To Istanbul We Go

A: So, you going to visit Istanbul?
Maybe, I think so. I am banking on E. getting there, this summer. And then following along.

A: There was this Kulfi wallah near me.
In Lahore?

A: Yeah, a few lanes down from us. He was famous, the best Kulfis you would ever eat. People would come from all over. He’d make a killing.

A: He died a few years back and his son, he inherited that business. He was some pink or red or some belt in Tae-Kwon-Do. Just this beautiful man – luminous face, this muscular structure. He would go to Landa Bazaar1 and buy the finest tweed suits, just molded to his biceps and walk around in them. All the time.

A: So when the father died, he had to inherit his business. He was the only one who knew how to make those amazing Kulfas. The only one. He would open the shop for a few hours and he would sell out. Open it a few days a week, and make lots of money. People just wanted to have that Kulfa. But he hated it. He wanted to be famous.

A: This was his CV: He acted in Lollywood – like Extras, you’d see him way in the back. He was in various body building or fighting competitions all the time. Didn’t speak a word of English but he had correspondents around the world – Paris, Madrid, London. He would just send the embassies his photos and his newsclippings. And they would send him stuff back. It was amazing. He hated going to the shop, opening it. But he had to because the people would give him so much money, so quickly.

A: He ran away with a girl. To Istanbul. Went and married her there. Then came back.
Did he leave her there?

A: No, no, he brought her back. But, now there are like 5 other Kulfa wallahs on that corner.
All claiming his father’s legacy?

A: Yeah. You should go to Istanbul.

*This conversation happened in Paratha Junction, Jersey City on Sun, Mar 28th, 2010. A. is my dearest friend since high school.

  1. the third-hand clothes market []

Association for Asian Studies 2010

I am headed to Philadelphia, my fav. other-Chicago, for the annual Association for Asian Studies meeting. I am on a panel on Thursday:

7:30pm-9:30pm. National Culture and Belonging in Pakistan, chaired by A. Sean Pue, Michigan State University. Grand Ballroom Salon J

– “Chale Chalo ke Voh Manzil Abhi Nahin Aai”: Progressive Writers Attempt to Rewrite the Nation
Saadia Toor, City University of New York

– “Soviet Pantheism”: Modernism and the Critique of Ideology
A. Sean Pue, Michigan State University

– Navigating Self and State in Communal Histories in Pakistan
Manan Ahmed, Berlin Free University

Discussant: Vazira Zamindar, Brown University

The AAS website is quite un-friendly. The panels cannot be browsed directly by presenter or by panel or by topic – except by number. There is only a (pdf) list of panels according to “world area” (um, do they mean Asia?) which doesn’t, then, include any time or place details! Of what possible usage is that? Nor is there an index of presenters online. Sure, that information is in the official paper program, but seriously folks, it is 2010, get on this internets bandwagon please.

As usual, I probably will not be able to attend much of what I would love to attend. One I would def. be going to is Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Indian and Thai Attitudes towards the Supernatural, chaired by Frank F. Conlon on Friday 8:30am.

If any gentle readers are going to be at AAS, please drop me a line, maybe we can meet up. Or come to my panel! Also, if any editors are reading, they should tell me how best I can seduce their fine press with my amazing manuscript.

On the Sink of Specie

I am putting together a reading list for next term, and thought it might be fun (under this whole rejuvenated CM lately) to post some more primary source reading. Below is an editorial from NYT. It is quite a remarkable document for a number of reasons, not least that it was written in NY- the notion of imperialism, the defense of British civilizational mission, capital, religious righteousness: it is all here. Rinse. Repeat.

– “Progress of Events in British India“, New York Times, Oct 24, 1857

Progress of Events in British India.

The not improbable rumor of the recall of Viscount Canning from the Viceroyality of India, is but one of many indications that the Government of England is now fully alive to the importance of the struggle in India, and fully determined to put forth the whole force of the empire in the suppression of the Mohammedan mutiny. For although Lord Canning has exhibited qualities not unworthy of his name in the trying crisis through which he has been called to pass, it has been reported, on credible authority, that he had brought or suffered himself to be brought into collision with Sir Colin Campbell on questions of policy. That, in such an emergency, the civil official should be sacrificed to the military, proves how clearly the government of Lord Palmerston appreciated the natures and severity of the ordeal through which British authority in India is passing. The maxim of Malcolm rules and must rule the hour. India was won by the sword, and must be kept by the sword.
Continue reading “On the Sink of Specie”


Maya Yazigi, “Defense and Validation in Shi’i and Sunni Tradition: The Case of Muḥammad b. Abī BakrStudia Islamica, No. 98/99 (2004), pp. 49-70

