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Satire is a way for writers to talk about their country's thorniest issues, hoping that readers will get the joke while dodging the wrath of the powers that be. The Pakistani author Mohammed Hanif tried to do just that in 2008 with his bitingly funny novel "A Case Of Exploding Mangoes." Now, more than a decade after it was published in English, it has been translated into Urdu, Pakistan's national language. NPR's Diaa Hadid reports from Karachi.
DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Pakistan's been ruled by four military dictators for nearly half of the country's seven decades in existence. Of those four, General Zia al-Haq stands out. He ruled through the '80s and transformed Pakistan into a more conservative, even intolerant place. His rules ranged from mandating prayer times in government offices to the nitpicky, like banning women from wearing makeup on TV. It all ended in 1988, when he was killed alongside the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan in a mysterious plane explosion.
Cue in Mohammad Hanif. He used to be a reporter. And he wrote the book after his attempts to find out what happened were frustrated. We chatted in a cafe.
MOHAMMAD HANIF: There were really like cover-ups to do cover-ups to do cover-ups. I think one day I thought that maybe I can just make it up. I can just come up with a character who raises his hand and says, look, I did it.
HADID: His book, "A Case Of Exploding Mangoes," references the conspiracy that explosives were snuck onto the plane in a box of mangoes. Hanif says the book was his attempt to make sense of Zia's dictatorship and of the military.
HANIF: It was like a long love letter to the army or to the institution which has ruined our lives, our country. But still, if you live with them, grow up with them, it was an attempt to kind of, you know, understand them. Because when you're kind of making fun of something, you're also in a way trying to humanize them.
HADID: And humanize he does. In the book, the all-powerful dictator is terrified of his wife, has itches in places too embarrassing to articulate and generally is not very general-like. In one scene, he disguises himself as a poor worker and rides into town on a bike. He wants to know what people think of him. His cover is convincing, so convincing that a policeman stops him for not having a working headlight. He only lets him go after he makes the worker insult Zia three times for everybody's entertainment. Hanif says he drew on the humor that got people through the dictatorship.
HANIF: That's how we survived those 11 years, by telling each other jokes about him because his power was so total that you couldn't really take him out. So that's how we survived.
HADID: The book's written in English. It's Hanif's third language, and it's the one he uses to read fiction.
BINA SHAH: There is another element to that as well.
HADID: Bina Shah's a writer.
SHAH: Pakistani writers are perhaps a little bit fearful of writing in Urdu and being available to a much, much larger population here in Pakistan. People are much more sensitive about many topics - sexuality, for example, politics, religion.
HADID: Because only a minority read in English. But even, so Hanif says when he published the book in English, his friends told him...
HANIF: What the hell are you thinking? But can you get away with it?
SHAH: They worried authorities would punish him for lampooning a dictator. The army is Pakistan's most powerful institution, and rights groups say perceived criticism can invite threats of violence and worse. But there was no backlash, and the book was well-received. It was even translated into multiple languages. Hanif says he handed over an Urdu manuscript to a Pakistani publisher years ago, but he sat on it.
HANIF: And he was very funny about it. He said, you have no idea the kind of people we deal with here. Sometimes it takes them 10 years to get the joke.
HADID: Nadeem Farooq Paracha, a writer for Dawn, a liberal Pakistani daily, says the novel serves another important purpose.
NADEEM FAROOQ PARACHA: One can understand even through satire how things work, how sorrowful certain strong institutions - armed institutions play politics and why they shouldn't do that. I think one can learn that by reading Hanif's book.
HADID: The book's been taken on by a new publisher on a limited run for now, but Hanif says he's happy with that.
HANIF: Yeah, a thousand is a very, very respectable number in Pakistan. You sell a thousand copies, you are a bestseller.
HADID: Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Karachi.
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