Review: This Life or the Next – Demian Vitanza

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This Life or the Next (AmazonCrossing, written by Demian Vitanza, translated from Norwegian by Tanya Thresher) is the fictionalised story of “Tariq Khan”, a Norwegian Pakistani man who travelled to Syria to undertake jihad. Based on more than 100 hours of discussion with a foreign fighter who returned to Norway and was imprisoned for his involvement with terrorist organisations, both the subject of the book and the author altered details to create a fictional work that nevertheless tells something of a true story.

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Upon reviewing drafts of early chapters of the book, Tariq comments that he thinks his character says ‘right’ and ‘y’know’ more often than he does in reality, and he has a point. At times, there are elements of the characterisation that appear contrived (such as Tariq needing to be reminded of what sunflower seeds were called) or unrealistic (like some of the vocabulary used by a character who ostensibly had too low a GPA to go to high school), and he does say ‘right’ and ‘y’know’ a lot. Over time, however, these issues become less noticeable as the story itself is incredibly compelling.

 
 
 
 
 
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Tariq doesn’t hate anyone, he doesn’t have a vendetta against the West, and his attraction to Sharia Law is based on a preference for rules created by God over those imposed by man. He is a likeable and, more importantly, empathetic, character who talks about his friends, his family, and the difficult moral dilemmas he faces, both in deciding to go to Syria and in deciding how to respond to the situations that arise once there. In reading his story, there are times where it is almost possible to forget that Tariq has gone to Syria to take part in a war, because the book captures the small details of the everyday, visiting ice cream shops and making friends with people in a new land, as well as discussing the horrific activities of ISIS and the near-constant presence of suicide belts and Kalashnikovs.

 

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The modern-day news media is full of film clips and sound bites of violence in the Middle East, focused predominantly on the stereotype-conforming one-dimensional villain narrative, but these snapshots do not capture the multi-dimensional human lives that have led to those atrocities. This Life or the Next attempts to remedy this imbalance. Certainly, there will be a range of motivations behind the actions of foreign fighters who pursue jihad, and not all of them would as naïve as Tariq appears to be – in fact, his friends, Carlos and Arbi, each appear to have very different beliefs about their role and purpose in the war – but this is a story that reminds the reader that things are not always as straightforward as they seem.

 
 
 
 
 
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This Life or the Next is not a book for the faint of heart, as war is brutal, dangerous, and traumatic, and the author does not shy away from that fact. Graphic images aside though, it is, in fact, a very human story, and a captivating one at that.

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Thanks to AmazonCrossing for providing an advance copy of This Life or the Next for review. It is now publicly available for purchase.

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