Highlights: The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by Hamid, Mohsin
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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
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
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 two-twenty-five—are typical of a certain type of American;
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.
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.
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
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
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
“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.”
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
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.
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
But status, as in any traditional, class-conscious society, declines more slowly than wealth. So we retain our Punjab Club membership.
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.
I, with my finite and depleting reserve of cash and my traditional sense of deference to one’s seniors, found myself wondering by what quirk of human history my companions—many of whom I would have regarded as upstarts in my own country, so devoid of refinement were they—were in a position to conduct themselves in the world as though they were its ruling class.
Not that she was aloof; she was, in fact, friendly in disposition. But one felt that some part of her—and this, perhaps, was a not insubstantial component of her appeal—was out of reach, lost in thoughts unsaid.
It is the effect of scarcity; one’s rules of propriety make one thirst for the improper.
You will have noticed that the newer districts of Lahore are poorly suited to the needs of those who must walk. In their spaciousness—with their public parks and wide, tree-lined boulevards—they enforce an ancient hierarchy that comes to us from the countryside: the superiority of the mounted man over the man on foot. But here, where we sit, and in the even older districts that lie between us and the River Ravi—the congested, mazelike heart of this city—Lahore is more democratically urban. Indeed, in these places it is the man with four wheels who is forced to dismount and become part of the crowd.
This, I realized, was another world from Pakistan; supporting my feet were the achievements of the most technologically
This, I realized, was another world from Pakistan; supporting my feet were the achievements of the most technologically advanced civilization our species had ever known.
Now our cities were largely unplanned, unsanitary affairs, and America had universities with individual endowments greater than our national budget for education. To be reminded of this vast disparity was, for me, to be ashamed.
see you are impressed by the thoroughness of our training. I was as well. It was a testament to the systematic pragmatism—call it professionalism—that underpins your country’s success in so many fields.
looked around as we raised our glasses in a toast to ourselves. Two of my five colleagues were women; Wainwright and I were non-white. We were marvelously diverse . . . and yet we were not: all of us, Sherman included, hailed from the same elite universities—Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Yale; we all exuded a sense of confident self-satisfaction; and not one of us was either short or overweight.
but Wainwright was less overtly so; he was genial and irreverent, and was as a consequence almost universally well-liked.
after all, a former English colony, and it stands to reason, therefore, that an Anglicized accent may in your country continue to be associated with wealth and power,
Or perhaps it was my ability to function both respectfully and with self-respect in a hierarchical environment, something American youngsters—unlike their Pakistani counterparts—rarely seem trained to do. Whatever the reason, I was aware of an advantage conferred upon me by my foreignness, and I tried to utilize it as much as I could.
“You’re a watchful guy. You know where that comes from?” I shook my head. “It comes from feeling out of place,” he said. “Believe me. I know.”
It is remarkable how theatrical manmade light can be once sunlight has begun to fade, how it can affect us emotionally, even now, at the start of the twenty-first century, in cities as large and bright as this one.
wanted to know what it was, what had caused her to create the pearl of which she had spoken. But I thought it would be presumptuous of me to ask; such things are revealed by a person when and to whom they choose. So I attempted to convey through my expression
I wanted to know what it was, what had caused her to create the pearl of which she had spoken. But I thought it would be presumptuous of me to ask; such things are revealed by a person when and to whom they choose. So I attempted to convey through my expression alone my desire to understand her and said nothing further.
felt myself bridle. There was nothing overtly objectionable in what he had said; indeed, his was a summary with some knowledge, much like the short news items on the front page of The Wall Street Journal, which I had recently begun to read. But his tone—with, if you will forgive me, its typically American undercurrent of condescension—struck a negative chord with me, and it was only out of politeness that I limited my response to “Yes, there are challenges, sir, but my family is there, and I can assure you it is not as bad as that.”
herself. She reminded me of a child who could sleep only with the door open and the light on.
