So many narratives about rural America in the wake of President Donald Trump’s election have been told through the eyes of the white working class.
Yet Ayaz Virji’s memoir as a Muslim doctor in small-town Minnesota offers a revealing perspective that challenges us to think more broadly about community and faith in Trump Country, where the author chronicles the conflicts between his calling to practice rural medicine and find acceptance in his religious identity.
Virji moved from the East Coast to Dawson, Minn. — about 150 miles west of Minneapolis — to work as a clinic medical director and hospital chief of staff in 2013. He wanted to address the shortage of doctors in rural areas and practice “dignified medicine,” developing long-term relationships with patients. Virji and his family came to love their new home, and his wife, Musarrat, started a thriving salon.
“Love Thy Neighbor,” co-written with Alan Eisenstock, depicts both neighborly kindness and Virji’s despondency in the wake of Trump’s election as he wonders whether his new community is more bigoted than it appears. Some of the most poignant moments in this moving book come when Virji confronts friends and acquaintances who voted for Trump, second-guessing whether the warm welcome he thought he received in Dawson was so genuine after all.
Virji, who is of Indian descent, snaps at one co-worker that the only reason she cares about him is because he has an M.D. after his name — if she could take his brown skin and Muslim faith and put that on a registry, she would.
At one point, Virji even contemplates moving to Dubai. When a Trump-supporting confidant reminds him of the friends he’d be leaving behind, the normally even-tempered Virji retorts: “Some of my friends voted for Trump.” Several assure him that they voted for the president for other reasons, such as hoping he’d fix health care and opposing Hillary Clinton, though a Trump voter at a diner tells Virji that she believes Muslims should be put on a registry.
These scenes skillfully get at the nuanced, complicated realities behind the claim that all Trump voters are bigoted. Virji could have more deeply explored the issues that drove greater Minnesota and places like it to back the president, but this is ultimately about Virji’s own reckoning with how to follow his mission to practice medicine in a place he’s not sure accepts his religion.
Virji’s speeches about his Islamic faith to hundreds of community members — organized with the help of a local Christian pastor — form a narrative thread throughout the book. He devotes the most space to his successful first address, followed by several contentious events with anti-Muslim attendees, as he tries to make the case that only a tiny fraction of Muslims are terrorists who have distorted Islam’s message of peace.
He moves back and forth in time, flashing back to Islamophobic incidents in raw, staccato scenes: a motorist terrorizing his hijab-wearing wife after the Sept. 11 attacks, a patient’s boyfriend threatening Virji at a D.C. hospital and saying he doesn’t want him in the operating room.
Virji claims that a Muslim ban affects even non-Muslims in the community, since it’s immigrants who fill the need for small-town doctors. And he notes that he’s brought seven jobs to the area through his weight-loss business.
The author makes clear that his faith demands more than just prayer — it must be backed up with action. By the end, he decides to stay in Dawson, knowing that he didn’t move there to talk about his faith but finding a new purpose in meeting the challenge.
Love Thy Neighbor
By: Ayaz Virji, with Alan Eisenstock.
Publisher: Convergent, 208 pages, $26.