Opening the literary debut of Islamic preacher Amr Khaled, I couldn’t help but read all the characters’ dialogue in his distinctive high-pitched voice.
The novel, Rafi Barakat and the Secret of the Mysterious Sands (2015), revolves around an idealistic and ambitious young man fighting evil men and difficult circumstances. It reads as a fictional version of the same teachings the famous preacher has taken from mosques to television screens to political podiums.
Khaled shot to celebrity status in the early 2000s as a preacher with a moderate outlook, nice suits and a shaved chin, countering the somber rhetoric of most Islamic preachers at the time.
The appeal of Khaled’s school of Islamic preaching was that he said success and enjoyment in life go hand in hand with religion. It was a breath of fresh air for a large sector of young people and the upper-middle class, who found a comfortable, readymade balance of life and spirituality. Crowds flocked to his sermons in mosques before he was picked up by television.
Khaled later focused on development, adding “social reformer” to his official title. He led several projects under the “life-makers” institution he founded.
Many of Khaled’s followers wer confused when he founded a political party in 2012. He eventually resigned, credibility wounded, as stories of power hunger and personal interests started to emerge.
His latest venture has also been met with skepticism and cemented his image as jack-of-all-trades. There’s more preaching than fiction in the novel, however, placing it right in the heart of Khaled’s original occupation.
The novel is set in an Upper Egyptian village, and follows 14-year-old Rafi Barakat, a boy with “unnatural powers” that range from telepathy and a photographic memory to enforcing his will through mere concentration.
After Rafi’s parents die in a suspicious car accident, he is left with his evil uncle and a heavy mission. The family possesses land that has acquired special properties following a meteor shower. It can be used to generate energy, but can also be channeled toward destruction.
The story is perfectly set up for a bunch of direct lessons. Rafi’s reaching out for his powers teaches you about reaching your potential. The land is a metaphor for double-edged swords. The ultimate message is that good triumphs, always.
The novel is studded with over-idealistic clichés, and in case you can’t easily detect them, they’re spelled out for you.
The characters speak in mantras, lecturing each other about willpower and putting your trust in God, using the author’s trademark sayings and keywords. Hence Khaled’s haunting, high-pitched voice throughout.
It essentially consists of a loop of one formula. Rafi hits a brick wall, gives a dramatic monologue about the importance of persistence, then concentrates and summons up his hidden potential. If that doesn’t work, he follows it up with a prayer to God. Everyone marvels at the success of hard work coupled with prayer. Repeat.
Proving this point again and again takes precedence over creating a sophisticated or realistic plot, making the novel predictable and childishly simplistic.
The concentrated narrative of self-empowerment, which doesn’t acknowledge any of the hard facts of life — like that evil very often wins and trying hard is no guarantee of success — closely verges on victim-blaming.
In a conversation they have with the poor people of the village, Rafi and the village sheikh basically blame them for their situation. Despite acknowledging that they have been deprived of education and job opportunities as Rafi’s evil uncle monopolizes all the village resources, the two say that opportunities are endless and that people have a responsibility to find them.
Having a character with religious authority is convenient. “The poor is a sinner if he accepts his poverty,” is one of many religious “fatwas” the sheikh makes in the novel. The conversation described above ends with the declaration that “the real problem of poverty is helplessness and laziness.”
This idea, which completely absolves the state from its responsibility toward the struggling sectors of the population and ignores the festering corruption that drains resources, can at best be seen as naïve, and at worst as politically motivated.
This stance is in line with Khaled’s current political position: He has expressed support for the current administration and failed to condemn the killing of protesters or any of its other violations.
In another supposedly inspirational story, one of Rafi’s mentors tells him about a woman who beat Alzheimer’s with the power of positive thinking by waking up every day and telling herself she would remember everything. The mentor says that her original memory was restored in three weeks, and makes a statement that is medically questionable and grossly insensitive to millions struggling with the vicious disease: “She beat Alzheimer’s with her subconscious mind.”
Khaled’s insensitivity to known no-nos comes off another time when Rafi travels to India. In his description of the country, a character says one of the most clichéd, racist comments: “The faces are very bizarre — if you look in any direction you will see at least 20 people who look like Ghandi. You’ll think for a second that they are Ghandi’s relatives, but later discover they’re not — that’s how much they look alike.”
Khaled poses some of life’s biggest questions in the novel and conclusively answers them, reflecting an unusual level of self-righteousness and rigidity of thought. He has a character wonder if good or evil is stronger, for example, and in that abstract realm reaches the definitive answer that good is stronger.
In long conversations stretching on for three or four pages, characters role-play some of the most common arguments about Islam. Does it promote violence? Does it forbid love? Khaled puts in their mouths the answers he would say in his television shows. With very little effort to blend these forced conversations into the story, they read like a “How to answer questions about Islam?” manual.
I became further convinced that the characters are representative of how Khaled sees himself after I saw an interview he gave shortly before the novel hit the shops.
In the interview, Khaled recounts a situation in which he experiences a moment similar to those demonstrating Rafi’s special powers. He swears that he created the village in the novel from his imagination, only to later go to the real spot where he situated the town and find a village identical to his creation.
“Newton cleared his heart for a moment and that’s how he discovered gravity,” says an Indian wise man in the book, in a comical exaggeration of the power of good intentions.
Although it was promoted as a book for young people in general, I was relieved to find Khaled saying in an interview that his main target is young teenagers of the protagonist’s age — this still doesn’t completely justify the over simplicity and lecturing tone, but it helps.