An Open Letter to Mohsin Hamid

Pakistani Protests

Dear Mr. Hamid,

I would like to start by saying that you are my favorite living author and that, since Carlos Fuentes’ death in 2012, you are facing very little competition. Indeed, your novels, short stories and essays are some of the biggest influences on my own writing. I sometimes quasi-seriously feel that, when my own books come out in June, I should send you a small commission on each unit sold. The way you openly toy with our prejudices, the way you so clearly observe the intersections of self-interest and identity, the way you resist the urge to moralize – I admire these strengths in your writing to an altogether immoderate degree.

However, it is not just to gush that I’ve written this letter. A few years ago, you and I exchanged a few lines over your Facebook author’s page regarding the restoration (again) of democracy in Pakistan. I doubt you remember so it’s best if I pause here and offer a quick refresher.

You were celebrating the fall of General Pervez Musharraf and hailing the return of democracy. I noted that, in my reading of history, simply deposing a tyrant and holding elections had literally never produced a successful, free society. You replied by saying that Pakistanis had grown tired of dictators and that it was time to give democracy a chance. I, considering myself a guest on your digital sofa, did not press the point but, had I forgotten my manners, I would have laid out an argument much like the following.

If you look at the successful democracies of the last two hundred years, they all, in contrast with the Pakistani civilian government, come from some combination of the same three sources, a) a transformative dictator, b) authoritarian socialism or c) the direct aftermath of an occupation. Japan had the Meiji and the American occupation post-war, South Korea had Park Jung-hee’s industrializing junta and the Japanese occupation, France had the Napoleons, South Africa had the Apartheid regime, communism-lite and the British. It’s not like I’ve cherry picked – Estonia, Greece, Brazil, Turkey, Argentina, Chile, the list goes on.

While history is not terribly ambiguous on what precedes successful democracy, the reasons for our evidently necessary precedents are. You are certainly free to disagree with me from this point on, but I think the only theme uniting communism, transformative dictators and colonialism is the way they all tend to pulverize – often at the cost of thousands of lives – tribal/racial/religious identity, rendering a paste of citizenry who, lost and denuded, must create new institutions or perish. I am not the only person to make this observation about the necessity for crisis in making new institutions. Machiavelli writes thus in Discorsi:

“But it is very true that institutions are never established without danger; for most men never agree to a new law that concerns a new order in the city unless a necessity demonstrates to them that it is required; and since this necessity cannot arise without danger, the republic may easily be destroyed before it is brought to a perfection of organization.”

Now, on the surface it does appear that Pakistan meets the standard for crisis. As you observed in your 2012 NYBooks article, “Pakistan is almost unrecognizable from the country I knew a decade ago. In the late 1990s, hotels and religious shrines like Lahore’s Mian Mir tomb weren’t fortified by concentric rings of security, and household chores didn’t need to be planned days in advance because of electricity and gas rationing. Market-baked bread for dinner could be bought for coins instead of notes, and scenic areas like the Swat Valley were still holiday destinations rather than militant hotbeds.”

In the pages of Dawn you, correctly I think, described Pakistan as a cynical game preserve wherein diplomatically protected Americans with top secret job descriptions hunt carefully cultivated herds of religious extremists. You are actually kinder in describing American actions in the War on Terror than I. Where you have used words like nostalgia and tribalism, I have used words like “bed-wetting” and “chicken-shit.” In your novels How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia and Moth Smoke, you describe casual corruption so pervasive as to be hardly worth mention, front yards surrounded by razor wire and children playing amongst fecal rivers “of various viscosity.”

At this point you could easily reject my argument on the grounds that Pakistan needs no further crisis. You could say that, with all these emergencies and indignities, Pakistan has need of neither transformative dictator, foreign occupation nor communist revolution. I, however, would submit that the emergencies in Pakistan are the sufferings of the urban poor, of those strangely bearded people who keep blowing up in the hinterlands and 15 year-old boys with the courage to tackle suicide bombers but without sufficiently important parents – in other words, the weak. In other, other words, I think you are actually describing  Machiavelli’s factions.

“I do not believe that factions can ever be of use; rather it is certain that when the enemy comes upon you in divided cities you are quickly lost, because the weakest party will always assist the outside forces and the other will not be able to resist. The Venetians, moved, as I believe, by the above reasons, fostered the Guelph and Ghibelline factions in their tributary cities; and although they never allowed them to come to bloodshed, yet they nursed these disputes amongst them, so that the citizens, distracted by their differences, should not unite against them. Which, as we saw, did not afterwards turn out as expected, because, after the rout at Vaila, one party at once took courage and seized the state. Such methods argue, therefore, weakness in the prince, because these factions will never be permitted in a vigorous principality; such methods for enabling one to more easily manage subjects are only useful in times of peace, but if war comes this policy proves fallacious.”

Are there not Guelphs and Ghibellines in your country? Are your Venetians not fostering rivalries that the citizens, distracted by their differences, should not unite against them? Is Pakistan, in theses times of war, not suffering from a fallacious policy?

I do not make these observations from any desire to attack your hopes. Indeed I suspect, if only for the sake of our minimally radioactive atmosphere, most people share your desire for a quiet, peaceful Pakistan. I am writing this letter because, at this moment, I am sitting in a cheerful café in a cheerful neighborhood of a cheerful city in South Korea.

The place I now sit, only 60 years ago, was extremely poor, peopled by the victims of institutionalized Japanese rape camps, on fire from one of the most brutal wars in Asian history and nominally independent only because of its multudinous military ally/occupiers. And yet, in the next half century South Korea pulled off the most dramatic social and economic rises in modern history.

South Korea, like its neighbors in Japan and China, achieved this rise by crushing democracy, destroying factions and losing much of the culture it had previously held dear. Freedom activists, including my first Korean teacher, were wrapped in carpet and beaten with lead pipes. Sloppily stacked communist bodies were aerated by secret police side arms. Students were smashed beneath the boots of elite paratroopers.

It was only after the population had achieved wealth and education that the forces of human rights and democracy, which had failed so spectacularly before, gained any traction. An entire generation suffered the loss of liberty that their grandchildren might enjoy the fruits of modernity.

I wonder, Mr. Hamid, if you think they suffered well.

Ben Garrido



  1. The last paragraphs are pretty astounding. You went from describing South Korea as crushing democracy to achieved wealth and education on paragraph later.
    Are you saying that Pakistan will go through a period of crushing any democratic or civil rights movements? Sounds rather harsh, although from historical examples, I know you’re right.

  2. Pretty much. I don’t think it’s possible for societies to achieve democracy with their cultures intact. Since culture, tied up as it is in all sorts of identity, will almost never change from the will of the people, I think that means the only hope is found in destructive external processes – occupiers, communists and transformative dictators.

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