I’m Talking to You: Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist

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By Manya Kapur

(UBC Arts One, Dr. Robert Crawford seminar)

Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States of America has emerged as an unmatched superpower in the international arena. With its supremacy in the global economy and monopoly over mass media, the West stands at the forefront in shaping not only world culture and our accepted history, but the attitudes and ideals of the anglophone world. Mohsin Hamid remarkably challenges the American hegemony over the post-9/11 narrative in The Reluctant Fundamentalist by giving voice to the perspective of a Pakistani Muslim man, Changez. His endeavour stands out due to his use of the dramatic monologue, highlighting an unheard narrative in isolation. This essay will seek to examine the persuasive techniques employed by the unique narrative voice and identify its potential effects on, specifically, the convictions of a reader holding biases and hostility towards Muslims following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The novel’s effect on a reader is crucial as it is “confined by the mode of writing-back recurrent in Muslim diasporic literature, which is dependent upon a binary framework and rests on the idea that recognition emanates ultimately from the American/antagonist/Western readers” (Aumeerally 2017). This essay will first consider the significance of silencing the dominant voice of the Western narrative, then explore the ways the character of Changez appeals to readers hardened by 9/11 and sensitizes them to the Pakistani context and, finally, discuss the ability of the second-person narrative to predict and address as well as challenge the reader’s biases, especially through the relationship established with the reader through the dramatic monologue.

Putting Changez’s perspective uninterrupted at centre stage in the novel has immense symbolic significance for the novel, through its embodiment of the post-colonial voice. The prominent post-9/11 narrative perpetuated by the Bush administration featured a binary war between “Us” (the West) and “Them” (Islamic fundamentalism) and “[sought]comfort in customary orientalist images of violent and irrational Muslim masculinity…as a way to compensate for the “unspeakability” and “unrepresentability” of the event” (Aumeerally 2017). This approach was shaped by the anomalous character of the enemy, where difficulties in defining the non-state entity translated into challenges in approaching and tackling Islamic terrorism as a global phenomenon—with branches and connections in several nation-states—without the grave simplification of stereotyping an entire population. The character of Changez, a Pakistani Muslim man who possibly takes the path of a fundamentalist, humanizes a person whose identity is usually lost in the war on faceless terror and lends a voice to his views and sentiments. The key significance of this narrative choice lies in the “classic writing-back strategy” (Aumeerally 2017), representing a “a sly intervention that destabilizes the dominant categories of the post‐9/11 novel, undercutting the impulse to national normalization through the experience of its protagonist” (Morey 2011). While it may be argued that it presents an unbalanced account of the events in the text, it is important to understand that the version presented by mass media was also unbalanced. There is no denying the atrocity of the event that took place on September 11th, 2001, but leading a war against entire Islamic states rather than radical groups, which are non-state entities, led to generalized discrimination against people of a certain skin colour or religious faith. An event with as much weight as 9/11 needs an objective and balanced treatment to justly respond, but the ethnocentrism stemming from the tragedy America was dealt with only focussed on blame and retaliation. The resulting “deterritorialization of literature” from the dramatic monologue form “forces readers to think about what lies behind the totalizing categories of East and West, ‘Them and Us’ and so on—those categories continuously insisted upon in ‘war on terror’ discourse” (Morey 2011). Placed against the larger discourse, only voicing Changez’s perspective silences the dominant neo-imperial standpoint to even the scales by demonstrating the humanity of someone affected by the aftermath of the terrorist attack, the unheard voice.

