"Noon": Using Fiction to Explore Pakistan's Complex Politics

"Noon": Using Fiction to Explore Pakistan's Complex Politics

MR. KOJO NNAMDI

13:06:43
From WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, it's your turn on any issue that you'd like to discuss. But first, using fiction to explain what seems to be unexplainable in Pakistan. Writer Aatish Taseer had just finished his new novel days before he heard the news. His father, a Pakistani governor, a vocal critic of Pakistan's anti-blasphemy law had been killed by his bodyguard.

MR. KOJO NNAMDI

13:07:28
For many, the true story of his father's death quickly morphed into a tale of warped morality and political values. Thousands took to the streets to celebrate his killer as a hero of Islam. When the court sentenced the killer to death last month, the presiding judge was forced to flee the country after receiving death threats. Aatish Taseer has written his new fictional novel, "Noon" or he had written it before Salam Taseer was killed. It tells the story of a young man trying to make sense of his family in the complex undercurrents of Pakistani society.

MR. KOJO NNAMDI

13:08:06
But the book echoes many of the forces that played out in Pakistan over the last year. And here to talk about it is Aatish Taseer himself. He's a journalist and author. His latest novel is called "Noon." Aatish, thank you so much for joining us.

MR. AATISH TASEER

13:08:22
Thank you.

NNAMDI

13:08:23
Perhaps it makes sense to start this interview with a kind of confession. My producer Brendan Sweeney and I follow the news. We understand the basic logic underlying most conflicts and international stories. But for the life of me, we don't feel like we get Pakistan. There are so many cultural, political and religious crosscurrents lurking underneath the surface, so many competing agendas, that it's hard to make sense of it.

NNAMDI

13:08:51
I bring this up because this book, in a sense, seems to be an attempt to make sense of these crosscurrents. Do you feel like you really understand where you come from? Is it possible for outsiders to really understand what is happening in a place like Pakistan?

TASEER

13:09:09
See, what you can't get away from is you are, in a sense, understanding confusion because there is the things that you suggested a kind of mangled history as such is very much the history of Pakistan. It's a history of partition, of separation, of breaking with history, so to speak. And there are -- there is the old Hindu past of India running through Pakistan. There's a long period of Islamic rule. There's British rule, then there's partition.

TASEER

13:09:39
So all these things that seem somewhat impenetrable and the kind of very confusing, very involved politics that they've thrown up, it's very real. There's no getting away from that. So you can only -- you can only try to make sense of that confusion as it were.

NNAMDI

13:09:58
The complexity exists not in our imaginations, but in reality. I suppose every work of fiction is a reflection, in some way, form or fashion, of the actual life experience of an author. But this book has such obvious peril as your father was a prominent Pakistani politician, as we mentioned. Your mother, an Indian journalist and you grew up primarily in India very much like the protagonist in your book, "Noon." Did you set out to describe the world that you inhabit?

TASEER

13:10:29
I think that I've liked to do this in the past of giving, almost having a sort of crust of non-fiction and having that break or having that fall away as the fiction takes over. I think that it's a way to enter different material. And it seems, in a sense, unusual, but it's so old I think that the narrator prost of the of remembrance of things passed, it's a similar kind of narrator. And maybe I feel that I've needed it more because my world has been so fragmented, because it's been a world where it hasn't been easy for me to go from one bit of material to another. And I wanted very much to tie those things together in "Noon."

NNAMDI

13:11:15
800-433-8850 is the number to call if you'd like to join the conversation with Aatish Taseer. His latest novel is called "Noon." Do you feel that fiction sometimes tells a story, sometimes even a true story better than non-fiction? Call us at 800-433-8850, send email to kojo@wamu.org or tweet @kojoshow, or simply go to our website, kojoshow.org. Join the conversation there. Just as people are saying, well, exactly what are they talking about, would you read an excerpt of the book, please, to give our listeners just a taste of what we are talking about?

TASEER

13:11:55
This story came to me during, and I think you will see why, a final visit to my father's country. I was tempted many times to abandon it for the material is strange and distressing, the tale without moral, unless you consider looking and recording with a sympathetic eye as moral enough. But in the end, the writing need was too strong. And for all my misgivings, it made its way onto the page. "One morning in May, when the sun was high over the tarmac, I stepped off the plane in Port bin Qasim for the first time.