One further factor needs to be taken into account. The horrific death that Muhammad b. Abi Bakr met in Egypt at the hands of Mu’āwiya’s men made him a perfect exemplar of the atrocities associated with civil war in both traditions. The precise circumstances of his death are unclear. Some reports suggest that he died in combat. The more general belief, however, is that he was killed outside the main fray, then stuffed into the carcass of a jackass and burnt, or even – according to one report – burnt alive inside the carcass. Other reports suggest that he was decapitated before being burnt and that his head was sent for display at the court of Mu’āwiya. Whatever its basis in reality, this richly symbolic gesture became an important topos in Islamic historiography. It allowed Muhammad’s death to be remembered in a realm apart, that of firsts (or awā’il): the same accounts that report the despatch of his head to Mu’āwiya also make this the first head to be so transported and paraded in Islam.

Nights I have Missed Out On

Stephen Merritt:

Tiny Tim was, like yourself, a song historian.

Well, he had a pick-up band who had not rehearsed at all, I think. And what he did was play three chord cycles over and over again, and sing on top of that. The songs from the entire 20th century and part of the 19th century – songs that happened to go over those chord progressions. And every 20 minutes or so, he would switch the chord progressions he was playing. So, sort of “CFGG”, then her would switch to “CGFF”. And the amalgamation of the songs in a pretty random order was eventually deeply, deeply moving. And everyone in the bar, the nightclub, was crying at some point. There were six people in the audience. And very few people working. So maybe the total number of people in the room, including onstage, was 12 or something. And all of them were crying at some point. Including Tiny Tim. I think he was just very sad that night.

The Apocalypses of Zaid Hamid

I have a new piece up at The Review, Pakistan’s new paranoia, on Zaid Hamid.

A man named Zaid Hamid, who has perhaps done more than anyone else to promote the new narrative of national victimhood, says that he has a clear answer. We are, he argues, living in the apocalyptic end-times – and Pakistan must emerge as the leader of the last struggle. Clad in his trademark red hat, he is leading rallies on campuses and in auditoriums across the country. His words – and the excited reactions of his audiences – are captured by camera crews, and the footage posted on YouTube and Facebook.

In his ceremonial Urdu, laced with Quranic verses and English idioms, he tells the gathered that they represent a generation hand-picked by God to lead Pakistan. He warns them of the sinister forces arrayed against the blessed nation of Pakistan. He assures them that prophecies predict their victory – all they have to do is mobilise. They have to leave their seats and take back their country. Only then can they conquer India and Israel. Only then can they rebuke the United States. Only then can they fulfill the dreams of Pakistan’s founding fathers. But the first step has already been taken – they came to his rally, they heard his call to action.

We have been discussing him here for a while – and after seeing a few hundred of his appearances on youtube, I can offer a few bits of analysis.

Perhaps analytically most crucial is the point that he is not merely a conspiracy theorist. That aspect of his appeal has received the most attention and it does resonate widely in different spheres (and for varied reasons) but he has significantly more to offer the starry eyed. His primary appeal rests in propagating a prophetic apocalyptic tradition – both specific to the Prophet and symbolically linked to folks like Muhammad Iqbal. This prophetic tradition contains both an explanation of the current disasters but also a promise of restoration, of victory. From Islamic history, he takes ahadi’th proclaiming the triumph over India (and Jersualem); from (what he terms) “spiritual” realm, he takes the quatrains of Naimatullah Shah which make exactly the same amount of sense as Nostradamus; from Iqbal and Jinnah, he takes the nationalist “prophesies”. All this is amended and aided by the usual coterie of dreams, sufi sayings, “feelings” and “emotions”. This last bit is perhaps the most important to keep in mind – he argues for a “rational” argumentation (so “reports”, “findings”, “evidence” are prominent keywords in his speech), but it is the emotional landscape where he actually rests his case. He repeatedly calls upon his listeners to contemplate their feelings – scared, helpless, angry, righteous – and then work out how they can actively engage with them. The corrosive power of nationalist or religious slogans is most readily apparent here. I have a lot more to say about this affective turn in political punditry but, for now, let me stick with the prophetic tradition.

