Archive for the ‘Miscellaneous’ Category

Dalrymple’s The Anarchy: A Review

March 18, 2020

By Kabir Altaf

William Dalrymple is one of the foremost historians of colonial India, known for works such as White Mughals, The Last Mughal, and Return of a King.  His latest work — The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of The East India Company (Bloomsbury 2019) — continues in the tradition of popular history, telling the story of the East India Company’s conquest of India following  Lord Clive’s 1757 victory over Siraj ud-Daula, the Nawab of Bengal, at the Battle of Plassey. The book ends with the Company’s conquest of Delhi in 1803 and the defeat of the Marathas — the last Indian power capable of resisting the British. The Company would rule India until the aftermath of the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, when governance was transferred directly to the British Crown. 

While we commonly speak of the “British conquest of India,” Dalrymple notes that it was not the British government that colonized India, but a private corporation solely interested in maximizing its shareholders’ profit. In the Epilogue, he succinctly explains his book’s thesis, writing: “The East India Company remains today history’s most ominous warning about the potential for the abuse of corporate power — and the insidious means by which the interests of shareholders can seemingly become those of the state. For as recent American adventures in Iraq have shown, our world is far from post-imperial, and quite probably never will be. Instead Empire is transforming itself into forms of global power that use campaign contributions and commercial lobbying, multinational finance systems and global markets, corporate influence and the predictive data harvesting of the new surveillance-capitalism rather than — or sometimes alongside — overt military conquest, occupation or direct economic domination to effect its ends” (397). 

Dalrymple  introduces the reader to several fascinating characters including Siraj-ud-Daula, Tipu Sultan of Mysore, and the leaders of the Maratha Confederacy. Chief among these figures is the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam (1728-1806) — “a man whose fate it was to witness the entire story of the Company’s fifty-year-long assault on India and its rise from a humble trading company to a fully fledged imperial power” (xxxi). As a young prince, Shah Alam fled Delhi to avoid assassination by his father’s vizier Imad ul-Mulk. He fought the Company at the Battle of Buxar (1765) and then retreated back to Delhi, where he attempted to re-establish the Mughal Empire. He was then blinded by one of his former favorites, and became a puppet emperor under Maratha protection. After the Conquest of Delhi, the Company retained him on the throne, due to the Mughals pan-Indian legitimacy. Despite all these tribulations, Shah Alam’s court was a center of high culture. Dalrymple writes: “It had hardly been a glorious reign, but his was, nonetheless, a life marked by kindness, decency, integrity and learning at a time when all such qualities were in short supply. Above all, Shah Alam showed an extraordinary determination through successive horrific trials… In the most adverse circumstances imaginable, that of the Great Anarchy, he had ruled over a court of high culture, and as well as writing fine verse himself he had been a generous patron to poets, scholars and artists” (387). 

Tipu Sultan of Mysore (1750-99) is another particularly interesting figure. He was one of the most formidable military opponents of the Company and attempted to unite the other native powers such as the Nizam of Hyderabad and the Maratha Confederacy against the British.  He also attempted to play European powers against each other by allying with the French. Contrary to the British portrayal of him as a fanatic (which Dalrymple notes is a pattern later followed against other assertive Muslim rulers), he “went out of his way to woo and protect the Hindus of his own dominions. From the beginning of his reign he had loaded the temples of his realm with presents, honours and land” (319). Dalrymple notes that “This was not just a matter of statecraft. Tipu, despite being a devout Muslim and viewing himself as a champion of Islam, thoroughly embraced the syncretic culture of his time and believed strongly in the power of Hindu gods. In his dreams, which he diligently recorded every morning in a dream book, Tipu encountered not only long-dead Sufi saints, but also Hindu gods and goddesses” (320). Finally, he was a connoisseur and intellectual who possessed a large library of works in several languages “mainly on law, theology and the secular sciences” (321).  While praising all these strengths Dalrymple notes that Tipu possessed several weaknesses as well including his tendency to “use unnecessary violence against his adversaries and those he defeated, creating many embittered enemies where conciliation would have been equally possible and much wiser” (321). 

Dalrymple’s book is an epic treatment of an important era in Indian history. It will appeal not only to fans of the writer’s previous works but also to those who enjoy sweeping stories of conquest and resistance to Empire. One can easily imagine a Netflix series based on it, in the tradition of the Turkish docudrama “Rise of Empires: Ottoman.” 

The writer graduated magna cum laude from George Washington University with a major in Dramatic Literature and a minor in Music. He is currently completing a Master’s in Ethnomusicology from SOAS in London.

