Literature Study GuidesWhite TeethPart 2 Chapter 6 Summary

White Teeth | Study Guide

Zadie Smith

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White Teeth | Part 2, Chapter 6 : Samad 1984, 1857 (The Temptation of Samad Iqbal) | Summary



Part 2 opens with a quote from British politician Norman Tebbit that addresses the fundamental conflict in the life of Samad Iqbal: his tendency to live in an idealized past at the expense of the present, which he regards as corrupt. Part 2 focuses on the events that define the life of Samad Iqbal, one that occurred in 1857, before his birth, and the other in 1984.

By 1976 Samad has become quite religious. His marriage is sexless, but Islam prohibits masturbation. He justifies masturbating by reminding himself "to the pure all things are pure." Tortured by a sense of his own impurity, in 1980 he gives up masturbation for drinking, consoling himself with the phrase "can't say fairer than that." In July 1984 a sexual attraction to Poppy Burt-Jones, a pretty young orchestra teacher at his sons' school with a fascination for Eastern culture, compels him to resume masturbation. In exchange, he begins fasting during daylight hours. His work is his one remaining source of pride: "outside ... he was a masturbator, a bad husband, an indifferent father, with all the morals of an Anglican," but inside the restaurant, "he was a one-handed genius." He tells his coworker Shiva that he regrets leaving the East, as he and his family "have been corrupted by England." Shiva sympathizes, but remarks no one "can pull the West out of 'em once it's in."

Samad goes to the school for a meeting with Poppy to discuss their plan to include Eastern culture in school activities. Her students begin ridiculing stereotypical Indian music when Poppy announces they will begin learning Indian music, "because of Mr. Iqbal." She lectures the class on cultural tolerance. When Samad and Poppy go into her tiny office for their meeting, Samad impresses Poppy with lies about Muslim traditions, and kisses her.


After living in England, Samad's identity shifts. Although he has always been a Muslim, his faith sharpens and begins to prick him in his side as he finds himself assimilating British culture. Discovering that masturbation is haraam, or forbidden by Allah, he tries to reduce his sense of shame by bargaining with Allah, reassuring himself with a quote on purity from the Bible. He justifies his next bargain with a British saying that indicates a good or satisfactory arrangement. Samad understands his desire for Poppy as Allah's punishment for his transgressions. He responds by fasting, a practice that is part of the observation of the holy month of Ramadan. Samad is in a state of moral torment, caught between two opposing forces: Islam and the West. For Samad, the West is a force of corruption and the East is a land of purity. Moving to Britain was a mistake, which has changed him and his family for the worse, and one, as Shiva points out, that cannot be undone.

Samad's efforts to have his children's school teach Eastern culture are subsumed within his desire to commit adultery with Poppy, an act that is certainly haraam. Her attraction to Samad is largely based on a superficial fascination with Indian culture. Samad has to remind her he is not Indian, because as a member of the colonizing culture, she has the luxury of being ignorant of the colonial and post-colonial history of the Indian subcontinent. She wishes to appropriate this culture, which she does not understand but considers exotic. In a final act of betrayal to Allah, he woos her with outright lies about Islam; knowing nothing about Islam, she is easily tricked. He reads her admiration for these lies as an invitation to betray his marriage by kissing her.

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