Zia Haider Rahman ‘In The Light of What We Know’

Before 9/11, I was invisible, unsexed. How is it that after 9/11 suddenly I was noticed. Not just noticed but attractive, given the second look, sized up, even winked at? img_1515Was that the incidental effect of no longer being a piece with the background, of being noticed, or was it sicker than that? Was this person among us no longer the meek Indian, the meek Pakistani, the sepoy, but fully man? Before 9/11, I was hidden behind the wall of colonial guilt after having been emasculated by a history of subjugation.

It’s 2008 and there’s a knock on the door of the narrators home in south Kensington he answers to an unkempt skinny brown skinned man who he doesn’t initially recognise, but is his best friend who had dropped off of the radar ten years earlier. Here is a story told slowly over time in a series of one on one discussions in the narrators home by Zafar to his friend. Both are first generation arrivals from South East Asia, but with very different backgrounds thet earlier, as friends, the narrator had never really explored. He came from a rich Pakistani family with powerful connections and links to the military which of course Zafar knew, we then learn together that Zafar’s family came from Bangladesh, once East Pakistan and we are told of the difficulties between the two regions from the outset:

Even the name of the new nation, the most loyal expression of a people’s language, it’s label, was an act of exclusion and subordination. The préfabrication of one Choudhary Rahmat Ali: P, Punjab. A, Afghania, K Kashmir, and the -stan, the annexe of land, land of the PAK, with an anaptyxic epenthetic i, don’t you know, just to root the acronym in the land, all of which made a neat little pun, Land of the Pure, the Muslims, while it brought together its constituent peoples. Only it didn’t. Where were the Bengalis? Where was the B? 1000 miles of India between them. Surely not left out merely because the pun wouldn’t work but never conceived as a piece of the country, a part of the main. Next in 1948, the West made Urdu the sole official language of the Eastern part..

The story weaves backwards and forwards in time according to the seemingly random choice of Zafar, they had both studied in the USA together, mathematics before branching out differently, the narrator in at the very start of the sub-prime packaging (yes 2008 was an uncomfortable time for him) and Zafar had been sucked into the void that was Afghanistan. But how and why, where is the story taking us? We learn that Zafar had always been able to defend himself if necessary from violence and he tells uf of the changes he perceived in peoples attitude to him in Ney York after 9/11 as illustrated in the opening quote.

Zafar is a tortured personality, fistly we learn that his family, the people that brought him up were not his parents, back to Bangladesh:

In March of 1971, the Bengal state -at that time officially East Pakistan – declared its independence as Bangladesh. West Pakistan imported troops to put down the rebellion. Until India’s armed intervention in December 1971, Pakistani troops waged war against the Bengalis. Estimates place the death toll at 3 million, the number of women raped at over 200,000 and their resultant pregnancies at 25,000
-Dorothy Q. Thomas and Regan E. Ralph,’Rape in War: Challenging the Tradition of Impunity’.

Slowly throughout the book we learn of his relationship with the aristocratic Hampton-Wyvern family, of the difference of class, Penelope the mother and Emily the daughter, of his time with Emily not quite working out and his eventually spending time in care after  suffering a break-down with occasional visits by Emily but in spite of being informed by Emily, the narrator never visited him. Interspersed with this we learn of his time in Afghanistan working for AfDARI, the Afghan Development, Aid and Reconstruction Institute, pulled in because of his education and background:

My stated business, at least as documented, was to act as adviser to a department of the new Afghani administration. Advisers were numberless in Kabul, like stray dogs in Mumbai;even the advisers had advisers, and none of them were less than ‘special advisers’ or ‘senior-advisers’.

But where is all of this hugely sweeping story taking us? well of course after taking in large pans of world history the point we are circling is much more personal, much closer to home, the story is designed to bring the two men closer:

I’m asking questions and you’re uncomfortable. Relax. I can stop, said Zafar.
Of course he could stop and I could have stopped him…. But I said nothing. It’s a difficult thing to admit, but Zafar’s potential for cruelty has always pulled me in, binding me to him. Here he was, staying at my home, eating my food, availing himself of my hospitality. I wanted to tell him that I was the successful one here. But the ungenerous thought couldn’t withstand the reality: My marriage was a disaster; my home, this retreat, was foreign soil , made bearable only by his arrival..

Closer, which they need to become in order to discuss the heart of the matter and the Hampton-Wyverns.

A story crammed full of information and written in a very precise style, a worthwhile read.

First Published in English as “In the Light of What We Know” in 2014 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

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