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School of Humanities Mister Khan by Christian Joseph DeFeo Thesis for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy September 2009 DeFeo / PhD in Creative Writing / September 2009 Page 2 Abstract This PhD thesis in Creative Writing is a novel with the following synopsis: Wahid Khan, a Londoner of Pakistani descent, is a 37 year old accountant who leads an unobtrusive life. He is a seemingly devout Muslim, loves his wife, enjoys classical music, and takes extraordinary precautions to ensure that all the unhygienic terrors of the city are kept at bay, including clinging to the idea of Switzerland as a utopia of cleanliness.

However, the sedate rhythms of his life alter dramatically after he dons a surgical mask in order to avoid catching bacteria from other passengers on the London Underground.

Because of his nervousness, appearance and ethnicity, this is interpreted as a precursor to a terrorist attack. Not only does he subsequently become the victim of an assault by a terrified mob, also, a media-obsessed policeman, abetted by the prevailing political atmosphere, ensures that he and three of his friends are arrested and detained. Wahid is forced to confront the horrors of British prisons, which are overcrowded, ruled by hardened criminals (who regard “terrorists” as the lowest of the low), and thoroughly unhygienic. His wife is forced to flee the country because of the media’s hostility. Reaching a point of spiritual and psychological crisis, he breaks, but is retrieved from insanity by a combination of Islamic spirituality and modern psychiatry. He is finally freed after his solicitor, aided by a sympathetic judge, forces the system to live up to its stated ideals. In the process, Wahid discovers more about why he is the way he is, the Islamic conception of God, and what he truly cherishes.

The research and contemplative process involved in the creation of this novel is

–  –  –

List of Contents


List of Contents

Declaration of Authorship


Mister Khan

Commentary on “Mister Khan”


Appendix: Looking for God, Finding Freud

DeFeo / PhD in Creative Writing / September 2009 Page 4

–  –  –

I, Christian Joseph DeFeo declare that the thesis entitled “Mister Khan” and the work presented in the thesis are both my own, and have been generated by me as the

result of my own original research. I confirm that:

 this work was done wholly or mainly while in candidature for a research degree at this University;

 where any part of this thesis has previously been submitted for a degree or any other

qualification at this University or any other institution, this has been clearly stated. (Note:

early drafts of approximately the first 20,000 words of “Mister Khan” were submitted as coursework and the thesis for the MA in Creative Writing programme at the University of Chichester in 2007 under the working title “The Way to Switzerland”)  where I have consulted the published work of others, this is always clearly attributed;

 where I have quoted from the work of others, the source is always given. With the exception of such quotations, this thesis is entirely my own work;

 I have acknowledged all main sources of help;

 where the thesis is based on work done by myself jointly with others, I have made clear exactly what was done by others and what I have contributed myself;

 none of this work has been published before submission


–  –  –

Writing a PhD thesis is a taxing journey, but fortunately one doesn’t travel alone.

My thanks go to Aamer Hussein, my PhD supervisor, for his wisdom and counsel throughout my time at the University of Southampton: he has helped me mature as a writer in ways that are too numerous to list here. Special thanks must also go to Dr. Devorah Baum, also of the University of Southampton, for her support and encouragement. Additionally, Professor Peter Middleton and Professor Ros King were helpful and generous. David Swann of the University of Chichester was crucial in giving me the confidence to pursue the ideas which resulted in “Mister Khan”. Professor William Chittick of Stony Brook University was kind enough to answer my questions about Islam in an informative, courteous and beneficent manner. Mr. Julian Bobak, a solicitor for George Ide LLP in Chichester, West Sussex, and a former President of the Chichester Law Society, was helpful in confirming the feasibility of this novel’s legal premises. I am also grateful to my agent, Donelle McKinley, whose arrival late in the process helped sustain my belief in the novel; furthermore, her professional proofreading skills were useful in highlighting minor punctuation and grammatical errors I had made.

My parents, Anna Julie DeFeo and Joseph DeFeo, instilled me with the work ethic which enabled me to labour as thoroughly and swiftly as I have done; while their field of achievement is different from mine, I walk along the paths that they set out. My sister, Danielle Julie DeFeo, provided a frisson of energy throughout my writing of the thesis, which allowed me to see the lighter side even when the words did not flow freely. I would also like to thank my partner, Catriona Louise Davey, who put up with my days, weeks and months lost to thesis writing, frayed nerves, and endless pontificating.

Finally, this work is dedicated to my maternal grandparents, Martin Engelsen Tveit

–  –  –

Mister Khan By Christian DeFeo One Three quick breaths, then a long exhale. The pulse, in response, briefly accelerated and then settled back. A sure sign that one is alive, and according to the imam, it is mubah.

A sea of faces entering the mosque: Wahid was one of them, again breathing quick, quick, quick, then slow. He wore a white cotton kurta, which draped down to just above his knees, and a small knitted cap that covered the top of his head. Important: the cap concealed the two white earbuds extending from his iPod. Ahmed, the boisterous butcher from Brick Lane, with a beard extending from his chin to the top of his enormous belly, did not see them.

He said, “Salaam, Wahid!” Wahid read lips well enough to understand his greeting. He nodded his head, his neatly trimmed beard dipping in time, took another three quick breaths, and gingerly placed his fingers on his wrist to check his pulse. Fortunately, it was still there. “Steady as a drumbeat,” Dr. Al-Haq had said. Hmmm.

