June 17, 2011 5:01 pm

Pakistan revisited

Writer Mohsin Hamid reflects on Osama bin Laden, social conflict and the future of his troubled homeland

The day Osama bin Laden was killed by American Navy Seals was not an occasion of great celebration for Mohsin Hamid’s acquaintances in the Pakistani city of Lahore. “I wouldn’t say he was mourned in any powerful way. People’s reaction ranged from, ‘Good riddance’, to ‘Not a big deal’, to ‘Oh, how sad’.” Most of all, says Hamid, author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, a book about a Pakistani man’s growing disenchantment with America, people thought bin Laden’s death would change little.

Mohsin Hamid

Perhaps the most written-about moment in The Reluctant Fundamentalist is when Changez, the bearded Pakistani protagonist who had been a high-flier in New York, smiles as he watches television footage of the Twin Towers collapse. Hamid concedes that a few people he spoke to still consider the al-Qaeda leader to be a Robin Hood-type figure and that the myth of “ascetic warrior, fighting for what is good” does exist on the margins of Pakistani society. But more, he says, there is a feeling that bin Laden was a scapegoat. “Many people don’t seem to believe that he was responsible for September 11th. I clearly do believe that he was responsible,” he adds hastily. “But many people don’t, maybe even most people don’t.”

If nuclear-armed Pakistan is the world’s most dangerous nation, then Hamid is a pretty useful guide to the sentiments of its people. He is seemingly as culturally au fait with New York, where he became a young hotshot at McKinsey, or with London, where he worked as managing director of a branding firm, as he is with his native Pakistan. That makes him a bridge across civilisations.

His first novel, Moth Smoke, a book about urban Pakistan that he had begun aged 22, was published in 2000. After graduating from Princeton and Harvard Law School, he was casting around for a job to help him pay off his $100,000 college debts. “McKinsey seemed like a great place to go,” he says. “I sat down in front of some of the world’s best-known CEOs before I was 30 years old. How else was some 29-year-old Pakistani kid going to get behind the curtain with the Wizard of Oz?”

His next move was to London, where he spent eight years and met his Pakistani-born wife. In the end, though, like Dorothy, he was pulled back to Kansas. For him, that meant Lahore, to which he had first returned, aged nine, after a childhood in California where his father had been studying. In 2009, now 38 and with two books to his name, Hamid settled in Lahore once again. That was partly to be closer to his family after the birth of his daughter and partly, one suspects, to fend off criticism that for someone who writes about Pakistan he was out of touch with his homeland. He also says in at least one interview that, since 9/11, it has become harder for a Pakistani man to live in the west. Hamid, a regular contributor to op-ed pages in Pakistan and abroad, does not shy away from politics. “I think if you say that art and politics, or religion and politics, mustn’t mix, don’t mix, that is itself a political statement,” he says. “Even if you are writing a 19th-century novel where the money comes from a plantation in the Caribbean and you don’t talk about that, that itself is a political thing.”

We had been due to meet in Lahore last October. I had envisaged lunch in the same restaurant in which the fastidious, somewhat sinister character of Changez had unburdened his life story to a barrel-chested American. That encounter ends in a deliberately ambiguous finale, as night settles over the city, in which one man – perhaps Changez, perhaps the American – reaches for what could be a gun. Yet instead of Lahore, we find ourselves several months later in the ever-so English atmosphere of Clarke’s, a small London restaurant of deservedly good reputation in Kensington Church Street.

Hamid arrives a few minutes after me and we park ourselves at a table by the window. Now 40, he has short-cropped, receding hair and a faint trace of stubble. He speaks in impeccable English, an approximation of the mesmerising, gentlemanly diction employed by Changez.

We are ostensibly here to discuss Moth Smoke, a story of a middle-class young man’s descent into heroin and penury in Lahore, which is being ­re-released in the UK 11 years since it was first published. The book’s embrace of the previously taboo, including drug culture and an illicit love affair, has already made it something of a cult in Pakistan and even India. But with the news of bin Laden’s death so fresh and Pakistan lurching from one crisis to another – a terrorist blast one day, an assault on a Karachi naval base the next – it is not easy to tear ourselves away from politics.

