The Reluctant Fundamentalist
9/11 and Muslims in The Reluctant Fundamentalist
Historically, man is being treated according to his Race, Religion, sex, and Culture. Since the inception of Islam and particularly after 9/11, Muslims have never ceased to be important for the West as depicted in Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist. September 11, 2001, the ‘tumbling’ of New York’s, Twin Towers; a date of changing the world’s Scenario. The tragedy permanently changed America’s perception of security. It was a day of grief and chaos. It was a hardest and nostalgic day in New York history. Everyone was frustrated. This attack affected USA particularly. However, after this tragic incident, America feels insecure and becomes more sensitive to their security. Muslims of the world especially in America were discriminated and faced a lot of hurdles. This discrimination and hurdles is the result of Muslims Profiling done by the institutions and intellectuals working for propagating the ideology of the West to the rest of the world through Media.
The novel is loaded with infinite ideas. One can explain it from many perspectives. There are many critical views regarding different aspects depicted in the novel. The novel has been commented upon by many critics worldwide.
In order to analyze Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, the first focus is on the tragic incident and impact of 9/11 on literature, Culture, Religion and geopolitical situation. Different writers and critics have commented it from their own standpoint.
Muddasar Nazar in his article Identity Crisis in Pakistan talks about post-9/11 situation: “The post-colonial state of Pakistan is faced with identity-related challenges, and is struggling to define its identity, particularly from the onset of 9/11 attacks on the United States. Parallel movements are moving across the landscape of Pakistan, as some demand as Islamic State, some a multinational state, some fight for a secular one, and some a democratic Islamic Republic, and if Islamic state, again beset with complexity as to what type of Islamic State-Shia or Sunni- Pakistan should be and to what degree.”
These lines show the issue of division among different Sects, Religions, cultures and Societies. There is always a core conflict between within, i.e. Liberalism and Fundamentalism. There is then further subdivision among these two. Within these, then there is Pakistani Taliban, Afghani Taliban, Islamic state, Liberal state, Shias and Sunnis etc. They are hung up between fire and water. There is no clear distinction and the situation is blurred within when it comes to Islam. This shows that people or nations have divided and subdivided into so many classes like on the basis of Religion, Race, Class, and Language. Those who migrate and want to find meaning in their life, still fail to discover the true identity. Such problem is beautifully highlighted in Modern Writings and Particularly in Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist.
Dr. Abdus Salam in one of his articles, Conflicting Images of Muslims in Post 9/11 American Literature, emphasizes on how Muslims have been the central focus after the tragedy of 9/11. He states, media has played a pivotal role in developing the negative images of Muslims and this depiction has changed the perception of people at a large scale. He writes: “There is a wide discrepancy between the way Muslims in America find themselves and the community of Muslims worldwide and how other Americans perceives and project them”.
He argues, the Muslims have often been viewed in stereotypical ways by the Western media. They have presented a very dark and gloomy picture of Muslims. They have made black out of white and regarded Muslims responsible for this act. He comments, Muslims are not responsible for such actions. Muslims are innocent in this regards; however, considering Muslims responsible for every damage, resulted in hatred among East and West.
Dr. Muhammad Ayyub Jajja has talked about this novel through the lens of identity and regarded this novel as a ‘Quest for Identity.’ “During the colonial days, colonized people would mimic their colonialist masters, to gain acceptance. But they would soon realize, that in spite of their mimicry, they were still regarded as the lesser and inferior Other.”
He argues, the colonized people always try to mimic the one who have colonized them which is because of the left influence of the colonizers. They copy them for their personal gain and acceptance in their society, but they do not get what they want. The colonialist look at them with little importance and term them “Inferior Others.” This results that colonized people were exposed to reality and realized their own status and came back to their own position. Hence, they quickly recognize their own culture and identity.
Mohsin Hamid has very skillfully highlighted the issues of mimicry and quest for identity in the character of Changez. He is presented as a man from outside world who follows his colonial masters with the hope to make place in their society which never came true. Furthermore, America in the novel is depicted as a colonialist country. People are attracted toward America, but in response they kicked them out. As a result of this disgust people return to their own culture and tried to know themselves truly.
The ‘traumatic’ event of 9/11 has a strong impact on Westerners attitude toward Islam and Muslims which results in distrust between them. The novel is not simply narrating a story, but the language tells us about the kind of complex relationship of the West with the East. The two distinct characters, the protagonist, Changez (a Pakistani Muslim) and the stranger, (an American) are not merely two individuals but they represent two different Countries. Changez represents the East, Muslims while the stranger American represents the West, Non-Muslims. From the very start there is distrust between two , Changez (Pakistan) and Stranger (America). In the very beginning of the novel, Changez says that he has alarmed the American which shows the lack of trust on each other and similarly the American looka at Changez with suspicious eyes. Ms. Uzma Imtiaz (2015), in her article, “The East and West trust deficit in Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist.” She writes in her article;
“The very beginning lines of the novel reflect that Changez and the silent American do not trust each other. In fact they have doubts against each other, the words “alarmed you” that Changez uses while talking to an American reflect that the American startles to see Changez, while when Changez asks him about the purpose of his visit shows his concern. Yet Changez tries to comfort him by offering his services to him and showing him his affection for America.”
The silence of the stranger shows that, America do not consider Muslims worth talking. They are not giving us full attention. There is so much Colonialism, so much superiority. Americans considers themselves so high of birth. They are like heaven born. They are not considering Pakistani even of their standard, nor valuing their point of views. So they are looking down upon East form a Superior which show distrust amongst East and West.
Furthermore, novelist like Mohsin Hamid put forward a new kind of transnational narrative, distinct from the Anglophone literary manifestation of 9/11 and the post 9/11 condition. Peter Morey observes in his essay ‘“The Rules of the Game Have Changed’: Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist and post-9/11 fiction that; Initial fictional responses to 9/11 often took the form either of ‘trauma narratives’ attempting to trace the psychological scarring and mental realignment of character caught up in the Twin Towers attacks, or Semi-fictionalized ‘Muslims misery memoirs’ which often serve to underscore the injustice of Islamic rule and justify neoconservative interventionism”(136).
There is significant number of Muslims who identify themselves as culturally rather than religiously Muslims. They do not strictly observe to the injunctions of Islam and nor do they religious orthodoxy (Moghissi et al., 2009; Rahnema, 2006). From the very start after the arrival in USA, his religious identity has replaced as cultural identity. He keeps on wearing beard after the 9/11. He keeps on drinking with colleagues in a party hosted by Jim. He damns care about the dominancy of Western Culture. He even has not found praying once throughout which shows that his religious identity is replaced by cultural identity.
Ultimately, the novel, gives a counter narrative of the 9/11 from the lens of the current political situation of the world. Although, these analysis by different critics provided a very basic and useful information about the novel It has highlighted some of the important and hidden issues that have caused great damage to Muslim countries. Thus, the novel truly depicts behavior of looking down upon of West toward East.
A Post-Colonial Approach to The Reluctant Fundamentalist
The term post-colonial refers to all characteristics of culture that is influenced by the process of colonial occupation. According to Loomba, (2003) “Post-colonial studies is a resistance to the domination and legacies of colonialism.” The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Hamid, 2007) is a Pakistani novel of Mohsin Hamid which got published in the year 2007. The novel is in the form of dramatic monologue and thus during their discussion, a degree of doubtfulness rules the conversation as Changez mediates and understands the tensions that at times spins between these two characters from different country and changed culture. The story takes place during the course of single evening in an outdoor café of Lahore, where the bearded character named Changez narrates to a troubled American about his once entranced life as a real colonist of United States of America. Mohsin Hamid’s national and ethnic identity and its anxiety in the global perspective are well echoed in this novel. Though apparently seems to be a thriller, the novel incorporates the larger subjects imbedded in the colonial oration. Changez in the novel symbolizes as post-colonial subject and the state of the Muslims, colonized by Europeans. After the incident of World Trade Centre, he wants to be back but his family disregards his request. Moreover, his beloved Erica, his ideal job and luxurious life prevent him to be back but later America’s changing attitude of attack on Afghanistan and Indo – Pakistan tense relation force him to be back to Pakistan. He was satisfied with his life back at America. He has also adopted American culture. The term ‘hybridity’ is associated to Changez as he has adopted the culture of other country leaving behind his own culture. Moreover, American’s changing attitude made him ‘diaspora’ and the protagonist in the novel does have the features of nativism. The elements such as hybridity, diaspora, nativism and others are much relevant and important to discuss under the theory post-colonial theory.
