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Hanif Kureishi's films, like his childhood memories, are populated by complex characters who hold Eastern and Western values simultaneously. This, he says, is what fundamentalists can't deal with.

Om Puri and Akbar Kurtha in My Son the Fanatic (1997).

To me writing for film is no different to writing for any other form. It is the telling of stories, only on celluloid. However, you are writing for a director and then for actors. Economy is usually the point; one objective of film writing is to make it as quick and light as possible. You can’t put in whatever you fancy in the hope that a leisured reader might follow you for a while, as you might in a novel. In that sense, films are more like short stories. The restrictions of the form are almost poetic, though most poems are not read aloud in Cineplexes. Film is a broad art, which is its virtue.

Nevertheless, it didn’t occur to any of us involved in My Son the Fanatic, for instance, that it would be either lucrative or of much interest to the general public. The film was almost a legacy of the 1960s and ’70s, when one of the purposes of the BBC was to make cussed and usually provincial dramas about contemporary issues like homelessness, class and the Labour party.

I had been aware since the early 1980s, when I visited Pakistan for the first time, that extreme Islam, or "fundamentalism" – Islam as a political ideology – was filling a space where Marxism and capitalism had failed to take hold. To me, this kind of Islam resembled neo-fascism or even Nazism: an equality of oppression for the masses with a necessary enemy – in this case "the West" – helping to keep everything in place. When I was researching The Black Album and My Son the Fanatic, a young fundamentalist I met did compare his "movement" to the IRA, to Hitler and to the Bolsheviks. I guess he had in mind the idea that small groups of highly motivated people could make a powerful political impact.

This pre-Freudian puritanical ideology certainly provided meaning and authority for the helpless and dispossessed. As importantly, it worked too for those in the West who identified with them; for those who felt guilty at having left their "brothers" behind in the Third World. How many immigrant families are there who haven’t done that? Most of my family, for instance, have long since fled to Canada, Germany, the U.S. and Britain; but some members refused to go. There can’t have been a single middle-class family in Pakistan who didn’t always have a bank account in the First World "just in case." Those left behind are usually the poor, uneducated, weak, old and furious.

Fundamentalist Islam is an ideology that began to flourish in a conspicuous age of plenty in the West, and in a time of media expansion. Everyone could see, via satellite and video, not only how wealthy the West was, but how sexualized it had become. (All "sex and secularity over there, yaar," as I heard it put.) This was particularly shocking for countries that were still feudal. If you were in any sense a Third Worlder, you could either envy Western ideals and aspire to them, or you could envy and reject them. Either way, you could only make a life in relation to them. The new Islam is as recent as postmodernism.

Left: Gordon Warnecke and Daniel Day Lewis; right: Gordon Warnecke, Shirley Anne Field and Saeed Jaffrey in My Beautiful Laundrette (1985).

Until recently I had forgotten Saeed Jaffrey’s fruity line in My Beautiful Laundrette, "Our country has been sodomized by religion, it is beginning to interfere with the making of money." Jaffrey’s lordly laundrette owner, [Nasser], was contrasted with the desiccated character, [Hussein], played by Roshan Seth, for whom fraternity is represented by rational socialism rather than Islam, the sort of hopeful socialism he might have learned at the [London School of Economics and Political Science] in London in the 1940s. It is a socialism that would have no hope of finding a base in either 1980s Britain, or in Pakistan.

What Hussein, Omar [played by Gordon Warneke] and even his lover Johnny [Daniel Day Lewis] have in common is the desire to be rich. Not only that: what they also want, which is one of the West’s other projects, is to flaunt and demonstrate to others their wealth and prosperity. They want to show off. This will, of course, induce violent envy in some of the poor and dispossessed, and may even encourage their desire to kill the rich.

One of my favorite uncles, a disillusioned Marxist, and a template for the character played by Shashi Kapoor in Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, had, by the mid-’80s become a supporter of Reagan and Thatcher. Every morning we’d knock around Karachi, going from office to office, where he had friends, to be given tea. No one ever seemed too busy to talk. My uncle claimed that economic freedom was Pakistan’s only hope. If this surprised me, it was because I didn’t grasp what intellectuals and liberals in the Third World were up against. There was a mass of people for whom alternative political ideologies either had no meaning or were tainted with colonialism, particularly when Islamic grass-roots organization was made so simple through the mosques. For my uncle the only possible contrast to revolutionary puritanism had to be acquisition; liberalism smuggled in via materialism. So if Islam represented a new puritanism, progress would be corruption, through the encouragement of desire. But it was probably too late for this already; American materialism, and the dependence and quasi-imperialism that accompanied it, was resented and despised.

