[Book Review] American Dreams and “The Reluctant Fundamentalist”

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The Reluctant Fundamentalist By Mohsin Hamid

 

“[Pakistan] was where I came from, this was my provenance, and it smacked of lowliness…”

Changez, a young Pakistani Princeton graduate, is admitted to New York’s prestigious valuation firm where he immediately becomes the star player. Young, passionate, and eager to take on the world, or at most, America, Changez is thrilled with the life he has made for himself.

Having almost forgotten his hometown in Lahore, Pakistan, he indulges in the benefits bestowed him with his A-list degree and profitable organization. On a weekend vacation, Changez meets all-American girl, Erica, who is undoubtedly the woman of his dreams. She is beautiful, charming, witty, somewhat aloof, but alarmingly mysterious. To his delight, she, too, is captivated by this unconventional Pakistani man.

The two unquestioningly embark on a relationship propelling Changez into American society an inch further. It is a milestone to our protagonist because by now, he identifies more with his neighboring Americans than his blood relatives in Pakistan. And while he also has qualms about Americans who act as if they are the world’s highest ranking individuals, he nonetheless does not want to be associated with his humble origins.

Everything is picture-perfect; just as it should be, until the morning of September 11, 2001. Two planes impale the twin towers riveting American citizens into a state of unprecedented panic. Isolationist tendencies similar to that which existed in 18th century colonial America have resurfaced creating enemies out of innocent Middle-Eastern inhabitants.

Strangely enough, it was neither shock nor devastation that Changez felt for his American friends:

“I stared at one—and then the other—of the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center collapsed. And then I smiled. Yes, despicable as it may sound, my initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased…the fact that someone had so visibly brought America to her knees.”

Apparently, the incident had not only resurfaced previous tensions amongst Americans, but also in Changez. From this point on, he understands that all this time, he had been in love with his fantasy of America—America, the epitome of liberty, openness, and diversity. That America was a dream.

Within days, Changez’s fantasy of America has evaporated. His world has upturned as he is racially profiled in airports for no apparent reason but his appearance. At the office, coworkers are afraid to work with him. Even Erica, lovely and understanding Erica, keeps her distance, claiming that she cannot forget her ex-boyfriend who died of cancer.

It is almost a dystopian illusion of what could have been. Changez could have truly discovered his American-self without the occurrence of a national catastrophe. Perhaps, though, the damage was only waiting to happen—calling attention to 21st century efforts at globalization and international cooperation. Is it true that we are all communicating more; understanding one another more—or are we living an illusion when reality screams of terror and global racism?

Mohsin Hamid’s, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, asks these questions without providing an answer, stretching readers’ focus to Changez’s coming-of-age novel that is easily differentiated from any typical victim’s tale.

By Seo Eui-mi, reporter for The Asia N

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