April 18, 2007: Features

Mohsin Hamid ’93

Mohsin Hamid ’93 enjoying tea in a café in London, where he now lives.

East meets west
In a new novel, an author explores disenchantment, loyalty, and identity after 9/11

By Katherine Federici Greenwood

The Reluctant FundamentalistOn the face of it, the main character in the new novel by Mohsin Hamid ’93, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, might seem to be the author himself. Like Hamid, the novel’s central figure — named Changez — is a young man from a respected, upper-middle-class family in Lahore, Pakistan, who comes to the United States to attend Princeton. After graduation, he lands a high-paying job in a New York consulting firm, joining the Manhattan elite. He feels affection for Princeton, though his relationship with the United States grows complicated after Sept. 11 amid the turns of world events.

Hamid is not Changez. The author, who spent part of his childhood in California and now lives in London, is cosmopolitan and charming; he calls himself a “chameleon” and a “wanderer” who fell madly in love with Princeton and feels comfortable in America. “When I wanted to blend in fairly seamlessly into the American world, it wasn’t hard for me to do,” he says. “But for Changez, it was harder.” The feelings expressed by his main character, Hamid says, are exaggerated views of what the author came to feel in the years after 9/11, a decade after leaving Princeton. “Changez is not meant to be me,” he says, “but I could imagine being him.”

Hamid’s novel, which created quite a stir at last year’s London Book Fair and is being published in the United States this month by Harcourt, examines how an educated person with roots in both the East and the West could come to adopt views many see as radical. Writing the book — his second — was a form of therapy, the author says. It allowed him to explore the issues with which he is grappling in his personal life, including his relationship with the United States and Pakistan, and where he belongs: “to what should I be loyal.” In a March review in The Guardian, novelist James Lasdun, a lecturer in Princeton’s creative writing program, wrote that the book is a “cleverly constructed fable of infatuation and disenchantment with America, set on the treacherous faultiness of current East/West relations, and finely tuned to the ironies of mutual — but especially American — prejudice and misrepresentation.” (The first chapter, which discusses Changez’s time at Princeton, begins on page 25.)

Sitting in the lobby of a lower Manhattan hotel in late February, Hamid, 35, is jet-lagged but welcoming and relaxed. He has flown in from London for two nights so that he can attend an awards ceremony for a writing competition that he judged. He enjoys being back in New York, where he first fell in love and stood out as a management consultant after earning a law degree from Harvard. It took Hamid seven years to write The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and now he is excited to talk about it. But he wishes the discussion could be less of an interview and more of a conversation about the ideas he explores — the type of conversation he hopes that his novel sparks.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a monologue delivered by Changez to a nervous, unnamed American man as the two sit in a café in an open-air marketplace in an old part of Lahore. While the two have tea and then dinner, Changez tells his story of falling in love with the United States and with a Princeton classmate, Erica. Over the course of the conversation, the monologue grows increasingly tense as Changez relates his growing estrangement from the United States and his misgivings over America’s attitude and actions toward the Muslim world after 9/11. Torn between his comfortable life in the United States and his loyalty to Pakistan, Changez explains that he has returned to live in Lahore.

Hamid says he considers “home” to be both Pakistan and the United States, where he has spent 15 years, even though he has lived in London for the past five years and recently became a British citizen (he also retained his Pakistani citizenship). At Princeton, he majored in the Woodrow Wilson School and wrote his thesis on using biofuels to combat global warming in developing countries. But he took classes ranging from world religions to creative writing, and spent hours talking about world affairs with his friends in the Holder Hall common room.

In his first book, Moth Smoke (2000), set in Lahore, Hamid examined corruption, violence, and class stratification in Pakistan through the voices of several cosmopolitan 20-somethings who live on the edge, immersed in the swanky party scene. Hamid has described Moth Smoke as a call to arms for Pakistanis to look at corruption in the elite class, the class system, and violence in society. He wrote the first draft at Princeton, for a fiction workshop led by Toni Morrison. He still has that draft, with Morrison’s comments written in “her beautiful script in fountain pen.” It’s stored in his old bedroom in his parents’ house in Lahore, along with his Princeton diploma, transcript, and freshman facebook.

