‘This place is full of thieves.’ This is how Momo, the teenage protagonist of Mohammed Hanif’s new novel, describes the refugee camp that he calls home. But it also signals that in the world of the novel’s setting – an unnamed desert somewhere along the Afghanistan–Pakistan border – everyone is complicit in a version of theft, whether material or emotional. The ‘international-aid types, nice-smelling do-gooders’, are, for Momo, ‘the biggest thieves of them all’, stealing the misery of others for their own use. In Hanif’s cynical satire, warfare necessarily rests on the dialectical relationship between destruction and reconstruction. ‘If I didn’t obliterate cities,’ a soldier asks, ‘how would you get to set up refugee camps?’
Red Birds opens with Major Ellie, an American fighter pilot, lost in the desert after his plane has crashed. Although he has passed an advanced desert survival course, he has no idea how to survive there; his emergency kit consists of a few energy biscuits and a smoothie.