A nexus of crime

Whatever the reason for Pakistan′s biggest city not being chosen more often as the setting of great crime fiction, it cannot be for a lack of material. The suspense-packed Karachi novels by former anti-terrorism cop Omar Shahid Hamid mesmerise and disturb at the same time, revealing a complex web of relationships, where ″justice″ becomes a highly relative notion. Thomas Baerthlein met the author in London, where he currently lives and works

By Thomas Bärthlein

Karachi is big. It is difficult to say exactly how big, but estimates usually put the number of inhabitants at around 24 million, about the same as Australia. Big and complex enough to keep its secrets, even from those who think they know it well.

When Omar Shahid Hamid turned his experiences as a Karachi police officer into his first novel, ″The Prisoner″, he described vividly what he had witnessed – from politicians exerting their influence on the police to endemic corruption within the force; from interference by other security agencies to well-armed organised crime networks; and of course religious militancy and terrorism. ″The Prisoner″ is a roman a clef to a certain extent, in which some real institutions and characters reappear with a fictionalised name.

Hamid noticed that even many of his local readers were surprised to discover a reality they had never experienced. ″It was very hard for them to find out that these sorts of things happened in the city they had lived in for many, many years. I thought that was interesting. Particularly since, by any standard, many of these people were very worldly.″

Cover of Omar Shahid Hamid's "The Spinner's Tale" (published by Pan Macmillan India Local Publicati)
A former senior superintendent of police, Omar Shahid Hamid wrote his first novel, ″The Prisoner″ in 2013, inspired by the 2002 kidnapping and killing of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. His second novel, ″The Spinner's Tale″, was published in 2015 by Pan Macmillan India

Hamid, who comes across as soft-spoken and thoughtful, has had an unusual career path. He had his first encounter with the police following the murder of his father – and decided to join the force himself in order to make a difference.

After 13 years of active service, the dedicated police officer took leave. ″I never planned to become a writer,″ says Hamid. ″It ended up happening accidentally. I simply became so frustrated with my experiences in the force that I started writing stuff down. It was more of a cathartic exercise, which ultimately snowballed into the publication of my first book.″

″You can′t have law without order″

″Frustrated″ sounds like understatement given the challenges the police face in ″The Prisoner″. ″Sometimes they practically have to break the law to enforce it,″ as Hamid puts it.

Although he wouldn′t endorse such an approach, what choice do people have in the face of a weakened state, particularly if they are facing personal threats by jihadist groups or political mafias?

″I can certainly empathise with those who end up straying down this path and getting mixed up in extrajudicial encounter killings.″ And he wryly quotes one of his former bosses in the police: ″You can′t have law without order!″

Omar Shahid Hamid′s second book, ″The Spinner′s Tale″, describes how a graduate of Karachi′s best elite school turns into a terrorist. A story that is supposed to have shocked many readers with its brutality. But, says Hamid, ″I don′t think I exaggerated!″ Disturbingly, the novel leads its readers to almost sympathise with the person who later turns into an extremist killer.

Is the protagonist maybe portrayed too attractively? ″No one starts out as a monster,″ Hamid objects. ″That′s how characters come across as realistic, right? If I had made someone into an outright negative character with no positive traits at all, then how do you explain the whole issue of why good people become evil? That′s basically the question that the book raises. And it′s something that happens every day!″ 

Maybe the most surprising element in the trajectory from elite pupil to extremist is that it has almost nothing to do with religion. Instead the novel focuses on psychological explanations, experiences in the protagonist′s personal life and in politics that drive him down this path. For Omar Shahid Hamid, this tallies with much that he observed as an anti-terrorism police officer: ″Oftentimes, ideology plays a very minor role. It becomes a vehicle… a lot of people have very different personal reasons which they then cover in the garb of ideology or religious motivation.″

Chaotic reality ″beyond imagination″

Reading Hamid′s books, one can′t help feeling that the way political violence and terrorism in Pakistan is generally discussed is hugely simplified – the reality in a mega-city like Karachi with all its different players is much more complex than the average politician′s statement or media report would allow. Hamid insists that even he had to simplify things quite a bit – ″If one were to represent the actual chaotic reality, many readers would probably find it incomprehensible!″

Accordingly, he doesn′t see any quick fix solutions to the problems that have built up in Pakistan over decades. For him, one of the top priorities should be improving the professionalism and independence of state organs. ″An attempt has to be made to institutionalise things. Depoliticisation of the police, the civil service. Rather than being run on an ad-hoc basis, institutions need to be made stronger.″

Omar Shahid Hamid still plans to return to active police duty one day. But in the meantime, he has finished his third novel, which examines the nexus of crime and politics in Pakistan, this time from the perspective of the political activist. The book is due to be published in early 2017.

Thomas Baerthlein

© Qantara.de 2016