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A Recipe for Survival (w/o Tomatoes)

November 26, 2019

By Anjum Altaf

When the choice is to either cry or laugh, I prefer the latter. Therefore I am compiling a book of political jokes. I am in a rush as I don’t believe these bounteous days can last but I can’t complain because a few prolific contributors are fast filling up the pages. 

I had hoped to keep this initiative secret for fear the sources would dry up if they caught on. But it seems they can’t help it even if they try, probably because they consider them profound pronouncements on the state of the world. I mean, take something like “We will never leave Kashmiris alone.” Is that a joke, or what? 

I am making a full disclosure because while most other countries have moved ahead, we are still in 1984. Someone is surely reading the lines as I write and given that our governments are averse to employing people above a minimal level of intelligence, chances are high the monitor will have a fevered imagination while lacking a sense of humour or proportion.

What, it occurred to me, would Big Brother make of all acronyms strewn throughout the draft of the jokebook? Three names were recurring so frequently that I replaced them with codes — FAA, FAC and BAG. Big Brother, always imagining the worst, might read them to mean I had sinister plans to undermine state institutions like the Federal Aviation Agency, or the Financial Accounts Committee, or the top-secret Bureau of Assisted Governance. 

Although I have faith in our country, I am taking no chances. I was told a reassuring story by someone sent to Russia as a teenager by ZAB to study making steel. He returned in the era of ZuH when all the returnees were being tailed by spooks. The one assigned to the narrator was kind enough to alert him, as a fellow momin, about the nature of the assignment.    

Still, those were innocent times. In these days of LYRA, I feel it safer to declare that I have no intention to undermine state institutions because the sources of the jokes have taken that upon themselves as an in-house obligation. The acronyms are just shorthand identifiers for the sources, God bless them. They are human beings and would no doubt be nabbed in the goodness of time when the joke would be upon them.

While I am at it, I should mention that in addition to FAA, FAC and BAG, there are occasional references to Captain Marvel (‘turning and [u-]turning in the widening gyre’) and Millet Sir, the falconer whose doctrine causes innocent people to implode. The Millet Doctrine has me concerned, people having the unfortunate tendency to come up with the weirdest contortions. I condemn that tendency with the solemn assurance that the Millet Doctrine is intended strictly for the birds. 

With that off my chest, a few other thoughts are worth airing. First, one is struck again by the immense loss caused by the division of the subcontinent. Together, we could have held the record for the biggest jokebook in the world, the Pakistani contribution derived from a handful of big nuts and the Indian from contributors spread out across the land with each being responsible for one joke at best. The meaty Pakistani jokes from the land of the five errors would have been nicely complemented by the regional flavours of the Indian ones thematically limited to Vedic insights on the benefits of bovine flatulence. Indians avoid non-veg jokes for obvious reasons and Pakistanis have started shying away from veg jokes perhaps because vegetables are becoming too expensive to be funny. But for the accidents of history, we could have had such a great combination.

At the same time, I realize we don’t do some things as well as others. We don’t have someone inspiring instantaneous laughter without having to say anything at all — someone like BoJo, for example. What a boon such a person can be in hard times when hearty laughter can ease the pangs of hunger. We do have someone who comes close in Pakistan but he’s gone quite off the rails while Indians seems to prefer personalities like NaMo that scare rather than amuse. I suppose it is because the RSS went from strength to strength in India while the Khaksar Tehreek faded away in Pakistan. Imagine, if we still had those chaps strutting around in shorts. 

Still, one can’t complain in Pakistan where there are so many potential contributors in the top echelons. I am deeply grateful to FAA, FAC and BAG for their profuse contributions and to Captain Marvel and Millet Sir for the occasional blockbuster. Thank you all for spreading the cheer in hard times and kudos (kuddoos in local parlance) for grinning like Cheshire cats while slouching towards Bethlehem.

The writer is the author of Transgressions: Poems Inspired by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Delhi, 2019.

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The Loss of Literature

September 12, 2019

By Anjum Altaf

How much do we lose when we lose literature. We confuse ideas, reinvent things that have existed for centuries and claim credit for them, yield ownership to others for what is really ours, fail to recognize what is happening in front of our eyes, lose track of the founts of knowledge and make fools of ourselves. That, and so much more, has happened since schools dropped the teaching of literature in Pakistan.

Let me illustrate the point with two examples. What a wonderful idea it was to end poverty in Pakistan once and for all by distributing a cock and four* hens to every household. For no good reason of logic but simply political angst, the idea was ridiculed across the board and various chicken memes proliferated across the screens. Valiant attempts by the Ministry of Truth to link the idea to the great and legendary Mr. William (aka Bill) Gates floundered as the momentum was lost. Instead, the charge of kowtowing to foreign ideas instead of relying on indigenous traditions was added to the ever-expanding list of grievances.

