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Pakistani Novelist Mohsin Hamid Explains What 9/11 Meant For Pakistan


The 20 years since 9/11 can feel to some like a tragic novel. So many characters vanish from the story, only to return. Many stories reverse themselves. Most notably, the United States abruptly deposed a Taliban government in Afghanistan, only to see its replacement abruptly collapse last month. Steve Inskeep is reporting from Pakistan this week. And to make sense of it all, he called a leading Pakistani novelist, Mohsin Hamid.

MOHSIN HAMID: My mother went to Kabul in 1970 on her first trip outside of Pakistan to do some shopping for her wedding. And she had this sort of crazy incident where she and her friend were sitting, doing a picnic in some park, and they saw some Western women sunbathing in these bikinis. And my mother told me how these Afghan men appeared out of the trees nearby, dressed in traditional clothing. And the women saw these men staring at them, and they quickly covered themselves and ran away. And my mother laughed. And the words my mother told me - she said - were, Westerners come here, and they forget where they are. And that story really has stuck with me because it feels, not only how much has Kabul changed, but also in a certain sense, how much things haven't changed.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: I wonder if that phrase that your mother repeated is one way to sum up the last 20 years of war by the United States. Westerners come here and forget where they are.

HAMID: I think it is to a certain extent. It's so easy in a way to come to a part of the world, particularly a place like Kabul, an urban center in a largely rural country, a much more educated place in a country that is less well-educated. In the same way that if you came to Islamabad and imagined that Pakistan was like Islamabad, you could easily lose sight of that.

INSKEEP: We've had so many different ideas of what the wars are of the last 20 years - that it's a clash of civilizations, that it's Islam versus the West. And I wonder if urban and rural is what it really is throughout the entire region.

HAMID: Well, I think there is an internal conflict in so many societies. And perhaps in America, one of the easiest ways to conceptualize this is the difference between the cities and the countryside in the United States. You know, I remember traveling around the U.S. during the elections of a year ago and five years ago and seeing the difference as you leave a city and you enter the countryside and seeing the Trump signs in the countryside and then seeing people in the cities, you know, confident that Hillary or Biden would win. This is a worldwide divide.

But in a place like Afghanistan, the balance of the population is much more rural than it is in the United States. And so - how do you negotiate the difference between what people in cities often want and what people in the countryside often want? And that's a complex dance. What has happened, I think, is when you used a blunt instrument of war to intervene in something so complicated, you wind up with all kinds of perverse consequences. You wind up siding with warlords who are, in some cases, worse than the Taliban. You wind up killing people and engendering hatred towards your forces.

INSKEEP: Even as I've been traveling, Mohsin, I've been reading an article by a journalist who traveled in the countryside of Afghanistan in recent months. Anand Gopal of The New Yorker has delivered this remarkable article. Americans imagined that they were fighting a war for democracy and particularly for the rights of women. But when he spoke with rural women, their actual experience was of family members being killed - many family members, family after family after family - and often being killed by Americans or their Afghan allies. And what they wanted was peace.

HAMID: The article that you referred to, I read it today myself for the first time. I think that that narrative captured in that article is so spot on. When you step away from these terms like, you know, women's empowerment and human rights, et cetera, and you just actually talk to people - what has your experience been? What was this war about? What have you suffered? What do you believe? - you wind up getting a very different story. The victory of the Taliban, the sheer speed of it, certainly suggests the narrative of that article, which is a narrative of a brutalized population that judged the Taliban the lesser of two evils. I think that is really at the heart of this entire story, really, of the last 20 years - and also, to the point where imposing democracy, women's rights, progressive change to the barrel of a gun never tends to work.

INSKEEP: We should mention that your country, Pakistan, has certainly remained more stable in relative terms, but has also gone through two decades of warfare in which tens of thousands of people have been killed and has had struggles with democracy in recent years. Do you feel less free?

HAMID: I do feel less free. I think that the security environment has gotten better, but the sense of living in an environment where there's free speech and where there's a great deal of civilian input into national policies is less. In some cases, I suppose something has happened in Pakistan which should be familiar to people in the United States. Certain trade-offs have been made in Pakistan in favor of national security and a way from freedom. In much the same way as United States, you saw a huge amount of surveillance as a price for less terrorism. My own feeling is that these sorts of changes are dangerous to the well-being of societies long term.

INSKEEP: I want people to know that you've spent a lot of time in the United States, that you know it well, in addition to being in a country that's been on the receiving end of some U.S. policies. Is there something that you would like Americans to know about their own country that maybe they haven't noticed themselves?

HAMID: I think one thing which many Americans don't fully appreciate is when you fight a war or a series of wars for such a long time, even if it's a tiny minority of the country that's actually deployed and they're all volunteers, the impacts on society are profound. The communities in which people go and fight these wars and come back, they experience enormous trauma, a sense of betrayal. And I think that the enormous harm that America has suffered from these last 20 years of war is not widely understood in the U.S. because the casualties, the seeming casualties, are so low. And I think that it's incredibly important for Americans to reflect on the need for peace, not just as international subjects, something that people outside America should also be concerned about, but for the damage it has done to American society - because here in Pakistan, I've seen what happens to a society when sort of national security and debates over national security and feelings of betrayal get to extreme points.

INSKEEP: Mohsin Hamid, it's always a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.

HAMID: Thank you, Steve.


MARTIN: Mohsin Hamid's novels include "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" and "Exit West." He talked with Steve Inskeep in Pakistan.