TASEER

13:12:29
Even deep inland where the airport stood surrounded by pale hard land, there was the briny breath of the sea. Overhead, casting the ominous shapes of birds of prey were the frayed crowns of palm trees. There was in display of short shadows and flickering windblown sunlight, a noontime menace. And about the young man who appeared from a line of unfamiliar faces with a piece of board that bore the name Rehan Tabassum. There was the scent of guns, dollars, and drugs."

NNAMDI

13:13:03
The main character is Rehan. He's trying to reconnect with his Pakistani family. He leaves his familiar world in India and flies to this fictional city of Port bin Qasim. And from the beginning, there are signs of caution and danger. All can be found in the novel "Noon" by Aatish Taseer, who joins us in studio. Your father, Selman Taseer was the governor of Punjab, Pakistan's largest province.

NNAMDI

13:13:29
He had been an outspoken critic of a controversial anti-blasphemy law, which we had talked about on this broadcast before, a law that could have people convicted to death or life in prison for saying anything that seemed to be critical of the Prophet Mohamed. Your father was an outspoken critic of this law that this January he was killed by his bodyguard. Obviously, this was a shock, but it was not all together unexpected. He had been at the center of a media and political storm for months, hadn't he?

TASEER

13:14:00
Well, I mean, I think so. I think that the media had played a very, very deliberate role in whipping up a kind of frenzy. And that being -- and, you know, you have to remember, Kojo, that the laws he was criticizing were laws that were made in the '80s by the dictator. And this was being conflated with making it seem as if he were criticizing the religion or criticizing the book in Pakistan, which is almost like signing your death warrant.

TASEER

13:14:29
And so, they would take little sections of what he said and sort of repeat them again and again. And by the end of December, there was a kind of hysteria. And there had been rallies where they declared him (word?), which is an Islamic classification to mean that someone is fit to die. That anyone, any good Muslim can kill him. And so this was kind of the background. I think when it happened, it didn't -- to know all of this, didn't reduce the shock of it. And it certainly didn't prepare anyone for what came afterwards.

NNAMDI

13:15:07
Yes. We'll talk about what came afterwards in a second. Sometimes when one reads fiction like this book, "Noon," you walk away feeling like you understand a region or a community better than when you read it in an investigative journalism piece or an essay or the New York Times magazine. Could you have written this book, in your view, as effectively as a non-fiction book?

TASEER

13:15:31
No, no. I think that -- I think you are absolutely right there. I think that when something passes through that kind of filter of the imagination, it comes out in some ways simpler and in other ways much more complex. And I remember the first time feeling that -- and, you know, I started out writing non-fiction about Pakistan. But I think the first moment where I felt sort of non-fiction as coming up short was at the time of Benazir's assassination.

NNAMDI

13:16:04
Benazir Bhutto.

TASEER

13:16:04
Benazir Bhutto's assassination. And there was a great outpouring of grief at the time. It was a period of morning and there was a kind of violence. And I had a very strange intimation at the time that under all of this grief was something akin to euphoria, like a feeling almost of carnival of release. And it was, I realized immediately that to capture kind of the texture of something like that, you need fiction with all its subtlety with all its possibility. Because -- or rather let me say, you need the imagination because it gives a better sense of what it's like to be around that than if you stay too close to some kind of outward reality.

NNAMDI

13:16:50
We have a caller who would like to talk about that. Beverly in Leesburg, VA. Beverly, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

BEVERLY

13:16:57
Oh, hi. It's about a Kurt Vonnegut novel that I'm drawing a complete blank on the title, but it was about the main character keeps traveling around in time. And he goes back to the bombing of Dresden, where he was a POW. And that was how he was able to tell the story about the bombing of Dresden was through fiction, through putting it inside of this bigger story.

NNAMDI

13:17:20
Are you thinking of "Cats Cradle"?

BEVERLY

13:17:22
Yeah. Oh no, not "Cats Cradle," it was a different one.

NNAMDI

13:17:25
"Slaughterhouse Five" maybe?

TASEER

13:17:26
"Slaughterhouse Five."

