Mohsin Hamid Rises to the Occasion

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Discontent and Its CivilizationsMohsin Hamid’s second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), gained the Pakistani writer a measure of well-earned global notoriety and indicated the scope of both his ambition and his ability. But, really, it was only a jumping-off point. Hamid has a great deal more to say than he has said in three short novels to date, or really than is possible to say in novels.

A writer’s occasional pieces are the flip side or reverse image of his or her fiction. As such, they hold a legitimate and even important place in his or her body of work, which can be defined as the statement that he or she spends a lifetime striving to make. Hamid’s novels are concise literary gems, self-consciously crafted in a manner reminiscent of Kazuo Ishiguro, and therein lies not only their durable merit but also their limitation. Hamid’s un-Ishiguro-like willingness, between novels, to put himself on the line by writing explicitly about current events brings to mind a truly great writer who for many decades wrote exquisite novels of global and lasting value with one hand and, with the other, stood always at the ready to leap into the breach with what one critic approvingly called “thin-skinned responsiveness”: Graham Greene.

Like Greene, Hamid rises to the occasion. At 44 he is still young, which bodes very well because his wonderfully-titled new collection Discontent and Its Civilizations suggests the potential for him to give us books of even greater importance, both literary and topical, for many years to come. And we will need him in those years, just as we need him now. For now this book is plenty important enough, and for David L. Ulin in the Los Angeles Times to praise it faintly as a “mash-up” lacking “weight” and “staying power” is to miss the point that rightly compelled its publication now. The times we’re living through are not conducive to staying above the fray, and indeed the relative slightness and datedness of some of the book’s pieces are also very much to the point; to read them collected in book form serves as an apt reminder of just how fast history is moving these days, how alert we must try to be.

The world’s peace party needs for its thought leaders to be as active and assertive as the bullies among both the terrorists and the imperial apologists. Mohsin Hamid’s reputation as a novelist grants him presumptive access to an American audience beyond the usual suspects of East Coast and academic “policy” types – those intellectuals who sell or rent their brains and command of language to the North American imperial state – and he puts that access to good use. I remember only too well my own lunch with a literary agent in New York circa 2004, soon after my book Alive and Well in Pakistan was published in London (that book could not have been published in New York). When I told him that I had written a book about Pakistan, the agent’s immediate question was: “What’s your argument?” As if writing about Pakistan required having an argument. The rejoinder that I lacked the presence of mind to offer at the time was: I’m not making an argument; I’m telling a story.

Pakistan deserves more telling of its stories, and far less hard-nosed, bloodless analysis. There is no half-baked notion in today’s world that’s more tiresome, indeed pernicious, than the notion that Pakistan exists primarily as a policy puzzle or problem for D.C.-based think-tank thinkers to think about. Pakistan – good, bad, and ugly – exists in its own right. I know this because, over two decades of traveling (and, for one five-month stint, living) there, that messy, damaged and complicated but fascinating country and its peoples have earned my love and respect.

Mohsin Hamid knows it more fundamentally because he is Pakistani, and he writes about it as a stubbornly hopeful liberal patriot. He loves his country; he is entitled to do so; and he is generous enough to take time out of his busy novel-writing schedule to explain to us the nature and meaning of that love. In today’s world Pakistani patriotism is a very important subject for us to understand. If Mohsin Hamid is kind enough to help us try to do so, the least we can do is to meet him halfway by hearing him out with curiosity and without prejudice.

The real problem, as Hamid rightly says, is that “both sides of the alliance between the U.S. and the Pakistani military share blame for the violence currently afflicting Pakistan.” An ancillary problem is that until we Americans are prepared to accept this correct premise, we will fail to understand well-informed explanations like this one Hamid offers:

By backing the Northern Alliance against the Taliban and then failing to include a meaningful representation of Pashtuns in a power-sharing deal in Kabul, the U.S. not only sided with India in the Indian-Pakistani proxy war in Afghanistan, it also elevated a coalition of Afghanistan’s smaller ethnicities above its largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns. Conflict was inevitable, and since twice as many Pashtuns live in Pakistan as in Afghanistan, it was also inevitable that this conflict would spill over the border.

