Daniyal Mueenuddin is a critically acclaimed Pakistani author. In this interview with Claudia Krammatschek, he talks about Pakistani feudalism, about how the flood plays into the hands of Islamic radicals, and about Pakistan's particular social fabric
You live on a farm in South Punjab, which is one of the areas being most affected by the flood. What are your personal impressions?
Daniyal Mueenuddin: The West has still not absorbed the nature or extent of the disaster. You need to think of this like a neutron bomb in reverse: There has been tremendous destruction of property, but the people have all been left alive – there are only a few thousand killed. As a result, this is going to be a slow-motion disaster, with the misery increasing over time.
The people who escaped – their animals are dead, they lost their food stocks, their standing crops have been destroyed – are now basically using up whatever resources they have left, which were never much to begin with, and are now going to starve. But not only that: They lost the means of generating more income, their lands are under water and once they get back to their lands, once the water has receded, it is going to be very expensive to make these lands fertile and utilizable.
So what you have is a country that is already descending into chaos, and this process is now going to be vastly accelerated I fear. And therefore I think it is very much in the interest of the West to spend money at this point in Pakistan. Unfortunately this is not happening, as you know.
Many people in the West fear their money would get into the hand of the wrong people.
Mueenuddin: There is no question about it, there will be pilferage. But that is just a part of the cost of doing business in Pakistan. And that is not a sufficient reason to say, okay, to hell with you. Because the problem is: You can't say to hell with us. Pakistan's instability is the world's instability, and when we are injured, sooner or later the world bleeds. It is just a question of when you are going to address the problem.
The West can step in now, or step in later, when the country has descended into a deeper chaos, at which point the cost both in treasure and blood will be much higher. The West cannot disengage, however much it would like to.
Your debut "In Other Rooms, Other Wonders", a collection of eight linked short stories, leads us into the main land of the Punjab. In the centre of all stories is a very rich and powerful landowner family. The book makes us therefore familiar with what is called feudalism in Pakistan. What should a Western reader know about this issue?
Mueenuddin: First of all, I hope that the reader doesn't know to need anything about feudalism to read these stories. But yes, we do have this so called feudal system, which is not, as it was in Europe, a structure that lasted for hundreds of years. In Pakistan what happened is that the British, after conquering the Punjab in the middle of the 19th century, selected families and individuals who were notable in one way or the other and gave them lands and power, in order to rule through them. The so-called feudal families in Pakistan are already, three generations after they came to power, withering away, and being replaced by others who have sharper wits and sharper appetites. My stories depict this moment, when the old powers are replaced by the new.
The stories take place between the end of the 70ies and 9/11. What kind of transformation did feudalism undergo during that time?
Mueenuddin: The generation of feudal landowners who held power in the terminal period of the British Raj, i.e. the rule of the British Indian Empire, had a quite strict system of principles, and these principles have now been abandoned. It is not only that those gentlemen weren't corrupt, but that they couldn't conceive of being corrupt. The loss of those principles has utterly transformed and undermined the country.
It is important to understand that corruption is not just about money, it seeps into all aspects of the society – there is nothing that is not infected by it. There are still families and individuals who are characterized as feudal, but they no more resemble the generation of feudals who came before them, than Pakistan today with its bombs and beards resembles sleepy pastoral Pakistan of the 1950s.
The stories follow the lives of the Harouni family. But we look at them through the eyes of the employees: the gardeners, the drivers, the cooks, the servants. And in the end it seems that the relation of power is much more complex than a Western reader would expect it to be.
Mueenuddin: One of the things I find most striking living in Pakistan is that there is such a tremendous connectedness. The texture of life is therefore very different than in the West. In the course of my day I have intimate interactions with so many people, the sweeper, the guy who sells cigarettes, my driver, my cousin, my aunt, and on and on. Not only do I encounter these people, but each of them feels that he or she can make demands upon me, can assume that I am interested in their problems and lives. People live these very complex, connected lives within an extremely hierarchical society. And that is what I tried to show, this complicated ball of relationship, in order to give a correct understanding of the nature of people's lives in Pakistan.
Although it is an extremely hierarchical society, because of this connectedness, there is a safety net. In Pakistan, unlike in the West, it is literally true to say, No man is an island.
