Mohsin Hamid’s stories of Pakistan

In the past 24 hours I finished reading two books by Mohsin Hamid: Moth Smoke and The Reluctant Fundamentalist. I’m not unearthing anything new here – Moth Smoke was a New York Times Notable Book and The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a bestseller and a Booker Prize Finalist. Nevertheless, let me encourage anyone who appreciates good writing to read these two books. Hamid hits you in the face with the difference between being able to write and being a writer; he is a master of prose, pacing, setting and character.

The books also resonated because I was in Pakistan just two months ago, so the first-hand account of life in Karachi and Lahore was of particular interest. As Americans we have almost no personal exposure to Pakistan, and while I’m sure there are countless political histories available, one could do worse than begin with Hamid, if for no other reason than to remind oneself of the obvious: that Pakistan is a country of 180 million people each of whom has his own story.

I am a novice in my own understanding of Pakistan, having visited there once and having only a cursory knowledge of its history, culture and politics. But the contrast between my experience in Pakistan (confirming that most places, and most people, in the world are more the same than different) and the questions I got both before and after my trip (“how WAS Pakistan??!!”) reinforced my sense that we Americans we have, on the most part, an unbelievably limited exposure to and understanding of this country of 180 million people (and the exposure we get is often in CNN News briefings and statements by Presidential candidates about “the war on terror.”)

The cover of the Economist’s January issue blithely called Pakistan “The World’s Most Dangerous Place” (a Pakistani colleague of mine at Acumen Fund has that cover, hand grenade and all, ironically displayed at his desk). I find that hard to believe, but even if it were true, shouldn’t part of the answer be investing in local solutions that create economic opportunity and help fight poverty (and not just more bombs)? One-fourth of Pakistan’s 180 million people are poor. Food and energy prices are rising (Pakistan recently shifted clocks forward an hour in an effort to save energy, and Acumen Fund Fellow Jawad Aslam’s take on this is not to be missed) and, with rising prices, tension is also rising, especially in the cities. Meanwhile, under the Bush administration alone, the U.S. government has provided more than $2 billion worth of funding to Pakistan, with up to a third of it unaccounted for.

There’s a lot to bite off here, which is intimidating. So why not start with Hamid’s accounts, to pique your interest, and go from there?