Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Moshin Hamid: A Review, Part I

Moshin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a really good book. I can't imagine I have gone so long without discovering this great writer. When the book came out in 2007, it apparently awakened a lot of strong emotions in the readers. In many cases, this strong emotional response obscured the beauty and the importance of this book.

The plot of The Reluctant Fundamentalist is quite simple. Changez, a young Pakistani who was educated at Princeton and worked on Wall Street, is telling his story to a nameless American he meets in a restaurant in Lahore. Changez is both fascinated and repelled by America that offered him an education and a lucrative job but at the same time, made his life intolerable in a multitude of ways. Changez's uneasy relationship with America is mirrored by his equally painful involvement with a woman called Erica. (As you can see, Hamid is quite heavy-handed with the way he names his characters. He makes his Erica-America parallel so obvious that it becomes annoying.)

When Changez first arrives in the US, he discovers that the opulence that surrounds him in his Ivy League school and his Wall Street job makes it difficult to maintain the same vision of national identity that he brought with him from home:
For we were not always burdened by debt, dependent on foreign aid and handouts; in the stories we tell of ourselves we were not the crazed and destitute radicals you see on your television channels but rather saints and poets and—yes—conquering kings. We built the Royal Mosque and the Shalimar Gardens in this city, and we built the Lahore Fort with its mighty walls and wide ramp for our battle-elephants. And we did these things when your country was still a collection of thirteen small colonies, gnawing away at the edge of a continent.
As much as Changez prides himself on his people's glorious past and enjoys contrasting it with the recent historical origins of America, he has to rely on his American success to gain access to a social class his family was expelled from in Pakistan. For a while, Changez manages to swallow all the instances of discrimination he experiences. He also studiously avoids noticing the suffering of people who lose their jobs as a result of his professional activities. The reward for being an obedient little cog in the Wall Street machine is too high.

But then 9/11 comes and Changez cannot maintain his state of obliviousness any longer. His initial reaction to the events of 9/11 is complex, ranging from contentment to shame, and he explores it honestly. In the US, everything that has to do with 9/11 has been transformed into a holy cow of sorts. Any attempt to analyze what happened and how one reacted is branded as anti-American. Hamid's book received a lot of criticism for daring to discuss 9/11 in a way that is a little more profound than the official narrative. Unfortunately, those who insist that the only valid narrative of 9/11 is the simplistic one sold to us by George W. Bush don't realize that they are not doing us all any service by denying this hugely traumatic event the right to be explored in all its facets.

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