Or this one:

The problem, for those who wish Pakistan to take more responsibility for itself, is that these conspiracy theories [cherished by many Pakistanis] are not necessarily false. Indeed, many have elements of truth. India likely is striving to exacerbate the violent discontent in Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest province, to the south of the tribal areas. (That discontent is rooted in the Pakistani state’s long-term mistreatment of the province’s local population.) Afghanistan has in fact refused to accept the territorial integrity of Pakistan. Saudi Arabia and Iran do back Sunni and Shia militant proxies in the country. The U.S. has used a vaccination campaign as cover for an intelligence operation on Pakistani soil.

It’s a shame, but a sign of the times, that I have felt compelled to give over the lion’s share of this review to topical subjects rather than literary ones, such as Hamid’s admiration for Toni Morrison, Haruki Murakami, and Antonio Tabucchi, the Italian author of the unjustly obscure anti-fascist novel Sostiene Pereira (“I have never agreed with the claim that art must be kept separate from politics,” remarks Hamid in his piece on Pereira).

The particular value of Discontent and Its Civilizations is the way its selection and arrangement highlight the way Mohsin Hamid’s occasional writing has concerned itself with both literary and topical subjects, and how those interpenetrate and overlap. That, combined with the remarkably cosmopolitan perspective he brings to his humane concerns, is the sweet spot that defines his special value as a writer in these times.

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Which side are you on?

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Seattle - On February 10, three young people were shot dead near their condominium building in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The young man and two young women were members of the same family, and they were Muslims. Their murder was either a hate crime or the regrettable result of a dispute over parking.

That it could well carry both meanings at once seems beyond the imagination of many Americans, determined as they are to avert their eyes from the obvious and to excuse themselves from feeling or expressing human sympathy for their fellow human beings  - and fellow Americans – whom they prefer to define as “foreign.”

Regardless of the motivation or state of mind of the killer Craig Stephen Hicks, the fact that his victims were Muslim matters, in a society that has allowed itself over the past 13 1/2 years to become thoroughly marinated in Islamophobia. Yes, we’ve been made this way by the appalling actions of the Muslim world’s extremist terrorists. But we also know darn well that the governments of the West, especially the United States government, have played it to their advantage. And, if we are honest, we’ve willingly colluded in our own manipulation.

On Wednesday, February 11, I felt a responsibility to write about the Chapel Hill killings because, as the author of Alive and Well in Pakistan, I have experienced the humanity of many Pakistanis as well as of many Pakistani-Americans and other Muslims here in the United States. To remind oneself and others of our shared humanity is not the same as “singing Kumbaya,” as many who style themselves hard-nosed realists like to put it. After 49 years on this planet – obsessively traveling all over this planet, in fact – I harbor no illusions about humanity being thoroughly wonderful, or about mutual understanding being an easy thing to achieve. I know that not all Muslims are wonderful human beings. But I also know that all Muslims are, in fact, human beings. And to insist that human beings should behave better than we do toward each other is the opposite of naive.

I titled my article “Muslims Should Live, Not Die, in America.” I’m spurred to write again today because I’m appalled by the many comments it prompted on the Huffington Post and on my Facebook page: “Muslims are evil killers and need to be eradicated,” wrote one self-styled American patriot, Micheal Dorrell, on Facebook. “You people are evil and should be destroyed!” wrote another, Darren Simpson. Such words are hate speech. I would prefer not to name their authors, but they named themselves, and people should be held accountable for their words as well as their actions. When I suggested that surely the three young people in Chapel Hill didn’t deserve to be killed, Micheal Dorrell replied: “Yes casualty of war.”