Hamid’s characterization of Changez is vital in appealing to the targeted reader, as the web of Western popular culture references invoke a sense of familiarity to their context due to its monopoly over Anglophone mass media. Changez is thoroughly immersed in American culture, challenging the knowledge of even the most native reader. Changez has an extensive knowledge of Western history, being able to parallel his family’s situation in Pakistan to “that of the old  European aristocracy in the nineteenth century, confronted by the ascendance of the bourgeoisie” (Hamid 10–11). From Greek texts that allow him to reference “professors who are titans in their fields and fellow students who are philosopher-kings in the making” (Hamid 3), to contemporary works that enable “a magnificent property…[making him] think of The Great Gatsby” (Hamid 43), Changez is shown to be familiar with Western literature. While these can be a result of his American undergraduate education at Princeton University, he even has an impressive hold of American music (as substantiated by his ability to identify “Bryan Adams, Summer of 69” [Hamid 18]), celebrities (as substantiated by his ability to compare Erica “more to the camp of Paltrow than to that of Spears” [Hamid 22]), and movies (as substantiated by his ability to find Wainwright’s mannerisms “in a fashion reminiscent of Val Kilmer in Top Gun” [Hamid 35]). Moreover, he is well-versed with the nuances of American fashion, even being able to discern that “a European tourist could as easily have purchased in Des Moines your suit, with its single vent, and your button-down shirt” (Hamid 2). While Changez’s “Pakistaniness was invisible, cloaked by [his] suit, by [his] expense account, and—most of all—by [his] companions” (Hamid 71), his “Americanness” is made clearly apparent by his repertory of American popular culture. Even in Hamid’s treatment of time, spending most of the novel on Changez’s life in America and having a fair distance yet to cover” (Hamid 171), towards the end of the book where he rejects his American identity, one can interestingly observe an almost-myopic focus on the same. The cultural references purposively chosen by Hamid have widespread appeal to any readers familiar with the dominant media produced in the Western hemisphere. The effect of this is to make him accessible to the average Anglophone reader, outlining a face from the war-on-terror montage that is not only human, but also undeniably familiar.

Simultaneously to Changez’s “Americanness” making him relatable to the general reader, Hamid draws similarities between the United States of America and Pakistan to seemingly bridge the divide. He starts with historical similarities, such as “an Anglicized accent [that] may in your country continue to be associated with wealth and power, just as it is in mine” (Hamid 41–2), showing elements that remain of both countries’ past as colonies of the British empire. He further brings out geographical similarities, where despite a distance of more than ten thousand kilometres and a completely different climate and landscape, “with their public parks and wide, tree-lined boulevards…the congested, maze-like heart of this city—Lahore is more democratically urban…like Manhattan” (Hamid 32). Even culturally, the attire of students from the National College of Arts in Pakistan “in jeans speckled with paint” (Hamid 16) is the same as it would be for students from the Parsons School of Design in New York. Hamid even addresses aspects of Pakistani or Muslim culture that would usually be extremely alien to a Western reader, such as the illegality of alcohol, pointing out that “many Pakistanis drink; alcohol illegality in this country has roughly the same effect as marijuana’s in [theirs]” (Hamid 53). In drawing similarities between the two vastly different cultures of America (and several other Western or liberal countries) and Pakistan, the text is able to soften the widespread hostility by demonstrating shared characteristics. The ability to establish familiarity is crucial in appealing to and appeasing post-9/11 hostilities as “the humanization of the Muslim and of Muslim culture is enabled solely through the acknowledgement of the American [silent listener]/American readership” (Aumeerally 2017). Morey notes that “If the American is a secret agent detailed to kill Changez, then the Pakistani’s emphasis on the similarities as much as the differences between East and West, and his early love for America, carry an added poignancy” (Morey 2011) of demonstrating the futility of blind, binary persecution.

