From Discontent and Its Civilizations:
One day, beside a slender stream in the high mountains, a monk met an essayist and they fell to talking. The minutes passed as they reclined there in the presence of dragonflies. It soon seemed clear to the essayist that the monk’s view of life, perched as it was upon a foundation of faith, was ripe for a good debunking.
The essayist laid out the required argument in painstaking detail, ending with these words: “Since you have no proof, I must conclude your beliefs are merely your own invention.”
“So what?” the monk responded, with a smile as steady as it was serene.
“So what? So everything. You’re a monk!”
The monk hiked up the robe he was wearing and dipped the back of one powerfully muscled calf in the water. “I invented myself,” the monk said. “Until yesterday I was an Olympic sprinter.”
The essayist stared, incredulous.
“Invention,” the monk explained, “is a blessing.”
Globalization is a brutal phenomenon. It brings us mass displacement, wars, terrorism, unchecked financial capitalism, inequality, xenophobia, climate change. But if globalization is capable of holding out any fundamental promise to us, any temptation to go along with its havoc, then surely that promise ought to be this: we will be more free to invent ourselves. In that country, this city, in Lahore, in New York, in London, that factory, this office, in those clothes, that occupation, in wherever it is we long for, we will be liberated to be what we choose to be.
When I sat down to shape this book, a collection of pieces I wrote for various publications in the fifteen years between 2000, the time my first novel, Moth Smoke, appeared, and now, which is to say 2014, I found I was content to let much of what I had written go. Many of my past pieces were, to my present eye, simply too crudely built or too blatantly wrongheaded to include. Others were too similar to each other, meaning it was better not to pick two when one would do.
What was left, the three dozen or so pieces making up the pages that follow, I wanted to alter as little as possible, so that they would read much as they read when they were first written. I have made some minor changes, probably the most sig- nificant of which are deletions of passages that seemed too repetitive, but I have done my best to avoid any major rewriting. Each of the pieces remains of its place and of its time.
Rereading them now, I am struck by how their writer, which is to say me, has changed over the years. Obviously, there have been changes in writing style and technique. But there have been other changes as well, changes in how I view the world, changes that perhaps reflect how I am in the world, and those changes remind me that I am becoming a different person, that I am inventing myself as I go along, as I suspect we all are. The novelist I am now would not today write the novels I wrote before; the human I am now might not behave as did the human I was before.
In that sense, the fragmentary and “of the moment” nature of the pieces that constitute this book brings with it, I hope, a different type of honesty than a book that is conceived as a whole and executed in a single effort. It reveals opinions and attitudes that are malleable, showing the plasticity of what in any given present moment one typically presents as a rock of certainty.
But it reveals consistencies, too, themes that reappear, again and again, in pieces written at different times, for differ- ent publications, in different places. Over the past fifteen years I have lived in three cities: Lahore, New York, and London. I have called and considered all three home. And yet, as I review the writings in this book, I recognize that I have always felt myself a half-outsider. The pieces here take different forms: some are lengthy essays, others are focused op-eds, others still are small fragments just a page or two long. But all of them, I think, are the dispatches of a correspondent who cannot help but be foreign, at least in part.
Pakistan emerges as a recurrent subject of mine. I have lived more of my life in Pakistan than in any other country, even if that total still comes to a little less than half. I am preoccupied with Pakistan’s future, as most Pakistanis I know seem to be, Pakistan being simultaneously an unusually troubled country and one that manages to provide many of its daughters and sons with remarkably resilient roots, roots that often endure even when the plant they belong to is removed to soil a vast ocean away.
