12/10/2013 01:54 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Faithful Scribe 's Author Shahan Mufti on Writing, Pakistan, and Family


Here in the U.S., Pakistan is never far from front-page news. The latest headline is U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's defense of drones and warning that Pakistan risks losing financial aid if key supply routes are not protected. In The Faithful Scribe: A Story of Islam, Pakistan, Family and War, journalist Shahan Mufti explores his family's history against the history of Pakistan, the world's first Islamic democracy, and its relationship to the United States. The tension between the United States and Pakistan isn't going anywhere, and after reading this book, you will better understand why. Recently I sat down with the author to discuss the impetus for and process of writing the book.

Louise McCready Hart: What inspired you to write this book?

Shahan Mufti: I landed in Pakistan in late spring, early summer 2007, for the first time as a journalist, on a magazine assignment. Weeks after I landed in Islamabad, the battle of the Red Mosque started and I began covering it for the Christian Science Monitor. The local media were using these phrases from sharia like Qazi and Mufti, which are my paternal and maternal surnames.

I knew that I had a vehicle to tell the story when I finally saw my family tree in the spring of 2009. I had grown up with these stories, "You're descended from the great prophet. Your blood is tied to the moment Islam started." To actually see the history, rather than hear it, was a huge moment for me. This idea of what happens when you write things down became a huge part of the book. That is why the faithful scribe turns into a main character. I was interested in the writing process and who wrote this history and why he wrote it and when he wrote it. Like me, he was a scribe. He was writing about war and Islam and the West in the 19th century -- all these things that sounded eerily familiar to me. When I saw that family tree and discovered how and why it was written, the blueprint of the book became clear.

LMH: That thread is such an incredible tool because otherwise it would be either a dry non-fiction account of what is going on in Pakistan and its history or your own personal family history.

SM: I wanted to write narrative non-fiction - with its stress on character and story and narrative, it was the perfect form for this project. I didn't want to write a dry policy book.

I also didn't set out to write a family memoir. I wanted to write about Pakistan, about the war, and about America being involved. The relationships and the family characters just happened to be perfect.

LMH: What was the original book proposal? How did the book itself change or evolve as you were working on it?

SM: Originally the book idea was to explore the characters in the family tree, especially the last two hundred years of colonial history. The proposal was me writing as a journalist and exploring these two strands of history, one of Pakistan's modern history and the war, and on the other hand, this family history. I knew I wanted to write narrative non-fiction, but it wasn't an obvious sell. There is little narrative non-fiction about Pakistan. We have policy books -- a lot of them about the Taliban. And on the other hand we have a lot of novels from Pakistani, or Pakistani-American, authors.

I wanted to write something that would help Americans understand this country and this religion and the politics of this religion. I am very lucky that I found a publisher and editor who saw what I was doing.

From the moment I started writing, I realized there was a very real thread, from the moment my parents were married during the war in 1971, where the personal and the political begin to intertwine.

LMH: That was an incredible scene.

SM: I was struck by how the political and personal were intertwined throughout, like later when my cousin dies in the plane crash along with a dictator. The more material I found, the more this thread of the personal and political merging emerged, from 1971 to the present. There was the matter of organization, but I felt there was a pretty decent line from my parents getting married during war to me becoming a reporter and reporting war.

LMH: To your point of wanting to write a book to help Americans understand, I found your book both enjoyable to read and educational. I don't think I ever knew the full story, and I am even friends with people from Pakistan. No one ever told the story from the beginning.

SM: That's why I started the book with the prologue set in New York. When I reached the end of the book, I thought, 'This needs something. I need to talk to my reader right at the beginning of the book,' because this is exactly what I felt. You know stuff about Pakistan...

LMH: You see it in the news. You have a vague understanding of what happened. Indians and Pakistani hate each other...

SM: (laughing) There are nukes...

LMH: But if you asked for an explanation...

SM: I make the point in the beginning that Pakistan and the United States are not going anywhere. Pakistan is going to stay there in our imagination. The invitation at the beginning is, 'Come with me. Enter this palace of stories and hopefully you can leave with a better understanding.'

LMH: It works. Along those lines, you describe yourself as 100 percent American and 100 percent Pakistani. Can you explain?

SM: It makes more sense to be 100 percent Pakistani and 100 percent American rather than American-Pakistani. I have always been in both places. I am equally comfortable in both places. When I am in either place I feel at home but I also feel I've left home behind. It is a constant state of exile, a constant state of longing, but it's so constant that it becomes your natural state.

I spend my year teaching at university now and I love it but I go back and forth two to three times a year. Every time I leave either place there's also a sense of 'Thank God I'm getting away from that, I need a break from this.' When I'm in Pakistan, people don't think I'm from anywhere else, which is a good because it lets me see my country in a way that would have been impossible for a foreign correspondent. The perspective I have is why I felt like I needed to write the book.

LMH: It's not quite the same but I feel the same way every time I go back to Kentucky. I don't think anyone else gets it. For other people it's a culture shock.

SM: But I guess it's probably easier for you to see the strangeness of the place. Do you answer for New York when you're there? When people ask why is New York the way it is?

LMH: (laughing) When they ask what's wrong with you? Why do you live there? My dad is from Kentucky but my mom is from New York. My older sister was born in New York but we came back and forth often to visit and I always knew I wanted to live here. I wouldn't be going back to Kentucky as often if my dad didn't pass away.

SM: If Kentuckians and New Yorkers were killing each other and they were fighting a clandestine war with nukes involved... but you're right. Politics become irrelevant. What makes the perspective is that presence...

LMH: ...the ability to look at it from the outside and the inside. So you started writing this back in 2007, so I guess there were many events that changed the direction of the book? When did you decide this is the end? This could have been a never-ending story.

SM: In some ways there was a natural end after five years of reporting -- from a very concrete beginning with the Red Mosque to a very concrete end with an election campaign five years later. But you're right I could have kept going. I finished writing it a almost two year ago, but even with so many fast paced events -- another election, a new government -- the book has remained very relevant and that is very satisfying and rewarding for me.

The book starts with my parents' wedding in Lahore and ends with me getting married in Lahore. These were two very different marriages. My parents didn't know each other; they hadn't seen each other's faces before their wedding. They were both from Lahore. I was getting married to a Japanese-Welsh woman who had never been to Pakistan. By that time I knew where I wanted to start the book. I had that structure and this was a good place to end. A generation has passed and this is a story of my generation in Pakistan.