BEVERLY

13:17:28
"Slaughterhouse Five," yes, the name of the place where the prisoners were held when the bombing took place. Yeah.

NNAMDI

13:17:33
Thank you, Aatish.

BEVERLY

13:17:33
"Slaughterhouse Five," because at that time there were so many stories out about World War II that -- publishers weren't really interested in publishing anymore stories about World War II. But a lot of Americans didn't know the bombing of Dresden even happened until that book came out. And it came out in a work of fiction. So, sometimes that's the best way to tell a story like that is to put inside of another story.

NNAMDI

13:18:00
Care to comment on that, Aatish?

TASEER

13:18:02
No, that's exactly what we were talking about. I've thought about this a lot and in very real ways as a writer found myself having to. But the interesting thing with having that process is that non-fiction can be written immediately. You can be at a place and you can go home and write it. With fiction, there needs to be because it's a process of a kind of a distillation, a kind of -- where you're sort of in some way getting to the heart of something, you need a sort of distance. And I think the seed of this book was at least -- it was three years before that I'd got this intimation of a place that's placid on the surface and full of a kind of underlying violence. And I guess it was almost three years later that fought its way out as a novel.

NNAMDI

13:18:53
Thank you very much for your call, Beverly. You describe Pakistan as a shattered state. You've also said that its obsession with India is completely irrational. On the one hand you say these things from the perspective of someone who has a Pakistani family, but you also grew up and lived in Delhi. Do you have, in your view, any kind of anti-Pakistan bias?

TASEER

13:19:17
I don't have a -- I mean, it's very complicated for me to say this because I make a separation all the time between the land and people that is comprised by Pakistan where I don't have a bias at all. I feel like perhaps it's a region in the world as close to me as any I've ever grown up with. It's the same country to me. What I do think of historically as an idea, I think that the idea of Pakistan was an idealistic idea, a very -- one of those moments in the 20th century, where a very violent utopia had come into being.

TASEER

13:19:55
And I think that this idea of a nation that would be founded on a kind of Islamic solidarity that would hold together India's Muslims, greater than the things that we know nations to be made of whether it's culture or language or dress. I think it was a fraudulent idea. So I feel that Pakistan has paid a price for that idea and cleared a price for that weird mixture of religious and religion and nationalism that was so worrying in the 20th century, that was -- that is now sort of shown its kind of full potential to do harm now. So to answer your question, you know, I have no love for the idea of Pakistan, but I have a great affection for the actual -- what Pakistan is made of, you know.

NNAMDI

13:20:42
Got to take a short break. When we come back, if you have called, stay on the line. We will get to your call. The number is 800-433-8850. We are examining the notion that fiction can sometimes tell true stories better than nonfiction. And we're talking with Aatish Taseer and his latest novel is called "Noon." 800-433-8850, if you have a question or comment for our guest or you can go to our website kojoshow.org, join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

NNAMDI

13:23:12
Welcome back to our conversation with Aatish Taseer. His latest novel is called "Noon." He's a journalist and author. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. You can send email to kojo@wamu.org. You did not grow up with your father around and even though you did develop a relationship with him in later years that was, it is my understanding, a rocky relationship. Why did you have a falling out with him?

TASEER

13:23:39
It was for the period that I did know my father, it was a very hopeful period. It was a period were actually it was a very good relationship. The trouble came over an article I'd written for the British Press, soon after the London bombings. And I talked about the British-Pakistani being, in my opinion, the second generation British-Pakistani being for a variety of reasons because of a kind of failure of identity on many fronts, one of the most ruthless and sort of dangerous minorities in -- almost a kind of genus of the Islamic terrorism that would come.

TASEER

13:24:21
And he was very angry with that article. He was very angry with -- and I think he felt that I'd kind of blackened the Taseer name and that I was running down Pakistan. He was a very fierce patriot. But I think he was also angry as a Muslim on some level even though he was not a man of religion. There was this idea he had of being a cultural Muslim. And that idea was very strong. And I felt that he -- and so that was the beginning of the trouble. And as I sort of -- my rising life kind of took hold of -- became a more sort of viable serious thing, he had more and more trouble with what I had to write.

