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Real Life Terror Reflects An Author's Imagination

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Real Life Terror Reflects An Author's Imagination

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Real Life Terror Reflects An Author's Imagination

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

A young man of Pakistani descent comes to the U.S. He studies here, gets a job and 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. �That may sound like the story of Faisal Shahzad, the man who's accused of trying to detonate a bomb in Times Square. But it's the plot of a novel, "The Reluctant Fundamentalist,"�by writer Mohsin Hamid. The novel came out three years ago.

Hamid now lives in Pakistan, but he has spent many years in the U.S., and he happened to be in New York City the night of the bombing attempt in Times Square. He joins me now from our bureau in New York. Welcome to the program.

Mr. MOHSIN HAMID (Novelist, "The Reluctant Fundamentalist"): Thank you.

NORRIS: What was your first reaction when you heard about the arrest of the suspect in the Times Square attempted bombing, Faisal Shahzad, and when you learned that he was from Pakistan?

Mr. HAMID: Well, I reacted to it in two different ways. In one way, I mean, I had just come with my wife and baby daughter from Lahore, and I was relaxing, 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. 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. That was sad and depressing because you know these sorts 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.

NORRIS: Many people of Pakistani descent probably felt the things that you're describing right now. But for you, there was another dimension to this - and it must've been a bit eerie because of the obvious resemblances between what happened in Times Square and the story that you describe, or that plays out in your novel.

Mr. HAMID: Yeah, I mean, my novel is a story of a man who comes to America, falls in love with America, and then falls out of love with America. It's the opposite of an immigration story. It's sort of an emigration story, how you come to leave the United States. And I think in the time after 9/11, when the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were going on and I wrote that book, I was trying to explore those sorts of feelings. When I saw the life story of this man - which in many ways, you know, does match with my protagonist - there was a bit of a flash of recognition. Although, of course I don't know what went on inside this man's head beyond what I can imagine.

NORRIS: What is it about the perspective and experiences of a man who was raised in Pakistan that would make him fall out of love with this country upon moving here? What was it that you were trying to help people who read your novel understand?

Mr. HAMID: A number of different things happened. One is, there's a political dimension. There are American troops in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. There are drone attacks taking place in Pakistan. So 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 and of itself, is just a political view. What makes it more dangerous is if it can coincide with a personal story. 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 United States.

And then he starts looking for where he should fit in. And that sort of takes him back to where he comes from. People get confused. You know, you're a very well-assimilated Pakistani-American living in the United States. Then things perhaps don't go so well. You begin to de-link from America, feel like an outsider. And then when you start feeling like an outsider, you think, you know, you're confused about your identity. Are you Pakistani, are you American?

And for some people like myself, that's not a difficult thing. You say, look, 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.

NORRIS: Now, when you talk about the hyphenated experience, it's 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. And that seems to run counter to this popular notion that terrorism is largely bred and nourished in madrassas or among the disenfranchised.

Mr. HAMID: Well, you know, the reason for that is that this type of terrorism is a phenomenon of globalization. It's about two cultures touching each other and in the process of touching each other, generating this anger. So you have people who come from one culture, live in another, enter a state of sort of turmoil and then lash out. It's not that this a Pakistani man who has come to America, it's a Pakistani-American man who can't stand being Pakistani-American any longer.

NORRIS: And how does the events that played out in Times Square and what we, you know, will see in the news cycle as Faisal Shahzad goes through the process of adjudication, how will that affect this process as Pakistani-Americans or Pakistani-Europeans read about this on the front page of the paper, hear about it on the radio, see it on television all the time?

Mr. HAMID: Well, the way I tend to think about that is, you know, 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, you know, comfortable having American cultural exposure - you know, wearing jeans, listening to rock music, etc. - then we create a kind of safe space. 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 the suspicion actually feeds off of itself, and sets in motion a kind of dangerous exclusion that leads to people like this feeling they have to choose one side or the other.

NORRIS: America and Pakistan are two countries that'll be intertwined for all kinds of reasons and quite likely for many, many decades now. Whether we're talking about diplomats or journalists or tourists or authors, what don't Americans get about Pakistan?

Mr. HAMID: Pakistan now is like a horror film franchise. 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. The thing about Pakistan is Pakistan, in a way, looks like the world. It's a diverse group of multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic, multi-religious people who are doing all sorts of different things, you know: being teenagers, being lovers, being writers, being farmers.

And when we continually talk about Pakistan in a security context, you know, we see Pakistan through the eye of a Predator drone; we see, you know, a pair of crosshairs and a cave. But that's not any more accurate as a depiction of Pakistan than to see America as, you know, as a missile silo. And what we too often don't do is recognize that Americans who could be killed in Times Square and Pakistanis who are killed in a market bombing in Lahore, are actually very similar.

Instead, we think, oh, what has America done to bring this attack upon itself? What has Pakistan done to create the people who did this attack? And you know, those are valid questions. But equally important, perhaps more important, is to recognize how most of us are the audience for terrorism, not the perpetrators of it.

NORRIS: Mohsin Hamid, thank you very much for coming in to talk to us.

Mr. HAMID: Thank you.

NORRIS: Mohsin Hamid is the author of "The Reluctant Fundamentalist."

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