Mohsin Hamid

Mohsin Hamid

Although born in Pakistan and raised as a Muslim,  Mohsin Hamid studied and worked in the United States for many years.  He explains his continuing affection for America  in an article for the Washington Post“I learned to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” years before I could sing the Pakistani national anthem, played baseball before I could play cricket and wrote in English before I could write in Urdu – I was an American kid, through and through. Part of me still is.” .

In spite of this, Hamid’s  novel,  ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’,  presents the post 9/11 superpower in a less than glowing light.  Apparently  the first draft of the novel was completed before the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center but it is impossible to imagine it without this backdrop. This, after all, is the event that irrevocably transforms the life of the book’s main character Changez, a young Pakistani ,  who was  until then  living a privileged existence working for an elite New York valuation firm and dating a sexy American woman.

71gg-ncc-jlThe story takes place a few years on from those momentous events of 2001 in a small cafe in Lahore. The novel is in the form of a dramatic monologue as Changez talks to an American who not only remains unnamed but is presented only through the eyes of the Pakistani .  It therefore reads like an open letter to all Americans.

Hamid, through Changez,  is critical of the  primacy of America as a superpower.  In interviews, Hamid has spoken of what he calls ‘a crisis of empathy’ that has arisen since the War on Terror began with a profound lack of understanding between western and non western countries adding to the climate of fear and distrust. Pakistan is obviously one of the countries affected by America’s hawkish foreign policies and through this contrived fictional  encounter we are shown how this causes the USA to be viewed .

Changez is no crazed terrorist but a sensitive and intelligent man whose loyalties are divided . For all his education he is in many ways a naive character. At the apartment of his boss, he notes the framed paintings of naked men and is  still  surprised that this man has no wife or children.  His studious politeness means that his sexual desire for Erica is expressed in roundabout way: “[I was] desirous of embarking on a relationship with her that amounted to more than friendship”.

Ultimately Changez comes to see himself as a kind of ‘jannisary’, the name given to loyal and unquestioning Muslim foot soldiers in the Turkish Ottoman Empire who were not even allowed to grow beards.  Significantly, Changez does grow a beard despite the fact that this causes him to be treated with greater suspicion and exposes him to abuse from the general  public.

At the heart of the novel is a conflict of tradition and modernity,  something which political events over the past decade have thrown into sharp relief. Details like the fact that the American uses a state of the art mobile phone while being pestered by a street beggar show up this gulf.

The novel raises questions rather than provides solutions but above all puts a human face on the issues it raises .  Those who hate what America stands for are not faceless monsters but individuals driven to making increasingly desperate choices.  The implicit message is that we need to develop a greater respect for cultural differences and deeply entrenched belief systems.   The definitive perspective on America comes near the end of the novel:

“It seemed to me then – and to be honest, sir, it seems to me still – that America was engaged only in posturing. As a society, you were unwilling to reflect upon the shared pain that united you with those who attacked you. You retreated into myths of you own difference, assumptions of your own superiority. And you acted out these beliefs on the stage of the world, so that the entire planet was rocked by the repercussions of your tantrums, not least my family, now facing war thousands of miles away. Such an America had to be stopped in the interests not only of humanity, but also in your own”.

Hamid skillfully maintains the suspense right up to the last line of the novel, keeping the reader guessing as to whether Changez is predator or prey. In many respects this remains an unanswered question.