Note: It’s February 1st. I read this book about 4 days ago, but I needed to let it sink in. Though it was a quick read for me, it packed a wallop and was not at all what I was expecting.
Summary: A bearded Pakistani man, known only as Changez throughout the novel, introduces himself to an American man in a cafe in Lahore and begins to tell this man the story of his life. Changez came from a prominent family in Lahore, but the family’s wealth was diminishing. Because of this, he required a scholarship when he was accepted at Princeton. But go to Princeton, he did, and after graduation, he beat out multiple other interns to secure a spot in a large-scale corporation. He lived and worked in NYC and found he was great at being a New Yorker–as long as he acted American and not Pakistani (ie, no more need to be deferential to one’s elders and the like).
He had an on-again, off-again friendship turned romance with a girl from Princeton. Erica was often mentally unwell due to a tragedy which had killed her fiance some years ago, and Changez thought that perhaps he could help heal her, but this did not work out the way he envisioned it.
Around a year after graduating Princeton and working for this company, Changez was in the Philippines on business when the World Trade Center attacks happened. His first reaction is to smile at the symbolism, though he immediately hates himself for this as he genuinely has loved being part of American society. When he returns to NYC, his position as a corporate businessman shields him from the xenophobia sweeping across the city, but eventually catches up to him. At the same time he is deeply anxious for his family, whose proximity to India is becoming more dangerous in the political chess game of “The War on Terror.” He decides after falling into deep depression and losing a client to move back to Pakistan and become a professor, encouraging other young Pakistanis to embrace nonviolence while protesting the war (much like Gandhi). The story is told via dramatic monologue. We only hear his version of events and are privy to his deepest thoughts and feelings throughout.
Diverse Elements: Islamic man! Beard! Pakistan! Alternate perspective on 09/11/01 and the aftermath! (Exclamation points added facetiously as for some reason beards on brown skin are supposedly sinister while beards on white skin are “lumbersexual.” Hmm).
What I Liked: The political tension was great. The “American stranger”–who is he? Why is he there? When will Changez reveal his “true” motivations? It’s very well done.
What I Didn’t Like: That my own prejudices really began to flare up, hardcore. Unlike all my students, I remember the day the world fell apart–for America, that is. I was in high school. I was sheltered, from an Air Force family, and I saw my father cry, great heaving sobs from a man built like a gorilla, choking on his fear and his grief and his anger. And I thought I was more open to an alternate perspective, but when I read the line that Changez “smiled” at the destruction, inwardly I balked and outwardly thought I was going to vomit. Luckily I was able to push myself forward, and glad I did.
The other parts that I didn’t really like were the sexual scenes between Changez and Erica. Her mental illness came across clearly and strong, and the sex was macabre in that context. It was like she was fetishized.
What I Loved: It forced me to face my own prejudice, that inherent sense in all of us that the way we see it is the only way to see it. And I learned so much more than what I’d been taught. For example, I’d not known that Pakistan was our ally in those early days of the war, and I’d never heard that India was planning on invading Pakistan. I loved that religion was not brought into the story much at all, and this was a surprise since the book is called “Fundamentalist” and such. I loved that the brutality and the beauty of human nature is revealed throughout as well.
“And then I smiled. Yes, despicable as it may sound, my initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased . . . But please believe me when I tell you that I am no sociopath . . . –no, I was caught up in the symbolism of it all, that fact that someone has so visibly brought America to her knees. Ah, I see I am only compounding your displeasure. I understand, of course; it is hateful to hear another person gloat over one’s country’s misfortune. But surely you cannot be completely innocent of such feelings yourself. Do you feel no joy at the video clips–so prevalent these days–of American munitions laying waste the structures of your enemies?”
“On the flight [from Pakistan to NYC] I noticed how many of my fellow passengers were similar to me in age: college students and young professionals, heading back after the holidays. I found it ironic; children and the elderly were meant to be sent away from impending battles, but in our case it was the fittest and brightest who were leaving, those who in the past would have been most expected to remain. I was filled with contempt for myself, such contempt that I could not bring myself to converse or to eat.”
“I spent the night considering what I had become. There really could be no doubt. I w as a modern day Janissary, a servant of the American empire at a time when it was invading a country with kinship to mine and was perhaps even colluding to ensure that my own country faced the threat of war. Of course I was struggling! Of course I felt torn! I had thrown in my lot with the . . . officers of the empire, when all along I was predisposed to feel compassion for those, like Juan-Batista, whose lives the empire thought nothing of overturning for its own gain.”
“It seems an obvious thing to say, but you should not imagine that we Pakistanis are all potential terrorists, just as we should not imagine that you Americans are all undercover assassins.”