The Masturbation of Samad Iqbal

{Finished with Chapter 6 of White Teeth}

Debby: Ew

Tim: Oh, come on. Is that all you have to say?

Debby: That is simply my response to your title. I feel a little gross just starting this conversation.

Tim: Well, now’s the time to cut loose.

Debby: Okay, well I’d like to start at the end of the chapter and work back. Obviously, we’re referring to Chapter 6: The Temptation of Samad Iqbal. And I think that last line just speaks wonders: “At which point Samad kicked the stool from under him like a man hanging himself, and met the loquacious lips of Poppy Burt-Jones with his own feverish pair.” Zadie Smith did an impeccable job of making me feel incredibly uncomfortable and put off by this chapter. I felt like I was the one slowly getting hung by the awkwardness of the whole thing. I mean, talking about masturbation is one thing. Talking about an old man performing the act feverishly to take his mind of his twins’ hippie music teacher is another entirely.

Tim: I think it’s so funny that you’re so weirded out by this chapter. I mean, it is sort of Iqu-y (so to speak), but it’s really not that explicit. Most of the strangest bits to read come at the very front of the chapter, where Samad is making compromises with himself and his god. That’s also the most interesting part to me. The affair with the teacher just seems inevitable. Learning why Samad does it, and more importantly (to come, I’m sure) how much Alsana knows, that’s right in line with the rest of the book so far. Investigating human psychology. I was actually trying to tell someone what this book is about the other day, and it’s really tricky. The plot is so mundane, but the writing is so good! Somehow the lives of these people are so compelling.

Debby: You’re terribly pun-ny, Tim. And I completely agree that the writing is the essence of this book. I was explaining the “plot” to my friend Jaci over dinner tonight and after rambling on about races and affairs and World War II for ten minutes, I realized I’d lost her nine minutes previous. Somehow Zadie Smith turns four main character’s lives into a spiraling narrative that is compelling. But I really did have a problem with how uncomfortable this chapter made me. I didn’t want to read the last paragraph. I didn’t want them to kiss. I wanted Iqbal to turn around and go back home, to reprioritize his life and recommit to his faith. I didn’t want the teacher to really like him– I wanted her to be surprised that she led him on so far as to have him attempt a kiss. I wanted her to slap him and tell his wife and cause all sorts of drama. I didn’t want to see these two have an affair. I like caring about characters, but I hate having those characters disappoint me.

Tim: Sure, I guess I wanted him to do all that. But there’s no way he was going to do that. He was done as soon he showed up at the school. You went to the last line of the chapter, I go back to the first. I’m curious – I couldn’t remember exactly what drove him to this, but I think there we find our answer. “Children. Samad had caught children like a disease. Yes, he had sired two of them willingly – as willingly as a man can – but he had not bargained for this other thing. This thing that no one tells you about. This thing of knowing children.”

Debby: This makes zero sense to me. I feel like children and masturbating are about as far apart as birds and bees. Don’t people always complain about lower sex drives in their later, parenting years? Years where you work full-time jobs and then realize that children are full-time jobs, too? I thought the intro to the chapter was interesting– defining how a man who becomes a father is forced to turn into someone who cares about children and the environment that they are in. But I do not understand how this constitutes a rationale/reason for an affair.

Tim: Well, that’s kind of the point. Affairs rarely have a good reason. And we can’t argue Samad is behaving rationally through any of this. The chapter is about him trying and failing to rationalize his actions. But as we’ve seen him so far, Samad is self-reliant, proud, and not used to counting on anyone or having anyone rely on him. He tries to self-fulfil. When he’s faced with something he can’t deal with (children and a family) he retreats into himself and his work, where they can’t bother him. “As willingly as a man can.” That’s hardly a universal sentiment, that sounds like a reflection of Samad’s thought process. He’s doing his duty, and like the war, when it’s over his duty should be done with him.

Debby: I don’t think he feels like “his duty should be done with him,” if you’re referring to the fathering of his children. Iqbal clearly grows in his investment in his twins’ lives. The tediously long board-meeting scene emphasizes just how seriously he takes this duty and to what lengths he will go to ensure his children have an outstanding education environment. He has readily engaged in battle with the cultural challenges he and his family must face as noticeable outsiders. I think “knowing” his children only feeds this fire within him to defend and protect… not to masturbate! I just don’t get how that is connected. At all.

Tim: But you don’t actually believe any of that is really for the sake of his children, do you? It’s all for himself! He goes to work for hours and hours and hours and when he’s not there he goes and annoys his wife and others and maintains a friendship with Archie, it would seem, only because Archie is too stagnant to stop being friends with Samad.

Debby: I think Samad has genuinely convinced himself that it is for his children’s sake that he must preserve the statutes of their faith.

Tim: I’ll buy that, although I think just because he’s convinced himself it’s for one reason doesn’t mean it’s not actually for another.

Debby: Doesn’t that go for most things in life, though? We convince ourselves that our actions are pure and adulterated motions, but there’s usually another incentive or motivation just beneath the surface– isn’t there? I would even argue that religion is like that for a lot of people. Especially in Samad’s case, religion serves as more of a device, a cultural identity, rather than a sacred communication with the Creator.

Tim: And I think that takes us right back to a big part of why this book about not very much in particular has been so compelling to this point.

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