Hybridity is an alluring notion in recent post-colonial studies. In its dominant form, it is claimed that it can offer a way out of dualistic thinking. Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin (2006) asserts that “hybridity arises in post-colonial societies as a result of economic and political enlargement control when the colonizer diluted native peoples’ practices and integrate them to a new social frame.” The process can be completely seen through the painful memories of Changez. The term hybridity can be defined as any character who leaves his own native culture and adopts another’s culture. Hybridity has repeatedly used in post-colonial discourse to mean basically cross culture exchange. The characteristics of hybridism is found in the character of Changez in the novel. Originally, he is Pakistani and loves his country to the great extent. On scholarship, he comes to America and does his graduation from Princeton College. After completion, he gets job in Underwood Samson company, a small yet dignified in reputation. Changez has got his ideal place, he is enjoying his contented life with peace and satisfaction. He has embraced and embedded with American culture and made America as his home land. He confidently proclaims in the starting of the novel that, “I am a lover of America” (Hamid, p.1). The culture of America is adopted completely by Changez without much hesitation. Moreover, he is also reserved by the beauty of Erica. He says that, “we made love with a carnal closeness that Erica and I had never relished. Her physique denied mine no longer; I watched her shut eyes, and her shut eyes observed him.” (Hamid, p 105).
Meena Alexander explains “diaspora” as “writing in quest of a homeland”. According to Cambridge Advanced Learners Dictionary, “diaspora” means “the dispersion or spread of any people from their original homeland.’ In post-colonial theory, the term is used to deliberate the sentiment of people unglued from their original homeland. Though isolated, people are well settled in the place but they reminisce their native habitation. People leave their place for different reasons such as employment to provide efficient sustenance to their family. The reality out here is in the course of supporting their family, they too become the slave of that particular country. They are not in the position to come back to their country as they have to earn to support their family. According to Tyson, “enforced migration, either as quest for employment, including indentured vassalage, or as the result of enslavement dispersed large numbers of people around the world of their children have remained in the dispersion, or separated from their original home”. Changez elucidates his dual belonging and multiple identity to his American listener by presenting himself as a native in Lahore and a speaker of English language. He explained that, “ I am a native of this city and a declaimer of your language.” (Hamid, p. 1).
In the novel, Mohsin Hamid depicts Changez as diaspora. Changez is doing job in America and his family is in Lahore. His family is financially weak and has lots of domestic complications and Changez is the only one to support his family. After the incident of World Trade Centre, Changez realizes that he was actually a diaspora, separated from his homeland. Before the incident of 9/11 attack, Changez was living peacefully. He was enjoying his life with Erica and his colleagues. He always focused on his work, his busy life schedule never let him remember his family and country. He assumed that America was his country and its people were his countryman. He never thought that he would suddenly be stranger in the country with which he loved a lot and where he wanted to live forever. He adds:
“…but as I reacclimatized and my surroundings once again became familiar, it occurred to me that the house had not changed in my absence. I had changed; and not just any foreigner, but that particular type of entitled an unsympathetic American who so annoyed me when I encountered him in the classroom and workplace of your country’s elite. This realization angered me; staring at my reflection in the speckled glass of my bathroom mirror I resolved to exorcize the unwelcome sensibility by which I had become possessed”. (Hamid, p.124).
He was a lover of America but his love had twisted into hatred when he witnessed that the country which he loved a lot had become antagonist of Muslim world. The people whom he had been seeing as his brothers and friends had become haters. Afghanistan being closest neighboring country of Pakistan and having connected the border area with Pakistan makes the protagonist to think over. The America’s cruel attack on Afghanistan and killing of thousand people have broken the heart of protagonist into uncountable pieces. When he sees wrecked areas and speckled cadavers of innocent Afghans, he is traumatized and cannot not tolerate the pain of his Muslim associate. ‘Pakistan can be the next number in line’ is what comes in his thought process. The protagonist proclaims that, “Afghanistan was Pakistan’s neighbor, our friend, and a fellow Muslim nation besides, and the vision of what I took to be the beginning of its invasion by our country man caused me to tremor with fury.” (Hamid, p.100).
He has seen lots of destruction made to Afghanistan which makes him to hate America completely. He too knows that he is not really an American citizen. When Changez comes to Pakistan on vacation, he is pressurized on not leaving back to America. He requests his parents that, “…what sort of man abandons his people in such circumstances? And what was I abandoning them for? A well-paying job and a woman whom I yearned for but who refused even to see me? I handled with these questions again and again. When the stage came for me to return to New York, I told my parents I wanted to halt lengthier.” (Hamid, p.145).
He has come to understand that Pakistan is his real native country and doesn’t want to lose it. America’s cruel act of aggressive attacking Afghanistan discourages his love towards America and makes him undervalue the image of America in his mind. America is no more appropriate and comforting place for him. He hates going back to America after his vacation. He wants to stay longer in his own homeland so he requested his family: “when the time came for me to return to New York I told my parents I wanted to stay longer” (Hamid, p.145) but his family doesn’t accept his request and can no longer bear with it.
According to Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin (2005) nativism is a “term for ambition to return to original and culture practice as they happened in pre-colonial society.” It defines, the protest of native people against the colonizers’ culture and of their native people. Native people show their hatred with colonizers by denying and cursing the bad authority and culture after colonization. Natives in post-colonial theory show everything to join them with colonizers. They don’t want to live under western influence, that’s why they even leave the job offered by Europeans as Changez too left the job. To leave the desired profession and his favourite country substantiate Changez that he doesn’t want to stay there anymore under the influence of America where Muslims have no respect and that heartlessly killed innocents Afghans with massive weapons. Changez in remonstration has beard, leaves the job and bids farewell to America forever. Changez recognizes that he is indirectly involved in all corruptions committed by America. Changez comes to know that he is meanderingly supporting America in attacking Afghanistan. Changez is surprised to think that he is killing his Muslim comrades. His money is involved in destructive weapons. He curses himself that he is killing his brothers and destroying his Muslim country.
The people who ever work in America, they indirectly support in different areas. Through the discussion with Juan Baustista, he knows himself as modern Janissaries where he is used to fight against his own Muslim country, but he is not aware of his participation in corruption done by America. Whoever is working in America, they are directly or indirectly supports American in its corruptions. In the same manner, Changez came to America, worked for it and obliquely helped in attacking friable countries: “Have you heard of Janissaries?’ ‘No, I said. ‘They were Christian boys,’ he elucidated, ‚captured by the Ottomans and educated to be soldiers in Muslim army, at the time the paramount army in the world. They were bellicose and extremely loyal; they had fought to erase their own civilizations, so they had nothing else to turn to.”(Hamid, p 151).
The incident of 9/11 made Changez to realize in other way round. He analyzes that he was working for the wrong country, his service was benefiting the wrong person because everything became different right after the incident of 9/11. The kind of attitude shown towards Changez wasn’t like that of before. For instance, when he arrived at airport of New York, he was thoroughly and strictly tested even to the extent of asking his purpose to be in America. He was further questioned after repeatedly saying he works in America. When his checking was under progression his associates leaving him at the port left for Manhatan. It was the first interval when he had to travel alone after 9/11 incident. He has not experience such kind of treatment before the attack of World Trade Centre. Even his colleagues started to leave him. He remembers that, “My team did not wait for me; by the time I entered the custom hall they had collected their suitcases and left. As a consequence, I rode to Manhatan that evening very much alone.” (Hamid, 75). The denial even came from his own friends. Every American considered him as their foe and agent of Al- Qaida. People disrespectfully stared at him and called his names. He was annoyed with different ways, “once I was walking to my rental car in the parking lot of the cable company when I was approached by a man I did not know. He made a series of unintelligible noises- ‚akhala-makhala,‛ perhaps or ‚khalapal-khalapala‛- and pressed his face alarmingly close to mine”. (Hamid, 117). The protagonist in the novel was forced to leave America. Changez ranked the university and got a job in impressive firm fulfilling his true dream. Unfortunately he has to leave his dream land America with ruined heart and weeping eyes. He lamented,
“I realized how deep was the suspicion I had engendered in my colleagues over these past few –beaded and resentful-weeks; only Wainwright came over to shake my hand and say farewell; the others, if they bothered to look at me at all. The guards did not consent me until I was outside the structure, and it was only then that I allowed myself to rub my eyes with the back of my hand, for they had been watering.” (Hamid, P. 181))
Changez has become joke in the eyes of America right after the incident of 9/11. Beard has become antagonist of his life. People called him “fucking Arabs” (Hamid, 133). His stay in America becomes difficult over the time and he was the topic for discussion anywhere. His state is like a colonized people. He even feels that American were staring at him as if he has demolished the World Trade Centre. The sense of master mind behind this problem is also hinted to him as he observes himself. The life has been miserable for him as he could not sleep calmly nor awake coolly. Americans had snatched his sleep of night and peace of day. He came to the state of predicament when he overheard people talking about his association in 9/11 incident. He was abused verbally, “I was subjected to verbal abuse by complete strangers, and Underwood Samson I seemed to become overnight a subject of whispers and stares.” (Hamid, 148). Finally he has to bid America farewell forever in his life.
