Mohammed Hanif’s Af-Pak: A Case of Exploding Absurdities

Somebody said: if you’re an intelligent Islamic militant and you had a choice: to take over either Afghanistan or Pakistan, what would you do? You would take over Pakistan, obviously.

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Mohammed Hanif (52 minutes, 25 mb mp3)

Mohammed Hanif, the Pakistani novelist, is observing from Karachi that “even the believers” don’t believe in the war in Afghanistan anymore. No statement of purpose passes the “you’ve got to be kidding” test — not the US professions about stabilizing the region, not the Pakistani Army’s mission to defend its country. Pakistan’s tribal areas that were peaceful before the war have been devastated. The future is disappearing. Certain dark absurdities underlying Pakistan’s situation, underlying Mohammed Hanif’s “insanely brilliant” novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, are chasing their own tails.

On January 4 this year Salmaan Taseer, the rich, connected governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province, was assassinated in broad daylight in a public market in Islamabad. The shooting eerily prefigured by four days our made-in-America madness in Tucson, but it was more horrifying by many measures. Taseer took 26 rounds of sub-machinegun fire from one of his own guards before the rest of his security detail intervened. Prominent mullahs in Pakistan have celebrated the murder and promised vengeance on Taseer’s funeral goers. At issue, so to speak, was Taseer’s enthusiasm for repealing an Anti-Blasphemy law — an old statute that in today’s fervor has enabled religious prosecutions and deadly personal fatwas on farcical grounds. (You can be charged with blasphemy in Pakistan for discarding a salesman’s business card — if the salesman, like so many of his countrymen, bears the name Mohammed.)

We are drawing again on a novelist’s gift for figure and ground, the big contexts of war and faith, news and nationhood, for tragic jokes.

MH: I think the basic kind of crisis that we are going through is that somehow a large majority of people are convinced that their faith is under attack. Now, how can their faith be under attack if 98 percent of people who live in this country are faithful? What has happened is that this environment, these perpetual wars that we’ve been involved with, have somehow convinced our people…

We’ve never even begun to deal with the reasons for which this country was created, which was that there should be some kind of economic and social justice for the Muslim minority in these parts. That’s what this was supposed to be about. But yesterday I was at this big religious gathering where all the kind of hot-shots of Pakistan’s religious parties were there. And they were saying that Pakistan was actually created to protect the honor of Prophet Mohammed. Now I’ve lived here all my life. I haven’t grown up in some kind of sheltered community. But I haven’t heard that kind of discourse ever in my life…

CL: How does the Af-Pak war, ongoing, affect the day-to-day outlook of Pakistanis?

MH: Well, I think it has radicalized a section of Pakistani society. It has made a lot of people cynical and anti-American… I think this is probably the first time in the history of the world that a so-called friendly country, the United States, is using robots to kill the citizens of its partner in war. Now whatever logic you might apply, that doesn’t come out nice. It’s never, ever going to sound good to anyone.

There’s an Urdu saying that when your neighbor’s house is on fire, the chances are that fire will get to you as well, [especially] if you as a nation, as a country, have been stoking that fire for 30 years. If you’ve had this attitude towards your neighbor, if you’ve never considered Afghans as human beings, if you only speak of them in military terms, as targets or allies or collateral damage… then Pakistan is going the same route. You can’t create a monster, you can’t create a jihadi group, as the military has in the past, that will exclusively go and kill Indian soldiers in Kashmir, and not do anything else. You can’t create a faction of Taliban whose sole duty it is to go into Afghanistan and fight the Americans. They will do it for a while. They’ve done it for a while. But after that, they will come back and they’ll find other targets. The jihadi groups that initially were supposed to fight in Afghanistan, and then fight in Kashmir and then go and liberate Sweden or whatever country, they’ve finally turned their guns on Pakistanis, sometimes on the Pakistani establishment…

CL: What is it about Pakistan — a dangerous place, a dangerous state of mind — that seems to invite broad satire? I’m thinking of your own Exploding Mangoes and also Salman Rushdie’s Shame and even the Tom Hanks movie, “Charlie Wilson’s War.” People seem to forget the unfunny truths here.

MH: I grew up in a small city in Punjab, and the traditional form of entertainment there was standing on a street corner, making jokes about current affairs, about political leaders, about the village elder, about the mullah in the mosque – anybody who carried, or thought that he carried, any authority. And it was quite accepted in our culture. So for me, the first insight into how the world is run, how a city is run, how a family works together, I got from the comedy clubs. But I don’t have it in me to be a standup comic. I’m a sit-down comic. I’ll sit down and struggle with myself and maybe compose a joke, or come up with a character that can reflect some of those absurdities…

Pakistan has lots of TV news stations, and suddenly I’ve seen that every single channel has got a political satire show, and those are the shows that are doing really well. Things are so bad that nobody actually wants any more analysis. Nobody wants any more pundits telling them the future because they know it is all downhill. So we might as well sit here and laugh at ourselves.