All this misfortune could have been avoided and the country launched on the road to prosperity with just a modicum of literary awareness. Almost everyone born before the ban on literature knew that the wonderful chicken-and-egg scheme had nothing to do with the honourable Mr. William (aka Bill) Gates. It was entirely the vision of one Sufi Abd-ur-Razak (aka Sheikh Chilli) who was very much one of us (circa 1650) and, even though buried across enemy lines at Thanesar, Haryana, was at least a part of the great Islamic ummah.

Now Sheikh Chilli was considered a great Darwesh (he was the master of Dara Shikoh, son of the great Shah Jahan of Taj Mahal fame) and known for his wisdom and simplicity. He specialized in making castles in the air like a lot of other people. On being charged by Shah Jahan to solve the problem of poverty under the Mughal Empire (the poor having always been with us) he had dreamt up the great chicken-and-egg scheme which would certainly have changed the face of the times had he not accidentally woken up.

Consider what a great opportunity has been missed (cock-and-hens turned to cock-and-bull) by the lack of knowledge of literature and history. The scheme was very much an indigenous one (blessed with the provenance of a Sufi Darwesh) and not at all a Western conspiracy. And all it required to deliver the goods was the resolve to not wake up (quite the norm these days) till the chickens had come home to roost.

Let us move on to the short and mighty Napoleon (aka Bonaparte) who has been castigated for losing everything by not making as many U-Turns as mighty leaders ought to make. Here, the loss of literature has led us to a travesty of justice. Napoleon (aka Bonaparte) lost. The stout and mighty Napoleon (aka Comrade) who actually ended up on top by making a whole lot of strategic U-Turns was due to Mr. Eric Arthur Blair (aka George Orwell) and deserved the credit for being the rightful role model.

Let us reiterate for those who have missed them, the Seven Commandments, arrived upon by consensus after due deliberation, with which the revolution, in which Napoleon (aka Protector of the Sheep-fold) was a key player, was launched. “The Commandments were written on the tarred wall in great white letters that could be read thirty yards away”:

  1. Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy.
  2. Whatever goes upon four legs, or has wings, is a friend.
  3. No animal shall wear clothes.
  4. No animal shall sleep in a bed.
  5. No animal shall drink alcohol.
  6. No animal shall kill any other animal.
  7. All animals are equal.

The revolution was usurped by Napoleon (aka Father of All Animals) who emerged victorious. That was when the U-Turns began in order to keep the revolution alive. Here is what had happened:

“In January, food fell short. The corn ration was drastically reduced, and it was announced that an extra potato ration would be issued to make up for it. Then it was discovered that the greater part of the potato crop had been frosted in the clamps, which had not been covered quickly enough. The potatoes had become soft and discoloured, and only a few were edible. For days at a time the animals had nothing to eat but chaff and mangels. Starvation seemed to stare them in the face.”

Lacking the ability to parachute in a savior with the wisdom and gravitas of Sufi Abd-ur-Razak (aka Sheikh Chilli), Napoleon (aka Terror of Mankind) was reduced to working with asses who advised on nabbing all opponents, confining them to jail, and putting into practice a series of brilliant U-Turns. 

Soon, one by one, the Commandments disappeared till the revolutionaries could see only one left on the tarred wall. It read, in bold letters:



“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

How much do we lose when we lose literature.

* I am grateful to Razi Azmi for pointing out that four hens make much more sense than five.

First published in The Friday Times on September 6, 2019 and reproduced here with the author’s permission. The writer is also the author of Transgressions: Poems Inspired by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, 2019.

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Pakistan, Sir Ian Botham, Mothers-in-Law, and Dried Milk

May 4, 2019

By Ibn-e Eusuf

The political scenario in Pakistan is so surreal that only a seemingly far-fetched analogy can highlight its unreal realities.

Imagine the MI5 in the UK, fed up with the incompetence of Conservative and Labour politicians over Brexit, conspiring to install Sir Ian Botham as Prime Minister and selling him as the Great White Hope because he had been a hugely successful and popular cricketer. Now imagine a lady, from deep in the Yorkshire moors, emerging to declare Sir Ian Botham not only great and popular but specially sent by the Almighty to save the British nation from itself and lead it from hell to heaven. Sir Ian Botham weds the miracle-bearing lady, the union accompanied by a huge resurgence of otherwise agnostic people praying in churches for the health of the couple and the nation. A delighted Archbishop of Canterbury declares it the Event of the Millennium and Sir Ian Botham is both anointed a Saint and appointed Chancellor of Durham University to signal the blessed marriage of the sacred and the secular.