 
Mohsin Hamid and his mother in Disneyland California, 1977

Mohsin Hamid and his mother on a trip to Disneyland California, 1977

I tell him that, during my October trip to Lahore, I had paid a visit to Salman Taseer, then governor of Punjab. We had met in the palatial Governor’s House, a building of colonial grandeur described by Taseer as “like a huge ship in a vast sea of lawns”. Taseer, attended by a retinue of uniformed waiters, gardeners and security personnel, had held forth eloquently on Pakistan’s many problems, but played down suggestions that the country was riddled with militants. Less than three months later, the governor was gunned down by one of his own security guards, apparently for opposing an antiblasphemy law that discriminates against non-Muslims. As the alleged killer was escorted to court, some onlookers showered him with petals.

Taseer was just one of several thousand who have died in recent years at the hands of militants, some of whom have turned their attention from Afghanistan and Kashmir to attacking Pakistan itself. “Bin Laden’s death doesn’t really mean much difference for Pakistan. There are plenty of people killing Pakistanis in their thousands,” Hamid says. “Every year, as many Pakistanis die as Americans died on September 11th from terrorism. And the population is 60 per cent that of the US. So ­proportionally speaking, it’s a September 11th every eight months. And this happens again and again and again. It’s going to keep happening after bin Laden. It makes no difference.”

For Hamid, by launching wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and funding the highly compromised Pakistani security forces – he calls them the “insecurity forces” – America has fallen into bin Laden’s trap. The fatal mistake, he says, was to take seriously the notion that al-Qaeda could somehow establish a “caliphate from Morocco to Indonesia”. That was always a chimera. By launching the unwinnable “war on terror”, Washington has curbed the civil liberties of its own people, stretched its finances to breaking point and helped radicalise the Middle East. In other words, it has done exactly what bin Laden wanted.

“He was one crazed mass murderer. His was not a coherent political, economic, social ideology and certainly not a particularly attractive one to most people between Morocco and Indonesia, or even a significant minority of them.” Bin Laden must have been surprised at how fully America rose to the bait, he says. “You’re sitting in your cave thinking, ‘You know, I’d really like to change how things in America work, I’d kind of like to create this new rift.’ And to get halfway there, or whatever, is an incredible success.”

 
Soldiers in Abbottabad, Pakistan

Soldiers in Abbottabad from what Hamid sees as Pakistan’s ‘bloated’ army

The real danger in Pakistan, says Hamid, is the possibility that the country’s nuclear weapons will fall into the hands of militants. If everything short of that is “manageable”, as he contends, the strategy of dealing with Pakistan should be to help it become a viable, stable entity. “How do you make sure there’s a robust Pakistani state that can function like a state and that keeps its state-owned nuclear weapons in state-controlled hands?”

Washington’s answer has been to pour money into the Pakistani armed forces, which are charged with battling militancy on America’s behalf. But Hamid argues this is a flawed strategy. The military, especially the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, is as much a part of the problem as the solution, he says. The ISI has “pursued disastrous policies for the last 60 or 70 years, which have held back Pakistan to no end and have resulted in slaughters in Bangladesh 1971, near-wars with India and bloodbath militancy in Pakistan”. It has also been long accused of playing a “double game”, taking American money to kill some militants, while nurturing others who serve its strategic ends in Afghanistan and Kashmir. Those suspicions have flared into the open once again in the weeks since bin Laden was discovered in a three-storey mansion in Abbottabad, within walking distance of a ­prestigious military academy.

. . .

Hamid argues that Pakistan would fare much better if it were simply left alone, starved of the foreign money that allows it to sustain a bloated military. US aid is contingent on Pakistan fighting what he calls “a civil war” against its own Pashtun population. The Pashtuns are a fiercely independent ethnic group of some 50 million people who straddle the Pakistan and Afghan borders and from whose ranks many Taliban have emerged. Yet asking Pakistan to fight them is the equivalent, he says, of demanding that Washington fight Texas because some Texans have been causing trouble over the Mexican border. “Once you go and attack some village where the Pashtun Taliban are based, then some guy whose cousin is in Rawalpindi goes and blows up military headquarters,” he says, describing how such attacks blow back in Pakistan’s face.