I was, in my own eyes, a veritable James Bond—only younger, darker, and possibly better paid. How odd it seems now to recall that time; how quickly my sense of self-satisfaction would later disappear!
Perhaps it was for this reason that I did something in Manila I had never done before: I attempted to act and speak, as much as my dignity would permit, more like an American.
The Filipinos we worked with seemed to look up to my American colleagues, accepting them almost instinctively as members of the officer class of global business—and I wanted my share of that respect as well.
looked at him—at his fair hair and light eyes and, most of all, his oblivious immersion in the minutiae of our work—and thought, you are so foreign. I felt in that moment much closer to the Filipino driver than to him; I felt I was play-acting when in reality I ought to be making my way home, like the people on the street outside.
“Really. Not in a bullshit, say-something-nice-to-raise-the-kid’s-morale way. You’re a shark. And that’s a compliment, coming from me. It’s what they called me when I first joined. A shark. I never stopped swimming. And I was a cool customer. I never let on that I felt like I didn’t belong to this world. Just like
The confession that implicates its audience is—as we say in cricket—a devilishly difficult ball to play. Reject it and you slight the confessor; accept it and you admit your own guilt. So I said, rather carefully, “Why did you not belong?”
But I did grow up with a poor boy’s sense of longing, in my case not for what my family had never had, but for what we had had and lost. Some of my relatives held on to imagined memories the way homeless people hold onto lottery tickets. Nostalgia was their crack cocaine, if you will, and my childhood was littered with the consequences of their addiction: unserviceable debts, squabbles over inheritances, the odd alcoholic or suicide. In this, Jim and I were indeed similar: he had grown up outside the candy store, and I had grown up on its threshold as its door was being shut.
But at that moment, my thoughts were not with the victims of the attack—death on television moves me most when it is fictitious and happens to characters with whom I have built up relationships over multiple episodes—no, I was caught up in the symbolism of it all, the fact that someone had so visibly brought America to her knees.
Perhaps it is in our nature to recognize subconsciously the link between mortality and procreation—between, that is to say, the finite and the infinite—and we are in fact driven by reminders of the one to seek out the other.
it was, after all, a tiny fraction of the size of her own home—but
it was, after all, a tiny fraction of the size of her own home—but I reassured myself that it possessed a certain literary charm.
This role pleased me indeed. I was presumptuous enough to think that this was how my life was meant to be, that it had in some way been inevitable that I should end up rubbing shoulders with the truly wealthy in such exalted settings. Erica vouched for my worthiness; my way of carrying myself—I flattered myself to believe—suggested the impeccability of my breeding; and, for those who inquired further, my Princeton degree and Underwood Samson business card were invariably sufficient to earn me a respectful nod of approval.
current that pulled her within herself, and her smile contained the fear that she might slip into her own depths, where she would be trapped, unable to breathe. I wished to serve as her anchor in these moments, without being so vulgar as to make known to her that this was a role I felt she needed someone to play.
“The economy’s an animal,” Jim continued. “It evolves. First it needed muscle. Now all the blood it could spare was rushing to its brain. That’s where I wanted to be. In finance. In the coordination business. And that’s where you are. You’re blood brought from some part of the body that the species doesn’t need anymore. The tailbone. Like me. We came from places that were wasting away.”
“They try to resist change. Power comes from becoming change.”
I did, however, tell myself that I had overreacted, that there was nothing I could do, and that all these world events were playing out on a stage of no relevance to my personal life. But I remained aware of the embers glowing within me, and that day I found it difficult to concentrate on the pursuit—at which I was normally so capable—of fundamentals.
Perhaps because we currently lack wealth, power, or even sporting glory—the occasional brilliance of our temperamental cricket team notwithstanding—commensurate with our status as the world’s sixth most populous country, we Pakistanis tend to take an inordinate pride in our food.