The protagonist in the novel, Changez is depicted as a post-colonial subject represents the state of Muslims which is the colony of Europeans. The way he lived in America for working number of years represents him the hybrid who left his own native culture and adopted the culture of other country. He even knew that he was not really a human for Americans after the attack of World Trade Center. The American’s change of attitude and sudden attack on Muslim country made him diaspora. To protest against America has shown through his beard as a nativist who comes back to his own home land.
The Symbol of Bruises in Reluctant Fundamentalist
Bruises are a physical result of trauma where dark marks form on the skin that last for a while before they’re healed. Similarly, trauma due to physical attacks, such as 9/11, or prejudices, resulting from 9/11, can cause injuries and dark feelings that can either take some time to heal or can be worsened as time go on. Mohsin Hamid’s 2007 novel explains that not just one, but two groups of people were hurt on that tragic day of 9/11. ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ uses bruises to materialize the feelings inflicted on Americans, and equally so on Muslims, after the terror attacks on the New York twin towers on September 11th, 2001.
Erica’s bruise under her armpit, near the beginning of the story, is a visual representation of how American’s felt after the 9/11 attack. This terrorist attack being deliberately carried out on their soil put a permanent sense of fear and anger in all American’s which lasted for a long time, just like a bruise does. The bruise being ‘dark and angry’ (89) explains the severity and prominence of her mark. This same emotion of darkness and anger can be seen in the actions and feelings of all American’s after the attack. Coworkers of Changez changed their views on him after 9/11 and were reminded to be feared and enraged at the sight of his bearded face: ‘I don’t think [the beard] is making you Mister popular around here’ (130). The fact that Erica was open and excited in a way to show Changez her bruise is also seen in that American’s were very open about their injuries during this time and used this openness as a way to impose fear and rage against all Muslims which we see when Changez is stripped searched at the airport. Unlike a broken leg, a bruise is something that can be covered up, especially if it’s under the armpit, and can heal rather quickly if desired. However, this is the opposite of what American’s consciously tried to do with their feelings. They made everyone around them aware of how they felt towards people of Middle Eastern descent and weren’t afraid to show the consequences of hurting them. With this bruise being shown at the beginning of the novel, we know that Erica and the rest of America have lots of time to heal and recover from their injuries and newly arisen sensitivities brought up by this attack.
An indistinguishable bruise was later found on Changez showing us that the Americans weren’t the only ones hurt that day and that Muslims were equally affected. Having this bruise show up after we see Erica’s represents that at first, it wasn’t known that Muslims were also hurt by this attack because American’s viewed all Muslims as terrorists and none were seen as victims. Additionally, the slow formation of a bruise can be a reflection of how the additive feelings and actions towards Muslims eventually took a toll on them and marked them up as well. His bruise was in the same location as Erica’s, but how it got there was different. Throughout the novel, Hamid is constantly describing scenarios where American’s are imposing a prejudice on Changez due to his looks and background: ‘…I was separated from my team at immigration’ (75). This build-up of experiences left him and all Muslims around the world with an emotional injury and feeling of hatred towards Americans. One can see this bruise as mirrored pain between America and Muslim countries after 9/11, an idea that is explained by having the bruise in an identical location to Erica’s: ‘to see a livid bruise…where hers had once been’ (173). A bruise isn’t contagious, just like how feelings aren’t contagious, however, one with an injury can easily give a non-injured person some bruises. This idea of pain being inflicted on all Muslims by American’s, after some Muslims inflicted pain on them, is what Hamid really tries to get through with this novel by explaining that most people have only been able to show sympathy for the injured American’s, such as Changez showing concern for Erica’s bruise, but yet haven’t been able to empathize with the non terrorist Muslims, for example, no one there to empathize with Changez’s bruise.
Lastly, the bruises on Changez’s knuckles are there to show how Muslims have been continuously hurt, emotionally and physically, every day since that tragic attack and it’s something that no Muslim has been able to escape even as the years go by. The bruised knuckles come up towards the end of the novel after he tries to intervene in a fight during an ‘Anti-American’ (179) demonstration. After Muslims were initially and constantly being bruised and hurt by American’s, they tried to separate themselves from America and their people in any way possible but were ironically hurt for it. Having several bruises, one on each knuckle, represents the infinite number of times Muslims got hurt after their decision to disengage. They tried to stand up for what was right and to America as a country but got bruised in the process. Having these bruises come up at the end of the novel, Hamid tried to represent that America got the last hit in a way by having the Muslims being the ones hurt in the end. America was seen as being untouched with no injuries, bruises healed and all, and Muslim countries marked up with no chance of healing. Having all Muslims ultimately being the ones bruised for life and continuously being hurt since that day is another repeated idea that comes up in the novel.
Using the idea of being bruised to visualize the feelings of being hurt after the attacks on September 11th is a way to explain that the injuries caused by 9/11 on Americans and Muslims were the exact same, however, the reason for their injuries was different. A bruise was chosen because it looks the same on no matter whose skin, whether they’re a cleanly shaven white male or a bearded brown-skinned male, but the way in which they each got their bruises was very different. A small group of individuals injured America and its’ people, but an entire country bruised all Muslims in retaliation, and this idea was one of the main goals of Hamid’s novel as most people didn’t and still don’t seem to comprehend the latter.
Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist: Literary Analysis
The Anti-American Fundamentalist
There are many parallels between the author and the main character of the book “The Reluctant Fundamentalist”, including the fact that they were both born in Lahore, Pakistan, they both continued on to attend Princeton University, and they both gained a lot of knowledge and intimacy with American culture through exclusive involvement. The book exquisitely renders America speechless as the main character Changez expresses his anti-American views through appraisal and accurate but negative perception involving American culture. Changez was, at one point, high up in the ranks of an American business called Underwood Samson. This company determined the worth of certain American businesses; meaning that Changez was not only adept in appraising businesses, but also that he was also proficient in reading people. Pressure rises within Changez’ acquaintance in the café as Changez classifies this man as American by his looks alone. This novel differs from the view of many other novels revolving around the tragedy of 9/11 because it allows no American input, even as it is being abstracted, analyzed, and judged.
One lesson that can be taken from the Novel “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” is that although Muslims and anti-Americanism seem to be parallel, as these characteristics are present within Changez, we as Americans have to realize that Changez does not hate America because he is a Muslim. In actuality, Changez grows to dislike America through personal experience and evaluation, which has nothing to do with his religion. Changez recognizes himself as a “reluctant fundamentalist” because of the fact that there are still some parts of his experiences within America that he keeps near and dear to his heart. Along with Changez’ reluctance comes the negative criticism beginning with Changez’s contemptuous judgment of his Princeton schooling. He explains how in the beginning, Princeton made it seem as if he was very valued as an individual, when in reality, Princeton’s goal was to pump out students who would use their learned talents to better America as a whole. Changez’ problems with American cultural indifference soon become relevant when he travelled with students from Princeton to Greece. He noticed the sense of entitlement the Americans had as they treated Greek elders with disrespect and requesting that things be the way they wanted it. Changez’ turmoil while examining Pakistan vs. America became admissible when he tells the silent American in anger that his people, 4,000 years ago, had civilization completely figured out, and that they had mastered the art of building up a city, while the forefathers of those who would conquer America were unintelligent and barbaric. His anger rises as he explains how nowadays, America is known as “the most technologically advanced civilization our species had ever known” while Pakistan has now been put on the backburner. After falling for a girl named Erica (who symbolizes America, hence her name), he meets her parents and discovers the pertinent patronization that Americans tend to have. Erica’s father completely disrespects Changez’ culture by condescendingly listing each and every problem that Pakistan currently faces. Changez shamed himself by acting American, and felt the need to do so because of American privilege. “I attempted to act and speak, as much as my dignity would permit, more like an American. The Filipinos we worked with seemed to look up to my American colleagues, accepting them almost instinctively as members of the officer class of global business – and I wanted my share of that respect as well. So I learned to tell executives my father’s age, ‘I need it now’; I learned to cut to the front of lines with an extraterritorial smile; and I learned to answer, when asked where I was from, that I was from New York. Did these things trouble me, you ask? Certainly, sir; I was often ashamed. But outwardly I gave no sign of this” (Hamid). Changez’ gratification with the ruin of the twin towers, “I was caught up in the symbolism of it all, the fact that someone had so visibly brought America to her knees” (Hamid). Changez soon finds himself a bit confused as to why half of him yearned to see America wounded, while the other half was appreciative of Erica, an American woman, and his American education. Although this was not the first hint of his anti-Americanism, it was definitely the most relevant, and now Changez begins being treated as a terrorist by readers, but this is not the first time this has occurred. Changez gets double searched at the airport because of his skin color, and many horrible rumors about his race are being thrown around everywhere in America. Soon, Changez begins breaking away from American imperialism and on his returning flight to New York, he recognizes that “it was right for me to refuse to participate any longer in facilitating this project of domination; the only surprise was that I had required so much time to arrive at my decision” (Hamid). Eventually, Changez seizes an opportunity to progressively advocate for anti-Americanism by becoming a professor at a university and encouraging the students “to advocate a disengagement from your country by mine” (Hamid), and accepts no responsibility when one of his students is found supposedly trying to assassinate an American correspondent.
