In her polyvocal novel The Runaways, Fatima Bhutto examines Pakistan’s fluidity and reinvention in a digital age and makes searing comments on identity politics, radicalisation and social media.

Bhutto presents readers with a dizzying array of media. Examining television, for instance, she shows that British reality TV hinges on alcohol. In Pakistan, by contrast, 24-hour breaking news urgently recounts Gen Pervez Musharraf’s arrest in 2013. Meanwhile, a stern Muslim televangelist puts a bored, rich mother in Karachi under his spell. She gives away most of her possessions and starts praying five times a day.

Sunny, a young BBCD — or British-Born Confused Desi — rejects his father’s quest for assimilation in Britain. Instead, he experiences alienation and painful sexual yearning in the racist disUnited Kingdom. Sunny retreats into an online realm, where he “watch[es] the world through Facebook and Twitter.” Yet even this alluring prism proves a disappointment. Sunny’s posts are met with indifference, reinforcing his loneliness and depression. Using match-making apps such as Tinder or Scruff and, more furtively, a proxy server to access YouPorn, he nonetheless finds his own sexual preferences and others’ articulation of consent hard to understand. Hamlet-like, he “lurked and hesitated, swiping left all the time.”

At this juncture, Sunny discovers Islam via YouTube videos of Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X and, later, more mainstream sermonising. In his British-Pakistani argot — mimicked beautifully by Bhutto — he writes on Facebook: “Yo, fiqh is the key.” As usual, nobody responds and it takes Sunny’s media-savvy cousin Oz to launch him to virality. Just back from Syria and newly banned by Instagram for inflammatory posts, Oz persuades Sunny to run away from his demanding family, the desi girls who bore him, and the Arab DJ he longs for.

Dazzled by the glamour of globalised radicalism to which Oz introduces him online, Sunny heads for Mosul. There he garners digital acclaim for his selfies with a Kalashnikov. He names this weapon Rita, like the beloved serenaded by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish in ‘Rita and the Rifle’. Lines from this poem are used as the epigraph to The Runaways: “I was lost in Rita for two years/ And for two years she slept on my arm/ […] And we were born again.” Uploading increasingly inflammatory posts to a swelling group of followers, Sunny joins a fictionalised ISIS called the Ummah Movement (it is surely no coincidence the group’s acronym is a resounding ‘Um’).

He meets fellow jihadist Monty when the two men volunteer for a 150-kilometre hike across the desert to engage in a battle for Nineveh. A spoilt boy from Karachi, Monty’s mother is whom we met earlier, in thrall to the televangelist. His secular father is constantly on his phone brokering business deals or reading the life stories of Bollywood starlets. Somewhat neglected by his parents, Monty is in love with Layla, a former schoolmate. He follows her to the deserts of Iraq armed only with his Thuraya — the sheltered boy is proud of having haggled with a Saddar shop owner to buy this state-of-the-art satellite phone. Yet he was cheated and the Thuraya reveals its fault when he needs it most. Monty seems, at first, to be similarly expensive but useless, though the novel’s denouement discloses there is more to him than meets the eye.

The most mysterious of the three, Layla hails from Gulshan and is smart, but less privileged than Monty. At their American school, a teacher tweets after history lessons to generate greater interest from his disaffected pupils. Layla challenges his #NeverForget for the Holocaust, asserting: “those who oppress don’t get to hashtag themselves as the victims.” Despite this bichrome worldview, she used to be open to shades of grey. In Karachi, she sought “e-liquid for her e-smokes” and performed sexual acts for Monty without inhibition. One day she left him with no explanation, and he traced her to Um. She’s become Um’s poster girl, allegedly showing the “calibre” of the women prepared to join the movement. Now “[p]eople were watching, millions of people,” as Layla is recorded for a panoply of social media platforms. Framed by the online male gaze, she uploads propaganda films to LiveLeak, hectoring her followers about structural inequality, Western inequity and the ideal Islamist response.

In the men’s almost biblical journey across the desert, Sunny in particular is constantly desperate to charge his phone, which functions as compass, flashlight and GPS as well as a conduit to the outside world. Phones buzz on silent like a whisper from another plane and an iPhone light is compared to a halo — the answer to a spiritual question.

But Um proves to be an electronic illusion, what French philosopher Jean Baudrillard would have called a simulacrum. Oz, who persuaded Sunny of the need to fight for Islam, now ghosts his cousin from his safe home in England. The former radical refuses to answer the young jihadist’s multimedia messages. He has performed “nano-surgery” on his social media platforms to touch up his own image as a counter-radicalisation leader. There are echoes of Maajid Nawaz from the Quilliam Foundation and Ed Husain, author of The Islamist, in Oz. As a rejoinder, Sunny steps up his own rebrand, smoothing out his doubts and fears to present a one-dimensional facade as a confidently vicious, selfie-obsessed insurgent.

This novel, which expertly takes in technology including TomTom apps, iMessage, WhatsApp’s ticks turning from grey to blue, FaceTime, taxi apps such as Uber and Careem, and Huawei keyboards, ultimately suggests that too much investment in this “universe built on trading information” is damaging for the individual psyche.

An alternative source of succour, it intimates, may be found in the poetry of Darwish, Habib Jalib, Mir Taqi Mir and Faiz Ahmed Faiz, and the music of Tupac Shakur, Frank Ocean and Fairuz. These art forms hold within them the potential to “imagin[e] a radical new world.” They enable individuals to soar above the difficulties and limitations of their lives. Unlike the selfie-snapping radicals, musicians and poets may fight “oppression and injustice” without becoming corrupted by violence and discrimination.

The columnist teaches global literature at the University of York and is the author of three books, including Rivers of Ink: Selected Essays

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 26th, 2019