Thursday, June 25, 2009

"Intellectually Black and Socially South Asian": Michael Muhammad Knight

Michael Muhammad Knight, who had a pretty rough childhood in upstate New York, converted to Islam as a teenager. He came from an Irish Catholic background, but partly under the influence of Malcolm X and black nationalist Islam, and partly simply as a result of his own idiosyncratic spiritual leanings, he took the Shahadah at age 16, and changed his name to Mikail Muhammad. He traveled to Pakistan to study Islam at the Faisal Mosque in Islamabad, under the guidance of Muslim intellectuals he first knew in the U.S. With a convert’s enthusiasm and zeal, he was as a teenager on a course to militancy –- perhaps not so different from John Walker Lindh (and Michael Knight acknowledges some similarities at certain points in his memoir, Blue-Eyed Devil). But Knight soon became disillusioned with that life and the rigidity of the teachings he was being exposed to, specifically as it seemed to inculcate a negativity in himself he didn't like.

When Knight returned to the U.S. after a year in Pakistan, he continued to identify as a Muslim, but with a dimension of non-conformist punk rock theatricality. Starting in the early 2000s, Knight became a fixture at Muslim American conferences like ISNA, where he posed himself as a dissenting, outsider kind of figure, next to the well-groomed second-generation Muslim-Americans from Middle Eastern and South Asian backgrounds.

Also, starting around 2003, Knight started circulating a photocopied version of a novel he had written about an imagined community of Muslim punks in Buffalo, New York, called "The Taqwacores" ("Taqwa" means piety in Arabic). Eventually the book would be formally printed, most recently by an established independent publishing house called Soft Skull Press. Since 2004 Knight has become a bit of a publishing machine, putting out several other books. A documentary has been made about the Islamic punk movement his book helped inspire, and a feature-length film version of "The Taqwacores" is in post-production.

One interesting thread in Knight’s story is the role South Asian Americans play in his books, especially Bangladeshis and Pakistani Americans. At one point early in "Blue-Eyed Devil" (and I can’t find the exact passage for some reason), he describes his engagement with Islam in America as "intellectually black and socially South Asian," (quoting from memory) and the phrase has stuck with me.

1. Blue-Eyed Devil

Blue-Eyed Devil: A Road Odyssey Through Islamic America began as a series of columns Knight wrote for the website Muslim WakeUp! between 2003 and 2005. Some chapters are personal accounts of hanging out (and sometimes hooking up) with Bangladeshi American girls he meets in environments like ISNA. These chapters alternate with travel experiences and encounters, all loosely structured around resolving the identity of the figure who inspired the founding of the Nation of Islam in the 1930s, a figure known as W.D. Fard (or sometimes Wallace Fard Muhammad).

One of the major threads in Blue-Eyed Devil is the thesis, which Knight investigates at length, that this pioneering figure in black Islamic theology, W.D. Fard, may have actually been from South Asia, rather than the Middle East, as was originally thought. There is at least some evidence uncovered by Knight and others (none of it overwhelming) that Fard may have come from India via Fiji. After 1934, Fard disappeared for awhile, and officially no one knows what happened to him. However, the successor to Elijah Muhammed in the black Muslim community in the U.S., Warith Deen Muhammed, claimed that Fard re-appeared as a "Pakistani" Imam in the Bay Area named Muhammed Abdullah starting around 1959, and died in 1976.

The prospect of W.D. Fard as a South Asian immigrant is a thesis not so much proved as explored in Blue-Eyed Devil. But it presents an interesting image: this founding figure in black nationalist Islam may not have been of African, but South Asian, descent.

Knight’s narrative involves contemporary desis to a considerable extent. One passage, which gives a strong indication of Knight’s complex relationship to South Asian American peers, is in a section where he talks about going to a Muslim Summer Camp in the U.S.:

Often I’d try to boost my Muslim cred by wearing the right kind of hat but only ended up looking like a crazy convert with something to prove. Which I was, of course. I had taken a decent religion and made it real crazy, crazier than any of the good normal kids at my Islamic summer camp back in Rochester. All those desi teenagers would go out between lunch and Zuhr to play basketball or soccer or man-hunt and I’d sit in the office pouring through Bukhari with the imams telling me that it was okay to go outside and play, that even Prophet Muhammad enjoyed sports. I had soon read enough to teach kids my own age who had been raised with Islam around them all their lives. I remember one summer-camp afternoon when all the kids sat in a circle in the mosque and the imams asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up. I said that I wanted to be an imam or an alim and assumed that everyone else would say the same thing, but one after another it was all doctor, engineer, computer programmer. It blew me away; I thought we all wanted to live in mosques and read the Qur’an all day. (3)

Michael Knight’s approach to Islam often seems contradictory, not just slightly, but intensely. As a young man, he studied Islamic theology obsessively, and tried to shape his life to follow a pretty rigid interpretation of that theology. But there’s also a punk, anarchist, and non-conformist side of his personality which can’t help but rise to the surface. The two sides of himself seem to battle one another in the pages of his books, and he neither turns away from Islam (as the non-conformist side of himself might require), nor does he finally suppress all of his own rebellious tendencies under the banner of an undivided, respectable approach to Islam. Instead, you see passages like the following, again from Blue-Eyed Devil:

ISNA speaks for the Islam of Uplifting Hygiene: a vision of smiling professionals in cotton white hijabs, community-minded role models, politically moderate doctors, teenagers who keep their genitals clean and a perfectly sound way of life that all Americans will inevitably flock towards, or at least concede an enlightened admiration. In paying my $100 registration fee online I had to click ‘Agree’ on the term that if any member of a group caused a disturbance, my whole group would leave. I had no group. "Judgment of term ‘disturbance,’" it said, will be determined solely by ISNA officials." The convention’s official website also provided a list of behaviors for Muslims to avoid and discourage while at McCormick Place: things like fuhsh (‘indecency, obscenity, atrocity and abomination’), fuhsha (‘shameless deeds, adultery, fornication and whoredom’), munkar (‘ignorance, detestable behavior and reprehensible action’) and bagha (‘rebelliousness, outrageousness and wrongdoing’). I figured that in my time at ISNA I’d have no problem hitting each at least once. My friend Sara told me that while ISNA usually had cool programs, it could often become a big hook-up place for horny young Muslims. 'I guess they’re not all there for speeches and stuff,' she said. (8)

Knight almost seems to take pride in first, knowing the Arabic terms for what is forbidden at an Islamic event, and then deliberately flouting those rules. (If it’s haram, it’s sexy.) A committed individualist (that is to say, a liberal) would reject the institution as a whole, or at least argue for a "progressive," softened version of the institution, while a devout Muslim might do his or her best to follow the rules as given. But Michael Muhammad Knight seems happy being in both places at once: he prefers the most conservative version of Islam, specifically because it’s more thrilling to disobey it.