All in all, the purpose of this book is not about the reader settling with this particular examination of America or not, but that anti-Americanism does occur, and that assorted pivotal aspects definitely outline such viewpoints. Distinctly, this book shows that it is essential to ward off stereotypes that childishly infer that the Islamic religion is the cause of anti-Americanism. This novel strips away all ties with religion when it comes to Changez moving to America and fostering distaste towards America, showing that this hatred cannot possibly come from religion alone.
Fundamentalism and Puritanism in The Scarlet Letter
The Scarlet Letter and the Fundamentalist System of the Time
The Scarlet Letter written by Nathaniel Hawthorne, is a American Literature classic. The story of Hester Prynne’s adulterous affair with Mr. Dimmesdale, and the twisted tale that follows, however entertaining and is the bulk of written work, is not the main theme of the book. The Scarlet Letter is a novel based upon the unjust mindset of hypocritical Puritans, as they governed Boston with a fundamentalist regime, possessed an eagerness to exact sadistic punishment on it’s rule breakers. The adultery is just an instrument used to educate subsequent generations of the once masochistic settlers that have seeded the population of America.
In the beginning of the novel, all of the residents from the Colony of Boston are gathered and compacted together in the Town Square. This mob of sad-colored and gray dressed people are congregating to witness the public ridicule and sentencing of a young lady named Hester Prynne, who has been found guilty of adultery. The majority of women present, being thick and unattractive; “…The man-like Elizabeth had been the not altogether a suitable representative of the sex. They were her country woman; and the beef and ale of their native land, with a moral diet and not a whit refined, entered largely into their composition. The bright morning sun, therefore, shone on broad shoulders and well developed busts, and on round ruddy cheeks” (pg. 48), have a jealousy of Hester’s beauty. To compensate for their self-dignity, the women begin to envisage various significantly more painful punishments; “At the very least they should have put the brand of a hot iron on Hester Prynne’s forehead…. “What do we talk of marks and brands, whether on the bodice of her gown, or the flesh of her forehead?” cried another female, the ugliest of these self constituted judges. “This woman has brought shame upon us all and ought to die. Is there not a law for it? Truly, there is, both in Scripture and Statebook.” (pg. 48). However much the woman scold Hester for breaking a commandment, these women have broken one also, and one more serious then adultery: Thou shalt not use the Lord’s name in vain. They are using Scriptures as an excuse to attempt to put a woman to death for their own self satisfaction.
Throughout the Scarlet Letter, laws and opinions are stated as one. When Hester visit’s the Governor’s mansion to deliver a pair of embroidered gloves to Governor Bellingham, she insists to see him about the rumors circulating that the Magistrates may take Pearl away from her. This potential seizure is based solely upon the official’s opinion’s that Pearl is not being raised and taught properly, the way a perfect Puritan should be; “We will judge warily, and look to see if she hath had such Christian nurture as befits a child of her age.”(pg102). The decision to take Hester’s own child away didn’t fly over to well with her, because once Pearl answered the questions wrong deliberately, and losing became closer and closer to reality, she went frantic; “Hester caught hold of Pearl, and drew her forcibly into her arms, confronting the old Puritan magistrate with an almost fierce expression. Alone in the world, cast of by it, and with this sole treasure to keep her heart alive, she felt that she possessed indefeasible rights against the world, and was ready to defend them to the earth.”(pg103). However reluctant the magistrates were to letting Hester Prynne keep Pearl, Mr. Dimmesdale’s mini-sermon influenced the magistrate’s judgment, which was the last and final word in the matter either way.
In Boston, God and Law was twisted together amazing compactly, to the point of when formed one whole. God was always present, for their laws were based on their strict interpretation of their religion. For example, a practice which modern lawyers commonly perform to solve a case is called interrogation. In this colonial Puritan Society, a priest carried out a modern lawyers job; ” “Speak to the woman, my brother,” said Mr. Wilson. “… Exhort her to confess the truth!” The Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale bent his head, silent prayer, as it seemed, and then came forward. “Hester Prynne,” said he, leaning over the balcony and looking down steadfastly into her eyes, “thou hearest what this good man says, and seest the accountability under which I labour. If thou feelest it to be for thy soul’s peace, and that thy earthly punishment will thereby be made more effectual to salvation, I charge thee to speak out the name of thy fellow-sinner and fellow-sufferer! Be not silent from any mistaken pity and tenderness for him; for, believe me, Hester, though he were to step down from a high place, and stand there beside thee, on thy pedestal of shame, yet better were it so than to hide a guilty heart through life. What can thy silence do for him, except it tempt him-yea, compel him, as it were-to add hypocrisy to sin? Heaven hath granted thee an open ignominy, that thereby thou mayest work out an open triumph over the evil within thee and the sorrow without. Take heed how thou deniest to him-who, perchance, hath not the courage to grasp it for himself-the bitter, but wholesome, cup that is now presented to thy lips! “”(pg 63). Since Church and State are one, they are able to hand out guilt burdens; such as “God is watching you” , and ” your damned hell”. These are effective punishments as the reader has seen, because guilt and guilt alone forced the other sinner to confess his partnership in the adultery.
The Scarlet Letter, proves to be a valuable instrument in showing the once fundamentalist system of rule which was constructed in Massachusetts. The Scarlet Letter displays the Puritan’s hypocrisy and their eagerness to utilize sadistic punishment on its criminals. The Puritans did all of this, but nevertheless persisted to be called Holy, when in fact they were bigger hypocrites in doing so.
Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist: Quest and Struggle for Identity
What Your Reflection Shows
The struggle to determine one’s identity permeates American and international cultures alike. From childhood, the idea of a great quest to discover who we are is planted into our susceptible minds. Every great story has an identity crisis of some kind; from the simple Ugly Duckling to Luke Skywalker’s discovery of his lineage to the unseen narrator of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. All mankind contains this seed, and gravitates to stories which we feel help to uncover the mysterious process of self-discovery. In his resounding novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Mohsin Hamid uses his character Changez’s desperate quest for identity to demonstrate that what truly makes us who we are, are the things that we are passionate about.
Hamid’s novel begins with Changez’s identity focused on that of an international student, but quickly begins to shift as he becomes passionate about America’s offerings. Changez explains that the international students attending Princeton are screened through numerous tests, so that the best of them can “contribute our talents to your society, the society we were joining” (4). Changez is a passionate student (one of two from Pakistan), progressing all the way through the end of junior year at Princeton without a single B. His grades show his dedication, and as his identity develops into that of an American, he remarks that he is “happy to do so” in joining society (4). This quest for identity makes a significant step during the interview for Underwood Samson, a firm that “gave one a robust set of skills and an exalted brand name” (5). Changez is so set on this position that he is uncharacteristically nervous for the interview. Only once he displays his passion for perseverance to the interviewer, is he identified as a fit for the firm. When Changez finishes his first project with Underwood Samson in first place, he admits to feeling “happy in that moment” (45). The shift from student to a valued employee has almost completed Changez’s transformation into an American, and is completed as he describes his experience on the subway. He says “in those days I felt completely comfortable on the subway in this attire”, referencing his white kurta and jeans, highly identifiable cultural markers (48). Despite the differences that he has often considered as obstacles, Changez now feels like a piece sliding into the American jig-saw.