What would we in Pakistan make of above scenario?

Before we could make anything of it, in the twinkling of a nystagmus eye, a coalition of wily old foxes, sharpshooters, and eternal optimists would immediately spot the silver lining recalling that Ian Botham (then unknighted) had, during England’s 1983-84 tour of Pakistan, declared the host country “a place where every mother-in-law should be sent for a month.” Anticipating the speedy issuance of one-way tickets to Pakistan for all British mothers-in-law, since Great Men not only never forget but get more messianic with age, the coalition rubber-stamped post-haste the revolutionary visa-on-arrival scheme to signal their ever readiness for manna, or in this case mamma, from heaven which would yield an immense boost to our tourism industry flailing because of all the vituperative and fake news spread by our enemies regarding various ailing but virtuous Maulanas and their doings. Visionary images of dried milk flowing in Pakistan, accompanied, of course, by the obligatory honey given that it is an Islamic country, were plastered all over the crumbling walls and the drooling mealy mouths of TV anchors while an immensely grateful populace, including public servants on duty, redoubled their attendance at mosques to thank the Almighty for sending such wonderful sporting heroes with equally wonderful albeit mysterious spouses along with their divinely mandated handlers to our wretched world to entertain as well as to dispense justice and fair play sometimes from the tops of very mundane containers.

Allah be praised — truly no one can ever know His unknowable ways.

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The Sun That Rose From the Earth

February 22, 2018

Shamsur Rahman Faruqi’s The Sun That Rose From the Earth: Insights into the world of Urdu poetry in the Late Mughal Era

By Kabir Altaf

South Asians continue to be fascinated by the Mughal period. Whether one sees this period as the origin of North India’s high culture (the view of most Pakistanis and partisans of the Islamicate culture) or as hundreds of years of slavery under the Muslims (the view of the Hindu Right), it is clear that the Mughals remain central to India’s history and to the country’s conception of itself. This period was also the time when there was a great flourishing of the arts, including music and poetry. For example, it was during the reign of Muhammad Shah “Rangila” (r. 1719-1748) that khayal gaiyki—presently the main style of classical vocal music in North India—was developed. Some scholars also state that it was in Muhammad Shah’s time that Urdu replaced Persian as the language of the Mughal court. What is without question is that the 18th and 19th centuries were when Urdu poetry reached its heights and when the works of authors such as Mir Taqi Mir (1723-1810) and Mirza Ghalib (1797-1869) were created.

It is the lives and works of these poets which forms the core of Shamsur Rahman Faruqi’s collection of novellas, The Sun That Rose From The Earth—the author’s own translation into English of his Urdu work Savaar aur Doosre Afsane. The three major stories–“Bright Star, Lone Splendour”, “In Such Meetings and Partings, Ultimately” and “The Sun That Rose from the Earth”—are about Ghalib, Mir, and Mushafi respectively. Faruqi is known as the “grand old man of Urdu literature” and received the Padma Shri from the Government of India in 2009. His novellas reflect his vast knowledge of Urdu poetry and the culture that produced it.

“In Such Meetings and Partings, Ultimately” is one the longest stories in the book and revolves around Mir Taqi Mir’s romance with Nurus Saadat, a courtesan from Isfahan. The title comes from one of Mir’s verses from his first divan (1752), which Faruqi translates as follows: “In such meetings and partings, ultimately/ Lives are lost. There is no end to Love/And Beauty never relents.” The story ranges from Armenia—where Nurus Saadat’s mother, Labiba Khanam, is orphaned and becomes a courtesan, to Isfahan, and finally to Delhi, where Mir meets Nurus Saadat. Since she is a courtesan and is contracted to another, her meetings with Mir must remain secret. She is also dying of consumption and eventually she pushes Mir away so that he will not have to deal with the grief of her death.

Faruqi is a master at physical description and at describing people’s clothes (which reveals his immense knowledge about the cultural details of the period). Here is his introduction of Mir: “He was twenty-two, twenty-three years of age, tall but slim. His wrists were strong and broad, his eyes, red with sleeplessness—or was it drink?—were still commanding, full of character, though it could be seen that they could twinkle with humour when the occasion demanded. His beard was not long or dense…” This physical description is followed by a paragraph on Mir’s clothes, which begins: “He had a short, light, full-sleeved tunic on his upper body. It was called nima, or angarkha, depending on the style. The nima was worn waistcoat fashion. The fabric was woolen, russet coloured. It was called banat, but it was not of the best quality and its russet was now fading somewhat. Under the nima he wore a long woolen tunic. His trousers were of Aurangabadi mashru…” (Faruqi 250). Though such long descriptions tend to slow down the narrative pace, they are invaluable for giving one a sense of the period.

