Podcast • August 25, 2011

Mohsin Hamid: on a “Pakistan-like” trend in America

LAHORE — Mohsin Hamid wrote the hair-raising novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist that will soon be a major motion picture directed by Mira Nair of “Monsoon Wedding” fame. The character in the title is a young Pakistani ...

LAHORE — Mohsin Hamid wrote the hair-raising novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist that will soon be a major motion picture directed by Mira Nair of “Monsoon Wedding” fame. The character in the title is a young Pakistani with a resumé a lot like Mohsin Hamid’s in America: he was a star on the Princeton campus, a cinch in the US business world. But 9.11 spins the fictional hero 180 degrees. Watching the Twin Towers burn up on television, he is intrigued to find himself smiling spontaneously at the symbolism of “this powerful country being humbled, slapped, paid back.” He decides after all that he’d been enlisted in a failing empire as it enters a tailspin of “crippling nostalgia” and self-pity. So the character, called Changez, soon comes to replant himself in native soil and political resistance.

Both Mohsin Hamid and his invention Changez have inhabited the American scene at its “best and brightest,” most competitive, most self-regarding pinnacle — and then left it all, without remorse. What was it for Changez, I am asking, or even for Mohsin Hamid himself, that isn’t working in the American elite?

What shocks me about America, about the way America is headed, is that in some ways it’s becoming increasingly Pakistan-like — in the sense that the American elite is becoming much, much richer compared to the rest of the population; and America’s great success, which was this enormous middle that had the bulk of political power, the bulk of economic resources, and the rest, is being crushed. This America where there were relatively high tax rates and there was a notion of shared service in the form of military service, for example — the draft in its way is a deeply socialistic notion, yet America bore that for decades; and in this time built up a system of very good public high schools and primary schools and very good infrastructure and excellent colleges, and you could see this evolution where every generation was better off than the previous. In my time in elite America, in the course of the last decade and a half, what I was struck by was how that system was basically collapsing. Friends of mine are earning insane amounts of money — those who stayed in the hedge fund world. Oftentimes it’s unclear what they’re actually contributing to society. And meanwhile the school system is collapsing, and the American middle class is being eviscerated. And all of this being done on the back of a certain demagogic tribalism. Here in Pakistan we’ve seen many of the same sorts of things — this combination of xenophobia, unwillingness to pay taxes, comfort with a powerful and entrenched elite that coopts the democratic process. I mean, that’s what we have here, and it isn’t great! I felt very comfortable in elite American circles because the same notions of hierarchy, of how an elite functions, were very easy for me as a Pakistani to understand. Some of my American friends when we first started out had more difficulty dealing with the corporate context than I did, because in Pakistan you learn very early, from infancy, how hierarchy works, and how you modulate the way you deal with people based on their relationship in the hierarchy — with somebody a bit older than you, a wealthy person, a poor person, a family elder, a this or that. And I think that is much better preparation for an American corporate elite social milieu than a liberal arts education which teaches you that everybody’s equal and you call everybody by their first names and just hang out… Underneath all that are millions of gradations of hierarchy which exist in American society, just as in Pakistani society. Except here the elite embraces that, uses it to oppress everybody and says: that is the expectation. In America the pretense is: it doesn’t exist, which makes it maybe even more effective, because people don’t see it.

Mohsin Hamid at home in Lahore with Chris Lydon, mid-summer 2011.

Podcast • November 29, 2007

Pakistan for Beginners: 3, with Omer Alvie

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Omer Alvie (17 minutes, 8 MB MP3) But suppose this were a realistic novel! Just think what else I might have to put in… How much real-life material ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Omer Alvie (17 minutes, 8 MB MP3)

But suppose this were a realistic novel! Just think what else I might have to put in… How much real-life material might become compulsory! — About, for example… the attempt to declare the sari an obscene garment; or about the extra hangings — the first for twenty years — that were ordered purely to legitimize the execution of Mr. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto; or about why Bhutto’s hangman has vanished into thin air, just like the many street-urchins who are being stolen every day in broad daylight; or about anti-Semitism, an interesting phenomenon, under whose influence people who have never met a Jew vilify all Jews for the sake of maintaining solidarity with the Arab states which offer Pakistan workers, these days, employment and much-needed foreign exchange; or about smuggling, the boom in heroin exports, military dictators, venal civilians, corrupt civil servants, bought judges, newspapers of whose stories the only thing that can confidently be said is that they are lies; or about the apportioning of the national budget, with special reference to the percentages set aside for defense (huge) and for education (not huge). Imagine my difficulties!

Salman Rushdie, in his “modern fairytale” of Pakistan, Shame, 1983… p. 67 in the Picador paperback.

Pakistan: All Martial and No Law was the headline on Omer Alvie’s last piece for the invaluable Global Voices Online. In our conversation today he remarks on the comic-opera moment in the news this very day as General Musharraf took his oath as President Musharraf under a constitution he’s suspended, making him — what? — a Suspended President.

Omer Alvie is a Pakistani who works and blogs in Dubai, and commutes now and then to Karachi. He has a talent for the absurd humor and not-so-post-colonial anguish of Pakistani politics. It was all, as Omer says, described and foretold nearly a quarter century ago in Salman Rushdie’s novel Shame — a telling in fiction of the ouster and then the hanging of Pakistan’s Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1979. “I tell myself this will be a novel of leavetaking,” Rushdie writes in the book, “my last words on the East, from which, many years ago, I began to come loose.”

Omer Alvie is of a younger generation that once saw charisma and modernity in the face of Pervez Musharraf. He now feels bitter disappointment and the weight of more than Pakistan’s history on events. He says:

The external influence is so strong on Pakistani politics… I have to go back to the War on Terror. This thing overall is farcical to me… If you want to get to the root cause of why terrorist cells exist, or why terrorism happens, you don’t go around bombing countries or arresting innocent people in hopes of catching a few. That’s not addressing the problem, and that’s what’s happening in Pakistan. I sometimes get the feeling that Pakistan is being conditioned. I believe it’s on the same hitlist as Iraq, Iran and Syria. Actually I should clarify: the hitlist should have the letter S in front of it, because that’s probably how the project of the New American Century and most of the Bush administration sees it… this collosally screwed up foreign policy which is now classified as a “war on terrorism”…

…The whole “war on terror” thing, this 9.11 thing, I think, has screwed up Pakistan more than anything else really, because it’s affected us more. We’re stuck in bookends. The average Pakistani is now stuck being questioned by extremists and militants about how to dress, what to do, when to pray, and being questioned constantly about how they live their lives. This is their experience in Pakistan. The same Pakistanis when they travel outside to the US get blamed and classified in a very generic manner as a terrorist, because they’re a Pakistani or a Muslim. We are squeezed between 2 bookends.

Omer Alvie of The Olive Ream, in conversation with Open Source, November 29, 2007