The depression I’ve been feeling since then proves that words have power. But I decline to grant such words power over me. Sometimes I comfort myself by remembering Paul Farmer’s dictum that depression is a rational response to the state of the world. But that’s at best a bleak and shallow comfort. The only partially effective antidote that I’ve found, both to the state of the world and to the depression it engenders, is action.

But what kind of action? For starters, not violent action – there’s already too much of that. The form of action most readily available to me, as a writer, is to write. That – reclaiming language from both the terrorists and the state – is necessary. But it’s not sufficient. I remind myself daily of something Albert Camus, who seems daily more freshly relevant, said: “It is from the moment when I shall no longer be more than a writer that I shall cease to write.”

Another form of action available to us Americans is to train ourselves to cease clinging to an outdated and untenable national way of life. Here is how I put it in a speech to TCU students on January 15:

More and more these days, I feel that the need of our times, for those of us who have been accustomed to enjoying a middle-class American way of life, is to begin cultivating an attitude of what Buddhists call non-attachment. Buddhists – as well as serious practitioners of other religions, including Christianity – understand that true freedom has a lot to do with teaching ourselves not to want things that we don’t really need. In other times and places, dictatorships have flourished with at least the tacit acquiescence, and often the active support, of their society’s middle class, the portion of society that usually cherishes security and stability more than freedom and justice.

The other thing all of us need to face is a question: Which side are you on? The sides we have to choose from are, emphatically, not “the West” and “Islam.” Our choice – your choice – is between the side of humanity and the side of war. Are innocent young Muslim dental students in North Carolina merely casualties of war, as Micheal Dorrell claims to believe? If you believe that, then you support the notion that the human race will and should remain in a state of universal and perpetual war. If we want any future better than that, we must allow ourselves to believe in and work toward such a future, hard as that is to do.

I don’t know, specifically, everything that the following implies, but here is a starting point: Those of us who would preserve and renew humane society must become as active and assertive as the terrorists and other bullies. Real counterterrorism lies not in governments setting up police states ostensibly to protect us, but in us – each of us ordinary people – not only declaring that enough is enough, but turning off our televisions and laptops, getting off our couches, and demonstrating that we actually mean it.

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Muslims Should Live, Not Die, in America

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Plymouth, Michigan, Feb. 11 - We don’t yet know what effects the Feb. 10 murder of three Muslim students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina will have on Muslims around America or elsewhere, or on the rest of us. For starters, it will anger many Muslims. It already has, and it should. No matter what wrong things some Muslims do, that doesn’t mean that other Muslims who have done nothing wrong deserve to be killed. If you want to know what Muslims are thinking and saying – and you should – follow the #ChapelHillShooting and #MuslimLivesMatter hashtags on Twitter.

Unfortunately, it’s all too predictable that some Muslims, as tragically disturbed and misguided as Chapel Hill killer Craig Stephen Hicks clearly is, will take matters into their own hands. That’s one thing I’m afraid of. But I’m also afraid of the opposite: that Muslim communities around the United States will be terrorized into cowering timidity.

It’s not for me to tell them that they should do otherwise. Each of us makes a perpetual series of moment-by-moment calculations about how to live in the world both safely and with integrity, and acting with public courage can be physically dangerous. And what we know about the backgrounds and aspirations of Deah Barakat, his wife Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and her sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha underscores a widespread and largely admirable fact about American Muslims: they want to get along, pursue middle-class professions, raise families, live in suburbs, make themselves useful to society, help the needy. Through my writing and speaking I know many American Muslims, including many students very much like the three who were killed, and my sense is that most of them would strongly prefer not to be doing things like marching in the streets.