Against the effect of a familiar narrator and similar contexts, Hamid is able to put forth Changez’s Pakistani culture using narration and setting to sensitize the reader and separate them from their generalized biases. While the average reader might possess a generalized and impersonal understanding of the Pakistani context similar to Erica’s father’s comment that “economy is falling apart though, no? Corruption, dictatorship, the rich living like princes while everyone else suffers… And fundamentalism. You guys have got some serious problems with fundamentalism” (Hamid 55), the narrator adds character to the country. Changez can be seen to relate aspects of his large family, affinity for nature and rich Pakistani heritage, being “from Lahore, the second largest city of Pakistan, ancient capital of the Punjab, home to nearly as many people as New York, layered like a sedimentary plain with the accreted history of invaders from the Aryans to the Mongols to the British” (Hamid 7). With his evocative descriptions, he seems to steer the reader towards “appreciating its enduring grandeur, its unmistakable personality and idiosyncratic charm…. It was far from impoverished; indeed, it was rich with history” (Hamid 125). The text seems to directly address the earlier detached understanding of Pakistan put forward by Erica’s father in saying that they “were not always burdened by debt, dependent on foreign aid and handouts; in the stories we tell of ourselves we were not the crazed and destitute radicals you see on your television channels but rather Saints and poets” (Hamid 101–2), bringing out the rich history preceding its colonization and the mystical origins of Islam. Hamid additionally uses the setting of Lahore to present Pakistani culture to the reader, through illustrations of the cuisine of “predatory delicacies… imbued with a hint of luxury, of wanton abandon” (Hamid 101), and city “with its public parks and wide, tree-lined boulevards” (Hamid 32). The intention of the author in narrating Pakistan’s history and culture seems to be to “[acquire] a certain familiarity with the recent history of [their] surroundings…[allowing them] to put the present into much better perspective” (Hamid 45). Morey further supplements this argument that the purpose of illustrating Pakistani culture is to “give a local habitation and a name to a part of the world the West too often sees only as a strategic problem to be solved and a threat to its own regional and international interests” (Morey 2011). The culture that has been popularly antagonized for its connection to a non-state terrorist entity has a rich history of innovation and glory that is presented to the reader against their preconceptions with zealous fundamentalism, illustrating in detail the nuances of the amorphous face of “terror” they have been conditioned to hate.

Furthermore, voicing the character of Changez realistically depicts the alienation of a Pakistani immigrant, eliciting the sympathies of the reader. Specifically, in understanding “the journey by which Changez arrives at his disenchanted and partisan position, we have an interesting snapshot of the bifurcation of the world after 9/11” (Morey 2011), and even before, in veiled colonial tendencies. One can observe how sentiments of bitterness would occur due to the vast inequality existing between both the post-colonial nations when:

4000 years ago, [they], the people of the Indus River Basin, had cities that were laid out on grids and boasted underground sewers, while the ancestors of those who would invade and colonize America were illiterate barbarians. Now [their] cities were largely unplanned, unsanitary affairs, and America had universities with individual endowments greater than our national budget for education. (Hamid 34)


Similar resentment along with radical fundamentalism were probably behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks in America, having brutal repercussions where “Pakistani cabdrivers were being beaten to within an inch of their lives; the FBI was raiding mosques, shops, and even people’s houses; Muslim men were disappearing, perhaps into shadowy detention centres for questioning or worse” (Hamid 94). These descriptions bring out “the novel’s concern with the reverberations from the response to 9/11 that have been just as cataclysmic as the initial atrocity itself” (Morey 2011). While the war on terror was largely celebrated, the reader is exposed to the injustice lying at the core of “the partisan and sports-event-like coverage given to the mismatch between the American bombers with their 21st-century weaponry and the ill-equipped and ill-fed Afghan tribesman” (Hamid 99), in the American invasion of Afghanistan. Morey argues that “The task of world fiction, like The Reluctant Fundamentalist, can be to record such experiences and keep the eyes of the hyper‐conscious western world on the possible estranging effects of its violent and self‐aggrandizing policies” (Morey 2011). Not only is the reader able to understand and sympathize with the alienation of a Pakistani immigrant, but the graphic portrayal of Changez forces the reader to confront the casualties of the war on terror, bearing no relation to the 9/11 terrorist group apart from the same faith or nationality.

Changez’s narrative voice additionally has a significant impact on the reader due to its second-person perspective addressed to the unheard anonymous American, allowing it to simultaneously predict the reader’s biases. Right from the beginning, the narrator implores the reader to “not be frightened by [his] beard” (Hamid 1), symbolizing the ethnic trend, skin colour and faith he possesses that has garnered hostility in the American eye, due to which he  suspects “[they] are looking at [him] with a degree of revulsion” (Hamid 107). He is able to respond to their “[misconstruing] the significance of [his] beard” (Hamid 53), to assume it implies he is Muslim and reveal that “it was, perhaps, a form of protest on [his] part, a symbol of [his] identity” (Hamid 130), thus asking them to try to look beyond it for the rest of the novel. Bringing the reader’s stereotype regarding men of dark skin with beards to attention allows the text to further force them to confront their own bias while addressing it. Aumeerally elucidates this on both sides- the bias as well as the justification- by explaining how Changez “comes to be interpellated as Muslim through the symbolic violence which the beard enacts post-9/11,” (Aumeerally 2017) while for Changez himself, the beard “potentially reinscribes Muslim cultural history and agency in the context of a post-9/11 bifurcated cartography” (Aumeerally 2017). Additionally, when Changez remarks that the “you” figure’s “disgust is evident” (Hamid 72), following his confession of his true feelings regarding 9/11, he is able to force their realisation that the sentiment behind the “joy at the video clips—so prevalent these days—of American munitions laying waste the structures of your enemies” (Hamid 73), was the same one behind smiling at “the symbolism of it all, the fact that someone had so visibly brought America to her knees” (Hamid 73). Pointing out the reader’s potential bias allows Hamid to address their beliefs and attitudes directly, also through the second-person narrative.

