“'Just as we are to recite the Qur’an in a measured tone, we must also move in a measured and quiet manner in the West. We do not move as a lion, but we move as a panther'” (19).Along the way, Arsenal, points out the dangers of geopolitical Islam and the West’s gullibility thereto, particularly the lack of Western understanding of the 1998-2007 wordcraft sword of Islam as expressed by the thoughts of the character Ahmad as-Sirjani:
“Universal Values. Two simple words….The words would sound secular, adaptable to the Western ear. But the cryptograph would be Qur’anic….It was time for a paradigm shift” (103).Genre and political aspects aside, what makes this novel an outstanding and readable piece of writing is threefold.
First, Swofford has obviously done her research on the history of Islam and the beliefs of the most devout of the ummah. Early on in the novel, the author takes the reader into the Muslim mind and explains Muslim veneration of the prophet and the Qur’an:
“None of the men believed the Prophet had been unlettered. They considered him highly educated for his time and place in history – a statesman, strategist and military general, all wrapped up in the cloak of a prophet. Neither did they have any sense of angst regarding those who considered abrogation of the Qur’anic text a mere exercise in situational ethics. They believed the complete Qur’an was downloaded into the leader of their faith at an instant in time. He merely released the word of god when the time was sensitive, his audience malleable to the message. The original text of the Qur’an was in heaven and the Qur’an on earth represented the active voice of their god and creator” (40).Second, the characters live on the page – both dramatically and humorously. A secondary theme throughout the novel is Islamic misogyny, presented via the attitudes of the central male Muslim characters:
“Men must be careful regarding women. They could not be trusted when alone with a man. A woman could seduce with a look, perfume or the sound of their laughter. Dr. Morgan, [revert to Islam], determined to call his wife prior to leaving for the Hajj” (38).In a moment of contrast that illustrates the dual nature of the male Muslim’s attitude toward women, Anwaar Zakaria, another main character and a comrade of Dr. Morgan’s, takes special care to provide well for his widowed mother even as he furthers the Muslim Brotherhood’s agenda, an agenda which began in earnest in 1962 with a period of strategic planning of three years followed by twenty years of activism. The humorous portions of character development provide balance to the darker aspects of Islamic supremacism and often reflect Swofford’s experience as a registered nurse and as an astute observer of humanity. The reader cannot help but smile when encountering the following:
“The human genome is the most mysterious of treasure maps. A man gifted with physical strength may find his weakness to be an eroding self doubt. He looks good on the court or the field but might prove a disaster in the corporate board room….The woman with great beauty may have a personality which flows along the shallows. She becomes an arm ornament for her husband to later be treated as a cheap objet d’art no longer worthy of his adoration….But the most arresting and trouble-prone of gene maps is a lack of genius married to insatiable curiosity” (28-29).Character development is one of the great strengths of Arsenal!
Finally, Swofford’s minimalistic writing style, which also includes appropriate use of foreshadowing, provides the refreshing reading experience of not being subjected to a single wasted word or a single digression from driving forward the plot and character development. The closing words of the novel offer a representative sample of the style which the entire novel evinces:
“He heard his wife stirring in the bedroom. A good cup of tea would await him shortly. Smiling slightly, he bent down to straighten his prayer rug. And then, he was no more” (218).I highly recommend Tammy Swofford's novel Arsenal. It holds the reader's attention from the first page — all the way through the final sentence. This novel is fiction at its best!
(Arsenal is Tammy Swofford’s first novel and is available at Amazon)