But the parallel that was promptly rendered explicit by the #MuslimLivesMatter hashtag is too obvious to ignore. As DeRay Mckesson, one of the Ferguson movement’s most vocal leaders, told a writer for Salon magazine, “We still protest every day, because we know that not only will our silence not save us, our surrender won’t save us, a video camera won’t save us. It is not that we are willing to die, it’s that we are unwilling to live in an America where blackness equals death.” What implications Muslims might draw for their own public activities in American society is, of course, for them to decide. But one thing I know is that, in America, if you don’t toot your own horn, nobody else is gonna toot it for you.

Some Muslims that I know personally are already doing some of what needs to be done. My Pakistani-American friend Nadeem Iqbal, for example, arrived to study at – of all places – North Carolina State University in 1982, and stayed. Nadeem organizes an annual public Eid festival in the town of Cary, very near Chapel Hill. “The main motive,” Nadeem told me, “was that we live in America, we need to celebrate our religious festivals in this new environment, and we have to add that flavoring. We are celebrating it as an American holiday event.”

When I asked Nadeem why he felt such work was important, he told me:

My children and their children are going to live in this country, and they should be treated fairly. But the only way it can happen is for them and us to become part of the greater fabric. I’m not talking about assimilation, but about being able to participate in American society on an equal basis, without fear or compulsion. … Doing religious stuff is important from the religious point of view and the social point of view, but getting involved in the larger society is equally important.

A parallel challenge and opportunity exists for Americans who, like me, grew up in all-white or white-dominated small towns or suburbs. My friend Sarah Derry grew up in the town of Hubbell, pop. 1,105, in Houghton County in a remote part of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. “It’s just in the wake of the old mining ruins,” she told me. “When they talk about small towns in America, this is one of them. It’s a pretty conservative place.”

A couple of years ago, when Sarah’s father was staying with her for a few months in a Detroit suburb, she took him to the Shatila Bakery, a well-known establishment in the heavily Arab-American city of Dearborn. “I found out about it from a guy I work with who’s Iraqi,” she told me. “My father is not the most open-minded person. As we were driving down there I told him, ‘Poppy, there’s a lot of Middle Eastern people there. They’ll be wearing a lot of headscarves, so don’t act all shocked.’”

An Arab man held the door open for Sarah’s father, and “they had a chuckle” because the man explained that it’s a tradition to show respect for elders. “We got our desserts and sat down,” Sarah remembers. “And when we left Poppy said, ‘Well, they seemed pretty nice. They seemed just like normal people.’”

While Sarah was glad to witness this “ah-ha” moment in her father’s life, she was also impressed that her teenage son was unimpressed, as if his grandfather’s insight were merely a statement of the obvious. “I’m glad I’m raising Erik in a place where there’s different races and cultures, because that’s the way the world is,” Sarah told me. “I want him to be a functioning member of society.”

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An Officer and a Spy, by Robert Harris

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An Officer and a SpyRobert Harris is one of the most intelligent English-language novelists of our time to aim for a popular audience. His debut novel Fatherland was a gripping murder mystery set in Berlin in the year 1964, in an all too plausibly depicted alternate reality in which the Nazis  won the Second World War, with all that implies for the dictum that the winners write the history books. Pompeii was wonderful. The Ghost was a devastating depiction of a high-minded but calculating former British prime minister bearing an all too credible resemblance to Tony Blair.

The Fear Index is a fascinating thriller about the dangers of computerized stock trading. And then there are Imperium and Lustrum (retitled Conspirata in the U.S.), the first two volumes of his promised trilogy on the politics of ancient Rome, narrated by Cicero’s slave Tiro. As bracing as the variety of his subject matter is, there is a unity of sensibility to Harris’s novels, and he always delivers on his promise of bracing erudition and historical, moral and political substance and perspective. In short, Harris always gives us plenty to think about, even as he entertains us magnificently.

An Officer and a Spy is as excellent as any other Robert Harris novel, with the added element of being a fictionalization of real events that have already been thoroughly documented in many nonfiction books: the notorious Dreyfus case that convulsed France in the 1890s. By choosing such a famous historical episode as his subject, Harris not only constrains himself, but paradoxically also grants himself the novelist’s license to imagine and portray the personal and moral lives of its personages. By extension, he also offers us the opportunity to reflect on how such a travesty of justice can have been perpetrated on an innocent man by a society determined to avert its eyes from its own corruption and bigotry.

