagine how much of America it has witnessed."

She walked around it, trailing her finger behind herself like the train on a dress. "I like it."

"Well, that was easy."

"I'm easy when you persuade with Southern jingoism."

"Does that mean that you're about to go down on me?"

"No, Lord Dark Wind, I am not." The nickname had a backstory. In the comics, Lord Dark Wind was the Asian scientist who injected adamantium into Wolverine's body. Marie-Anne called me this whenever I requested fellatio because giving me head created a metallic taste in her mouth.

We headed into the living room and waited for the guests. Marie- Anne put Erik Satie's Gymnopédies and Gnossiennes on the stereo and we stood by our tenth-floor window overlooking the southeastern edge of Fairmount Park. She hugged me from behind and we watched the snow spread over Philadelphia. Denuded trees, bereft of their vegetative ornaments, cowered in the wind. One tree, standing in the grove next to a town house, inscribed with a long knotted branch something invisible upon the glass.

I leaned back and let myself feel at peace. Maybe her good mood meant Marie-Anne would be able to impress George Gabriel a little. Maybe the social capital gained could bring an end to my career rut. Maybe a raise would follow. The extra cash would be nice, because for the longest time I had been raving about one of those retro-looking cast-iron stoves, the ones that came fitted with lava rocks, teppanyaki grills, and induction plates. My mouth drooled at the thought of the cooking that could be done on such a range.

Marie-Anne, meanwhile, went back to the bedroom and decided she was more comfortable in a long skirt and a long white dress shirt.

I heard her standing in front of the mirror, referring to herself as a polar bear.

* * *

It was the old secretaries of Plutus Communications — Danielle, Beatrice, and Connie — who were first to arrive. They had lived in the city all their lives and took our view toward North Philadelphia as an opportunity to talk about the city's history. They panned their hands along the length of Girard Avenue and talked about when the black neighborhoods were white, before the Great Migration brought Southern blacks into Philadelphia.

"How're y'all liking the food?" I asked.

Beatrice chuckled and fixed her horn-rimmed glasses. "I never got over how you still say that. Even after all these years with us Yankees. How long now?"

"Thirteen years since I left Atlanta," I replied. "But why wouldn't I talk like that? I was born in Alabama. Cow-tipping country."

The laughter caused the briefly formed convergence to pulsate. I looked at Marie-Anne with concern in my eyes because no one else had shown up yet. She sensed my disquiet and squeezed my arm. I checked on the texts and e-mails. There weren't any. Most of the people who I had invited, though familiar with me as a colleague, didn't know me well enough to keep me updated about their arrival. I hadn't even gotten RSVPs.

It took ten more minutes of nervous small talk with Danielle before someone else arrived. It was a group of three. Sam Arrington, Aaron Paul, and Mark Stark. They were associates, about four years my junior. I took their coats. They had heard about the party from one of the secretaries. They didn't recall having met me; but I knew exactly who they were because I had been the one to orient them on their first day at work and I had an uncanny ability to remember the names of people who didn't remember mine. Their coats smelled of dogs.

Carla and Jesse, two of the newest, came in next. They had found parking in a little row called Pig's Alley and we laughed about the eccentric name. They stood and chatted with me until they realized that I was on Special Projects and not on a particular team, and they went off to merge with Sam, Aaron, and Mark.

The three members of my former team — Candace Cooper, Mark Vasquez, and Dinesh Karthik — were the next to arrive. I greeted them with as much effusiveness as I could muster and then let them be. They huddled in their coats and mittens near the door, leaving poodle-shaped puddles at their feet. I was a little surprised that they had come, particularly after Mark had gotten Dinesh to push me out. It hadn't been very pleasant working with them, but I did miss Candace, whom I had hired and then watched as she leapfrogged me. I could tell she wasn't certain if she should come over and chat. In the end she stayed with her team. I could hear her complaining about the effects of the moisture on her hair. She wished she had gotten her mother's hair instead of her father's.

The idling guests rolled their heads around the apartment and made approving comments. They pointed to the Venetian crystal swans, to a Greek vase, and to the Chagall hanging over the fireplace.


Excerpted from "Native Believer"
by .
Copyright © 2016 Ali Eteraz.
Excerpted by permission of Akashic Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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