Orientalism Post 9/11: Pakistani Anglophone Fiction in an Age of Terror
By Faisal Nazir
Pakistani Study Centre, University of Karachi
The works of Pakistani fiction writers writing in English are made the subject of the often stifling ‘representation’ discourse by some readers and critics here in Pakistan. Is the work representing the true ‘Pakistan’ (as if a singular, monolithic Pakistan is something to imaginatively aspire toward)? Are the characters embodying the appropriate amount of ‘Pakistaniyat’ (itself an elusive and ever-changing cipher)? And, most inanely, is this representation of Pakistan giving the nation ‘a bad image’?
Underpinning this discourse, however, are more complex questions of identity, language and audience — questions that are informed by history and politics and which the scholarly field of postcolonial studies has been exploring since the latter half of the 20th century.
Faisal Nazir’s monograph Orientalism Post 9/11: Pakistani Anglophone Fiction in an Age of Terror is a recent and thought-provoking addition to this field. It is a work that engages with some of these questions, but from a slightly different angle: it shifts the focus away from the politics of representing Pakistan as a nation and, instead, places Pakistani Anglophone writers in the nascent critical category of “Muslim narratives”, which is a growing body of literature that, according to scholar Amin Malak and quoted by Nazir, engages “with the world and the values of Islam.”
Nazir — who is an assistant professor at the Department of English at the University of Karachi, and who specialises in postcolonial literature and theory — argues that, in the wake of 9/11 and the ensuing so-called ‘war on terror’ and Pakistan’s role in it, Pakistani Anglophone writers were given increased visibility in the Western literary marketplace. But this visibility was contingent upon these writers helping the marketplace make legible a country and a people which were framed as essentially irrational, backward and violent.
A convincingly argued treatise on the need to explore Muslim identity in the same ways that race, gender and citizenship have been
This framing is, of course, not new and has been theorised by many scholars — most significantly by Palestinian American academic Edward Said in his articulation of the term ‘Orientalism’, which he uses to define the ideological discourse that imagines the East (or the “Orient”) as diametrically opposite (and, therefore, inferior) to the West. It is a discourse which has underpinned the European imperial and colonial project, and which continues to undergird the various present forms of (neo)colonialism.
Nazir’s project extends and utilises Said’s theorisation, particularly his conceptualisation of Islamic Orientalism — the branch of Orientalism that focuses specifically on the study of Islam and Muslims.
In the wake of 9/11, specific forms of Orientalism gained resurgence in the representation of Islam and Muslims in Western discourse. Nazir analyses six novels written in the decade immediately following 9/11, by writers Nadeem Aslam (Maps for Lost Lovers and The Wasted Vigil), Uzma Aslam Khan (The Geometry of God), Mohsin Hamid (The Reluctant Fundamentalist), Kamila Shamsie (Broken Verses) and Tariq Ali (Night of the Golden Butterfly), by utilising three such Orientalist frameworks, as articulated by Indian American scholar Deepa Kumar: i) the “Muslim mind” is incapable of rationality and science; ii) Islam is a violent religion; and iii) Islam is a uniquely sexist religion.
The aim of Nazir’s study is, as he explains in the introduction to his book, “to determine how much Pakistani writing in English is influenced (or not) by Orientalist views of Islam and in what particular way Islam is represented in the works of Pakistani English writers since 9/11.”
The inclusion of these authors in the critical category of “Muslim writing” is not taken for granted by Nazir, but instead is problematised and explained to be the result of a number of discursive factors. The first is that the authors themselves “turned their attention toward Islamic themes” — their exploration of such themes fulfils Amin Malak’s definition of “Muslim narratives” being those which engage with the world and values of Islam.
The second, and more complex, factor is that — as Nazir argues — in the wake of 9/11 and against the backdrop of the ‘war on terror’, the role of “Muslim intellectuals” became significant to the United States’s imperialist project in Afghanistan and Iraq. “The cult of authenticity established within Western societies has required the presence of capable individuals with Muslim identities to tell the Muslim story regarding the events of 9/11 and other acts of terror perpetrated in the name of Islam,” Nazir says, and links this requirement to the Western literary marketplace’s increased appetite for Muslim writing in general and Pakistani fiction in particular.
In this context, Pakistani Anglophone writers, in choosing to engage with ideas of Islam and Muslims, inevitably engage with Islamic Orientalism by either reinforcing, opposing or deconstructing such ideas. This, Nazir explains, has placed Pakistani writers in a difficult position, where “they are forced to perform a delicate balancing act in their fictions in which they simultaneously affirm and deny their Pakistani identity.”
They affirm it by the way they produce knowledge about Pakistan’s cultures, customs, languages and landscapes, and deny it in the way “these representations are constructed as narratives of alienation, a turning away, a growing up, a moving out, a leaving home that distances the narrator or the main characters from the very cultures and customs that are described so concretely and vividly in the narrative.”
Orientalism Post 9/11 is divided into three sections, each section utilising one of the aforementioned Islamic Orientalism frames to analyse two novels. Nazir’s analysis of his six chosen texts is lucid, thoughtful and politically nuanced, and lays bare the ways in which these novels at best try to complicate such frames (in the case of works by Hamid, Shamsie and Ali) or, at worst, crudely reinforce and legitimise Islamophobic ideas (in the case of the works of Aslam and Khan).
In his conclusion, Nazir argues that all these novels utilise unquestioningly an oppositional structure about Pakistani society that pits the formal practice of religion against a spiritual orientation and sensibility. “The representation of both inward and outward religious experience remains problematic for most writers, probably because the two dimensions are often seen in oppositional rather than in complementary terms ... there are no characters who combine the inward and the outward religious dimensions, whose spirituality is not opposed to their rituality.”
Nazir’s careful analysis of the texts reveals that their characters are all either irrational and bigoted religious fanatics, or entirely secular individuals who are disdainful of institutionalised forms of Islam — leaving no room for characters who are practising Muslims whose faith is entirely compatible with, and sits alongside and complements, their other worldviews and personality traits.
Nazir’s work is an important and convincingly argued treatise on the need, in critical discourse, to explore variously situated Muslim subjectivities and religious identity in the same ways as the categories of race, gender and citizenship have been studied. His analysis reveals that Pakistani Anglophone authors writing in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 were unable to effectively resist Orientalising frameworks in their narratives about Muslims. It would be interesting to see to what extent the generation of Pakistani Anglophone writers who came after Hamid, Shamsie and the like are able to challenge such limiting frameworks.
The works of younger writers such as Soniah Kamal, Omar Shahid Hamid, Shazaf Fatima Haider and Usman T. Malik, published in the 2010s and in a variety of genres as wide-ranging as crime/thriller, sci-fi/fantasy and romance/comedy of manners, seem to indicate that the new generation of Anglophone Pakistani writers is much less interested in catering to the Western gaze, or attempting to make Pakistani Muslimness legible to the global literary marketplace.
Of course, the fact that all these authors are published in the South Asian market and not the centres of Western publishing, as well as the limited critical and popular attention paid to such writers in the Western market, confirms Nazir’s hypothesis that only certain forms of Pakistani Anglophone literature are useful and interesting to the Western ideological project.
But perhaps these new writers are realising that telling compelling stories with richer, more nuanced characters (who have complicated and varied relationships to religion and faith) on their own terms, is a more satisfying literary goal than attempting to speak back to the empire.
The reviewer teaches comparative literature at IBA Karachi.
Her academic research focuses on the intersections of postcolonial theory, gender and South Asian science fiction and fantasy. She tweets @nudratkamal
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 26th, 2021