The tug of Pakistan is strong. In a recent essay in The Independent, published in London, Hamid wrote about beginning the process to become a British citizen. He had much to gain, he wrote: the right to travel more easily, the right to have some say in how his new country is governed. But “it also occurs to me that I have much to lose,” he said. His parents live in a house on his grandfather’s front lawn; nearby are aunts and uncles and cousins. The family is financially comfortable and respected — his father, a retired economist, had earned his Ph.D. at Stanford — and is known locally for its tradition of public service.

After Princeton, as he moved through Harvard and then through his lucrative job in New York, Hamid began to wonder if he could make a permanent home in the United States. But the “state of legal limbo” he found in America — the difficulty getting foreign visas, the uncertainty over getting a green card — made him feel uneasy. By the summer of 2001, he wrote in The Independent, he felt pulled eastward, and arranged for a temporary transfer to the London office of his firm, from which travel would be easier. He was there on 9/11.

Hamid wrote the first draft of The Reluctant Fundamentalist before that day, as a “quiet novel” about a Pakistani in love with an American and torn between his job and where to live. But after 9/11, he scrapped that draft. After the carnage, he says, he felt “an American rejection of people like me.” U.S. policy toward the Muslim world regarding the war on terror angered and disappointed him. As a Muslim, he felt targeted — detained at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport and harassed by a stranger who mistook him for an Arab. Trying to get a visa to visit his girlfriend in Italy, he was told by an officer at the Italian consulate in New York to produce a love letter to document the relationship. “I must produce notarized love letters at checkpoints,” he wrote in a New York Times Magazine column about the incident. Hamid, “with strong affection for and roots in both the United States and Pakistan,” found it more difficult to move fluidly between the Western and Muslim worlds. “Everyone wants you to pick a side,” he says. In an essay for New Statesman, he elaborated: “The 9/11 attacks placed a great strain on the hyphen bridging that identity called Muslim-American. As a man rarely seen in a mosque, and not possessing a U.S. passport, I should not have felt it. But I did, deeply. It seemed two halves of myself were suddenly at war.”

Hamid likens the clash between the United States and the Muslim world — two cultures he loves — to “parents getting divorced,” he tells PAW. He remained in London, though he’s not sure if he was “pushed away from America, or I was pushing myself away.” Logistically, London works well; Hamid can now visit both Pakistan and the United States fairly easily. Politically, it’s also more comfortable — the British people never embraced the start of the war in Iraq as the Americans did, he notes — and he feels more free to speak his mind than he does in the United States. He recalls an article he wrote for a New York newspaper after 9/11 in which a paragraph about the anger felt toward America by the Muslim world was deleted. A similar article was published in Britain, with the thought intact. So at a ceremony in December, he affirmed his allegiance to “the Queen, her heirs, and successors” as his wife, a woman born on the same street in Lahore as Hamid, snapped a picture. Still, he says, London “isn’t home to me the way Pakistan or America is home.”

Even in London, however, life for a Muslim man after 9/11 is not without its complications. In another essay for The Independent, Hamid describes sitting on the Tube next to a Muslim man who “could have been my cousin.” During the trip, the man became increasingly agitated, and Hamid came to think that he was a suicide bomber intent on blowing himself up then and there. Hamid was terrified; when they exited the train at the same stop, he wondered whether he should report the man. “But remembering my own experience of ‘random’ searches and multi-hour detentions at immigration lounges around the world, I thought of what might happen to the fellow if I mentioned him to the authorities. He would be stopped. He would act strangely. Even if he was completely innocent, which he probably was, he might well resist being questioned. And then, for no fault of his own, he might find himself under arrest. I couldn’t set in motion that sequence of events. So I did nothing, and I hoped I would not discover on the television later that evening that my inaction had made possible a slaughter.”

Today, Hamid works three days a week at a consulting firm in London; on other days, he brings his laptop into bed and writes. The Reluctant Fundamentalist is an effort on his part to reconnect the United States and the Muslim world — a call to both societies for mutual understanding. It is an effort “to reconnect my two halves,” says Hamid. “In a way, the American and Changez are like two halves of myself.” Hamid’s friend Suketu Mehta, an Indian-American author living in New York, says that Hamid is “expected to speak on behalf of all the other Pakistanis who do not have a forum” in the West. “I think people will read this book and empathize a lot more with what it feels like to be human and targeted or categorized,” Mehta says.

