Displaced Personhood

Discontent and its Civilizations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York, and London BY Mohsin Hamid. Riverhead Hardcover. Hardcover, 240 pages. $27.

The cover of Discontent and its Civilizations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York, and London

One could say, with no snark intended, that back in the year 2000, twenty-nine-year-old Mohsin Hamid was the ultimate bourgeois bohemian. He had just published a well-received first novel. He lived on lovely Cornelia Street, in a corner of the West Village once inhabited by artists and writers but, by the dawn of the twenty-first century, affordable mainly to investment bankers and management consultants. As it happened, this debut novelist was also a management consultant. And in a deal of sugar-shock sweetness, his employer, McKinsey & Company—famous for overworking its bright young climbers—allowed this graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law three months off per year to write fiction. This guy, as Frank Sinatra might have crooned, had the world on a string, the string around his finger.

But even back then, before the twin towers came tumbling down, Hamid felt the sting of Islamophobia in New York City. In “International Relations,” one of the many superb pieces in his first collection of essays, Discontent and Its Civilizations, Hamid describes how he was made to squirm every time he went to the Italian consulate in Manhattan to receive official clearance to visit his then-girlfriend in her European homeland. Hamid’s passport “runs suspiciously backward, the right-hand cover its front, and above the curved swords of its Urdu lettering . . . reads, ‘Islamic Republic of Pakistan.’ Words to make a visa officer tremble.”

For Hamid, life in the Big Apple would turn sour fast. As he writes in another essay: “The 9/11 attacks placed great strain on the hyphen bridging that identity called Muslim-American. As a man not known for frequenting mosques, and not possessing a US passport, I should not have felt it. But I did, deeply. It seemed two halves of myself were suddenly at war.” He arranged to have McKinsey transfer him, indefinitely, to London. All was well there, at least for a while: “Like many Bush-era self-exiles from the United States, I found that London combined much of what first attracted me to New York with a freedom America seemed to have lost in the paranoid years after 9/11.” In London, Hamid met the love of his life: “She and I had been born on the same street in Lahore.” He quit McKinsey. He published his mesmerizing second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which became an internationally acclaimed best seller. Marching with a million other people in Hyde Park to protest the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Hamid thought: “I am one of them. I am a Londoner.”

On July 7, 2005, four young Britons, intoxicated by Islamic radicalism, blew themselves up—three in the London underground-rail system, the fourth on one of those classic red double-decker buses. The suicide bombers took fifty-two passengers with them. New York had 9/11; now London had 7/7. In the mordantly funny essay “Down the Tube,” Hamid records what happened when he dared to take the last empty seat in a subway car, beside a passenger who looked, to a certain eye, like a comical stereotype of a terrorist. Thought Hamid, “He could have been my cousin.” They struck up a conversation, and the passenger turned out to be rather strange indeed. “And what was that?” Hamid noticed anxiously. “Yes, he had a bulge under his kurta. Like a money belt. A very, very large money belt. . . . He was perhaps the most suspicious person I had ever seen in my life.” After emerging unscathed, Hamid recounted the incident to a friend visiting from Pakistan: “He laughed. ‘You’re just paranoid, yaar,’ he said. ‘You’ve been living here too long.’”

Hamid came to agree. His daughter was born on August 14, Pakistan’s independence day. He told his wife that this was a sign for them to move back to their native country: “Many friends in London seem puzzled by our decision. That is understandable. Pakistan plays a recurring role as villain in the horror subindustry within the news business.” In 2009, Hamid, his wife, Zahra, and the newborn Dina settled in Lahore.

As Hamid revisits the challenges of resuming his life in Pakistan, his profound affection for his homeland becomes all the more touching, because it is always being put to the test. One feels that Pakistan, for Hamid, is like a loved one who is full of promise but deeply troubled. In the introduction to this collection, he admits, “In my writings about Pakistan over the years, I perceive an attempt at optimism, probably a little forced, and possibly somewhat misguided.” He notes that since the nation’s birth in 1947, “Pakistan has been prone to turning its knife upon itself.”

A street in Lahore, Pakistan, 2011.
A street in Lahore, Pakistan, 2011.

Whatever Pakistan’s faults, the war on terror only further rent its fragile social fabric. In “Osama bin Laden’s Death,” Hamid writes: “Crowds are justifiably celebrating bin Laden’s death in downtown Manhattan, where a decade ago al-Qaeda terrorists infamously massacred nearly three thousand people. But since the subsequent US invasion of Afghanistan, terrorists have killed many times that number of people in Pakistan. Tens of thousands have died in terror and counterterror violence, slain by bombs, bullets, cannons, and drones. America’s 9/11 has given way to Pakistan’s 24/7/365.”

