Fatima Bhutto’s second novel The Runaways is a provocative, astute and ever-timely exploration of what makes three young people in Pakistan and England reject the society that raised them and sign up to the war against the West. Anita, growing up in a sprawling Karachi slum, aims to better herself with book learning but finds herself brutalised and driven by events beyond her control. On the upscale side of the city, Monty defies his privileged birthright, bewitched by a rebellious new girl called Layla who shakes up the protocols at his private school. Sunny, whose widowed father left India for England a generation ago to follow a dream of new riches and opportunities, is riddled with self-doubt in dead-end Portsmouth, until a charismatic cousin comes back into his life and promises an alternative future.

What is most striking is that Bhutto remains sympathetic to these characters even as they make the terrifying decision to join ISIS in the deserts of Iraq. It turns out there are more sinister and despicable forces at play than are routinely depicted on the path to radicalisation.

MR: The three runaways in your novel come from contrasting backgrounds at the edges of society, and are radicalised for very different reasons, though ultimately they all share Monty’s realisation that “all lives [are] lived in glass houses. And one’s duty as a conscious man [is] to be a stone-thrower.” How would you summarise each of their paths from their everyday struggles to the battlegrounds of Iraq?

FB: To me the question behind all of the runaways is how much pain would they have had to be in to go to war against not only the world, but also their families, their peers and their communities? As you said, they are all radicalised for different reasons but religion isn’t one of them. There’s an industry in the Western world built on creating this singular narrative on what radicalism means and why it happens, and it’s clear now – two decades into the War on Terror era – that that industry has no clue what it’s talking about. The West doesn’t understand radicalism – either by design or default – but that lack of understanding is making things worse. It’s anger, isolation, alienation, pain – that’s what drives young people to take up arms against the world. Not religion.

Sunny is obsessed with his self-image on social media, which he uses to motivate himself to become a killer. What kind of research did you do into the recruitment of radicals via social media, and how individuals in the movement communicate with each other and with the outside world?

Those videos from American predator drones, the videos of soldiers kicking down doors in Kandahar or Fallujah, there’s no underestimating how powerfully all that worked to entice people to join radical groups.”

I spent hours watching jerky propaganda videos of Syrian rebels on LiveLeak – a jihad-heavy alternative YouTube site whose categories include News & Politics, Ukraine, Iraq and Syria –scouring Tumblr accounts belonging to runaway Malaysian brides, reading AMA threads on Reddit, Dabiq, a surreal ISIS glossy online magazine, and Twitter Q&As where Dutch fighters explained life under the caliphate. That was all online in 2014 when I started writing but it got taken down. Even so, there’s plenty that remains on the internet and on social media – the war in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, drone wars in Somalia and Pakistan, we’re watching all that in real time and it’s so powerful in terms of recruiting. Those black and white videos from American predator drones where you can hear the pilots cheering as they hit clusters of people, the camera phone videos of soldiers kicking down doors in Kandahar or Fallujah, there’s no underestimating how powerfully all that worked to entice people to join radical groups. I didn’t have access to personal communication within those movements but what was really fascinating to me when I was watching the very slick videos made by ISIS members – all in HD, no longer grainy basement camera footage, with rousing music and subtitles – was hearing them speak. They were talking in French, in German, with Australian accents, English accents. They weren’t Arabs or Syrian. They were Europeans. That was not the case with al-Qaeda and the videos released between 2001–2006. Those were a different genre of fundamentalists altogether. Those men valued secrecy, these guys all wanted to be social media stars and go viral.

What have you made of the recent media, government and public response to the case of Shamima Begum, the jihadi bride trying to return to Britain? Hardly anyone seems willing to address what led her to sign up with Islamic State in the first place, or to examine why she is numb and unfeeling in interviews.

Yes you’re very right. The West’s obsession with remorse has displaced any serious discussion of radicalism and how it was that so many young women – 13% of all foreigners who joined or affiliated themselves with ISIS in Iraq and Syria between April 2013 and July 2018 were women, a further 12% were minors according to a recent report by King’s College – were able to travel from European cities to Syria under the noses of security officials in the first place. But this obsession seems to apply solely to brown and black women. Begum has apologised and has expressed regret – as has Hoda Muthana, the young American runaway in the news – but it never seems to be enough. I haven’t heard Tony Blair, George Bush, Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld express an iota of regret over launching the Iraq War on patently false intelligence, and they certainly haven’t had to face any real scrutiny from the outrage brigade.

