KARACHI, Pakistan — Americans who are searching for an explanation for the attempted bombing of New York's Times Square this month should pick up two recent and critically acclaimed novels by Pakistani authors, which tell how the events that followed 9/11 made Pakistani New Yorkers feel alienated and angry.
Mirroring reports about the real-life case of Pakistani-American Faisal Shahzad, the Times Square suspect, Mohsin Hamid's "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" and H.M. Naqvi's "Home Boy" are set in New York and feature Pakistanis who work in the financial industry and are psychologically damaged by the aftermath of 9/11. The fictional characters rediscover their Islamic identities.
The heroes of the books were integrated, happy immigrants who found that New York and the U.S. turned ugly after 9-11, which led to their inner journeys away from the America they'd come to love.
The books were published in the U.S. — Hamid's by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2007 and Naqvi's last year by the Shaye Areheart imprint of Crown Books — and aimed primarily at a Western audience. They're part of a wave of Pakistani fiction in English that's stirred the literary world. "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" was a finalist for the 2007 Man Booker Prize, Britain's top literary award.
White House officials have been quick to trace the bungled Times Square bombing to militant Islamist groups in Pakistan, but U.S. investigators and the public are still trying to understand the story of the real Faisal Shahzad: a young man from a privileged background in Pakistan who arrived in the U.S. at 19, got a college degree and a good job, got married, had children, took a mortgage on a house in the suburbs and became an American citizen.
His tale, which culminates with him being accused at age 30 of attempting to commit mass murder on the streets of New York, could be straight out of fiction, complete with a secret life that he seemed to live in his head, and an alleged terrorist plot carried out ineptly.
Shahzad appears to have lurched from pursuing the American dream in a Connecticut suburb to anger at the George W. Bush administration's foreign policy and a rediscovery of his Muslim faith. His story climaxes with the bungled attempt to detonate a car in the center of New York and his equally hapless effort to then fly to Dubai.
Naqvi's fictional protagonist is called Shehzad, though it's his first name, and he, too, spends time in Connecticut and New York. Like the real-life Shahzad, he loses his job in the finance industry and has money troubles.
Wrongly accused of plotting terrorism and subjected to a rough interrogation after 9-11, the fictional Shehzad finds that "everything's changed for the worse," with xenophobic American patriotism taking over New York. Disillusioned, he leaves for Pakistan.
"My Shehzad could have mulled the same course of action" that Shahzad is accused of. "At that juncture, things are tenuous," said Naqvi, who wrote the book while he was living in the U.S. "But every unemployed Muslim man in the United States doesn't mull acts of terrorism. . . . I was unemployed. I wrote a book."
Naqvi, interviewed at a cafe in Karachi, where he now lives, pointed that the real-life terrorism suspect and his own fictional character weren't born and bred in America.
"Unlike the U.K., I don't think you'll have homegrown terrorism from the Muslim population in America. It's part of the premise of the States, that you can be Chinese-American or Italian-American or Pakistani-American. If you're born in the U.S., you can be president. If you're a Turk in Germany or Congolese in Belgium, that's not viable," Naqvi said.
In Hamid's "The Reluctant Fundamentalist," the main character, Changez, throws in his Wall Street job after 9-11, when the American-led invasion of Afghanistan made him "tremble with fury" and he found "affronts were everywhere."
A love affair also goes sour. He grows a beard to mark his Muslim identity. Moving back to Pakistan, he encounters an American visitor. The novel suggests that he might attack the American, but it ends before we find out.
In a telephone interview from New York, where he was visiting, Hamid said he thought that the journey from assimilated American to terrorist had three vital stages. First, a personal trauma such as a broken love affair or a financial disaster; a personality type that doesn't embrace complexity of the sort that's involved in being a Pakistani-American and a desire to purge oneself of that complexity; and third, a narrative in which the new, simplified identity fits into a sense of persecution.
"All three of these things lining up inside one person doesn't happen very often," Hamid. said. "That does help to explain why so few people become terrorists."
Shahzad's life seemed to come apart in recent years. Disturbed by the U.S. "war on terror," he reportedly became a fundamentalist and tried to force his wife to wear a burqa. His house was repossessed. He moved his family to Pakistan before flying back to the U.S., allegedly to carry out the bombing.
"Home Boy's" protagonist explains why he no longer fit into New York: "There was a time when a police presence was reassuring . . . but now I'm afraid of them. I'm afraid all the time. I feel like a marked man. I feel like an animal."
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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