Admittedly, some of the people who figure in Michael Knight’s story as friends do call him on his idiosyncratic approach to the Muslim community in the U.S., leading to a fair amount of internal debate within the books themselves. A revealing example might be the following passage:

Then I imagined a voice in my head that sounded like Khalida’s telling me, 'It’s not about being white or not white, Mikail... you’re in no shape to tell the story of American Muslims because you think that only weirdos are worth writing about, you and your Wally Fords—'

I don’t know why it sounded like Khalida in my head, maybe Khalida’s just my conscience but I knew that she was right—because I couldn’t bum all over the country sleeping in my car or sleeping on Greyhound buses for the sake of writing on lame Progressive Muslims and I don’t know that I could if I wanted to. Give me Noble Drew Ali with a Cherokee feather in his turban, selling Moorish Healing Oil for fifteen cents a bottle—and W.D. Fard in his mug shot looking like he could slit your throat with a thought (83)

Indeed, Knight is mainly interested in the weirdos and marginal figures in American Islam, people who are in some way like himself. He finds the new, respectable authority figures in the Muslim community –- people like Ibrahim Hooper and Asma Gull Hasan -– insufferable.

2. Taqwacores

I didn’t really enjoy reading "The Taqwacores," certainly not as much as the two memoirs, Impossible Man and Blue-Eyed Devil. In large part the book just seemed too abrasive and gratuitously provocative, though I recognize that it wouldn’t be “punk” if the writing was too pretty and well-considered. The protagonist, Yusef Ali, is supposed to be a Pakistani-American interested in both conservative Islam and punk rock, but the novel isn’t really convincing on that score. There’s no real acknowledgment of Yusef Ali’s family, and very little discussion of Pakistan itself. Though most of its main characters are from South Asian backgrounds, it seems like "The Taqwacores" subsumes that part of their social identity to "Islam."

Still, there are some great dialogues, which might have been inspired by Knight’s conversations with immigrant and second-gen Muslims at various conventions and summer camps. Below is part of a dialogue between Yusef and a white convert named Lynn, who has been struggling with her identification as a Muslim after being given grief by orthodox Muslims about her lifestyle:

The conversation paused for us to take a few bites of our respective slices. 'You know,' I mentioned after swallowing, 'I imagine it’s a lot easier for you.'

‘What is?’ she replied with her mouth full.

‘Separating the good stuff from the bad. You weren’t raised in a Muslim family so you can just take things on your own terms. For me it’s hard because I got all this tuff in one big lump package. Some of it’s worthwhile guidance that I would like to hold on to for the rest of my life, some is just culture that’s a part of who I am and then there’s a lot of traditional things that I can’t understand and I don’t know why people follow them, but they always have. I think that’s why you have something to your Islam that I don’t have.’

‘What do you mean?’ she asked with half-smile of pleasant surprise.

‘I can’t separate spirituality from my family, my heritage, my identity as a South Asian; it’s inextricably connected. You reject an aspect of one, to some extent you’re rejecting all of them.’

‘Yeah, my family didn’t seem too disappointed when I started celebrating Christmas again.’

‘You celebrate Christmas?’

‘Just with my family. It has nothing to do with religion.’

‘Well, it is Christ-mas.’

‘No, no it’s not. It’s see-my-family-that-I-don’t-ever-see-mas.’


‘But who cares anyway, right? It’s like Attar said, ‘forget what is and is not Islam.’ (86-87)

The novel is a young person’s book –- at its core, it seems to be about how the protagonist’s sexual coming of age comes into conflict with his religious beliefs. The book has a series of graphic sexual encounters and a general uncensored sexual candidness that’s likely to turn off some readers (especially, one thinks, the conservative Muslims to whom it seems to be addressed).

But most of all, it’s the novel’s conclusion, which involves a graphic sex act performed by a woman in a Burqa in a public place, that is likely to be shocking to many readers. When the film of "The Taqwacores" comes out later this year, I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a pretty major controversy, specifically relating to that scene... (I’m told the filmmakers are fully expecting that controversy to occur.)

Overall, I think readers will find Knight’s books to be worth their time, especially the two memoirs written by Knight in maturity, Blue-Eyed Devil and Impossible Man. Impossible Man is a highly compelling conversion narrative, which includes both the rise as well as the decline of Knight’s religious fervor (and, oh yeah, a couple of chapters about wrestling). Blue-Eyed Devil is more of a road narrative, focusing on Knight’s engagement with African American interpretations of Islam, including the NOI, the 5% Nation of Gods and Earths, as well as the movement of black Islamic communities towards orthodox Sunni Islam after the death of Elijah Muhammed.

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Friday, March 20, 2009

Wajiha Ahmed: A Second Take on Pakistan's "Long March" Protests

In addition to regular comments to blog posts, I often get emails from readers expressing all manner of opinions. This week, following my recent post at Sepia Mutiny on the protests in Pakistan, I received a note from a graduate student in Boston named Wajiha Ahmed that was intelligent enough to provoke me to spend a little time replying. Wajiha had also, a few days earlier, published an Op-Ed in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (it was written while the protests were just beginning). Wajiha's response to my response was essentially a full-fledged essay. I asked her if she would slightly revise her comments in defense of the Long March protests into something for Sepia Mutiny [and, by extension, this blog], as a sort of one-off guest post. She agreed, and the following is a one-time guest post by Wajiha Ahmed.

The comment Wajiha most objected to was actually made by me in the comments of the original post. I said, "I think there are some people looking at this that are thinking that what is happening is not simply the expression of free speech, but a rather naked attempt at a power-grab by Nawaz and Shahbaz Sharif. Given the security crisis in the country, a protest movement like this could be seen as irresponsible." In my first email to Wajiha, I also wrote:

What prompted me to suggest that Sharif was acting irresponsibly was a personal conversation with a friend here in Pennsylvania named [KC], who comes originally from Lahore. [KC] said to me last week that the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in particular left him feeling extremely depressed, since it's beginning to seem that the militants are increasingly coming down out of the hills, and their kind of Islam is increasingly driving the agenda of the country. Given what has happened in Swat and NWFP in the past few months, it may be that the real cultural-political undercurrent that needs to be addressed is the growth of that militancy. Not because of *America's* war on terror, but actually for Pakistan's own internal security and stability.

Below is Wajiha's response to those points.

