Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings earlier this year, I heard about this book, written in 2007, in reference to its treatment of the problems of assimilation. This book explores that question, from the point of view of a successful young Pakistani who rejects the American vision and returns to Pakistan to become an anti-American professor. In a number of ways, the protagonist’s life parallels that of the Tsarnaev brothers, and the book thus seems precient.

I have mentioned before that one of the differences between good literature and poor is that a truly skilled writer doesn’t settle for easy answers. Mohsin Hamid does an unsettlingly good job of that in The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

This book is a novella in length, with a limited focus on a short time period and a very limited number of characters. The narrator, Changez, comes from a wealthy Pakistani family, and has graduated at the top of his class at Princeton. He is hired by a cutthroat business valuation firm, meets and dates a beautiful woman, and seems to have it made. The darkness that lies beneath the surface of this life is not apparent to Changez at first, but two events gradually awaken him to his ambivalent feelings about his experiences in the United States, and turn his love of his adopted country into a desire to leave and never return.

The form of the book is interesting. Changez narrates the book in the first person, unfolding his story to an unnamed American that he meets on the streets of Lahore. The two of them have a meal together, and Changez tells his story as the meal progresses. Each of the twelve chapters begins and ends with the narrator’s part of the small talk about the meal. The mysterious person on the other end never directly speaks, although his responses and statements are referred to when Changez echoes them back. The effect is one of a two-sided conversation, but we are left to guess at what the other side says - and indeed, who he is.

There are essentially two parallel stories. The first, and main one, is Changez’ personal emotional journey as he becomes disillusioned with the American dream. The second is the descent of his girlfriend, Erica, into mental illness. She lost her fiancĂ© to cancer, but is still more attached to him than to the real world. Hamid doesn’t include this subplot merely for its effect on Changez - although it does play a role in his transformation. It in many ways expresses the idea of the two worlds, the desire for the past, and the dilemma of being caught between two worlds, that Changez experiences - but with an emotional dimension more familiar to a modern American who lacks the first-hand knowledge of the immigrant experience.

Likewise, the sexual content (which is brief), serves a purpose in the narrative and particularly in the psychology of Changez and Erica. It is neither gratuitous nor particularly pleasant.

However, the most unpleasant part of this book was the recognition of some truly poisonous American attitudes. In the wake of September 11, there was an outpouring of patriotism. Not a bad thing, necessarily, but one which felt better at the time than it does now in retrospect. Changez feels as if he had stepped into a film about World War Two.

What your fellow countrymen longed for was unclear to me - a time of unquestioned dominance? of safety? of moral certainty? I did not know - but that they were scrambling to don the costumes of another era was apparent. I felt treacherous for wondering whether that era was fictitious, and whether - if it could be animated - it contained a part written  for someone like me.

Really, I think it is the last of his suggestions that makes the most sense. We long for the moral clarity of World War Two, and have never been able to re-create that. (Perhaps the threat of annihilation glosses over any ambiguities in any case.) Our subsequent wars (even the Cold War) have never been as simple as we would wish. Perhaps even on a deeper level, we can never go back to the days of naive colonialism when we could believe that we, as English speaking, white Europeans were an unmitigated force for good in the world. When we could believe that whites were an inherently superior race, and Christianity and Western culture were perceived as synonymous.

This longing for the idealized past is the central theme in this book, actually. Changez is most clear in his own mind that this applies to the newly jingoistic United States, but he also realizes that his own Pakistan also clings to the past, both on a national and personal level. Pakistan mourns the decline of its power and influence - particularly in contrast to India. (The narrowly avoided nuclear war between Pakistan and India features prominently.) On a more personal level, the glory days of the Pakistani aristocracy have passed, and Changez’ family has fallen on hard times. The paint has faded and the servants have had to depart one by one. Their wealth, and, even more importantly, their status, has declined.

What is one to do with the feeling of decline? Whether it reflects reality or not in a given situation, there is a general feeling throughout much of the world right now that things are going downhill. (It is a bit paradoxical that this malaise applies equally to the Euro-American “First World” and to the Islamic empires.) As the author notes, the usual response is to single out some facet of the past as “the reason” and attempt to re-create that portion of the past. For both the muslim world and a significant segment of Conservative America, there has been a religious element advocating a return to the culture of the past, with a focus on “traditional” gender roles, antiquated and restrictive clothing, and a deep distrust of those with whom they disagree.

