Published Apr 20, 2017 11:15am

Every writer is a struggling writer, says Mohammed Hanif

Mohammed Hanif’s story is an unlikely one.

A voracious reader as a child, he grew up in a village in Punjab and then enlisted in the military to experience life outside a small town and trained as a fighter pilot. After leaving the military he entered journalism, and remained in London until 2008 before returning to Pakistan. He has worked as a journalist, a novelist and, most recently, a playwright.

You have written about the military’s support of terrorist groups, its treatment of dissenters, and disappearances in Balochistan. Do you find yourself under surveillance or threat? How do you think Pakistanis could hold the authorities and their elected representatives accountable?

I don’t think it’s fair to say the military supports terrorist groups. As far as we know, they have been fighting these groups. In the past, their strategic interests might have overlapped with some of these groups, but there are defence experts out there who can tell you all about [that]. One might have occasionally differed with their policies, but I’d hardly call it in-depth reporting.

I did do some profiles of the disappeared in Balochistan but then I stopped because it really wasn’t helping anyone. I have never received any threats because I believe that I have never done anything against our national interest. I think the Pakistani people are already doing a lot to hold their rulers responsible. I mean, they have been laying down their lives. What more can you ask them to do?

As a novelist, would you consider writing a tale that showed the way to a better Pakistan? What do you like to read?

Pakistan is full of people who are showing the way. I mean, Allama Tahirul Qadri comes down all the way from Canada to show us the way, and we still refuse to see the light. I am only a minor entertainer. I have no such ambitions.

I am quite promiscuous in my reading – I’ll read anything that grabs my attention.

Do you have any advice for struggling fiction writers?

There are very few people in Pakistan who read novels. The majority can’t even read a newspaper. There are a few nerds out there who want to write fiction. They should know that every writer is a struggling writer. So the only advice I can give is: don’t do it. Try something more useful. But if you must, then keep struggling – and read, read, read.

You have now been involved in writing two operas, both of which are being staged in the United States. One of them – The Dictator’s Wife – was originally to be a stage monologue for your wife. Many assume it was based on Gen Zia and his wife. Was it?

No, it wasn’t based on anyone’s wife. I wrote it about eight years ago and my wife has performed it all over. Recently it was turned into a one-hour opera and performed at the Kennedy Centre. I couldn’t go as it coincided with Trump’s inauguration. I was nervous. I hear all the performances were sold out, so I hope some people may have liked it.

What can you share about the upcoming staging of Bhutto, your second opera?

Opera is a composer’s medium and it also works around grand passions, love, murder, power. So when Arab-American composer Mohammed Fairouz approached me, I was a bit sceptical. Then I listened to his music and was blown away.

Bhutto starts with Z.A. Bhutto’s rise and ends with Benazir’s assassination, so in a way it covers almost my entire adult life. I was at the first orchestra rehearsals last year and I was thrilled. With more than a hundred live musicians and a cast of about eighty, it packs quite a punch. And it was fun coaching an all-American chorus how to sing “Ya Allah Ya Rasool, Benazir Beqasoor”. I think what is great is that when you write a book, you get a page-long review. When you write a libretto, you get three hours of beautiful, exciting music created by some of the best pros.

What are you currently working on?

I am always working on the same projects: a novel, an Urdu essay, an English essay and a song for some friend who wants it.

Originally published in Dawn, April 20th, 2017

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