TASEER

13:25:00
And remember this coincided with him after 15 or 20 years returning to politics. And so, you know, things that can be said when someone is civilian life are quite different when one is in political life. So there was -- it got cooler and cooler and by the time he was governor, we were not on speaking terms.

NNAMDI

13:25:21
The London bombings do appear in this book but in an interesting and subtle way, I won't give away anymore than that. We talked about this earlier and I said I would get back to it. While the death of your father was extremely shocking, the aftermath has been surreal and disturbing in a different way. The gunman was treated as a hero by many people on the street. You say that during the trial, it was your father's ideas that were being debated as much as the innocence or guilt of the gunman. And apparently they used excerpts of your books to try to prove that your father wasn't pious.

TASEER

13:25:58
Oh yeah. It's -- I mean, I can only answer you up to a point because it's almost -- it was almost like a parallel morality had kicked in. And it was after a point, incomprehensible because what was being done, for instance in the court room was that they were using my book or using different things from my father's life to suggest that if someone was not religious in the way they wanted him to be religious that it was all right for him to be killed. It was the point that they were openly making.

TASEER

13:26:30
And one sort of balks at the idea that this point might be made in a courtroom and that there would be a judge to listen and that this could be -- but it's something that has become part of the public culture of Pakistan because even in the Senate which was one of the ugliest moments in the six months that followed my father's death, they couldn't -- this is the same Senate that had a prayer to say for Osama bin Laden, couldn't pass a simple motion to condemn the killing of my father. A sitting governor had been killed and they couldn't pass a simple motion to condemn the killing. So it was really grotesque, you know.

NNAMDI

13:27:08
And grotesque in other ways. Last month, a judge did hand down two death sentences for the gunman, but now it’s reported that that judge has had to flee the country for fear of retribution against his family.

TASEER

13:27:21
Yeah, I think they came and smashed up his courtroom and, you know, the cleric who'd performed my father's funeral rights, he had to flee the country. And so this is very much the mood of, at least in the public's fear in Pakistan.

NNAMDI

13:27:39
Here is Peggy in Olney, Md. Peggy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

PEGGY

13:27:44
Well, hi. I first wanted to express my condolences for the death of your father. And then I was just listening, wow, where do you start? How do you -- do you have any recommendations on a cell of humans, dare I say Americans on -- it can't just be anger. I mean, this is a Sharia law and all this. Where do we start? How can we help? How can we fix this?

NNAMDI

13:28:12
Fix the justice system in Pakistan?

TASEER

13:28:15
Well, I mean, I don’t think -- I think that that feeling, that burden is -- it's very nice to feel that, but I don’t think that that -- that I think that Pakistan will have to face its problems in its own way. I think that perhaps one of the ugliest relationships in recent times has been the relationship between the American establishment and the Pakistani army. I think that there are times when we look back on certain relationships in 30 or 40 years ago and they're kind of embarrassing for us. We feel embarrassed that America engaged such and such, dictator or such and such.

TASEER

13:28:47
And in a funny way you feel that the American -- that America has stepped back from that kind of thing. That less and less, one here is of a truly malignant relationship but I think that this has been one of the last. Because that army, as it became more and more apparent, has played a very duplicitous role. On hand, sort of funding terrorism and on the other hand seeming to be fighting it.

TASEER

13:29:12
And I think probably the best thing is for that -- for at least a kind of -- as far as military aid goes, for that relationship to be reeled in for -- and I think probably it's already happening. I feel that this relationship is being reconfigured, even as we speak. But it was a long time coming because it was a very ugly association.

NNAMDI

13:29:37
Our guest is Aatish Taseer. He is a journalist and author. His latest novel is titled "Noon." Back to the telephones with Mike in Leesburg, Va. Mike, your turn.

MIKE

13:29:48
Yes, hello. I wanted to tell you, I thought that was a beautiful reading of your new book. And I definitely plan to read it. What you're talking about is very powerful because I'm not a reader and I will give you an example of what you've been talking about. I recently read "City of Thieves" by David Benioff. And it is about the fall of Leningrad. And I was so inspired by his book. In the back of it, he said he got most of his information from two books, one of which was "The 900 Day Siege of Leningrad." So I went and read that book, which for me was highly unusual. So I am making...

TASEER

13:30:25
Yeah, wonderful.