Another noteworthy aspect that Faruqi gets across is that it was not only Muslims who were involved in the creation of Urdu poetry. One of Mir’s close friends is Rai Kishan Chand Ikhlas, an Urdu poet in his own right. Similarly, the narrator of the story about Mushafi is Darbari Mal Vafa, whose father, Kanji Mal Saba, was a Persian poet and a student of Mushafi’s. The fact that Hindus are shown as being involved in the creation of Urdu and Persian poetry gives the lie to the modern Hindutva version of history that the religious majority was deeply oppressed under “Muslim” (really Mughal) rule. Faruqi’s book is thus an essential corrective to the revisionist myths of today’s India.

The book is filled with Persian and Urdu verses, though these suffer from being sometimes awkwardly translated into English. However, this is my limitation as a reviewer of being unable to fluently read the Urdu version of Faruqi’s book. Probably, the verses would have more power there. In the English version, they sometimes get in the way of advancing the plot.

Overall, The Sun That Rose From The Earth provides a fascinating look at Delhi at the beginning of the long Mughal decline. It is a must-read for those with an interest in Urdu poetry and culture.

This review appeared first on Brown Pundits and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

Kabir Altaf received a B.A. in Dramatic Literature from George Washington University. He has studied Hindustani classical vocal music and is currently teaching Music History at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS).

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To Kill or Not to Kill

January 7, 2018

By Ibn-e Eusuf

The front door having been left ajar, the breakfast table was buzzing with flies. Instinctively my hand reached for the swatter (makhii maar) strategically parked for just such an occasion. I was right on target the first couple of times and smugly congratulating myself on the amazing ability to outwit a fly when my hand froze in mid-air. It struck me like a bolt: Was I in compliance with the sharia?

Putting the swatter aside I began to wonder why God had created something whose very sight made one think of murder. I asked a few friends without being satisfied and then put it to my staff who had much deeper convictions on such matters. I proposed I would reluctantly continue swatting flies till such time as one of them came up with a convincing injunction for doing otherwise.

This literally set the staff abuzz but much deliberation spread over a number of days ended with nothing more than the purposefulness of God’s creation of which we cannot be fully aware. Some gave the analogy of the goat and the lion and one even came close to articulating a variant of Volterra’s predator-prey model. But these were easy to poke holes in because one could associate a plausible role to the victim that was sacrificed. What, I continued to wonder, was the purpose of the fly that seemed created to spread nothing but misery and to evince aversion and hostility at first sight? I suggested the staff consult the local maulana or the multitude of alims-online but they were reluctant considering it too trifling a matter for the attention of the high-minded pontiffs preoccupied with weightier threats related to evils stemming from the invasion of Western and Indian cultures.

On the latter concern, by way of digression, opinions are highly polarized. Our bureaucrats posed the following question in the latest examination for the central civil service: “Muslim culture in Pakistan is being dominated by European and Hindu Culture (sic). Do you think we need Renaissance and Reformation? Explain.” The politicians have passed a bill making Quranic education mandatory from grades 1 to 12 in all government schools proclaiming (sic) “We are ever-committed to harvesting all-rounder children to fully contribute to our society.” The alims at the other end are convinced nothing short of a return to the age of the Right-Minded Caliphs can be the salvation of our feeble-minded youth.

Left to my own devices and returning to the dilemma at hand I was pleased to discover I was scientifically-minded enough to extend the category under investigation to include mosquitoes, mice and cockroaches – all creatures that elicited murderous intentions without any misgivings. On further thought I excluded the mice and the cockroaches, the former because of their immense contribution to medical research and the latter for their role in teaching humility to human beings. But the divine purpose of flies and mosquitoes continued to elude me and my agony intensified with a shiver when the zapping of incinerators at airports flashed suddenly across my consciousness.

I did realize with some satisfaction that mosquitoes were special because they were targeted for extermination both inside and outside the house whereas the others were only unwelcome when they ventured indoors. It had not occurred to me before that I did not run in the garden with a swatter after flies the way Nabokov did with a net after butterflies and it felt pretty profound to toy with this idea for a while. Still, it did little to resolve the conundrum that had now begun to manifest itself in sleeplessness.

I sensed the dilemma was turning into an obsession when I began to worry if the flies I was encountering were Muslim and whether I ought only to swat the ones that were heathen. Experts I consulted ridiculed the notion that insects and animals had religion or nationality till I reminded them of my Indian friends who insisted that American cows were not holy and only Hindu cows had claim to special treatment.  