In my writings about Pakistan over the years, I perceive an attempt at optimism, probably a little forced, and possibly somewhat misguided. I have often noted the potential for changes for the better that, in retrospect, have not occurred. And yet I think a stance of optimism is not useless. With optimism comes agency, the notion that Pakistan can solve its own problems. And a lack of agency has been at the heart of Pakistan’s failures, an impulse to blame foreign powers who, while very far from guiltless in the Pakistani context, have only secondarily contributed to Pakistan’s ongoing crises, which remain primarily of Pakistani making. My position has been that foreign powers should resist the impulse to intervene in Pakistan, and that Pakistanis should correct failed Pakistani policies and attitudes themselves rather than claim these are the best that can be hoped for given the machinations of the outside world.
I think Pakistan matters, not just to myself and other Paki- stanis, nor only because it is beset with terrorism and possesses nuclear weapons, but because Pakistan is a test bed for pluralism on a globalizing planet that desperately needs more pluralism. Pakistan’s uncertain democracy and unsteady attempt to fashion a future in which its citizens can live together in peace are an experiment that mirrors our global ex- periment as human beings on a shared Earth. The world will not fail if Pakistan fails, but the world will be healthier if Pakistan is healthy.
Pakistan is at the forefront of the escalating conflict between Sunnis and Shias that is convulsing many Muslim-majority countries. Most Muslims worldwide are Sunnis, and acceptance by Sunnis of the rights of the largest Muslim minority group, Shias, is therefore a vital step toward building meaningful religious tolerance for all, including for targets of persecution such as Christians, Hindus, Ahmadis, secularists, and those of no religion.
Pakistan is also one of many places whose citizenry is made up of a patchwork of intermixed ethnic and linguistic groups—as are, for example, the European Union, Ukraine, Nigeria, South Africa, India, and Malaysia. Meeting the challenges of coexistence in societies like Pakistan will be critical if the twenty-first century is to avoid repeating the bloody internecine wars of the twentieth.
Sadly, Pakistan’s history these past fifteen years has not been very promising. Religious and ethnic minorities have been subjected to legal and political discrimination, targeted assassinations, and, in some cases, a level of violence tantamount to wholesale slaughter. Even more worrisome, in its resistance to pluralism, Pakistan’s trajectory has been far from unique.
I have lived in Pakistan during its recent and most intense period of terrorist activity and drone strikes, in London during the years on either side of the 2005 public transport bombings, and in New York in the era that came to an end with the attacks on the World Trade Center of 2001—and so it is perhaps not surprising that what has been called “the war on terror” features centrally in these essays. Indeed, this entire collection might be read as the experience of a man caught in the middle of that conflict.
To my mind, the “war on terror” is not, at its heart, an actual war. Yes, it has involved wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. And it has involved violence of various types and intensities in innumerable other places: Pakistan and Britain, America and Russia, Libya and Yemen, India and Indonesia, Spain and Kenya—the list goes on and on. But wars, insurgencies, cross border raids, and terrorism characterized the twentieth century, too. What distinguishes the “war on terror” is that it is a war against a concept, not a nation. And the enemy concept, it seems to me, is pluralism.
Pakistan and other Muslim-majority countries have hardly been unique in their struggles to accommodate diversity. In the United States and Europe, the “war on terror” has been accompanied by a great backlash against migrants. Actual walls are being constructed along the southern border of the US, with drones deployed overhead, and some American states are legislating draconian anti-migrant restrictions. Anti-migrant parties are in the ascendant across the EU, and Britain is considering leaving the bloc, in large part because of anger over migrants.
In many places, the past fifteen years have been a time of economic turmoil and widening disparities. Anger and resentment are high. And yet economic policies that might address these concerns seem nearly impossible to enact. Instead of the seeds of reform, we are given the yoke of misdirection. We are told to forget the sources of our discontent because something more important is at stake: the fate of our civilization.
Yet what are these civilizations, these notions of Muslim-ness, Western-ness, European-ness, American-ness, that attempt to describe where, and with whom, we belong? They are illusions: arbitrarily drawn constructs with porous, brittle, and overlapping borders. To what civilization does a Syrian atheist belong? A Muslim soldier in the US army? A Chinese professor in Germany? A lesbian fashion designer in Nigeria? After how many decades of US citizenship does a Spanish- speaking Honduran-born couple, with two generations of American children and grandchildren descended from them, cease to belong to a Latin American civilization and take their place in an American one?
