The Fundamentalist Within


The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a one sided conversation between a Pakistani professor named Changez, and an unnamed American, taking place mostly in a street café in Lahore. Changez describes an education at Princeton, a subsequent short career at one of New York’s top business consultancies, a love affair with a beautiful American girl, and his eventual disillusion with the United States. All of this happens around the time of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre and Washington.

The conversation is enigmatic. Changez is a delightful host, unfailingly polite and obliging to the suspicious, surly American, who, we infer, is clearly worried that this whole conversation is some kind of set up. Is he imagining these threats? Is he ruining a lovely meal with a charming man due to some kind of delusion?

These is much delusion in this book. We see characters who classify fundamentalism as an insane state of mind confined to a few crazy religious people who come from somewhere vaguely east. Changez’s story, however, makes it clear that there are all kinds of fundamentalism, ranging from the business philosophy of New York consultancy firms, to the idealised love affairs of vulnerable young women. Confining the idea of fundamentalism to one set of circumstances and people is a fundamental misunderstanding.

The result of this misunderstanding is a kind of paranoid delusion. Just as Changez’s American dining companion imagines an attentive waiter as a possible assassin, America itself became delusional about terrorism after 9/11. The 9/11 attacks led to the deaths of 2990 people, which it goes without saying was a terrible thing. From 2001 until 2013 there were a further 390 American deaths from terrorism, almost all of them overseas. This compares to 406,496 deaths from American firearms in the same period – according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at the U.S. State Department. Deaths caused by Americans shooting themselves and each other, are 100 times greater than those resulting from terrorism. Yet it is the terrorist threat that Americans fear, while their own far more lethal guns and attitudes are expressions of “freedom”. The aim is always to find an outside threat, some other people to count as crazy fundamentalists. Changez tries to explain this to his guest:

“As a society… you retreated into myths of your own difference, assumptions of your own superiority.”

This trend is only gathering force. CNN compiled the above comparison figures for terrorist and American gun related deaths in 2015. They did so at the encouragement of President Obama, following a mass shooting at an Oregon college. In 2016, millions of Americans decided it was a good idea to replace President Obama with a man who is only interested in creating outside threats against which he can rage.

All of these delusions sit behind the fictional, enigmatic meal shared by Changez and his American guest. Is this a peaceful meal or an attempted assassination? If the American’s suspicions are misplaced, might those suspicions themselves result in real trouble? Similarly, Pakistani fears could themselves lead to a violent outcome. Is the American reaching into his pocket for a phone or a gun? Is it wise to wait and find out? This might only be fiction writing, but this is a good place to explore the dangerous power of fictions as they collide with the real world.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist reminds me how important books are. This book is even more significant now than it was when first published in 2007. Books challenge stagnant patterns of thought and open up different points of view. Perhaps that’s why totalitarian leaders don’t like them.

The Artist Formerly Known As…


I have been writing about band names lately.  Maybe now we come to the point where names reach their limit.

Naming sets boundaries. This has a practical purpose in classifying and organising. A group of musicians, for example, need to identify themselves on posters, on listings for Apple Music and Spotify. But some musicians have, nevertheless, tried to escape the limits of a name.  There have been non-names, such as The Band, or The The. Prince went a step further and tried to identify himself with an unpronouncable symbol.

Although, fortunately, most musicians don’t go as far as Prince, there is a characteristic desire for musicians to identify themselves with ambiguous names, which try to escape easy classification. Let’s finish with some names that tried to be vague enough to include us all. Culture Club had a gay Irish vocalist, a black London-born bass player, a blonde English guitar and keyboard player, and a Jewish drummer. This band included all kinds of people representing all kinds of cultures. Culture Club, however, remains a name. Even a group of different cultures has an identity from which some will want to escape.  A Culture Club, inclusive though it is, probably wouldn’t be a comfortable place for the people who seek the apparent security of one culture – as perhaps the culture club of the EU is finding to its cost. The Human League has a similar irony, a league including all humans, except those who don’t want to be lumped with all other humans.

Culture Club

A name is always going to have limits. You can’t escape that, not even by adopting an unpronounceable symbol: you’re just given an unwieldy name that begins The Artist Formerly Known As… Since escaping names is impossible, the only real option is to find a good one, which suggests both identity and something bigger than identity. You could become Procol Harum, which seems to mean something but actually doesn’t mean anything. Alternatively, there’s Pink Floyd, The Who, Mott the Hoople, or Aztec Camera.  You could choose Blur – is that a word referring to something moving fast, or a non-word denoting boredom?  Alternatiely, there’s Oasis, which in suggesting a few trees, also suggests a much bigger desert.

So, what have band names taught us?  That have shown that people have an instinct to name, to limit, even something as amorphous as music.  They have also shown that names truly catching the imagination are those that try to escape identity through enigma and ambiguity.

So whether you’re headed to Heaven 17, or taking a lift to Level 42, or going on a Snow Patrol, or booking tickets for a Show of Hands, a good name suggests some other place to go when you get there.  Hope you’ve enjoyed the trip.


