Kauthar by Meike Ziervogel
13th Aug 2015
Kauthar is much larger than the sum of its 144 pages. Be warned, it is not a story which will sit comfortably in your mind; its sharp edges will jostle your preconceptions and make you question your biases.
The novel quite literally starts with a bang, Kauthar, our protagonist and a British Islamic convert, is aflame; smoke billows from her as she soliloquises on God and those without faith.
‘All the infidels will be punished. I have put myself to the test. All power is with you.’
After this chilling snapshot we are catapulted back in time. Kauthar, following her evening Arabic class, receives a marriage proposal from Rafiq, a handsome Iraqi doctor; seemingly completing her new Muslim life, a world away from her Catholic upbringing.
‘He’s a Muslim. He obeys Allah’s will. And Kauthar doesn’t play games either. Now Lydia, yes, she would have wanted to play.’
Lydia is Kauthar’s former self: 30-something, lacking purpose, her only solace at the bottom of a wine bottle. She embroils herself in a string of meaningless affairs whilst waiting for ‘The One.’ So far, so Bridget Jones. But when Lydia meets Rabia, a convert to Islam, she takes comfort in the beautiful rituals and stability the faith provides her, sets her old life aside and becomes Kauthar.
Throughout the novel, Ziervogel deftly switches between the twin perspectives of her protagonist’s split personality, darting between memories from Lydia’s childhood and adult life; then jumping to the present day to document Kauthar’s immersion in Muslim culture.
Uniquely qualified to write this tale of a woman’s conversion to Islam, Ziervogel is able to write and speak Arabic and holds an MA in Arabic Literature. Her portrayal of Kauthar’s faith is both sensitively and acutely observed, with fascinating insight into the daily prayers and rituals which make up Islamic life.
As the novel unfolds, Kauthar initially seems to find happiness and belonging in her new faith; completed by her loving marriage with Rafiq. But this new bliss is only skin-deep; Lydia still rears her head unbidden in Kauthar’s thoughts, creating disturbing moments of schizophrenic cross-chatter:
‘Lydia strokes his head, strokes the head of my husband. I know it is her. She has crept back and now sits between us.’
Kauthar’s attempts to run from Lydia’s insecurities are futile; in the wake of 9/11 she finds that she is still an outsider despite her desperation to belong. Her husband begins to turn from her, ‘We Iraqis have to stick together,’ leaving Kauthar isolated with only her faith for comfort.
‘He has given us His book, the Quran […] I no longer belong to the world outside the book.’
In tandem with her spiral into breakdown, we watch the Iraq war unfold through her eyes. Alone and angry, Kauthar watches the bombs explode in Baghdad on TV, outraged at the coverage: ‘Clinical precision. No one wounded. No one dead. Only heroes.’
We are led by the hand through Kauthar’s descent into madness, giving us an uncomfortably close glimpse of violent extremism.Ziervogel shows us another side to The War on Terror, one which is not televised and cold; one which is deeply personal and has the potential to incite hatred. We are led by the hand through Kauthar’s descent into madness, giving us an uncomfortably close glimpse of violent extremism.
Although Kauthar’s mounting religious zeal is documented with insight and precision, her character arc could have been more finely wrought. The (rather considerable) jump between Kauthar’s obsessive devotion and her development of violent tendencies in particular would have benefited from being charted at more length. Perhaps the novella is a victim of the brevity of its own form.
Overall, Kauthar is a darkly captivating story of love, faith and desperation which asks probing questions about our post-9/11 world. With characteristic power and acuity, Ziervogel encourages us to shed our preconceptions and view the world through the eyes of another, who may not be as wildly different from us as we first thought.