MIKE

13:30:27
...the idea that, you know, your fiction allows you to get a feeling and a sense of a place and that interest that you generate from that, I think, makes people want to know more about the country that you came from and the politics that (unintelligible) which you would never actually go read that unless one were to get sort of turned on by your type of books. So thank you...

TASEER

13:30:52
Thank you.

MIKE

13:30:54
...and yep.

NNAMDI

13:30:55
Thank you very much for that, Mike.

TASEER

13:30:55
That's a very nice thing to say. Thank you.

NNAMDI

13:30:57
Here's what it makes me think of. After you have been, as Mike put it, turned on by reading a work of fiction such as yours, the person then says, okay, now I'm ready to take on the non-fiction material about Pakistan.

TASEER

13:31:09
Yeah.

NNAMDI

13:31:09
Where do you point that person?

TASEER

13:31:11
It's very interesting you say this because actually I was -- one of -- I've been trying to write a piece about this, about the lines between fiction and non-fiction especially where it comes to Pakistan. I mean, there's a certain kind of wonk-ish books. There's the -- there's "Pakistan: A Hard Country," there's the -- there's a very good book, I think, by Bruce Riedel called "Deadly Embrace." These are more kind of policy type books.

TASEER

13:31:38
I think the Nepal books, the non-fiction, among the believers and beyond belief, are very, very well written first and quite far reaching. And one was written in '79 when much of the trouble that we see now was still quite a -- hadn't made itself fully known. And his book, very much anticipates it. So those two as far as non-fiction go are especially strong.

NNAMDI

13:32:03
In some ways, the characters in your book "Noon" embodied different ideas, almost different theses to explain how and why India and Pakistan evolved the way they did. And even though you've come from a family that could be described as secular and some would describe as elite, the fictional characters who come from that kind of background are very flawed in "Noon."

TASEER

13:32:25
Oh, yeah.

NNAMDI

13:32:27
Is that a reflection in your view of reality?

TASEER

13:32:30
I felt that there's been, I think -- one of the things that "Noon" is very concerned with is the remove at which the elite can live both in India and Pakistan. Of -- and it's a book very concerned with flight and with escape. But most of all with making little, sort of, pools of security within a society, of living in a country and not living in a country of kind of holding it at bay. And the dangers of that, the dangers of not engaging the place, of not -- one of the things I like very much about being here is that it's a country where I feel fresh blood is welcome into the system, often.

TASEER

13:33:12
And in India and Pakistan, when people's aspirations have been awakened and you can't absorb their ambitions, you can't in a sense gives those things an outlet. You can create a very, very dangerous, a very precarious situation. And I think that was one of the things that "Noon" was concerned with. And, you know, this remove is held in place by many things, by language, by education, by privilege, by cast, by class and it's got to give way to a more equitable order in both countries.

NNAMDI

13:33:47
One of the characters in this book is a restaurant owner who caters to the very wealthiest in Pakistan. His character is a kind of contradiction. On the one , he's a very secular guy who drinks alcohol, but he has a son...

TASEER

13:34:00
Yeah.

NNAMDI

13:34:01
...who is extremely devout to the point of radicalism. And we also find out that he's bank rolling street protests, railing against western influence. Do you think that's the norm or at the very least a fairly frequent pattern that you can encounter in Pakistan?

TASEER

13:34:19
I think that this change, this generational shift is not limited just to Pakistan. I remember encountering it for the first, very profoundly in English, in the northern areas of England where people who look like they were out of a bazaar in Lahore suddenly had children who were, like, you know, bearded with sort of dressed as Arabs. And at one point I said to one of the younger people, I said, why are you dressed like this? He said, it's my traditional dress. And so I said to his father who was wearing the (word?), are you not wearing traditional dress?

TASEER

13:34:57
And then the boy said, quite angrily, he said, it's my Islamic dress. And you could feel this -- that this tension between an elite, especially in Pakistan of who were kind of westernized, in some way deracinated who were much easier, it seemed, with the kind of -- with a foreign influence. And then their children who feel in some ways that they sold out the country, that they kind of like moved away from a truer and people returning or finding their way back to this kind of energized Islamic identity. I saw it in many places. I saw it in Syria, I saw it in Britain, I saw it in Pakistan. So I think that that is quite real, probably.