The further point of such a choice, of course, is implicitly to invite us to draw parallels and implications for our own time and society. That is the real relevance of An Officer and a Spy, the real reason it was worth writing and is well worth reading now: it cuts very close indeed to the bone. If a national government’s highest officeholders are determined to collude in scapegoating a minority group and propagating a cover-up, what is the duty of an official serving under them? Indeed, what are the duties of a citizen?

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France and Muslims: What Camus Would Say

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Algerian ChroniclesAmong other things, Albert Camus would remind his fellow Frenchmen of the poisonous legacy of the Algerian war that did great damage to society in both Algeria and metropolitan France, as the French empire unraveled in the 1950s. He is in fact reminding us of the bitter history that he – an Algerian-born Frenchman – lived through, via the 2013  English translation of his fascinating, long-forgotten book Algerian Chronicles.

His decision to compile the book – a collection of his journalism from rural Algeria dating back to the 1930s and his urgent occasional writing  as the situation deteriorated through the 1940s and 1950s – was an act of integrity and of faith, unrequited at the time, as its publication sank like a proverbial stone because radicalized factions on all sides were refusing to hear voices of moderation. But the translation by Arthur Goldhammer and publication by Harvard University Press amplify the great moralist’s enduring relevance by displaying the power, or at least the human value, of moral and intellectual clarity and honesty, even when these qualities are demonstrably ineffectual in political terms.

What Camus saw clearly above all was the moral vacuousness of us-versus-them factional rhetoric. “The truth, unfortunately, is that one segment of French public opinion vaguely believes that the Arabs have somehow acquired the right to kill and mutilate, while another segment is prepared to justify every excess,” he wrote. “Each side thus justifies its own actions by pointing to the crimes of its adversaries.”

The proximate occasion for my publishing this short appreciation is, of course, the terrorist murder of a dozen staff of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris on January 7. But Camus speaks to us far beyond France, and beyond any particular event. To those Americans who are still confused about or oblivious to the implications of the recent Senate torture report, he has this to say:

 The reprisals against the civilian population of Algeria and the use of torture against the rebels are crimes for which we all bear a share of responsibility. That we have been able to do such things is a humiliating reality that we must henceforth face. Meanwhile, we must refuse to justify these methods on any grounds whatsoever, including effectiveness. Once one begins to justify them, even indirectly, no rules or values remain. One cause is as good as another, and pointless warfare, unrestrained by the rule of law, consecrates the triumph of nihilism.

The tragedy and poignancy of Camus’s writings on Algeria is that few on any side listened to him at the time. But therein also lies his relevance to us right now, half a century later. He refused to “grandstand for the sake of an audience,” as he put it: “I have decided to stop participating in the endless polemics whose only effect has been to make the contending factions in Algeria even more intransigent and to deepen the divisions in a France already poisoned by hatred and factionalism.” In today’s world, a writer like the Pakistani novelist Bina Shah is in a similar position. We can hear echoes of his attitude in her January 7 series of tweets :

I refuse to condemn/apologise as a Muslim. The people that did this stand for the polar opposite of what I believe in. … Those of you asking us “peaceful Muslims” to condemn terrorists rather naively assume they’re actually going to listen to us. … I do not apologise for Islamist terrorists because I live my life in opposition to everything they stand for. That is braver.

Camus’s credibility, then and now, lies largely in his willingness to deploy his moral authority, as both a prominent French liberal and a longtime public sympathizer with the Algerian cause, to condemn terrorism explicitly and forcefully:

The massacres of civilians must first be condemned by the Arab movement, just as we French liberals condemn the massacres of the repression. Otherwise, the relative notions of innocence and guilt that guide our action would disappear in the confusion of generalized criminality, which obeys the logic of total war. … When the oppressed take up arms in the name of justice, they take a step toward injustice.

