July Issue 2014

By | Books | Published 10 years ago

Creative non-fiction that focuses on explaining the plight of us non-western folk to the western audience has been in fashion for a long time. There was Three Cups of Tea, which charts out one white man’s mission to single-handedly save Afghanistan and Pakistan by opening schools. Then there was Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a commercial and critical success about the residents of a Mumbai slum.

The Bargain from the Bazaar, written by Haroon K. Ullah, is the latest work written in the same vein, albeit with several differences. It explores issues faced by the middle class of the country as opposed to the class which lives in abject poverty, which is a refreshing change. It also helps that it is written by a Pakistani-American — someone, whose own Pakistani heritage offsets some of the paternalistic ‘wise westerner shedding light on the mysteries of the non-western culture’ attitude that is inherent in this sort of non-fiction.

Written as an amalgam of history, novelistic storytelling and anthropological study, the book charts the lives of an “ordinary, middle class family” living in the midst of the chaos and violence of contemporary Pakistan.

According to the author’s note, The Bargain from the Bazaar is the result of eight years of field research and his relationship with a Pakistani family. It is based on in-depth interviews with this family, as well as with other Pakistanis. It is clear that Haroon K. Ullah has spent a remarkable amount of time researching the story.

The head of the family, Awez, is a veteran of the 1971 war and now runs a jewellery shop in Anarkali Bazaar, Lahore. His wife works as a nurse and of their three sons, one is an opium addict, while another one is training to become a lawyer and the third is training to become a terrorist. The first half of the book outlines the historical background of Pakistan as well the history of the Reza family, and the story gradually picks up as Daniyal, the youngest son, becomes increasingly extreme in his religious views and eventually joins a Taliban-affiliatedmadrassa, embroiling the whole family in a web of terror and violence.

I understand what Haroon K. Ullah is trying to do here. Attempting to understand the social, economic and religious conflicts of Pakistan through the prism of an ordinary family’s experiences and struggles is an interesting idea. It is all the more admirable because it helps the west understand Pakistan on a more human level, in contrast to most of the discourse surrounding Pakistan in the west, which focuses more on geopolitics and terrorism. It also reflects the truth that most moderate, ordinary Pakistanis are as appalled by the growing religious fanaticism in the country as people on the outside are. And the idea of two brothers growing up in the same house and heading in such different directions is an apt metaphor for the growing struggle between religion and modernism in Pakistan.

The problem is that the book offers no fresh analysis or insight into these issues, which might have been helpful to us Pakistanis. It caters exclusively to a western audience. To a Pakistani, there is nothing in this book that we didn’t already know. Having a western audience in mind may not necessarily be a flaw. It is important, I’d imagine, that ordinary Americans learn more about the country which is the United States’ most important regional ‘ally’ in the War on Terror. But for a Pakistani, a lot of the explanation of the details of our cultures and traditions becomes ingratiating after a certain point. Lassi, the book tells us, is “a yoghurt-milk drink which tastes like a tangy milkshake.” It is also the “white wine of the East.” Many of the terms just don’t ring true to Pakistani society. The boys go to “high school,” a girl wears a “gown” to somebody’s wedding and one person refers to the Quran as “al-Quran.” There are also certain times where the author treats his subjects with condescension. When recounting the past of Shez, the mother of the family, the author mentions that she had an American pen pal who was not only teaching her English but also giving her “a sense of a wider world,” a statement which makes it hard to ignore the implication that a young woman from Pakistan is woefully ignorant about the world until an American bestows her with the knowledge she needs.

More significant than the awkward phrasing, Americanised explanations and occasional condescension is the fact that the book as a whole does not work well together. Events of the Reza family’s lives are abruptly broken up with long-winded history lessons or meandering asides about politics and religion. And while you cannot expect the people present in a work of non-fiction to be as well-developed as fictional characters, these people are nothing more than vehicles through which the author can expound on his sociopolitical commentary. The characters don’t talk unless it is to comment on current events or politics and, even then, the dialogue is stilted and wooden. Even the terrorists say clichéd things like “Eliminating the infidel, that is our task.”

So, while The Bargain from the Bazaar is well-intentioned and probably useful for an American reader, for us Pakistanis, it works neither as a work of anthropology nor as a narrative.

This article was originally published in Newsline’s June 2014 issue under the headline “Catering to the West.”

Nudrat Kamal teaches comparative literature at university level, and writes on literature, film and culture.