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Between Little America and ‘real’ Pakistan

Zain Saeed explores the sense of ‘longing’ pop culture onslaught from the West has inflicted on young Pakistanis

By Zeeshan Ahmad |
PUBLISHED October 10, 2021

There is a dilemma all writers face, or at least those that aspire to some measure of greatness. That exceptional writers are good observers goes without saying. But the ‘greatest’ writer must be one that has experienced all that life has to offer. There is another ‘but’ here, however. Our lives are not infinite and we must use time selectively. If a prospective writer embarks on experiencing everything life offers, when will the actual writing take place? Hold on to that thought.

Generations Y and generations Z in Pakistan (millenials and zoomers if you will) have been raised, inadvertently under cultural onslaught. Perhaps it could be said for other countries. Perhaps even for generations that preceded these two, depending on place. No culture evolves or remains stuck for that matter in vacuum, so this argument is not without flaws. Still, the scope of information exchange has mushroomed exponentially over the childhood, adolescence and youth of these two generations and for countries like Pakistan, the flows of information and cultural narratives have been rather one-sided.

If you have grown up in middle class urban Pakistan with a VCR or DVD player, cable television and of course, the Internet, you may suffer from a longing. A nostalgia for a life not lived. A life that may actually not exist even for those you think live it. If you have watched Friends, or any one of its spiritual successors, you may aspire to your own ‘life in the city’, for instance. This longing infects a lot more in fact – our attitudes on love, religion, family, etc.

The central figure in Zain Saeed’s novel Little America admits to suffering from this very longing. A chance viewing of an intimate moment in Jim Carrey’s slapstick movie The Mask shapes a yearning for a kind of romance that seems important to those stuck midway between the East and the West. He writes that “somewhere in the middle of the movie, the green man and his beautiful lady… they came close, closer…”

“… On screen: lips touched. The crowds gasped. Mouths opened. Snickers. Laughter. Shouts of anger… I kept asking Baba what that was… [and he] told me it was just a thing Americans did… like a climber infatuated with the top of a mountain, I was smitten, enthralled by the power those images held over a cinema full of grown-ups.” And so, as Sharif grows up, he embarks on a mission to recreate the book’s titular ‘utopia’ on the shores of Karachi. Where people would be free to live and ‘love’ like Americans do.

The best parts of Little America are ones that explore this longing and nostalgia shaped by the United States’ great pop culture invasion. Written in the shape of a confessional letter by its protagonist Sharif Barkati, the novel delves into this theme from the get go. Sharif’s idea of freedom is shaped heavily by his idea of love. Both of these, given the character’s socioeconomic background, are shaped by proxy – through the movies he’s watched and later the books he’s read. On love, for instance, he confesses at the very outset: “… have they told you I love her, my dear Laila? … it was mostly a fiction from the mind of a boy, curated to smother my guilt. I thought I loved her then – I was wrong; I merely felt that I was owed the love of a woman because I am a man.”

Naturally, as the book progresses, Sharif’s Little America becomes a parody of the idea of a nation, gleaned solely through its sensational media machine. It is in exploring these two elements that Zain’s writing prowess and wit shines, perhaps reflecting something of a confession from the author too. Where it falls short, however, is in juxtaposing Little America against ‘real’ Pakistan, and the manner the story itself and its various characters are structured. For starters, there is a sense of incredulity inherent in the story of Sharif Barkati. A ‘rags to riches’ story if one strips it down – or a rags to riches to back to rags even – Sharif, at least in the first half of the novel seems less a ‘master of his destiny’ and more a spectator to ‘good fortune’. The son of a clerk, he studies at a prestigious school with students who belong to the ‘elite’: while this in itself is not impossible, there could have been much more ‘plausible’ justifications for this choice.

The most jarring parts of the book are ones that concern the construction of Sharif’s Little America itself, however. It could be that a journalist is the wrong kind of person to review a book like this. Perhaps it should be read as it is and taken up for what it is. But lets consider matters of construction, for instance. That a waiter and an expat who claims to know nothing of local culture and language are able to develop prime beachfront property with little to no legal or procedural hitches in Pakistan is as implausible as implausible gets.

That in this development, they are able to create a haven for ‘Western freedoms’ without attracting controversy from the get go – especially with a media that feeds on controversy – tests the limits to which disbelief can be suspended.

Interestingly enough, with more research perhaps, the setting up of Little America could have potentially been the book’s most compelling part.

The author, perhaps, could have also explored the foundational aspects of United States as it exists now in contrast with Pakistan. As different as these two nations and their peoples are, there are more parallels and similarities in their history than either of them might care to admit.

This, however, brings us back to the writer’s dilemma. Actually getting down to write a novel, especially when it is a debut effort, is a monumental task. For every book written there are perhaps a million that float around as ideas in potential writers’ heads. Many who do manage to put a book out struggle with finding their voice, often throughout their body of work. With Little America, Zaid Saeed seemingly has that challenge in control. Perhaps a story ground more in his own experience or, conversely, exhaustive research could perhaps be the difference between an enjoyable read and a good novel