BY PHILLYGRRL Twenty-eight year old Ali Eteraz’s Children of Dust: A Memoir of Pakistan was hardly in bookstores a week before the November issue of Opraha’s O Magazine featured it on its fall reading list. But before he was a published author, Eteraz was a Philadelphian, writing in cafés around the city, albeit one with a reputation for a now-inactive, popular reformist Muslim blog. And now Eteraz has come back to Philadelphia for a reading from his book at the Free Library tomorrow night. In the book, Eteraz narrates his transformation from a young boy attending a madrassa in Pakistan to one whose inner struggle with American Islam leads him on a journey from Manhattan to the Middle East. Phawker catches up with Eteraz to ask him about Philadelphia, Islam and of course – cheesesteaks.
PHAWKER: You’ve lived all over the world, including Philadelphia. As I understand it, you went to school here in Philadelphia as well as wrote part of your book here. What is your relationship with Philadelphia?
ALI ETERAZ: Philadelphia is my favorite American city. When I first came here and drove up and down Broad, I thought to myself: this place sucks. A few months later I was yelling at people if they talked bad about Philly. This city charmed me and I am glad for it. I even adopted the Eagles as my football team. I’ll always put a token Eagle on my fantasy football team. (This year I’ve got Westbrook and Celek)
PHAWKER: Where’s your favorite spot in Philadelphia to write? Or is that a secret?
ALI ETERAZ: I wrote some of my book at the Starbucks on 19th and Chestnut because it had two floors and the upstairs was quiet. It was also close to an amazing burger joint and the CVS. I once got all romantic and went to Kelly Drive to write at the pagoda overlooking Boathouse Row but the mosquitoes, the smell of fecal matter and the sight of occasional rats poking their heads out of the sewer dissuaded me from returning. There was also a nice tea house on Chestnut with a cute waitress. I never got her name…
PHAWKER: Your book is a “darkly comic” account of your experiences growing up Muslim. Tell us a little bit about your experiences in Philadelphia’s Muslim community.
ALI ETERAZ: Philadelphia is one of the few American cities with a large African-American Muslim population and that culture pervades the Muslim scene here. This is pretty unique because in most other places it is immigrant Muslims who get more prominence. I think this dynamic makes the Philly Muslim community more involved in civic and civil liberties issues and more engaged in local, as opposed to foreign policy, initiatives.
PHAWKER: What, in your opinion, is the greatest challenge facing young Muslims growing up in America?
ALI ETERAZ: Not having a sense of humor about life. Thinking that you can actually judge another person is such a horrible way to live.
PHAWKER: On to the Philadelphia cheesesteak. What do you prefer – with or without onions? Also, favorite cheesesteak spot?
ALI ETERAZ: With. I actually never got the hype about Geno’s or Pat’s, though I was always led by tourists to believe it was a big deal. Silly tourists… Can I just say that I love the breaded chicken sandwich at Wawa!
PHAWKER: Which neighborhoods of Philadelphia did you live in? What’s your favorite section of Philadelphia?
ALI ETERAZ: I lived in the Art Museum area. I have also spent way too much time in Rittenhouse Square. By the way I was in Philly long enough to remember when Old City used to be cool…
PHAWKER: The first third of your book is set entirely in Pakistan and details your time at a rural desert madrassa. What do you think of the current volatile situation in Pakistan?
ALI ETERAZ: My view is that Pakistan gets a very bad rap in American press. The fact that suicide bombings occur there should not be an indictment of average Pakistanis who are really rambunctious and party-loving people. The country is currently in the midst of an awesome musical, artistic and literary renaissance — much of it in response to the turmoil — and more Americans should pay attention to that side of Pakistan. I know that people in Philly appreciate rock music — they would be surprised to know that Pakistan is at the forefront of Third-World rock.
PHAWKER: You’ve spent the better part of 3 years writing Children of Dust. What’s next for Ali Eteraz? Back to lawyering? Another book?
ALI ETERAZ: I am working on a novel and a series of short stories, though hopefully my audition as the Phanatic is successful and I can live out my lifelong dream.
Ali Eteraz will discuss Children of Dust: A Memoir Of Pakistan Tuesday, October 20, 2009 7:30PM at the Free Library of Philadelphia Central Library 1901 Vine St Philadelphia
RELATED: One Book, One Philadelphia
THE FREE LIBRARY: The One Book, One Philadelphia Selection Committee has chosen Marjane Satrapi’s The Complete Persepolis as the featured selection for 2010. Originally published in France in two volumes, The Complete Persepolis is Satrapi’s poignant, humorous, and heartbreaking memoir of growing up in Iran during a time of political revolution and repression. An outspoken and imaginative child, Satrapi grappled with understanding the ruling power in her country as she witnessed the overthrow of the Shah’s regime, the Islamic Revolution’s triumph, and the chilling impact of war with Iraq. Detailed in black-and-white graphic images and accompanied by brief text, Satrapi’s story continues through her years as a young adult, as she finds her way as an expatriate student in Austria. Her first-person point of view presents readers with a unique glimpse into Iran’s political repression, the inner-workings of a family, and one woman’s experience as an outsider both at home and abroad. One Book, One Philadelphia is a joint project of the Mayor’s Office and the Free Library of Philadelphia that promotes reading, literacy, library use, and community building by motivating tens of thousands of people to read an annual featured selection. Marking the eighth consecutive year for One Book, the 2010 program runs from January 20 to March 17, 2010. MORE