Book Review: The Bargain from the Bazaar

“Awais Reza is a shopkeeper in Lahore’s Anarkali Bazaar—the largest open market in South Asia—whose labyrinthine streets teem with shoppers, rickshaws, and cacophonous music. But Anarkali’s exuberant hubbub cannot conceal the fact that Pakistan is a country at the edge of a precipice. In recent years, the easy sociability that had once made up this vibrant community has been replaced with doubt and fear. Old-timers like Awais, who inherited his shop from his father and hopes one day to pass it on to his son, are being shouldered aside by easy money, discount stores, heroin peddlers, and the tyranny of fundamentalists. Every night before Awais goes to bed, he plugs in his cell phone and hopes. He hopes that the city will not be plunged into a blackout, that the night will remain calm, that the following morning will bring affluent and happy customers to his shop and, most of all, that his three sons will safely return home. Each of the boys, though, has a very different vision of their, and Pakistan’s, future.”

– Haroon K. Ullah, author

I finished Haroon K. Ullah’s new book The Bargain From the Bazaar in two unremarkable sittings, having no idea how powerful the story’s grip was. An hour would go by without a glance at the clock, and with it, fifty pages. Then another hour, and another, and the book was done. Never did I notice the time go by, and never did the book surrender its temptation to keep being read.

I stared at the words in disbelief on occasions, reconciling that in some shape or form this story really did happen, that this narrative really was non-fiction. It “unfolds like a novel,” in Peter Bergen’s words, and its characters, plot, and dialogue compel the reader to move onward.

First, the characters – the principled father, Awais, the compassionate mother, Shez, and their sons, simple minded Salman, studious and ambitious Kamran, and easily-influenced Daniyal. Ullah’s characters are delivered in their total humanity, in reference to each other, as they put their country into its full spotlight as a dazzling social mosaic with a bleak past and future. They collectively shape a plot worth spoiling, propelling readers straight into the fabric of urban Pakistan.

This is the Pakistan no one talks about — the life of the average, middle class family living in perpetual stagnancy. There is no potential for upward mobility, nor is there any for true decline. The story is not about the wealthy aristocracy or the Pashtun frontiersman: It is about that silent majority. This one family of many is locked in a situation with no hope for the nation: Fear from the Taliban, corruption from the government, and antipathy from the United States. The reader is given no choice but to empathize with a family left to fend for themselves, with no help from any higher authority except the Supreme.

And, last, the dialogue. Haroon Ullah employs a curious but masterful use of it, and with clever wit, biting satire, and elegant portrayal unleashes his scholarship on the matter. We must recall the story is in the context of its politics, and Ullah’s dialogue puts the characters in that context, too. The talented author demonstrates the secular liberal Professor Qasim and his lawyer-like, know-it-all attitude to everything Pakistan, and the Taliban warlord Gul Nawaz and his fantastic ability to hypnotize his curious followers into dogmatic fanatics. Both the professor and the warlord have their faults: The challenge, then, is balancing the two for the Buddha’s middle path.

That is where the book makes itself truly unique. Apart from Ullah’s masterful writing, his integration of politics into his story gives the reader the full picture of Pakistan. With a single story of a single family, the reader is left thinking of the whole — of all the stories of all the families. Suddenly, Pakistan is made so real as if one could see, hear, smell, taste, and feel it altogether, while still studying it from the outside. Haroon Ullah knows the country like the back of his hand, both from his Ph.D. and from his travels. Pakistan is a country of people, but it is also a country of politics. The trick to learning the latter, Ullah seems to propose, is reading about the former. The Bargain from the Bazaar gives the reader the opportunity to do just that.

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