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Fatima Bhutto’s novel The Runaways about the lonely, disenfranchised path that leads a young person to Jihad comes from a tragic, knowing place. Her aunt, Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated in 2007 by a fifteen year-old suicide bomber called Bilal, who detonated his vest full of explosives a few feet from Benazir’s motorcade.
The three runaways in Fatima Bhutto’s book like young Bilal, share the same searing alienation and angst over their identity.
Sunny, the son of Pakistani immigrants, detests his widower father’s Anglophilia. He knows he’s just a tongue away from being called “Paki”, and hates not being seen, his brownness always placing him at the invisible fringe of society.
Anita Rose (Layla) is Christian, poor and fatherless. Her mother, a masseuse, soothes away the stress of Karachi’s rich memsahibs. Meanwhile Layla watches from the sidelines, unseen, yearning to be acknowledged, but not even worthy of being addressed. Her ambitious brother is willing to trade anything, including his sister, to lift his family out of poverty. Her communist neighbor, the only father figure Layla has ever known, stokes the fires of rebellion in her.
The privileged Monty, a princely scion of Karachi’s ruling elite, is the weakest link, doted on by his mother but a disappointment to his father, and wildly in love with Layla.
All three are ripe for the picking. Sunny is the first to be indoctrinated into Jihadi consipracy theories by his cousin Oz. Layla’s tough, poverty-laced childhood turns her into a fiery rebel and a poster girl for the nascent Umma movement in Iraq. Her widely watched videos call on her Muslim brothers and sisters to rise for bloody revolution against the “Godless Infidels of Western Capitalism”. Monty is a terrorist by accident – his goal is to track down Layla, in Iraq and Syria if necessary – because his love sickness makes it impossible to live without her.
Eventually, Sunny and Monty join forces as apprentice Jihadis in the Umma movement and cross the desert to Ninevah, where a terrorist offensive is about to be launched. The book progresses to a startling, chilling climax, involving the three protagonists.
Fatima Bhutto wrote two books of poetry before The Runaways and her gifted prose indicates that. Sunny, Monty and Layla draw the reader into their worlds intimately. She weaves these characters like spun silk – they’re mesmerizing and real and her eye for elusive, defining moments in life is impeccable: Layla riding a skinny Arabian horse on Karachi’s beaches while the lecherous owner keeps his eyes on her; Sunny posting selfies with his AK47 “Rita” in the desert – “Automatova Kalashnikova selfie for all you jihad peeping toms#AKLife#Ritadiaries”; Monty moaning Layla’s name as he tosses in his sleep on the desert sand while Sunny looks on in contempt.
The books fails in the latter half because it lacks the intimate detail of the earlier narrative. We get contrived glimpses of the growing terrorist movement through jerky newspaper reports of fighting and jihadist troops, while Sunny’s sudden mutation into a rabid killer lacks credibility.
Bhutto creates a thought-provoking, absorbing world laced with irony, dark humor and a sense of vulnerability, as the novice Jihadis become pawns, misused and abused by their leaders. However, it fails to shed light on the why of Jihadism – why do millions of youth like Sunny, who also face the tribulations of racism and alienation, not take the leap into this dark, bloody ideology.
Perhaps defining the why is not the author’s intent, since why is as elusive as a mirage in the desert.
THE RUNAWAYS. By Fatima Bhutto. Viking, 2019. £14.99. 432 Pages. Hardcover
Longlisted for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, 2019.
Jyoti Minocha is an DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins, and is working on a novel about the Partition.
Edited by Contributing Editor Meera Kymal