Fatima Bhutto, The Runaways: A Novel (Verso Books, 2020).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Fatima Bhutto (FB): There is a reflex in the Western world that has led to a singular narrative on what radicalism means and why it happens; it is clear now, two decades into the “war on terror,” that it is utterly wrong. The West does not understand radicalism—either by design or default—but this lack of understanding is making things worse. It is anger, isolation, alienation, and pain that drives young people to take up arms against the world. It is not religion. For twenty years, the prevailing narrative was that there was something innate in Muslims that leads them to radicalism and this narrative was never checked, never questioned, never held to the light to be examined. It was just accepted. They invented this thing called a “moderate Muslim”—the term itself is ridiculous—who might be trotted out now and again to confirm that yes, except for this small moderate slice, there was something wrong with the whole. But this narrative never examined its wars, its occupations, its failure to absorb its own countrymen and women, its failure to build inclusive societies at home. I was a college student in New York during September 11; I was doing my master’s in London when 7/7 happened; and I had grown up seeing my country and people like myself demonized. I was wounded by all of this. The Runaways was written out of those wounds.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
FB: The novel is ostensibly about radicalism, but The Runaways is also a book about migration and the weaponization of both the internet and of loneliness. It is about an isolated generation, coming of age in a time of raging global inequality. I do not think one goes into writing a novel by saying, I am going to explore this theme right now and I am going to do it in these three ways. I went into it thinking about young lives caught in the horror of this moment and I had the idea of wanting to write about two young men, thrown together on a march who cannot stand each other.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
FB: The book connects to my previous work in, an examination of private lives set against the backdrop of turmoil and turbulence. My first novel, The Shadow of the Crescent Moon, was the story of three brothers in Pakistan’s tribal areas set over the course of one day. It was the story of insurgency and what the shadow of constant threat does to young lives. The Runaways is similar in the sense that it is also curious about young—even younger—lives, but it does depart in that it also looks at class, at divergent communities and geographies. It was a much harder book to write.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
FB: I never think of who will read my work when I am writing in order not to limit or distract myself, but I always hope that my work will reach people in their lonely moments. That is when books have meant the most to me. As for the impact, Islamophobia is so rampant and so accepted today. I am not hopeful enough to think that reading one book is enough to dent anyone’s intolerance, but if it disturbed a comfortable reader, I would be happy.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
FB: I am in the marination stage at the moment. I have had two books, The Runaways and New Kings of the World (a non-fiction book on globalization and popular culture) come out soon after each other in the last two years, and so at the moment I am reading and thinking about what is next. I have held writing workshops in Lahore, Cairo, and on Zoom, and I have enjoyed working with young writers.
J: Was Layla’s name taken from the story of Layla and Majnun?
FB: Yes, it was—I never get asked this!
Excerpt from the book
What is it? Pa asked, thinking of himself. Is it a girl? Are you lonely?
Safiya Begum remained a distant, morose figure in the house on Britannia Road, long after her death. Sulaiman kept a photo of her as a stern-looking bride on the mantelpiece, a heavy dupatta weighing down the crown of her head, but not large or heavy enough to obscure her forbidding gaze and her thin lips, locked in a worried frown. Every other week or so Pa sat down in their small living room and covered a side table with old newspapers and polished the frame, marked with a rubber stamp from the Lucknow studio on the back, with an old rag that left the smell of metal on his fingers for hours afterwards.
This was your mother, he would say out loud, speaking to his son, whose feet were propped up carelessly on the newspapered table, his arms crossed behind his head, watching the Premier League on TV.
Sunny had no memory of Safiya Begum, no sense of motherly love, no feeling for what it was like to have had a mother.
Underneath Pa’s shoeboxes in his narrow cupboard, filled
with crisp, old airmail letters, Sunny had found a stack of
self-help books: Love after Loss: Kick- Start Your Emotional Life in
10 Steps, Alone and Unafraid, The Widow’s Guide to Dating and Sex.
A further search resulted in a pile of men’s magazines, including GQ, of all things, underlined and dog-eared for future reference, buried at the back of the cupboard.
