“As a rule, truth is as wide and all-encompassing as you let it be, and there is always more of it.” So says 11-year-old narrator Aliya Shah in the opening pages of Sorayya Khan’s “City of Spies,” and that sentiment could be repeated on nearly every page of this intriguing coming-of-age story.
Aliya’s father, a former U.N. diplomat based in Europe, has returned to Pakistan with his family and now works for the government, in charge of overseeing water and power services. Her Dutch-born mother manages to fit into Pakistani life. But Aliya feels herself a perennial outsider.
She attends the American School, where her skin is darker than most of her classmates’. But it is lighter than most of her Pakistani neighbors’. She is turned down for membership in the Girl Scouts because she is Pakistani. But how can she be Pakistani when she doesn’t even speak decent Urdu? Her family’s servant, Sadiq, undertakes to teach her, and she practices with his young son, Hanif.
Is Aliya a foreigner or a local? Is she in or out? This is well-trodden ground, especially in stories about young adults. What sets Khan’s novel apart is the braiding of Aliya’s story with Pakistan’s history in the late 1970s, a murky, violent period that shapes and distorts her world.
Aliya's best friend is Lizzy Simon, whose American family is at once exotic and mysterious. Lizzy's house looks, sounds and smells different from Aliya's. Her mother is "gorgeous in a blonde-and-blue-eyed-Glamour-magazine kind of way, which I could never be with my dark eyes and hair." Lizzy's father is said to be a malaria specialist working for the U.S. government, but "no one knew what they were really doing since most of them were assumed to be spies," Aliya observes.
When a coup overthrows Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, prompting speculation about U.S. involvement, Aliya’s father begins taking Valium to get through meetings with his new boss, Gen. Zia-ul-Haq. Aliya, too, feels emotionally connected to the ousted, and eventually executed, prime minister: “I knew his children, which was almost like knowing him personally.” Although what happened next in real life is outside the novel’s scope, these events kicked off a polarizing reign that lasted 11 years, until Zia died in a mysterious plane crash along with the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan and other diplomats and military officials.
This turmoil would be enough to color any childhood. But it is only after Sadiq’s much-loved son is killed in a hit-and-run accident that echoes of national and international chaos strike closer to home and compounding questions take on greater urgency.
Who is responsible for the coup and then the hanging of the prime minister? Who created false news that blamed the United States for bombing Islam’s holy site in Mecca? Who burned the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad to the ground? Who drove the car that killed Sadiq’s little boy? Perhaps most critical and bedeviling of all, who will pay for that death?
Truth — or rather, too little of it — impacts what is happening not only in government offices but in Aliya’s own kitchen. Aliya herself turns into a spy, eavesdropping on adult conversations and snooping among adult possessions to try to understand what she’s not being told about how little Hanif died.
“City of Spies” deftly braids together these personal and political strands. And Khan neatly incorporates the international complexities of the times into Aliya’s efforts to understand what makes her singular — and what makes her part of a tribe.
But there are some pitfalls. Perhaps because the story pursues so many questions, it seems unable to end, relying on both an epilogue and a postscript, and moving in new directions in the final pages. And a secondary character, Aliya’s grandfather, claims deafness primarily when he desires it but steps up at critical moments, making his actions sometimes seem contrived.
Aliya’s story has many parallels to Khan’s life. The author has a Dutch mother and a Pakistani father who worked for the United Nations and then returned to Islamabad with his family in the 1970s. “City of Spies” is clearly informed by that experience. Aliya’s schoolgirl attempt to straddle two worlds is made more difficult when Hanif’s death forces her to finally choose sides, but her loyalties remain shifting and complex to the end. There is, it turns out, always more truth to discover.
Masha Hamilton is the author of five novels, most recently "What Changes Everything" and "31 Hours." She served as director of communications and public diplomacy for the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan in 2012-2013.
By Sorayya Khan
Little A. 265 pp. $24.95