As an American, Changez incorporates new passions to further cement his new identity. His infatuation with Erica continues to grow, pulling him further into the culture of both a New Yorker and American. After dining with Erica’s parents in their luxurious apartment, Changez finds himself not greeting the Pakistani taxi driver, simply stating “normally I would have said hello, but on that particular night I did not” (55). Their destination was their first date and a typical New York scene. Erica has a friend who is exhibiting her artwork in an unassuming building. This is a first for Changez, and he recalls that he quickly “realized I was being ushered into an insider’s world–the chic heart of this city—to which I would otherwise have had no access” (56). A few weeks later, upon assignment to Manila in the Philippines, Changez finds himself faced with a culture that was is poorer than America, and yet quickly growing to the point of being superior to his own. “I did something in Manila I had never done before: I attempted to act and speak, as much as my dignity would permit, more like an American” (65). Again it is clear that the two biggest components of his life, Erica and Underwood Samson, are powering this newly claimed identity. Changez seems to be content with his new role in American society and has embraced it whole-heartedly.
Surprisingly, Changez’s reaction to the events of September 11th indicates that perhaps he is not as comfortable as an American as he believed. Upon hearing the news, Changez relates that “despicable as it may sound, my initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased” (72). Changez quickly explains that he is not sure why he felt so negatively towards a country that had, for all intents and purposes, taken him in. He attempts to put on a guarded expression and proceeds to interact with his colleagues, at which time his “thoughts turned to Erica, and [he] no longer needed to pretend” (74). When remembering something he is passionate for (Erica), he becomes grounded back in the identity which she occupies a major part of. While he is returned, he seems unable to shake the lingering confusion at his inappropriate joy.
After September 11th, Changez travels home to spend some time with his family, which begins anew his quest for identity. When he returns to America, he elects to keep the beard that has begun to dominate his face. He reasons that this is very common in his country, but begins to experience drawbacks while stateside. He recalls that “more than once, travelling on the subway—where I had always had the feeling of seamlessly blending in—I was subjected to verbal abuse by complete strangers” (130). Perhaps he would have considered shaving it had Erica not intervened. When he visits her for the last time, she says “you look cute” (134). Simple and direct, and yet in this way she affirms the process which has begun to redefine his identity once more. Before, she represented America and required a lover who was similar to Chris (her deceased lover) in every way. By complimenting his beard in a time period where this would be literally unsafe for him to grow, she has demonstrated that she is no longer pressuring him to become the American businessman he is. Suddenly, Changez begins to reevaluate his entire life, eventually resulting in him leaving his job while on project in Chile. He reasons that he needs to leave because he has become “a servant of the American empire at a time when it was invading a country with a kinship to mine and was perhaps even colluding to ensure that my own country faced the threat of war” (153). He returns to New York and seeks out Erica, only to learn that she has disappeared, most likely through suicide. In disbelief, Changez meets with her mother, who relates to him that Erica mentioned multiple times that she “found [Changez] rather dashing in [his] new beard” (164). This was the final catalyst to develop his new and final identity, that of the love-struck Pakistani.
Upon returning to Pakistan Changez embraces his Pakistani heritage and begins to make a stand for what is right. He teaches at a university in Lahore, and due to his youth, quickly becomes very popular among the students. He finds that his “office hours were soon overrun by politically minded youth” (179). His culture is now a major part of his identity, and he becomes passionately outspoken as to America’s trespasses. However, that is not too say he has forgotten the one thing he stilled loves about America: Erica. He has adopted her habit of living inside her mind, and says that when he wakes up in the morning it is as if “Erica and I would have lived an entire day together” (172). When asked about his thoughts on the conflict of his country by a news station, Changez says “no country inflicts death so readily upon the inhabitants of other countries, frightens so many people so far away, as America” (182). While he truly believes this and is greatly saddened by his people’s fear, it is interesting to also note that he did this for Erica. After all this time, his love for her has not waned. He knew that his statement would be picked up by major international news stations, and hoped that “she might have seen me and been moved to correspond” (182). His identity is still composed of Erica, with the new addition of his cultural heritage.
Being the most powerful agent of driving Changez’s quest to become American, Erica again influences Changez’s identity when he returns and they repeat their attempt at a physical relationship. This time, Changez suggests that Erica pretends that he is Chris. Repeatedly, Changez says “pretend I am him” until she accepts and they are able to make love (105). At first, this may seem counterproductive to Changez developing his own identity. Yet if one looks deeper, he is essentially taking the name of an American boy, to be with an American girl in all the ways that he never will be able to himself (ethnicity, accent, etc.). While it was ill-advised, this was perhaps Changez’s most desperate attempt to engender an identity which was compatible with his new life.
Changez’s quest for identity in Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, demonstrates that our passions are the foundation on which we are built. The need to find ourselves is rooted deep in our core. While we desperately search for who we truly are, it seems that often it is something out of our control. What we love—what we are passionate about—is rarely chosen. One minute we are comfortably going through our lives like the young businessman Changez, and the next a beautiful girl derails our entire life into an adventure that will hurt, certainly bring us to tears, and definitely teach us to smile.
The Influence of the 9/11 Tragedy
The Fundamentals of the Market
In post 9/11 America, identity regarding gender, race, and class flipped completely, causing many members in contemporary American society to question themselves and their worth in the United States. In the novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by Mohsin Hamid, readers are able to track the influence of the 9/11 tragedy into the marketplace, corporate America, and living life in general in America through his main character, Changez.
Changez is a hardworking individual that experiences racial discrimination while participating in corporate America’s market fundamentals – a tragic mix of being destined to fail, and racial inequality for those working in the field. The dehumanizing nature of post 9/11 America sends influential shivers down the spine of corporate America and bleeds into the work place for minorities through the way Changez interacts with his coworkers, regular citizens, and the market in general.
When Changez reflects on what makes Underwood Samson so different and reveals American ideals and culture, he recalls a conversation with Sherman – “It was a testament to the systematic pragmatism – call it professionalism – that underpins your country’s success in so many fields” (Hamid 36). While Changez understands the old adage of “business is business”, he still finds it hard to believe the stark differnce between Underwood Samson and when he was a student at Princeton, “at Princeton, learning was imbued with an aura of creativity; at Underwood Samson, creativity was not excised – it was still present and valued – but it ceded its primacy to efficiency” (Hamid 37). This instance of reflection by Changez reveals several things about Underwood Samson, not only the fact that it promotes a lifeless atmosphere and hires people who do not encompass a team attitude, but it is open about this.
While they boast this “hard knocks” theory of working, they do so to devalue the life of Changez, and get a leg up against him. This establishes the mantra of corporate America – even if you can help in some way, it is not about what you know, but who you know. Hamid writes, through the trials of Changez, this dehumanization of a minority in a post 9/11 setting. Hamid communicates these ideals through the way he is handled in the work place, with several interactions that are cringe worthy and generally unfortunate. In Peter Morey’s article, “‘The rules of he game have changed’: Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist and post-9/11 fiction”, Morey recognizes the intent of Hamid while also appreciating and informing his own readers about what literature framed in this time period does not only for the sake of the novel’s plot, but for the community at large, and how writing about these injustices helps reconfigure the main tropes of corporate America.
While Morey understands that the initial reaction for many of Hamid’s readers is to have an immense sense of nationalism when reacting to the tragedy of 9/11, he identifies this book as something that challenges that nationalism by exposing what really happens when speaking about minorities participating in corporate America. Morey also claims that the novel “defamiliarizes our relation to literary projects of national identification” (Morey 136), a tactic that allows Hamid’s readers to exit their comfort zone in order to feel what someone from the outside might feel. Hamid’s unreliable narrator also aids this literary strategy because it reaches out to Hamid’s main audience – people living in America in this post 9/11 world. It makes it more understandable to view the re-institution of learning these “fundamentals” through the eyes of someone who does not approve of them, and is incredibly suspicious of them at the same time.
Just as Changez is ready and willing to break down the American system of doing things, he certainly also is not afraid to speak up about it. Hamid adjusts his readers’ lens at the end of the novel to see Changez as someone to trusts, as opposed to the unreliable, ever-changing narrator we grew to know him as. Changez reflects later in the novel about his distrust with the American way, specifically referring to Americans and America using the word “you” (Hamid 168). This word choice sticks out because it is used to describe a nation that has theoretically given Changez so much, but in reality, it has chewed him up thoroughly and spat him out.
This reflection from Changez addresses what he truly feels about the manifestation of corporate America into the modern society which he has had so much trouble with – living, believing, and trusting it. He belittles America and labels America acting out the beliefs which he understands as “myths of your own difference, assumptions of your own superiority” (Hamid 168) by claiming Americans threw a tantrum for the rest of the world to clean up. Essentially, the way America handles change and indifference makes them less superior, and framing this theory through the lens of the work place allows readers to understand exactly what Changez sees about America.