Guest Post by Wajiha Ahmed

I’m writing this post in response to Sepia Mutiny's reporting on the second Pakistani Long March to restore a deposed independent judiciary and Chief Justice. The sentiment has been that a) it was irresponsible and could have possibly destabilized Pakistan, and b) energy should have instead focused on the ‘real’ problem Pakistan faces: growing ‘sympathy’ for militants. As I see it, however, we just witnessed one of the largest broad-based, secular, non-violent movements for the rule of law and democracy in Pakistan’s history. Of course, one event is not going to change everything. But democracy is not an event, it is a process. Therefore, rather than being reported with cynicism, this important civil disobedience movement should instead have been encouraged and celebrated. In the past year, Pakistanis have successfully forced out a military dictator (Musharraf) AND compelled an authoritarian leader (Zardari) to listen to their voices – a rare, uplifting story in these trying days.

I’ll try to address the above-stated points, starting with the latter.

1) As far as the security situation, Pakistanis will agree that it’s a major problem. Almost half of the worldwide victims of terrorist attacks last year were Pakistani! And of course, the recent attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team and the subsequent death of eight Pakistani police officers triggered deep anger, shame, and sadness. While this threat is very real, I think we may have missed a few fundamental points.

First, some media outlets reported that terrorist groups took part in the march – this is false. Militant al-Qaeda and neo-Taliban elements who crossed the border after US-led strikes in Afghanistan are not ‘religious extremists.’ Rather, they are terrorists with an Islamic veneer. Why is this important? Because there is a common misperception that Pakistanis are sympathetic to these so-called militants—but those leaving in militant-occupied areas, whether FATA or SWAT, have left if they have been able to afford to do so. Those who lack the means are living under constant fear. During my time in Peshawar, Rawalpindi and Lahore this past summer, I met not a single Pakistani sympathetic to these terrorists –- and rightly so, since they are the ones suffering the most from these attacks.

So why is the perception of popular Pakistani support for terrorism so prevalent?
This belief may be due, in part, to an overall emphasis by policy-makers and media outlets alike, on linking the notion of "Muslim terrorists" or "Islamic violence" with religious and cultural explanations about Islam and Muslim culture, and thereby sidelining political ones. Implicit in this view is that every Muslim has the potential to become an 'extremist' or a terrorist—"moderate" Muslims have chosen to ignore this call to warfare, while 'extremist' Muslims have simply succumbed. A more accurate and responsible explanation of the recently conceived notion of “Islamic violence," however, lies in an analysis of recent historical and political conflicts (see Mahmood Mamdani’s Good Muslim, Bad Muslim). There are dangers in being unaware of our possible biases – in this case, misinterpreting the Long March, and perhaps even Pakistanis themselves.

The ‘solution’ to the militancy problem most probably involves a regional effort to resolve the war in Afghanistan (see Rashid and Rubin’s article in Foreign Affairs) and a concerted effort inside Pakistan to reclaim militant-ridden areas. I won’t even try to pretend to have an answer to this dilemma-- counterinsurgency is extremely difficult.

Second, many have pointed out that the involvement (probably opportunistic) of the JI and other right-of-center elements like the PML-N ‘prove’ that the Long March really wasn’t a liberal movement but one that incorporates ‘militant’ elements. But Pakistani religious parties (JI, JUI) are more similar to some factions of the BJP or Shiv Sena in India than they are to any militant terrorists in FATA and Swat. And just to emphasis, they have never received more than 14% of the vote and lost the 2008 elections.

Also, the PML-N is not a religious party. Yes, it is right-of-center and sometimes panders to religious conservatives, but so does the BJP in India. So does the Republican Party in the US. While Sharif has steadfastly supported the Lawyer’s Movement, personally, I think he needs to prove that he isn’t merely being opportunistic -- but that’s up to the Pakistani people to decide. Since they quickly saw through Zardari, I’ll opt to trust their judgment.

Finally, and most importantly, we can’t forget that this movement is really about the vast majority who took part in the Long March -- lawyers, human rights activists, students, and concerned citizens who risked personal injury and incarceration to stand up for justice. My friend, Ammar, who took part in the now famous GPO chowk protest recalls:

As the police started shelling tear-gas indiscriminately, many activists started falling unconscious. A man who must have been in his 70s started yelling to the fleeing crowd (which included me as I could no longer breathe) that this was not a time to run but to fight... We resisted the police for over two hours, pushing them back many times...
The most memorable part of the evening for me was when Aitzaz Ahsan [prominent leader of the Lawyer’s Movement] defiantly entered the High Court building despite orders for his house arrest and the police officers stood in line to salute him. This meant a complete victory for the movement ...
On one side, [what we witnessed] represented despair, state brutality and police repression. On the other, it reflected hope, resistance, and the passions and dreams of many Pakistanis. We had won not because of the generosity of the country's leadership, but because of the countless sacrifices of lawyers and activists for the past 2 years with 15th March 2009 becoming the grand finale in Lahore.
[Ammar Ali Jan's complete account of his experience has been posted here]

Ammar’s words speak for themselves.

2) Now we move-on to the point that the Long March was somehow irresponsible.

If similar terrorist attacks occurred in another country, we would not ask its citizens to halt all activity for fear of ‘instability.’ The Lawyers Movement initiated the second march because Zardari broke the promises he made after the first one. If we agree that Zardari’s actions are undemocratic, then why are protests to demand accountability irresponsible? To be sure, Pakistani politicians rely on 'micro rationality' – a short-term view of political behavior – instead of 'macro rationality.’ This tendency is partly an outgrowth of a structural reality: prolonged military rule (for more, read Ayesha Siddiqa’s Military Inc or Ayesha Jalal’s Democracy and Authoritarianism). The political system is authoritarian, and the Long March fought to change to this very tendency of the system.

The Lawyers/Civil Society movement has another responsible and important goal -- reasserting and ensuring civilian control. For decades, Pakistan’s army and its powerful ISI intelligence agency defined domestic priorities. They prioritized the defense budget over badly needed infrastructure and education reform. They leveraged militant groups for their rivalries with India. They supported the Taliban in Afghanistan. Many of these same groups are the ones wreaking havoc in Pakistan today. Mitigating the power of the military is directly related to making sure that Pakistan’s establishment never supports militants again. I was thrilled that during this Long March, the military did not intervene or attempt to take control.

Pakistanis now know that the next time they are dissatisfied with anything, they can use civil disobedience to demand justice. Pakistan’s burgeoning news media revolution -- dozens of independent 24-hour news channels have opened up recently -- has further ensured sustained awareness.

Now that the judges have been restored, many have valid concerns about Zardari, Sharif’s intentions, and the future of Pakistan. I am sure most Pakistanis do as well. While the Movement is no magic bullet, it is an important step towards increasing the likelihood that Pakistan’s government will start to address problems of poverty, education reform, and democracy. I wish the Movement and its supporters best of luck -– they have an important struggle ahead of them. The movement is for democracy not a movement of violence.

