What’s the Matter with Pakistan?: A Novelist Examines His Home Country

One of Pakistan’s most famous novelists, Mohsin Hamid, is out with a collection of essays that tackle everything from being Muslim-American to why Pakistan has become so messy.

Mohsin Hamid’s first three novels are canny, intimate reader-writer transactions. His debut, Moth Smoke (2000) casts the reader as judge (“Your gavel falls like the hammer of God”). The Pakistani protagonist of his second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), buttonholes an American (“Excuse me, sir, but may I be of assistance?”) and in telling his tale of his time in the Land of the Free, routinely addresses him—and by extension, the reader—as "you". Hamid goes the whole hog with second-person narration in his third immersive novel and faux-self-help guide How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013). Instead of sporadically appealing to his reader he upgrades him to the star of the show: thus “you” are the baby at the outset, “huddled, shivering, on the packed earth under your mother’s cot,” just as later, after enough trial, error and good fortune, “you” are the thriving, rags-to-riches water industrialist with an SUV, a loveless marriage and a dodgy heart.

For Hamid’s first book of essays, Discontent and Its Civilizations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York, and London, he swaps that conferred “you" for a confessional "I." His pieces range from long essays to shorter op-eds to fleeting sketches. Nothing is new; all have appeared in a variety of international publications: the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Times of India, the Guardian. Each essay is grouped accorded to content into one of three sections: "Life", "Art" and "Politics." Connecting them all, or at least rearing its head more often than any other topic, is Hamid’s native Pakistan.

Hamid airs his thoughts on his country’s turbulent past and present and speculates on its uncertain future, all the time reminding us that whether based in Lahore or, as previously, in New York and London, he has felt like "a half-outsider." His essays, he says, feel like “the dispatches of a correspondent who cannot help but be foreign.” But he is too hard on himself. Yes, the distanced and occasionally jaundiced eye of the (half-) outsider looking in is in evidence in the essays that focus on London and New York; however, the later pieces on Pakistan are powered by innate wisdom and informed opinion, and consist of solid, questioning, explorative writing that not only picks fault and apportions blame but also offers tentative solutions.

As such, it is Hamid on politics—specifically, Pakistan’s political climate in recent years—that is the real draw here. But while he saves the best for last, his autobiographical first section yields some candid and insightful gems.

In "Life" we hear of his move at the age of nine from California back to Lahore, how in his time away he lost his Urdu, only to reclaim it as a second language. A teenage Hamid finds Lahore’s museums and art galleries a creative refuge and welcome alternative to “raccoon-eyed” dictator General Zia-ul-Huq’s “desiccated” Pakistan. In "International Relations" he recounts an exchange in 2000 with an Italian consulate official who will only allow him into the country if he produces a notarized love-letter from his Italian lover—after which he lets fly with a briefly scathing coda: “nationality-based discrimination has taken its place alongside racial discrimination, denying both our common humanity and our unbelievably varied individuality as it frisks us at the border.” One year later, in an essay portentously entitled "The Countdown," Hamid documents the reverberations felt in Islamabad in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and the “mounting dread” of inevitable reprisals. Suddenly, he feels a “great strain on the hyphen bridging that identity called Muslim-American.”

Hamid has less success with his second section, "Art." His explanation of his craft proves riveting (how a youthful love of Dungeons & Dragons and an adult appreciation of Camus led to his decision to involve, implicate or interact with the reader in his fiction); but in a back-to-back sequence of New York Times Bookends pieces built around interesting enough issues (Where is the Great American Novel by a woman? Do e-books change the reading experience?) his opinions are cramped and underdeveloped. Unable to warm to any theme, each low-wattage piece eventually fizzles out.

This weak-link middle-section doesn’t so much sag as float, such is its breezy, whimsical lightweightedness. Fortunately, Hamid’s last section on Pakistan substantially redresses the balance. The country has popped up again and again in the book; now it looms large and colors the rest of the proceedings. One piece from 2011 sifts the conspiracy theories that abounded in Pakistan in the wake of Bin Laden’s death before concluding that taking out the world’s most wanted man will not bring about immediate peace: “Bin Laden is dead. But many Pakistanis sense the impending arrival of yet another murderous plane, headed their way.”

This is a repeat of the “mounting dread” we came across earlier, a second wave of “reverberations” to follow the first lot that came to Pakistan after 9/11. Throughout the essays in this section, Hamid reminds us of the terror and injustice that have erupted after periods of boiling-point tension or crisis-point tragedy. In “After Sixty Years, Will Pakistan Be Reborn?” he brings the uninitiated up to speed by giving a warts-and-all potted history of a nation under perpetual duress, from its painful birth to its tumultuous present. In “To Fight India, We Fought Ourselves” he tells us that, “At the heart of Pakistan’s troubles is the celebration of the militant.” In “Divided We Fall” he evaluates the achievements of General Pervez Musharraf: under his regime, and after the post-9/11 war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, Pakistan enjoyed rapid economic growth and peace with India; on the other hand, not enough was done to bridge ethnic and religious divisions, which led to an intensity in the ideological war between Sunni and Shia Muslims.