While his ideas are justified, he sees the corporate world, and almost exclusively the parts of American culture that exhibit the dire competitive nature of how America functions. In the environment he experiences, he obviously expects competition, but never to the point of public humiliation and dehumanization that comes to physical confrontation. One instance of Changez experiencing this was when he was when he finally decides he has had enough of Underwood Samson, and he decides to quit. As Changez leaves Jim’s office for the final time, he writes that almost non of the fellow employees even bother to look up from their work and see him out. He confesses that even Wainwright, the man he considered to be looking out for him, does not bother to show any real affection or love towards him. In fact, Changez feels violated even in his parting, thinking “the others, if they bothered to look at me at all, did so with evident unease and, in some cases, a fear which would not have been inappropriate had I been convicted of plotting to kill them rather than of abandoning my post in mid-assignment” (Hamid 160). This was the last straw for Changez, and the irony lies in these actions from his co-workers because while they put on a facade throughout the entirety of his employment at Underwood Samson, they pretend to be a team. They speak like they are working together for a common goal, however in reality, they break Changez down consistently throughout the novel both mentally and physically.
While most of post 9/11 America, was busy mourning the loss of many lives in the tragic incidents, many people were preaching the importance of staying close together. The president at the time, George Bush, told people to remain close, and to remember what America consisted of – brave, powerful, and strong people that cared deeply about their country and who belonged to it. However, as reflected by the actions of Underwood Samson, unity in a post 9/11 America is selective. Those whom you choose to unite with should be looking out for you, essentially, but besides the core people, there is no room for charity when it comes to corporate America. Unity, to the members of Underwood Samson, should only be used for your own benefit, instead of following the actual definition of the word, being inclusive.
These fundamentals that have been unfortunately framed by 9/11 and the culture of America post 9/11 are designed to be inclusive, yet are incredibly discriminatory. The execution, as shown by the actions of the American characters in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, are fairly poor while exhibiting the American’s fatal flaw of caring too much about other people and their impending business.
The interaction that Changez shares with his former co-workers is then also highlighted by the way he is forced to leave. “The guards did not leave me until I was outside the building, and it was only then that I allowed myself to rub my eyes with the back of my hand, for they had been watering slightly” (Hamid 160). Up until this point in the novel, explicit emotion responding to this American aggression has been difficult to capture from Changez. While we see his physical and mental response, readers have not seen him cry tears of frustration, disappointment, and pure anger. Here, readers are allowed into the world of our narrator, Changez, and how even at the end of his time at Underwood Samson, he identifies that his hunches he once had, especially at the beginning of the novel, turned out to be true.
Michael Kimmel, author of the essay “Masculine Entitlement and the Future of Terrorism”, displays the white perception of 9/11 and how anybody of a different color or origin will automatically be seen as an “outsider” who is “stealing their place at the table” (Kimmel 617). While Kimmel does not directly relate his argument to The Reluctant Fundamentalist, his argument does explain a lot of the possible motives and motivations that some of the other characters might feel towards Changez. While it is inexcusable, Kimmel sheds a little light on why they might do what they do.
This aching fear of losing a job, or being ousted by an “outsider” that is displayed in physical aggression and attempted mental breakdowns from the other characters stems directly from America’s post 9/11 culture. In Changez’s struggles to adapt to American culture, he is met with another difficulty that places him under a deep spell of confusion. He is confronted by many people at Underwood Samson about the fact that he allows his beard to grow out, “I was subjected to verbal abuse by complete strangers, and at Underwood Samson I seemed to become overnight a subject of whispers and stares” (Hamid 130). Not only does this puzzle him deeply as to why anyone would care about how he wore his hair, but he is deeply concerned that the one other minority at his company, Wainwright, insults his culture and heritage by making a rude and demeaning comment about his beard, saying “They are common where I come from,’ I told him. ‘Jerk chicken is common where I come from,’ he replied, ‘but I don’t go smear it all over my face. You need to be careful. This whole corporate collegiality veneer only goes so deep’” (Hamid 130-31). This dialogue between Wainwright and Changez tells readers how little his coworkers care for him, and even more surprisingly, the ones who supposedly do care for him really do not. While Wainwright sounds like he is protecting him by telling him to shave his beard, he cannot allow himself to give Changez any advice without giving him his own personal insult.
Part of the reason Wainwright expresses himself in such a way is the divide between not knowing exactly what to say to help Changez and the trouble with American society. On some level, he wants to help Changez, but on another, he wants to stay secure in his own skin, and to fit in with all the other corporate clones that they both work with. Besides the verbal abuse that Changez receives from everyone, the mental intimidation factor is incredibly high, especially in a high-pressured office such as Underwood Samson.
In addition to Wainwright showing his true colors, many of the people that surround Changez show themselves to him shamelessly with their dehumanization. This is done on a strangerly, face-to-face basis through aggressive discourse that is not only offensive to Changez, but several other cultures that misinformed Americans often confuse together, especially after the events of 9/11.
In the parking lot after leaving work, Changez is confronted by a man who begins to make noises at him, mocking the way he looks, and evidently labeling him as a “‘fucking Arab’” (Hamid 117). This exchange is wildly harmful because as Changez greets the man mocking him, he thinks “he might be mad, or drunk; I thought also that he might be a mugger, and I prepared to defend myself to strike” (Hamid 117). However, as the man began to approach Changez, he slowly realizes that the man does not want anything from Changez, he comes to recognize that this man is merely racist. Changez can see that this man does not want to harm him physically, just to pass along hateful discourse for his own enjoyment. It is with a confused and angry response that Changez questions this idea of working as a team, and America’s ideals in general. After “a few murderous seconds” (Hamid 118), Changez and his attacker chose to not physically confront each other, which was most likely in the best interest of the attacker. However, this does not absolve any part of the conflict for either party. Changez walks away shaken, not knowing what to do, and questioning the morals of the American citizens he is supposed to be respecting and striving to be like.
Mahmood Mamdani, author of the essay “Good Muslim, Bad Muslim” works to approach American readers on how not to talk about Islam and politics – two very controversial and fragile topics of discussion among common Americans. I found this essay interesting because it connects some of the similar topics Mohsin Hamid attempts to bridge in his novel. In the essay, Mamdani writes about George Bush’s “public flirtation with the idea of an anti-Muslim crusade,” (Mamdani 24), something that sounds slightly outrageous to a more modern audience, but was tragically true. In this post 9/11 warzone of America, Bush would continuously preach to Americans about distinguishing “‘good Muslims’ from ‘bad Muslims’” (Mamdani 24). While Bush did this, many people saw this proclamation as an opportunity to implement this into their workplace rituals and everyday routines, something we see prime examples of in the characters in The Reluctant Fundamentalist.
After 9/11, many Americans, similar to those we see directly in the novel, decided to make this assumed religion, meaning anyone who was suspected to practice Islam, was a political problem. If someone appeared, to a white American, to be Muslim, they should be placed in the “good” or “bad” category, and should be dealt with accordingly. The “good” vs. “bad” culture that was raised in the United States produced toxic mindsets that evidently leaked into the way people lived their lives, which is what Hamid tries to teach his readers in his novel. The politicization of culture appears to be a direct result of the Bush administration, and although not every single American thought/thinks like this, there are the select groups that really believe in this “Us vs. Them” discourse that continues, to the dismay of many, to this day in the United States of America, the supposed “greatest country on Earth.”
Studying this odd dichotomy between those who have reserved their seat at the table of corporate America and those who are begging for the scraps brings about many interesting arguments and analyses. Mohsin Hamid, through the dialogue, plot, and interesting and powerful character dynamics pioneers his way through the epicenter of writing literature through the scope of post 9/11 America. Hamid trains his readers not to trust his narrator, just as the narrator should never trust those he deals with, to put his readers in a similar seat as Changez. This novel, just like many novels similar to it, is meant to make readers uncomfortable, yet it is also used to instruct, teach, and challenge the readers’ connotations of America, specifically after 9/11, and how we, as a nation, deal with problems on a large and small scale.
These fundamentals that we have discussed throughout the study of this novel are not something Changez wants to subscribe to. In his efforts to become like the people he hates, he realizes the toxicity and the hardships that he must endure to do something he does not exactly want to do with the same people that falsely supported him throughout his journey. On a large scale, this is an inverse coming of age novel, one in which the protagonist realizes that coming of age is not exactly what he is meant to do, especially not in America. Hamid paints these lessons well and continues to write with a purpose throughout the entire novel, not once letting up his grip on telling the story of a man whose ambition was stolen by the crooked setup of the American corporate realm, the government, and the society in general.
