Mr. Cook made us read a lot of books my junior year of high school, but the book that stood out the most to me was yours, The Reluctant Fundamentalist. I had read books that I had seen bits of myself in before: The Power of One, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, Othello, but I had never read a piece of fiction that spoke to me as much as your book did. There was the obvious: a young brown man with an uncommon name (Changez), who attended a renowned American educational institution, played soccer, had an interest in business, was caught between two worlds, struggled with the decision to grow a beard, who even traveled for work as I aspired to.
But what I remember most clearly was the day our class discussed Changez’s reaction to the twin towers falling, how his reaction as an ivy-league educated Pakistani working at a prestigious New York consulting firm was not one of knee-jerk sympathy, but something a bit harder to admit. Our class was mostly composed of girls, all pretty and athletic and popular, and two or three boys who were also handsome, athletic, and popular (an argument could maybe be made for my being handsome— I most certainly was not athletic or particularly popular, however). A cocktail of a teenage lack of confidence combined with a cluelessness of how to talk to girls in a way that did not jeopardize my own social standing and did not alienate my upbringing prevented me from saying much in this class. On this day I was especially silent, hearing my American classmates echo each other’s bewilderment as to how one could possibly see such a great tragedy unfold and not immediately be moved to compassion, disbelief, and wrath. Mr. Cook asked us how we felt when we saw images of Baghdad being blown to smithereens on TV, in grainy green night-vision footage. Nobody volunteered that we felt the way Changez did when he saw the towers fall, but we all knew that Iraq’s tragedies were not as moving as New York’s.
You see, my own 9/11 experience was altogether a very different one. I was seven years old, at the tail end of a summer spent in India. I remember inventing a game with my cousins called “Par-the-Level”, where we combined the classic “Floor-is-Lava” game with the basketball favorite “HORSE” and added many inventive obstacles to the mix. It was a summer full of chasing the ice cream cart man as he walked down the dusty streets in the afternoon, calling out loudly “Kwality Wall’s, Kwality,” knowing full well that the announcement of the local ice cream brand would send children our age darting to the nearest adult for a handful of rupees to exchange for some of his frozen treats. It was the summer I first learned cricket, when I started speaking Urdu, when my newfound independence of being able to roam the neighborhood with my gang of cousins liberated me from the sheltered routines of suburban, homeschooled New England life.
It was the summer that changed everything. I remember coming downstairs for a glass of water after an intense session of Par-the-Level when my aunt called me over and asked “Obaid, what happened to your America?” It didn’t feel weird to me that she would address me this way, because yes, it was my America. India was nice but I hated the layer of malai that always formed on the milk here, and Chocos were great but that was about the only cereal that was— unlike in my own country where we had Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Froot Loops and all manner of juvenile diabetes packaged as breakfast staples.
“What do you mean what happened?” I asked. “It’s been attacked,” she said. I almost laughed in her face, so ridiculous the idea seemed to seven-year-old me. America, attacked? I didn’t know much, but I knew for a fact that it was the strongest nation in the world, that wars and such horrors were a reality for others, not for us. But she directed my attention to the TV screen, and for the next several days all I saw were two scenes that will forever be embedded in my mind: one an aerial shot of a plane hitting a tower, and the second a shot from street level, that showed a man walking towards the camera, hearing the impact, looking up, and running full speed away from the explosion in the most primal of human responses. I had no choice but to accept this reality.
I felt bad. It was terrible that such a thing had happened, and only an hour and a half drive from our home, where my dad was. We talked to him on the phone and he reassured us that he was okay. We were supposed to fly back later that week into JFK, but when the airport was shut down our stay in India was prolonged for another week or two.
Seven-year-old me had a conviction and simplicity that I envy sometimes. He saw the adults who never used to watch TV now always huddled around it watching boring news channels, that showed no other news for the next several days. He saw them worry about how their youngest sister, my mother, would make it back with three small children in tow, the youngest of whom was just three months old. They worried about the change of itineraries and airport closures, the fact that our flight would now stop at Heathrow just so they could deplane everyone to go through a final security check before we would be allowed to continue across the pond.