It was only when I thought of turning to Richard Dawkins for a biological explanation that I was bowled over by the revelation that he might give me an entirely different answer  undermining the very question that was the source of my torment. And that thought swivelled my mind to the economic corridor and the statement by a renowned Chinese expert that China’s per capita income was 30 percent lower than Pakistan’s in 1979 and is 550 percent higher in 2017.

I wondered if this difference in performance could be related, at least partly, to not worrying about the divine mission of flies and whether it was permitted to swat them at sight without incurring unknowable retribution. All at once I recalled Chairman Mao’s categorical and unambiguous slogan — “Away With All Pests” — and it was as if an unbearable burden had been eased miraculously. I could swear I saw a discreet wink from the Great Helmsman in the Sky.

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Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire: A Modern Antigone

September 23, 2017

By Kabir Altaf

Imagine what Antigone would be like if the action was transported from ancient Greece to today’s London and the main characters were British-Pakistanis.  This premise forms the basis for Kamila Shamsie’s most recent novel Home Fire, which updates Sophocles’ tragedy and sets it in the contemporary context of the War on Terror and the struggle of European countries to deal with their citizens who join the “Islamic State”.  Though ultimately a derivative work—one that doesn’t stand alone without reference to the original—the novel has some interesting insights on what it means to be British and on Islam’s place in today’s UK.

Sophocles’ tragedy centres around the conflict between Antigone and Creon, her uncle and the ruler of Thebes. Antigone desires to bury her brother Polyneices according to religious law while Creon refuses to grant permission since he considers him to be an enemy of the state. In Shamsie’s update, Polyneices becomes Parvaiz Pasha, a young Londoner who becomes radicalized and leaves to work in the “Islamic State’s” media unit in Syria. His sister Aneeka (Antigone) first tries to enable him to return to the UK without facing charges and later to bring his body back to London. Her opponent is Karamat Lone, the British Home Secretary, himself of Pakistani and Muslim origin.  The equivalent of Creon’s refusal to allow Polyneices’s body to be buried in Thebes is Karamat’s order to rescind British citizenship from those dual nationals who act against the interests of the UK.  Thus, after Parvaiz’s death in Istanbul, his body is sent to Pakistan instead of the UK.  Aneeka then travels to Karachi to sit in protest outside the British Consulate until the government allows the body to be returned to the UK.  Her sister Isma (Ismene), on the other hand, attempts to distance the sisters from their brother’s actions.

Shamsie’s characters are all three-dimensional and none are entirely heroic or villainous.  Unlike Antigone, Aneeka uses sex to try to achieve her objectives, becoming involved with Karamat’s son Eamonn (Haemon). In the original play, Antigone is engaged to Haemon, but she sacrifices this relationship to fulfill her obligations to her brother.  Aneeka, in contrast, seduces Eamonn as part of a plan to bring her brother home. Though she does eventually fall in love with him, her initial actions cast her in a manipulative light—she prays and wears the hijab yet doesn’t seem to have problems with premarital sex.

Like Aneeka, Karamat is also a complicated character.  He is an integrationist who distances himself from his Muslim background and marries an Irish woman. He gives his son an Irish name, Eamonn, rather than the Arabic Ayman. Yet, he confesses that in times of stress he often finds himself unconsciously reciting the ayat al-kursi.  Asked in an interview to respond to the accusation that he hates Muslims, he replies “I hate the Muslims who make people hate Muslims” (231).  Shamsie heightens the dramatic conflict by giving the Creon character a Muslim background and depicts that type of Muslim and British-Pakistani who believes that in order to advance in mainstream society, he has to distance himself from his religion and be more loyal than the King.

One of Shamsie’s most interesting departures from Sophocles is providing a bigger backstory for the Polyneices character.  Sophocles begins his story after Polyneices is already dead, so we never learn what drove him to become an enemy of Thebes. In contrast, Shamsie shows the reader the process by which Parvaiz is radicalized, and thus highlights how lost and vulnerable young men are often exploited and brainwashed into waging jihad.  In Parvaiz’s case, he is a young boy who has never known his father, himself a jihadi, a fact that Parvaiz’s mother and sisters never discussed, fearing the negative consequences for the family.  When an older man comes along and asserts that Parvaiz’s father was a hero, Paraviz is naturally drawn to him and led down the path to radicalization.  In Shamsie’s narration, even the jihadi is a somewhat sympathetic character. His motivations are understandable though his actions are reprehensible.  

