[Soho Teen; 2020]
In the opening of Orientalism (1978), Edward Said introduces the subject of his study by way of a French journalist’s nostalgia for pre-civil war Beirut. The journalist laments, “it had once seemed to belong to . . . the Orient of Chateaubriand and Nerval,” referring to two writers of French romanticism who were also notable Orientalists. As Said explains, the journalist’s nostalgia is not for an authentic version of Beirut but a version that had been transformed through French colonialism. Said uses this anecdote to argue that the Orient, and in particular the Middle East and North Africa, is a “European invention.” In the European imagination, the Orient occupies a place of absolute cultural difference; it is a fiction that is able to accommodate a whole mess of European fantasies and fetishes. But, it is also a real place — a real geography, populated with actually existing people and historical customs, which has been transformed as a result of the European imperial project. To lament the loss of Beirut’s downtown area is to wax poetic for a version of Beirut that only existed because of Western intervention and colonial administration.
Samira Ahmed’s third novel, Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know, filters Said’s thinking through the genre of the young adult “social issues” novel. The debt to Said is both explicit and implicit. The novel’s primary narrator Khayyam cites the concept of Orientalism, which she describes as “the prejudiced outsider lens through which the West sees and depicts the East.” But the novel is also guided by a postcolonial desire to recover the lives and stories of the oppressed. First published in 2020 and set to be released in paperback in July 2021, Ahmed’s novel dramatizes how various systems of oppression — including colonialism and sexism — erode our historical consciousness of marginalized cultures and people. When Khayyam discovers the story of Leila, a Muslim woman living in Paris during the nineteenth century, she endeavors to discover evidence of Leila’s life. Khayyam’s growth as a young person, then, is part and parcel of her project of historical recovery. As much as Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know is a familiar novel about the teenage longing for identity, it is also guided by a profound ethic of repair, suggesting that one’s sense of self in the present is dependent upon a recovery of the past.
Khayyam is a young American student of French and Indian descent. She dreams of being an art historian, and even applies for a scholarship to study at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago with an essay about the provenance of a painting by Eugène Delacroix. Her essay is judged by the scholarly committee to be an “ill-conceived attempt at unraveling a mystery . . . the work of a dilettante, not a future art historian,” thus setting up a dynamic of defeat that Khayyam must overcome on her journey toward self-realization. While on vacation with her family in Paris, Khayyam meets Alexandre, the charming descendant of the writer Alexandre Dumas. While searching for a lost painting that Delacroix may have gifted to the original Dumas, the two discover the mystery of Leila, who they believe to have inspired both Lord Byron’s poem The Giaour (1813) and a series of paintings by Delacroix. Together they hunt through the museums and archives of Paris for evidence of Leila’s existence and for tangible proof that would link her to Dumas, Delacroix, and the “Hash Eaters Club,” a group of nineteenth-century artists who would mix hash into their coffee to inspire hallucinogenic visions. While their motivations are different — Khayyam is searching for a college admissions essay and Alexandre for a historical treasure that would help to save his family’s estate from debt — they both ultimately realize that fidelity to the past first requires wresting it from convention and prejudice.
Alternating with Khayyam’s narrative is the story of Leila. Like Khayyam, Leila is a young Muslim woman out of step with the world around her. Like Khayyam, she is a strong and defiant protagonist. And like Khayyam, she speaks in the first person, giving the novel a feeling of authenticity that belies the fact that much of Leila’s narrative, while adhering to what Ahmed calls “the truth” of history, is in fact fictionalized. In short, lyrical passages, Leila describes how she rose to become the favored “haseki” of the Pasha, a high-ranking officer in the Ottoman Empire during the early-nineteenth century. At risk to her own safety, Leila has fallen in love with another man, the titular “Giaour” of both Byron’s poem and Delacroix’s paintings. Leila’s infidelity is punishable by execution in the form of being wrapped in a sack and thrown into the ocean. When a young British poet (Lord Byron) visits the Pasha’s court during his Grand Tour, Leila persuades him to aid her and her lover in escaping the Pasha. Unfortunately, their plan is discovered and, while Leila manages to escape onboard Byron’s ship, her Giaour is killed in combat with the Pasha. In the remaining decades of her life, Leila settles in Paris, where she meets a bohemian cohort of artists that includes Delacroix and Dumas. It is with the latter that she falls in love, despite never acting on that love for fidelity to her fallen Giaour. In the final years of her life, Dumas convinces Leila to write her story in her own voice, the manuscript of which he hides with instructions for his son (Alexandre Dumas fils) to discover.
Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know manages to fit mystery, adventure, romance, and historical fiction into the larger container of the young adult novel. I’m not always sure how well these genres connect to one another. It’s been such a long time since I was a young adult that I’m not sure whether or not today’s young adults would be inspired by an archival mystery. What stands out, however, is how the novel relates “history” as a domain of knowledge to broader themes of identity, privilege, and recognition. Khayyam’s gift, as a narrator, is to interweave her own struggle for self-acceptance with her recognition of who is afforded subjecthood within history. When Khayyam learns about the fate of Dumas’s grandmother — Marie-Cessette Dumas, an enslaved woman from the West Indies who was raped by her slaveholder — she notes, “We see history through a tiny peephole and fool ourselves into believing it’s the big picture.” Reflecting on her own family’s story of living through the Partition of India in 1947, Khayyam observes: “It’s infuriating how few people get to take center stage — mostly men in power, who hog the spotlight while billions more live life in the darkness of the wings.” In a moment of profound clarity, however, Khayyam realizes that she might have the ability to restore some of those lost histories and to uplift marginalized voices. “This is what I’m supposed to be doing,” she says, “helping someone who is lost, maybe because I’m a little lost and trying to find my way, too.”
Writing on the complex methodology that guided his work in Orientalism, Said warns: “The Orient is not an inert fact of nature. It is not merely there, just as the Occident itself is not just there either . . . As much as the West itself, the Orient is an idea that has a history and a tradition of thought, imagery, and vocabulary that have given it reality and presence in and for the West.” It can be tempting, in resisting the hegemony of Orientalism, to turn to some “authentic” version of the past. Can’t we simply turn away from the voices we do hear in favor of those who have been silenced or forgotten? No — at least, not entirely. As Walter Benjamin argues in his essay, “Theses on the Concept of History”: “Articulating the past historically does not mean recognizing it ‘the way it really was’ . . . There is no document of culture which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” In order to redeem the past, we must first contend with the limitations of the present.
Recovering Leila’s story might seem virtuous, at first, but Khayyam is not without her own selfish motivations. After discovering a note from Leila to Dumas, Khayyam muses, “There is obviously an amazing essay in here that I’m sure would blow away the Art Institution judges, but there’s a quiet whisper in my mind telling me we haven’t only been trespassing at the hôtel; we’ve been trespassing on someone’s life, too. Is Leila’s life my story to tell?” The narrative arc of Ahmed’s novel would seem to answer Khayyam’s question in the affirmative. By so artfully weaving together the past and the present, the novel seems designed to suggest that Khayyam fulfills Leila’s story. But Khayyam resists that destiny, even going so far as to argue that Leila’s life story “needs to stay buried.” Granting Leila privacy in death might not remedy the social conditions that led to her historical erasure. But, then again, silence is not the same thing as being silenced.
Ultimately, Khayyam elects to share Leila’s story. In an email that she composes to Leila, Khayyam writes, “This is one thing women can do for one another — amplify the voices of our sisters . . . Maybe it’s my job to make some space on the shelves for your story, Leila, because you deserve to be the protagonist in your own life. Every girl deserves to be.” Khayyam’s discovery of Leila’s autobiography makes possible Leila’s journey to the center of her own story. The ending of Ahmed’s novel has the ease of a good mystery: following one clue after another, Khayyam and Alexandre find a hidden cache of historical goods on the Dumas estate, including the autobiography and a painting of Leila done by Delacroix. And, like any good mystery, the novel’s ending is perhaps less monumental than the path of discovery. At a press conference to discuss the finding, Khayyam wears a shirt emblazoned with the hashtag “WriteHerStory.” Khayyam’s declaration, which is also Ahmed’s, is about allowing young women to see themselves as the authors of their own stories. The idea that every young girl deserves to grow up to be a protagonist is radical not because it merely reverses the hierarchy of whose story is told and whose story is silenced. Instead, it also suggests that the act of writing — of committing one’s self to story — is in open defiance of any easy narrative of linear progress and historical forgetting.