Mohsin Hamid's second book after the critically acclaimed "Moth Smoke", "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" follows a young Pakistani-American named Changez who gains entry into the elite world of Princeton University and corporate America and then gradually becomes disillusioned with his life. An outsider to the world of the rich American elite, he nevertheless excels in it. His efforts lead him to work for a top firm called Underwood Samson, doing business analysis and profit forecasting jobs around the world. He remains absorbed in his work, although never fully absorbed into the lives and attitudes of his colleagues, until the events of September 11th, 2001 propel some intense soul-searching, causing him to wake up to the life he had been living. Even as Changez is waking up, the girl he has been pursuing the whole novel--the beautiful Erica--is slipping deeper into a nostalgia for her dead lover Chris. These two parts of the narrative work quite beautifully together. The book would be another (beautiful) coming of age story but for the unique voice of the narrator, who tells his whole story to "you", a mysterious American stranger and also the reader. We shall return to this shortly, but first a word about the meaning of Erica.
Many reviewers have commented that Erica and her "nostalgia" are a thinly veiled metaphor for post-9/11 America (One reviewer suggested that Chris meant Christopher Columbus, in which case Erica's malaise is symptomatic of America's longing for the beauty of its founding myth). Indeed the narrator's name is a not so subtle riff on those Muslim Western-educated young people from India, Pakistan and elsewhere whose lives were changed by 9/11 and the discrimination they faced in its wake. However the changes Changez undergoes feel forced and compressed at times--he seems like a man too immured of Western comforts and ideals to abandon them as quickly as he does. No doubt Erica's fate prompted some of his alienation. But all-together his transformation feels too compressed; this sabatoges the novel's otherwise uncanny realism and subtle emotional depth (especially the passages dealing with the emotions and betrayal of relationships).
Still this is a strongly written book overall. When Changez is fired from his prestigious job and returns to Pakistan, he does not become the radical mullah or Islamist leader one would expect from the title. More true to his character, he begins teaching at a university, becoming more radicalized through his contact with the students there. Although he is thrown in jail for organizing protests at the embassy, it is not until he makes statements about the USA in response to what he believes is an unjust detainment of one of his students that he comes to the attention of the American government. The reluctant fundamentalist then, refers not to the aspects of his life in Pakistan, but to the corporate persona he assumes at Underwood Samson, where he is trained to always "focus on fundamentals". This inversion of the reader's expectation is brilliantly executed and makes the final scenes all the more ambigous--we wonder if Changez is executing a brilliant plan of attack or attempting to save his own life.
From a stylistic point of view, this novel is a unique achievement. From a moral point of view it offers a strong critique of US foreign policy and the dangers of intervention and playing "world policeman". All told it is the emotional investment in the central character--his compassion, his ambition, his gentility and his disillusioned break with complacency--that makes the moral impact of the novel so resonant in these times.
August 31, 2010
Cairo, the city victorious; what can one say? Too many layers of history to sum up neatly. The people the buildings/ dusty apartment balconies, a millenia of handworked stone on minarets and domes/ the magnificent crumbling of old homes. Tables spread in the street for millions. The adhan comes, the adhan goes/the faithful bow in calm repose. I blow black snot from my nose. Cairo is beautiful, pulsing, polluted and home to the hardest hustlers anywhere, cats who can look at you, assess your nationality, and pitch their sale in your native language without missing a beat. My first night here I sat playing backgammon at a cafe with some friends and the subject turned to wheat, the commodity that is apparently bleeding Egyptian coffers dry as they try to buy it on the open market after their main suppliers--Australia and Russia--suffered severe shortages of export due to drought and (in Russia's case) massive fires. This bread called "aish" (Arabic meaning life), is an Egyptian staple and attempted substitutes have not been popular. The next day another friend related that much of Islamic Cairo lay under a giant accumulating pool of sewage, which was styming some restoration efforts. How long can 20 million people beat a living from the desert here? But yet they do, day after day. For now I'm the tourist just soaking in the incredible pace and feel of life here. Yesterday at an Indian restaurant in Zamalek for iftar, we ran into Gamal Nkrumah, Kwame Nkrumah's son who was offered asylum in Egypt after his father was deposed in Ghana. He works for Al-Ahram Weekly. Other than iftars and internet cafes, my main activity has been visiting shrines and masjids and buying gifts for the family. I present to you the results of my visits around Islamic Cairo. If anyone remembers my photos from Damascus, they will notice that Cairo also has a Seyyid Hussein maqam (allegedly also his head) and a Seyyida Zeinab maqam. Enjoy!
