peteg's blog - noise - books - 2015 02 14 MohsinHamid DiscontentAndItsCivilizations

Mohsin Hamid: Discontent and its Civilizations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York and London.

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$18.31 from the Book Depository. I got about 350 pages into the Chicago Public Library's inter-library-loaned copy of The Moon of Hoa Binh before my copy from Bennett Books arrived, with some drama as the address omitted my apartment number. I thought I'd chew through this before breaking the plastic wrap on those.

I enjoyed Mohsin Hamid's immediately-previous two novels, but he is a lot weaker in short-short form. This collection of essays is not a patch on Salman Rushdie's Step Across This Line from 2002 (as far as I remember it; see, for instance, his take on 9/11). Coarsely put, Hamid is a good writer but not a deep thinker. Here we get a lot of iteration without too much deepening, which can be somewhat blamed on his aspiration to present the material as closely as possible to its original form. It reeks of laziness a little too often.

I liked his take on Pakistan's Coke Studio (p116), which is perhaps the best thing that company has done for the planet; and of course the people who made the movie of his The Reluctant Fundamentalist had their opening scene ready-made in the form of Kangna by Fareed Ayaz and Abu Muhammad from season four. His more serious efforts to canvas the issues of present-day Pakistan flounder as he does little more than paraquote more serious research. In Why they get Pakistan wrong, he observes that the society has low inequality despite loads of corruption; this is commonly attributed to clannish behaviour. In-country charitable donations run at 5% of GDP; this is perhaps in line with zakat, one of the pillars of Islam, which he neglects to explain. (A wealth tax is surely beyond the imaginings of Westerners! What a blown opportunity.) How about a contrast with Turkey, now undergoing a similar Islamization that was hitherto kept in check by the countries's founders? Also (p138) he bemoans how little of the money earmarked by USAID for Pakistan is disbursed. This is unsurprising given how much arse-covering these guys need to do these days — can't fund the wrong madrassas! — and Hamid somehow failed to mention the chilling effect of the US Government's jihad against zakat from America-based Muslims.

At some point he mentions an ugly scene in Riyadh. Is he a hajji? You won't find out here. Often he channels Amartya Sen et al.'s multi-faceted notions of identity without citation. This points to the central problem with this book: it doesn't even try to explain Islam. Moreover his notion of Asia doesn't appear to stretch to the largest Muslim country (Indonesia) which somewhat tarnishes his universalism. He is on surer ground with personal anecdotes about the usual universals, but meh, I can get those anywhere.

Sukhdev Sandhu at the Guardian. The US is also clearly a patchwork country, as is Europe; the pluralistic experiment has been tried in many places at many times, and so once again I would hope for some historical perspective from the author. Duncan White at the Telegraph similarly quotes at length and observes the lack of depth. Michiko Kakutani similarly at the New York Times.