BOOK REVIEW: “The Prisoner” by Omar Shahid Hamid

Karachi police officer Omar Shahid Hamid has written a brave, exciting novel that is far more enlightening than any academic literature or think-tank papers on the criminal-political nexus in Karachi.

1403640_10151940310615295_2026281326_oPublisher’s Blurb: On an unusually cold December evening in Karachi, American journalist Jon Friedland is kidnapped from one of the city’s poshest neighbourhoods. His captors plan to post a video of his execution on Christmas Day. The kidnapping has come at a bad time, embarrassing the Pakistani government in front of their US allies. The clock is ticking. Will the police and Intelligence Agencies recover Friedland alive?  The story careens through the streets of Karachi, taking the reader into an all too real world of jihadis, corrupt police officers and bloodthirsty political henchmen – all placed together in a city where no one is quite what they seem.

Paperback, 352 pages
Published Nov 15th 2013 by Pan Macmillan
ISBN: 9382616144 (ISBN13: 9789382616146)

Set in the murky underworld of Karachi, Omar Shahid Hamid’s The Prisoner follows two police officers as they race against time to find and rescue an American journalist who has been kidnapped by a shadowy group of jihadists. If that makes the novel sound like an AfPak news story straight out of the New York Times, think again: first-time author Hamid is a Karachi police officer himself, and he has written this book with the knowledge and authority that could only come from a decade’s worth of experience on the police force of the toughest city in the world. The authenticity of his literary vision allows for a pragmatic, unsentimental depiction of the dynamics between the various actors who make up the city’s political landscape – from the policemen and intelligence officials, to the politicians and feudal lords, to the criminal gangs and militants. Despite global popular interest in its subject matter, the novel’s treatment of crime and politics in Karachi is far from sensationalist. It does not wallow self-pityingly in the squalor and turmoil of Karachi, nor is its portrayal of the city steeped in some kind of exotic unknowability. Every page of The Prisoner reads like the work of an author who is writing what he knows, and telling it like it is.

Full disclosure – I did not go into The Prisoner for the prose or plot; for me, its most valuable selling point was the fact that it was written by a Karachi police officer. Much of my work so far in the field of democratic policy advocacy has been concerned with the study of political and electoral violence in Pakistan, and Karachi has been as much a mystery to me as anyone else. Day after day, the newspapers report “target killings” as part of a larger political crime wave, even though the identities of most victims offer no clue as to the possible political motives behind these murders. It’s rarely just the political party workers who are shot in the street – more often, it’s auto repair mechanics, fruit vendors, all manner of blue-collar workers and nameless passers-by – and these individuals’ connections, if any, to the political dynamics of the city are impossible to determine from this information alone. For a researcher on political violence, print media offers precious little insight into how Karachi works, and field observation in this city has proved very nearly as challenging as in FATA and Balochistan. The experiences and insights of a Karachi police officer, written in such rich detail (albeit with the license afforded by fictionalization), is invaluable for the purposes of understanding Karachi thana culture, the criminal-political nexus and the workings of the city’s law enforcement. I found The Prisoner far more enlightening than any academic literature or think-tank papers that I have read on the subject.

While it is true that my acclaim for The Prisoner is grounded in its bravely detailed content, and the quality of writing was a secondary concern for me as a reader, it would be a mistake to assume that there is small merit in the way Omar Shahid Hasan has crafted his story and his characters. The plot is fast-paced and ever engaging, and the parallels with real-life events in the city’s criminal and political history are cleverly drawn. The dialogue reads slightly old-Bollywood in my opinion, but I am open to the possibility that this may be because of my unfamiliarity with colloquial Karachi-speak, particularly among the socioeconomic demographics that the author draws his characters from. (The avuncular, walrusy voice of the Colonel Tarkeen character, however, I felt I had heard a lot of.) Nevertheless, the novel’s characters came alive in my mind, and this is undoubtedly because the author has based them on people he has known and worked with on the force. This includes a particularly moving portrait of late superintendent Chaudhry Aslam (the basis for the Akbar Khan character in the novel), which is a larger-than-life tribute despite the fact that the novel was written before Aslam’s death and therefore not coloured by any posthumous sentiment. Constantine D’Souza, the Christian protagonist of the novel – the Watson to Akbar Khan’s Sherlock – is a humble everyman but also far from simple or insipid, and does not fall into the traps of caricature or beatification that most non-Muslim characters in Pakistani fiction do.

I should mention at this point that The Prisoner does also feature a couple of two-dimensional caricatures too. There is the ol’ hooker-with-heart-of-gold trope that is a staple of any police story anywhere in the world, but this I actually forgave because of the novel’s discussion of the position of Karachi’s red-light district in the city’s criminal politics. The only character in The Prisoner who really made me cringe was the American FBI agent Jim – who had very few lines but at one point actually asks someone, “Whadayawant?” I mention these in my review because they were anomalous in an otherwise rich cast of characters – and this is where I am hopeful the author will pick up the slack in his future work, especially seeing as most of his other characters were so well drawn.

The best thing about the author’s characterizations, at least when it comes to his policemen, is that he makes no bones about the fact that even the “good guys” – nay, even the best guys – are not loath to participate in the routine bribery and inducements that grease the wheels of the system, whether as givers or takers. And yet, you feel a profound empathy for these characters, small fish navigating their way through the dog-eat-dog power politics of much larger, ruthless egos.  Especially profound is the sense of realization you get about how unthinkably difficult it is to be a police officer in this insane, damaged-beyond-salvation city – and the tremendous courage of those among them who are just trying to do their jobs. You see just how underappreciated these individuals are, and how very much at the mercy of their political masters. The most poignant scene for me in the whole book, oddly enough, is when Akbar Khan – right before undertaking a highly dangerous mission – is watching the popcorn-eating crocodiles in the pool next to the shrine of Mangopir: “The creatures were all lying on the sandy bank, waiting for stray morsels to be thrown at them. … They reminded Akbar of himself. All these years, he had waited patiently for a morsel to be thrown his way. Just like the crocodiles.”

You will also not come away from The Prisoner without an appreciation of just how brave Omar Shahid Hamid would have to be to write this book. He jokes that he isn’t worried about his seniors and colleagues in the police force responding negatively to his book because they don’t read much; the same is probably true for the political parties and personalities he has portrayed so unflinchingly. But he has written an important, courageous novel in a time and place where the powerful are seldom held to account for their crimes. Once you open The Prisoner and start reading about the man’s job, his courage will not surprise you.


1544386_10153973216530571_699756311_nFatima Shakeel is a regular contributor to DWL and her work has also been featured in Papercuts. You can read more of her writing on her blog.

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