Crime and Punishment: An Interview with Omar Shahid Hamid
Reportage Editor, Papercuts, Shahbano Bilgrami in conversation with the author, gets under the skin of heroes and villains.
Omar Shahid Hamid’s new brand of gritty police fiction has captivated readers in Pakistan and abroad. Drawing extensively from his thirteen years as a counter-terrorism officer in the Pakistani Police Force, Hamid brings a unique perspective to the genre with The Prisoner (long listed for the DSC South Asia Literature Prize) and The Spinner’s Tale.
As a police officer, he has been targeted by various terrorist groups and was wounded in the line of duty in 2005. In 2010, as chief of the CID (Crime Investigation Department), he narrowly escaped with his life when the Taliban bombed his offices. Now, as Head of Asia Pacific Country Risk with IHS, an academic background in Law and Criminal Justice Policy, and the added benefit of actual field work, Hamid features regularly on print and digital media, including, among others, CNBC, BBC, Bloomberg, Sky News, Al Jazeera, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Times.
In thinly-veiled allusions to actual events and real people, The Prisoner and The Spinner’s Tale deal with Pakistani underground terror networks, corrupt politicians and their backers, jihadi militants, and a host of sordid criminals ranging from the petty to the maniacal. The police force that has to deal with this impending wave of crime is a corrupt and beleaguered institution. But, as Hamid pointedly illustrates, heroism is possible even from within the ranks of this endemically corrupt system. His heroes, while not conforming to the traditional mold, are police officers who straddle the ambiguous space between good and evil and use all of the weapons available in their arsenal – legitimate and otherwise – to rise triumphantly to the occasion.
Papercuts: In the space of a few short years you have established yourself as Pakistan’s foremost writer of crime fiction. What really captivates readers’ imaginations is the fact that you have had actual experience in the field, and it clearly shows. How did your years in the Pakistani Police Force, particularly in the Anti-Terror Cell, inform your writing?
Omar Shahid Hamid (OSH): Everything I write is drawn from my experience in the police. The understanding of the department, the understanding of Karachi’s underbelly and how it works and how dark it is, the understanding, or attempt at understanding, what motivates men to blow up innocents, all of these insights come from my time in the police. I can safely say that had I never been in the police, I would never have been a writer.
Papercuts: As the old saying goes, ‘Truth is stranger than fiction’. How much of your novels are inspired by real-life incidents? Are most of the characters based on actual individuals and, if so, how do you tread the fine line between fact and fiction?
OSH: Most of my characters and situations are inspired by real life stories. The end results may not mirror what happened in reality, but I find my professional experience as a police officer gives me a rich vein of information to draw upon when creating a fictional space.
Papercuts: The Pakistani Police Force as an institution has – in the public imagination at least – been synonymous with corruption and ineptitude. Do you think your books in some measure help to rehabilitate the Police Force’s image and restore the possibility of heroism within its ranks? Was that part of your intention?
OSH: When I started writing, my aim was never to do this as some kind of rehabilitative message for the police. But what I did want to do was to show them in an accurate light. As a society, too many of our assumptions and opinions are based on caricatures, and this is particularly true of our image of the Pakistani Police Force. Policing is an incredibly difficult profession anywhere in the world, but especially so in Pakistan – and, yes, many police officers are deserving of public criticism, for their ineptness, for their corruption and for their lack of empathy for normal citizens. I genuinely believe there are also many police officers who, while trying to lead ordinary lives, regularly do extraordinary things.
This point really hits you when you visit a police officer’s home after he has been killed in the line of duty. You come face to face with the harsh realities of that man’s daily life, whether it was struggling with the school fee, or whatever, and you think, why would anybody making lousy money (even with any additional illicit sources of income) risk his life trying to do his duty? Especially when he knows that the department has never been very good at taking care of his family? That’s when it really strikes you how extraordinary these men were.
Papercuts: In The Prisoner, you provide a glimpse into the workings of the Police Force in a large megalopolis like Karachi, and the novel is teeming with descriptions of the city, from its derelict slums to its colossal palaces. How does the setting impact the story?
OSH: I find, in my personal experience as a reader, that any writer who is able to recreate in your mind the world or place that he or she wants the reader to see, in the minutest of detail, is immediately captivating. You read Le Carré and you can almost smell the musty files in the government offices. You read Jeffrey Archer’s First Among Equals and you feel like you are a ringside spectator in the House of Commons. For me, books like that have the greatest impact, and my effort as a writer is to try, as best I can, to take my reader on a similar journey. So for me, setting is a huge part of the story. It’s very easy to sound inauthentic and boring if you don’t get your setting right.
Papercuts: In The Spinner’s Tale, the reader, like benign police officer Omar Abassi, is drawn to Sheikh Ahmed Uzair Sufi’s seductive villainy. Despite the Sheikh’s reputation as a brutal terrorist, we are told he is a ‘magnet for his fanatical followers’. In the novel, you’ve taken great pains to share the Sheikh’s backstory with your readers, even allowing him the privilege of a voice through his old letters to ‘Eddy’. Why did you feel this was necessary?
OSH: I wanted to show the journey of how a normal person turns into the embodiment of evil. I am sure, once upon a time, all of the monsters of modern times, whether it was Osama Bin Laden or Mullah Fazlullah, started off as relatively “normal” people. It is certain triggers in one’s life, as well as, for some people, a predisposition to violence or chaos, that makes them become what they eventually do. I’ve read a few books on these sorts of transformations, but I don’t feel like a lot of them were able to capture that process. That’s why I felt it was so important to show Ausi’s [Sheikh Ahmed Uzair Sufi’s] backstory, to show the methodical changes in him, even if at times it slowed down the rest of the story.
Papercuts: Part of the Sheikh’s magnetism is the fact that despite being a top jihadi militant with a history of bestial violence, he also prays five times a day and fasts during Ramadan, to all appearances a ‘pious’ Muslim. He is a hero to his followers, a criminal to all others. How has religious terrorism changed the coordinates of heroism?
OSH: Religious extremism – of any form or faith, not at all restricted to Islam – will – because it views the world through a particular prism – always throw up categorizations of heroes that may not fit what you or I would define as heroic. For instance, if you speak to many people of a certain bent of mind, they will tell you, earnestly, that they believe Osama Bin Laden, or Mumtaz Qadri, were heroes. But that has always been the case with religious extremists throughout history. It is not a new phenomenon. Their heroes are often very, very different.