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The Reluctant Fundamentalist

February 29, 2016

TRFThis is a story about conflicting ideologies where perception and suspicion have the power to determine life or death.

Pakistani Changez tells Bobby, an American journalist, about his experiences in the United States. Changez tells the American he was an excellent student who completed his bachelor’s degree in Finance from Princeton University and joined Underwood Samson, a consultancy firm, as an analyst. He vacationed in Greece, after graduating from Princeton with fellow Princetonians, where he met Erica (whose name, not by accident, is contained within the word “America), an aspiring writer. He was instantly smitten by her, but his feelings remained almost unrequited because she was still grieving over the death of her childhood sweetheart Chris, who succumbed to lung cancer. After a date, they return to his place and he proceeds to have sex with her, but stops because her emotional attachment to Chris prevents her from becoming aroused. After this incident there is an interlude where neither contact each other. But soon they go on another date, after which they have sex when Changez convinces Erica to close her eyes and fantasize that she is with Chris. Though Changez is satisfied at this development in their relationship, this irreversibly damages their relationship. Soon she begins treatment in a mental institution. He notices she is physically emaciated and no longer her former self. After this meeting he travels to Chile on an assignment. When he returns to meet her, it is found that she has left the institution and her clothes were found near the Hudson River. Officially she is stated as a missing person, as her body has not been found.

But when the Twin Towers are attacked, a cultural divide slowly begins to crack open between Changez and Erica. Changez’s dream soon begins to slip into nightmare: profiled, wrongfully arrested, strip-searched and interrogated, he is transformed from a well-educated, upwardly mobile businessman to a scapegoat and perceived enemy.

Changez, the protagonist (his name clues us in to the character development he’ll undergo) is an uncertain, passive young man. He travels all over the world (to Princeton University, to Greece, to New York City) without ever voicing a particularly strong reason for choosing to go to these places. In reality, he doesn’t “choose” to go to Princeton or New York at all – he obeys what others tell him, or does what he thinks he’s supposed to do.

As its initials suggest, Underwood Samson, the valuation firm Changez works for, symbolizes the U.S. in all of its power, optimism, and under the surface racism. At first, Underwood Samson seems like a perfect meritocracy, feeding its employees a version of the American Dream: if they work hard, they’ll be rewarded. Underwood Samson employees travel around the world, performing seemingly useful services for its clients. But as Changez grows critical of America’s foreign policy, he begins to see the flaws in the “help” Underwood Samson provides for its clients — in order to restructure a company, it has to fire employees, some of whom will never hold a job again. Changez also realizes that Underwood Samson’s meritocracy has limits; when he grows out his beard, he sees his colleagues’ formerly hidden racism very clearly. In the end, he feels the same way about America and Underwood Samson: they have good people, but their imperialism and secret prejudices do more harm than good.

Throughout The Reluctant Fundamentalist, people judge one another based on their clothing, their skin color, and their mannerisms. These forms of racism shape Changez and his impressions of the United States. Although Changez’s friends at Princeton treat him respectfully, they’re aware that he is an outsider in the United States. When they travel to Greece together, Changez experiences various forms of “soft” racism. While not rude or disrespectful to him, his friends think of him as an exotic “pet”; even Erica is attracted to Changez because he is “different.” Changez accepts and in some ways encourages these feelings, partly because he wants Erica and his other friends to accept him and partly because he himself is unsure who he is.

“Yes, despicable as it may sound, my initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased”, he tells the American. He observes the air of suspicion towards Pakistanis.

To express solidarity with his countrymen after his trip to Chile, he starts to grow a beard

With time, he begins to hear the call of his own homeland. After returning to Lahore, he becomes a professor of finance at the local university. His experience and insight in world issues gains his admiration among students. As a result, he becomes a mentor to large groups of students on various issues. He and his students actively participate in demonstrations against policies that were detrimental to the sovereignty of Pakistan. Changez advocates nonviolence, but a relatively unknown student gets apprehended for an assassination attempt on an American representative, which brings the spotlight on Changez. In a widely televised interview, he strongly criticizes the militarism of U.S. foreign policy. This act makes people surrounding him think that someone might be sent to intimidate him or worse.

During his interview with Lincoln, Changez says that at one point he was approached by a terrorist cell and asked to become a mujahid, and he was tempted to accept, feeling deeply angered and disillusioned by “the arrogance, the blindness, the hypocrisy” of the USA, but he finally refused when he was told about the “fundamental truths” of the Q’uran, echoing a phrase Jim Cross had used during their first encounter, “focusing on the fundamentals”. Elaborating on the similarities, he explains that both groups, Islamic fundamentalists and blind capitalist economy represented by Underwood Samson, share the same reductionist outlook, view people in binary terms, thus feeling entitled to get rid of those deemed unworthy.

Changez’s scar seems to worry the Stranger, since it looks like a mark of some violent encounter, but Changez insists that he acquired it as a small child, when a candle dripped molten wax on his arm. It’s also possible, of course, that Changez is lying—that he got it more recently, during the course of violent opposition to the United States. The qualities of the scar itself are almost mutually contradictory: it’s dark, which traditionally symbolizes evil, but also smooth, which traditionally symbolizes innocence. In this way, the way one interprets Changez’s scar mirrors to the way one interprets Changez himself —he could be a sinister figure who conspires to kill the Stranger, he could be innocent of all wrongdoing whatsoever, or he could be a terrorist who’s “innocent” insofar as the United States has pushed him to fundamentalism. Interpreting the scar is like an inkblot test: one’s interpretation says more about the interpreter than about Changez.