One of the main themes of the novel is how Britain treats its Muslim citizens.  The story begins with Isma at the airport, enduring a lengthy interrogation that causes her to miss her onward flight to the US, where she plans to pursue her Ph.D.  The interrogation is particularly fraught because of her family background, though the experience of being questioned at Western airports is one familiar to many Muslim travelers.  More problematic is the media’s demonization of British Muslims. As Isma recalls a conversation she had during college: “The 7/7 terrorists were never described by the media as ‘British terrorists’. Even when the word ‘British’ was used it was always ‘British of Pakistani descent’ or ‘British Muslim’ or, my favorite, ‘British passport holders’, always something interposed between their Britishness and terrorism.” (38).  Later, Aneeka refers to the perils of “Googling While Muslim”, a nod to state surveillance of Muslims for any sign of extremism.

Diametrically opposed to the sisters is Karamat, who tells students at a Bradford school: “You are, we are, British. Britain accepts this. So do most of you. But for those of you who are in some doubt about it, let me say this: don’t set yourselves apart in the way you dress, the way you think, the outdated codes of behavior you cling to, the ideologies to which you attach your loyalties. Because if you do, you will be treated differently—not because of racism, though that does still exist, but because you insist on your difference from everyone else in this multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multitudinous United Kingdom of ours” (88). While telling Muslims that they shouldn’t freely express their religion is problematic, there is something to be said for greater assimilation into the societies in which Muslims find themselves.  Karamat’s most problematic action is the rescinding of British citizenship from those dual nationals who act against British interests.  Rather than dealing with why some young British Muslims are alienated from the larger society, this action simply ignores the problem by retroactively defining them as un-British.

Home Fire makes an interesting companion to Antigone though most of the power of the novel comes from seeing how Shamsie has updated that great work of world literature.  Without the literary resonances, the novel would simply be another work that attempts to deal with jihad and the place of Islam in the West, themes worked and reworked by many Pakistani novelists writing in English.

Kabir Altaf graduated from George Washington University with a major in Dramatic Literature.

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Making Martyrs

April 2, 2014

By Hasan Altaf in Guernica

The cover of I am Malala suggests an entirely straightforward book: a courageous answer to the question posed by a gunman in the back of a school van. The simple portrait that looks out from the bookshelf broadcasts Yousafzai’s bravery (her bare face to answer a man covering his) while also, with its undeniable echoes of the National Geographic photo of Sharbat Gula, the “Afghan Girl,” offering an amuse-bouche to the audience: Herein lies a tale of heroism, of wild and untamed lands, of danger and the exotic amid the mountains and valleys. But the tension that runs just below the surface, steady and undeniable as undertow, is also present right on the cover, with the double-barreled, reductive subtitle identifying Malala Yousafzai as “the girl who stood up for education and was shot by the Taliban.”

That subtitle indicates the seesaw between the person as a subject and a person as an object; it hinges on the difference between admiring a person for what they have done in the world and defining them by what the world has done in return. In Yousafzai’s case the two are inextricably linked (although the Taliban need little excuse to shoot anyone, even children), but I am Malala is all push and no pull: It forces its author into the smallest box possible. To satisfy a hungry audience the book has adopted elements of a thriller, but more than that, more than memoir or biography or even autobiography, what the collaboration with Christina Lamb has produced is an autohagiography. With bated breath, we watch a living, breathing teenager participate in her own canonization.

This is, in large part, a question of the book’s intentions: It’s billed as an answer, and this time the question has been posed not by a gunman but by an eager audience. That audience, of course, has certain expectations and demands, explicit even if unspoken, of sixteen-year-old Swati girls who choose and are able to tell their stories. They must provide not just drama and heroism, but also stark clarity. The book’s answer therefore has to be simple, direct, and short, not just in its portrayal of the author herself, which is difficult enough, but also in terms of the larger environment that she comes from, lived in, loved, struggled with, and was hurt by.

I am Malala is at its best when most clearly and completely Malala Yousafzai’s  – which is to say when it digresses and indulges in the truer, and therefore more complicated, answers to “Who is Malala?”….

More here.

Hasan Altaf is a writer whose work has appeared in the New Orleans Review,The Millions, 3 Quarks Daily and India’s Seminar magazine.

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Theater as a Matter of Life and Death

March 31, 2014

By Kabir Altaf

In the US and in other developed countries, theater is often seen as a leisure activity, engaged in primarily by those with disposable income and enough time to spend two hours watching a play.  However, in many countries around the world, the importance of theater goes beyond entertainment. Rather, theater is a matter of life and death.

As part of its “World Stages” festival, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts recently hosted a panel discussion entitled Recasting Home: Conflict, Refugees, and Theater”. Moderated by Ambassador Cynthia Schneider, a professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and the co-founder of the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics, the panel featured artists from Syria, Pakistan, Palestine, and the US.  All the panelists discussed the ways in which theater was essential to helping individuals cope with extremely difficult situations, including occupation and civil war. As Derek Goldman, a professor of theater and performance studies at Georgetown, commented, “In the US, ‘home’ is seen as a safe space, a haven. In contexts in which home is fraught and chaotic, theater becomes a kind of home.”  Theater provides a platform in which “the unspeakable becomes spoken”.