Western readers might read it more or less as a critique of feudalism and not as a human explanation of this world – would you be disappointed?
Mueenuddin: Yes, I would be, definitely. I want to be read as a writer of literary fiction and I want the book to be appreciated for its literary qualities. To some extent this is inevitable, simply because I am writing about an unfamiliar place, which happens at the moment to be in the news. People pick up the book because they want to understand what makes Pakistan tick, what it is that causes us to send suicide bombers into their comfortable lives. Over time, however, this will change. In twenty years, if I am lucky enough to be read, it will be for my literary qualities. Nobody today reads Chekhov in order to gain an understanding of 19th century Russia.
Some critics compared "In Other Rooms, Other Wonders" to "Sketches of the Sportsman" by the great Russian 19th century writer Ivan Turgenev. How was your book received in Pakistan?
Mueenuddin: My readership in Pakistan primarily consists of friends and family. Few Pakistanis read English, and of the ones who do, very few spend their leisure hours curled up with effete books of short stories. Except among a small population of aesthetes – bless them – my book has had little impact.
Is there a Pakistani edition on the market?
Mueenuddin: Actually not. I quit consciously did not want to sell the book in Pakistan. In Pakistan to be prominent without being powerful is an undesirable position. I live out in the countryside, where already I feel exposed, am too visible. The last thing I want is to draw attention to myself.
You said Pakistan facing the flood is descending into chaos. That is the title of a famous book by Ahmed Rashid. Concerning the flood, there was very soon the fear that the vacuum of power and help would be filled by extremists.
Mueenuddin: Not only might it happen, it is happening. These extremists are extremely clever, they understand that this is a wonderful opportunity to win over peoples' hearts and minds. They have money, and even more important, they have armies of followers, followers who are highly motivated. Because they belong to this place, they can go out into the villages, and speak in a language that the people can understand, and can win them over effectively. They are part of the fabric of the place.
Some people say the extremists are on the rise and have taken over many regions – others say they are still a minority and do not have any support by the average and common people. How do you assess the situation?
Mueenuddin: Both positions are correct: A) that they are a minority; B) mostly the population doesn't want to be governed by them; and C) they are growing exponentially in strength. They are heavily armed – and they have the good stuff, effective weapons. They are extremely disciplined internally as an organization. And they are fanatic, willing to die. It doesn't take that many of them to take over a country – one man who is willing to die, and who has a Kalashnikov, is stronger than a hundred men whose most cherished desire is to see the light of dawn tomorrow. They just need to be everywhere, to have a presence in every village and town. In my area, at least, this is very much the case: They are developing adherents in every village and hamlet. Although I am not an expert, I believe this is the case all over the country.
What would be the worst-case scenario concerning the long-term effects of the flood? And what could be the best-case scenario?
Mueenuddin: The worst case obviously is that this flood contributes to and accelerates a spiral into extremism, which leads to a violent revolution. The best case? I am giving you a best case that is realistic, that is actually possible. I think it's going to be very difficult to reverse even in the medium term the anti-Western sentiment in the north. The north historically has always been hostile to outsiders. In the south, however, this is not the case. If the West makes a significant intervention in the south, I think it is possible not only to arrest but even to reverse the tendency towards chaos and collapse. This is a huge opportunity, because at the moment the West and Western agencies and Western money can actually get out into South Punjab and the Punjab, because of the flood.
Before the flood there was no modality, whereas if it's done very intelligently now, there is a justification for reaching out into the districts. The world cannot afford to have Pakistan be as chaotic as it is likely to become, if there is not a significant intervention now.
Interview: Claudia Kramatschek
© Qantara.de 2010
Daniyal Mueenuddin was brought up in Lahore, Pakistan and Elroy, USA. A graduate of Dartmouth College and Yale Law School, his stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Zoetrope, The Best American Short Stories 2008, selected by Salman Rushdie, and the forthcoming PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories 2010. He is the 2010 winner of The Story Prize, an annual book award for short story collections, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award and the LA Times Book Prize. For a number of years he practiced law in New York. He now lives on a farm in Pakistan's southern Punjab.
Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de