Hamid says that he has not resolved all the complicated feelings he has about U.S. foreign policy and its treatment of people like him. But having explored his sense of anger and resentment and pushed those feelings to the extreme, he says he “has worked them out of my system. Not that I am not still troubled by them. I am. But I’ve been dealing with them.” A year ago, when his application for a green card was approved, he turned it down.

Like his life, which still has many question marks — where he most belongs, whether he should write full-time — The Reluctant Fundamentalist ends without resolution. As Changez delivers his monologue, tension grows: Is he luring the American into a trap? But that’s a Western reading; Hamid notes that the sense of suspicion is mutual. In the book, as in life, each side wonders about the intentions of the other: Americans wonder if people in the Muslim world are suicide bombers, while Muslims wonder if Americans are going to “bomb our country back to oblivion.” He purposely left the ending open-ended, and readers are left to wonder who is the victim and who is the perpetrator. Or perhaps Changez simply concluded the conversation, and he and the American parted ways.

How one reads the novel depends on one’s point of view — and the people with whom one empathizes, Hamid says. He has shared the book with several friends and spoken to them about their conclusions. Non-Muslim American friends believed that Changez kills the American. His Muslim friends? In their minds, the American kills Changez.

Katherine Federici Greenwood is an associate editor at PAW.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

By Mohsin Hamid ’93

The first chapter of Mohsin Hamid’s new novel describes the feelings of the central character, Changez, toward Princeton and the opportunities it presented, and sets the stage for the monologue Changez delivers to an unnamed American sitting nervously in a Lahore café. (Excerpted from The Reluctant Fundamentalist © 2007 by Mohsin Hamid. Reprinted by permission of Harcourt Inc.)

Excuse me, sir, but may I be of assistance? Ah, I see I have alarmed you. Do not be frightened by my beard: I am a lover of America. I noticed that you were looking for something; more than looking, in fact you seemed to be on a mission, and since I am both a native of this city and a speaker of your language, I thought I might offer you my services.

How did I know you were American? No, not by the color of your skin; we have a range of complexions in this country, and yours occurs often among the people of our northwest frontier. Nor was it your dress that gave you away; a European tourist could as easily have purchased in Des Moines your suit, with its single vent, and your button-down shirt. True, your hair, short-cropped, and your expansive chest — the chest, I would say, of a man who bench-presses regularly, and maxes out well above 225 — are typical of a certain type of American; but then again, sportsmen and soldiers of all nationalities tend to look alike. Instead, it was your bearing that allowed me to identify you, and I do not mean that as an insult, for I see your face has hardened, but merely as an observation.

Come, tell me, what were you looking for? Surely, at this time of day, only one thing could have brought you to the district of Old Anarkali — named, as you may be aware, after a courtesan immured for loving a prince — and that is the quest for the perfect cup of tea. Have I guessed correctly? Then allow me, sir, to suggest my favorite among these many establishments. Yes, this is the one. Its metal chairs are no better upholstered, its wooden tables are equally rough, and it is, like the others, open to the sky. But the quality of its tea, I assure you, is unparalleled.

You prefer that seat, with your back so close to the wall? Very well, although you will benefit less from the intermittent breeze, which, when it does blow, makes these warm afternoons more pleasant. And will you not remove your jacket? So formal! Now that is not typical of Americans, at least not in my experience. And my experience is substantial: I spent four and a half years in your country. Where? I worked in New York, and before that attended college in New Jersey. Yes, you are right: It was Princeton! Quite a guess, I must say.

What did I think of Princeton? Well, the answer to that question requires a story. When I first arrived, I looked around me at the Gothic buildings — younger, I later learned, than many of the mosques of this city, but made through acid treatment and ingenious stonemasonry to look older — and thought, This is a dream come true. Princeton inspired in me the feeling that my life was a film in which I was the star and everything was possible. I have access to this beautiful campus, I thought, to professors who are titans in their fields and fellow students who are philosopher-kings in the making.