How to Dress like a Quintessential English Gentleman: The A
to Z of Savile Row was one of the pages Pa had marked. Sunny could just see his father, smoothing down the page as he studied it, so it wouldn’t crease. He had even written in the margins, copying the instructions on how to tie the perfect ascot. Who was ever going to invite Sulaiman Jamil anywhere he’d have to wear an ascot? Sunny didn’t even want to think about it.
He pushed the magazines back, replaced the boxes and closed the door.
Why do we always ape the West? Sunny wrote on his Facebook
wall that night, thinking of the words of the Pakistani playboy-cricketer-turned-politician, Imran Khan.
Why we strong Muslim men always gotta go around in jeans and suits and ties like we don’t got a PROUD culture of our own? Why read Shakespeare when we have our own holy book–worth a thousand pages of English classics? Why we follow their laws, their democracy, their ideas when we have the hadiths, the Shariah, the purest guidance to a virtuous, Islamic life?
But even then, even echoing the opinions of a likeminded, world-famous soul, Sunny was alone, like his pa, speaking into a void.
Sulaiman Jamil first cleaned the glass over Safiya Begum’s face with a tissue, wetting it with the tip of his tongue, then running his hands over his wife’s cheeks, the colour of burnt toffee.
But Sulaiman Jamil never found a second love.
The indignities of loneliness were too many to catalogue and count. Though Sulaiman Jamil had joined senior singles’ Latin-dance classes, diverse voices of colour book clubs and yoga (‘ancient de-stressing exercise!’), he had so far failed to meet anyone special.
But Pa had no idea how easy it was for Sunny to get girls in sad, small Portsmouth. Ever since he was eleven or twelve, since his first erection, Sunny got girls all the time. There was no shortage of them: white girls who wanted to piss off their parents by sleeping with Indian, Muslim, brown, boxing Sunny. Foreign girls, reckless and easy.
The headscarf girls were the wildest. Put a hijab on a sister, Micky said, and see what kind of antics she got up to then. And it was true: the Maryams and the Aishas and Kareenas stalked Sunny at the clubs something relentless–pressing their tits up against him and asking if he had any weed, if he wanted to drive them home, if he knew somewhere quiet they could go to and hang out, their acrylic nails running up the inside of his thigh. Sunny couldn’t shake the Desis even if he tried.
Since he had started growing a beard, though, the God Squad were falling over themselves to get with him. Didn’t matter that Sunny didn’t have but a basic debit card, no car, no flex, no flash job at a London bank; that lot didn’t care about that, once they assumed there was a righteous, God-fearing brother at hand. The brown girls didn’t tart it up on Facebook or Instagram. They posted pictures of religious sayings raining down on sunflower fields, cat memes and portraits of their nail art. The Desis didn’t advertise, they got right to business.
Romina, a plump little Bangladeshi, her hair tucked so tight under her hijab that it pulled her eyes back, making her look a little Mongoloid, took Sunny to the cinema and sat on his lap, grinding against him right there, where everyone could see. Reshma got off on messing around
in public, too, always in the park. Afterwards, she used to make Sunny take her to Nandos, her breath smelling of peri-peri, her oily fingers clasped tight around his own.
By the time Sunny turned nineteen he had had enough fooling around. He didn’t want any of those girls, brown or white. He was done with all that.
He started to spend more and more time online, sitting at the desk in his room that Pa had carried home from a charity shop, smelling of pine freshener and old women’s powdery perfume, his blinds drawn and Frank Ocean streaming out of his phone, watching the world through Facebook and Twitter.
Sunny spent hours on Instagram, scrolling through strangers’ lives, looking at photo after photo, until his eyes ached from the dull light of Photoshopped colours. He shopped for cheap designer gear on eBay, looking for brands of sweaters and kicks that his favourite rappers wore. But it was on YouTube one night that Sunny came across a video of Muhammad Ali. Sitting on a stage in front of thousands of people, the boxer formerly known as Cassius Clay spoke of his Muslim faith. ‘All the angels in the Christian religion are white,’ Ali said of his Baptist past. ‘Why come we never get to go to heaven? Why come Mexicans never get to go to heaven?’