Food Imagery in The Reluctant Fundamentalist
Mohsin Hamid’s Reluctant Fundamentalist explores the life of Changez in the United States as a young Pakistani man. Throughout the novel, the author switches between two distinctive cultural settings: the United States and a tea shop in Lahore, Pakistan. Additionally, the author also explores the value of food and beverages in certain cultural backgrounds. Hamid uses food imagery to convey cultural values throughout the novel. Throughout the novel, Hamid shows the different views cultures have on alcohol and during which occasions it is used.
Even though Changez may seem like a character with strong religious morals, he is not. While talking to Erica, he mentioned that “alcohol was illegal for Muslims to buy and so [he] had a Christian bootlegger” (27) deliver alcohol to his house. Changez’s relationship with alcohol does not stop there, since he “[polished] off a third of a bottle of whiskey before [he] was able to fall asleep” (100) after watching television and feeling down. Additionally, this was not a usual nor regular occurrence for Changez as he has received the news that Americans were invading Afghanistan, which infuriated him. The use of alcohol in the Pakistani culture is used in a secretive way, yet in Changez’s case it is used as a method to relieve stress or fall asleep. The author highlights the fact that Changez’s morals and loyalties are not straight as a Muslim man, which could also influence the way his character is perceived. Contrarily from the Pakistani population, Americans use alcohol as a form of celebration or in a special event. When Changez went to have dinner with Erica and her parents, the father’s first suggestion was to ask if Changez drank as “he lifted a bottle of red wine” (53). On the other hand, Erica’s mother replied “He’s twenty-two (…) in a tone that suggested, so of course he drinks” (53). Since Erica’s father thought that none of the Pakistanis drink, both of the parents’ replies were stereotypical assumptions towards Changez and his culture. One thinking that as a twenty-two year old, it is obvious that he will drink since it is passed legal age in the United States. The other parent saying that since he once had a Pakistani working for him who did not drink, then all Pakistani men were non-drinkers. Although something that Erica’s parents may not have known is that “many Pakistanis drink; alcohol’s illegality in [Pakistan] has roughly the same effect as marijuana in [America]” (53). Hamid suggests that not knowing cultural background, it could lead to assumptions and misunderstandings, which happened in this case with Changez and Erica’s father. This leads to how the author uses alcohol to represent different cultural values throughout the story: Changez, a representation of Pakistani men, does not have his morals straight with alcohol as Americans do, who drink as a form of enjoyment.
The author, during many occasions in the novel, makes use of food imagery to connote the different ways food is valued and shared in both backgrounds. The Pakistani culture is shown to have authentic food and have people to have pride in it, too. Changez explained to the American the significant role food played in his hometown, and generally in Pakistan. Changez mentioned how “[the American] must not pass such an authentic introduction to Lahori cuisine” since it was a “purely carnivorous feast” (101). The author illustrates s that “Pakistanis tend to take an inordinate pride in [their] food” (101) which shows the value of food in that culture. The traditional meals such as “kebab of mutton, the tikka of chicken, the stewed foot of goat…” (101) express the value that Pakistanis have for their meals. On the other hand, although not quite as sophisticated, Changez recalls him sharing “tea and cucumber sandwiches” (59) with his family in the foothills of the Himalayas. This emphasizes the idea of the value of sharing food with those close to you, since it is a precious gift. However, in the United States, sharing meals and food is not viewed as a value, but more as a common thing to do. For Changez, the fact that Erica “spread jam on a croissant, gave half to [him]” (19) seemed quite normal, since he got used to the American culture. Erica seamlessly shared her croissant with him, which exemplifies that it is something she does without thinking, and is not viewed as a ‘value’ but more as a norm. A gesture as small as sharing a sandwich or croissant has different meaning behind it in different cultures. Hamid shows the importance and value of sharing food in the Pakistani culture since they pride their food as opposed to the Americans, who share theirs without having second thoughts.
Furthermore, Hamid uses the quality of the food to express the value of it between the two distinctive cultures in The Reluctant Fundamentalist. The Pakistani culture does not value the appearance of the food, but more the inner quality and what it brings to a person. The author evokes this through Changez, who has experienced both the luxury and simplicity of food in different cultural areas. At Erica’s house one night, he “ate only bread and drank only water, a tasteless meal” (107) that eventually kept him full. Even though his family was said to be wealthy, he enjoyed “tea and cucumber sandwiches” (59) with them although it was not a lavish meal. In contrast, Hamid makes the American culture value the sophistication of their food more than its quality. Changez described how “the setting was superb, the wine was delicious, the burgers were succulent” (54) in the home of Erica’s parents. Changez describes the settings and food in a particularly formal way, which demonstrates how sophisticated the food is to Americans. Erica and Changez have also experienced a quite fancy picnic with “wine, fresh-baked bread, sliced meats, several difference cheeses and grapes – a delicious (…) and a rather sophisticated assortment” (58). Once again, in a picturesque background, the author shows the value of the American culture by luxurious food and contrasts it with Pakistani’s value of simplicity. This demonstrates the author’s opinion on the importance of sophistication in the United States as opposed to Pakistan.
All in all, by using specific food and beverage imagery, the author manages to create and convey specific cultural values throughout the novel. Hamid explores different ways alcohol is valued, as either a way of celebrating or a way of relieving stress. Moreover, food sharing was also portrayed as an important value for both cultures in different ways, showing that they are somehow similar despite their differences. Also, the plainness and the finesse of the food also brought up the idea of the importance of quality in America versus Pakistan. Hamid conveys different aspects of how food is valued in the United States and Pakistan by creating important scenes where it is used to explore distinctive cultural values and backgrounds.
Silencing the American: A Limitation or Success?
Following a tradition in anything is easy. The pattern is set, the style defined. Only your originality is required and there you go with the flow. But it is certainly very difficult to go against the main current, challenging traditional stock and daring to create your own methods and ways. You risk it all. You are never sure of what might follow as your reward of changing the track, never certain about how the world might react to the shift. But that’s the dare!
Mohsin Hamid, in his famous novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist, turns out to be daring enough as to build a separate track for himself to walk on. He chooses a method which is uncanny in the world of writing, giving the one-sided perspective of his Pakistani protagonist while skillfully holding back the reactions of an interlocutor, the American. He seems to have had a lot in mind before daring to forward his work for publication and we can observe that this silencing of the American (read “America”) becomes the strength of the novel rather than a limitation as any traditional, stereotypical writer would have assumed.
Whatever reasons Hamid had in his mind for this silencing of the American, the readers feel a sense of satisfaction in the first place. This urge to be heard, to be given freedom of expression and to have a platform where they could raise a voice (though in a very technical way) has been a desire suppressed in all types of colonized or ex-colonized subjects. The reader enjoys this silencing to a great extent as he feels satisfied from within, not only to have a sort of catharsis through Changez, but also to feel powerful against the ever-dominating suppressor. It feels good for some post-colonial readers to realize by the end of the novel that it wouldn’t allow America any ‘opportunity to respond to the developing critique mounted against it.’ The novel thus becomes something more effective than a reflective mirror for America.
The readers witness Changez’s level of satisfaction while reading the episode of the collapsing Twin-Towers and Changez’s reaction:”I stared as one—and then the other—of the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center collapsed. And then I smiled. Yes, despicable as it may sound, my initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased” (Hamid 43). But at the same time, the gestures of the American pull the readers back to the fear again. ‘Your disgust is evident, indeed,’ comments Changez, ‘your large hand has, perhaps without your noticing, clenched into a fist’ but even that is settled immediately with Changez’s explanation for his feelings. He then, admits his own sense of perplexity at his sense of pleasure at the slaughter of thousands of innocents. He reflects: But at that moment, my thoughts were not with the victims of the attack – death on television moves me most when it is fictitious and happens to characters with whom I have built up relationships over multiple episodes – no, I was caught up in the symbolism of it all, the fact that someone had so visibly brought America to her knees (Hamid 43). Observing that these words only serve to strengthen the discontentment of his American listener; Changez challenges: But surely you cannot be completely innocent of such feelings yourself. Do you feel no joy at the video clips – so prevalent these days – of American munitions laying waste the structures of your enemies? (Hamid 43).
Another reason of the success of this method is, surely, the involvement of the readers. By silencing one side, Hamid has opened a window of perspectives for the readers as it is entirely up to them to imagine the reaction or response of the American in the way that they choose. Although Changez does guide the readers regarding the gestures and responses of his companion, still the readers have a wide range of choices to pick from and adjust the reaction with that. The readers guess what might be the American’s reaction on receiving a call on his mobile in the presence of Changez. Is he nervous in picking up? Why does he prefer the text-mode over receiving the call? The readers assume many things: Will you not answer it? I assure you, sir, I will do my utmost to avoid eavesdropping on your conversation. But you are opting to write a text message instead; very wise: often a few words are more than sufficient (Hamid 18).