I was, I must admit, overly generous in my initial assumptions about the standard of the student body. They were almost all intelligent, and many were brilliant, but whereas I was one of only two Pakistanis in my entering class — two from a population of over a hundred million souls, mind you — the Americans faced much less daunting odds in the selection process. A thousand of your compatriots were enrolled, 500 times as many, even though your country’s population was only twice that of mine. As a result, the non-Americans among us tended on average to do better than the Americans, and in my case I reached my senior year without having received a single B.

Looking back now, I see the power of that system, pragmatic and effective, like so much else in America. We international students were sourced from around the globe, sifted not only by well-honed standardized tests but by painstakingly customized evaluations — interviews, essays, recommendations — until the best and the brightest of us had been identified. I myself had among the top exam results in Pakistan and was besides a soccer player good enough to compete on the varsity team, which I did until I damaged my knee in my sophomore year. Students like me were given visas and scholarships, complete financial aid, mind you, and invited into the ranks of the meritocracy. In return, we were expected to contribute our talents to your society, the society we were joining. And for the most part, we were happy to do so. I certainly was, at least at first.

Every fall, Princeton raised her skirt for the corporate recruiters who came onto campus and — as you say in America — showed them some skin. The skin Princeton showed was good skin, of course — young, eloquent, and clever as can be — but even among all that skin, I knew in my senior year that I was something special. I was a perfect breast, if you will — tan, succulent, seemingly defiant of gravity — and I was confident of getting any job I wanted.

Except one: Underwood Samson & Company. You have not heard of them? They were a valuation firm. They told their clients how much businesses were worth, and they did so, it was said, with a precision that was uncanny. They were small — a boutique, really, employing a bare minimum of people — and they paid well, offering the fresh graduate a base salary of over $80,000. But more importantly, they gave one a robust set of skills and an exalted brand name, so exalted, in fact, that after two or three years there as an analyst, one was virtually guaranteed admission to Harvard Business School. Because of this, over a hundred members of the Princeton Class of 2001 sent their grades and résumés to Underwood Samson. Eight were selected — not for jobs, I should make clear, but for interviews — and one of them was me.

You seem worried. Do not be; this burly fellow is merely our waiter, and there is no need to reach under your jacket, I assume to grasp your wallet, as we will pay him later, when we are done. Would you prefer regular tea, with milk and sugar, or green tea, or perhaps their more fragrant specialty, Kashmiri tea? Excellent choice. I will have the same, and perhaps a plate of jalebis as well. There. He has gone. I must admit, he is a rather intimidating chap. But irreproachably polite: You would have been surprised by the sweetness of his speech, if only you understood Urdu.

Where were we? Ah yes, Underwood Samson. On the day of my interview, I was uncharacteristically nervous. They had sent a single interviewer, and he received us in a room at the Nassau Inn, an ordinary room, mind you, not a suite; they knew we were sufficiently impressed already. When my turn came, I entered and found a man physically not unlike yourself; he, too, had the look of a seasoned army officer. “Changez?” he said, and I nodded, for that is indeed my name. “Come on in and take a seat.”

His name was Jim, he told me, and I had precisely 50 minutes to convince him to offer me a job. “Sell yourself,” he said. “What makes you special?” I began with my transcript, pointing out that I was on track to graduate summa cum laude, that I had, as I have mentioned, yet to receive a single B. “I’m sure you’re smart,” he said, “but none of the people I’m talking to today has any Bs.” This, for me, was an unsettling revelation. I told him that I was tenacious, that after injuring my knee I had made it through physiotherapy in half the time the doctors expected, and while I could no longer play varsity soccer, I could once again run a mile in less than six minutes. “That’s good,” he said, and for the first time it seemed to me I had made something of an impression on him, when he added, “but what else?”

I fell silent. I am, as you can see, normally quite happy to chat, but in that moment I did not know what to say. I watched him watch me, trying to understand what he was looking for. He glanced down at my résumé, which was lying between us on the table, and then back up again. His eyes were cold, a pale blue, and judgmental, not in the way that word is normally used, but in the sense of being professionally appraising, like a jeweler’s when he inspects out of curiosity a diamond he intends neither to buy nor to sell. Finally, after some time had passed — it could not have been more than a minute, but it felt longer — he said, “Tell me something. Where are you from?”

