Discontent and Its Civilizations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York and London. By Mohsin Hamid. Riverhead Books, New York, 2015. 240 pp.
Shortly after September 11, British-Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid submitted an article for an American publication. He wanted to capture the fears of his family, based in Pakistan, after this world-altering day and ahead of the U.S. invasion in Afghanistan. But according to Hamid, the piece was published without a passage he had included in the original: on the grievances of Muslims in the greater Middle East that might explain the motivations behind the attacks. “This was my first experience of what I would come to recognize as growing American self-censorship,” he recounts in his latest book, Discontent and Its Civilizations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York and London.
It was a sensitive time. Then, the narratives of 9/11 and the subsequent War on Terrorism were resolutely framed by Westerners, particularly non-Muslim Westerners. Over the past decade, however, it has become increasingly clear that the United States is not the only victim of terror. Iraqis and Afghans have been killed in great numbers by extremist militants as well as by Western forces. In Pakistan, Hamid’s home country, terrorist attacks alone have killed an estimated twenty thousand civilians over the last decade. Meanwhile, some sources tally the civilian death toll from U.S.-led drone strikes at nearly a thousand.
Since 9/11, space has also gradually opened for writers like Hamid whose diverse voices lend a new perspective on the sociopolitical experiences of Muslims in the West and the East. Hamid’s novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist, set in 2000, captures the political and personal contradictions of a young Muslim man who is shaped by his experiences in both Pakistan and the United States. Now in Discontent and Its Civilizations, a collection of personal essays and writings on policy topics, he challenges the predominant narrative of 9/11—the United States and Americans as victims. In one essay, Hamid’s mother remarks about the day: “It is terrible, what happened. But now they are so angry. They talk about a war on terrorism. But they never seem to think what they do terrifies normal people here.” “Normal” is the key word: Discontent is an attempt to describe differing views as the norm, as part of the experience of today’s globalized world, and not just a fictional representation from one of Hamid’s novels.
Hamid has collected his articles spanning the years from 2000 to 2014 when he lived variously in New York, London, and Lahore; he resided in the United States just before 9/11, in Britain during the 2005 Tube bombings, and at the height of terrorist and drone attacks in Pakistan. Even when the War on Terrorism is not always the focus of his writing, its overbearing presence is felt. He recounts a humiliating experience at the Italian embassy where, in order to get a visa to visit his Italian girlfriend, he had to obtain a letter from her defining their relationship. Other essays span from personal stories of being stopped at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport for further inspection before boarding a flight, to his views of Osama Bin Laden’s capture and the American drone policy in Pakistan.
Part of what makes Discontent an important addition to policy literature is that it offers an opening to Muslim experiences amid a xenophobic backlash in the West—experiences, perhaps, that can only receive a reasonable airing now after the passage of time. One of Hamid’s stories is about his decision against reporting a suspicious Pakistani character on the Tube, written a year after the London attacks; it was a choice made against the backdrop of anti-Muslim hysteria he had experienced. He doesn’t think the man on the train is a serious threat and suspects that his odd behavior—even if innocent—may prompt authorities to arrest him if Hamid had reported it. The story suggests a different sense of responsibility—the responsibility not to act—in the face of the “see something, say something” paranoia of the time. Today, it’s possible to read this incident not as a political statement against the West, but as an example of one Muslim man’s compassion to another Muslim. It is not evidence of “civilizational” unity, but simply of one’s experience. Familiar to them both is the practical struggle of being of a certain race and religion in a Western country.
These stories serve to help the reader develop a relationship with the author. In one sense, Hamid does this by organizing the essays in a non-chronological way, in three sections. The first section, titled “Life,” is meant to be a personal look at Hamid’s youth, his experiences with marriage and fatherhood, and his relationship with the three cities where he has resided. The second section, “Art,” is a collection of his musings on writing and literature. The last, “Politics,” puts forth his opinions on Pakistan, the U.S. War on Terrorism, drones, and so on. The arrangement is crucial. It is an effort to help the readers recognize the author as an individual rather than part of a collective (as a Muslim, as a Pakistani), and then to accept his views on the world as legitimate experiences, not marred by bias because of his nationality and religion.
As such, Discontent is not just a Muslim writer ranting about the War on Terrorism. These essays depict the personal and political experiences of a global hybrid. Hamid challenges the notion of a world defined by 9/11 as the only reality. If 9/11 was seen as solidifying civilizational boundaries, globalization has been tearing them down. Globalization is what allows Hamid to be at once American, British, and Pakistani. Even terrorism in today’s world seems to defy cultural categories. As he writes in one of his essays, what civilization is being targeted when a terrorist bombs Pakistan?
If anything, Hamid’s book suffers from the possibility that readers will misrepresent its significance—that it is one voice among many. “Our civilizations do not cause us to clash. No, our clashing allows us to pretend we belong to civilizations,” he tells us. As countries battle not just with each other, but with themselves, we see renewed efforts to “reclaim” nations and civilizations: bringing back America, or Pakistan, or Britain, and so forth. In such a context, it is tempting to view Hamid’s voice as the rational voice for the Muslim collective. But it is up to the reader to recognize his book as an individual’s perspective, not as a representation of a civilization. After all, civilizations are just a construction of our own making.
Rozina Ali is senior editor of the Cairo Review of Global Affairs. From 2010 to 2013, she served as deputy editor for management thinking at the Economist Intelligence Unit in New York. She has contributed to Al Jazeera America, Foreign Policy, Guardian, New York Times, and Salon. On Twitter: @rozina_ali.