Civilizations are illusions, but these illusions are pervasive, dangerous, and powerful. They contribute to globalization’s brutality. They allow us, for example, to say that we believe in global free markets and, in the same breath, to discount as impossible the global free movement of labor; to claim that we believe in democracy and human equality, and yet to stymie the creation of global institutions based on one-person-one-vote and equality before the law.
Civilizations encourage our hypocrisies to flourish. And by so doing, they undermine globalization’s only plausible promise: that we be free to invent ourselves. Why, exactly, can’t a Muslim be European? Why can’t an unreligious person be Pakistani? Why can’t a man be a woman? Why can’t someone who is gay be married?
Mongrel. Miscegenator. Half-breed. Outcast. Deviant. Heretic. Our words for hybridity are so often epithets. They shouldn’t be. Hybridity need not be the problem. It could be the solution. Hybrids do more than embody mixtures between groups. Hybrids reveal the boundaries between groups to be false. And this is vital, for creativity comes from intermingling, from rejecting the lifelessness of purity. If there were only one human left, our species would die.
When I was younger, I thought of being a migrant and being foreign as things that made me different, an outsider. Now, at the age of forty-three, I think these experiences are increasingly universal.
On our globalizing planet, where the pace of change keeps accelerating, many of us are coming to feel at least a bit foreign, because all of us, whether we travel far afield or not, are migrants through time. Even if you are eighty and have never left your hometown, yours has become another country from that of your childhood.
Perhaps, as we search for principles that can bind together our diverse and interconnected world, we should explore the empathy that arises from such a shared experience. It may be that as we examine our position as temporal beings, as individuals who represent a folding together of days, years, and decades—as a person who is at once a child of the seventies, say, and a mother of the noughties—a sense of our common hybridity may start to become apparent. To be a human being and to be a hybrid being are the same thing.
In my writing, I have tried to advocate the blurring of boundaries: not just between civilizations or people of different “groups,” but also between writer and reader. Co-creation has been central to my fiction, the notion that a novel is made jointly by a writer and a reader. Co-creation is central to my politics as well. I believe that we co-create the overlapping societies we belong to, large and small, and that we should be free to try to invent new ways of being and interacting.
At some level, I suppose my personal need to write fiction comes from my inability entirely to accept our world as it is. When I write a novel, I am disappearing into another world, one of my own devising. But I don’t desire to remain there, alone, apart, forever. I want to bring my imagined world back into our world, to share it, to have a reader enter it and shape it, to open a space for experimentation and imagination that crosses the boundaries of the self, of the real, of time. I believe that the hope of invention animates the arts. And I feel that same hope as I think of people coming together to invent a world that is post-civilization, and hence infinitely more civilized.
This book is organized into three sections: life, art, and politics. This is not because I hold these categories to be separate: I think the opposite, that the personal is political and vice versa, and my own art partakes strongly of both. Rather, the structure here is intended as a possible journey.
The pieces in the first section, titled “Life,” are arranged in subsections that adopt the age-following order of chapters in a memoir. The second section, “Art,” is divided into subsections more thematically. And the final section, “Politics,” is composed of subsections that retain the basic chronology of when the pieces were written, and therefore tracks the evolution of my perspective, starting in 2000 and ending in the present.
I wanted the experience of reading this book to be like developing a relationship. The first section would allow you, the reader, to get to know me a little; in the second section, you would see how I think about and approach the task of writing; and in the third, you would encounter me writing some opinions on the world we share.
All that said, you, too, have been on your own path of invention these past fifteen years. You, too, are a foreign correspondent in your own right. So how (and whether) you now proceed is, of course, up to you. That’s the thing about co-creation. To exist, it requires the presence of more than one point of view.