Salahuddin Khan seems an unlikely literary figure. A kindly, grey-bearded businessman raised in Pakistan and England, he had carved out an impressive career as a technology and marketing executive when, at the age of 57, the idea for a narrative struck him like a thunderbolt.
It was the day after Christmas 2009 and Khan fell into 14-hour days of research and writing. By mid-February he'd churned out an epic 550-page novel that offers complex, sympathetic main characters and a timely retelling of Pakistan's recent history.
"The story erupted from me in six weeks," says Khan, who had never written before. "It felt a little like going downhill on a slalom: there were posts in different places, I began to design a path through these posts and, as I got up to, like, 100 pages of this, the characters themselves began to design it for me. It's something of a blur. I was completely possessed."
Possession may be an unusual route to literary success, but in this case it worked. Since its release in July last year, the self-published Sikander has earned a handful of awards, the interest of a prominent publisher and praise from a former Pakistani ambassador.
Khan was born in 1952 in Burewala, Pakistan, to a middle-class Pashtun family forced to leave Delhi during Partition. A few years later the family relocated again, to Karachi, and from there to Doncaster, in the English county of Yorkshire, where Khan went on to study aeronautical engineering.
During a visit to Florida in April 1972, to witness the launch of Apollo 16, he fell in love with the US. He moved to Boston in 1998 and, a decade later, accepted a top marketing and strategy position in Chicago and settled with his wife and six children in the cushy suburb of Lake Forest.
That leafy, wealthy community may have reminded Khan of England, where, as the only non-white student in every one of his schools until university, he had been very aware of his outsider status, had heard the slurs and insinuations. The attacks of September 11, 2001, brought those experiences rushing back.
"9/11 raised the notion of branding," says Khan. "Everyone I think rationally understands that not every Muslim is a terrorist. The brand aspect that bothers me is the perception that Islam itself has a DNA of violence, which is a more insidious undercurrent that runs through the culture."
In the years that followed, Khan became more engaged with the Muslim community, hoping to undermine that perception. He joined the board of a local Islamic school system and the trustees of the Human Development Foundation, a non-profit group focused on development, health care and education in rural Pakistan. He became the publisher of Islamica magazine and began hosting Radio Islam, the lone US talk show focused on Muslim issues. He co-produced a short film called The Boundary, in which a Muslim man, played by the Sudan-born British actor Alexander Siddig, is stopped and interrogated by US immigration officials at New York's JFK airport.
Sikander could be seen as the culmination of those efforts. The story opens in 1986, when Sikander Khan runs away from his Peshawar home at 17 to join the mujaheddin fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. He falls in with a group of insurgents working with the Haqqani militant network, the British military and Pakistan's intelligence agency, the ISI.
Having helped to defeat the Soviets, Sikander returns to Peshawar with his Afghan bride. After 9/11 he goes back to Afghanistan to rescue his wife's relatives and former mujahedden comrades, some of whom had become Taliban. He winds up in the hands of the Americans, who ship him to Guantanamo Bay, where he is tortured during long, intense interrogations. Finally, Sikander gains his release through a family connection to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and returns to Pakistan.
After finishing his novel, Khan sent the manuscript to Akbar Ahmed, a former Pakistani ambassador to the UK and the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, in Washington, DC. One of the world's leading authorities on Islam, Ahmed has advised the likes of CIA chief David Petraeus and written several dramas about Islam, the US and South Asia. He said Sikander was bold and ambitious, a "Muslim Gone with the Wind".