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'Faithful Scribe': Tracing Ancestry Through Pakistan's History

Sep 28, 2013
Originally published on September 28, 2013 7:10 pm

In The Faithful Scribe, Shahan Mufti examines the history of Pakistan and its relationship to the United States. He also explores how his own family story is part of the tumultuous story of the world's first Islamic democracy.

"A huge impetus for me in writing this book was actually being on both sides of this present conflict, where America is involved in this war in Afghanistan," Mufti tells NPR's Arun Rath. "As we know, the place of Pakistan in this conflict is very dubious and questionable."

Mufti talks about balancing his Pakistani and American identities and the challenges of U.S.-Pakistan relations.


Interview Highlights

On his family history

"This is family history that even I came to pretty late. My grandfather had passed away and it was among his — whatever was left of his life — that I found a family tree that showed me that the maternal side of my family actually traced its lineage and its roots back to the inner circle of the Prophet Muhammad.

"So this was fascinating history and it forced me to think that maybe the history of what I was writing and the context of what I was writing about as a news reporter wasn't even a couple months or even a couple years old — these things went way back."

On balancing Pakistani and American citizenship

"Being Pakistani and being American had never really been something I spent too much time thinking about. This was not an issue, this was in no way a challenge. But the point of departure in the book is the day after Sept. 11 when I received a phone call from a federal agent ... who just wanted to know how I was doing. ...

"It was early in the morning and I got a phone call, with a double ring so I knew it was off-campus, and the federal agent just kind of asked me mundane questions about what I was doing, how I was doing, if I was alright.

"He made no mention of the events of the day before, which was strange. But it did make me think of why I was pinpointed in my dorm room [at Middlebury College] in rural Vermont on the day after.

"And this was a time, we should remember, that these ideas of a clash of civilization and these ideas that Islam is inherently locked in some sort of conflict with Western life and Western ideals. That is when we really started talking about it."

On the future of U.S.-Pakistan relations

"We've really been focused on the Pakistan western border, for a decade and more now — Afghanistan and Iran. They're two countries that are obviously very important to American foreign policy. I think the focus is going [to] turn more onto Pakistan's eastern border. And on Pakistan's eastern border we have India and China.

"So really, Americans aren't escaping Pakistan any time soon. And maybe that's not a bad thing. Maybe the story that America and Pakistan are about to write on the eastern border is about economic growth."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

Joining me now is Shahan Mufti. His new book, "The Faithful Scribe," is a look at the history of Pakistan, the world's first Islamic democracy, that nation's relationship with the U.S. and how Mufti's own family story is part of the tumultuous history of Pakistan. Shahan Mufti is a journalist who writes for numerous publications, including Harper's, the Atlantic Monthly and The New York Times magazine. Thanks for being here.

SHAHAN MUFTI: Great to be here.

RATH: You write that your own family's history is entwined with Pakistan. Could you explain how that is?

MUFTI: Well, this is a family history that even I came to pretty late. My grandfather had passed away, and it was among his whatever was left of his life and some papers that I found a family tree that showed me that my maternal side of my family actually traced its lineage and its roots back to the inner circle of the Prophet Muhammad.

And so this was fascinating history, and it forced me to think that maybe the history of what I was writing and the context for what I was writing about as a news reporter wasn't even, you know, a couple months or a couple years old. This thing went way back.

RATH: And you're very much a man of two countries. You're an American and a Pakistani. Can you talk about your life and how you split between the two countries?

MUFTI: Well, yeah. This - that is definitely. I think there are others like me as well somewhere.

RATH: There are a lot, yeah.

MUFTI: Yeah, more and more. A huge impetus for me in writing this book was actually being on both sides of this present conflict where America is involved in this war in Afghanistan. And as we know, the place of Pakistan in this conflict is very dubious and questionable.

RATH: Well, let's talk about that going back to the beginning. You were in college, correct, when the 9/11 attacks happened in 2001.

MUFTI: That's right. Being Pakistani and being American had never really been something that I'd spent too much time thinking about. This was not an issue. This was in no way a challenge by that...

RATH: The two sides weren't in conflict, I guess.

MUFTI: No. No, not really. It's not something that was really a challenge to me. But the point of departure in the book is the day after September 11th when I received a phone call from a federal agent who just wanted to know how I was doing.

RATH: In your dorm room?

MUFTI: In my dorm room. So I was not up yet. I didn't have class that day, so I was sleeping in. And it was early in the morning, and I got a phone call with a double ring, so I knew it was off-campus. And the federal agent, you know, just kind of just asked me mundane questions about what I was doing and how I was doing, if I was all right. He made no mention of the events of the day before, which was strange. But it did make me think of why I of - was, you know, pinpointed in my dorm room in rural Vermont on the day after.

RATH: And do you think it's because of your name, that's why you got that phone call?

MUFTI: I suspected, yes, and being Muslim. And this was a time, really, we should remember, that these ideas of a clash of civilization and these ideas that Islam is inherently locked in some sort of conflict with the Western way of life and the Western ideals. That is when we really started talking about it.

RATH: You opened your book talking about the stereotypes a lot of Americans have of Pakistan, especially after the 9/11 attacks. And, you know, my own background - I'm of Indian extraction - I've had an idea of Pakistan. And - but I've realized over time that that idea was based on friends who were basically like you, Shahan, who come from a certain part of Pakistani society.

And then in 2003, when Danny Pearl was killed in Karachi, it was a real - it messed with my mind. It was almost like that country that I thought existed, I didn't understand it anymore.

MUFTI: And that's something I deal with in the book throughout is this idea of the violence as a solution to anything. But we shouldn't gloss over the very real challenges that Pakistan and America have had, especially in the last decade, since the war in Afghanistan started. The one country in the world that hates the United States most in public polls is Pakistan. And the one country in the world that Americans hate - well, Pakistan was tied with Iran. And so these are two countries where the populace have come, you know, to become very suspicious of each other, of the other, and yet the two countries remain, quote "closely allied" in the war.

RATH: So we're, again, at one of these fatefully important crossroads in America and Pakistani relations. Looking down the road after the withdrawal from Afghanistan is complete, where do America and Pakistan go from here?

MUFTI: Well, I think that's a very important question, a very relevant question. The answer, short answer is nowhere, whether the - Pakistan and the United States remain right where they are, which is, like I said, tied in their geography and history. We've really been focused on the Pakistan's western border for a decade and more now - Afghanistan and Iran. These are two countries that obviously are very relevant to American foreign policy. I think the focus is going to turn more onto Pakistan's eastern border.

And on Pakistan's eastern border, we have India and China. Those are the two countries Pakistan borders on the eastern side. And so, really, Americans aren't escaping Pakistan anytime soon. And maybe that's not a bad thing. Maybe the story that America and Pakistan are about to write on the eastern border is about economic growth.

RATH: Shahan Mufti is a Pakistani-American journalist and writer. His new book is "The Faithful Scribe: A Story of Islam, Pakistan, Family and War." Shahan, thank you so much.

MUFTI: Thanks. And it was great to be with you today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.