I've put in bold some of the points I thought might be particularly key in Wajiha's statement.

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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Peace That Almost Was In Kashmir

In this week's print issue of the New Yorker, there's a long, satisfying piece by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Steve Coll on India and Pakistan's attempts to resolve the status of Kashmir over the past few years. The big surprise is just how close the two countries were to permanently resolving the seemingly insoluble problem. The agreement, which was in its final stages in the spring of 2007, was never put into effect or publicly revealed because it was being finalized just when Pervez Musharraf's government began to unravel. Musharraf had hoped to simply postpone the public summit where the deal would have been announced, but instead the whole thing had to be shelved.

The article isn't online at the New Yorker's web site, but you can read it here, at the New America Foundation:

By early 2007, the back-channel talks on Kashmir had become “so advanced that we’d come to semicolons,” Kasuri recalled. A senior Indian official who was involved agreed. “It was huge--I think it would have changed the basic nature of the problem,” he told me. “You would have then had the freedom to remake Indo-Pakistani relations.” Aziz and Lambah were negotiating the details for a visit to Pakistan by the Indian Prime Minister during which, they hoped, the principles underlying the Kashmir agreement would be announced and talks aimed at implementation would be inaugurated. One quarrel, over a waterway known as Sir Creek, would be formally settled.

Neither government, however, had done much to prepare its public for a breakthrough. In the spring of 2007, a military aide in Musharraf’s office contacted a senior civilian official to ask how politicians, the media, and the public might react. “We think we’re close to a deal,” Musharraf ’s aide said, as this official recalled it. “Do you think we can sell it?”

Regrettably, the time did not look ripe, this official recalled answering. In early March, Musharraf had invoked his near-dictatorial powers to fire the chief justice of the country’s highest court. That decision set off rock-tossing protests by lawyers and political activists. (link)

And from there that it just went downhill for General Musharraf. Now, with weak and unstable new leadership in Asif Zardari, and a possible change in leadership coming in India as well this spring, it's unclear whether anything can be done anytime soon.

The actual details of the almost-agreement aren't spelled out entirely in the article, but we do get some promising inklings:

To outsiders, it has long seemed obvious that the Line of Control should be declared the international border between India and Pakistan--it’s been in place for almost forty years, and each country has built its own institutions behind it. Musharraf, however, made it clear from the start that this would be unacceptable; India was equally firm that it would never renegotiate its borders or the Line of Control. The way out of this impasse, Singh has said, was to “make borders irrelevant,” by allowing for the free movement of people and goods within an autonomous Kashmir region. For Pakistan, this formula might work if it included provisions for the protection--and potential enrichment, through free trade--of the people of Kashmir, in whose name Pakistan had carried on the conflict.

The most recent version of the nonpaper, drafted in early 2007, laid out several principles for a settlement, according to people who have seen the draft or have participated in the discussions about it. Kashmiris would be given special rights to move and trade freely on both sides of the Line of Control. Each of the former princely state’s distinct regions would receive a measure of autonomy-- details would be negotiated later. Providing that violence declined, each side would gradually withdraw its troops from the region. At some point, the Line of Control might be acknowledged by both governments as an international border. It is not clear how firm a commitment on a final border the negotiators were prepared to make, or how long it would all take; one person involved suggested a time line of about ten to fifteen years.

One of the most difficult issues involved a plan to establish a joint body, made up of local Kashmiri leaders, Indians, and Pakistanis, to oversee issues that affected populations on both sides of the Line of Control, such as water rights. Pakistan sought something close to shared governance, with the Kashmiris taking a leading role; India, fearing a loss of sovereignty, wanted much less power-sharing. The envoys wrestled intensively over what language to use to describe the scope of this new body; the last draft termed it a “joint mechanism.” (link)

Though fragile, this seems to me to be potentially workable, as it gives most parties a little bit of what they had hoped to get from a final resolution. Indeed, this story makes me feel somewhat optimistic, for once, about Kashmir. (If they did this once, they could do it again if and when political conditions are right in both Delhi and Islamabad.)

There's a great deal of other interesting material in Coll's article, including material related to the 11/26 attackers (definitely Pakistan backed, no surprises there) as well as India's troubling history of "disappearing" Kashmiri separatists. Overall, he has a very balanced and informed perspective (neither pro-India nor pro-Pakistan); it's well worth a read.

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Monday, October 06, 2008

Music Fix: Mekaal Hasan Band

There was a great story about a Pakistani fusion group, the Mekaal Hasan Band, on NPR this morning, the text of which is here. For starters, you might want to check out one of their songs on YouTube, "Huns Dhun":

On their website, Mekaal Hasan Band says the following about the song and video above:

The video is a real life account of the mass evacuation of the Afghan Refugees who, according to the Afghan Repatriation Deadline, were supposed to leave the border areas of Pakistan for Afghanistan by 2005. Seen through the eyes of three young Afghani friends, the video traces their journey from the area of Bajaur, NWFP, Pakistan to the bordering hills of Afghanistan.

I knew about the Afghan refugees in Pakistan, but I didn't know about their forced repatriation, and I haven't heard much about how they've been doing in Afghanistan since this happened in 2005. (Does anyone have more information about this?)

In the NPR story, the part that I found most interesting is the story of how Mekaal Hasan first went from Lahore to Boston, to study at the Berklee College of Music, and then returned to Lahore, where he started the long, slow process of finding a way to be a rock musician in a non-rock oriented culture:

There wasn't much opportunity to advance his craft in Lahore. So Hasan, like many of his peers, decided to leave Pakistan. He applied to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, and got in.

"That jump was just insane," Hasan says. "It's like going to another planet and watching people play unbelievable stuff. I had never seen anyone play that way before. I would just listen to music all the time. That's all I did. I never felt more at home than when I was in Boston, 'cause I was surrounded by so much great music and so many great musicians. I think all creative people need an environment to flourish in."

But Hasan was on a student visa, and his parents bribed him to come home early by offering to build him a studio. In 1995, he returned to Lahore.

"For a while, a good two to three years, I was massively depressed and really angry, as well," Hasan says. "I was like, 'Why am I here? What am I doing here?' Then you had to reconcile yourself to the fact that, 'Well, hey, man, you've always lived here.' I resolved to make the best of it, and in some ways, this turned out to be a good exercise in just practicing the concepts that I'd learned in music school." (link)

Ok, so not everyone has parents that can build them their own music studio! But however it happened, what's important is that he managed to make the transition back -- and now Mekaal Hasan and his band are making some really impressive music, using classical and jazz fusion.

Incidentally, another video I liked is Rabba. Mekaal Hasan Band's album, "Sampooran," is available on ITunes; they're about to go on a tour of India (no word on a tour of the U.S. yet...).

