Trying my hand at a novel on the Middle East

150205 – Trying my hand at a novel on the Middle East

I remember some 20 years ago, while writing a RAND study on Sudan, I spent a number of hours with the fascinating and distinguished former Foreign Minister of Sudan, Francis Deng. He is actually from southern Sudan, when it was still part of a unified Sudanese state at that time; he was Christian and not Muslim, and Dinka, not Arab. He had written a number of studies about Sudan, but finally turned his hand to eventually two novels about southern Sudan. “The relationships at the personal and political level are so complicated that only fiction can do it justice,” he said. I read both, The Seed of Redemption, and The Call of the Owl, both excellent, gripping and informative in exploring the complex nature of southern Sudanese identity and its dilemmas in a Muslim Arab state.

We’re all familiar with other novels that can illuminate complex social and political problems through the vehicle of fiction. One recent and well-known example is The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid. This novel presents a galvanizing tale of a young member of Pakistan’s elite coming to the US to get an MBA, who is then recruited into a top level US accounting firm where he achieves great professional success. Yet in the events and atmosphere after 9/11 he becomes gradually alienated by life in American society, and ultimately returns to Pakistan with disturbing consequences. Sure, we might read a sociologist’s account of the alienation of young professional Muslims even as they succeed in the West, but to read the novel puts flesh and blood on abstract sociological and psychological concepts. We are reading about one specific human being, with the full range of human idiosyncrasies; we are able to enter his world and see things through his eyes. This is the power of the novel.

Another case is the novels of Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah. Few westerners ever venture to the complex and tortured world of Somalia. But to read Farah’s novels represents a crash course in Somalia, what it is like to live and operate in Mogadishu and the countryside with its baffling and conflicting tribal and economic conflicts. Somalia makes sense to us at that point, even if we are uncomfortable with its political scene. These novels should be prescribed reading for US diplomats and military who set foot into that society. Indeed, when I was in charge of long-term forecasting at CIA for a number of years, I regularly urged junior analysts who had not been out much in the field, to make sure they read novels from the area of their interest, and not just intelligence reports. Armed with these insights it is harder for us to be sanguine about how easily American power might be able to intervene and alter the structure of these societies.

Fiction takes external events and puts them at the human level. We’re no longer talking about the “objective” and bloodless studies (many of which I’ve written in my day) in which geopolitical factors are the analytical focus, taking precedence over human factors on the ground. “Collateral damage” is one clinical term we use, for example, to cover up the idea of killing innocent civilians, real people who die, who have families and friends and a place in the social order. Indeed, individual lives are the building blocks of what become broad social movements, operating at the human level.

And when we lose the human perspective, we are at risk of violating deeper moral principles. The Hippocratic oath for doctors, for example—“Above all do no harm”—is easily lost by the beady-eyed observer of chess-moves on a grand geopolitical board. When it is all about shifting pieces on such a political game board then real human lives and the welfare of societies become only incidental casualties in the movement of long-term geopolitical forces in which we “win or lose.”

Novels also place us in specific cultures, at specific times. We see them in a depth not otherwise accessible in most academic studies or political reporting. We encounter people of backgrounds, classes, or regions we might never encounter, even living as foreigners in some of these countries. We encounter errand boys, house-bound women, the underworld. Fiction humanizes other cultures. It can be “more real” than non-fiction because it creates specific people, in specific places and times; we feel “real things” rather than viewing a situation from the wrong end of telescope in which only grand trends and statistics, and not people, are the subject of observation.

It is in this spirit that I finally felt the need to rise to this same challenge myself. I am about to publish my first novel, Breaking Faith. It’s about Pakistan and the surrounding US ordeal in neighboring Afghanistan. I hope that a fictional treatment of Pakistani scene and the US presence there, can illuminate issues in a fresh way. The story is indeed fictional, but perhaps very real for all of that, in touching on many of the key issues that drive Pakistan as well as the official American presence there—and all through the eyes of specific individuals in both cultures with full personal lives, motivations, fears and ambitions.

I’ll write more about the novel in greater detail as soon as it is published, hopefully in late February. Stay posted.