In one of the youtube exchanges, he is part of a panel interview with various military/political folks. One of the mustachio’d ex-military objects to his constant claims to the “spiritual warfare” saying that his emphasis on “sufi prophecies” was rather stunted. Hamid immediately jumps back to the Prophetic had’ith to make the same claim. The mustachio’d one has no choice but to acknowledge that the Prophet must be right. This line of reasoning – “the Prophet said” – is also deployed by his supporters to shut down the debate regarding his insane policies.((The prophesies are listed in his Nimatullah pamphlet linked here and you can listen to him expound here)) The response of the left/progressive/sane folks has been to mock – to great effect. I certainly have the impulse to simply state “Bullshit” to all his stories of 110 year old saints predicting this or that, to some random who or whom and presto! One only needs a modicum of common sense to see through that. Yet here we are.

So, I believe we need to deconstruct his claims on historical basis – while also, I guess, stating “Bullshit”.

The End-Times Narrative:

To historicize his claims to these “prophetic traditions” lets start with the hadi’th he claims predicts a Muslim army in al-Hind. Only scattered references to al-Hind as a geographical entity exist in the Sahih collections.1 The “prophetic ones” Zaid Hamid cites actually come from the accounts of thughūr al-Hind (frontier of al-Hind) which were compiled in eschatological collections. Just to be clear again, they do not appear in the collectively accredited ahadi’th. They number around five or six (repeated). In these short accounts, al-Hind is one of the stages for the battle between good and evil – between dajjāl (the anti-Christ in Christian eschatology) and the Muslims, at the end of time.2 An example is this oft-reproduced tradition: “The Prophet proclaimed that two groups from my ‘ummah will be protected from the fires of Hell. One is the group who will fight in the frontier of al-Hind and the other group with will stay with ‘Isa b. Maryam (Jesus Christ).”3 This is the tradition repeatedly cited by Zaid Hamid.

It appears in Kitab al-Fitan, the compendium of eschatological traditions by Nu‘aym ibn Ḥammād (d. 844). In a very short section entitled Ghāzwāt al-Hind (battles in al-Hind), Nu‘aym recounts traditions which collectively tie the conquest of al-Hind, and the capture and manumission of its Kings to the end of times. Within eschatological timeline, the conquest of al-Hind is portrayed as the penultimate step, after which, both ’Isa b. Maryam (Jesus) and dajjāl will finally emerge. For example, another tradition reported by Nu‘aym presents the prophecy of the Prophet that Jesus will arrive after the conquest of al- Hind and the captivity of the kings of al-Hind: “It is narrated by al-Wālid who received it from Sūfy’an bin ‘Umar who received it from the Prophet: He said, “From my ‘umma, someone will conquer al-Hind in the name of Allah and put the kings of al-Hind in chains. Allah will forgive them, and they will roam and explore Syria and they will find ‘Isa b. Maryam in Syria.4 The motif here is certainly not “conquest” but rather “humiliation” – i.e. of seeing the King brought in chains. This emphasis on mulūk (Kings) of lands far to the East is a key motif, with Kings of China also equally represented: “There is no army greater in reward than the army going to China, then they will bring the kings of China and the kings of al-Aqaba back in chains, and when they bring them they will find that [Jesus] son of Mary has already descended in Syria”.5

To properly contextualize such traditions, we have to first conclude that these traditions reflect current thoughts and realities – as in, localized, contemporary propaganda at the margins of an expanding empire. When one compares them to the canonical traditions – and attempts to date them – this becomes clearer:

Historical apocalyptic traditions should be recognized, in general, to be the result of frustration and pre-conquest propaganda. Therefore, the most reasonable place to locate them would be in these intervals of inaction, especially after the major defeats of the reign of Hishām (r. 724-43). This period and the beginning of the `Abbāsid dynasty were, in all likelihood, the major periods of apocalyptic activity in Syria, which as come down to us in the form of historical apocalypses, and was mostly collected by Nu’aym two generations later.6)

Al-Hind in these eschatological traditions, is both an outlier and a rhetorical point. These traditions are focused on Byzantium – and the kings of India or China are there to serve as demonstrations of rising Muslim power, as well as markers on the end-time-line. These are certainly not “prophecies” – as Zaid Hamid is treating them – they are remnants of a messianic debate between expansionist and conservative cadres in the 9th and 10th centuries at the Muslim borderland with the Byzantium.

I will deal with the “Foreign Hand” and the quatrains of the Naimatullah Shah in the near future.

  1. Those would be Muslim, al-Bukhārī, al-Tirmidhī, Ibn Māja, al-Nasā’ī, Abu Da’ud []
  2. On al-Dājjal and Christ in Muslim eschatology, see Neal Robinson, “Antichrist,” Encyclopaedia of the Qurʾān. []
  3. Sunan Nasā’ī, Bab Ghazwat al-Hind []
  4. Nu‘aym ibn Ḥammād, Kitāb al-Fitan (Mecca: Maktabah al-Tājarʼiāh, 1991), 252-3. []
  5. Nu’aym, 252-3 []
  6. See David Cook, Studies in Muslim Apocalyptic, (Princeton: Darwin Press, 2002 []

Of Dice and Men

I have now discovered Do not get angry, Dude in Germany along w/ a commemorative stamp. It was invented by the clerk Josef Friedrich Schmidt (1871-1948) for his three children and then commercialized in 1914.

