(New York, NY) – The seizure of copies of the Urdu translation of an acclaimed satirical novel in Pakistan is a threat to free expression and the right to publish, and attempts to stifle the book’s distribution should be halted without delay, PEN America said in a statement today.

On January 6, agents claiming to be from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI) raided the Maktaba-e-Danyal publishing house in Karachi, confiscating around 250 copies of the book A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif. The following day, they returned to demand a list of bookstores and shops that already had copies of the novel. Originally published in English in 2008, the novel paints an unflattering portrait of General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, the former Pakistani dictator who was killed in 1988 in a plane crash. The title of the book refers to a conspiracy theory that the explosives that brought down Zia’s plane were hidden in a box of mangoes.

“The attempted censorship of a novel is a new low for the Pakistani military, which regularly stifles criticism in the media through various forms of intimidation, particularly the Urdu-language press,” said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, director of Free Expression at Risk Programs at PEN America. “We call on authorities to cease their harassment of the publisher and distributors, and to allow both versions of Mohammed Hanif’s book to be sold freely. Satire is a vital form of creative expression, and the translation of books into a new language is to be celebrated, as it expands access to literature. The Pakistani people have a right to read this book if they so choose; the government must not infringe on that right.”

While the English version has not been subject to interference over the past decade and remains freely available, the publication of its Urdu translation in September appears to have riled the military, which remains sensitive to critical coverage by writers and journalists in the national language of Pakistan, as it is more widely accessible to the general population. A defamation suit was also filed against Hanif, the translator, and the publisher in late December by Ijaz ul-Haq, General Zia’s son. According to Hanif, they have responded to the complaint and are waiting for a court date.

Hanif was a participant in the 2019 PEN America World Voices Festival.


PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.

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