Your ISIS leader in Iraq, Abu Khalid, “wanted the world to see the quality of women joining their movement. It wasn’t just dumpy British schoolgirls running away from home, not just sad, lonely girls looking for husbands, but real women, free women. True fighters.” But isn’t Layla more prosaically and predictably used by the movement as a seductive mouthpiece? And what kind of rewards does a group like ISIS really offer its ‘free women’ and ‘true fighters’?

Yes of course she is, that’s part of Layla’s tragedy – that she is used by these opposing forces and agendas. Layla herself has no agenda except liberation, and in that quest she gets used and hurt. She is on the one hand a seductive mouthpiece but also a persuasive one because she is outspoken and strong. The reward they offer – and I think we see this in the recent cases of Shamima Begum and Hoda Muthana – is manifold: belonging, freedom (counter-intuitively) and power. Muthana said in her recent interviews that she had a stifled upbringing with strict parents who separated her from her American peers because they came from a conservative Yemeni background, and that part of her reason for running away to join ISIS was to be free. There’s such a terrible irony in that. But I think that’s partly why ISIS was so seductive to begin with: you’re not at home out there, in an empty world built on capital and artifice, you don’t belong because they exclude you because of the colour of your skin, your heritage, your religion. You’re not like them, you’ll never be accepted. But here, here you not only belong but you are a leader of this global community. The reward is the freedom to finally be who you are in a place where your peers will accept you. It’s a lie of course, built as all lies are on this temple to the self: as though there is one true you, only one authentic you, and you must fight any and all attempts to divert from or subvert that true self.

It’s easier to imagine that the threat comes from your neighbour, that someone is stealing your right to work and dignity, than to face the fact that the system is profoundly and utterly broken.”

How did everything become so binary, so polarised, and what can be done to fix our way of thinking and being?

Globalisation did the opposite of what it promised to do: first, it left hundreds of millions outside the dream of connectivity and opportunity. It didn’t lift all boats with the rising tide, it lifted only those who were set and ready to sail. So many more drowned or were stranded at sea. Second, globalisation didn’t flatten borders – except for capital, that’s the only thing that moves freely today. Not people. Nationalism is more terrifying right now than any other time that I’ve been alive and I’m 36 years old. It threatens to break up the European Union, it has brought fanatics to power in South Asia, it’s isolating America as it builds walls (inspired by Israel’s Bantustan successes) and again this ties into the first problem: the millions left outside of the dream of globalisation. There are no jobs, people can’t find dignified work, in this cutthroat environment they have no guarantees for a stable, noble life. It’s easier to imagine that the threat comes from your neighbour, that someone is stealing your right to work and dignity, than to face the fact that the system is profoundly and utterly broken.

Portsmouth is a city whose coat of arms and football club crest incorporate an ‘Islamic-looking’ star and crescent. For what other reasons did you choose to make this where Sunny was born and brought up?

I chose it because of the strange fact that in the early days of ISIS there were several recruits that went to Syria from Portsmouth. The city was listed alongside London as the only other noted recruitment zone in the UK. That was my primary reason for choosing Portsmouth, it was only afterwards, researching the city, that I came across the Islamic-looking star and crescent.

Sunny’s father Sulaiman’s personal failures, tragedies, high expectations and inevitable disappointments are the stuff of a tragi-comic short story. Could his life have turned out differently if he hadn’t been so awed by James Bond films in his formative years?