In Karachi there were few books written, films made or theater productions mounted. If it seemed dull to me, still I had never lived in a country where social collapse and murder were everyday possibilities. At least there was serious talk. My uncle’s house, a version of which appears in My Beautiful Laundrette, was a good place to discuss politics and books, and read the papers and watch films. In the 1980s American businessmen used to come by. My uncle claimed they all said they were in "tractors." They worked for the CIA; they were tolerated if not patronized, not unlike the old-style British colonialists the Pakistani men still remembered. No one thought the "tractor men" had any idea what was really going on, because they didn’t understand the force of Islam.

But the Karachi middle class had some idea, and they were worried. They were obsessed with their "status" or their position. Were they wealthy, powerful leaders of the country, or were they a complacent, parasitic class – oddballs, Western but not, Pakistani but not – about to become irrelevant in the coming chaos of disintegration?

Left: Frances Barber and Roland Gift; right: Frances Barber and Shashi Kapoor in Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987).

A few years later, in 1989, the fatwah against Rushdie was announced and although I saw my family in London, I didn’t return to Karachi. I was told by the Embassy that my safety "could not be guaranteed." Not long after, when I was writing The Black Album, a fundamentalist acquaintance told me that killing Rushdie had become irrelevant. The point was that this was "the first time the community has worked together. It won’t be the last. We know our strength now."

I have often been asked how it’s possible for someone like me to carry two quite different world-views within, of Islam and the West; not, of course, that I do. Once my uncle said to me with some suspicion: "You’re not a Christian, are you?" "No," I said. "I’m an atheist." "So am I," he replied. "But I am still Muslim." "A Muslim atheist?" I said, "it sounds odd." He said, "Not as odd as being nothing, an unbeliever."

Like a lot of queries put to writers, this question about how to put different things together is a representative one. We all have built-in and contrasting attitudes, represented by the different sexes of our parents, each of whom would have a different background and psychic history. Parents always disagree about which ideals they believe their children should pursue. A child is a cocktail of its parent’s desires. Being a child at all involves resolving, or synthesizing, at least two different worlds, outlooks and positions.

If it becomes too difficult to hold disparate material within, if this feels too "mad" or becomes a "clash," one way of coping would be to reject one entirely, perhaps by forgetting it. Another way is to be at war with it internally, trying to evacuate it but never succeeding, an attempt Farid [Akbar Kurtha] makes in My Son the Fanatic. All he does is constantly reinstate an electric tension between differences – differences that his father can bear and even enjoy, as he listens to Louis Armstrong and speaks Urdu. My father, who had similar tastes to the character played by Om Puri, never lived in Pakistan. But like a lot of middle-class Indians, he was educated by both mullahs and nuns, and developed an aversion to both. He came to love Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong, the music of black American former slaves. It is this kind of complexity that the fundamentalist has to reject.

Like the racist, the fundamentalist works only with fantasy. For instance, there are those who like to consider the West to be only materialistic and the East only religious. The fundamentalist’s idea of the West, like the racist’s idea of his victim, is immune to argument or contact with reality. (Every self-confessed fundamentalist I have met was anti-Semitic.) This fantasy of the Other is always sexual, too. The West is recreated as a godless orgiastic stew of immoral copulation. If the black person has been demonized by the white, in turn the white is now being demonized by the militant Muslim. These fighting couples can’t leave one another alone.

These disassociations are eternal human strategies, and they are banal. What a fiction writer can do is show the historical forms they take at different times: how they are lived out day by day by particular individuals. And if we cannot prevent individuals believing whatever they like about others – putting their fantasies into them – we can at least prevent these prejudices becoming institutionalized or an acceptable part of the culture.

A few days after the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center, a film director friend said to me: "What do we do now? There’s no point to us. It’s all politics and survival. How do the artists go on?"

I didn’t know what to say; it had to be thought about.

Islamic fundamentalism is a mixture of slogans and resentment; it works well as a system of authority that constrains desire, but it strangles this source of human life too. But of course in the Islamic states, as in the West, there are plenty of dissenters and quibblers, and those hungry for mental and political freedom. These essential debates can only take place within a culture; they are what a culture is, and they demonstrate how culture opposes the domination of either materialism or puritanism. If both racism and fundamentalism are diminishers of life – reducing others to abstractions – the effort of culture must be to keep others alive by describing and celebrating their intricacy, by seeing that this is not only of value but a necessity.


© 2002 Hanif Kureishi. This text originally appeared as the introduction to Hanif Kureishi: Collected Screenplays 1 (Faber and Faber, U.K., 2002).


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