Real Life Terror Reflects An Author's Imagination

Faisal Shahzad i i

Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani-born American, is suspected of the attempted car bombing of New York City's Times Square on May 1. Author Mohsin Hamid's 2007 novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, centers on a character with a background similar to Shahzad's. orkut.com hide caption

itoggle caption orkut.com
Faisal Shahzad

Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani-born American, is suspected of the attempted car bombing of New York City's Times Square on May 1. Author Mohsin Hamid's 2007 novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, centers on a character with a background similar to Shahzad's.

orkut.com

It's a familiar story: A young man of Pakistani descent comes to the United States. He studies here, gets a job; for a while, he seems to thrive. But he gradually falls out of love with America. Feeling disillusioned and disenchanted, he returns to Pakistan, where he possibly joins a terrorist network.

While that may sound like the story of Faisal Shahzad, the man who is accused of trying to detonate a bomb in Times Square, it is also the plot of a novel that came out three years ago.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist was written by Mohsin Hamid. The novelist now lives in Pakistan, but he spent many years in the United States, and happened to be in New York City the night of the attempted bombing. Hamid had just arrived in New York with his wife and daughter when he heard the news, and as he tells NPR's Michele Norris, his initial reaction was split.

"I was relaxing and enjoying myself in New York. I felt my level of tension had gone down coming from Lahore, where things can get more dangerous from a terrorism standpoint," Hamid says. "And suddenly there was a rude shock, a reminder, that we live in one world and whether you're sitting in Lahore or New York the same things can happen.

"The other reaction was the reaction to the fact that the man was a Pakistani-American and that was sad and depressing because, personally it is because you know that these kinds of things will make life more difficult for everybody from Pakistan. But also because it's sad that these things keep tracing back to Pakistan."

And then there was the fact that — as he read more about the captured suspect — he noticed eerie similarities between the life of Shahzad and the protagonist of his book. "My novel is the story of a man who comes to America, falls in love with America, and then falls out of love with America."

Hamid describes The Reluctant Fundamentalist as "the opposite of an immigration story. It's an emigration story, how you come to leave the United States." He wrote it in the aftermath of Sept. 11, when the U.S. engagement in Afghanistan and Iraq made him think about how a person might fall out of love with America.

Mohsin Hamid

Mohsin Hamid is the author of the 2007 novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist. He lives in Lahore, Pakistan. Ed Kashi hide caption

itoggle caption Ed Kashi

Like Changez, the protagonist of Hamid's book, Faisal Shahzad looks to be someone who embraced the American dream. He seemed to have a good job, a stable marriage and a nice house in the suburbs. But Hamid says that there's a political dimension to being a Pakistani-American that can generate feelings of conflict.

"It's very easy, if you come from a place like Pakistan, to imagine that there's a narrative of American aggression towards the place that you come from. But that, in itself, is just a political view. What makes it more dangerous is if it can coincide with a personal story," Hamid says. "In my novel the personal story is a man who is in America, but after a failed love affair and numerous other things, he is emotionally damaged by his time in the USA. And then he starts looking for where he should fit in. And that search takes him back to where he comes from."

Hamid suggests that feeling such conflict or uncertainty about where he fits could lead a man to "delink" from America.

"For some people, like myself, that's not a difficult thing. You think, 'I'm a bit of both, I'm a hybridized person. That's fine.' But for others, it can be, 'I have to reject one of these two things that are confusing me.' And in this case it's rejecting America, trying to be just Pakistani or just Muslim. Which, of course, isn't true to your own experience and isn't even true to your own identity. But if you begin to walk that path, it can lead to dangerous places."

And this storyline is not unique to America. Many of the Pakistani-born men charged with terrorism in Europe have similar profiles: suburban comfort, good education, relative family wealth. Which seems to run counter the popular idea that terrorism is largely bred and nourished in madrassas and among the disenfranchised. Hamid says the type of terrorist typified by his novel — and brought to America's attention in the person of Shahzad — is a "phenomenon of globalization. It's about two cultures touching each other and in the process of touching each other, generating this anger."

"You have people who come from one culture, live in another, enter a state of turmoil and then lash out. It's not just a Pakistani man who has come to America, it's a Pakistani-American man who can't stand being Pakistani-American any longer."

While the process of Shahzad's adjudication may highlight that tension, Hamid says that more interaction between the two cultures, not less, is the key to a happier existence for those who might feel drawn by different loyalties.

"If we make a comfortable space for people to be Pakistani-American, and similarly for people in Pakistan, who aren't Pakistani-American, to be comfortable having American cultural exposure — you know, wearing jeans, listening to rock music, etc. — then we create a kind of safe space," Hamid says. "But as soon as we start saying that Pakistanis in America are suspect, then we start shutting down this positive space. So I think that this suspicion actually feeds off itself and sets in motion a kind of dangerous exclusion that leads to people like this feeling like they have to choose one side or the other."

And Hamid says there's plenty about Pakistan that Americans just don't get, too.

"Pakistan now is like a horror film franchise," he says. "You know, it's 'Friday the 13th, Episode 63: The Terrorist from Pakistan.' And each time we hear of Pakistan it's in that context."

But Pakistan s a place that looks more "like the world," as Hamid puts it, "multi-ethnic, multilinguistic, multireligious." But "when we continually talk about Pakistan in a security context, [when] we see Pakistan through the eyes of a Predator drone, we see a pair of cross hairs and a cave. But that's not any more accurate as a depiction of Pakistan than to see America as a missile silo. America and Pakistan are similarly complicated places and I think the one thing that I would like people to understand about Pakistan is, it is an incredibly rich, diverse and — I think in many ways unthreatening — culture in which these sorts of problems also do exist."

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.