The Reluctant Fundamentalist

by Mohsin Hamid

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Exile is an important theme in the novel because Changez experiences feelings of alienation and foreignness primarily in two different circumstances: as a Pakistani living in the United States, and as a Westernized man returning home to Pakistan.

Coming to the United States to study, Changez must become accustomed to the alien environment, especially the racist, anti-Muslim attitudes he faces daily. Despite academic success, his social skills do not develop as quickly, and he totally misreads the situation with Erica. Her rejection—even though she is suffering from grief—stings, as he realizes the gap between his perception and reality.

The author makes a strategic decision to locate Changez outside the United States during the September 11, 2001 attacks. With some geographic distance from the American experience, Changez is isolated physically and emotionally. Any common feelings he might have experienced with Americans are not allowed to develop; instead, he empathizes with the attackers, building on his own (heretofore largely unacknowledged) feelings of rejection by U.S. society. Changez is doubly exiled—from his adopted home, and from positive emotional development.

Finally, upon returning to Pakistan, Changez is stunned to realize he has become a misfit there. Realizing he has absorbed huge amounts of American culture without realizing their impact, he becomes sharply critical of every detail. Returning to his stateside job and being sent on another assignment to South America both serve to turn Changez's ambivalence to antipathy. In the end, although he returns to Pakistan and endeavors to balance academic and political life, he has apparently committed to a cause in which he is not convinced he believes. He is an internal exile in a perpetual existential crisis.

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