I said I was from Lahore, the second-largest city of Pakistan, ancient capital of the Punjab, home to nearly as many people as New York, layered like a sedimentary plain with the accreted history of invaders from the Aryans to the Mongols to the British. He merely nodded. Then he said, “And are you on financial aid?”

I did not answer him at once. I knew there were subjects interviewers were not permitted to broach — religion, for example, and sexual orientation — and I suspected financial aid was one of these. But that was not why I hesitated; I hesitated because his question made me feel uncomfortable. Then I said, “Yes.” “And isn’t it harder,” he asked, “for international students to get in if they apply for aid?” Again I said, “Yes.” “So,” he said, “you must have really needed the money.” And for the third time, I said, “Yes.”

Jim leaned back in his chair and crossed his legs at the knee, just as you are doing now. Then he said, “You’re polished, well-dressed. You have this sophisticated accent. Most people probably assume you’re rich where you come from.” It was not a question, so I made no reply. “Do your friends here know,” he went on, “that your family couldn’t afford to send you to Princeton without a scholarship?”

This was, as I have said, the most important of my interviews, and I knew moreover that I ought to remain calm, but I was getting annoyed, and I had had enough of this line of questioning. So I said, “Excuse me, Jim, but is there a point to all this?” It came out more aggressively than I intended, my voice rising and taking on an edge. “So they don’t know,” Jim said. He smiled and went on, “You have a temper. I like that. I went to Princeton, too. Class of ’81. Summa cum laude.” He winked. “I was the first guy from my family to go to college. I worked a night shift in Trenton to pay my way, far enough from campus that people wouldn’t find out. So I get where you’re coming from, Changez. You’re hungry, and that’s a good thing in my book.”

I was, I must confess, caught off balance. I did not know how to react. But I did know that I was impressed with Jim; he had, after all, seen through me in a few minutes more clearly than had many people who had known me for years. I could understand why he would be effective at valuations, and why — by extension — his firm had come to be highly regarded in this field. I was also pleased that he had found in me something he prized, and my confidence, until now shaken by our encounter, began to recover.

It is worth, if you will permit me, my indulging in a minor digression at this point. I am not poor; far from it: my great-grandfather, for example, was a barrister with the means to endow a school for the Muslims of the Punjab. Like him, my grandfather and father both attended university in England. Our family home sits on an acre of land in the middle of Gulberg, one of the most expensive districts of this city. We employ several servants, including a driver and a gardener — which would, in America, imply that we were a family of great wealth.

But we are not rich. The men and women — yes, the women, too — of my household are working people, professionals. And the half-century since my great-grandfather’s death has not been a prosperous one for professionals in Pakistan. Salaries have not risen in line with inflation, the rupee has declined steadily against the dollar, and those of us who once had substantial family estates have seen them divided and subdivided by each — larger — subsequent generation. So my grandfather could not afford what his father could, and my father could not afford what his father could, and when the time came to send me to college, the money simply was not there.

But status, as in any traditional, class-conscious society, declines more slowly than wealth. So we retain our Punjab Club membership. We continue to be invited to the functions and weddings and parties of the city’s elite. And we look with a mixture of disdain and envy upon the rising class of entrepreneurs — owners of businesses legal and illegal — who power through the streets in their BMW SUVs. Our situation is, perhaps, not so different from that of the old European aristocracy in the 19th century, confronted by the ascendance of the bourgeoisie. Except, of course, that we are part of a broader malaise afflicting not only the formerly rich but much of the formerly middle-class as well: a growing inability to purchase what we previously could.

Confronted with this reality, one has two choices: Pretend all is well, or work hard to restore things to what they were. I chose both. At Princeton, I conducted myself in public like a young prince, generous and carefree. But I also, as quietly as I could, held down three on-campus jobs — in infrequently visited locations, such as the library of the Program in Near Eastern Studies — and prepared for my classes throughout the night. Most people I met were taken in by my public persona. Jim was not. But fortunately, where I saw shame, he saw opportunity. And he was, in some ways but not in all — as I would later come to understand — correct.

