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Beyond flooding and fundamentalism: best books about Pakistan

Which books best deliver Pakistan behind the headlines?

By / August 17, 2010

After studying at Dartmouth and Yale, short-story writer Daniyal Mueenuddin returned to his father's country where he lives on a farm in Pakistan's southern Punjab.

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If you are a Westerner, what do you read about Pakistan? This week, you are probably seeing numerous photos and multiple stories about the millions of Pakistanis displaced by massive flooding. This decade, you have probably also seen or read dozens or hundreds or maybe even thousands of news stories connecting Pakistan to terrorism and/or violence – either in relation to America's "war on terror" or the disputed Kashmir region.

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But what if you're curious about the Pakistan that lies behind the headlines? Try Googling "best books about Pakistan" and top titles listed tend to be things like "Pakistan's Drift into Extremism" or "India, Pakistan and the Kashmir Dispute." Or even "Charlie Wilson's War."

India, of course, is an entirely different matter. There is a vast array of novels, memoirs, and travel literature that helps introduce English-language readers to life in India. But what about Pakistan? The choices are much more limited, but here are five books to suggest as a starting point:

1. "In Other Rooms, Other Wonders," by Daniyal Mueenuddin. This terrific 2009 collection of short stories is spun around a wealthy Lahore landowner. Mueenuddin, who was raised in Pakistan but then attended Ivy League schools in the US, offers an illuminating glimpse into the lives of the desperately poor and – to a lesser degree – the landed rich in rural Pakistan.

2. "The Murder of Aziz Khan," by Zulfikar Ghose. This 1967 novel offers insight into Pakistani society in its earliest years through its protagonist Aziz Khan, a character who represent traditional Pakistani values.

3. "Among Muslims: Meetings at the Frontiers of Pakistan," by Kathleen Jamie. After 9/11, Jamie updated her book about her travels into remote parts of Pakistan and her life among the people there.

4. "Kalasha: Their Life and Tradition," by Akiko Wada. Wada, a Japanese woman who has been living in Pakistan's Hindu Kush mountains since 1987 with her Pakistani husband, offers a portrait of the Kalasha people.

5. "Three Cups of Tea," by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. Mortenson's story of being nursed back to life by a Pakistani village after a mountaineering accident and subsequently helping to build rural schools in the country has become a global bestseller. For many American readers, it has served as a useful introduction to a world they knew only too little.

This is s a woefully limited list – I know that. So please help by sending me your favorite titles – I'd really like to know!

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.

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