T. Rex – Abbreviated Rock


Exploring language via band names.  This week – T. Rex.

Between 1967 and 1969, Marc Bolan led a psychedelic folk group called Tyrannosaurus Rex, which didn’t do very well.  In 1970 Bolan moved to an electric sound, and modified the band’s name slightly. T. Rex went on to become one of the most influential forces in 1970s rock.

T. Rex was a better name than Tyrannosaurus Rex. Let’s have a think about why that should be.  T. Rex is an abbreviation, where letters are missed at the end of a word. Abbreviations can also take the form of contractions, omitting letters from the middle of a word, as in Mr; or an acronym, where different words are formed into a single set of letters, as in USA. All these reductions of language have the same sort of effect. They concentrate long, complex ideas into something short and pithy; or bring diverse things together into one whole.  They also tend to create a sense of excluding outsiders – taking the form of a simple code, there’s a suggestion of secrecy, belonging, exclusivity and power.  It’s no surprise that many countries have been identified by abbreviations – USA, UAE, USSR, GDR, UK, DPRK.  It’s also no surprise that abbreviations are popular with the military, in management speak and in the titles of academia.  Ironically, there can also be an informality associated with shortened language, as any experienced Twitter user would know.  But the basic rule of differentiating a group still applies.  The most casual of Twitterspeak serves the same purpose as the most clipped of military acronyms.

Bands that use abbreviations in their names tap into all of this. There are many examples – AC/DC, R.E.M., ABBA, REO Speedwagon, Booker T and the M.G’s, Guns N’ Roses, INXS, CSNY, OMD, ELO, 10cc, U2, JLS, AWOLNATION. The power of the abbreviation effect is illustrated by the fact that removing one letter can make all the difference.  Led Zeppelin dropped a single a. The Lovin’ Spoonful dropped a single g.


The AC/DC logo designed in 1977 by Gerard Huerta (Image attribution)

Such is the attraction of elision that sometimes band names not intended as real abbreviations have been treated as such by imaginative fans, or by suspicious moral guardians.  KISS was not an acronym, but that didn’t stop people finding Kids in Satan’s Service hiding in those four letters.  The heavy metal band W.A.S.P. only put full stops between the letters of their name because they thought it looked cool.  They left interpretation of their meaning to both their fans and detractors.

So there you have it – T. Rex has a louder roar than Tyrannosaurus Rex.  That’s the power of abbreviation as illustrated by band names.

The Comedy of Errors


Watching The Comedy of Errors,  Battle Abbey,  East Sussex

Last night, in the grounds of Battle Abbey, I saw the wonderful Lord Chamberlain’s Men performing Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors.  It was great fun, two pairs of twins getting into all kinds of confusion. It might seem wrong to analyse such carefree entertainment, but as the dusk drew in, and a creamy moon rose over the action of a hectic day in Ephesus, the effect was so striking that not to give this play some thought seemed disrespectful.

So there I sat in my fold-up chair, pondering on this lovely play while doves cooed from hidden perches in abbey stonework.

The play opens with the arrest of elderly Syracusan trader, Egeon, following the discovery of his unauthorised presence in Ephesus.  Syracuse and Ephesus are at war, and strict law forbids Syracusan merchants from entering the city of their rivals.  Egeon can only escape a sentence of death by paying a fine of a thousand marks. He then tells his tragic tale to Duke Solinus who sits in judgement on the unfortunate man’s case.  In his youth, Egeon explains, he and his wife had twin sons, both called Antipholus. On the day of their birth, a poor woman lacking the means to raise children, also gave birth to twin boys, both called Dromio. Egeon purchased these boys as slaves to his sons. Soon afterwards, the family made a sea voyage, which was hit by a storm. Egeon lashed himself to the main-mast with one son and one slave, while his wife lashed herself to a separate mast with the other son and slave. His wife was rescued by one boat, Egeon by another, which resulted in the boys and their slaves living separate lives in Syracuse and Ephesus.  When the Syracuse Antipholus reached adulthood, he decided to set out with his Dromio on a quest to find their twins. When they did not return, Egeon went in search of them, a search which eventually brought him to Ephesus where he now sits at the mercy of the Duke’s judgement.  The Duke is so moved by Egeon’s story that he grants him one day to find someone in the city who can help pay his fine. Though this seems like a lost cause, Egeon is unaware that Syracuse Antipholus, pursuing his quest,  has just arrived in Ephesus.  That’s when the fun begins as the brothers are mistaken for each other by various citizens of the city.

For some reason, as I watched all this, an odd detail from the world of biology popped into my mind, the fact that the most intense competition in nature takes place between similar organisms, as they compete for the same niche. Antipholus of Ephesus and Antipholus of Syracuse are identical, but their cities are at war.  All of the confusion of the play is due to the twins’ similarity rather than their differences. This was an interesting thought on a peaceful summer evening. The world seems particularly divided at the moment, but at the end of the play as confusion is resolved and brothers are reunited, the essential similarity underlying division came to the fore.

I to the world am like a drop of water

That in the ocean seeks another drop