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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

An Afro-Pakistani Poet

Via 3 Quarks Daily, I read a profile of Noon Meem Danish, an Urdu-speaking poet from Karachi who is of African descent. The author of the piece, Asif Farrukhi, makes reference initially to some places I hadn't heard of:

Whether you think of Lyari as Karachi’s Harlem or Harlem as a Lyari in New York, for Noon Meem Danish places provide a context but not a definition. ‘I am what I am’; he explains his signature with a characteristic mixture of pride and humility. Off-beat and defiant, he was a familiar figure in the literary landscape of the ’70s and ’80s. His poems expressing solidarity with the Negritude and the plight of blacks all over the world were referred to in Dr Firoze Ahmed’s social topography of the African-descent inhabitants of Pakistan. Karachi’s poet Noon Meem Danish now makes his home in the New York state of mind, and feels that he is very much in his element there. (link)

Lyari, one learns, is a town in/near Karachi where many of Karachi's Africans (an estimated 500,000 of them) live. Their ancestors came to Balochistan as slaves via Arab traders (Noon Meem Danish defines himself ethnically as "Baloch," which was confusing to me until I made the connection).

The Afro-Pakistani community, perhaps not surprisingly, hasn't been treated particularly well, according to this essay in SAMAR magazine (skip down towards the end for some disturbing references to the extra-judicial killing of African youths). It's not surprising that Noon Meem Danish, given his penchant for poetry, would consider leaving.

Danish is pretty forthright about the difference in how he is perceived in Karachi vs. New York:

More than home, Karachi was for him the city of the torment of recognition. ‘I was black and in Karachi it was always a shocking experience when people would ask me where I came from. They would ask how come you are speaking saaf Urdu. I had to explain myself each time.’

Karachi University wouldn't hire him, but NYU did, and now he teaches at the University of Maryland (where he teaches in the foreign language department -- Urdu, I presume). It's interesting to think of someone of African descent emigrating to the U.S. because it's less racist than the place where he grew up, but there you have it.

You can see Noon Meem Danish reciting at a Mushaira on YouTube (he's at 2:30).

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Tuesday, November 06, 2007

In Defense of Substantive Democracy

This post is a response of sorts to Abhi's thought-provoking comments at Sepia Mutiny on Musharraf's State of Emergency, and what he sees as the possible benefits of dictatorship in certain limited conditions. Abhi's post, as I read it, was a thought experiment, not necessarily a political program -- and this is a somewhat speculative thought experiment as well (these ideas are not set in stone). There is some value in the general idea that democracy before stability is not always the best thing for a country, and in the particular claim that Pakistan's democratic institutions have been severely weakened by years and years of misrule (going back to the Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif days; Musharraf did not start this with his 1999 coup).

That said, I'm not ready to give up faith in liberal democracy, and I think it could still happen in Pakistan. As for how to get there, there are probably only two or three paths, none of them easy. One is a popular uprising that would probably turn pretty ugly in the short run -- think of the bloody riots in Karachi this past summer, only magnified. If successful, mass protests/riots ould be followed by a military coup and a provisional dictatorship, and then by open elections, if the coup was carried out by the right person. (There could also be more violence during the elections, and possibly more trouble/instability even after they occur.) The other is something accidental, which could be anything. Perhaps a new leadership emerges (Imran Khan, by the way, has managed to escape from house arrest), or perhaps something unforeseen happens to/with Musharraf that leaves a power vacuum? Perhaps both? Who knows. Either way, in my view there is no question that what is necessary if democracy is to have a chance in Pakistan is for Musharraf to go.

Another possibility to speculate on is what might happen if either the Bush administration or (more likely) its successor withheld military and economic aid to pressure Musharraf to cancel this State of Emergency. Here I'm really not sure what the ramifications would be for Musharraf. It might be symbolically bad on the international stage, but would it really hurt him all that much domestically? Here I'm really not sure.

I should also say that I disagree with the calculus, which is widely prevalent amongst American TV "pundits" right now, that Musharraf needs to stay because America needs him for its "War on Terror." There may or may not be any truth in this (as has been pointed out, Musharraf's net contribution to fighting terrorism is highly debatable), but what I keep thinking is that at this moment it's not America's interests that I'm concerned about, it's the Pakistani people, who deserve good, transparent governance. It's the Pakistani people who deserve a free press (not blackouts of private news channels), the right to peacefully dissent, and the right to organize politically -- who deserve, in short, substantive democracy.

Substantive democracy is not just democratic elections; it requires a whole range of institutions that provide meaningful checks and balances on power. Executive authority (a president or a dictator) needs to be subject to legislative and judicial challenges. The prospect of a newly revitalized Pakistan Supreme Court was a really hopeful sign this past spring and summer, and I'm deeply disappointed that Musharraf decided he wouldn't let Iftikar Chaudhry and co. determine his fate. (At least he hasn't succeeded in stopping Chaudhry from talking to the Press, though that will probably happen soon.)

In the U.S. case, the best current example of checks and balances on executive authority are the Congressional investigations of numerous questionable actions by the Bush Administration. Another is the tradition of the "Special Prosecutor," which was instrumental in bringing down Nixon (though it was abused, in my view, with Bill Clinton). What Nawaz Sharif's corrupt regime needed was something akin to a special prosecutor; what it got instead was a takeover by General Musharraf.

India, the "world's largest democracy" isn't perfect on this score either, by the way. I was reminded of this most recently watching the Tehelka videos relating to Gujarat. As I said in my earlier (quickie) post, I don't think the videos give enough evidence by themselves to take down Modi, but they quite definitely show that the entire system of state government in Gujarat -- ministers, police, judges, lawyers -- colluded in allowing those bloody "three days of whatever you want" (as Modi allegedly said) to happen. The checks and balances were not there, and it took intervention from the Center to bring the violence to a halt. (Incidentally, I thought Raghu Karnad's comments on Gujarat and the Tehelka exposé were pretty compelling: here and here.)

My point is this: elections are necessary for democracy to occur, but they aren't sufficient for democracy to sustain itself. What Musharraf should have done, if he really cared about transitioning to democracy, was, first of all, let the Supreme Court rule on whether the recent Presidential election was valid. Secondly, he needed to give up his uniform (though admittedly, that should have happened first). Thirdly, Parliamentary elections.

But other things are necessary too: the opposition political parties have been weakened by years of dictatorship and corrupt leadership. It will take time for new leaders to emerge (Benazir, why not just stay in Dubai? You could buy the Pakistan plot at Palm Jumeirah...), and for the party organizations to become strong and self-sustaining.