Moreover, the novel sets the reader up to fall prey to their bias, right from the title and further woven through the narrative voice. “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” leads the reader to believe they are reading about a radical Islamic fundamentalist and thereby cloud their judgement so that when he has “offended [them], angered [them] even…[he] has not… entirely surprised them” (Hamid 75). The tone used by the narrative voice is volatile through the novel, always archaically polite and formal but fluctuating between an uncomfortable straightforwardness, passionate defensiveness or cautious shrewdness underneath the poised demeanour. The result is to rouse suspicion and mistrust in the reader, coupled with the narration lacking any reliable point of reference to believe with certainty and the novel being “falsely polyphonic,” in the sense that all the characters are “ventriloquized by Changez, who may well be an unreliable narrator and whose story has its own political rationale and relentless momentum” (Morey 2011). Hamid makes the choice to indicate that the narrator is constantly aware that due to their prejudice and his subtle hints, the American listener and reader both might be “convinced that [he is] an inveterate liar, or perhaps…under the impression that [they] are being pursued” (Hamid 183). A crucial role of the narrative voice is to leave ambiguity and purposive gaps in the narration for the reader’s own presuppositions to fill and shape, as in the conclusion, thus revealing them in the process. Ilott argues that “the absence of a satisfying conclusion means that any singular or fixed conclusion that readers might arrive at would have to be based on readers’ own inductive leaps. [It] simultaneously encourages interpretations through its ambiguity, but also resists the fixing of singular interpretations as a symptom of the fundamentalism that the work persistently deconstructs” (Ilott 2013). The second-person narrative strategy goes beyond predicting the reader’s biases to hold a mirror up to their implicit beliefs and presuppositions to make them aware of it.

A key function the second-person narrative serves is to go beyond highlighting the reader’s bias to challenge it through their actions by always assuming the best of the American figure. Changez makes note of several aspects of his appearance and mannerisms indicating suspicious intentions, such as his being “well-travelled…for a person of any country” (Hamid 64), his mobile phone probably being “one of those models capable of communicating via satellite when no ground coverage is available” (Hamid 30),“[his] hair, short-cropped, and [his] expensive chest…[being] typical of a certain type of American” (Hamid 2), and his being “not unfamiliar with the anxieties that precede armed conflict” (Hamid 129). However, despite being “increasingly curious as to the nature of [his] business,” Changez gives him his space and chooses to be “certain [he] will tell [him] in due course” (Hamid 64). Additionally, whilst knowing “a bulge manifests itself through the lightweight fabric of [his] suit, precisely at that point parallel to the sternum where the undercover security agents…tend to favour wearing an armpit holster for their sidearm” (Hamid 139), which the American constantly reaches to whenever feeling threatened by “this burly fellow [who] is merely our waiter” (Hamid 5), Changez gives him the opportunity to avoid violence by choosing to believe “that in [his] case it is merely the outline of one of those travel wallets” (Hamid 139). The essential premise behind his constantly giving the American chances to not fall prey to his biases is that “[he] should not imagine that [they] Pakistanis are all potential terrorists, just as [they] should not imagine that you Americans are all undercover assassins” (Hamid 183), and the author chooses to make Changez lead by action. The significance of this authorial choice can be observed in the novel concluding on this note, with Changez detecting “a glint of metal,” and believing that “Given that [they] are now bound by a certain shared intimacy, [he can] trust it is from the holder of [his] business cards” (Hamid 184). In this conclusion, Hamid seems to directly beseech the reader to follow Changez’s example of not falling victim to his bias despite every reason to and place the decision in their hands to interpret the novel based on this choice. Interestingly, the description of the American listener as being white, male and xenophobic leans towards a stereotypical portrayal of an American that the potentially (and probably) disparate reader is supposed to identify with, pointing out the absurdity of essentializing an entire culture as done in the predominant post-9/11 narrative.

