Hanif Kureishi, Naipaul and Pakistan

By Anjum Altaf

Almost everyone with more than a passing acquaintance of Naipaul has written about their interaction with him, deservedly so, since Naipaul was, without doubt, a great writer. The accounts range from the banal to the truly insightful. Among those of particular interest to Pakistanis, the one by Hanif Kureishi, himself a writer of repute, stands out for two reasons.

First, it is one of the few that doesn’t display a knee-jerk reaction to Naipaul’s non-fiction, in particular his observations about Islamic countries. And second, because of Hanif Kureishi’s oblique relationship with Pakistan, the reflection has dispassionate things to say about the country as refracted through Naipaul’s lens.

Hanif’s connection to Pakistan, for those who know, is through his father’s brother, the iconic Omar Kureishi — legendary cricket commentator, popular manager of the test team, the person with whom PIA became the airline to fly with, an incisive social critic, and a classmate and friend of Zulfikar Bhutto to boot.

This long list of Omar Kureishi’s attributes is testimony to his deep love, devotion, and commitment to Pakistan. And yet, notwithstanding that loyalty, he was a fair-minded observer and analyst, a combination of qualities that has virtually ceased to exist in today’s Pakistan. Hanif has this telling quote from his uncle’s autobiography Home to Pakistan published in 2003: ‘There is an appearance of a government and there is the reality of where real power lies. I had serious doubts that we would become an open society and that democracy would take root.’

Naipaul, Hanif notes, in his travels in the late 1970s around Malaysia, Indonesia, Iran, and Pakistan, had sensed such contradictions early. While the celebrated Foucault was meeting Ruhollah Khomeini and traveling to Tehran defending the imams in the name of a ‘spiritual revolution’ that would create a new society, Naipaul was much more sanguine, seeing very little spirituality in the ‘power grab by the ayatollahs.’  

Naipaul concluded that ‘fundamentalism offered nothing.’ In Pakistan, Naipaul met Hanif’s cousin, Nusrat Nasarullah, who told him: ‘We have to create an Islamic society. We cannot develop in the Western way. Development will come to us only with an Islamic society. It is what they tell us.’ Naipaul was unconvinced. He could see ahead that what began as an ‘indigenous form of resistance, cheered on by a few Parisian intellectuals,’ would soon became ‘a new, self-imposed slavery, a self-subjection with an added masochistic element – one manifestation of which became Osama bin Laden’s devotion to death.’

Naipaul was not a prejudiced anti-Muslim else he would not have married a Muslim woman. His views on Islamic societies were decidedly unpalatable to most Muslims but they needed to be engaged with at the intellectual level not evaded by a show of moral outrage. Hanif writes that in 2010 Naipaul was invited to Turkey to address the European Writers’ Parliament. He was never invited again because he was alleged to have insulted Islam after saying that ‘to be converted you have to destroy your past, destroy your history.’ And look at Turkey now. Hanif offers a general summation of what Naipaul foresaw: ‘Legitimate anger turned bad; the desire for obedience and strong men; a terror of others; the promise of power, independence and sovereignty; the persecution of minorities and women; the return to an imagined purity. Who would have thought this idea would have spread so far, and continue to spread?’

Hanif Kureishi visited Pakistan for the first time in the early 1980s. Even at that time he observed that ‘Pakistan was impossible for the young; everyone who could was sending their money out of the country, and, when possible, sending their children out after it, preferably to the hated but also loved United States or, failing that, to Canada.’ A cousin wrote to him: ‘We want to leave this country but all doors are shut for us. Do not know how to get out of here.’

Hanif Kureishi’s observations merged with those of Naipaul: ‘If the coloniser had always believed the subaltern to be incapable of independent thought or democracy, the new Muslims confirmed it with their submission. They had willingly brought a new tyrant into being, and He was terrible, worse than before.’

‘One of the oddest things about my first stay in Karachi,’ Hanif recalls, ‘was endlessly hearing people tell me how they wished the British would return and run things again. There were many shortages in Pakistan, but that of good ideas was the worst.’

Forty years later, it still is.

This opinion was published in the Express-Tribune on October 19, 2018 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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