 

Changez: Excuse me, sir, but may I be of assistance? Ah, I see I have alarmed you. Do not be frightened by my beard; I am a lover of America.

Jim: “… I get where you’re coming from Changez. You’re hungry, and that’s a good thing in my book.”

Changez: I … found myself wondering by what quirk of human history my companions — many of whom I would have regarded as upstarts in my own country, so devoid of refinement were they — were in a position to conduct themselves in the world as though they were its ruling class.

Changez:Four thousand years ago, we, the people of the Indus River basin, had cities that were laid out on grids and boasted underground sewers, while the ancestors of those who would invade and colonize America were illiterate barbarians. Now our cities were largely unplanned, unsanitary affairs, and America had universities with individual endowments greater than our national budget for education. To be reminded of this vast disparity was, for me, to be ashamed.

Changez: I was, in four and a half years, never an America; I was immediately a New Yorker.

Changez: I was aware of an advantage conferred upon me by my foreignness, and I tried to utilize it as much as I could.

Erica: “I’m more unsettled than nervous,” she said. “It’s like I’m an oyster. I’ve had this sharp speck inside me for a long time, and I’ve been trying to make it more comfortable, so slowly I’ve turned it into a peal. But now it’s finally being taken out, and just as it’s going I’m realizing there’s a gap being left behind.”

Changez: … I did something in Manila I had never done before: I attempted to act and speak, as much as my dignity would permit, more like an American.

Changez: I was caught up in the symbolism of it all, the fact that someone had so visibly brought America to her knees.

Changez: I stared as one — and then the other — of the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center collapses. And then I smiled. Yes, despicable as it may sound,

Changez: They all seemed to proclaim: We are America — not New York, which, in my opinion, means something quite different — the mightiest civilization the world has ever known; you have slighted us, beware our wrath.

Jim: “The economy’s an animal. It evolves. First it needed muscle. Now all the blood it could spare was rushing to its brain. That’s where I wanted to be. In finance. In the coordination business. And that’s where you are. You’re blood brought from some part of the body that the species doesn’t need anymore. The tailbone. Like me.”

Changez: “Are you missing Chris? Then pretend I am him.”

Changez: I wonder now, sir, whether I believed at all in the firmness of the foundations of the new life I was attempting to construct for myself in New York. Certainly I wanted to believe; at least I wanted not to disbelieve with such intensity that I prevented myself as much as was possible from making the obvious connection between the crumbling of the world around me and the impending destruction of my personal American dream.

Changez: I can assure you that everything I have told you thus far happened, for all intents and purposes, more or less as I have described.

Changez: I sat on the airplane next to a man who removed his shoes — much to my dismay — and who said, after praying in the aisle, that nuclear annihilation would not be avoided if it was God’s will, but God’s will in this matter was as yet unknown. He offered me a kindly smile, and I suspected that his purpose in making this remark was to reassure me.

Changez: America, too, was descending into a dangerous nostalgia at that time. There was something undeniably retro about the flags and uniforms, about generals addressing cameras in war rooms and newspaper headlines featuring such words as duty and honor. I had always thought of America as a nation that looked forward; for the first time I was struck by its determination to look back.

Changez: I know only that I did not wish to blend in with the army of clean-shaven youngsters who were my coworkers, and that inside me, or multiple reasons, I was deeply angry.

Changez: I had changed; I was looking about me with the eyes of a foreigner, and not just any foreigner, but that particular type of entitled and unsympathetic American who so annoyed me when I encountered him in the classrooms and workplaces of your country’s elite … I resolved to exorcise the unwelcome sensibility by which I had become possessed.

Changez: There really could be no doubt; I was a modern-day janissary, a servant of the American empire at a time when it was invading a country with kinship to mine and was perhaps even colluding to ensure that my own country faced the threat of war. Of course I was struggling! Of course I felt torn!

Changez: I too had previously derived comfort from my firm’s exhortations to focus intensely on work, but now I saw that in this constant striving to realize a financial future, no thought was given to the critical personal and political issues that affect one’s emotional present. In other words, my blinders were coming off, and I was dazzled and rendered immobile by the sudden broadening of my arc of vision.

Changez: It seemed to me then — and to be honest, sir, seems to me still — that America was engaging only in posturing. As a society, you were unwilling to reflect upon the shared pain that united you with those who attacked you. You retreated into myths of your own difference, assumptions of your own superiority … Such an America had to be stopped in the interests not only of the rest of humanity, but also in your own.

Changez: Not, of course, that I actually believe I am having a relationship, in the normal sense of the term, with Erica at this moment, or that she will one day appear, smiling and bent against the weight of her backpack, to surprise me on my doorstep. But I am still young and see no need to marry another, and for now I am content to wait.

Changez: I can assure you that I am a believer in non-violence; the spilling of blood is abhorrent to me, save in self-defense … I can see from your expression that you do not believe me. No matter, I am confident of the truth of my words.

Changez: But why are you reaching into your jacket, sir? I detect a glint of metal. Given that you and I are now bound by a certain shared intimacy, I trust it is from the holder of your business cards.

Changez: “In 25 years I’m going to be the dictator of an Islamic Republic with nuclear capabilities.”

 

“These men were engaged in their own evaluation, moving people in and out of binary columns. Faithful – infidel. Alive – dead.”

 

Changez: After 9/11, you could choose your side. I had my side chosen for me.

Nazmi Kemal: Nazmi: “Have you heard of the janissaries?”

Changez: “No.”

Nazmi Kemal: Nazmi: “They were Christian boys, captured by the Ottomans at an early age. They were educated to forget their own culture and trained to be soldiers in their army. Then, as fanatical Muslims, they were set loose on the Christian countries from which they were taken.”

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