August 29, 2010
August 28, 2010
So I started out taking a bus to Aqaba from Amman. The bus was air conditioned, I slept most of the way, and arrived in Aqaba to ridiculious heat and a bunch of crabby taxi drivers. 5 JD (Jordanian dinars) one says, and starts to pick up one of my bags before I assent. Then another guy swoops in, picks up another bag and yells "3 JD!" I move to go with him and a huge tug of war ensues with the first guy cursing the second profusely and then trying to wrench my bag from his hands. I finally get in the second taxi and we go to the ticket office and then to the port. There were no tickets at the port, which I think, in retrospect, he knew, so we go to the main ticket office and I buy a ferry ticket. He then drops off his other passenger and ends up by taking me to a nearby lodge for the night, as the fast ferry has already left for the day. Meanwhile he is smoking (claiming he can't stop because too many "beautiful ladies at the beach") and blaring Ciara and some Arab disco-trance monstrosities over the sound system. He charges me 11, yes 11 JD for the ride, claiming each trip back and forth cost 3 JD plus 2 JD to the lodge. Sigh. I gave in.
At the lodge, the price/per night the driver quoted me of 15 JD has gone up to 45 JD. The manager is trying to claim its because it "includes breakfast". When I say I won't be eating breakfast because of fasting, he gets interested. "Are you Muslim?" "Do you swear on your God that you are Muslim?" I decline to swear but offer to recite al-Fatiha, which he accepts. He lowers the price to 20 JD and invites me for iftar.
After a beautiful air-conditioned sleep, I wake up for iftar. At iftar, one of the guys asks me if I know of Hamza Yusuf! LOL....the world is getting smaller everyday.
The beach at Aqaba is quiet and beautiful and the stars had started to come out, so I went and sat and watched the waves for about an hour. Very restful. Went to sleep early after swimming some laps in the pool.
The next morning I get up and go to the ferry. In the customs line, I speak a little Arabic to the officer, telling him I was studying Arabic in Amman. The guy next to me is tall, bald, and diesel in the extreme...looks like Israeli army off duty. They question him a bit longer than me, as he went through Israel. Outside, attempting to strike up conversation, he asks me: "Are you actually Muslim or do you just dress like that for protection?" (I happen to be wearing a kufi). Sigh....its Ramadan so I humor him. "Yep I'm really Muslim"....Turns out he is some Italian businessman on holiday. He spends most of the boat ride trying to chat up two striking Afghani girls from Germany.
On the boat, an Egyptian guy, his sister and her four kids sit near me. The kids are hilarious...we have a good time messing around. The guy's name is Mahmoud. "Will you be my friend?" he asks. This happens a lot to me actually...random strangers desiring to be my friend. It takes some getting used to. When he finds out I'm from Chicago he asks, "How is Chicago? kweis? (good?)" When I answer in the affirmative, he continues, "but Chicago...niggers." Its a one word statement of his twisted view of reality, a depressing distillation of white supremacist ideology...writ global. So many things go through my head...Dubois, pan-Africanism, Arab racism, American tv...where the hell did he even learn that word with his halting English?
And finally we arrive in Nuweiba on the Sinai Peninsula. From there I buy a bus ticket to Cairo, for a bus "leaving in half an hour". 2 hours later we finally depart. The air conditioning creaks and barely works, the dust on the seats fills my lungs and the world outside as we move from the port becomes like the landscape of an ancient planet...rock formations with geological time mapped onto their contoured layers, walls of sand blown against the rocks, red and black and brown earth stretching for miles without any sign of human habitation.
We stop for iftar at some highway restaurant. I eat kifta which tastes like it has rocks in it and go to the bathroom to wash my hands for prayer. As I come out a kid is collecting money at the door. Everyone in front of me gives, so I feel compelled as well...but what am I paying for? I give him a 5 pound note and change is not forthcoming until I demand it. Welcome to Egypt.
At 11pm we arrive in Cairo and its a different world....overpasses and billboards and wall to wall traffic. Again I manage to negotiate a decent taxi price (although the first driver pawns me off on a second one who tries to ask for a higher fare) the driver, although he protests, is relatively straight up once I make it clear what the deal is.
And just like that I'm in Garden City...a beautiful neighborhood of gates and walls and trees and long curving avenues. Its so quiet and peaceful at night. My friend comes and scoops me and my looong journey is over.