NNAMDI

13:35:41
You know, well, we always have this notion that young people rebel against their parents or the previous generation. Is what we are seeing here in part, piety as a form of rebellion?

TASEER

13:35:55
I think that there are -- there's a -- you're absolutely right. I think that there's a kind of -- I think that this -- that the Islamic thing has sometimes become -- it's become the face of -- there are other things running through this movement. I think that sometimes it has the element of a class revolt, at times it's still the old kind of relationship between colonization still grinding down. I think that modernity, the way it spread, a kind of globalized western modernity also poses a kind of a front to people in these countries.

TASEER

13:36:32
And the Islamic identity, though it's not always a positive identity, is in some ways a bulwark against the sort of spread of that modernity. And so...

NNAMDI

13:36:44
Glad you brought that up because I'm going to relate it to a point that you were making earlier. And that is Pakistan was formed around an idea but you say that Pakistanis are too enamored of ideas and that's part of the problem. In one of the early scenes in this book, in Pakistan, the main character has a brush with street protestors who are campaigning against written English. And their demands and their ideas seem somehow divorced from reality.

TASEER

13:37:12
Yeah. Yeah.

NNAMDI

13:37:13
Talk about that, if you will.

TASEER

13:37:14
Well, I think what I was trying to get at was this notion that had become more and more clear to my mind. That sometimes these -- the kind of utopia that Pakistan was, that these things can be quite nihilistic, that you're -- and you seem to be setting out a vision for a new and perfect society in which such and such will happen. But what you're really doing is profoundly resisting some other kind of influence. And in this case, the English becomes -- later on in the book, the want to change all the books that they have into the -- they're using the Urdu script but writing English.

TASEER

13:37:54
And it becomes a way, I think, that I was trying to hint at something that I had seen in Iran and that I'd seen in Syria as well which was this tendency of trying to remake the world in a pure way, trying to pass the modern world through and Islamic filter so that it's not so objectionable anymore. And you can't really do that, you know. Because it confuses you. You can't make these cosmetic changes and then really accept the world as it is. You've got to either have an idea of your own or make your peace with the modern world the way it exists. And so it's part of this special hysteria that I've seen in Muslim countries.

NNAMDI

13:38:39
The lead character in this book ends up attending university in America. We see him trying to make sense of the different worlds in which he finds himself. One of the more devastating story lines involves a crime that is committed on his family compound and the young man must participate in the interrogation of his family's servants. Having grown up in a different country and traveled back and forth from here to there, it's interesting to see how you portray how we slip into and out of these cultural roles.

TASEER

13:39:12
Yeah.

NNAMDI

13:39:12
It's one of the bigger challenges in the so-called globalized world, isn't it?

TASEER

13:39:15
Yeah. Absolutely. And you know this contact with another world, with let's say a society that is sometimes can be fairer or where the rule of law is more powerful or where -- even where merit is better rewarded, it can be very difficult to move between these two systems because you can come back to that other place. And you feel as if you're giving up an idea of yourself that you rather liked. And there's -- throughout this book, but especially in the section that you mention, the sense of an individual fighting to remain the man he set out to be.

TASEER

13:39:55
And a very powerful kind of erosion and sometimes it can be so passive that he hardly realizes he's changing, but that leaves him, in some ways, contaminated at the end, in some ways, a lesser man than he wanted to be.

NNAMDI

13:40:14
Our guest is Aatish Taseer. His latest novel is called "Noon." He's a journalist and author. Aatish Taseer will be appearing and discussing his work at the South Asian Literary and Theater Arts Festival this Saturday, November 5 at 1:00 p.m. That event is free and open to the public at the National Museum of Natural History Baird Auditorium. The event starts at 10:00 a.m. Aatish Taseer, thank you so much for joining us.

TASEER

13:40:41
Thank you.

NNAMDI

13:40:42
We're gonna take a short break. When we come back, it is Your Turn, whether you want to talk about the dilemma of Herman Cain, the federal government's new snow leave policy, or anything else. The number is 800-433-8850. If you have called already, we can continue this conversation. 80-433-8550, or go to our website, kojoshow.org, join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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