Sorayya Khan is the author of three novels, Noor, Five Queen’s Road and the recently published City of Spies. The daughter of a Pakistani father and Dutch mother, she spent part of her childhood in Islamabad. Her latest novel City of Spies is set in Islamabad and Lahore of the late 1970s and tells the story of 30 tumultuous months in Pakistan’s history told in the voice of Aliya, an 11-year old girl. Dawn spoke to Ms Khan about the City of Spies and her memories of Islamabad in the 70s.
Q: How does City of Spies reflect your evolution as a writer?
A: One of my earliest publications was In the Shadows of the Margalla Hills, which won the Malahat Review Novella Prize. It was the story of an American hit-and-run driver caught up in the events of 1979. Already then, I suspected that I wasn’t finished with the story and would return to it in the form of a novel. The story remained a presence as I wrote my other novels, but when I returned to it with full attention, it took many drafts (and years) before I recognised that it was Aliya’s story — and City of Spies was born. Aliya’s voice rang clearly in my head, but reflecting her perspective and finding appropriate language for her, required a more advanced place in my evolution as a writer, which was made possible by having written two novels.
All my novels explore the intersection of personal lives with political or historical events. I am interested in how people behave in the world and how the world behaves in people. My first novel, Noor is a story of the 1971 war, but is set in the years following the war. In this novel a soldier brings home a young girl who he and his mother raise as their own. Years later, his youngest grandchild, Noor, awakens memories of his war experience in her paintings and forces him to confront his past.
My second novel, Five Queen’s Road, is the story of a family from the partition of India to approximately a decade later. A Muslim family shares a divided house with a Hindu family and into this mixture comes a foreign daughter-in-law who carries the weight of her own history.
My latest work City of Spies is a young girl’s coming-of-age story during 30 months that include General Zia’s coup, Prime Minister Bhutto’s hanging, and the burning of the United States embassy in Islamabad. It is also a family story, but above all, it is a story of a young girl’s conflicting loyalties and her attempts to make sense of her world.
Q: What are some of the ways in which Aliya’s story converges with your own. How different is Aliya from yourself at her age?
A: Aliya and I share some basic facts: a mixed heritage, a move to Pakistan as young children, growing up in 1970s Islamabad and attending what we might call an American school. However, our experiences of these facts could not be more different. Aliya is much younger than I was in 1979. I turned 17 that year and had already left Pakistan for university studies by the time the US embassy in Islamabad was attacked.
At that age, our personalities were also fundamentally different. Aliya is already interested in social justice issues while I was more interested in sports and being a bit of a troublemaker. Most importantly, the events that provide the narrative tension in Aliya’s story — the hit-and-run accident, her friendship with an American best friend and her relationship with the family retainer — belong exclusively to her. Everything in City of Spies is informed by my experiences but everything in City of Spies is fiction. From my recent conversations with readers, I see people have mistaken the novel as a memoir, but it is in fact fiction.
Q: How has Islamabad changed as a city, from what it was like in the 1970s?
A: Islamabad is a mess of a city now compared to what it was in the 1970s when it still seemed spanking new and wide open. There were few sectors to keep track of, the Islamabad Club was one of the farthest corners, Margalla Road was a single lane in each direction, one Seventh Avenue was a border of the city, and the Blue Area did not exist.
In those days, the city was also peppered with houses frozen mid-construction and characterised by balconies hanging from the wrecks, bushes growing into window holes, and concrete stairs rising up or falling down but never quite reaching the roof or the ground. These ‘ghost houses’ were left behind by the fleeing Bengali residents of the city in 1971. I noticed the last of these houses disappeared some years ago.
In addition to overpasses, new far off sectors, mammoth construction and the upcoming Metro Bus, the biggest difference today is the prevalence of an endless range of security barricades and the inaccessibility of certain parts of the city, such as the Diplomatic Enclave. Thank goodness for the Margalla Hills which, although often hidden behind a haze these days, remain the city’s defining characteristic and are what I miss most when I’m away.
Q: What do you miss about the time?
A: I feel nostalgic for when it was possible to ride our bicycles on empty streets to Melody Market to buy tin boxes of vanilla ice cream that melted before we got home, for London Book Co when it was a big shop in Kohsar Market and had a wall devoted entirely to comic books, for traipsing up and down trails in the Margalla Hills without anyone knowing where we were and for long summer days spent at the Islamabad Club swimming pool dreaming up other places and learning to entertain ourselves. I’m nostalgic for how safe things appeared to a child and how much more tolerant society seemed then.
Published in Dawn, June 4th, 2015