These, sir, are predatory delicacies, delicacies imbued with a hint of luxury, of wanton abandon. Not for us the vegetarian recipes one finds across the border to the east, nor the sanitized, sterilized, processed meats so common in your homeland! Here we are not squeamish when it comes to facing the consequences of our desire.
since; I remember it well: I felt at once both satiated and ashamed. My satiation was understandable to me; my shame was more confusing. Perhaps, by taking on the persona of another, I had diminished myself in my own
tried to prevent myself from asking her what it was—whether because I thought it would upset her or because I thought it would upset me, I do not now know—but I failed. “It’s whether there’s something left,” she explained, suddenly and unsettlingly calm, “or whether it’s all already happened.”
Or perhaps theirs was a past all the more potent for its being imaginary. I
There was something undeniably retro about the flags and uniforms, about generals addressing cameras in war rooms and newspaper headlines featuring such words as duty and honor. I had always thought of America as a nation that looked forward; for the first time I was struck by its determination to look back. Living in New York was suddenly like living in a film about the Second World War;
conservative, Upper East Side, liveried-doorman sort of place one might have expected; it was instead in TriBeCa, a four-thousand-square-foot loft that occupied the top floor of a nondescript building on Duane Street. Entering for the first time, I was struck by its fashionable quality, the sense it conveyed of attaching great value to design. Not that it was cluttered, or indeed feminine in any way; no, if anything it was a minimalist affair with cement
But as I reacclimatized and my surroundings once again became familiar, it occurred to me that the house had not changed in my absence. I had changed; I was looking about me with the eyes of a foreigner, and not just any foreigner, but that particular type of entitled and unsympathetic American who so annoyed me when I encountered him in the classrooms and workplaces of your country’s elite. This realization angered me; staring at my reflection in the speckled glass of my bathroom mirror I resolved to exorcise the unwelcome sensibility by which I had become possessed.
was only after so doing that I saw my house properly again, appreciating its enduring grandeur, its unmistakable personality and idiosyncratic charm. Mughal miniatures and ancient carpets graced its reception rooms; an excellent library abutted its veranda. It was far from impoverished; indeed, it was rich with history. I wondered how I could ever have been so ungenerous—and so blind—to have thought otherwise,
felt suddenly very young—or perhaps I felt my age: an almost childlike twenty-two, rather than that permanent middle-age that attaches itself to the man who lives alone and supports himself by wearing a suit in a city not of his birth.
was odd to speak of that world here, as it would be odd to sing in a mosque; what is natural in one place can seem unnatural in another, and some concepts travel rather poorly, if at all.
found it ironic; children and the elderly were meant to be sent away from impending battles, but in our case it was the fittest and brightest who were leaving, those who in the past would have been most expected to remain.
You need to be careful. This whole corporate collegiality veneer only goes so deep. Believe
for Erica he was alive enough, and that was the problem: it was difficult for Erica to be out in the world, living the way the nurse or I might, when in her mind she was experiencing things that were stronger and more meaningful than the things she could experience with the rest of
was the certainty with which she placed me in the past tense that struck me most about her statement.
After all, one reads that the soldiers of your country are sent to battle with chocolate in their rations, so the prospect of sugaring your tongue before undertaking even the bloodiest of tasks cannot be entirely alien to you.
What was essential was that I seek to understand why I had failed to penetrate the membrane with which she guarded her psyche; my more direct approaches had been rejected, but with sufficient insight
Moreover, Valparaiso was itself a distraction: the city was powerfully atmospheric; a sense of melancholy pervaded its boulevards and hillsides.
In this—Valparaiso’s former aspirations to grandeur—I was reminded of Lahore and of that saying, so evocative in our language: the ruins proclaim the building was beautiful.
could not respect how he functioned so completely immersed in the structures of his professional micro-universe. Yes, I too had previously derived comfort from my firm’s exhortations to focus intensely on work, but now I saw that in this constant striving to realize a financial future, no thought was given to the critical personal and political issues that affect one’s emotional present. In other words, my blinders were coming off, and I was dazzled and rendered immobile by the sudden broadening of my arc of vision.
thought of Erica. It occurred to me that my attempts to communicate with her might have failed in part because I did not know where I stood on so many issues of consequence; I lacked a stable core. I was not certain where I belonged—in New York, in Lahore, in both, in neither—and for this reason, when she reached out to me for help, I had nothing of substance to give
ambled at a pace so slow that it would likely have been illegal for him to cross at an intersection in New York.