Sepoy at Chapati Mystery has a poem in Urdu by Habib Jalib that summarizes my feelings on a more emotional level:

Jackbooted State

If the Watchman had not helped the Dacoit
Today our feet wouldn’t be in chains, our victory not defeat
Wrap your turbans around your neck, crawl on your bellies
Once on top, it is hard to bring down, the jackbooted state. (link)

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Thursday, October 18, 2007

Benazir Comes Home; Bombs Go Off

Yesterday, before leaving Dubai, Benazir Bhutto said this:

"Ms Bhutto said before leaving that she was undeterred [by threats of attacks]: "I do not believe that any true Muslim will make an attack on me because Islam forbids attacks on women and Muslims know that if they attack a woman they will burn in hell." (link)

It's very hard for me to fathom what possessed her to say this. Obviously, she knew full well that such bravado wasn't going to deter a single would-be bomber.

With more than 100 people dead after someone did subsequently attempt to assassinate her, it now seems incredibly irresponsible. It's a taunt, or a bluff -- but bluffs are only good if your enemies can't call them.

(There are some biting comments from Karachi residents about Bhutto here and here)


Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Noah Feldman on U.S. Policy in Pakistan

The question comes up again and again when I talk to friends and colleagues about U.S. foreign policy. The question is most urgent when discussing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but equally valid when the topic is the Indo-U.S. Nuclear deal, or even what is happening right now in Myanmar.

The question is this: is the U.S. acting in ways that are true to the credo of supporting and spreading democracy around the world, or does it merely do this when it is clearly in its own interests? Is present-day U.S. foreign policy governed by a "realist" philosophy (do what you have to do) or an "idealist" one (spread democracy)?

Noah Feldman has a think piece on this in a recent New York Times Magazine, where he gives special attention to the situation in Pakistan. To begin with, this is how Feldman frames the question:

As ideal and slogan, though, the creed of exporting democracy differs from the creed of expanding empire in one important respect: When we fail to follow it, we look hypocritical. An empire that extends itself selectively is just being prudent about its own limitations. A republic that supports democratization selectively is another matter. President Bush’s recent speech to the United Nations, in which he assailed seven repressive regimes, was worthy of applause — but it also opened the door to the fair criticism that he was silent about the dozens of places where the United States colludes with dictators of varying degrees of nastiness. (link)

The obvious examples of "realist" collusion are Saudi Arabia and Egypt, where the U.S. hasn't pressured for democratization, since in these cases more "democracy" might mean more anti-American Islamists. Regarding Burma/Myanmar, President Bush recently took a strong stance of condemnation, but in Feldman's view this may not be especially convincing:

The problem is that our support for dictators in some countries tends to undermine our ability to encourage democracy elsewhere, because it sends the message that we may change our tune the moment an immediate interest alters our calculations. The monks of Yangon have put their lives on the line; if our embrace of their cause is conditional on, say, our not needing any favors from the ruling junta this week, why should they trust us? Double standards are not merely hypocritical, but something much worse in international affairs: ineffective. (link)

In Feldman's analysis, the U.S. support for Pervez Musharraf is a little trickier.

Feldman actually sees the recent presidential election in Pakistan, and Musharraf's pledge to resign as Chief of Staff of the Army, as signs that democracy is working:

Under these circumstances, the best option is to pursue a chastened version of the democratization doctrine — one that makes no exceptions for friends while also recognizing that building durable institutions may do more good than holding snap elections. In Pakistan, the Supreme Court, buoyed by the national association of lawyers, pressured Musharraf into promising to resign his powerful position as army chief of staff and demilitarize the presidency. That kind of bravery deserves our support — especially because it reminds us that strong and functioning institutions are the preconditions to successful democracy; without them, elections may actually make things worse. (link)

Feldman doesn't get very specific about the various ways Musharraf has suppressed the voices of his political opponents in recent weeks, and doesn't mention the fact that the opposition parties in last week's presidential elections abstained their votes (admittedly, the fact that they merely abstained, rather than walk out, was a kind of victory of Musharraf).

Rather, the focus is on the institutions -- and Feldman does seem to have a point that the Supreme Court has emerged as one viable counterweight to Musharraf's executive authority. Institutions like a free media (which Pakistan has), an independent legislature (which it doesn't have, at present), courts, and political parties are in some ways as important as elections when thinking about what makes a real, sustainable democracy. (Fareed Zakaria makes much the same point in his book, The Future of Freedom)

Still, I'm not sure I can agree with Feldman's characterization of Musharraf's actions as "brave" -- nor do I think that the ongoing U.S. support for Musharraf's government is a good thing. A great deal will depend on whether Musharraf's resignation from the Army is real or just a sybmolic show (as I put it in an earlier post, a mere "change of clothes"), and also on what happens if and when a newly constituted Pakistani Parliament acts in ways that Musharraf doesn't like.

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Monday, August 27, 2007

"Nawabdin Electrician," in The New Yorker

There's a very interesting short story in this week's New Yorker, by a new Pakistani writer named Daniyal Mueenuddin. It's about an electrician working on a large farm in rural Pakistan, more or less taking care of his business until something dramatic happens. I won't say much about the dramatic thing that happens to Nawabdin (read the story), but here's a teaser to give you a sense of the writing style:

The motorcycle increased his status, gave him weight, so that people began calling him Uncle and asking his opinion on world affairs, about which he knew absolutely nothing. He could now range farther, doing much wider business. Best of all, now he could spend every night with his wife, who early in the marriage had begged to live not in Nawab’s quarters in the village but with her family in Firoza, near the only girls’ school in the area. A long straight road ran from the canal headworks near Firoza all the way to the Indus, through the heart of the K. K. Harouni lands. The road ran on the bed of an old highway built when these lands lay within a princely state. Some hundred and fifty years ago, one of the princes had ridden that way, going to a wedding or a funeral in this remote district, felt hot, and ordered that rosewood trees be planted to shade the passersby. Within a few hours, he forgot that he had given the order, and in a few dozen years he in turn was forgotten, but these trees still stood, enormous now, some of them dead and looming without bark, white and leafless. (link)

In the story as a whole, I think Mueenuddin finds some very congenial ways to convey a poor electrician's point of view. He's got a good sense of comic details, but doesn't depend on them too much. I also liked the ambiguities at the end regarding Nawabdin's character. Any thoughts on this story?

Incidentally, Mueenuddin also has another story online, at the literary magazine Zoetrope. It's quite different from "Nawabdin Electrician"; I think it will be interesting to anyone who has been in a serious cross-cultural or interracial relationship. (I'm happy to discuss that story too.)