Curiously enough, the names Sigmund Freud and Samuel P. Huntington appear nowhere in the three dozen essays in this collection, though Hamid’s book might be considered a twenty-first-century retort to both the Viennese father of psychoanalysis and the American political scientist. Hamid has taken the title of one of Freud’s best-known works, Civilization and Its Discontents, published in 1930, and turned it inside out. In his reconstruction of Freud’s title, one can’t help but think of Huntington’s 1993 essay “The Clash of Civilizations?,” which sought to locate the source of conflict in the post–Cold War era. Even people who have never heard of Huntington or his essay toss that phrase around. “Clash of civilizations” has become shorthand for the strife of our times, defining everything from wars to disputes over immigration and integration, with the implicit understanding that the ultimate face-off will be between an entity termed the West and another notionally resembling Islam. “For the relevant future,” Huntington wrote, “there will be no universal civilization, but instead a world of different civilizations, each of which will have to learn to coexist with the others.”

Hamid isn’t having it. In the title essay of this collection, he writes:

The idea that we fall into civilizations, plural, is merely a politically convenient myth. . . . Civilizations are illusory. But they are useful illusions. They allow us to deny our common humanity. . . . Our civilizations do not cause us to clash. No, our clashing allows us to pretend we belong to civilizations.

In his essay, Huntington wrote, “In conflicts between civilizations, the question is ‘What are you?’ That is a given that cannot be changed.” To which Hamid might reply, Oh, really? “To what civilization does a Syrian atheist belong? A Muslim soldier in the US army? A Chinese professor in Germany? A lesbian fashion designer in Nigeria?” Hamid echoes those who believe there are no such things as different races. There is only one race: the human race. Likewise, there is only one human civilization.

For Freud, civilization is the cumulative mass of customs, rules, and laws by which human beings keep in check their most aggressive and destructive instincts. But not being able to pursue those turbulent, death-directed urges leaves people feeling a bit, well . . . meh. “It seems to be certain,” Freud wrote, “that our present-day civilization does not inspire in us a feeling of well-being.” Eighty-four years later, Hamid points to the “economic turmoil and widening disparities” that have coincided with the war on terror as the root of people’s unhappiness. He writes: “Instead of the seeds of reform, we are given the yoke of misdirection. We are told to forget the sources of our discontent because something more important is at stake: the fate of our civilization.” Why deal with the growing inequality that is threatening all of human civilization when you can attack the civilizations that are supposedly threatening yours?

Hamid believes that the greatest promise of our globalized civilization is self-invention, the possibility that “we will be liberated to be what we choose to be.” But the War and the Clash keep getting in the way. In 2000, the young management consultant–cum–debut novelist in New York was eyed suspiciously because of his Pakistani passport. In 2010, the world-renowned author, a resident of Lahore and now a dual Pakistani-British citizen, visited New York with his wife and baby daughter. Hamid had his “usual lengthy encounter at JFK airport.” After he’d been grilled about such issues as whether he’d ever had “combat training,” Hamid was finally released from “secondary inspection.” He rejoined Zahra and Dina: “We were the last passengers on our flight to claim our luggage, a lonely set of suitcases and a foldable playpen on a now-stationary baggage carousel.” At a reading in Germany, “people posed queries relating to how ‘we Europeans’ see things, in contrast to how ‘you Muslims’ do. Eventually I was so exasperated that I pulled my British passport out of my jacket and started waving it around my head.”

Cosmopolitan, multicultural, capaciously open-minded, Hamid is at the same time deeply rooted in his native country and clan, having left New York and London to live in his parents’ house in Lahore, next door to his grandparents’. In a 2010 essay, he recounts taking baby Dina out to the balcony to see her first monsoon. She laughed and kicked in delight. “The Pakistani monsoon is an amazing and beautiful thing,” Hamid writes. But the rains that year were historically relentless and destructive, ruining millions of homes: “For me, to live in Pakistan is to know extremes of hope and despair.” Five years later, what was true for Hamid in his home country speaks to something perhaps universal in this highly fraught and deeply discontented moment in our human civilization.

Jake Lamar is the author of a memoir, six novels, and most recently a play. He lives in Paris, where his latest book, Postérité, was published by Rivages in September.