Pakistani author Mohammed Hanif used to quip that the reason why his country's intelligence officials hadn't harassed him for lampooning a military dictator was because it could take them years to get the joke.
Now that A Case of Exploding Mangoes -- the award-winning satirical novel he wrote more than a decade ago — has been translated from English into Urdu, things have changed.
On Monday, men claiming to be from Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency raided the Maktaba-e-Danyal publishing house in Karachi, confiscating about 250 copies and demanding to know which bookshops were selling the novel, according to Hanif and the book's translator, Syed Kashif Raza. They said the men claiming to be from the intelligence agency, which is connected to the Pakistani military, returned Tuesday to take lists of book distributors and shops stocking the novel.
Hanif tells NPR the raid has left him feeling "obviously anxious, angry and above all, helpless."
Human rights groups say the raid — which came days after Hanif, Raza and the book's publisher learned they were being sued for defamation — is the latest example of censorship amid a growing squeeze on free expression in Pakistan.
Amnesty International called Monday's raid "an alarming sign that freedom of expression continues to be under attack in Pakistan." The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan called it "a craven attempt to stifle artistic freedom of expression."
The raid was notable because the target was a novel, says Rimmel Mohydin, Pakistan campaigner for Amnesty International. "I think it's a sign of how much space has shrunk in Pakistan," she says. Targeting an internationally celebrated Pakistani writer underscores the military's increasing brazenness, she says. Hanif is one of the best-known Pakistani writers abroad, and yet his fame could not protect him. "This is quite alarming," she says.
Hanif's novel was released by a London publishing house in 2008 to wide acclaim and was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. It revolves around the late Pakistani dictator Gen. Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, who transformed Pakistan into a more visibly religious society during his rule through the 1980s. Zia was killed in 1988, along with the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, in a mysterious plane crash.
A Case of Exploding Mangoes caricatures the pious Zia and includes scenes in which he is distracted by embarrassing itches and his wife storms out of their bedroom after he is pictured in a newspaper ogling the cleavage of a Texan oil heiress. The title refers to a popular conspiracy theory that explosives were snuck onto Zia's final plane ride in a box of mangoes.
An ISI official dismissed Hanif's claim about this week's raid, telling the Associated Press it was a "cheap attempt to gain popularity by hurling false accusations on a national institution." Pakistani military officials did not respond to NPR's requests for comment. Publisher Hoori Noorani declined to comment.
Hanif, who previously served in Pakistan's air force and was awarded a top civilian honor from Pakistan's government in 2018, says writing the novel was his attempt to make sense of Zia's dictatorship and the military. By mocking them, he told NPR in November, "You're also in a way trying to humanize them."
Hanif wrote the book in English, which most Pakistanis cannot comfortably read. (He says it is his own preferred language for fiction). When it was published, his friends worried he would face trouble. "What the hell are you thinking?" he remembers them saying.
They expected authorities to punish Hanif for making fun of the military, Pakistan's most powerful institution. Army generals have ruled the country for nearly half of its 72-year history. Human rights groups and Pakistani journalists say the military pushes reporters and media outlets to self-censor coverage that might be deemed critical of the institution, through direct and indirect means of intimidation.
But there was no backlash after the English edition of A Case of Exploding Mangoes was released, so about six years ago, Hanif handed over an Urdu manuscript to a Pakistani publisher — who sat on it, out of caution over what might happen if it were published. Hanif ultimately took the manuscript to Noorani of Maktaba-e-Danyal, who published 1,000 copies in September.
Late last month, Hanif and Raza, the translator, say they and the publisher received legal notice of a defamation suit by Zia's son, Ijaz ul-Haq, who did not respond to NPR requests for comment.
On Monday, the raid took place at the publisher's office, and Hanif tweeted:
"A Case of Exploding Mangoes has been in publication for 11 years now. Nobody has ever bothered me. Why now? I am sitting here, wondering when will they come for us. ISI is World's No 1 spy agency. I am sure they have better things to do."
He believes the raids were connected to the defamation complaint. "Our hunch is that it was not a coincidence," he says. He plans to challenge the defamation suit.
On Wednesday, the Urdu version of A Case of Exploding Mangoes was nowhere to be found on the shelves of several Islamabad bookstores, although the English version remained on sale.
Two booksellers, who requested anonymity because they were worried about angering the ISI, said they'd run out of Urdu copies and their local distributor told them it would no longer be stocked. Both told NPR they'd had a stream of customers asking for the book, probably because of the controversy.
They said confiscating a novel was unusual, though authorities had occasionally tried to prevent the promotion or sale of nonfiction books critical of the military, like The Spy Chronicles, co-written by a former ISI chief, Asad Durrani.
Pakistani intelligence agents haven't confiscated a novel from bookshops in decades, one bookseller said. He acknowledged that an Urdu novel lampooning the military is not the same as one in English. "When the book is translated into Urdu, then common people understand," he said.
Hanif says although he believes the Urdu edition of his book is unofficially banned now, things could be worse. In the past, Pakistanis have been disappeared after being suspected of activism against the state. "We are kind of relieved that they haven't abducted us," he says. "We are almost grateful for that."