A native of Pakistan, Haneef was an economics and government double major at Colby who later earned an M.A. in international relations from Yale University and an M.B.A. from Yale School of Management. Over the years, he has worked in many sectors, holding roles ranging from a tech entrepreneur to a TV actor to a diplomatic adviser. But he never stopped writing. From London, Haneef wrote responses to questions from Colby Magazine Staff Writer Kardelen Koldas ’15.
Your book tells the fictional story of a U.S.-trained Pakistani lawyer trying to help a Pakistani Christian boy accused of blasphemy and potentially facing a death sentence. Why a blasphemy trial as the subject of your first book?
I wrote the novel as a “discovery” writer. That is, I wrote the first draft without a strong sense of the narrative arc or central conflict. The initial draft focused on a protagonist still finding his place in the world, familial conflict, and a doomed love affair. But as I wrote, my mind kept coming back to a blasphemy case from the 1990s. In the case, an illiterate teenage boy, Salamat Masih, along with his uncle and father, were accused of writing blasphemous statements on the wall of a mosque in the Punjabi farming village of Ratta Dhotran. There was no physical evidence, and the judge was never told what was said because to repeat the statement would have been blasphemous. Eventually, the conviction was overturned, and Masih fled to Germany. However, the injustice of an obviously innocent young boy wrongfully convicted in this Kafkaesque court proceeding in Pakistan stayed with me. I couldn’t write anything else.
After the first draft, which felt like it belonged to two different genres, the real work began and the revision process took me several years. Eventually, I brought the disparate strands together into Blasphemy: The Trial of Danesh Masih.
Did any of those strands come from your life?
Although all the characters and most events are fictional (or have been fictionalized), it is a deeply personal novel. At the same time, it does address broader themes around inclusivity, tolerance, individual responsibility, and the role of religion in society. I came of age in a post 9/11 world at Colby. I was in theater class when it happened, and it transformed the atmosphere on campus and across the country. I remember having to undergo special registration in the U.S., and how a bus of 40-odd international students was stopped at the border for several hours because of new rules that meant I had to register every time I left and entered the country. I experienced microaggressions and truly felt my religious minority status in a way that I never had before. Perhaps that is why I was drawn to the pain of a religious minority figure.
How about the other themes? Why did you want to write about those?
There is a growing wave of ethno-religious nationalism and fascism, and leaders are using minorities as scapegoats and blaming them for their own failures. Although the book focuses on Pakistan, this is an issue across the globe, and I wanted to celebrate the important work that human rights lawyers and activists perform in building a more inclusive and peaceful world.
In her endorsement, Oscar-winning filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy said your book and characters are “convincingly real.” And they really are. They’re all very interesting individuals. How did you develop them?
The most interesting characters to write in Blasphemy were probably the antagonists because I was forced to unpack the motivations for their deplorable actions. For instance, for Pir Piya, a radical religious preacher in the novel, I read extremist literature and watched videos of religious extremists to understand the way that they justified their positions. I combined that with what I knew from all the research on radicalization and extremism and the people I had met to develop the underlying psychology of the character. I then tried to imagine how a character with this fabricated background, and way of engaging the world, would think and respond in different scenarios. And then I kept editing it and changing it until it felt true.
How did you discover your passion for telling stories? Did you always want to become an author?
When I first arrived at Colby, I had no aspirations to become an author though I loved reading books. It wasn’t until Susan Kenney, former Dana Professor of Creative Writing, took a chance and let me, a far-too-eager first-year, into an oversubscribed creative writing seminar usually reserved for sophomores and juniors, that everything changed. My first short story was awful. But slowly, with each submission and round of feedback, I learned something new about telling stories. I started writing stories that were more authentic (though fiction) and got published in the Pequod. During my year abroad at the University of Oxford, only possible because of Colby’s generous financial aid, I won the Frank Allen Bullock Creative Writing Competition. That early success spurred me on to keep writing. By the time I graduated, I aspired to eventually publish a novel, but I didn’t realize how difficult the road would be, especially as I had to earn a living.
But you succeeded at it and wrote this book while having a demanding full-time job. How did you make the two work?
I have been working on this novel for many years, including during graduate school. Most recently, from 2015 through July 2019, I was the Pakistan CEO for MILVIK (“BIMA”), a Swedish telehealth and microinsurance company. I launched and scaled the Pakistan operations from when it was just me in a coffee shop to over 1,200 employees providing services to almost four million people. When I first started, there was no time for writing. The job was 24/7. Gradually I hired more people, and I realized that when I worked all weekend, my weeks were less productive. So then I started protecting my time on weekends. Of course, I would occasionally have to work weekends but I reserved time for writing. I would go to a coffee shop, order some strong green tea, and write through most of the day.
Was there anyone from Colby you turned to during the writing process for feedback?
At critical points in the novel’s journey, I shared a draft with Susan and a classmate, Helen Brown ’05, and they, without any prompting, sent the entire manuscript back full of comments and suggested line edits. It is invaluable and extremely rare for a professor or a friend to take the time to give such detailed feedback. It reflects not only their generous character but also the kind of support the Colby community provides. Now, just before what would have been my 15-year Colby reunion, my debut novel has been published. It has been a long road, but Colby has been a central part of the journey, and I wouldn’t be a published author if it wasn’t for Susan Kenney and my wonderful classmates and Colby friends.
Any advice to aspiring writers?
If you are a Colby grad with the aspiration to become a published author, I hope this story inspires you and you lean on the incredible resources of this community to make your dreams a reality. If you are a Colby student, I encourage you to try as many different subjects and classes as possible. You never know how one class, professor, or conversation may change your life.
An excerpt from Blasphemy:
Sikander awoke from his dream to find bright green eyes staring directly at him. He jumped up in bed, startled, and found a young boy, rake thin, with a light brown complexion, squatting on a chair. The boy’s green shalwar kameez appeared clean but dull, as if it had been washed too many times to retain its original colour. He must have been eleven or twelve years old.
‘What? Who are you?’ Sikander asked in Urdu.
‘I’m Danesh—Mena’s brother, Sikander sahib,’ the boy replied in Urdu. ‘I’m here to wake you up.’
‘Then why didn’t you wake me up? You were just staring at me!’
‘You were going to wake up eventually anyway,’ Danesh said with a cheeky grin. Sikander quickly scanned his bedside table to check for his wallet. Where had he left it?
‘I didn’t take your wallet, Sikander sahib. It’s on the floor next to your bedside table,’ Danesh said.
At first, Sikander thought he might have mentioned the wallet but he realised that he hadn’t. He leaned over the side of his bed and saw the fallen wallet. ‘I hope you didn’t take anything,’ Sikander said, realising that even if the boy had, Sikander had no idea how much money he had brought along.
‘I swear on my life, I did not steal anything,’ Danesh said and pinched his neck.
‘Well, thank you for waking me up. Now, please leave.’
‘I’m sorry for bothering you, Sikander sahib. I’m just very excited to finally meet you. You’re here earlier than I expected.’
‘What are you talking about?’ Sikander asked.
‘You’re going to save my life,’ Danesh said.
‘I dreamt it,’ Danesh said, his earnest green eyes looked directly at Sikander.
‘You dreamt I was going to save your life?’ Sikander asked.
‘Yes,’ Danesh said. ‘In my dream, I’m drowning in a dark pool and then you pull me out.’
‘Look, maybe I can save us some trouble and simply advise you against going for any midnight swims.’
‘It doesn’t have to be a pool of water. . . It could be. . .um. . .’ Danesh struggled to find the word. ‘. . .a sign. . . It could be another problem that just shows up in my dream. That’s what Pir Piya says.’