Most poignant, and most relevant, to us and our times, and what comes through most clearly in Camus’s Algerian writings, is the writer’s humanity. In her 1985 essay “The Essential Gesture,” reflecting on the variety of ways to involve oneself, as a writer, in events and the times and activism, Nadine Gordimer reminds us that it was Camus who famously said, “It is from the moment when I shall no longer be more than a writer that I shall cease to write.”

Much of the enduring human appeal of Camus lies in his unwillingness to distance himself as an intellectual from his own visceral and particular loyalties – and why should he? Why should any of us? The correct version of the response he gave to an Algerian student at a press conference in Stockholm in 1957, much misquoted and misunderstood at the time, illustrates how his moral and political positions arose directly out of his personal agony as a pied noir or Frenchman born in Algeria: “People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.”

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After Ferguson: driving and speaking around the Midwest

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Home Free: An American Road Trip by Ethan CaseyEthan Casey, author of Home Free: An American Road Trip, is planning a follow-up trip through the Midwest in the fall of 2015 to document the attitudes, aspirations and worries of Americans and in the wake of events in Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere nationwide since the summer of 2014. He will be writing an account of that 2-3-week trip to supplement Home Free. Along the way he plans to speak at colleges, high schools, civic clubs and religious congregations. Destinations will include Milwaukee, Detroit, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, St. Louis and Kansas City.

Ethan Casey Saut d'EauTo invite Ethan to speak to your group during his fall 2015 Midwestern trip, or to learn more about his travels and writings, contact Ethan directly at ethan@ethancasey.com or through his Facebook page:

https://www.facebook.com/ethancasey.author

About Home Free: An American Road Trip:

Over  3 1/2 months and more than 18,000 miles between Labor Day and Christmas 2012, during and just after the presidential election, author Ethan Casey, whose previous books include Alive and Well in Pakistan and Bearing the Bruise: A Life Graced by Haiti, drove clockwise through every region of the contiguous United States, starting and ending in Seattle.

His purpose was to do what reporters and travel writers should do, and what he had done previously in books about Pakistan and Haiti: show up on the ground in person, seek out interesting and representative people, listen to their stories and points of view, take notes, then later sit down and stitch together a coherent narrative. His intention was to get away from the liberal echo chamber of his home city, catch history on the fly, and craft a nonfiction narrative account of America circa 2012 that will echo forward and remain relevant and readable for years to come.

Ethan’s itinerary included in-depth conversations with a few notable public figures such as the Haitian-American novelist Edwidge Danticat in Miami and Enron scandal whistleblower Sherron Watkins in Houston, but most of the people he met were ordinary Americans from a variety of backgrounds, in every region of the country. What he found they all had in common was that they were struggling to make sense of the confusing and uncertain times we’re all living through.

Paul Rogat Loeb, author of Soul of a Citizen and The Impossible Will Take a Little While, says: “Ethan Casey listened hard and well in his books on Haiti and Pakistan. Now he’s listening to America.”

And Bill Steigerwald, author of Dogging Steinbeck, considers Home Free better than the most famous of all American road trip books:

Just as John Steinbeck did in 1960 for his classic Travels With Charley, in the fall of 2012 Ethan Casey set out by car to discover – and document – the pulse of America and its people. Steinbeck’s ambitious search for his country was a failure, as the great author himself admitted. But Home Free is travel journalism at its finest. Casey delivers a valuable snapshot of 2012 America and its most contentious political and social issues.  Best of all, he introduces us to a rich cross-section of good, smart and thoughtful Americans who tell their stories and express their opinions fully on everything from immigration and gay marriage to the death of Detroit. Home Free is, in a real sense, the American road book Steinbeck set out to write but didn’t.

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