Nabil Al-Raee, the artistic director of The Freedom Theatre in Jenin, a city in the West Bank, described the role of theater as a means for Palestinians to resist the Israeli Occupation.   The theater is located in Jenin refugee camp, which dates from 1948, soon after the creation of Israel. 17,000 people live in one square kilometer.  The theater draws its inspiration from the work of Arna Mer Khamis, a woman of Jewish origin who devoted her life to campaigning for freedom and human rights, particularly in Palestine.  During the First Intifada, Arna developed a project called “Care and Learning”, which used theater and art to address the fear, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder experienced by children in the refugee camp. In 1993, Arna won the Right Livelihood Award for her work and used the award money to build The Stone Theatre, which was destroyed in 2002 during the Israeli invasion of the refugee camp.   The Freedom Theater was founded in 2006 by Juliano Mer Khamis, Arna’s son, who had returned to Jenin during the Second Intifada to continue his mother’s work.  Juliano was the General Director of the theatre until 2011, when he was assassinated.  The theatre continues to carry forward Juliano’s legacy and aims to promote freedom—not only for Palestinians but for all human beings.

Nabil commented that theater and other performing arts serve as a very important tool to help people understand themselves and to resist their situation in a non-violent manner, through art.  He recounted a remark made by an audience member in Gaza at a performance by the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, founded by Israeli musician Daniel Barenboim and Palestinian academic Edward Said as a collaboration between Israeli and Arab musicians.  The audience member noted that “People provide us food and shelter but you would do that for animals. By bringing us music, you have treated us like human beings.”

Just as theater plays a role in helping Palestinians cope with the Israeli Occupation, it is important in helping Syrian refugees confront the violent conflict in their country.  Liwaa Yazji, a Syrian playwright and filmmaker, described the situation facing her countrymen, both in the areas controlled by the Assad government and in those that are “free”.  She noted that in areas controlled by the regime, artists cannot depict war or revolution on stage.  In areas in the north of the country, which are outside of regime control, artists often come under threat from Islamists.  Liwaa described how activists and professionals are conducting workshops with Syrian youth to help them cope with their experiences during the war.  She described how during a performance of “Little Red Riding Hood”, a child asked her “Who is the wolf? Is it Bashar Assad or the Islamists?” Clearly, the arts have a role to play in helping refugee children confront what is happening to them.

Though the situation in Pakistan cannot be compared to that in Palestine or Syria, artists are still playing an important role in a society confronted with rising levels of extremism. Shahid Nadeem, one of the country’s leading playwrights and the founder of Ajoka Theatre, described how Pakistanis have become “cultural refugees”, forced to disassociate themselves from much of their traditional culture, because it is “tainted” by association with India and Hinduism.  He recalled that when he was growing up, he was told that the arts are un-Islamic and have no place in Pakistan.  Through its plays, Ajoka has been striving to reclaim Pakistan’s traditional heritage.  By using humor and music to keep audiences engaged, the plays address serious issues such as women’s rights and the rise of fundamentalism.  Because they often deal with controversial issues, the group’s performances have at times been banned by the Pakistani government as well as received threats from religious extremists. Theater thus serves as an important platform in the fight for greater social justice and for progressive values.

Overall, the discussion highlighted the relevance of theater in extremely difficult contexts, not usually associated with the arts.   Far from being merely entertainment for the well-to-do, theatre is vital for helping individuals across the world cope with violence, war, and conflict.

Kabir Altaf attended the Lahore University of Management Sciences and graduated magna cum laude from George Washington University with a major in Dramatic Literature and a minor in Music.

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Art and Life: Unraveling a Puzzle

August 12, 2012

By Anjum Altaf

The relationship between art and life may not have been a puzzle to most but it was to me. And it was not resolved by the debate over whether art ought to be for its own or for life’s sake. This was a difference over the purpose or otherwise of art whereas my interest was in the nature of the relationship. At one level, art must reflect life since it cannot exist in a vacuum. But this only opens up a number of questions: To what extent does art reflect life and what might be a measure of the goodness of that reflection?

I am concerned here with the novel as a particular form of art. The novel is a story and so in some sense is life. There is, therefore, a natural correspondence between the two. Life, however, is messy, all over the place, and any novel that attempted to reflect it faithfully would be likely to be unreadable. I presume that is the reason I have not been able to read Ulysses despite my best intentions. (more…)