My wife Zahra and I recently decided to move back to Pakistan. Many friends in London seem puzzled by our decision. That is understandable. Pakistan plays a recurring role as villain in the horror sub-industry within the news business. It is, we are constantly told, a place where car bombs go off in crowded markets, beheadings get recorded in grainy video, and nuclear weapons are assembled in frightening proximity to violent extremists.
August 14 is Pakistan’s independence day. This year it also marked the birth of our daughter, Dina. (It was a close thing. Nineteen hours later and she would have been born on India’s independence day. For a novelist, the symbolism would have been considerably more tricky. Fortunately Dina was in no mood to dally.)
Childbirth changed my perception of my wife. She was now the bloodied special forces soldier who had fought and risked everything for our family. I was the supportive spouse tasked with cheering her victory, celebrating her homecoming, and easing her convalescence. So I gave her a respectful few hours before suggesting that we uproot our lives and move across continents to a city thousands of miles away.
If we were waiting for a sign from the universe that now was the time to return to our native Lahore, I told her, then Dina’s arrival was surely it.
Zahra regarded me steadily from her hospital bed. She said she was unaware that we had been waiting for such a sign. I promptly agreed to her suggestion that we defer the conversation for a month.
This period allowed me to reflect. London had been good to me. I arrived from New York shortly after my 30th birthday, intending to stay one year. Eight years on, I was still here. I met my wife in London (at a party in Maida Vale, to be precise). I wrote and published my second novel in London. I had my first child in London. London had given me friends, family, and – after two decades of part-time fiction-writing – the ability to make a living from prose.
Like many Bush-era self-exiles from the United States, I found that London combined much of what first attracted me to New York with a freedom America seemed to have lost in the paranoid years after 9/11. The international border at Heathrow felt more permeable than the one at JFK; the London broadsheets were more open to dissenting voices and more resistant to patriotic self-censorship than newspapers in the US; and the naturalisation process in the land of Buckingham Palace was – much to my surprise – considerably less tortuous than in the land of the Statue of Liberty.
Of course the UK had problems. Race relations was one. As a Pakistani friend who had also arrived here from America once pointed out to me: Dude, in this place we are the African-Americans. Another was the strange support for institutionalised aristocracies – including, to my mind, such related phenomena as the monarchy, a tax system of unequal benefits for the “non-domiciled” resident rich, and an economic model dependent on a financial services industry whose participants privatise the profits of risks borne publicly.
All in all, however, the UK was a home in which I thrived, and London was a wonderful and quite amazing city.
But my heart remained stubbornly Pakistani. I wore a green wig to the Twenty20 world cup final at Lord’s last summer. And although I left Lahore at 18 to study abroad, the city of my birth never lost its grip on me. I continued to go there often, usually for two- or three- month-long trips every year and a couple of year-long stays each decade.
Above all, I never believed in the role Pakistan plays as a villain on news shows. The Pakistan I knew was the out-of-character Pakistan, Pakistan without its makeup and plastic fangs, a working actor with worn-out shoes, a close family, and a hearty laugh.
Yes, these are troubled times for the country. Friends of mine in Lahore tell me their children have not gone to school in three weeks because of fears of a Beslan-style terrorist atrocity. The university where my sister teaches has been installing shatterproof window film. Hundreds of people have been killed in attacks on Pakistan’s cities since the army launched its operation in Waziristan last month.
But there is reason to be hopeful. After a long history of backing religious militants, the state and army may finally be getting serious about taking them on. Swat was successfully wrested from Taliban control this summer. The Waziristan offensive is said to be proceeding well. Pakistani public opinion has hardened against the extremists, and at the same time an increasingly independent media and judiciary are amplifying popular demands for a redistribution of resources to the poor. It is possible that out of the current uncertainty and bloodshed a more equitable and tolerant Pakistan will be born.
So when, a month after Dina’s arrival, Zahra and I again discussed Pakistan, we decided to go. Given the peripatetic nature of my life so far, I don’t know how long we’ll stay there. Maybe a year, maybe 10, maybe for ever.
But I do know this. When it comes to where we think Pakistan is heading, we are voting with our feet.
By Mohsin Hamid