Ah, our tea has arrived! Do not look so suspicious. I assure you, sir, nothing untoward will happen to you, not even a runny stomach. After all, it is not as if it has been poisoned. Come, if it makes you more comfortable, let me switch my cup with yours. Just so. How much sugar would you like? None? Very unusual, but I will not insist. Do try these sticky, orange sweets — jalebis — but be careful, they are hot! I see you approve. Yes, they are delicious. It is curious how a cup of tea can be refreshing even on a warm day such as this — a mystery, really — but there you have it.

I was telling you about my interview with Underwood Samson, and how Jim had found me to be, as he put it, hungry. I waited to see what he would say next, and what he said next was this: “All right, Changez, let’s test you out. I’m going to give you a business case, a company I want you to value. You can ask me anything you need to know — think Twenty Questions — and you can do your calculations with that pencil and paper. Ready?” I said that I was, and he continued: “I’m going to throw you a curve ball. You’re going to need to get creative here. The company is simple. It has only one service line: instantaneous travel. You step into its terminal in New York, and you immediately reappear in its terminal in London. Like a transporter on Star Trek. Get it? Good. Let’s go.”

I would like to think that I was, in that moment, outwardly calm, but inside I was panicking. How does one value a fictitious, fantastic company such as the one he had just described? Where does one even begin? I had no idea. I looked at Jim, but he did not seem to be joking. So I inhaled and shut my eyes. There was a mental state I used to attain when I was playing soccer: My self would disappear, and I would be free, free of doubts and limits, free to focus on nothing but the game. When I entered this state I felt unstoppable. Sufi mystics and Zen masters would, I suspect, understand the feeling. Possibly, ancient warriors did something similar before they went into battle, ritualistically accepting their impending death so they could function unencumbered by fear.

I entered this state in the interview. My essence was focused on finding my way through the case. I started by asking questions to understand the technology: how scalable it was, how reliable, how safe. Then I asked Jim about the environment: if there were any direct competitors, what the regulators might do, if any suppliers were particularly critical. Then I went into the cost side to figure out what expenses we would have to cover. And last I looked at revenues, using the Concorde for comparison, as an example of the price premium and demand one gets for cutting travel time in half, and then estimating how much more one would get for cutting it to zero. Once I had done all that, I projected profits out into the future and discounted them to net present value. And in the end, I arrived at a number.

“Two point three billion dollars,” I said. Jim was silent for a while. Then he shook his head. “Wildly overoptimistic,” he said. “Your assumptions on customers adopting this thing are way too high. Would you be willing to step into a machine, be dematerialized, and then recomposed thousands of miles away? This is exactly the kind of hyped-up bullshit our clients pay Underwood Samson to see through.” I hung my head. “But,” Jim continued, “your approach was right on. You have what it takes. All you need is training and experience.” He extended his hand. “You’ve got an offer. We’ll give you one week to decide.”

At first I did not believe him. I asked if he was serious, if there was not a second round for me to pass. “We’re a small firm,” he said. “We don’t waste time. Besides, I’m in charge of analyst recruiting. I don’t need another opinion.” I noticed his hand was still hanging in the air between us, and — fearful it might be withdrawn — I reached out and shook it. His grip was firm and seemed to communicate to me, in that moment, that Underwood Samson had the potential to transform my life as surely as it had transformed his, making my concerns about money and status things of the distant past.

I walked back to my dormitory — Edwards Hall, it was called — later that same afternoon. The sky was a brilliant blue, so different from the orange, dusty sky above us today, and I felt something well up inside me, a sense of pride so strong that it made me lift my head and yell, as much to my own surprise as I am sure it was to the other students passing by: “Thank you, God!”

Yes, it was exhilarating. That, in an admittedly long-winded fashion, is how I think, looking back, about Princeton. Princeton made everything possible for me. But it did not, could not, make me forget such things as how much I enjoy the tea in this, the city of my birth, steeped long enough to acquire a rich, dark color, and made creamy with fresh, full-fat milk. It is excellent, no? I see you have finished yours. Allow me to pour you another cup.end of article



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