This is an excellent book, one that could only have been written by a South East Asian who had lived in the West for years, and who both loved that culture and saw through its hypocrisy and naïveté. Like his protagonist, Hamid grew up in Pakistan, became a successful New York professional, then moved back out of a deep sense of connection to his homeland. Like his first novel, Moth Smoke (2000), it’s short but to the point: under 200 sparse pages, all told from the point of view of a man recounting his life story to a stranger over dinner.
Briefly, the storyteller went to the US to study, was delighted to land a prestigious job on Wall Street, then was forced to reconsider his relationship with his adopted country after the September 2001 attacks when he saw just how shallow both his integration and his country’s alliance with the US truly were. Why was he continually being randomly selected for additional screening at US airports? Why was the US claiming to be a friend of Pakistan who would support them geopolitically in exchange for using them as a staging ground to invade Afghanistan, but abandoning them to their own devices when at the brink of war in 2002 with their more powerful neighbour India? He eventually came to feel like an agent of the contemporary colonialism that had proved so ruinous for his homeland, and quit to become a professor in Lahore who advocated greater independence in Pakistan’s domestic and international affairs – in other words, he became “anti-American”. Why? Because he lives in a country that risks being deeply torn apart by the war against terror. In Hamid’s words:
A common strand appeared to unite these conflicts, and that was the advancement of a small coterie's concept of American interest in the guise of the fight against terrorism, which was defined to refer only to the organized and politically motivated killing of civilians by killers not wearing the uniforms of soldiers. I recognized that if this was to be the single most important priority of our species, the the lives of those of us who lived in lands in which such killers also lived had no meaning except as collateral damage.
This is a central question of our time, and worth exploring. For example, just this month, the Taliban sent emissaries to put a flag atop a building in Qatar and call it an embassy. Does this mean we should talk to them? If so, why not before? If you think this is worth thinking about, I recommend you read this novel.