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Friday, August 03, 2007

A Good Critique of Obama's Speech

A couple of days ago I did a brief blog post about Obama's speech on terrorism over at Sepia Mutiny. The speech has since been widely criticized, but the best takedown of Obama's misguided approach to Pakistan must be Sepoy's, at Chapati Mystery. It's a long post, but this part is especially good:

One should remind Barack Obama, and the US Congress which just passed such a conditional bill, that Pakistan is, in clear and evident fact, fighting a war in Waziristan - with scores of military casualties seemingly every day. One can also remind him that since the Lal Masjid stand off - July 3rd - there have been a dozen suicide bombings across Pakistan killing over 200 civilians - almost keeping pace with Baghdad. One can further remind him that Pakistan has indeed allowed US military strikes on its sovereign territory, even with questionable intelligence. On November 10, 2006, US missiles hit a madrasa in Bajaur aimed at killing the elusive No. 2 of Al Qaeda but managed mainly to kill children. They must all be casualties of Pakistan’s soft focus in the war on terrorism.

To be crystal clear, Obama suggests that a country that is a sovereign nation and ally, that has full nuclear capability, has the ability to carry out nuclear attacks, has the ability to give nuclear technologies to the card-carrying-member-of-the-Axis-of-Evil-next-door Iran, has an unpopular dictator supported and maintained by the United States, has deployed 100,000 troops across its North Western borders, has suffered thousands of casualties - army and civilians - carrying out the Global War on Terror, has seen its cities and deserts flood with the detritus from the forgotten war going on in Afghanistan, but has nonetheless maintained complete compliance by killing and capturing many key members of the Al Qaeda ... should be invaded. (link)

I think the salient critique of Sepoy's argument here might be that while all this may be true, there is a legitimate concern that elements in Pakistan's military and intelligence organizations may be playing a double game specifically with regards to Al Qaeda.

Still, I'm in agreement with Sepoy by and large. My earlier enthusiasm for Obama is starting to fade...

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Monday, May 07, 2007

A Challenger in Pakistan

We're starting to see real signs that Pervez Musharraf's hold on power in Pakistan may not be absolute. Pakistan's suspended Supreme Court Justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry gave a speech in front of thousands of supporters in Lahore yesterday, expressing dissent with the current government. Chaudhry has been under house arrest in Islamabad since March, and it isn't completely clear to me how he was permitted to address the public on the grounds of the Lahore High Court. But he's clearly become a popular icon of secular dissent with Musharraf's rule, and his speech has to be making authorities nervous:

Speaking to the crowd, including many lawyers, the suspended chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, said, “The concept of an autocratic system of government is over.” He added, “Rule of law, supremacy of the Constitution, basic human rights and individual freedom granted by the Constitution are essential for the formation of a civilized society.

“Those countries and nations who don’t learn from the past and repeat those mistakes get destroyed,” he said.

He said the government had no right to impose laws that violated basic human rights.

Mr. Chaudhry spoke at the compound of the Lahore High Court, under the scorching Lahore sun. Seventeen judges from the Lahore High court also attended. Many of the supporters covered their heads with newspapers to escape the heat. Banners urging the independence of the judiciary and denouncing the president of Pakistan, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, hung on boundary walls surrounding the compound. Political workers, who were not allowed inside, listened to the speech outside the boundary wall. (link)

Chaudhry was also greeted by thousands of cheering bystanders on the side of the road between Islamabad and Lahore; the fanfare was so intense that what is normally a four hour journey took twenty-five hours!

I briefly and irreverently mentioned this brewing crisis back in March, but a much more thorough analysis of the back-story of Justice Chaudhry's dissent by Anil Kalhan can be found at Michael Dorf's "Dorf on Law" blog.

As Anil maps it out, probably the most important issue is actually Pakistan's prosecution of the war on terror, specifically its policy of "disappearing" hundreds of people accused of being Al-Qaeda supporters. While Pakistan's hunt for terrorists has resulted in some important catches, including especially Khalid Sheikh Muhammed, its growing dependence on authoritarian practices has become increasingly unpalatable to many Pakistanis. And the presumed cooperation between the ISI and the CIA, the latter with its secret detention facilities, has to be galling to both Pakistan's secular liberals (they do exist) and the Islamists on the right.

There are other issues on the table too (human rights in Balochistan, and corruption surrounding the privatization of Pakistan Steel Mills), and Justice Chaudhry has apparently built up a reputation as an activist and a progressive over some years, as this detailed analysis suggests.

Of course, it's an open question as to whether Musharraf will continue to let Iftikhar Chaudhry speek freely. And one has to wonder whether the feeling of dissent represented by the support for Justice Chaudhry can be transformed into an actual political movement in Pakistan.

As a final note, the following Faiz Ahmed Faiz ghazal was being played over the loudspeakers at Justice Chaudhry's rally. The Times gave it to you in English, but here it is in transliterated Urdu as well:

Jab Zulm-o-Sitam ke Koh-e-garaan
When the mountains of cruelty and torture

Ruii ki Tarah Urd Jain Gay
Will fly like pieces of cotton

Hum Mehkumoon ke Paun Talay
Under the feet of the governed

Yeh Dharti Dhard Dhard Dhardkay gi
This earth will quake

Aur Ehl-e-Hukum ke Sar Uper
And over the head of the ruler

Jab Bijli kard Kard Kardke gi
When lightening will thunder

Hum Dekhain Gay
We shall see (source)

Yes, Hum dekhain gai. That is probably about all that can be said at this point.

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Friday, April 06, 2007

Mohsin Hamid Media Coverage; Pankaj Mishra on Matar, Lailami

Mohsin Hamid's new novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, is getting quite a lot of publicity this week. I've been an admirer of his first novel, Moth Smoke, which I think of as giving a fresh, entertaining image of the changes occurring in urban Pakistan in the globalization era. It also has an irreverent, off-beat style, somewhat reminiscent of Upamanyu Chatterjee's English, August. When I've taught it in courses on South Asian literature, I've found that students really tend to latch onto it -- often more than writers like Ghosh, Rushdie, or Mistry.

Initially, I've been less than enthused about picking up Hamid's new novel, along the lines of: do I really need to read another book about the tension between fundamentalism and modernity? This ground has been covered so many times already -- starting with The Satanic Verses -- that one doesn't expect to be surprised. But the more I hear about the novel, the more interested I've become.

A good place to start might be the 20 minute interview Hamid did this week with Terry Gross, where (among other things) they spent a fair amount of time discussing how having or not having a beard affects how you're perceived, in both Pakistan and the UK/US. Apparently this is a major theme in the novel as well; as a dariwalla (bearded person), I approve.

