The following appears in the current issue of Tin House, Faith.
Writing about the subject of faith in a country named for faith, founded upon faith, with faith as the central word of its national motto, is, shall we say, a somewhat fraught endeavor. I have for the past six years again lived in Pakistan, where I was born and spent about half of my younger life. Pakistan is the stan, the land, of the pak, the pure. It was founded as a home for the Muslims of British Imperial India as the British left and partitioned India. Pakistanis learn from our first schoolbook, and see inscribed on signs and posters and sometimes in the form of flowers on the grassy margins of roads, the exhortation “Unity, Faith, Discipline.” Unity around faith. Discipline in faith. Unified, disciplined faith.
Even so, I was struck anew upon my return to Pakistan by the degree of coercion and compulsion and indeed violence in matters of faith. When I was a child, restaurants still served food, albeit discretely, during the fasting hours of the month of Ramadan. They do so no longer. When I was a child, I did not know which of my friends were Shia. It did not seem to matter. Now people are not infrequently killed for being Shia, murdered by shadowy assassins. Others are killed for belonging to other sects, or for questioning the nation’s blasphemy law, or for defending those who question the nation’s blasphemy law.
No, my present home does not seem a particularly auspicious venue for inquiries into faith.
And yet faith takes many forms. There is, of course, the faith one might have in organized religion. And then there is the faith a farmer has when planting a seed purchased with borrowed money that this year the rains will arrive on time, that it is possible to farm and make a living from farming, that a farmer and his family can somehow survive. There is the faith a parent has when sending a child to school that she will return. There is the faith a writer has when sitting down alone, day after day, year after year, that the words will come.
There is also the faith that the place where one lives is indeed a sensible place to call home. In my case, this last item of faith has during the past six years faced a bit of a test.
“Why the hell do you live there?” friends in New York and London have been known to say, a question somehow both mildly offensive and warmingly touching at the same time. My friends say this especially after a recent massacre or bombing or discovery of a terrorist mastermind residing next door to the country’s military academy.
My answers turn to family: to the pleasure I get, having grown up in an extended, tri-generational family, to live in a situation where my children can play with their grandparents every morning before the children go to school and the grandparents, who reside next door, go to work. I tell my friends about the importance to me, a storyteller, of feeling I am part of a story, and how I do feel part of a story here. I mention some vague yet not flimsy romantic attachment to Lahore, the way the city moves me.
But I know, have perhaps always known, that the choice to live in Pakistan is at heart a matter of faith: the faith that this land will live up to at least some of its vast potential, that it will stop devouring the dreams of its residents, that its children will grow up with more stability and less potential violence than they face today.
When I first moved back I felt cautiously optimistic. Pakistan had survived so much. Free elections had just transpired. Surely things would begin to improve.
I do not remember the first time I despaired. Perhaps it was brought on by an untimely funeral. Or by schools closing for the holidays prematurely, because of a fear of attacks. Or by glancing at a newspaper one morning. Or by yet another friend finally, after long resisting, packing up and moving abroad.
I have often thought of leaving again myself, but I have not yet left.
My faith in this place has, I will admit, been shaken. But my faith in New York was once shaken, when I lived there. My faith in London was once shaken, when I lived there.
I suppose I have learned to live with intermittent faith in a place. I leap from moments when I think, yes, my home will flourish, to others when I think, no, all that awaits is decline. Maybe this ebb and flow is common. Maybe it has more to do with me. Maybe it is the nature of a fiction writer, some fiction writers, to exist suspended between what is and what we desire there to be, unable, in the end, to pick one over the other, to commit to the life, to reality, or otherwise to the dream.
Mohsin Hamid is the author of three novels, Moth Smoke, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, and a book of essays, Discontent and Its Civilizations. Born in Lahore, he has spent about half his life there and much of the rest in London, New York, and California.