On the opening page, Arvin Ahmadi’s Author’s Note tells us he’s a gay Muslim who grew up in the States, where he has always ‘felt like a contradiction, coming from a religion and culture that isn’t exactly known for being friendly towards gay people’. He came out to his college friends, but not to his family.
Ahmadi’s experience is very similar to that of his protagonist, Amir Azadi. This is Ahmadi’s third novel and, he says, it is ‘my most personal book’; the kind of story ‘I have always been afraid to write’. At one level, ‘it complies with the narratives you expect from gay people and Muslim people’ in America. But beneath this narrative lies the struggle of a Muslim family to transcend the stereotypes, driven by their love for a son: meanwhile, that son finds that a summer far from home offers so many overwhelming excitements that he can hardly escape confirming his identity as a gay man.
A family relocation means that Amir starts his senior year at a new high school, where he meets Jackson Preacher, a blond, popular football jock – Amir’s seeming antithesis in culture and personality. The two dare to respond to a mutual attraction; electric, sensitive and revealing. Until they’re caught on camera kissing in Jackson’s car by a classmate who blackmails Amir to the tune of $4000. Pay up by Graduation Day, or the family gets to see the photograph.
Amir cuts and runs, telling no-one. He takes a flight to Rome, and with a rapidity that might challenge a reader’s belief, within a day or two he is very much at home in a group of gay friends and the breathless enjoyment of unfamiliar food, wine and all-night parties. All this set against the culture and architecture of the ancient city, from cafes and clubs and music to a moment of epiphany in the Sistine Chapel. ‘Holy shit,’ says Amir, as he gazes up at ‘God and Adam, heavenly homies, with their hands reaching out, fingers barely touching’. Amir’s Roman adventures are punctuated by short chapters carrying the reader forward in time to his return to the States. His mother, father and younger sister, we learn, have tracked him down in Italy, there’s been a family row on the flight home, and now they are being interrogated separately at the airport by Customs officers wary of any Muslim traveller. Each of those chapters reflects the different perspective of a member of Amir’s family.
Readers might think Amir’s pursuit of pleasure and self-knowledge in Rome becomes repetitious. His new friends seem to find their own sexuality endlessly interesting. This ‘most personal’ book is, however, informed by Amir’s explicit and honest descriptions, even though he is often confused by the intensity of it all. Just about in time for this reader, despite Amir’s naivety, Ahmadi allows him to recognise cracks and tensions – a selfishness – within the group; and at the same time, Amir sees the merits of the family life he has left behind in the States, and the hurt he must have caused. The intoxication of his Italian summer begins to wane. Even the mainspring of the group, his fellow Iranian Jahan – whom Amir has seen as a mentor – has his limitations, which he himself acknowledges.
Their responses to the questions of the Customs officials serve as a kind of self-therapy for the family, enabling Amir, his younger sister and their parents to see the new life they need to develop together. As so often with YA books exploring change and growth, the novel’s appeal will depend on what preoccupations and experiences each reader brings to the text.