August 26, 2010
All told I had a great summer in Amman. Its true that its not Cairo, its not Damascus, its not Jerusalem. Perhaps it offers less of what the Western traveler has come to expect from "the Orient" (on the other hand this is to some Western travellers a virtue). In reality Amman is a quite beautiful city and an excellent and undistracted place to study Arabic. I met some documentary filmmakers making a movie about hip hop in Jordan, a Fuilbright scholar mapping public space in Amman, and the writers and organizers of 7iber(including my friend and former G'town colleague Reem), in addition to a lot of reaaallly smart people who are excellent at Arabic grammar. My experience at Qasid Institute was excellent--the teachers and quality of instruction were both very high. In addition I benefited from a community of Muslims from America (many of them disciples of the Sufi Sheikh Nuh in Kharabsheh) from all different backgrounds who were also there to study Arabic. I found their mindset to be a bit different from those who study Arabic strictly for non-religious reasons. Overall it was a blessing to be in that space this summer, and I will not soon forget the many beautiful people I met.
August 14, 2010
A thought provoking debate about the origins of Swahili civilization and culture. Prof. Abdul Sheriff in particular makes some excellent points. Worth checking out!
UDADISI: Rethinking in Action: Who Built Kilwa's Swahili Civilization - Arabs, Africans, or Who?:
August 6, 2010
Good news from Kenya
Kenyan voters back new constitution - Africa - Al Jazeera English
August 5, 2010
I feel embarassed saying how much I enjoyed this new book from anthropologist Mwenda Ntarangwi. It is not only a delight to read, it is that rare academic book that encourages the hungry reader to search for more information on the topic. Its chronicle of emerging forms of creativity and resistance among youth in East Africa is both inspiring and accessible. Ntarangwi sees local forms of "hip hop" emerging among youth in East Africa as both reflective of global processses of American cultural influence, and at the same time critical of the forces of economic globalization eroding the social and economic outlook of the masses of East African youth. He writes in the Preface, "Rather than seeing hip hop as a completely new cultural phenomenon in East Africa, one is better off seeing it as a window into the culture of change in East Africa's political, economic and social realities created by local and global processes."
Ntarangwi divides his book into five chapters, each dealing with a different aspect of hip hop's social impact in East Africa. Chapters' one and two discuss globalization and hip hop music. Chapter three is a discussion of gender and hip hop. Chapter four explores economic privatization and its impact on the livelihoods of East Africans. Chapter 5 is about hip hop and HIV/AIDS, and in Chapter 6 Ntarangwi offers some concluding remarks. This is not a straightforward history, but an ethnography of hip hop's social influence in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania.
Two things I especially loved about the book: 1) The way in which Ntarangwi centers each chapter around a song, song lyric, or artist that exemplifies his theme. 2) The stories which give a human face to his ethnography and show him wrestling with various dilemmas as an anthropologist in the field.
I've posted videos from East Africa's burgeoning hip hop scene before on this blog, and it seems to be enjoying a growing global spotlight. As I write this, the famous Tanzanian artist Profesa Jay is embarking on a US tour. Other big name Tanzanian and Kenyan hip hop artists have embarked on international tours. But instead of focusing on the "bongo flava" side of East African hip hop--the sugary sweet commercial R&B side to the scene--Ntarangwi focuses on lyricists like Profesa Jay and Ukoo Flani, whose social critique have earned them devoted fans but perhaps less in the way of commercial accolade. As a Prof. Jay fan, I particularly enjoyed Ntarangwi's analysis of Prof. Jay's "Ndio Mzee" (Yes, Elder), a brilliant send up of politicians and their empty promises, and its followup "Kikao cha Dharura" (Emergency Meeting), where the politician who had earlier made such extravagant vows is forced to retract them, stating that the people have unrealistic expectations of luxury. Ntarangwi takes the song apart to show how Profesa Jay critiques local corruption in the state machinery, while remaining aware how these local structures are caught up and in many cases dependent on a global structure of economic dependence.
I anticipate this book will become required reading in many an African Cultural Anthropology class, but it is also a valuable addition to the Hip Hop Studies canon. Furthermore, its clear and readable prose could be a great entryway for high school and college students to talk about issues of cultural and economic globalization through a discussion of hip hop lyrics. Hip hop provides a cultural vantage point that will enhance the local relevance of the discussion for many students, while at the same time making them aware that hip hop is no longer just an American phenomenon but part of a group of interlocking and overlapping global processes that affect their lives in important ways.
Sultan and co. are back with these dope short spots about the diverse talents of Omani youth. This is one of my fave! Definitely check SNK TV out on Youtube, Just search for "playsnkmore".