“Does it trouble you,” he inquired, “to make your living by disrupting the lives of others?” “We just value,” I replied. “We do not decide whether to buy or to sell, or indeed what happens to a company after we have valued it.”
janissaries?” “No,” I said. “They were Christian boys,” he explained, “captured by the Ottomans and trained to be soldiers in a Muslim army, at that time the greatest army in the world. They were ferocious and utterly loyal: they had fought to erase their own civilizations, so they had nothing else to turn
There really could be no doubt: I was a modern-day janissary, a servant of the American empire at a time when it was invading a country with a kinship to mine and was perhaps even colluding to ensure that my own country faced the threat of
had thrown in my lot with the men of Underwood Samson, with the officers of the empire, when all along I was predisposed to feel compassion for those, like Juan-Bautista, whose lives the empire thought nothing of overturning for its own gain.
Moreover I knew from my experience as a Pakistani—of alternating periods of American aid and sanctions—that finance was a primary means by which the American empire exercised its power. It was right for me to refuse to participate any longer in facilitating this project of domination; the only surprise was that I had required so much time to arrive at my decision.
resolved to look about me with an ex-janissary’s gaze—with, that is to say, the analytical eyes of a product of Princeton and Underwood Samson, but unconstrained by the academic’s and the professional’s various compulsions to focus primarily on parts, and free therefore to consider also the whole of your society—upon my return to New York. Seen in this fashion I was struck by how traditional your empire appeared.
resolved to look about me with an ex-janissary’s gaze—with, that is to say, the analytical eyes of a product of Princeton and Underwood Samson, but unconstrained by the academic’s and the professional’s various compulsions to focus primarily on parts, and free therefore to consider also the whole of your society—upon my return to New York. Seen in this fashion I was
There is in such situations usually a moment of passion during which the unthinkable is said; this is followed by a sense of euphoria at finally being liberated; the world seems fresh, as if seen for the first time; then comes the inevitable period of doubt, the desperate and doomed backpedaling of regret; and only later, once emotions have receded, is one able to view with equanimity the journey through which one has passed.
But,” he paused, “I’ll tell you this. I like you, Changez. I can see you’re going through a crisis. If you ever need to get something off your chest and you want someone to talk to, call and I’ll buy you a beer.” My throat constricted; I could not reply. I nodded slowly, a gesture not unlike a bow.
You must remember that I was only twenty-two and this had been my first proper job; at such an age and in such a situation events have an emotional resonance that is perhaps exaggerated.
You have reminded me of how alien I found the concept of acquaintances splitting a bill when I first arrived in your country. I had been raised to favor mutual generosity over mathematical precision in such matters; given time both work equally well to even a score.
But I had begun to understand that she had chosen not to be part of my story; her own had proven too compelling, and she was—at that moment and in her own way—following it to its conclusion, passing through places I could not reach. I saw I had no option but to pursue my own preparations to leave.
As a society, you were unwilling to reflect upon the shared pain that united you with those who attacked you. You retreated into myths of your own difference, assumptions of your own superiority. And you acted out these beliefs on the stage of the world, so that the entire planet was rocked by the repercussions of your tantrums, not least my family, now facing war thousands of miles away. Such an America had to be stopped in the interests not
sadness and regret prompted at times by an external stimulus, and at others by an internal cycle that was almost tidal, for want of a better word. I responded to the gravity of an invisible moon at my core, and I undertook journeys I had not expected to take.
Such journeys have convinced me that it is not always possible to