Sulaiman Jamil is from that first generation to come of age in post-Partition India and so the complex insecurity that weighed his trajectory down wasn’t James Bond as such but the experience shared by all colonised people. James Bond is Sulaiman Jamil’s foil – a man who moves confidently and securely in the world, whose life is eased by his inherent charm and pedigree, who can murder and maim but still be desperately sought after by glamorous women. That’s the experience and privilege of the coloniser, not the colonised. Given the moment in India that Sulaiman Jamil occupies and is vulnerable to, I don’t think his life could have turned out differently. Perhaps only if he stayed in India and wore the disguises his friend Noor Mohammad adopts. But then, each man wears his own disguise and is pretending to be something he’s isn’t, so perhaps not…

You paint a fascinating portrait of Karachi, from the deluxe homes and seafront of Clifton (and the real estate plundered by the likes of Monty’s family after Partition), to the slums of Machar Colony. In what ways do those contrasting worlds collide and interact? And what makes you proud to call Karachi home?

They are in constant contact and collision. There is something that Sunny’s father says that is true for South Asia in general. There – unlike in the Western world – it is impossible to forget one’s fragility and vulnerability precisely because of that constant collision and interaction. A young man like Monty who lives behind high gates and CCTV security cameras has no power to isolate himself from the poverty of his city, no matter his riches and privileges. He is confronted by it on his drive to school, when he sees children begging at the traffic lights, at the school gates where a man with torn soles guards the entryway to an elite private school, when he comes home and an underage maid who cannot read or write brings him his imported food. What makes me proud to call Karachi home is the city’s amazing will to survive – it absorbs all the tension, violence and difficulty that surrounds it and does something beautiful with it. That beauty isn’t aesthetic, it’s spiritual. It’s uplifting to see how people pull together to make it through unending chaos and uncertainty with their heads held high.

Anita’s neighbour Osama recites lines to her from Shelley’s ‘The Masque of Anarchy’:

Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number –
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you
Ye are many – they are few.

These have been used as a rallying cry by Jeremy Corbyn and at uprisings from Tiananmen to Tahrir Square. Has the poem been over-appropriated?

I do think that’s a great poem – I heard Benjamin Zephaniah read it once and had shivers listening to him. I don’t think you can over-appropriate poetry, there’s not enough popular consumption of poetry, if you ask me.

What underpinned your choice of the name Osama for this scholarly and kind old Marxist?

Osama means lion in Arabic and so I chose it primarily for that reason. There are other Arabic names that mean lion that I could have chosen, Asad for example, but Osama is a beautiful name and thanks to that one famous Osama it’s been tainted for many. I wanted to undo that in some way, to take back what was taken from us. So much has been taken from us in the Muslim world in this way, we lost access to our own stories, our own names, our histories as the war on terror and its singular, flat narrative subsumed everything in its wake.

Poetry is such an important part of life in South Asia, in Iran, in the Arab world, in a way I’ve never seen in the West. It’s a solace, a balm, we always need more of it.”

The poems of Habib Jalib are held in great regard by Osama and Anita, and the line “Truly they speak, who the truth have seen” from his ‘What Does Pakistan Mean?’ crops up often in the novel. So what does Pakistan mean today, compared with at the time of Partition?

This is the eternal question: what is Pakistan? At the time of Partition they told us it was Islam that connected us, that and our need for a Muslim sanctuary. But the break-up of Pakistan in 1971 showed that Islam wasn’t what connected us after all. Today, when one sees Narendra Modi’s communalist, fundamentalist politics in India, that idea has been resuscitated – it’s the first time that idea’s come back since the scars of ’71 damaged it. Jalib’s poem is significant because it plays on a chant that the Jamaat Islami, a fundamentalist group, uses: Pakistan ka matlab kya? La illa ha ill allah – What is the meaning of Pakistan? There is no God but God. When Jalib was alive that was the rallying cry of General Zia ul Haq, a man who brutalised and radicalised Pakistan in a way we have yet to recover from. So there are layers to the choice of Jalib and that poem specifically. But I think as a young country we are still working through what it means to be Pakistani. What does it mean to be so young (in terms of borders) but ancient in history? And does our diversity bind us together or separate us? These are questions asked every day and though the questions remain, the answers are often in flux.

You mentioned when your first novel The Shadow of the Crescent Moon came out that there’s not enough of Habib Jalib’s poetry in English. Is that still the case? And why do we need to read more?