 
Mohsin Hamid with ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’, shortlisted for the Man Booker prize

Hamid with ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’, shortlisted for the Man Booker prize

The second key to cooling tensions, Hamid argues, is to resolve the long-running dispute with India over Kashmir. The perceived threat of India has provided an excuse for Pakistan’s military to run the country for much of its independence and to train militants to commit outrages across the border. Peace followed by rapprochement would, he says, remove much of the cancer eating away at Pakistan’s body politic.

Hamid wonders at how much Pakistan has been able to take. “It’s had assassinations of prime ­ministerial candidates, coups, effective civil war, massive terrorism, a hostile neighbour in India, America pressuring it, drone attacks, the Osama raid – and it’s still there,” he says, shaking his head. The author in him reaches for a metaphor. “It’s this wrestler who can’t be pinned down. But his arms are dislocated, his knees are broken and he’s lost an eye. It’s not pretty. And you begin to wonder, ‘How much can it take?’ But it can probably take a lot.”

If The Reluctant Fundamentalist deals with the strained relations between Pakistan and America, Moth Smoke is a book almost entirely about conflict within Pakistan itself. Set among the privileged in-crowd of Lahore, the yuppies who have turned their fathers’ corrupt fortunes into an international education and a life of air-conditioned luxury, it is the story of Daru, an outsider. Although Daru begins the book seemingly as part of the pot-­smoking jet-set, he doesn’t really belong. He despises them, and feels excluded by his second-rate education and the break in life he owes to the benevolence of his best friend’s father. His descent begins when he loses his job at the bank and begins an affair with his friend’s wife.

The book is full of anger. A servant recounts how he had always thought air-conditioners blew out hot air because his only experience of them was on the outside of buildings. Daru is content until his best friend returns from America with a foreign education, a glamorous wife and a car that Daru cannot afford on his junior banker’s salary. “Being outside the candy store looking in is the state of people today,” says Hamid of the envy bred by modern society. “Whether you’re in a Pakistani village watching somebody in a car drive by, or you’re in the city of Lahore going to a restaurant and seeing somebody with a security entourage coming in ... you’re exposed to people with more,” he says. “And you’ve been disarmed, we’ve all been disarmed of the basic defence mechanism which is: ‘We all have our place.’” Liberation from acceptance of one’s own social status comes at the price of social conflict.

Moth Smoke, which like The Reluctant Fundamentalist took seven years and several drafts to write, is told by multiple narrators. The framework is a trial in which the book’s characters – and the reader – are asked to pass judgment. In The Reluctant Fundamentalist, the reader is drawn in not by multiple narrators, but by the artifice of a monologue. Only Changez speaks, forcing the reader to imagine himself into the shoes of the American and to interpret Changez’s possibly menacing tale. “I think what I do is to try to engage the reader in an open-ended situation that will cause the reader to reflect on their own position,” Hamid says. “Oftentimes I deliberately put ambiguity into my books so that … the reader is left with an echo of: ‘How much of this was from me?’”

Moth Smoke broke new ground in Pakistan. “When it came out, South Asian literature was in a very different space. It was the village, magic, rope tricks, that kind of stuff. Heroin-using, an affair – it hadn’t really been done in literary fiction,” he says. “The idea of South Asian fiction written for South Asians, feeling and sounding like it’s ­written for South Asians as opposed to the ‘must-be-anointed-abroad’ thing. That’s why Moth Smoke is a bigger deal in South Asia than it was abroad.” Yet it is clearly important for Hamid, a man with a foot in both places, that the book is appreciated in the west too. He describes its re-release in the UK as giving it a second life.

The book’s place in the subcontinent is already assured. At this year’s literary festival in Jaipur, a man recognised the creator of the pot-smoking Daru and immediately offered him a joint. There’s a sparkle in Hamid’s eyes as he relates the story. “I won’t tell you what happened after that,” he says, punching out the words “dot, dot, dot” to denote his customary ambiguous ending. Personally, I have no doubt what went on next.

David Pilling is the FT’s Asia managing editor. ‘Moth Smoke’ (Penguin, £7.99) is out now.

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