Thursday, 9 April 2015

Book Review – City of Spies by Sorayya Khan

Political novels are not every body’s cup of tea. For me, being acquainted with the history of the country the story is set in is a prerequisite, as is a feeling of “connection” with the peoples around whom the political drama unfolds. While the former can be achieved through text books, really involving the reader in the story of stranger populations is where lies the art of narration and characterisation. Sorayya Khan’s ‘City of Spies’, set in General Zia’s Pakistan and told through the eyes of young Aliya manages to convince you through its deeply perceptive narrator how ‘we are defined by the wars we have lived’.

Aliya has just turned eleven, General Zia and his puritanical edicts have taken over the Pakistan of 1977 and PM Zulfikar Ali Bhutto is in jail, soon to be hanged. ‘No one mentioned the news, but it didn’t have to be spoken out loud’. It was a time of much political intrigue and turmoil and ‘surprising combination of words like ‘American hostages’, even though ‘they were unquestionably worth more than Pakistanis or anyone else’. A time also when families, like that of Aliya’s, couldn’t escape the ramifications of the ‘back and forth and back and forth that counts for Pakistani politics’. After all, the PM appointed Aliya’s father and the general knew his loyalties! The General and his broken promises were everywhere, including in their very homes. As for God, Islamabad seems to have gone off his radar. The fickleness of peace in Pakistan and the ensuing unpredictability is the political canvas on which Aliya paints her story. 

Her story. A story which is Islamabad’s story but more importantly of the life which ‘made me who I am’. The political and the personal come together in the book. This union is not seamless but along fissures where is born the crisis of identity; a sense of belonging-not belonging to a country, colour and culture. The conflict in Aliya’s ‘half-half’ mind (with a Pakistani father and a Dutch mother) is a constant, reflected in her thoughts. Aliya has been created as a beautifully perceptive, keenly observant and a sensitive girl, lending the novel a unique and charming voice of narration. 

The Personal and the Political, entangled.

I felt the end of something drawing near, not the world or our lives but something equally real. It was coming in hops and skips, half steps even, but like the next BBC newscast, it was definitely coming.

The Constitution is suspended, the national assembly has been dissolved and the governors and chief ministers fired. ‘What will there be instead?’ Aliya wants to know from her father but finds out that ‘What about what I wish for?’ was an irrelevant question from the start. Every time she watches the General on TV, she 'felt personally scolded’. Both within and without, things are changing for the people in Pakistan.

Little Hanif, her help’s son, gave up his love for cricket because the imprisoned PM meant something to him. Now, he only prays for his release. All vacation plans stand altered. Her own sister and brother are to stay in foreign countries, away from their families, away from this military dictatorship. In the meantime, American schoolmates are firing spitballs at locals walking the road; the yellow school bus a microcosm of the larger reality of geo-political hierarchies. Changes are seeping into the ordinary lives of Pakistanis, half-halfs and diplomats alike, and none too small to not be a crime in this child’s eyes. ‘The prime minster was about to die, but Sadiq (the servant) was my biggest worry during those bus rides. What if he were hit by a spitball?’ The personal and the political are married for life.

And there is real crime, aplenty. Like little Hanif being run over by a white Buick with diplomatic immunity and his father losing it, ever so slowly, not even realizing any more that ‘a napkin lay next to a plate, not wrapped around it’. And Aliya thinking how the driver had ‘behaved … the way American governments behaved in the world, doing whatever they wanted, without, for the most part, suffering any consequences’. Her father’s country becomes ‘The Land of the Pure, wrapped in a green and white sari-flag, no midriff or cleavage showing, not a hair out of place ... hardly noticed she’d been violated’.

The mosque defiled, the hostages, the siege of her school, the embassy burning, and a series of events which defined modern Pakistani history are shown to wring out-of-shape so many people’s lives. And minds. Each incident makes an impression upon Aliya’s mind, raising swarms of questions and especially those about who she is, exactly. In her self-talk we see her walk towards growth in order to arrive at answers about her own identity.   

Country, Colour, Culture and Conflict

I was trapped by the contradictions of my life – the brown and white, the Dutch and Pakistani, the English and Urdu, the belonging and not.

Aliya is not just seeking answers to the happenings around her. She is also looking for a whole identity, forced into pieces thanks to Pakistan’s politics infringing upon her private space. The smallest of observations trigger thought processes, like how her father is an invitee at the American Embassy because he is ‘the least Pakistani Pakistani’. 

