"‘What is the purpose of your trip to the United States?'" asks the immigration officer at JFK, a heavyset woman with a pistol on her hip, and Changez notes, "a mastery of English inferior to mine."
Changez explains that he lives in the United States.
"‘That is not what I asked you, sir,'" she says. "‘What is the purpose of your trip to the United States?'"
He is taken aside to another room where he sits "on a metal bench next to a tattooed man in handcuffs." His colleagues do not wait for him to be released. Changez recounts, "I rode to Manhattan that evening very much alone."
Eventually, Changez gives up the pampered life and returns to Lahore, where he begins teaching, and his world collides, and colludes, with fundamentalists.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist has been a runaway best seller, translated into more than a dozen languages. It was short-listed for last year's Man Booker, the most prestigious literary award in Britain, for the best novel by a citizen of the Commonwealth or Ireland. (The winner was The Gathering by Irish writer Anne Enright. My choice was Mister Pip by the New Zealand writer Lloyd Jones.)
It is understandable that Americans will be offended by the attitude depicted in these books-the ungrateful, angry immigrant, given all the opportunities of "Western" society. At a recent dinner party in London, an American who described herself as a liberal Democrat said she had been deeply bothered when she read Changez's reaction to 9/11 (which, of course, even he found despicable). Less temperate, Marlowe, in her agitprop critique in National Review, is so offended that she urges people not to buy the book, because they are giving their money to someone who is "aggressively anti-American."
However offensive, the attitudes of Changez, Hamid's fictional alter ego, are widely held. And not just by radical Islamists. I have been astonished in recent years by the number of well-educated individuals I have met, in Indonesia and Singapore, in Australia and Britain, in India and Pakistan, who harbor similar opinions. It is sometimes hard to fathom the depth of antipathy toward the United States these days, not toward individual Americans, but toward the government.
What are we to do? Shut out those views? Dismiss them as "anti-American agitprop?"
Rather than being offended that an individual with an elite education and pampered life could feel such deep resentment, shouldn't our inquiry be: how is it possible that someone who is so well educated and has led such a privileged life has come to this point?
Let us hope we are not simply talking past each other. As the intifada commander in Bethlehem said to Dr. Jaafari, "‘We could spend months and years striving for mutual understanding, and neither of us would ever be willing to listen to the other.'"
Raymond Bonner, who as a foreign correspondent and investigative reporter at the New York Times has reported from nearly one hundred countries, now lives in London.
1I interviewed Habib in Australia after he was released from Guantánamo. See Raymond Bonner, "Detainee Says He Was Tortured While in U.S. Custody," New York Times, February 13, 2005. For an account of Binyam's torture, see Clive Stafford Smith, The Eight O'Clock Ferry to the Windward Side (New York: Nation Books, 2007). Stafford Smith represents Binyam and more than fifty other Guantánamo prisoners.Essay Types: Book Review