Two men meet in a crowded cafe, perhaps by coincidence, perhaps not. One is notable for his silence; a foreigner, obviously uncomfortable at the attention being paid to him, he holds to a steely taciturnity. The other, a native, is solicitous to a fault and, by contrast, talkative—perhaps even too talkative, given the events that will unfold.
Thus the setup for Mohsin Hamid’s second novel, The Reluctant Fundementalist, which puts his native Pakistan and the United States in uneasy proximity. Published 10 years ago, in a time when the events of Sept. 11, 2001, were still fresh in memory, it opens with words that could either be the beginning of a beautiful friendship or the prelude to a tragedy: “Excuse me, sir, but may I be of assistance?”
The speaker, Changez, wearing the long beard and loose clothing of the faithful, hastens to assure the listener that he means no harm: that he loves America, that there is no need for his would-be interlocutor to harden his expression and move his hand to the inside of his jacket, there to locate the metallic object that remains in the shadows for the next dozen chapters.
Changez, in extended monologue, does nothing to unburden his listener of his nervousness. The American fidgets; he sees the world through squinting eyes. But Changez continues all the same, revealing all the reasons that he, a graduate of Princeton and familiar of Wall Street, should feel ill-used for having cared for his adopted and then abandoned new home.
One of those reasons is all too human: a love lost. One is all too political: when Pakistan’s security forces are suspected to be behind an attack on India’s parliament and the armies of both nations scramble, the United States takes a stance that strikes him as insufficiently appreciative for help rendered in George Bush’s war on terror. “It will perhaps be odd for you—coming, as you do, from a country that has not fought a war on its own soil in living memory, the rare sneak attack of terrorist outrage excepted—to imagine residing within commuting distance of a million or so hostile troops who could, at any minute, attempt a full-scale invasion,” Changez says, simply and truly.
Can a lover scorned be a friend? If you’re not with us, must you be against us? Changez is a sympathetic figure, to be sure, but also clearly a suspect one—certainly in the narrowing eyes of that stranger in that cafe, a stand-in for an increasingly isolated America, and all the more so when we learn that Changez was secretly pleased by the fall of the towers.
But reality resists easy answers. Mohsin Hamid has explored the division of cultures in later work, notably his most recent novel, Exit West, which considers what happens when the West refuses to love those beyond its borders. From both it and The Reluctant Fundamentalist we learn that the supposed Other is not so very different—and, of course, that we in the steely West are in need of all the assistance that we can get.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.