I had two main complaints. First, we were not terrorists, we did not know any terrorists, and we did not support terrorists. So why worry? We were just normal Americans, what did we have to be afraid of? Everyone would know we were innocent. And second, for God’s sake would you grown ups stop watching the news? We had missed days of cartoons, let us go back to watching Thundercats and Tom and Jerry and The Mask please!
In the months and years that followed, however, I saw a shift in my country. People who looked or prayed like me (or in many cases didn’t— bigotry is lazy when it comes to fact-checking) were “randomly selected” to step aside in airport security lines. Countries half a world away were bombed and invaded, and hundreds of thousands of innocent people were hurt, killed, and uprooted. But they were just numbers, and as horrid as the idea was, Stalin was right on one thing: a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.
There was a sort of hypocrisy that surfaced in America, one where leaders would talk about how we’d need to give up some freedoms so that we might defeat those who would take away our freedoms. Benjamin Franklin would have been disappointed, would have thought we deserved neither. There was great talk of spreading democracy and liberty to far corners of the world, and yet at home groups of people were singled out, profiled, spied on, arrested, deported, and denied due process, in the name of those very values.
My dad and I used to watch World News Tonight With Peter Jennings religiously, and I felt a great connectedness to the world watching the news with him. We would often sit together on our prayer rugs after Isha namaz talking about current events, and he’d give me history lessons to contextualize what was happening until my mom would invariably come and tell us both to go to bed. When the bombings started he brought home a black and white print out of a map of Afghanistan from work, and later Pakistan and Iraq as well, to tape to my bedroom wall so that we could look up the places Peter Jennings would speak of. And yet, in the summer after 5th grade when I was getting ready to go to school, my parents and my grandmother sat me down after dinner one evening and told me not to talk about politics at school. If I heard something I didn’t agree with, better to keep my head down and not engage than to say something and end up on the news. Maybe it was overly cautious of them in retrospect, and I certainly don’t remember my classmates ever bringing up the news in the cafeteria, they were much more concerned with Green Day and Runescape. But I had this idea in my head that I needed to be careful, that the Bill of Rights applied to everyone equally but it applied more equally to some people than others. We’d hear from time to time about friends of family friends who would get FBI visits, who would find out their phones were tapped, who would get pulled over for one thing and get questioned for another.
It made for a confusing time to come of age, one in which the question of identity was incredibly politicized and murky. It was never enough to say that I was American because the follow-up question would inevitably be “But where are you really from?” So I learned to preemptively elaborate my Americanness by saying I was born in India, or that I was Muslim, before anyone could ask.
In fact, the first time in my life I ever truly felt American after 9/11 was during an exchange program to China in high school. There, the fact that I was from an American school was reason enough to lump me in with the rest, for me to be an unhyphenated American. And yet, even there the shadow of the collective experience followed me— I remember on the way back being anxious at the airport, as I often was, that someone would find fault with my passport or my name or my age or my beard or the travel prayer rug I had in the front pocket of my backpack, and would single me out for secondary questioning, perhaps even cause me to miss my flight while they let my white classmates go.
It was refreshing, then, in that same year of high school as the China trip to take Mr. Cook’s class on American Literature, and to read your book. After a lifetime of never seeing characters in novels or TV shows who reminded me of myself, of never seeing my skin represented outside of Bollywood movies (perhaps with the notable exception of Harold and Kumar), Changez felt like a welcome introduction. I understood his background and his references, and I felt that his struggles with identity and belonging were genuine, real. We dissected his experiences as a class, the same way we did Walden or Benito Cereno. I felt a sense of validation, even though he was different from me in so many respects.
Therein lies the magic of good fiction: even when it is artificially constructed it still contains enough truth to hold up a mirror to the reader, to provide fodder for self-reflection. I’ve been a big fan of yours ever since that book, not just for your flowing style but for showing the humanity and the nuance of Changez’s experience in a way that made a class full of American teenagers stop and reflect.
I’d like to thank you for that.