A Turbulent History: The 11 Best Books to Understand Pakistan

Formerly born out of the partition of the Indian sub-continent in 1947, the history of Pakistan has been one of turbulence, conflict, and unrest. Created as a homeland for Indian Muslims following years of struggle, Pakistan is the only country created explicitly in the name of Islam, and as a result, the Islamic faith is deeply embedded in Pakistani culture and politics. Unfortunately, terrorism has been a serious issue within the country, particularly in the post-9/11 years. Pakistan’s proximity to Afghanistan and the country’s mountainous terrain have proven a hotbed for Al-Qaeda activity. The result is continuing unrest in a country that has long struggled to attain some degree of stability.

Despite the formal creation of Pakistan in 1947, the history of the areas that make up modern Pakistan stretch back to some of the earliest human civilizations. This history, spanning myriad empires, has contributed to a particularly rich literary tapestry. In spite of the turmoil that has defined much of modern Pakistan, the country has fostered one of the region’s most robust literary communities — one that straddles Islamic storytelling traditions, mines the tension between Islamic traditions and modern life, and chronicles the nation’s rolling periods of unrest. The novels and books below, many written by Pakistani authors, illuminate the history, the struggles, and the ultimate promise of Pakistan.

  • The cover of the book Exit West

    Exit West

    A Novel

    Mohsin Hamid examines the devastation and ultimate hope of the refugee experience in this surreal and powerful novel. It centers on two young lovers, Nadia and Saeed, in a city teetering on the brink of civil war. When the unrest boils over into outright war, Nadia and Saeed make their escape after discovering a fantastical door and stepping through.

  • The cover of the book A Case of Exploding Mangoes

    A Case of Exploding Mangoes

    This acclaimed debut from Mohammed Hanif is a darkly comic romp through military life, betrayal, and conspiracy. The novel follows Ali Shigri, a Pakistani Air Force pilot set on avenging the death of his father. His target? General Zia ul-Haq, Pakistan’s dictator. With a ragtag group of zany co-conspirators, Ali sets an elaborate plan into motion. Unfortunately, his is far from the only attempt on ul-Haq’s life.

  • The cover of the book Bombay Stories

    Bombay Stories

    When Saadat Hasan Manto arrived in Bombay in the 1930s, he was immediately taken with the city and its restless energy. Manto, widely considered one of Pakistan’s finest short story writers, channeled his considerable skill into bringing his beloved city to vivid life on the page.

  • The cover of the book The Wandering Falcon

    The Wandering Falcon

    Jamil Ahmad made his debut as an author at eighty years old. His first and only novel is a riveting and insightful view into the various tribes that populate Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas. The collection of interlocking stories are narrated by a young man named Tor Baz, known as the Wandering Falcon, as he moves between the tribes, people, and traditions that populate them.

  • The cover of the book The Upstairs Wife

    The Upstairs Wife

    An Intimate History of Pakistan

    The Upstairs Wife is a fascinating and emotionally resonant chronicle of one of the most turbulent moments in recent Pakistani history — the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. With The Upstairs Wife, Rafia Zakaria juxtaposes this moment against a crisis within her own family, and deftly explores the history of Pakistan through the lens of her family’s travails.

  • The cover of the book The Faithful Scribe

    The Faithful Scribe

    A Story of Islam, Pakistan, Family and War

    Journalist Shahan Mufti can trace his family history back some fourteen hundred years to the inner circle of the prophet Muhammad. In The Faithful Scribe, Mufti uses that rich history to trace the larger story of Pakistan, the world’s first Islamic democracy, and all of the promise, peril, and turmoil that have come define the nation.

  • The cover of the book Maps for Lost Lovers

    Maps for Lost Lovers

    Set among the Pakistani immigrant communities in the north of England, Maps for Lost Lovers is a haunting and emotionally devastating exploration of love, community, and the crushing weight of tradition. It centers on the disappearance of Jugnu and Chanda, a couple living together out-of-wedlock — an unforgivable disgrace to Chanda’s family. (One that could perhaps warrant murder.)

  • The cover of the book The Shadow of the Crescent Moon

    The Shadow of the Crescent Moon

    A Novel

    Fatima Bhutto’s debut novel centers on lives of young people struggling to find their way during the turbulent early days of the American invasion of Afghanistan. Set in a small town in Pakistan’s Tribal Areas, The Shadow of the Crescent Moon is a powerfully observed chronicle of everyday life in a war-torn land, one beset by threats both internal and external. Building from seemingly mundane events, and taking place over the course of a single morning, The Shadow of the Crescent Moon is an intimate examination of a nation enveloped by war.

  • The cover of the book American Dervish

    American Dervish

    American Dervish is the debut novel from Pulitzer Prize winner Ayad Akhtar. The novel follows a Muslim American family in Michigan in the pre-9/11 world. The story hinges around Hayat Shah, the family’s son, who has only known life in America and is caught between his modern life and his family’s faith.

  • The cover of the book Burnt Shadows

    Burnt Shadows

    Spanning five decades, from 1945 to 2001, Burnt Shadows is an ambitious and mesmerizing examination of love and war across three generations. Beginning with the devastation of the atomic bomb in Japan, the novel traces the journey of a woman named Hiroko Tanaka as she searches for a new life. The story takes readers from Dehli in the midst of India’s push for independence, to New York City in the wake of 9/11, to a stunning conclusion in Afghanistan. Burnt Shadows is a mesmerizing tale of love and family set against a series of world-changing events.

  • The cover of the book I Should Have Honor

    I Should Have Honor

    A Memoir of Hope and Pride in Pakistan

    In this stirring and powerful memoir, Khalida Brohi explores the darker edges and complexities of tribal life in Pakistan from child brides and arranged marriage to the horrors of so-called “honor killings.”  It is a fearless, profound, and unflinching look at Brohi’s journey from a young girl in a society where she was viewed largely as a commodity to an activist seeking meaningful change and affecting the lives of many.