After understanding all the potential effects of the narrative voice of a Muslim man in the second person on a reader, it is essential to consider the implications of the dramatic monologue form. Critics largely agree that the “structure of the dramatic monologue operates as a form of writing back to the noxious effects of American univocity after 9/11” (Aumeerally 2017), by voicing the silenced and unheard perspective of the Muslim individual. However, Ilott argues that “the unique and most interesting aspect of the monologue form is the relationship created with the reader” (Ilott 2013), by “refusing the normalizing consolation of a dialogue” (Morey 2011) in order to extend the onus of interpretation onto the reader. While insinuations lie in the author’s hands, it is up to the reader to make what they would of it, revealing their presuppositions in the process. Apart from the American listener’s continuous presence ensuring that the possibility of other, contrasting perspectives other than that narrated by Changez’s singular voice is implied, he has “a further function in constructing the reader’s positionality” (Ilott 2013), being “aligned with the reader through the pronoun “you” that speaks to the American specifically, but also interpolates the reader” (Ilott 2013). For the reader, this interpolation has the result of imposing the American listener’s prejudice-driven suspicion on the reader, thus providing “a discomforting foil for the reader” (Ilott 2013) that they might attempt to avoid. Ilott suggests that “Perhaps, by creating a markedly unpleasant auditor for the audience to identify with, Hamid is encouraging readers to resist categorization and in so doing to become active readers of global affairs” (Ilott 2013), with heightened “critical faculties to resist groupings based solely on constructed geopolitical binaries” (Ilott 2013). Against the effects of the narrative voice to sensitize the reader and affect their biases, the specific relationship created by the reader through the form of the dramatic monologue is instrumental in effectively influencing their biases.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist garnered widespread acclaim as a daring attempt by Hamid to redefine the prevailing post-9/11 narrative to include the unheard, post-colonial voice while simultaneously silencing the neo-imperial voice. Ilott highlights how the “micro-narrative offered in The Reluctant Fundamentalist resists the grand narrative that sees the world in terms of the threat of global terror. Such micro-narratives enable the restoration of the “thickness of history” through the prioritization of individual voices” (Ilott 2013). Hamid’s unique narrative strategy to employ a dramatic monologue distinguished his endeavour, enhancing the persuasive capacity of the novel. Hamid’s characterization of Changez enables him to offer familiarity to the reader due to his immersion in Western culture, thus paralleling it to the Pakistani context from a point of merit and further being able to sensitize the reader to its rich and exotic culture. While the individuality and humanity of Muslim people is lost in the faceless war on terror, Changez humanizes their alienation due to the post-9/11 discriminatory outlook and vindicates a return to their roots. Furthermore, the second-person narrative voice allows him to pre-empt and address the bias in the reader’s mind while establishing a relationship with them, forcing them to confront the same and rethink their prejudice against the example of Changez choosing to believe the best of his listener. The novel’s ability to appeal to the post-9/11 hostilities of a reader is essential for it to survive against the larger discourse and sufficiently challenge the widespread bias to take a stand against discrimination.

Works Cited

Aumeerally, Naseem L. 2017. “Rethinking recognition in Muslim diasporic writing. From an “ethics of responsibility” in The Reluctant Fundamentalistto an “ethics of dispersion” in The Silent Minaret.” Cogent Arts & Humanities4 (1).

Hamid, Mohsin. 2008. The Reluctant Fundamentalist.New York: Anchor Canada.

Ilott, Sarah. 2013. “Generic frameworks and active readership in The Reluctant Fundamentalist.” Journal of Postcolonial Writing50 (5): 571-583.

Morey, Peter. 2011. ““The rules of the game have changed”: Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist and post‐9/11 fiction.” Journal of Postcolonial Writing47 (2): 135-146.