When Haroon Ullah was a student at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, way back in 2000, his research-paper presentation on India-Pakistan left his professor puzzled. "Why," his professor asked, "would you study such a small, relatively unimportant region?" It was this question, or rather a will to defy it, that set Ullah on a mission to focus on South Asia and understand its intricacies. In the years since, as South Asia has gotten more globally important, he's done academic field work in Pakistan, served as a member of the late Amabassador Richard C. Holbrooke's policy team on Pakistan & Afghanistan, worked as a diplomat at the U.S. Mission in Islamabad and most recently, joined the U.S. Department of State as an advisor on countering violent extremism and public diplomacy. "I spent over 10 years in the region doing hundreds of interviews for my field research," explains Ullah, "and I met so many lower middle class families that were struggling, that were torn by violence, extremism, and chaos, within their daily lives.”
Ullah’s latest book, The Bargain from the Bazaar, is the story of one such family, grappling with the devastating impact of the treacherous political, civil and religious fabric of modern Pakistan. It’s the story of the Reza family – Awais, his wife Shez and their three sons – whose livelihood comes from a shop in Lahore’s Anarkali Bazaar (hence the title) and whose lives are blown to pieces when their middle son gets involved in radical Islamist politics.
On first read, the book reads like a novel. It doesn’t mention dates, doesn’t stress chronology and ventures into characters’ thoughts with the frequency and ease typical of fiction. But make no mistake, the Reza family is very much flesh and blood, though their real names are masked. “The first time I met them was in 2004 at a dinner party in Lahore,” reveals Ullah. “I overheard Awais telling the story of his days in the army and then as a POW.” That was the start of a lifelong friendship, a friendship that allowed the Reza family to entrust Ullah with their story when he approached them about writing the book. He started taking notes, interviewing the family, recording video and following them everywhere. “I saw some really raw moments,” recalls Ullah. “I would say things like, ‘I can’t believe young people are buying into this extremism’ and I would see Awais look down, thinking, ‘That's my son, one of those young people that bought into it. Was it me? Could I have done anything? Did we fail as parents?’ ”
Writing the book was cathartic for Ullah too, a way to find a place for himself, somewhere between two worlds, between his Indian-Pakistani lineage and his American small-town upbringing. “After 9/11, it was the first time people asked me, ‘Where are you from?’ ” recalls Ullah, with just a hint of indignation. He told them he’s from Richland, Washington. “I grew up listening to country music and driving a truck. And people were like, ‘No, but where're you really from? Haroon doesn't sound American.’ ”
The descriptor he chooses instead for himself is “South Asian American.” It’s evident in his writing—in his vivid imagery of the bustle of Lahore and its markets and his nuanced insights into Pakistani culture—that he’s proud of his heritage, and deeply enamored by it too. That’s perhaps why chipping away at stereotypes and furthering the understanding of South Asian lives is a mission of sorts for Ullah. “People read things in the news,” he says, and they want to know “ ‘What the hell is going on in India and Pakistan?’ They stereotype things very easily.”
Bargain From the Bazaar is about hope, about the astonishing resilience of families like the Rezas, and about the strength of a nation. "It was what Pakistanis seemed to do best, coming back from the brink time and time again,” writes Ullah. “Through tragedy and catastrophe, wars and floods, assassinations and police crackdowns, weak and corrupt leadership, the people of Pakistan knew only that they must keep marching on toward a better future."
Nidhi Chaudhry is a freelance writer currently based in Singapore. Follow her on Twitter.