Daniyal Mueenuddin on Pakistan: At the Bedside of a Friend

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Daniyal Mueenuddin (45 minutes, 22 mb mp3)

Daniyal Mueenuddin is the leading light of Pakistan’s literary boom in the English-speaking world. Just in time, he’s a hit in America for an enthralling collection of linked stories, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, set in the feudal farming estates of the Pakistani Punjab. In conversation he’s telling us all those things about Pakistan today that only a novelist and story-writer can tell you. About the lethal floods, for starters, that submerged about a fifth of the country last summer. He is speaking of the decades-long “tail of a catastrophe… maybe the spark that lights the final fire.” He’s also imagining that the floods could be a disguised opportunity — an invitation to the West for “a more nuanced financial intervention,” a real chance to “improve the lives of the average Pakistani.”

Daniyal Mueenuddin is a mango farmer in his father’s Pakistan, where he grew up. He’s a Yale-educated lawyer in his mother’s America. I asked him if we could hear a conversation between the two perspectives in his own head. What he wishes his fellow Americans knew better is that the jihadist extremism that menaces Pakistan today is a monster substantially made in the U.S.A. It’s “very, very simple,” he says:

In 1979, the Soviets occupied Afghanistan and the Americans, as a part of their policy of containment and pushing back against the Soviet Union, decided that what they need to do was create an army in Pakistan of people who would be willing to fight against them. With the aid of Saudi money and American money vast numbers of Madrasas were built … they created a very effective army that did defeat the Soviets. The problem is that once you create an army and you pull out you lose control of it. This all flows from the first Afghan war. The Americans created this army and once the soviets had been beaten they sort of brushed their hands and said “Thanks for the job boys, we’re out of here.” … What’s funny is that even at the time, many of these leaders to whom the Americans were pouring cash, were saying “our greatest enemy is America.” I was there at the time and I used to find it absolutely bewildering that the Americans would be giving vast amounts of arms and support of various kinds to [men who were] basically saying we have a checklist, and the Soviets are number one on the checklist, but the Americans are on the checklist too. They are number two. And of course they are the ones who are now fighting against America.

Daniyal Mueenuddin is also opening up, as a man who could live anywhere in the world, on why he goes home to Pakistan:

In Pakistan…I feel the tug of attachment from so many different directions. Also, simply, the landscape, the sense of color and vim and vigor and excitement. The place is crackling in a way. People talk about New York as being full of energy. You haven’t seen what full of energy is until you walk through the bazaar in Lahore and feel just this incredible sort of thriving, multiplying life.

The culture is very much part of my life… the culture of the shrines where these incredibly devout people go and pay their respects to the saints who are scattered all over the Punjab. Even on my farm there’s a shrine to a saint. People come and hang these little cradles on the trees because they want to have a son… The art on the trucks, the embellishment of every surface. Even the guy who has the little ice-cream cart will have painted scenes all over it.

The storytelling: people are storytellers in Pakistan. A man came to me the other day and was explaining to me about all the different kinds of snakes. He said there’s one snake that stands on its tail and bounces along, and there’s another snake that, if he bites you, if you rush off and drink water than the snake will die, but if the snake rushes off and gets to drink water before you than you will die. So it’s a sort of race to the water. And there’s another snake that runs along the grass in the morning licking the dew.

Music is embedded in the culture. The music is tied up with religious belief and it enters lives in a really deep way. I was walking on my farm late one night and hearing from far away somebody ploughing a field. Farmers fit these very loud stereos on their tractors — and I was hearing from miles away Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn being played at incredibly high volume by some guy who was ploughing his field at night because it’s cooler than ploughing it during the day. I found that very moving.

Daniyal Mueenuddin with Chris Lydon in Springs, New York, October 20, 2010

This is the first of several conversations on real life in Pakistan in extremis, touching on dire multi-dimensional crises from floods to fundamentalism to war in an impoverished, nuclear-armed state. We’re prompted not least by Salman Rushdie’s cautionary last line in a talk at Brown last Spring. “… if Pakistan goes down,” as he said, “we’re all fucked.” Next: the physicist, film-maker and peace activist, Pervez Hoodbhoy.

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  • Oh, those snakes! On my mother’s side of the family, mention is occasionally made of the sidehill gouger, an aggressive mammal so well adapted to mountainous living that its legs are shorter on one side than they are on the other. The only way to avoid save yourself from an attack from such a creature is to step behind it, it will have to run around the entire mountain before it is able to reach you.

  • I wonder though, what possible reason would a snake have to bite someone when that bite could result in its own death? If it intends to eat its victim, it seems a rather inconvenient and dangerous way to kill its prey. If it is defending itself or its young against attack, again the bite seems to put the snake in yet more danger, and wouldn’t do anything to stop whatever threatens it unless the snake has water— “on hand” seems an inappropriate expression for a limbless creature, but it will do. Is this snake’s bite just like the sting of the scorpion being ferried across a river, is the snake a victim of its own nature?

    Or perhaps this snake’s bite carries lesser known gift and a lesser known curse. The snake grants itself and its victim immortality until a sip of water is taken, giving each nothing to fear but the other’s thirst.

  • The corrupt and impoverished Pakistani government cannot possibly make these people’s lives whole again. It’s not hard to imagine the potential for radicalization in a country already rapidly turning to extremist political views, to envision the anarchy that may be unleashed if wealthier nations do not find a way to provide sufficient relief. This is not a problem that will go away, and it is the entire world’s problem. It is said, the most violent revolutions are the revolutions of the stomach.

  • Potter

    Excellent questions. I come away from this interview feeling ever more that we as a country do things and we don’t know what we are doing and yet we have to do what we do or else…. At the very least we can listen and try to understand a little bit better and to that end this interview is very helpful. The man in Iowa who sends his children to war (and increasingly all of us at home) need to know. At the end of this I felt inspiration (the consolation prize) to check out a Mueeduddin short story… and more Chekhov.

    Thank you Chris

  • Potter

    A point to emphasize ( and this stands out boldly for me above the other points)- I’ll try to remember correctly what Mueenuddin said: There are 40,000 madrassas in Pakistan (and little or no other form of education?) and in those madrassas the children are taught to read/memorize the Koran in Arabic- a language that they do not understand. Thus they can be brainwashed (or are) as to interpretation. So if you get one jihadist from each of these per year, over a few years you have a substantial army of jihadists.

    The next point that stood out was that the US must support the Pakistan military or else… who knows what else?

    Happy Thanksgiving

  • Asjad

    Daniyal Mueenuddin is good story teller but when he talked about socio-political issues of Pakistan he sounds too much ignorant or biased. May be he was protecting the interests of his class, the feudals. After listening Christopher Lydon’s talk with the caliber of people like Parvez Hoodbhoy; Mohammad Hanif and Najam Sethi this guy sounds just unaware of the multifaceted problems of today’s Pakistan in which wider gap between rich and poor is escalating the issue. Over 60 years of the history of Pakistan Z.A Bhutto was the one who did something for ordinary people. Bhutto was not ideal and he also made some mistakes but compare to all other politicians he delivered lot more positive, that’s the reason still his party is popular.