I found it particularly interesting that Changez (like the Tsarnaev brothers) was not particularly religious. He initially had no beard, was not religiously observant, drank alcohol and ate pork, and was generally secular. He wasn’t pushed toward his anti-American opinions by his religion, but exactly the opposite. The distaste for American arrogance pushes him toward outward manifestations associated with Islam. (He doesn’t appear to become religious in a observant rather than cultural sense.)

As I said, this book is profoundly discomfiting. It is impossible not to identify at some level with Changez, and to recognize the unsavory side of our patriotism. It is also tough to see how easy it is to plaster a veneer of “right” and “wrong” over a longing for a time of unchallenged power.

I also am continuing to mull how to formulate an alternative to nostalgia for the (mythical) past. My children need to have a sense of hope for the future. For that matter, so do I. The future will not be identical to the past - and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We sanitize the past, ignoring the problems - particularly for the poor. We have difficulty seeing the good of the present. (Good news doesn’t tend to get press coverage...)

A few other things in this book were memorable. First, the food. Since the story is told over a meal, delectable dishes appear at regular intervals. Hamid, an immigrant from Lahore himself, delights in the cuisine, and describes it well. Here is some chicken tikka - one of the central dishes of the story. 

Also interesting was a scene in which a bearded older man is sighted staring inappropriately at some young women dressed to show their faces and necks. A brazen sight, as far as he is concerned. As Changez says, “one’s rules of propriety make one thirst for the improper.” The counterintuitive effect of the focus on making females dress “properly” turns out to be a near-pornographic obsession with the female body. (I intend to eventually address this issue in a future post. My experience with the Christian Patriarchy movement is one of a surprisingly high level of sexual misconduct - which is also well documented in the most conservative Muslim countries.)

My knowledge of history has gaps which I am trying to fill through my reading these days. I acknowledge that it is impossible to cover everything in primary school classes, and that it is probably natural to focus on the history of one’s own country, I have found that there is much of world history which was ignored in the curriculum that I studied. This book ended up introducing me to the Janissaries.

The Janissaries were a class of semi-slave soldiers in the Ottoman empire. They were non-Arabic, primarily Albanian and Greek, and were captured/selected as children, and raised specifically for their function. Changez feels that he has himself become a Janissary by helping to promote American hegemony through high finance. I can thoroughly understand his disgust at being part of a thoroughly corrupt financial system, and specifically part of a company that works to the detriment of employees and in favor of corporate raiders. I myself would have moral problems with doing his kind of work.

One particular incident turns out to be an odd coincidence of timing. Changez references Washington Irving’s short story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and the unidentified American notes that he has seen the movie. (One of my least favorite things about my fellow countrymen - they see the movie before reading the book.) Changez notes that he has only read the story, but he is sure the movie is faithful to the book. (I wonder if he is being ironic here.) This year, The Reluctant Fundamentalist was made into a movie. From my reading of the reviews, it has many changes - and not for the better - from the book. (There is an additional subplot, apparently, which seems unnecessary.)

One final note on the ending. Hamid chooses his own version of The Lady or the Tiger for his ending. Changez notes that it is as foolish to assume all Americans are CIA assassins as to assume that all anti-American Pakistanis are terrorists. We never do learn if the mysterious American is such a person or not.

This does raise an interesting question of prejudice, however. In general, my friends who have immigrated to the United States have expressed to me how surprisingly nice Americans are. Quite contrary to the portrayal in the media of their native countries. However, this niceness does not necessarily extend to those perceived to be Middle Eastern. A colleague at the Res Ipsa Loquitur (our county bar association magazine) spent a day in hijab as an experiment. She works at our local community college, so she walked around there, interacting with students and staff, who didn’t always recognize her. She also did her usual rounds to her children’s school and ate out, and generally did her normal routine. Her experience was eye-opening. (She wrote about it at length for the Magazine.) She found that, like the fictional Changez once he grows a beard, she was treated with fear and suspicion.

I had one further experience of my own that also correlates with these issues. Back in my college days, before September 11, and really before Osama bin Laden became a household name, our orchestra had a violinist from Iran. He was a quiet, normal seeming guy. No beard or other signs of being devout. Indeed, I never heard him speak of religion at all. It was a shock to us later when he was arrested and convicted of selling weapons to Iran from his garage. It is yet another example of the danger of looking at appearances as the primary indicator of character.

There is much to think about and talk about and this book is a good contribution to the conversation.


  1. Could you send me a copy of the magazine article about dressing in hijab?

  2. I read this book recently and thought I'd look to see if you had read and reviewed it. As usual, your review is astute and thoughtful.