And there's been other prominent coverage of the book, including an interview where Hamid discusses his allusions to Camus' 1957 novel The Fall:

The Fall is very clearly a model for this novel – both in the first sentence, and throughout the book I try to acknowledge Jean-Baptiste (who is present in the Chilean publisher who Changez meets later in the book), it’s something I did very consciously. In 1957 this idea of trying to break down the individual, and debunk the notion of us being good – something literature and the world has done very successfully – was quite radical. Now no one goes around thinking the individual is good; we're all tarnished. If you look behind anyone you find all sorts of stuff. What’s surprising given that, is that notions of larger collectives haven’t been debunked as thoroughly. We indulge ourselves in larger narratives that remain fundamentally good. Somehow, there is an emotional tribal feeling that remains. And that tribal feeling is actually particularly encouraged in America, as the only victor of the Second World War still standing. And in the Muslim world, it’s a sense of decadence and decline and impotence, which causes people to reach out for a similar type of

More in the political vein, I've been impressed to see Hamid directly challenging Pervez Musharraf's recent actions against Pakistan's judiciary in the Daily Times:

Like many Pakistanis, I knew little about Justice Chaudhry except that he had a reputation for being honest, and that under his leadership, the Supreme Court had reduced its case backlog by 60 percent. His suspension seemed a throwback to the worst excesses of the government that General Musharraf’s coup had replaced, and it galvanised protests by the nation’s lawyers and opposition parties, including rallies of thousands in several of Pakistan’s major cities yesterday. (link)

And the interview with Hamid in Tehelka from August 2006 was pretty striking -- actually quite confrontational in tone. Hamid feels the Indian media (even Tehelka!) has a somewhat hysterical attitude about Pakistan, which is perhaps borne out by the interviewer's own rather bizarre choice of questions ("What about Pakistan makes you blanch?" ?!?). In general, I think Hamid makes some good points, especially on the Indian media's tendency to immediately point at Pakistan whenever there is a bombing -- irrespective of whether the evidence warrants it:

I think India is terrified of looking inside itself because if a homegrown Indian Muslim group has done this in Bombay, you’d have massacres. India is a tinderbox so it’s forced to look outside. Who’s backing the Naxalites? People out of Nepal? Who’s backing the Muslim groups? Pakistan and Bangladesh? There are a billion Indians, many of whom are very upset with the government and could certainly be involved. In Pakistan, we have sectarian bombings all the time. Certainly one could say these are the work of Indian intelligence agencies. Perhaps they are. But I think it’s a mistake to look at these problems in this way and ignore what is often a very strong domestic component. I think Pakistan is right now desperate for a peace deal on Kashmir. Musharraf — like him or not — is bending over to find some compromise. But India is completely uncompromising. It prefers the status quo so any time there’s a bomb in India, it can be blamed on Pakistan. (link)

Well, I'm not sure whether what Musharraf has put on the table regarding Kashmir is really a workable compromise. And overall, I think I'm more anti-Musharraf than Mohsin Hamid is; I'm a little surprised, for instance, that he's not saying anything here about Mukhtar Mai or the status of women under Pakistani law as he considers Musharraf's legacy. That said, his perspective is a helpful corrective to some jingoistic/paranoid images of Pakistan that are often circulated.

* * *

I was also interested in Pankaj Mishra's recent review of Hisham Matar's In the Country of Men. Matar is a Libyan novelist, writing about life under the shadow of Qaddafi. Like Hamid, his book has been getting prominently displayed in the Barnes & Noble stores near my house -- it clearly seems to be doing quite well. Are publishers trying to make it into the "next" Kite Runner?

What's striking from Mishra's review is how personal, even intimate, the novel appears to be, despite the backdrop of state repression, disappearances, and torture. One quote Mishra pulls from the novel struck me as being particularly memorable:

Mama and I spent most of the time together—she alone, I unable to leave her. I worried how the world might change if even for a second I was to look away, to relax the grip of my gaze. I was convinced that if my attention was applied fully, disaster would be kept at bay and she would return whole and uncorrupted, no longer lost, stranded on the opposite bank, waiting alone. But although her unpredictability and her urgent stories tormented me, my vigil and what I then could only explain as her illness bound us into an intimacy that has since occupied the innermost memory I have of love. If love starts somewhere, if it is a hidden force that is brought out by a person, like light off a mirror, for me that person was her. There was anger, there was pity, even the dark warm embrace of hate, but always love and always the joy that surrounds the beginning of love. (from In The Country of Men; link)

Mishra also favorably reviews Laila Lalami's Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, which is another book that I've had on my "to read" list for quite awhile.

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Monday, February 12, 2007

Begum Nawazish Ali Running For Parliament in Pakistan

So, there was a big article in the New York Times recently (thanks, TechnophobicGeek) about how Indian TV is supposedly entering this golden age of innovative programming. Some of the shows mentioned have actually been talked about before at Sepia Mutiny, including "Galli Galli Sim Sim." There's also an interesting segment on a new reality show oriented to teenagers, called "Dhoom Machao Dhoom," about four girls who want to start a band. One of them is a "returned" ABCD from New York, which makes for interesting drama when she says they should write their own songs instead of just doing Bollywood numbers (the other girls refuse, saying "Only Bollywood works here").

Anyway, it's a decent read, but it strikes me that Indian TV remains a narrow-minded backwater as long as Pakistan has Begum Nawazish Ali. Via 3 Quarks Daily, I came across a new profile at MSNBC of Pakistan's famous celebrity drag queen and talk show host. Among other things, the Begum freely admits her "bisexuality," though I'm not sure she means it the way we might think she means it. (Venial Sin, as you may remember, wasn't thrilled about her performance: "I mean, kudos to Begum Nawazish Ali for getting to pull a tranny routine on TV, but how necessary is it to reiterate the stereotypes of a gay man as an effeminate 'woman stuck in a male body' or as a hijra?")

But now comes the news that she plans to run for Pakistani Parliament:

Then Saleem dropped a bombshell. "You are the first person I am announcing this to, but I have decided to file my papers for the upcoming general elections," he exclaimed. "I am going to run for a parliamentary seat as an independent from all over Pakistan and I am going to campaign as Begum Nawazish Ali!" The note of triumph and excitement in his voice is unmistakable.

"I want to be the voice of the youth and for all of Pakistan," he continued. "The idea was always to break barriers and preconceived notions, of gender, identity, celebrity and politics and to bring people closer. In any case, I think Begum Nawazish Ali is the strongest woman in Pakistan!"

Whether Pakistanis agree or not, the elections at the end of the year are likely to be one of the most uproarious in recent times. (link)

Interesting -- we'll see if her political career (is she really serious?) is going to be as groundbreaking as her showbiz career has been.

There are many theories about how it is the Begum can get away with it in conservative Pakistan. She's been careful not to be crude in the Dame Edma vein, but still -- there are some serious social taboos being transgressed here. What do you think?

In case you're wondering what the fuss is about, I might recommend this 10 minute Youtube clip of the Begum doing her thing. The jokes are corny, but the sari and make-up are exquisite.

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