Identity Crisis of Post- 9/11 Pakistani-American Immigrants:
A Study of Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist
“Home is where your feet are, and may your heart be there too!”
Geographical dislocations and cross-blending of cultures often necessitate traumatic experiences for the immigrants. The multiplicity of ‘homes’, within conflictual boundaries, does not necessarily bridge this gap between ‘home’ –the culture of origin; and ‘world’ –the culture of adoption. Moreover, an unsettled migrant, ‘dwelling in displacement’, may find these two cultures becoming increasingly hostile to each other with the flow of time and space. Quite often, opportunities for work, trade, research and exploration has collectively motivated, both voluntary and involuntary, migration from the East to the West- accompanied by memories of one’s original ‘homeland’ and its history. After the early 1970s, large scale of immigration has shown a great mobility and adjustability, especially, from South Asia to America- a country who has stood on providing thicket of choices to the immigrants throughout the history. However, the twist of the 21st century brought about many changes in the world when September-11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon endangered the lives of Asian immigrants in the U.S., most specifically Muslims, than it was ever before. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in her seminal essay, Terror: A Speech After 9/111, explicates that “the traditional left in the U.S. and in Europe has by and large understood the events of September 11 as a battle between fundamentalism and the failure of democracy”, owing to which, the identity of Pakistanis living abroad had become even more precarious. Many who were unable to defend their own set of beliefs and tried to escape from the chaos, were termed “Pakis’ and increasingly profiled as ‘potential terrorists’. Since Septmeber-11, one has visibly witnessed a new wave of xenophobia in public, resulting into the closing of borders and an irrational suspicion of the ‘Other’. In order to negotiate this disruption in the experience of the diasporic Muslim identity in the West, and to investigate the issues of identity, cross-culturality, post 9/11 ‘return-to-home’ and other disaporic tropes, my study focuses on the work of Pakistani expatriate writer Mohsin Hamid’s semi-autobiographical novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007)2– a tale of an immigrant’s angst and alienation in post 9/11 scenario as he attempts to acclimate to an adoptive homeland.
The novel unfolds over a period of a day as the Pakistani narrator, Changez, unspools his life story to the overt addressee, an unnamed American tourist, in a Lahore tea shop of Od Anarkali district. In a one-sided dialogue, Changez reminiscences in detail his experience of living in the United States. Hailing from a well-to-do Pakistani family, Changez excels at Princeton University and becomes “immediately a New Yorker” after being recruited as an analyst under the prestigious valuation firm, Underwood Samson. Meanwhile, he tumbles into a romantic relationship with a fellow Princeton graduate named Erica, who is consumed by the mythology which she has constructed around her deceased boyfriend. His sentiment of belonging to New York high society, however, begins to stall after the events of September-11 2001 and the following U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Over the ensuing years, ethnic slurs are tossed in his direction which ultimately act as a catalyst to expose Changez’s “fundamental” self. Through the literary trope of migration, Hamid’s novel, in the backdrop of 9/11, illustrates a tale of dissolution and ‘return to home’, which becomes a vehicle for new understandings as the homeland is revalorised.
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Since September-11, 2001, identity politics and clash of cultures have acquired a special resonance in the public sphere of the Western societies, with regard to their diasporic population, particularly Muslim diasporas. According to Robin Cohen, diasporas are formed when considerable number of people move to a foreign land, either because of some mortifying experience or in search of economic opportunities. Muslim immigrants from South Asia, particularly Pakistan, have been living through a double pledge; on one hand they have to respond to the international political crises’ such as September-11, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq etc., and on the other, they are categorized with the South Asian diasporic identity.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a narrative of the conflict embodied in the personal dilemma of its protagonist to come to terms with the post 9/11 America and the ‘new identity’ imposed upon him. The basic postulate of ‘melting-pot’ theory that the American culture places on its newly arrived immigrants is amply dynamic; stressing homogeneity on religious as well as ethnic level. Despite of his foreign appearance, Changez ‘merges with the crowd and achieves a new individualized form of social mobility’ by assimilating into the host culture (Cohen: 24). Both Erica and Jim (Underwood’s managing director), notice a “foreignness” in Changez’s mannerism and demeanour that gives him advantage over others. “You’re a watchful guy. You know where that comes from? … It comes from feeling out of place”, remarks Chris. But this initial excitement over a cosmopolitan way of life in New York is replaced by disillusionment and scepticism offered by the events that followed 9/11. After watching the attacks on the Twin Towers in his hotel room in Manila, Changez realizes that suddenly a new identity that of a terrorist-look-alike is imposed on him, when he is first strip-searched and interrogated at the airport on his arrival in America. His sense of belonging changes overnight when his foreign appearance becomes a sign of ‘otherness’ for his social environment in New York City. Also, Erica’s neurosis and sudden estrangement from Changez are to be equated with the panic-ridden American society’s doubts towards the loyalties of the Middle Eastern immigrant. This unexpected “troubled relationship with the host society, suggesting a lack of acceptance at the least’’ is what Cohen also informs as one of the “common features” of a diaspora (Cohen: 26) – that leads the protagonist to a wider examination of his relationship with the adopted homeland. September-11 has already set new forces into motion which are redefining the immigrant’s relation to nation, diaspora and homeland.
Changez has a decisive attribute in his search for identity that connects him across the post 9/11 continuum. The realization that his job is exploiting developing nations like his own native land, Pakistan, weighs on his conscience and causes him to anticipate what it means to be a member of the U.S. elite meritocracy. The post 9/11 scenario compels him to think about his ethnicity which he wants to retain. Stuart Hall indicates that “identity is a structured representation which achieves its positive through the narrow eye of the negative”. Disillusioned and disoriented, Changez does not find his identity through solidarity, but through resistance to the dominant culture. The novel seems to make a case for a crucial reality on which personal identity is based, constructed on the notion of ‘home’. According to Safran, “idealization of the ancestral home and the idea of return” incorporate experiences of several dispersed people who may feel alienated from the “host society”. After being verbally abused on several occasions, Changez starts identifying himself with his original roots as he believes that his ethnic identity has become a victim of ethnocentrism in the hands of Americans.
Built on the fault lines of East West relations, the novel offers essential cognizance to ‘diaspoic tropes’, such as the beard and the janissary, which highlight Changez’s marginal condition.
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