The Reluctant Fundamentalist: Reflections on the Post-9/11 World

By Sonya Rehman

Filmmaker Mira Nair’s adaptation of Pakistani author, Mohsin Hamid’s novella, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, seems to have been released at the right time. Nearly twelve years after two planes ripped through the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York, the world has contorted into something unrecognizable, unnerving and unsettling.

And Hamid’s book, published in 2007, and Nair’ film – released this year – seems to remind us of how lives drastically changed and events unfolded, how the clash of ideologies became the new war, how stereotyping and xenophobia became easy labels and perceptions, and how this massive, invisible border took root between the East and the West; separating, confusing, dividing, and alienating.

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Released in Pakistan this month, a friend and I watched the movie on a Monday evening at a cinema in Lahore. It’s a terrific production, carrying Nair’s unique, cinematic signature. The talented Riz Ahmed plays the role of Changez Khan – a young Pakistani from the city of Lahore working on Wall Street. The stark contrast between Khan as an endearingly earnest, boyishly charming young man before 9/11 and after – as a jaded, slightly mysterious, older, intellectual version of himself is played out remarkably well by Ahmed.

But what’s fascinating about the book and the movie in itself, is that both stand as a coming of age story amidst politics, xenophobia and most importantly; the question of self, the quest for identity, patriotism, a returning to one’s roots for imperative answers, a journey back to the basics, the disentanglement from the comforts of the first world – The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a story about a boy who becomes a man, who loves and then loses, yet, who has the privilege of experiencing life outside Pakistan, understanding geopolitics from a holistic point of view, minus personal judgment.

But perhaps, what is most fascinating, heartrending even, is the relationship between Khan and his American girlfriend (played by Kate Hudson) – from its tingly initiation to how it evolves, grows and then peters away, after the tragedy of 9/11, and the greater tragedies that ensue because of it.

Their love and friendship represents an innocence, an understanding, an education of two disparate cultures that are eventually wrenched away and marred due to politics, the role of the media as a whole, and again, the rise of stereotypical thought, basic understanding, rigidity, and eventually, the death of innocence, love, and mystery, only to be replaced by a significant consciousness of the self – especially in Khan’s case. He is a changed man when he returns back to his homeland. Back to his roots, to Lahore, Pakistan, where he begins teaching at a local university, only to again become embroiled in the events in the aftermath of 9/11.

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When the movie was over, my friend and I walked towards our car in quiet contemplation. As we made our way back home, we passed by a few security checks, slowly snaking our way past steel and concrete roadblocks, as young armed men with alert, suspicious eyes looked into each car, simultaneously flagging down motorcyclists and dodgy cars with tinted windows.

Security checks. Suspicion. A lack of trust. A romance of misconceptions. The East and the West. The pursuit of the self. The Reluctant Fundamentalist sheds light on all of these things. The production truly was released at the right time, because it leaves one with a hollow, albeit troubling feeling that the world has never been, and will never be the same again since 9/11.

The Diplomat Magazine

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