by David Lepeska
for The National
Salahuddin Khan seems an unlikely literary figure. A kindly, grey-bearded businessman raised in Pakistan and England, he had carved out an impressive career as a technology and marketing executive when, at the age of 57, the idea for a narrative struck him like a thunderbolt.
It was the day after Christmas 2009 and Khan fell into 14-hour days of research and writing. By mid-February he'd churned out an epic 550-page novel that offers complex, sympathetic main characters and a timely retelling of Pakistan's recent history.
"The story erupted from me in six weeks," says Khan, who had never written before. "It felt a little like going downhill on a slalom: there were posts in different places, I began to design a path through these posts and, as I got up to, like, 100 pages of this, the characters themselves began to design it for me. It's something of a blur. I was completely possessed."
Possession may be an unusual route to literary success, but in this case it worked. Since its release in July last year, the self-published Sikander has earned a handful of awards, the interest of a prominent publisher and praise from a former Pakistani ambassador.
Khan was born in 1952 in Burewala, Pakistan, to a middle-class Pashtun family forced to leave Delhi during Partition. A few years later the family relocated again, to Karachi, and from there to Doncaster, in the English county of Yorkshire, where Khan went on to study aeronautical engineering.
During a visit to Florida in April 1972, to witness the launch of Apollo 16, he fell in love with the US. He moved to Boston in 1998 and, a decade later, accepted a top marketing and strategy position in Chicago and settled with his wife and six children in the cushy suburb of Lake Forest.
That leafy, wealthy community may have reminded Khan of England, where, as the only non-white student in every one of his schools until university, he had been very aware of his outsider status, had heard the slurs and insinuations. The attacks of September 11, 2001, brought those experiences rushing back.
"9/11 raised the notion of branding," says Khan. "Everyone I think rationally understands that not every Muslim is a terrorist. The brand aspect that bothers me is the perception that Islam itself has a DNA of violence, which is a more insidious undercurrent that runs through the culture."
In the years that followed, Khan became more engaged with the Muslim community, hoping to undermine that perception. He joined the board of a local Islamic school system and the trustees of the Human Development Foundation, a non-profit group focused on development, health care and education in rural Pakistan. He became the publisher of Islamica magazine and began hosting Radio Islam, the lone US talk show focused on Muslim issues. He co-produced a short film called The Boundary, in which a Muslim man, played by the Sudan-born British actor Alexander Siddig, is stopped and interrogated by US immigration officials at New York's JFK airport.
Sikander could be seen as the culmination of those efforts. The story opens in 1986, when Sikander Khan runs away from his Peshawar home at 17 to join the mujaheddin fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. He falls in with a group of insurgents working with the Haqqani militant network, the British military and Pakistan's intelligence agency, the ISI.
Having helped to defeat the Soviets, Sikander returns to Peshawar with his Afghan bride. After 9/11 he goes back to Afghanistan to rescue his wife's relatives and former mujahedden comrades, some of whom had become Taliban. He winds up in the hands of the Americans, who ship him to Guantanamo Bay, where he is tortured during long, intense interrogations. Finally, Sikander gains his release through a family connection to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and returns to Pakistan.
After finishing his novel, Khan sent the manuscript to Akbar Ahmed, a former Pakistani ambassador to the UK and the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, in Washington, DC. One of the world's leading authorities on Islam, Ahmed has advised the likes of CIA chief David Petraeus and written several dramas about Islam, the US and South Asia. He said Sikander was bold and ambitious, a "Muslim Gone with the Wind".
"Most Muslim writers and scholars have made a mistake by approaching this issue in a defensive and monochromatic matter, arguing we are a people of peace," says Ahmed. "Here we have a multidimensional, multicoloured, multi-generational, multinational picture of modern-day Muslims, with characters that have all the warts and mistakes of real people, and that excited me."
Self-published by Khan's Karakoram Publications, Sikander attracted little attention upon its release. But from March to July of this year it won top honours at book festivals in Los Angeles, Paris, Hollywood and New York, as well as the National Indie Excellence Award for Multi-Cultural Fiction. Khan has trimmed and tightened the novel considerably for the 420-page fourth edition, which has a foreword from Ahmed and is being sent out this month to top review publications and leading publishers, including Little, Brown and Company.
The attention "feels phenomenal", says Khan, who hopes to write another novel, about Partition. But first he hopes Sikander pushes people to think. "Not enough is being done to affect the perception of Muslims through entertainment, or literature in particular," he says. "It's a commentary on today's news, particularly America's news, that everything now has to be squeezed between two commercials."
One name in the US news of late is Jalaluddin Haqqani. The Pashtun mujahideen was a US ally and CIA asset during the Soviet days, which is how he comes into the orbit of Khan's protagonist. Today, Jalaluddin still leads the Haqqani network, a bloody-minded militant group based in Pakistan's tribal region and suspected in the bombing of an armoured Nato bus in Kabul last month that killed 17, including 12 Americans, in the deadliest attack on the US-led coalition in the Afghan capital since the war began. US drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal region in late October killed two Al Qaeda senior planners and a deputy in the Haqqani network.
Despite being an enemy of the US, the Haqqanis still work with Pakistan's ISI. "All that happened in Pakistan is that we became a victim of circumstances in the region," said Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's former president, during a lecture at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace last month.
US officials have begun meeting with Haqqani representatives, including Jalaluddin's brother, Ibrahim, in an effort to negotiate a resolution to the Afghan war. "We have to turn our attention here on the Pakistani Taliban, the Afghan Taliban, Haqqani and other terrorist groups and try to get them into a peace process," US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said during a recent visit to Islamabad.
Because of its long-term relationship with the Haqqanis, the ISI is instrumental in organising the peace talks. But US-Pakistan relations have deteriorated considerably since American troops invaded Pakistan airspace to kill Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad in May. Observers worry that the ISI and Pakistani military leaders may see little advantage in bringing about legitimate negotiations.
Khan recently delivered a lecture on US relations with Pakistan and Afghanistan at the American Islamic College in Chicago. He accepts that the Pakistani military may still be working with the Haqqani network, as a hedge against future instability in Afghanistan - a real danger with the coming departure of US troops. Pakistani leaders, he says, do not feel the US is acting in their interests; in not pushing for a settlement with India regarding Kashmir, and in working towards a stable Afghanistan, the US is failing to ensure Pakistan's security.
"The American perspective is 'How do we got out of there?'," says Khan. "The strategy is an exit strategy, rather than a strategy strategy. You're really encouraging Pakistan to think independently about its strategic needs, and therefore you are not going to get a solution."
Towards the end of the book, Sikander moves to North Carolina with the help of a cousin and buys a local electrics company, where the head of security turns out to be his Guantanamo tormentor. Rather than succumbing to hate and firing him, Sikander keeps him on, becoming his friend.
"To us in the West, the Taliban and the Haqqani, they're villains and that's it, like comic-book characters," says Ahmed, who hopes to see Sikander made into a film. "But the novel gives you a much more accurate depiction, with all its complexities."
Khan intended the book as a study in the thin veneer of civilisation, an examination of the circumstances that push people towards inhumanity. When Sikander kills for the first time, shooting down a Soviet helicopter, he's shocked at how easy it is. When later faced with his Guantanamo tormentor, he is reminded of this.
"I think a willingness to be cruel and brutal is in me, in you, in us all, really," Sikander tells his torturer. "Once a system encourages operating beyond the reach of law, well then, as you so amply demonstrated, that brutality will only be limited by the forces at our disposal, no matter who we are."