Editor’s Note: The views expressed here are those of the author’s and don’t necessarily represent or reflect the views of MangoBaaz.
By: Paula Rosine Long
New York based novelist, Zarrar Said, is set to feature in the Lahore Literary Festival this weekend, but his book is hard to find. Major bookstores in Pakistan have pulled it off the shelves. Internationally, Pureland has caught the eye of major literary critics and his work has been compared to the earlier books of Salman Rushdie and Mohsin Hamid.
Told in the form of a murder confession, Pureland is the story of a scientist named Salim and the tragic relationship he had with his beloved nation.
This novel was recently shortlisted for the Adab Literary Prize and literary giants, including the likes of Mohammed Hanif, have tweeted about it, yet the big media outlets in Pakistan won’t publish Said’s interviews citing fears of backlash. Even Forbes, among other international media outlets who did a feature on Pureland, cited the relevance of the material in our contemporary culture. But no media wants to touch the subject and trying to find the novel in Pakistan is difficult; the stores seem too reluctant to put it on the shelves.
What’s so controversial about Zarrar’s Pureland?
As the editor of the novel, I think I may have answer. I first saw the Pureland manuscript in its early form. It was still a rough draft, but I was very moved by the book’s astounding bravery. I learned that in order to apply for a Pakistani ID card, one must renounce certain sects and deem them as imposters. I found this deeply disturbing. I also learned that speaking of equal treatment for the Ahmadi sect is a widely unpopular cause – one that might leave you branded a heretic yourself. And yet here was a book that centered on the story of an unlikely science hero whose life was destroyed by that very prejudice, despite his love for his homeland and his enormous contributions to humanity.
Even more amazingly, the magical-realist tale I held in my hands was rooted in reality and was inspired by the incredible story of the scientist Dr. Abdus Salam. I think Salam’s story deserves to be told with a touch of magic because it is itself the stuff of fairy tales. An impoverished village boy goes on to win a Nobel Prize in physics and is excommunicated by the nation he loves. Moreover, not many people in his nation know about this tale. This was one of the most incredible stories I’d ever encountered.
Pureland tells Salam’s story in a way that is bound to ruffle some readers’ feathers. There’s a strong, sexually voracious female character, and Said’s novel grapples directly with the toxicity of feudalism.
But I suspect all this controversy people are talking about is really about the whole Ahmadi thing. Which brings us to the question: if the book critiques Pakistani culture and policy, does that make it anti-Pakistani? As someone who knows the book and the author better than I know what’s in my own fridge, I can tell you that the opposite is true: this book is actually a love letter to Pakistan and its people—all its people.
Part of Pureland’s message is a call for a more tolerant and open Pakistan, yes. But it’s part of a call for a more tolerant and open world. Looking at the mistreatment of minorities in India, of Palestinians in Israel, of African Americans in America, and of women and indigenous people the world over, it’s clear that all societies and groups are capable of discrimination, narrow-mindedness, and violence. Pureland’s story is, in this sense, for every place and for all of us.
It is sadly fitting that a book about a man exiled from his homeland is itself exiled from the author’s homeland. I hope this will change, because Pureland deserves to be read, especially in the vibrant, complex and beautiful place that inspired it.
About the Author: Paula Rosine Long is a designer and editor living in New York City. She is obsessed with tardigrades, eyebrows, and the word “Zindabad.”