The News on Sunday: The English fiction coming out of Pakistan is mostly political, forming part of a large post 9/11 corpus. Did you feel constrained about “writing for a Western audience”?
Arif Shamim: No, that was not my intention. My focus was Waziristan. Why people from all over the world come to the wild west of Pakistan? Did I get my answer or did I succeed in highlighting the real issue, it is for the readers to decide. When I started writing it, I was more concerned about bombings and drone attacks in Pakistan. Yes, there is the imperative sense of anger, loss and empathy that you might have seen throughout the story.
TNS: We see the angst in ordinary urban characters against the West’s double standards etc. in different works of fiction but I don’t think anybody has attempted to look at the terrorists’ own lives so closely or humanised them in this way before. Did you deliberately decide to focus on the complexity of the problem?
AS: Yes, exactly. No matter what we do, we are human and will remain so — in our love, anxiety, rage and even in our helplessness. Ameer Nusrat remained so till his death when he tried to touch his imaginary tale. How many murders does it take to turn one into a beast, I ask.
As journalists, we are bombarded daily with news of death and destruction, of bombs and suicide bombings. We can’t be indifferent to the happenings around us and, unfortunately, at least in the last two decades we have only seen death and destruction.
Read also: Review of ‘The Ameer is Dead‘
For me, there is no such thing as a planned life. Life is never planned. We make decisions based on our impulses and circumstances. But at the same time we all know that what is right for somebody could be wrong for others. Even the concept of beauty varies from culture to culture. During the course of my research, I found out that we always write one side of the story. One needs to find out what goes on in the mind of someone who is going to end his own life and with him the lives of many others.
Once I wrote a small play in the form of a column for BBC Urdu. It was about the last night of a Palestinian suicide bomber and the conflicts in his mind.
But in The Ameer is Dead all other characters were born with the death of Ameer Nusrat. I mean, initially I only had Ameer’s death in mind. But then, like the transoceanic nature of the conflict, other characters emerged from different parts of the world.
So when I started writing, I was trying to figure out why people sacrifice their lives for their beliefs, for their religion, and even for their country. In the case of soldiers what makes them kill others, and in the case of suicide bombers what make them sacrifice their lives in order to kill others. It is all very complex. But I have tried to explain it using the liberty of fiction or by hiding behind it.
TNS: Tell us something about the form. Did you have the story in your mind for a long time before you could figure out the form?
AS: There have been many drones killing high-profile al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders. My fictional lead character is born out of these drone deaths. Actually, once I was with some senior army officers who were reading transcripts of conversations amongst the Taliban after the death of one of their leaders. I requested to read some of them and I was shocked to see the scale of the problem — in those conversations, everybody was talking about killing others or how to plan more deaths. It all seemed surreal but it was as real as death itself. I wrote four profiles and then purposely merged them together to show one life.
TNS: What about the four characters of Ameer Nusrat, Asim, Yashar and Abdul that you have developed. How much of these are drawn from reality and how much of it is fiction? Did you think through these characters till the end or did you let them develop and assume a life of their own?
AS: I let the characters develop. Since I was their creator, I knew that they all have to die in the end. What came in between just came with the flow as the story developed.
The characters are fictional and real at the same time. Ameer Nusrat is as real as any other ameer who died in a drone attack. Asim is the depiction of all young men who knowingly or unknowingly get caught in the quagmire of death for whatever they believe in. Yashar is in fact what Uzbekistan is today: a nation suppressed first by communist Soviets and then by a dictator. And Abdul shows the character of an ordinary person in southern Punjab and how the mushrooming growth of madrassas has affected society over there.
TNS: How easy or difficult it was to research on areas like Uzbekistan and Afghanistan or even Waziristan. How did you do it?
AS: This is very interesting. I have never been to Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. I read many books, scanned many libraries and flew over both countries with the help of Google Map. Believe me, using Google Map to scale the areas and distances between different parts of Afghanistan and Uzbekistan was a very exciting experience. It took me more than a month to find a route which is not very common, but from where Yashar, my Uzbek character, can cross the border. Uzbekistan was the toughest part of the book.
To get in the mind of Yashar, I needed to know the country, its people, politics and history. I tried to read everything I could lay my hands on, even their culinary books.
TNS: How was the experience of publishing online, which may be the first for a Pakistani author? Do you think it will exclude a certain kind of readership and at the same time attract an even bigger and younger readership?
AS: I am not the first Pakistani author to get published online. There are a few others too. Juggernaut Books, my publisher, has also published Umera Ahmed, Ali Akbar Natiq and even Husain Haqqani. I am not sure but I could be the only fiction writer who wrote a novel on Waziristan; at least that was the case when I started writing my novel.
TNS: You are at your next novel already, we believe. What is it about?
AS: I don’t know. There are a couple of ideas but my lazy self is sleeping over them. Let’s see what the future holds.