[originally published Aug 30, 2005 @ 9:03]
This falls squarely in the well-established tradition, here at CM, of wasting time. Raven’s post on Ludo [which you should also go read] made me really curious about the history of this board game most Americans know as Parcheesi.

The game has many names: Pachisi or Chaupar being the ancient Indian/ medieval Mughal names [there is some difference in the rules for the two], and Parcheesi or Ludo being the American/colonial ones. Essentially it is a dice game, with cogs for players, five safety points [traditionally arranged with four points of the compass and the center of the earth], with the objective being to reach the safety points while taking out the cogs of your competitors. The origin of the game is a tad mystical. It is Duryodhana’s deception at this dice game, which emulates the realm of earth as its board, that sets up the epic war of Mahabharata. I will allow Mughal historian and chronicler Abu’l Fazl to set the stage:

Duryodhana was beside himself at the sight of their sovereign splendour, and the pangs of envy drove him more distraught. With deceptive intent, he held a festival and invited the Pandavas and proposed a game of chaupar, playing himself, with cogged dice. By this means he won all they possessed. The last stake was made on the condition that if the Pandavas won, they should recover all that they had lost, but if otherwise, they were to quit the royal dominions and wander in the wilds for twelve years in the garb of mendicants after which they might return to civilised life for a year, and so conduct themselves that none should know them. If this last particular were infringed, they would have to pass a similar period of twelve years in the forests. Unsuspecting foul play, their uprightness brought them to ruin.

Let’s go from the realm of gods to those of men. Herodotus claimed that Lydians invented dice while Socrates thinks the Egyptians did. Both are obviously wrong because dice, as you may or may not know, was invented by one of our common ancestors named Javihm who found some knuckle bones lying outside the cave while he was recuperating from a nasty case of poison ivy. More interesting is the case of the “board game”. Leslie Kurke in Ancient Greek Board Games and How to Play Them mentions two games which I found interesting, polis and pente grammai – both involving a lined board, throwing dices, moving pieces and capturing pieces. In the case of polis, Kurke maintains that the board resembled the layout of the city. The pachisi board, like I said, takes the idea of the polis but to the global scale.

In terms of archeological evidence, we have the ancient game of Pa‚àö¬±ca[game of five], found in Tamil, with a board with five safe spots, player tokens that moved across the board after the roll of dice. However, the board here could be of any shape [and was often in any shape]. It is conjectured that this earlier board travelled all the way to Egypt to become the Dogs and Jackals Game, as well as Snakes and Ladder, which, in turn, gave us the Game of Goose and Chutes and Ladder. The board with the four points of the compass symmetry of Pacisi spread to Ceylon [panca], Korea [nyout], Vietnam etc. There is some controversy around E. B. Tylor’s claim that the ancient Aztec game of Patolli is also related.

Anyways, back to Pachisi, Chaupar and to the medieval/early modern era. Akbar, the Great Mogal King [as I like to call him], was a big fan of Chaupar. In his capital at Fatehpur Sikri was a courtyard which doubled as a Chaupar board and on which the life-sized game was played in the King’s attendance [those fetching kaneezis being the gotis]. Here and here are a couple of contemporary pictures. Just as Akbar was a big fan of the game [or maybe because Akbar was a big fan of the game], there was wide popularity for the game [I love that painting]. In folklores of Sindh and Punjab are many tales of the game being played amongst wily and cunning opponents. The hardcore players kept the cloth board rolled up in their pagris and hats. The pieces [got] were often carved out of wood [or ivory for the fancy folks] and dyed in red, green, yellow or black colors. I’d imagine that this was a great source of entertainment for travellers, and wayfarers. It also caught the fancy of the colonials. Here is a photograph taken by William Chapin in the early part of the twentieth century. India, being timeless and all, I am sure that their medieval counterparts behaved much in the same way.

Selchow & Righter, the American board-game company, trademarked Pachisi as Parcheesi and started marketing it as a children’s game in 1868 or so. It had reached England a few years earlier but by the 1920s, it was marketed as Ludo [latin for “to play, sport /imitate, banter /delude, deceive”]. Ludo was the version I grew up with.

So, there you have it. A game of chance played on a board of the world. Wasting my time….