Ali, in his elegant blue blazer and black turtleneck, spoke of being turned away from white churches, but finding love everywhere in Islam. ‘You say as salam alaikum you got a home, you got a brother anywhere in the world.’
He was never good enough, the boxer said, but in Islam he was always striving to change, to be better.
From there Sunny discovered Malcolm X, another strong man persecuted and put down, finding the light of solidarity only in Islam. And it was then that Sunny began to devote himself full-time to looking at the heritage of his people, educating himself on the struggles of Islam and the centuries of battles fought over people’s souls.
Fiqh, Sunny posted on his Facebook page one day:
What does it mean in the modern world? Yo, fiqh is the key. You know any other people who have so much study, so much pro-fun-dity in their world? Deep knowledge, deep deep comprehension. This is the illumination of Islam, it seeks answers to all questions and guides its followers exactly towards the right path.
Sunny spent hours googling Arabic translations, reading blog posts about jurisprudence, collating and collecting fables and histories. And then he shared his learning, waiting hopefully for someone to appreciate all his proud knowledge and analysis.
But no one responded to Sunny’s posts.
One day, a stranger liked his offering on gambling. There it was, a thumbs-up. The first validation of his investigations. But when Sunny logged back into his page later that afternoon, the like was gone. What had he done? Why had someone bothered to go back, find his post and
What lessons can we learn from the kingdom of jahiliya? Plenty! Look around you, brothers. Our lives are thick with jahiliya–or ‘ignorance of God’s divine guidance’ in Arabic–and we shelter our lives with lies and falsities instead of looking that ignorance head-on and defeating it. This was the desperate state of our forefathers before Islam, but we are still shrouded in its wicked darkness.
Sunny linked his Facebook to his Twitter account, thinking he would receive greater traction in a universe built on trading information, but everything Sunny tweeted landed soundlessly, as if he had not written anything at all.
He waited patiently, sitting at his old lady’s desk, his knees bent up against the wood until his skin went red and his legs cramped, listening to Channel Orange on repeat, feeling personally, acutely, like a diamond in a rocky, rocky world. It felt like all his life Sunny had been waiting until the moment when someone would see him. When someone would know him–would meet him at the intersection of his confusion and emptiness–and, in seeing him, would lift him from his troubled self.
At the same time, at the exact, concurrent second, sitting at his desk alone, Sunny bumped against the disorder of his room. Reaching down to look for the fallen bottle-cap of his Diet Coke, he hit his head on the legs of the old lady’s desk, still smelling faintly of lavender perfume. Feeling the carbonated, chemical water of the Coke bloat his stomach against his jeans, Sunny thought: I have too much. I hate it all. I want nothing. A minimum of things, a skeletal frame of belongings.
And then, as he lifted his head and saw the scratches all along the frame of the desk, carved out of the wood by a hand not his own, and raised himself up on his sneakers, scuffed and old, Sunny looked at his portable speakers, busted so that only one of the cones played any music at all, and the second thought collided with the first: I wish I had more.
But the recognition, the reckoning, the being seen that Sunny so desperately wanted, never came.
He spent more time out of the house, evading his father’s heavy mood and lectures on world capitalism and Asian Tigers yet to claim their space among the pantheon of the great. If only Sunny knew, if only he would try harder to fit in, to assimilate, his pa promised he would take his place among Britain’s rising Asians. This is why they had come here, to Britain, to be a part of a rising tide. Sulaiman Jamil knew history was on his side and he hounded his son with his unflagging hope in global capitalism’s ability to absorb all men, no matter how peripheral.
At first, Pa was happy thinking Sunny had finally gone and ingratiated himself in some internship or was bettering his interview and management skills on a training course, but Sunny had started leaving his classes early and going straight to the gym, a small box on Dickinson Road, open twenty-four hours, the kind of place you went to train, to destroy your body so you could build it up again, to be alone in the company of others who were also hiding, transforming, beating their flesh for their sins.