Mohsin Hamid: Cracks in Concrete

Mohsin Hamid at Georgetown University Global Dialogues: When it comes to our understanding of the world, we are all like the blind men in the story of the blind men and the elephant. We each know the elephant from our own small vantage point, and what we know is partial and prone to distortions. It is from speaking to one another, reading one another, that a more accurate picture appears. Unfortunately, too often, those we speak to and read come from places very close to ours, whether physically or ideologically, and so the elephant we see together looks to us uncannily like something else, like a wall or a weapon or a trophy, perhaps. I would like to describe the elephant, the world, as I perceive it from my vantage point in Lahore, Pakistan, in the early months of the year 2024. I do this in the hope that each of us, in describing it, helps all of us see it a little better.

The first thing that strikes me about the world is that it is has become poisonous. We cannot breathe. From November until February the blue sky is hidden behind a low ceiling of grey. This is not from clouds but from smoke. It is uncanny to take a flight in these months, to burst only seconds after take-off into the blindingly bright light and see not a city but a grey blanket below.

The cooler months used to be months of outdoor sports and running around with my cousins and shielding eyes with the blades of our hands from the sun. Now, they are months when the land receives too little heat to push the smoke into the heavens, and so it settles all over the riverine plains, prevented from proceeding north by the mass of the Himalayas, choking us.

My children are not permitted to do outdoor sports in these months. Indoors, they sleep to the whirring sound of air purifiers, machines I had not imagined until recently. When we played in the winter as children, we would quench our thirst by working the shaft of the hand-pump in my grandparents’ house. Now, our children do not go out to play. The hand-pumps are all dry. We have depleted the aquifer. A machine bore is required to obtain water from hundreds of meters down, and that water, too, has been contaminated. Our world has become poisonous: the fireflies are gone, the children cough like smokers, the water is full of heavy metals. The economic miracle we have been promised has arrived, and it is a miracle of despoliation.

The other thing that strikes me about the world is that it has become brutal. Perhaps people have always been slaughtered the way that people in Gaza are being slaughtered. My children watch, on their devices, Gazan children speak of dead parents and siblings and teachers and neighbours. My children come home from school and ask, “what can we do, what can we do.” They post flags and images of solidarity. They share songs and stories. They wave and get excited when they see a rickshaw or a stall with a message of support for the people of Palestine. My daughter is fasting this month, and we discuss the contrast between the voluntary exposure of a person to daily hunger and the experience of famine. We raise money for refugee relief and reconstructive surgeries and family exit fees.

Perhaps people have always been slaughtered like this. But have they always been slaughtered with such hypocrisy? Have those who protest for peace and equality and human rights ever been so vilified and subjected to threats, to the threat of a lost job, a lost chance at citizenship, a suspension from university, by such powerful actors in such powerful countries, countries that claim to stand for these very values? Perhaps they have: I was not alive when British colonial officers ordered the gunning down of peaceful protesters in Amristar, or when American police officers attacked peaceful protesters in Selma. But the hypocrisy and silence of the powerful regarding the massacres in Gaza feels new to me. It feels new to my children, too. I watch them as they reject the moral trajectory of the world. I watch them as they reject even certain soft drinks and hamburgers, tainted by association.

When I perceive the elephant, I perceive poison and brutality. I perceive love and kindness and beauty, too, but these things emerge like flowers from cracks in concrete. I take pleasure and sustenance from the flowers. But then I wonder, why did our world government lead us on this path to the laying down of so much concrete? A world government is often thought of as a fantasy, dystopian or utopian, depending on how it is imagined and by whom it is beheld, but regardless as something we situate in the future.

The truth, however, is that it belongs in the recent past. For we have had a world government, the first of its kind, and that world government was the United States. From the fall of the Berlin Wall to the fall of Kabul, the United States played a role in governing the world that was unprecedented, unprecedented but also now ending, ending because too many Americans do not want the United States to play that role, and because too many non-Americans do not want the United States to play that role. As that role ends, so does the world that role made possible.

Amidst the poison and brutality, I feel a widespread longing for that end to come quickly, for there soon to be much less concrete and many more spaces, many more cracks. The hope, perhaps forlorn, is that flowers may emerge from at least some of these cracks. Whether flowers are what we will get, we do not know. Much worse might come. But my sense is, in the parts of the world I see around me, here in Lahore and also on my travels, that vast numbers of people feel the time has come to imagine, to try something else.

Mohsin Hamid is a novelist and essayist who explores contemporary global and political issues.