Dangerous fictions


Hanif “writes in a spirit of delinquency,” his publisher says
. PHOTO/Chiara Goia/The New Yorker

One recent afternoon, the writer Mohammed Hanif climbed out of his car at the Benazir Bhutto Martyr Park, in Karachi. Hanif, who is fifty, has a square jaw that juts from a square head, and he walks with the easy stride of a fighter pilot, which he once was. He was wearing a pair of knockoff Ray-Bans, which cost about fifty cents at a local stand, and smoking a Dunhill cigarette.

The park—built to honor the former Prime Minister, who was killed by a suicide bomber in 2007—is a kind of urban oasis. Karachi is a sprawling, chaotic city of some twenty-two million people, riven by ethnic strife and gang wars; its main crime-fighting force, the Pakistan Rangers, patrols the streets in pickups mounted with heavy machine guns. Hanif has made his home there since 2008, when he returned from London, where he worked for twelve years as a reporter for the BBC. As a novelist and a journalist, he has become perhaps the foremost observer of Pakistan’s contradictions and absurdities.

At the entrance to the park, a statue of Bhutto faces the street, waving toward the boisterous Karachi traffic. Hanif is writing these days about Bhutto, who is a divisive figure in Pakistan’s modern history and therefore exactly the sort of character that he is drawn to. “For a lot of people, Bhutto symbolized some kind of future that was going to be semi-normal, semi-peaceful, where people could get on with their lives without things always going bang, bang, bang,” Hanif said. But she stole one and a half billion dollars in public money; her husband, Asif Zardari, became known as “Mr. Ten Per Cent” for allegedly keeping a share of every government contract. Her military helped foster the creation of the Taliban, empowering terrorist groups that still plague Pakistan. When the park was finished, in 2010, the Bhutto statue was surrounded by a steel fence, to keep it from being defaced.

Inside the gates, the traffic noise receded; kids played cricket on a broad green lawn. Hanif lit another cigarette. He has a laconic, understated way of speaking, as though he were trying to downplay the outrage and the hilarity that animate his prose. “I used to come here quite a lot, when it was just a lake and some grass. There’d be couples making out, that sort of thing,” he said. “It’s nice that the government was actually able to build this—that the land wasn’t handed over to the usual people.”

In Pakistani cities, valuable land is often seized by powerful gangs or businessmen and cleared for construction. In the distance stood a line of high-rises, at least one of which was rumored to be owned by Zardari, who was President from 2008 until 2013. Within the park, Hanif spotted another illegal building, beside a lake. “Navy guys have built a ‘sailing club’ there,” he said. “You never see a single yacht, but they’ve just grabbed some land to make a private club.”

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