What was I, anyway? Half Pakistani? Half Dutch? Half Austrian? And did my accent, the generic one American schools cultivated, make me part American, regardless of my protests?

She knows her world will always have two universes, but she decides that learning Urdu may help ‘decide which universe I wanted to be in and when’, albeit secretly.  Because while ‘Being white is nice … Being white is not being half-half. It’s being whole. And knowing it,’ she is not white and is exhausted trying to pass off as one of them. Over the course of the novel, she embraces the difference of culture in her best friend, Lizzy’s, house with great envy only to finally find home in her own skin colour, gradually over the book and fully much later into the story. 

When she breaks her silence to tell her grandfather that she speaks Urdu now, he points out ‘You always did. It’s in your blood’. It is this deep-rooted sense of who one is that is explored in the book. Something that can’t be changed, or erased. Through details which have to be experienced to have been reproduced with such visual clarity, Sorayya opens up this girl’s mind for the readers to see with vividness how conflicted identities work, and not work, even as the road-roller of politics flattens lives forever. 

Ironically, when the American school is burned by Pakistanis, she finds herself no longer ‘half-half, but now I was suddenly Pakistani … I did not feel the triumph of being claimed by a category or of belonging, despite the fact that I had longed my whole life for exactly that.’ Almost as if knowing where you belong comes at a cost. At the cost of relationships with people who may belong to a different category. For this reason, the book does well to lend much tender space to Aliya’s relationships, especially with Lizzy and Sadiq.

Aliya – somewhere between a child and a grown-up girl.

How mature trees had come to exist in such a young city.

I thought of Anne Frank more than a few times while reading Aliya’s account in the ‘City of Spies’. How context and character play I-spy, each one giving dimension to the other. Defining each other. Aliya is at once a child and a grown up girl nearing her teens, at once thinking it odd that a boy wore her hand-me-downs and musing in mature breath how the CD64s and CD62s ‘were at war with each other, Cold War … and their playground seemed to be Islamabad’. In her deepest recesses ‘she finds the phrase ‘passed away’ absolutely inadequate for describing what had happened to Hanif’ and in her most playful times she lusts after goodies at Lizzy’s house. By the time she is finally speaking her mind, stating her sense of right from wrong, seeing how people around her were ‘fundamentally changing’, especially Sadiq in his grief, she was ‘good at keeping secrets’.

If Aliya is my most favourite character created in recent times, her relationship with her servant Sadiq is what left a lasting impression. In a scene towards the end, ‘When the spitball hit my hair, I prayed that Sadiq had been spared,’ says it all.

The power of this book is in the perceptiveness of its narrator; her shifting perceptions, her constant struggle to find answers and when not finding them in the world of adults drawing her own, seldom incorrect, conclusions. Aliya is like a spy in the City of Spies herself, showing us the world as we never get to see it broadcast over the radio or on BBC. 

‘It was critical to make my memories real’

City of Spies’ is a powerful story told well and tied up even better, on a note of goodness and humanity surviving beyond and despite tumultuous periods of history. A lot in the plot rides on coincidences, especially towards the latter part of the book, but then ‘truth is as wide and all-encompassing as you let it be, and there is always more of it.’ What seems like a fascinating 'afsanah' for one is ‘zindagi ki kahaani’ for another. 

This book is Aliya’s truth, full of political upheavals and intrigue erasing boundaries between the home and the world. When you read there lingers a sense of something about to happen, even if it does not. A looming shadow of a general, a storm, a spitball or maybe just shame not because the stranger on the road masturbated looking at Aliya's short dress but because he called her 'Amriki'. You will enjoy the story thickly laid in your neighbourhood, no doubt, but what you will remember is Aliya, the 11-year-old character Sorayya has created.

My story and the story of my country were woven into one’, says Aliya. And the memory of both has been given permanence in this book. 

'City of Spies' by Sorayya Khan is an Aleph Book Company publication, 2015.

[This review was commissioned by the publisher. Views are my own.]


  1. Nice post..:)
    Please do check mine and comment:

  2. Interesting. I liked the turbulence in Aliya's character.

  3. What an enriching experience to review varied books set in different countries and cultures. It takes effort and time too. I wish I had as much patience. Each time I visit your blog, I decide to read more for depth and understanding. Somehow, can't find time beyond newspapers.

    1. It is an enriching experience indeed, Alka. Quite like travelling, but without getting up from your reading chair. You read newspapers to feed your forte for excellent socio-political satires. I wish you more time to read books, but not at the cost of the delightful and well-researched articles you write for your readers and fans, like myself.
      Thanks for being here, Alka.


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