Writer Mohsin Hamid’s life has straddled three continents. His new collection of essays, Discontent and Its Civilizations: Dispatches From Lahore, New York, and London, taps his uniquely internationalist perspective.
Hamid was born in Pakistan, but spent much of his childhood in California. He relocated with his family to Pakistan when he was not quite a teenager and came again to the United States to attend college. Later, he spent a few years in England (he has dual British and Pakistani citizenship) before deciding in 2009 to shift back to Pakistan. (I can deeply relate to his story, since I, too, have lived my life on three continents.)
These multiple worlds have provided Hamid rich material. His new book consists of a collection of essays from publications around the globe, including The New York Times, The Guardian, and The New York Review of Books. (Hamid is a frequent writer for the New York Times book review.) Foreign Policy magazine has called him “a master critic of the modern global condition.”
Hamid loves the phrase “water lily,” using it to describe himself.
“My friend, a Lahore-born nomad like myself, had a theory about us,” he writes. “We spoke Urdu, cooked mutter keema, danced the bhangra, regularly overslept, we had roots. And yet we drifted. So he called us water lilies, after a plant rooted not in dry earth but in ponds and streams.”
Hamid’s peripatetic childhood led to this scene on the Stanford University campus (where his dad was doing a Ph.D.):
“Is he retarded?” one of my new playmates asked my mother. “No,” she answered. “Then why can’t he talk properly.” “He can. He just doesn’t know English.”
Hamid quickly learned English—and how. He forgot his native Urdu, and had to go through the language learning process again a few years later when he and his family moved back to Pakistan.
“Eventually, I could tell a joke and sing a song in Urdu, flirt and fight, read a story and take an exam,” he writes. “I could speak it without a foreign accent. But my first language would be a second language from then on.”
Hamid recounts the suspicion with which he is treated at the Italian consulate in New York when he presents a Pakistani passport, how an American paper deletes his mention of Muslim anger at U.S. foreign policy, how he is slowly beguiled by London, and how even he is spooked by an eccentric Muslim passenger on the London metro.
Hamid’s globalist outlook leads him to question terms that some of us take for granted.
“I don't really believe in the notion of a ‘Western’ audience,” he tells me when I ask him the message of his book for those living in the West. “I question such concepts as the existence of discrete, different civilizations and the idea that we belong to homogeneous, mono-identities such as ‘Westerners’ or ‘Muslims.’ ”
Hamid’s second novel gave him global renown. The Reluctant Fundamentalist takes the form of a monologue by a Pakistani to an unnamed American at a café in Lahore. The protagonist, Changez, wryly narrates his history and explains why he became disillusioned with the United States after September 11. The novel was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, translated into dozens of languages, and made into a movie starring Kate Hudson, Kiefer Sutherland, and Liev Schreiber, with British-Pakistani actor Riz Ahmed as the lead.
“People often ask me if I am the book’s Pakistani protagonist,” he writes in Discontent and Its Civilizations. “I wonder why they never ask if I am his American listener.”
Hamid tells me that he felt a need to release a nonfiction book after three novels.
“I wanted the chance to speak in my own voice—as me, not as an overtly fictional protagonist in a novel—on issues that matter to me, issues in my own life, in literature, and in politics,” he says.
The result is a mesmerizing read.
“Globalization is a unique phenomenon,” he writes. “It brings us mass displacement, wars, terrorism, unchecked financial capitalism, inequality, xenophobia, climate change. But if globalization is capable of holding out any fundamental promise to us, any temptation to go along with this havoc, then surely that promise ought to be this: We will be more free to invent ourselves . . . we will be liberated to be what we choose to be.”
And he uses his background to give us new insights into subjects that have been written about at length.
“Sufis tell of two paths to transcendence: One is to look out at the universe and see yourself, the other is to look within yourself and see the universe,” he writes. “Their destinations may converge, but televisions and the novel travel in opposite directions.”
Hamid seamlessly fuses the personal and the political. The day of protest in Pakistan against the anti-Muslim Innocence of Muslims film is also the first day of school for Hamid’s daughter, annoying him deeply. At the same time, residing in Pakistan gives him a larger perspective on the violence occurring that day.
“Pakistan is a big country,” he writes. “A hundred and eighty million people is a lot of people. Pitched battles between protesters and police can be going on in one place, barriers made of shipping containers can be breached by mobs in another, and cinemas can be burned to the ground in the third—all of which did occur that day—and yet, in most locales, with the naked eye, you will see none of this.”
Having lived around the world, Hamid makes fascinating global connections. When he sees an image of a rickshaw (pedicab) with the words in English “Don’t Angry Me” written on it, he observes sardonically:
“It was probably a reference to a popular Bollywood film. But I was reminded of the Gadsden flags I had seen flying, years ago, on a trip to South Carolina: bright yellow, with a rattlesnake and a warning, ‘Don’t Tread on Me.’ Who knows, maybe the rickshaw driver had come back home from the United States after 9/11. Or maybe he’d stumbled upon that slogan, popular during the American Revolution, on Google.”
Hamid has long been a critic of U.S. policy toward South Asia and the Middle East.
“America's involvement in the region has from the beginning been completely counterproductive because the core has been an alliance with the House of Saud, and I can't think of a more pernicious actor in the region," Hamid told me when we met two years ago.
In Discontent and Its Civilizations, he takes on, among other things, the drone strikes that are a centerpiece of American policy in Pakistan.
“Among the most pernicious aspects of the U.S. drone campaign in Pakistan is therefore this: that it facilitates the refusal of Pakistani state and Pakistani society to do more to confront the problem of extremists who threaten Pakistanis and non-Pakistanis alike,” he writes. “Pakistani politicians find it far easier to blame highly unpopular drone strikes for Pakistan’s problems than to articulate concrete measures against specific extremist groups.”
Hamid’s perspective is essential to better understand our world.
Amitabh Pal is managing editor of The Progressive.
Image credit: Ed Kashi