Following the tide of other men, he made his way into a vast ivory marble hall, lined with red carpet bedecked with a pattern of blue Turkish tulips; the scent of black tea simmering in the distance filled the air. He found his spot, and slipped off his soft, black shoes and pushed the toe ends up to the wall.

“Little better than slippers,” his wife Rania had said, “Your feet will get wet in the rain!” He assured her that he would wear an extra pair of socks.

“Isn’t it a beautiful morning, Wahid?” Ahmed said from behind, loud enough to

–  –  –

nodded, his vision slightly blurring as his gold wire frame glasses juddered on his nose.

There was little point in arguing with Ahmed; he was the type of person who believed that dead animals were a sign of wealth. Anyone sensible knew the morning was not

beautiful: this country was far too cold. Wahid had a genetic memory which gnawed on him:

the rain, moisture and chill were wrong, an abomination; he was not made for this.

There had been a July day in London when the temperature hit 30 degrees Celsius. He switched on the old black iron ceiling fans in his office. The sun momentarily distracted him from long lists of sums; he stood in front of the window as the light and heat blazed into his window. Yes. The three quick breaths and an exhale were temporarily forgotten.

Wahid wandered into the great hall in his socked feet, carrying his prayer mat rolled up underneath his arm. He reminded himself: “Must pick up some antiseptic later.” It went into the wash for his socks, and he made sure he sprayed the prayer mat with it every evening.

Picking a spot was always difficult. There was no way he could kneel down next to someone who was coughing; Allah knows what disease they could have. Bird flu? He’d been reading in the newspaper about it spreading in Suffolk before going on to the obituaries. This was the largest mosque in Britain; it was possible that someone would drive all the way from there.

Where was a surgical mask when one needed it? The imam had preached that all Muslims were brothers; indeed, but one wasn’t obligated to pick up whatever disease they might have.

He looked further: ah, an empty spot in the third row, perfect. Wahid rolled out his mat; the sharp scent of disinfectant rose from it. An old man was perched in front of him, kneeling. The call to prayer sounded out in the distance.

–  –  –

God did not say anything about iPods to the Prophet. Wahid found that prayers worked better to a beat and time, namely that of Strauss’ “Blue Danube.” Its strains quietly filled his ears as he followed the man in front of him in the waltz before God.

And bend over, two three, and up, two three, and over, two three, and up, two three.

Allahu Akbar. God is great.

And over, two three, and up, two three, and over, two three and up.

God is great. As great as the mighty waters of the Danube and the rushing of the blood through the veins which yields the glorious pulse.

And over, two three, and up, two three, and over, two three, and up. Repeat.

Done. The imam began to speak. Wahid turned up the volume slightly and drew his face into a mask of concentration.

The imam was immaculately groomed; he had a sharply trimmed black beard and wore a pair of tan tinted glasses. His black tunic fascinated Wahid. It was free of dust; there was not a speck of lint on it. It was a tunic worthy of complete admiration. Wahid wondered what lint brush he used, did he use the same dry cleaner…?

He assumed the imam was speaking about the usual themes of brotherhood and maintaining morality. This was more appropriate for his brethren working in the entertainment industry. One of the disadvantages of being an accountant in Wahid’s view was the sheer lack of opportunities for moral indiscretions. He thanked God for arranged marriages, as he had never had to work out a “pick up line” with such unpromising material.

At long last, the sermon ended. Wahid pressed the button on his iPod again and rose to his feet, bending over carefully to roll up his mat. An unwelcome hand clapped him on the back.

Ahmed again. “Have a good day, my brother. Salaam!”

–  –  –

Brick Lane was not an ideal place for an accountant’s office; Wahid had chosen it because it was close to much of his clientele. In the morning there was the scent of the previous nights cooking from the various restaurants; the stench of overcooked Balti Chicken hung in the air, the wrappers from multitudes of takeaway restaurants and old wet newspapers littered the street. The council’s street cleaners were always late and never did a job that Wahid approved of; there was far too much muck, never enough glistening tidiness.

More breathing. Wahid put his hand to his heart; he could feel it beating through his kurta. That was more reassuring. Sometimes his pulse was elusive, a few times he had managed to convince himself that his heart had stopped, and indeed, that he was already dead.

This was better; this confirmed all was well.

“One day, I will die,” he thought as he paced down Brick Lane, carefully navigating through the rubbish of the previous day’s market: cardboard boxes, sheets of plastic, scattered clothes hangers. As he proceeded the narrow lane grew narrower, the restaurants more densely packed. He passed a man in a forest green parka and knit cap who was rapidly sweeping his doorstep.

“One day, I will die.” He wondered how many other people - the man sweeping, the loud Australian tourists in his path who were drunk at 8:30 in the morning, the community parking officer writing a ticket to put on the windscreen of an old white Vauxhall Nova, were thinking about the fact that they were going to die too. Did it not occur to them, ever? Did they just carry on with life until one day it wasn’t there?

How blissful that would be, Wahid thought. Ever since his mind could get around the concept of life being over, he had wondered when it would all end. Today? Possible. He

–  –  –

through the windscreen, and he’d be cut into mincemeat by the broken glass.

He smacked his lips. He had told Rania not to prepare his food with too much ghee but she didn’t listen; he could still taste it lingering beyond the flavour of toothpaste and antiseptic mouthwash. He could have heart disease. His veins were filling up with fat right now, and he’d collapse, dead of a heart attack. He’d seen an American television programme in which the lead character, a dapper, middle-aged man with thinning blonde hair, was walking through the woods at night, and then cried out, clutching his heart.

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