Again, at another point, the readers can assume whatever they feel about the reaction of the American when the ‘lights have gone.’ Changez narrates the gestures of the American in such an interesting way that one cannot help but getting amused over his reaction: But why do you leap to your feet? Do not be alarmed, sir; as I mentioned before, fluctuations and blackouts are common in Pakistan. Really, you are overreacting; it is not yet so dark (Hamid 36). Changez’s description of the American’s reaction is quite sufficient for the readers to evaluate his cowardice: It was nothing more than a momentary disruption. And you—to jump as though you were a mouse suddenly under the shadow of a hawk! (Hamid 36).
Here the pun is self explanatory. The reaction of the American is cowardly, and is compared to the reaction of a mouse under the Hawk’s shadow. The readers can, very rightly, assume that this comparison is between Changez and the American. The power is being shifted, though only symbolically. We can visualize and have a freedom of imagination as far as the American is concerned. Whatever words we want to put into his mouth, we can, whatever actions we want to associate with him, we can. Hamid is giving us an opportunity to actively participate in his novel and the readers, knowingly or unknowingly, get carried away with the flow while giving their own interpretations to the reactions of the American.
Reference: The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid
True or False: Analyzing Behavior in The Reluctant Fundamentalist
In Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, the author directs the reader’s attention to the sense of distrust and suspicion that many Americans notably have toward Middle Easterners and Muslims in general after 9/11. By doing so, Hamid is forcing the reader to confront this truth and either relate to it or feel guilty in the realization that it is a reaction based primarily on biases in the media’s description of a terrorist. America’s idea of a terrorist in post-9/11 culture has essentially been boiled down to a Disney villain-esque portrayal of Middle Easterners and Muslims, with the perceived enemy being a dark-skinned, long-bearded, turban-wearing replica of Jafar from Disney’s Aladdin. Through a carefully constructed narrative that uses one-sided dialogue between the characters Changez and “the American,” Hamid throws this prejudice in the face of the reader, but also cleverly allows room for varying interpretations of the true nature of Changez—is he harmless, or is he exactly what many Americans fear he might be?
The narrator, Changez, is constantly reassuring the American he is telling his story to that he is not in harm’s way. The first few sentences of the novel bring awareness to the reality that the typical Middle Eastern Muslim’s appearance frightens many Americans and puts them on edge. Changez says, “Ah, I see I have alarmed you. Do not be frightened by my beard: I am a lover of America” (1). Having established the commonality of this notion of prejudice toward the bearded-Muslim in American culture, the author proceeds to arouse the reader’s own xenophobic tendencies by portraying Changez as an individual who is overly eager to convince the American character of his innocence. An example of this is evident when Changez is discussing the tea brought in by the waiter. He says, “Do not look so suspicious. I assure you, sir, nothing untoward will happen to you, not even a runny stomach. After all, it is not as if it has been poisoned. Come, if it makes you more comfortable, let me switch my cup with yours. Just so” (11). The fact that the author does not give the American character any dialogue contributes to the dubious nature of Changez because we can only know what the American is thinking or saying via the narrative reaction of Changez. Hamid purposely employs this literary device in order to keep the reader feeling guilty about prejudices but also to retain some degree of truth in the suspicion of ill-will as well. After all, Changez does act bizarrely by approaching the American unsolicited and diving into a lengthy and intimate discussion of his past. Who does this? It is suspicious, and that is exactly what Hamid seeks to capitalize on. There is truth in the argument that Americans—and people in general for that matter—often attribute malevolence to a stranger who is overtly friendly and generous without any known pretext. This could be viewed as unwarranted paranoia, but the fact that this is the method used by many criminals to gain their victims trust also means that it’s naive to not be skeptical as well. It is a dichotomous predicament that evokes notions of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and begs the question: Is it paranoia if the suspicion is validated? Such is the case with Hamlet, as he is ultimately murdered just as he feared he would be. Hamid chooses not to provide closure and instead leave the scene up to interpretation.
Hamid seems to enjoy toying with the reader’s feelings toward Changez. Changez’s relationship with Erica can be seen as a parallel to his desire to be accepted and embraced by a nation that is plagued by xenophobia. Erica’s inability to relinquish herself from her past mirrors Americans inability to accept changes (read: Changez) that threaten to erase the nostalgia of pre-9/11 America. Erica wants to love Changez, but she can’t; just as America can’t seem to shake the overwhelming prejudice toward Middle Eastern Muslims despite wanting to view itself as a country tolerant of all races, creeds, and languages. By developing this tragic love story, Hamid aims to create sympathy toward Changez. Why can’t Erica and America accept him for who he is? Why does Changez boss ridicule him for growing a beard? It’s just a beard. At the same time, Hamid also insinuates that Changez is growing resentful of American intolerance. Changez says:
Sometimes I would find myself walking the streets, flaunting my beard as a provocation, craving conflict with anyone foolhardy enough to antagonize me. Affronts were everywhere; the rhetoric emerging from your country at that moment in history—not just from the government, but from the media and supposed critical journalists as well— provided a ready and constant fuel for my anger. (167)
By calling it “your country,” Changez has removed himself from any identification with America. He goes on to say that “[s]uch an America had to be stopped not only in the interest of the rest of humanity, but also in your own” (168). Changez anger and commitment to “stop” America’s current course of anti-Muslim sentiment raises the question, what did he do? This question is never directly answered in the novel. Changez acknowledges this question, saying, “What did I do to stop America, you ask? Have you really no idea, sir? …I will tell you what I did, although it was not much and I fear it may well fail to meet your expectations” (168-9). Despite promising to answer this question, Changez never actually does. He mentions that he became a “lecturer” at a university and “persuaded [students] of the merits of participating in demonstrations for independence in Pakistan’s domestic and international affairs;” however, this hardly addresses the “affronts” that angered Changez so much (179). The open-endedness of this question hints at the idea that the answer is found in the reader’s own interpretation of the end of the novel. Does Changez stop American arrogance and intolerance by showing an American his good nature and friendship by sharing a lunch, divulging intimate details about himself, walking him home, and ending the meeting with a handshake? Or is there something more sinister in the fact that he has the American cornered in a dark deserted street while the waiter “rapidly clos[es] in” and “wav[es] at [Changez] to detain [the American]” (184)? Does Changez stop American intolerance the way the Trenchcoat Mafia kids stopped the bullying at Columbine? Does he subscribe to Martin Luther King’s philosophy of non-violence to address racial intolerance, or Malcolm X’s philosophy of “any means necessary”? Changez claims to be “no ally of killers,” and yet, he also admits to “intervene[ing]” in a “scuffle” that ends up with him having “bruised knuckles” (181; 179). It wouldn’t be accurate, therefore, to say that Changez is completely non-violent and morally incapable of inflicting harm. But to what extent Changez is violent is a question left up to the reader.
Hamid’s brilliant use of the narrative to create both suspicion and guilt in the reader results in a thought-provoking acknowledgement of American paranoia post-9/11. The author’s contrived suspicion toward Changez assists us in identifying our own preconceived notions, either about Muslims or Americans, or both. Many individuals sympathetic to the plight of Muslim acceptance in America post-9/11 may have their own generalized ideas about America’s extent of racial intolerance and, ironically, they may be guilty of their own intolerance toward Americans as a whole. Hamid acknowledges possibility that the reader will be dismayed by the American character’s distrust of Changez, or even have suspicion about the American, and Hamid nurtures this suspicion by purposely portraying the American in a dubious and indiscriminate manner. Hamid even ends the novel with the suspicion that it is the American who is the “undercover assassin,” not Changez (183). Why else would someone so apparently nervous around Middle Eastern Muslims be in Pakistan? Not for vacation, presumably. Still, there is no other real suspicion that is raised about the American in the novel, and the American’s capability to do harm with the ambiguous “glint of metal” in his jacket would appear to result more from a sense of obligation to defend himself from a perceived threat rather than to assassinate Changez (184). Perhaps Hamid is revealing that our suspicions about both characters are completely unfounded on a logical level. Maybe the American is just taking out a “business card” and the waiter just “wants to say goodbye,” as Changez postulates (184). Why must we be so pessimistic and assume that something bad is about to happen, particularly between a Pakistani and an American? These are questions that Hamid raises, and through the narrative he shows us that people tend to let personal biases get in the way of seeing something for what it is and not what it could be. How we as readers interpret the characters in the novel will illuminate the extent to which 9/11 has affected our judgment of ourselves and others, and in this way, Hamid is providing us with a valuable lesson of introspection.