Mohammed Hanif in Karachi, in conversation with Chris Lydon in Providence, January 11, 2010

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  • Chris, I’m wondering, do you have any plans to visit Pakistan? I’ve been very much been interested in this series, especially these interviews with Pakistani novelists, and they always leave me with the thought “I must get to Pakistan.”

  • chris

    Kento, I get the same feeling entirely.

  • Ajit Hegde

    I accidentally came across Hanif’s novel sometime ago. And then remembered he was the author of a very funny article on Musharraf’s second coup which was published in Counterpunch. I finally found and bought the book. And it was so incredibly funny and brilliant.

    There are so many brutally, subversively funny moments in that novel it is difficult to pick just one. The one where Hanif describes a meeting of Zia and his henchmen just after military coup is stunning.

    He doesn’t say who actually bumped off Zia. It looks to my layman eyes from the novel and also from my reading Edward Jay Epstein’s article on Vanity Fair , it was actually the work of Mirza Aslam Beg, Zia’s deputy.

    I tried to find Hanif’s email address to convey my admiration for his work. But couldn’t find.

  • Jeech

    Afghanistan was attacked by Russians it’s very normal and natural to stand for jihad against the invaders… Muslims from round the world seemed to be obliged to save their brotherly country by doing the US tailored jihad. No one from the west risked to insult the prophet Mohammad at those times…. It’s wonderful to see that the blasphamy law in Pakistan was “designed” at the time when the west had nothing to do with their right to insult prophet Mohammad.

    Now after the communists the hot cake is Muslims, insulting Mohammad has become the tool. Specially when Muslim countries are attacked and the same feelings that brought thsousands of Muslim from round the world into Afghanistan are tickled. Specially when most of the countries which attacked Muslim countries belongs to Christian domination. It’s obvious to get impression that Muslims are being attacked. There are other signs that make the impression of “Christian v/s Muslim” on ground.

    An other thing that most of people would “like” to ignore is that a overwhelming majority of Muslim condemn the stupid jihad that brings innocent death of (mostly) Muslims and non Muslims. They seem to tolerate their countreis being invaded but never tolerate their beloved prophet be insulted. It’s very much clear though but Muslims are teased from every aspects. Even they have very much feeling of having an “unrecognized voice.”

    Finally I love to indicate another problem, the western interferance made the prloblem more complex and the public opinion naturally turned toward the fantics becuase of the out side interfere. Pope doesn’t speak about banning freedom of speech concerning the law about holocaust and the Arminian genocie laws in France. Banning Islamic signs like Hijab and Minates… etc.. but inflamed situation in Pakistan that cerainly put moderate community into trouble.

  • Jeech

    Let me add, why the right to insult Prophet Mohammad and the wars waged on Muslim dominated territories have been side by side? If you understand “how to make it a religious war” then you can understand the strategic deapth of those paralell attacks.

  • Potter

    I think yes we are getting more insight and understanding, particularly in these interviews, from novelists, literary people. So much was said in this one.

    I was comparing Pakistan, not to the US during this time, but to Israel- in so many ways including the heavy arms in public places in broad daylight, the security checks in certain areas, But also that the rule of law is in question, the judiciary losing its power, that religious groups, leaders, have gone out of control and they are at the same time controlling the politics, applying pressure to the government. (The “overestimation of religious nuts”). People take the law into their own hands. And then there is the issue of blasphemy- substitute “delegitimization”, anti-Zionism and the attempt to silence dissent. Who is and who is not a Muslim is the same as who is a Jew? Then there is the same despair as in Pakistan that Israel has lost it’s way, lost a grasp on the basics, the ideas around which the country was created. You also see the dehumanization of those who would be neighbors. There are more comparisons. And so maybe also there will be similar solutions- the imposition of a neutral respected force to end the conflicts.

    I didn’t stay stuck in those comparisons because it’s was far more interesting to listen and try to understand Pakistan and the US relationship to the Pakistani people (or lack of one) and why it is perhaps reasonable that they hate us so. But it was heartening also to hear Mohammed say that Pakistan as a sovereign state holds some responsibility for the last 30 years to the present.

    We do need some humor to get through when we cannot listen to “that stuff” anymore, have had enough, get the pattern. It’s been true also that in humor we hear the truth so often when we cannot find it otherwise.

    Thank you Chris for Mohammed Hanif here.

  • Asjad

    Again great talk – thanks Christopher for bringing these perspectives to the world from liberal Pakistanis point of view. Being political junky about present days Pakistan, I never find single moment when I feel disagreement with M. Hanif’s analysis.