These essays are at their strongest when Hamid offsets his litany of grievances with possible remedies. Some are idealistic quick-fixes, mere sticking-plasters for gaping wounds, but the majority evince rational thought and a deep-seated interest in the problem. Only by dismantling the “cult of militancy” and stripping the deadly extremist of his noble, heroic status can Pakistan move forward. Ditto his country’s “toxic treatment” of its religious and ethnic minorities: nothing less than “A revolution in our thinking and behavior, brought about by sustained pressure from below, is what is really called for.”

Tucked away at the end are the book’s standout pieces—two analytical, fact-heavy, persuasively argued full-length essays for the New York Review of Books. One covers the fraught alliance between the US and Pakistan, a diplomatic relationship hamstrung by suspicion on both sides. Hamid opens with a gut-punch by citing the Pew Global Attitudes Project’s finding that only 12 percent of Pakistanis have a favorable opinion of the United States, and only 8 percent would like to see U.S. troops stay on in Afghanistan. He goes on to state that the lion’s share of U.S. aid allocated to Pakistan funds the Pakistani military. But with each party “viewing one another through gunsights” and one country blaming the other for putting its citizens in danger (Pakistan’s case vitiated by its “disastrous embrace of militants”), their rocky marriage of convenience is heading for acrimonious divorce unless there is an imminent display of trust and solidarity.

The other prominent essay reveals why Obama’s expanded drone campaign has proved ineffective, with low-level insurgents rather than high-value leaders being the victims—not to mention huge swaths of civilians. “Pakistan is far too big for outsiders to police,” Hamid says, although his depiction of an increasingly destabilized country suggests its insiders aren’t up to the job either. His conclusion is noteworthy, for the reason that it crops up in other essays, albeit in different formulations. Despite its ongoing crises and “despite its frequent inclusion in lists of failing states, Pakistan is not a basket case.” This is stressed clearest of all in Hamid’s introduction. A stance of optimism, he avers, is not useless, for “With optimism comes agency.” He believes that “foreign powers should resist the impulse to intervene in Pakistan, and that Pakistanis should correct failed Pakistani policies and attitudes themselves rather than claim these are the best that can be hoped for given the machinations of the outside world.”

While reading this last section of essays, the Hamid that emerges is a probing, critical political animal, one that is resistant to foreign intervention in Pakistan, anxious for more pluralism and tolerance within its borders, prepared to find good in the “brutal phenomenon” that is globalization, and mystified—rightly—by “illusory” civilizations. “Take two notional civilizations, namely those of “Muslims” and “Westerners.” To which do my Pakistani friends in Amsterdam or I belong?” In his closing essay, “Islam Is Not a Monolith,” he vents his frustration with those who erroneously demarcate “we Europeans” and “you Muslims”: those who see Islam as a self-contained world, “a sort of Microsoft Windows, obviously different from, and considerably incompatible with, the Apple OS X-like operating system of ‘The West.’ ”

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If only the collection had featured more of the same, or even been devoted entirely to all matters political. Simply stated, Hamid spreads himself too thin. For every long, in-depth foray beyond the headlines there are a clutch of short, scrappy squibs on life and art. Also, while Hamid indisputably possesses an eye for detail in his novels, singularly acute or quirky observations are in scant supply in his essays. Orwell’s journalism is memorable because he was as much a sharp-eyed spectator as an eloquent commentator. Hamid only does the latter. Only in two essays does he attempt to really see more. “Don’t Angry Me” is composed from a picture his friend sent of a rickshaw-sign bearing the same warped-English warning; and in “Discontent and Its Civilizations,” the book’s eponymous essay and artful Freudian slip, he tells how in Lahore he gave hard thought to covering his daughter’s bedroom window with blast-resistant film—“For outside my daughter’s windows is a yellow-blooming amaltas tree, beautiful and mighty, and much older than us all. I hoped not to dim my daughter’s view of it.”

In his 2002 essay “On the Frontier of Apocalypse,” Christopher Hitchens explains why the world’s key problem country was not so much Afghanistan but Pakistan. In “Why They Get Pakistan Wrong,” Hamid quotes Obama as a presidential candidate in 2008 saying “The most important thing we’re going to have to do with respect to Afghanistan is actually deal with Pakistan.” The country remains a hot-spot. At the time of writing, the city of Peshawar is burying its dead after at least 132 children were killed in their school by the Pakistani Taliban. That cult of militancy Hamid mentioned is still alive and well. His book is disjointed but worth it for its impressively top-heavy last third in which he enlarges upon Pakistan, excoriating its misrule and bewailing its divisions while, ultimately and optimistically, deeming it salvageable—“a mess with incredible potential.”