Published by Orenda Books. For more information click here.
Review by Nasim Asl
The Arabic word for ‘struggle’, ‘Jihad’, is a word currently heavily associated with terrorism. It is the pure form of the word that Yusuf Toropov has attempted to recapture and reconcile with its contemporary associations in his debut novel, Jihadi: A Love Story. It is, beyond doubt, a story of struggle. Various struggles permeate the narrative, and range from marital disputes to ideological conflicts between the USA and the fictional Islamic Republic.
Simply, the narrative is pegged as the journal of Ali Liddell, a former US intelligence agent, as he reflects on the events that have eventually led him to the prison in which he is writing. He has been stationed in the Islamic Republic, and upon his return to America it is clear that he has not only experienced disillusionment with the US services, but also mass trauma during his placement. His conversion to Islam and his emotional love affair with his captor, Fatima, take centre stage.
The journal itself is a multi-layered experience – readers not only follow Liddell, but also Fatima’s struggle as a female operative in a man’s world, and the racist brutality of some US soldiers stationed in the Islamic Republic. On top of this, the journal is frequently interrupted by the commentary of another US agent, who offers bizarre and sometimes inaccessible reviews of Liddell’s case. Although innovative, this fractured storytelling often makes for a complicated and jarred reading experience which distracts from the heavy themes that weave the stories and characters together.
Jihadi: A Love Story is not a light read, nor is it an easy one. The content is dark – torture and rape are alluded to and witnessed, sadistic soldiers take pride in the racist murders of children, and civilian killings are not always shown to be accidental. Although fictional, the experiences Toropov crafts are harrowingly realistic. As Liddell’s memoirs are contested by Firestone’s annotations, the truth becomes a fickle and morally ambiguous figure. Readers will find themselves gripped by this lack of clarity. Toropov seems to take pleasure in making his readers move between the mentalities of a diverse range of characters, forcing them to uncomfortably sympathise with characters that are, at their core, cruel and twisted as well as those who are victims of injustice.
It’s a scarring novel. Readers will be left constantly wondering and second-guessing both the reliability and veracity of the narrative, unsettled by an authorial voice that threatens to self-destruct at any moment. Populated by a range of characters from both the Islamic Republic and the USA, Toropov constantly flips alliances and questions the truth of what terrorism is within the novel. He plays with the emotions of his readers, taunting them with a lack of clarity before bombarding them with intricate detail. If you can keep up as the memoirs appear to unravel, and adjust to the complex and bold narrative innovations that Toropov manipulates, Jihadi is a novel that will haunt you.
Above all else, Toropov has created an incredibly original and engaging novel that offers a damning insight into the complex emotional and political situations that are currently building in the Middle East. Unsettlingly, his observations then look forward, revealing a glimpse into a future of terror that could be.