The tragic events of 9/11 have become fertile ground for novelists, playwrights and screenwriters around the world. Most works based on the events of that day present it from the perspective of those who died. Moshin Hamid’s acclaimed second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist looks at those events from a very different perspective, that of Muslims whose lives have been radically altered by the events of that day forever. Mira Nair’s beautiful and insightful adaptation of Hamid’s novel takes the book’s subtle themes and pushes them to the forefront, while posing the question only hinted at in the novel, is it possible to be a Muslim who is passionately anti-American without being a terrorist?
The story’s central character Changez, artfully played by British actor Riz Ahmed, is a radical university lecturer based in Lahore who arrives for a meeting with an American journalist who suspects Changez of being an Al Qaeda operative. Changez agrees to his request to be interviewed but stipulates one condition – that the journalist hear his entire story. Changez then begins the story of his life, a life which several years earlier saw him as a young post graduate student studying at Harvard university and in love with all things American. Chanqez, while attending Harvard, is approached to work for a large American corporation, one that specialises in making insolvent companies profitable once more. Changez is recruited and quickly excels at his job, since unlike many of his co-workers, he is capable of becoming detached from his emotions and is consequently ruthless in the recommendations he makes to his boss on how to make the failed companies he is asked to access profitable again. Whether it means shutting down entire departments or entire companies and making thousands of workers redundant as a result, Changez never hesitates in any of the recommendations he makes and remains numb to the consequences. As Changez starts to climb the corporate ladder he simultaneously begins a relationship with the company director’s daughter, Erica, an emotionally damaged, unstable artist still mourning the death of her previous boyfriend, which she feels partially responsible for.
Hamid is on record as saying much of the novel is based on his own experiences in America, studying at Princeton and then subsequently working for an American coporation. He uses these experiences to construct a story which compares different types of fundamentalisms, both the unbridled capitalism practiced through- out the West but perhaps most closely associated with America, and with the wave of religious fundamentalism sweeping the east as a reaction against US foreign policy. Changez’ life takes a dramatic turn on the night of 9/11. He is shocked by his initial reaction to the event itself when, for the briefest moment after seeing the planes fly into the North and South towers of the New York Trade Centre, he finds himself smiling; a smile he doesn’t really understand. Changez later finds, when he returns to New York from a business trip, that he is separated from the other passengers at Kennedy airport and strip searched. This treatment continues on the streets of New York where he is mistakenly arrested by police who have responded to a panic call from bystanders because of the inflammatory remarks made by a bearded Muslim. Changez finds that in the wake of 9/11 he is no longer seen as an individual but as just another Muslim and a part of ‘the enemy within’.
Mira Nair, the film’s director, said in a recent interview: “What we are trying to do in our story is to re-complicate what has become a very reductive universe: black, white and nothing in between. And the point is that there were many reactions to a dastardly act like 9/11. We are trying to show the complication of that without taming it”. Nair goes on to state: “In a city like New York, where I always felt at home, I definitely felt, for a few months after 9/11, more like “the other.., I was suddenly conscious of being observed rather than embraced. And then it passed.”
The “reluctant fundamentalist” later arrives in Europe at a time of heightened religious tensions, with growing attacks on Muslims everywhere but particularly in the United Kingdom in the wake of a fatal attack on a British solider by a Muslim. Some mosques in the capital now have police guarding them and many Muslims living in the country are commenting on how they are again feeling as if they are being seen as the enemy within, a situation which very much mirrors the aftermath of 9/11.
In The Reluctant Fundamentalist the changes Changez starts to experience are also internal and caused largely by his increasing sense of isolation. He starts to find that he can no longer pursue his job with the same detached zeal he once felt. He starts to see the consequences of his actions, the faces of the people his financial decisions will have an enormous impact on. What presents an interesting point about this enthralling film is that the fundamentalism it largely criticises is not that of Islam but rather the economic fundamentalism of the West, where companies are valued simply on the revenue they make and the people who work there are seen simply as commodities.
Changez’s relationship with Erica meanwhile starts to deteriorate and ultimately breaks down, primarily because of her inability to move on from the past. Hamid has commented on this relationship stating that at times of change and turmoil we become nostalgic for the past and long for its certainty. Be it the loss of a great love or a society facing an uncertain economic future. Our instinct is to retreat to a romanticised past. But Hamid’s story suggests that this can be dangerous since the past can take on a very seductive quality. It is not a stretch of imagination to see Changez’s damaged lover Erica as a metaphor for America, a wounded super power who in the immediate wake of 9/11 sought to retreat to its conservative, isolated past.
Changez then finds his life redirected on a trajectory he would never have dreamed of a few short years before. He decides to leave his highly paid job in the US and returns to teach in Lahore. He teaches his students to understand the foundations of western capitalism and, in understanding them, to be critical of what they see. Hence Changez also changes, into a reluctant fundamentalist.
Nair’s film adaptation differs from the book in one key point, the novel presents the encounter between Changez and the American in a much more ambiguous way. A way in which he leaves it open to the audience to make up their own mind if the encounter is innocent or has sinister overtones, the film however, presents the stranger in a much more concrete manner since it reveals the American not to be simply a journalist but a CIA operative sent to access whether Changez is a security risk since his lectures on the evils of American capitalism have now attracted the attentions of US security forces putting his life and that of his family in danger.
Nair’s film concludes with a damning indictment of these very same forces, answering the question it poses at the beginning by saying loudly and clearly that it is possible to be critical of American foreign policy without being a terrorist.
Not only is it possible but, perhaps in the light of a foreign policy which at times mirrors Erica’s erratic behaviour, preferable and necessary.
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