A Pakistani exile in the United States is tortured by a prolonged absence from his family and homeland in Grima’s (The Performance of Emotion Among Paxtun Women, 1992) novel.
Nur Ali grew up in the Swat Valley in northern Pakistan, a place that he considered “idyllic” before the Taliban commandeered it. These conquerors were eventually pushed out, but the Pakistani soldiers who replaced them were equally brutal and corrupt governors of the land. Nur eventually left Pakistan in order to make a better living for his family, and his departure unexpectedly lasts for 15 years, and his separation from his family is an implacable source of anxiety and depression for him. He spends most of his time working at a 7-Eleven convenience store—an astonishing 84 hours a week, and each and every day he lives frugally, so that he can send every possible penny to his family. From his near-constant perch at the store, he does his best to run his household in Pakistan, nervously grilling his wife, Shahgofta, for information and trying hard to project a sense of leadership halfway across the globe: “From a world away behind his 7-Eleven counter, once again the exiled head of family had resolved a major family crisis and maintained the balance of forces within the clan.” But as problems mount—his granddaughter falls ill, soldiers harass the family, and his brother steals money and effectively takes over his home—Nur finds that fulfilling his duties as head of the family, a revered “qaida,” becomes nearly impossible.
Grima worked for a decade as an ethnographer in the Swat Valley, and she writes from deep reserves of scholarly expertise and personal experience, both of which radiate from each page. She not only draws a gripping picture of the Swat Valley’s culture, before and after the war on terrorism transformed it, but also of a tightknit community of Pakistani exiles in the United States—a network that Nur all but runs, in a lovingly avuncular fashion. As he grows old and his health begins to fail, he desperately wants to return home, and he finds meager consolation for his “exiled existence” in memories of a happier, less complicated time. The United States presents its own set of problems for him—he encounters vitriolic prejudice, and the store is regularly robbed—and the author smartly and unflinchingly describes his less-than-utopian circumstances. Nur’s nostalgic pain is almost unbearably poignant at times: “I swear, we have nothing left. Our homes are destroyed, our families dispersed. There are no men to look after the women or farm the fields. We have nothing left, and yet they still come after us.” Grima’s prose is largely Spartan in style, unadorned by poetic embellishments but powerfully direct—creating a feeling that unalloyed truth is on offer, without excessive sentiment or melodrama. It also offers a wonderfully edifying portrait of Pakistani people in their native country, and of those in exile from it.
A consistently engrossing work of literature, filled with beautiful expressions of despair.