Interview by Claire Armitstead
Mohammed Hanif was living in London when his award-winning first novel was published. Now back in Karachi, he discusses the threats he’s faced and why he continues to speak out
They put GPS chips in pets and migratory birds now. How can someone flying around in a 65-million-dollar machine get lost?” With these words – spoken by a US airman who has just crashed his jet in an unnamed desert – Mohammed Hanif upends his own premise in the opening pages of his new novel. It is a typically bold manoeuvre from a satirical writer who was himself once a pilot – “a really bad one” – and whose work is full of references to military hardware. His Booker-longlisted debut A Case of Exploding Mangoes placed a cart of the fruit alongside Pakistan’s president Zia ul-Haq on a doomed C-130 Hercules; his second told of a spirited convent nurse married off on a nuclear submarine. But jokey though his fiction appears, its political mission is Orwellian – his work is underpinned by a sense of a corrupt world that is constantly embattled. “I think I must have been at high school when the Afghan war started, so we grew up with these kinds of conflicts, and then they started to replicate themselves around the world. These wars never end. The attention just moves somewhere else,” says the 53-year-old novelist, journalist and occasional playwright.
Never-ending war is the location of Red Birds, albeit one in which the bombing has mysteriously stopped. The lost airman, Major Ellie, is transported to a refugee camp by a young boy who discovers him while scouring the desert for his injured dog. The boy, Momo, is the book’s most vivid creation – an adolescent huckster who drives a “jeep Cherokee with a fat, fading USAid logo” and is hell-bent on rescuing his older brother from a sinister military base known as The Hangar.
“People ask where it’s set and I say it’s set in my head,” says Hanif, who riffs that he had hoped to write a novel in which bad things can’t happen. “I know a lot of people who are very happy with their lives – who go around doing good things, or believing that they are doing good things.”
Born in rural Pakistan, Hanif was working as a journalist in London when the World Trade Center attacks forced the west to confront the consequences of its warmongering, and has now settled back in Karachi. As the high-achieving son of a farming family, he grew up with parents who couldn’t read or write, but were regarded as pillars of wisdom in a community where being middle class meant that “at the bus station you don’t give them an address, you give them a name”. The first time his father went inside a school was for an awards ceremony when Hanif – one of six children – had won a prize. “I was eight or nine years old and I think he was secretly a bit proud of me,” he says.
He went on to a government high school, but left home for the big city at 15 and a year later signed an 18-year contract with the Pakistan air force after spotting a newspaper recruitment ad. The air force put him through an avionics degree and introduced him to a cross section of Pakistani society – “urban and rural, posh and poor, a wide range of ethnicities” – the only problem being that he proved unable to fly a plane. “I was really good at takeoffs but you have to be able to land a plane safely, too. Especially in jets you have to do things really fast, and I like to think about things,” he says.
After it became clear that his heart wasn’t in military service, he was released 10 years early into a civilian life of “small-time politicians, businessmen and struggling gangsters. Every second friend of mine was a drug addict.” One of them was freelancing for a magazine, and when he was too strung-out to deliver, Hanif would help him out. He went on to join the political magazine Newsline, where he met the editor whom he credits with turning him from a hack into a writer. Razia Bhatti, he says, “taught me the value of a good sentence and that it wasn’t just about having a scandalous story”. On one occasion she also saved his neck, refusing to give his address to police who called at her home at 2am looking for the reporter who had been rude about a local politician. His tribute to her was to smuggle her name into the title of his second novel, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, published in 2011.
But midnight arrests were not the only danger in Karachi at the time. “People were being kidnapped for a few thousand rupees … Carjacking was rampant,” he would later recall. So in 1996, recently married to the actor Nimra Bucha, he accepted a job at the BBC, working for its Urdu-language service in London. “We thought we’d stay two years and that turned into five and then into 10, and we had a mortgage and a child…”
While Bucha ran a cafe in south London and worked as an actor, Hanif moonlighted on a novel. “But with my job and then my son it was start-stop,” he says, so he decided to take a break. He signed up for an MA at the University of East Anglia. Twice a week he’d commute from London to Norwich, “and I suddenly realised that there was no shame in being a struggling writer. I stopped being shy and secretive about it.”
When Pakistani publishers proved reluctant to take on A Case of Exploding Mangoes, with its send-up of an obsessively superstitious military dictator infected with anal worms, he sold it to Random House India, which planned to export a few copies over the border. But it soon became clear that the book had a wider appeal. It won a Commonwealth first novel prize, was called in by the judges of the 2008 Booker prize and shortlisted for the Guardian first book award. Hanif had by then risen to become head of the BBC’s Urdu Service – “an exciting middle-management job, but I didn’t think I was very good at managing people”. With their son approaching high-school age, the family decided to move back to Karachi in 2008, where they found friends awaiting their arrival with trepidation. “A lot of them said: ‘What have you done?’ But I was pretty sure they were being alarmist. People in the Pakistan army don’t read books and particularly not novels.”
Undeterred by his friends’ misgivings, Hanif picked up his old life as a media firebrand, writing in Urdu and English, and driving around the city with just his dog for protection at a time when many were afraid to go out without guns and bodyguards. “I knew if I went out at night with my dog, no terrorist or police or robber was going to come near me,” he says. In homage to one such canine companion, he created Mutt, the brain-fried mongrel who narrates a strand of Red Birds.
In 2013, he raised the temperature by collecting testimony about enforced disappearances in the province of Balochistan in a short book, The Baloch Who Is Not Missing Anymore and Others Who Are, published by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. “I had a few minor threats – a call to my brother asking what was wrong with me, and one from an old air force colleague warning me to be careful,” he says. Two years later things turned nasty, when an event on the disappeared at “a big posh university in Lahore” was abruptly cancelled after warnings from the intelligence service. A friend, Sabeen Mahmud, decided to stage the event at her small cafe bookshop in Karachi.
“There was fear in the back of our heads. I told her that emotions were running high and why didn’t she delay for a few days, but she always said: ‘Fear is a line in your head. You have to cross it,’” says Hanif. He was unable to attend as he was filming 900 miles away in Islamabad, so followed proceedings on Twitter from his hotel room. “When it had finished, I was so relieved,” he recalls. He set off to collect his car, “and by the time I got down to the car park I had got the message”. Mahmud had been shot at close range as she drove away from the event and had died instantly. “I don’t think I or any of my colleagues have recovered from that shot,” he says.
Under pressure from family and friends, he has since stopped making television appearances and confines his political commentary largely to US media. “We’re now in the situation that if you want to write about politics you have to write about it abroad, but it’s important that sometimes people are writing about it in Pakistan as well. I used to be able to do that and editors would print it and risk their necks, but they are already in so much trouble.”
On the positive side, A Case of Exploding Mangoes is finally set to be published in Urdu next year, while America’s Pittsburgh Opera will premiere an opera about Pakistan’s Bhutto dynasty – his second collaboration with the Arab-American composer Mohammed Fairouz.
Red Birds is itself like a highly charged political chamber opera, whose toughest truth lies in a duet between the US airman and a field researcher in “the parallel universe called International Relief”. As Major Ellie devastatingly puts it: “If I didn’t bomb some place, how would she save that place? If I didn’t rain fire from the skies, who would need her to douse that fire on the ground? Why would you need somebody to throw blankets on burning babies if there were no burning babies? … You need fireworks to ignite human imagination.”
• Mohammed Hanif’s Red Birds is published by Bloomsbury. To order a copy for £13.99 (RRP £16.99) go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.