City of Spies by Sorayya Khan

I admired Sorayya Khan’s novel Noor hugely, and so when her publisher emailed requesting a blog review of Khan’s new novel City of Spies (Aleph, 2015), I jumped at it. Khan is an Ithaca-based writer of Pakistani descent who roots her work in her lived experiences (and her personal vision) of socio-political upheavals in Pakistan. While Noor dealt with the Bangladesh war of 1971, City of Spies takes for its pivot point the 1977 coup in Pakistan wherein the Prime Minister  Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was overthrown in a military coup orchestrated by General Zia ul-Haq.

Aliya Shah’s father, a diplomat with the United Nations in Europe, moved to his homeland Pakistan with his Dutch wife Irene (and their three children) as Prime Minister Bhutto appointed him head of the country water and power resources. Eleven-year-old Aliya is very conscious of being a “half-and-half”, and never more so than when attending the American School in Islamabad. As with all whose claim more than one ethnic or cultural affiliation, Aliya is hard-pressed to answer the question of where she’s from; she variously answers Austria (the country of her birth), Holland and Pakistan. Her identity is put to a brutal test everyday, for her school, in essence, is welcoming to those who are white, those with the last name Bhutto, or those, like Aliya, who can pass.

The business of passing is an exhausting one–Aliya has to remember to say “That’s cool!” and avoid using her parents British (rather than American) English, and things get very messy indeed if she’s spotted wearing a salwar-kameez, or if her Pakistani grandfather is visiting their home. Worse, Aliya must live with the overt contempt of her school mates for all things Pakistani, a contempt manifested most brutally in a game played on her school bus, where the older boys spit on the locals, adults and children alike. Points are awarded for every pedestrian or bicyclist hit, and extra points bequeathed if the bicyclist falls off. The Pakistani bus driver is powerless to stop the game, and Aliya is too scared of the much older boys.

And then, Aliya’s loyalties are put to an even more wrenching test when the beloved little son of their family retainer is killed in a hit-and-run accident, and the driver of the vehicle responsible just might be someone close to her family.

In Khan’s hands, the violence and tragedy in Aliya’s domestic surroundings read as a minor echo of the country’s tumultuous, bloody political landscapes. The Prime Minster, overthrown by the military, is accused of the murder of a political opponent, and is subsequently incarcerated. Newspapers are taken over by the government, the mail arrives already opened, gatherings of more than five people are prohibited by law, and Islamabad is crawling with spies. “No one knew what they were really doing since most of them were assumed to be spies, and as a rule didn’t advertise their work. But everyone knew they were there. They drove cars with yellow CD64 license plates, announcing their American-ness, only to be out-done by the yellow CD62 license plates of the Russians […] The CD64s and CD62s were at war with each other, a  Cold War, whatever that meant, and their playground seemed to be Islamabad.”

City of Spies recounts Aliya’s attempt to make sense of the events that shook and shaped her adolescence–and her country. At the close of the novel, thirty months have passed and Pakistan has spun into chaos–the Prime Minister has been hanged, and the devout General Zia has spearheaded the Islamization of Pakistan’s legal and political systems. As readers know, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s death was but the first in a long line of murders in Pakistan’s political landscape–in the Bhutto family alone, for instance, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s son Murtaza was killed in a police encounter, his youngest child son Shahnawaz was poisoned, and finally, his daughter Benazir, who in turn became Prime Minister (and whom some suspected of complicity in her brother Murtaza’s murder), was shot in 2007.

The thirty months are described in minute, telling detail, and those familiar with South Asia will find much to agree and identify with– Aliya’s father, for instance, helps Aliya’s school assignment by delegating the matter to his secretary, who, in turn, assigns an office engineer to built a hand-powered electric generator for their science project. As always, Khan’s steady, clear prose is a treat–she doesn’t put a foot wrong, and is adept at conveying the senselessness of the political violence through Aliya’s uncomprehending eyes.

The ending, however, left me a tad grumpy. Khan provides a long (20 page) epilogue set in the present day, and then a post-script too, but the effect to me was that of opening a new chapter in Aliya’s life rather than providing a truly satisfying finish to the story. We learn that the adult Aliya finally understands events of those months (Khan, in a wise and generous writerly act, doesn’t withhold the information from her readers; many novelists could learn a thing or two from her.) However, while we perceive how the past influenced Aliya’s interests and her choice of profession, there’s a tantalizing absence with respect to Aliya’s character and personality as an adult. I invested enough in the child Aliya to want more than the knowledge that she’s now a truth-seeker filled with sorrow at the state of her country and her childhood city–hey, I’d have liked to get to know the adult Aliya as well. My problems with structure aside, this is a lovely book, imbued with tender melancholy, and I recommend it strongly.

2 responses to “City of Spies by Sorayya Khan

  1. I have Noor on my wishlist. This one sounds pretty amazing too. I will have to look for it, but will try to remember about the ending.

  2. Sounds like a must-read. Thanks for a lovely review, Niranjana!
    A very happy new year to you and your family! Kamini.

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