Yes it’s still true – there isn’t enough. He isn’t translated or published very widely in English. We need more of it still because Jalib was a revolutionary, he was a true radical who wished not just to observe the battle of man against power but to confront it and push all his weight in opposition to power. I suspect that’s why they don’t translate him widely. He’s a dangerous poet. Just the other evening, I was in Lahore. The television was on and before midnight, after the standard fare of late-night punditry, the screaming and shouting of analysts stopped and there was Jalib reciting his poetry. Poetry is such an important part of life in South Asia, in Iran, in the Arab world, in a way I’ve never seen in the West (I can’t imagine Fox News or Sky News having a half an hour slot for grainy old broadcasts of poetry readings on Saturday night). It’s a solace, a balm, we always need more of it.

Tehmina Durrani’s memoir My Feudal Lord is “the only book [Monty’s] father professed to have read over the last twenty years, although the pristine spine suggested otherwise.” Its subtitle in later editions is A Devastating Indictment of Women’s Role in Muslim Society, but the blurb suggests something more nuanced, as the story of a divorced woman reconciling her faith in Islam with her fierce support of women’s rights. How widely has the book been read in Pakistani society, and to what effect?

It was hugely popular when it came out and still is. I just saw it in a bookstore the other day, it’s never out of stock. It occupies a certain space in our popular imagination because when it came out it was like an explosion: Durrani was a well-known woman who spoke unflinchingly of abuse at the hands of her husband, of divorce, of shame, of honour, and in one go she broke through all these taboos and kept going, unbowed. For women it was a sign that you could not only suffer but survive without shame and Durrani, who I’ve known since I was a teenager, is a force of a woman – unapologetic, outspoken and gutsy. But there was also some scandal that surrounded it and it was a book everyone at that time wanted to read, even if they were not particularly interested in the cause of women’s expression. That’s why Monty’s father would have a copy but likely wouldn’t have read very much of it.

Which other writers and activists are making a vital stand in Pakistan over the rights of women?

Sanam Maher is a young journalist whose book A Woman Like Her comes out in the UK this summer – it’s about Qandeel Baloch, an aspiring model and actress whose brother murdered her in an honour killing in 2016, and it tackles social media, sexuality, honour and fame. It’s a deeply researched book and very well written. PTM, a Pashtun political movement, has been remarkable in its inclusion of women who are a big part of their marches and protests against disappearances and extrajudicial killings. I think if you look at politicians you’d despair, but hope is there, as it always is, underground, on the streets, in the villages and towns.

There’s a second part of the quote from Nabokov that appears on your Twitter page, “My loathings are simple: stupidity, oppression, crime, cruelty, soft music,” which says, “My pleasures are the most intense known to man: writing and butterfly hunting.” What are your greatest pleasures?

The most intense pleasure is being with the people you love. I live with a little Jack Russell who is a great joy to go running with and to have by my side when we are inside, still and quiet, writing and reading.

It’s over five years since The Shadow of the Crescent Moon. When and how did this novel germinate, and how long was the writing process?

I started writing it in the fall of 2014. That was the summer that ISIS captured our attention with their horrific brutality. I had been travelling in Europe at the time and felt so wounded hearing how people – who seemed otherwise kind and reasonable – spoke about migrants coming to their countries. At that time it was being described as a crisis for Europe, as though Europe was the only entity that was suffering, not those families fleeing wars and terror. These two things were happening simultaneously and both disturbed me. I was talking to a friend about why what it was that the West just didn’t seem to understand – or want to understand – about radicalism, and he said to me, “You should write about that.” It hadn’t occurred to me to think through it in fiction until that point, but the moment I heard the suggestion I knew it was the only way to approach the topic.

What are you writing next?

A work of non-fiction reportage on global pop culture. It examines the end of the American century of soft power and the rise of Asian culture industries in India, Turkey and South Korea.


Fatima Bhutto was born in Kabul, Afghanistan in 1982 and grew up in Syria and Pakistan. She is the author of four previous books, most recently her debut novel The Shadow of the Crescent Moon, which was longlisted in 2014 for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. The Runaways is published in hardback, eBook and audio download by Viking/Penguin.
Read more

Author portrait © Caroline Issa

Mark Reynolds is a freelance editor and writer, and a founding editor of Bookanista.