As a writer of literary nonfiction, I’m always searching for the most compelling characters to carry the story. In the years that I covered war as an American journalist on the front lines in Pakistan, there was never a shortage of options. There were always plenty of violent, bloodthirsty villains to choose from, and then there were those larger-than-life heroes, capable of compassion and goodness that can only be drawn from the madness of war.
But most of the characters I found myself drawn to lived seemingly ordinary lives while navigating the landscape of war: the real estate agent who finds that war attracts speculative buyers, which allows him to make a profit of his nation’s misery, or the curator whose collection of ancient artifacts bleeds out of his museum and he witnesses his culture sapped of meaning. War, I found through the lives of such characters, isn’t always about choosing between life and death. For most people war is about being transformed, finding ways to adapt and survive.
In writing The Faithful Scribe, I set out to make Pakistan, the world’s longest-running political experiment in Islam and democracy, more comprehensible for my reader. I knew that the only way I could tell the story of this war-torn country and its complex relationship with America was through characters that were, like many of my readers, living ordinary lives in extraordinary times. And it didn’t take long to recognize that my own family had exactly the kinds of characters that I was always drawn to in my writing.
My parents had shuttled between the US and Pakistan for decades. I was born in Ohio and I have split my life equally between the two countries—I’m “100 percent American and 100 percent Pakistani,” as I write in the prologue of my book. Within the extensive network of my relatives spread over many Pakistani cities and towns, I found civil engineers and university professors and small-claims court judges. None of them real power players, but neither were they destitute. These were mostly ordinary folk, placed perfectly on the peripheries of power, where their lives and beliefs could be molded in the most profound ways by the violence and war of their time.
My grandfather, for example, was pulled up the professional ranks after the Second World War, when the partition of the subcontinent into Pakistan and India led to the largest migration in human history, and created fortuitous vacuums in the bureaucracy of his new country. My father was forced to leave his teaching job at a university in Lahore and flee to America thirty years later, after literally dodging a bullet shot by a member of an Islamic political student group in the 1970s. My cousin, a soldier in the Pakistan Army, died in 1988 alongside the Pakistani military president and the US ambassador, when their aircraft mysteriously exploded in the sky.
And I found that it had been this way for centuries. Deep into my family records I discovered that the paternal and maternal sides of my family—the Muftis and Qazis—had both served as bureaucrats in the Islamic sharia courts of Muslim empires centuries ago. When the British colonized the Indus region in a bloody conquest in the nineteenth century and decreed that courts would no longer employ Islamic jurists, an ancestor of mine, a professional scribe, lost his job and was set adrift in the world. Another ancestor, a soldier, battled for the British Empire in the First World War. He survived the great war of his era, but with deep scars.
In the end, naked violence, the absurdity of human suffering, the superhuman strength of a few will always make the headlines of war. But decades and centuries of political and religious conflict also seep into the tiniest crevices of human society and culture. This cancer of war can alter the very DNA of nations, and there is often no going back. Since this book’s release, I have traveled with it and met with people all over the country who share similar stories of how a decade and more of American war has molded their lives in the most subtle and profound ways. And such conversations only strengthen my essential thought behind this book: that people who live through war on any side can recognize themselves in each others’ experiences.
Shahan Mufti is the author of The Faithful Scribe: A Story of Islam, Pakistan, Family, and War, now out in paperback.