If You See Something, Say Something

A few weeks ago, I visited Hamburg’s vast harbors and storage houses. There, I saw the faded signs of an old network of traders from Iran, Afghanistan and Kashmir who came to Hamburg in the 1880s and 1890s bearing carpets and artifacts. I loved that part of Hamburg, and I wished I had had more time to talk to some members of this old Muslim community.

There are parts of Berlin which also evoke past entanglements. The Ahmadi mosque in Wilmersdorf – the oldest in Germany – is an example. I wrote about wandering onto it a while ago. Since then, I have learned a lot more about the post-War Turkish immigration to Berlin, the Muslim (Turkish, Desi, Arab, Iranian) communities in Kreuzberg, in Neukölln, in Wedding, in Charlottenburg. I met families of Sikhs and Punjabis from Ludhiana who have been in Berlin since the early 1970s. I met East Pakistanis. I met PPP jaiyallas still in hiding from Zia ul Haq. Berlin, as it has to many before me, only begrudgingly unveils its seductive charms – and one of its charms has been its matter-of-fact diversity.

And just as matter-of-factly, it shows its racism. When I was vacating my last apartment – in the quite white, old (as in the demographic), rich kiez of KuDamm, I spent an epic 28 hours scrubbing the apartment clean for the landlord’s inspection. The tenure in the place was about 16 months and there was very little wear and tear. Yet, during the inspection, the landlords acted in a ridiculously rude manner – at one point saying that only “animal-like Turks” could live like this.

In my new place in Schöneberg – a neighborhood I absolutely love – my 80 plus year old neighbor looked me up and down.
“Are you Turk – your name is Achmet”
“Actually, that is with a D, not a T but, I am from Pakistan”
“…. Pakistan?”
“Ah! I used to know an Indian. Yes, you are much too dark to be a Turk.”

I was quite happy that we had settled the matter and a few weeks later, I bumped into her again. She began to tell me about the building, the neighborhood and while describing the 1950s and 60s life, she quickly inserted a comment about how those were the days before the “African and Turk” families couldn’t be seen on the street. Afraid that my German comprehension was not up to par, I repeated after her and she elaborated that the Africans started moving into the apartment buildings around us in the late 80s and early 90s. Haven’t I seen them?

These encounters are, however, not the same. While the old landlord was definitely a racist, my new neighbor simply belongs to a world view which is restrictive around class and color lines. I can’t begrudge this casual prejudice to the old and the infirm. And sometimes, I feel that Berlin as a whole has a similar outlook – a casual prejudice against the ausländer (outsider) be they white or green.

Continue reading “If You See Something, Say Something”

Ten Short Years

The New York Police Department is doing everything it can to make sure there’s not another 9/11 here and that more innocent New Yorkers are not killed by terrorists,” NYPD spokesman Paul Browne said. “And we have nothing to apologize for in that regard.”

– “With CIA help, NYPD built secret effort to monitor mosques, daily life of Muslim neighborhoods“, AP, Aug 24, 2011

In the months after 9/11, the FBI deployed its investigative apparatus as a blunt weapon. In November 2001, the Department of Justice began conducting “voluntary interviews” with 5,000 Middle Eastern non-citizens. Hundreds of FBI agents were dispatched across the country to conduct the interviews, with standard questions like “Are you aware of anybody who reacted in a surprising way about the terrorist attacks? Maybe you got to work and maybe a coworker said, ‘Good, I’m glad that happened’?”

– “To catch a terrorist: The FBI hunts for the enemy within“, Petra Bartosiewicz, Harper’s, Aug 2011.

All is Well

I have a more detailed review of Maleeha Lodhi’s edited volume Pakistan: Beyond ‘The Crisis State’ in Dawn’s Books & Authors: All is Well… or is it? I had briefly discussed it in my previous review essay, but this is special care:

Pakistan, as a subject of critical analysis, is ill-served when realities are ignored for the sake of policy. The need to resist a crude stereotype of “failed state” is clear and present but to go “beyond the crisis state”, we must also look seriously to history, to narratives other than the state or military and admit the harsh truths: The Pakistani military is just as fallible as its civilian regime, though the latter needs the explicit support of the population as a legitimate government. The state structure incorporates within it gross injustices towards the minorities — defined religiously, ethnically or culturally. Redressing these injustices — against the Ahmadis, the Christians, the Hindus, the Baloch, the Swatis — is just as vital to the nation-state as the need to prioritise health or education or commercial sectors. This volume is but a hampered beginning in this long process of a national soul-searching.

The Best of All Possible Care

One thing that the First World really gets right is good dental care. The more money you have, the better the teeth. Unfortunately, despite the fact that we Americans (at least those with good dental insurance) have some of the pearliest, straightest teeth in the world, we are seldom grateful for this gift. The word ‘torture’ is probably used far more by Americans to describe visits to the dentist, the periodontist, the orthodontist and the oral surgeon than it is to describe water-boarding or taking photographs of prisoners of war in humiliating poses. That’s why the US Government is so crafty when it shows us images of bad guys in captivity receiving dental care. Take the case of José Padilla, who was shown in a small video being marched down the hall from his solitary confinement to get a root canal (wearing goggles and sound-canceling headphones to keep that solitary real). This little bit of film was so noteworthy that it was even discussed by Graham Bader in Artforum, according to Amitava Kumar, who writes:

Bader’s point is that the most intensely politicized contemporary images are those that concern “the state’s role in authoring the most basic experiences of life and death.” Images like those of “the broken figure of Jose Padilla, shuffling to the dentist down the hall from his cell” enter our conversations about art as new evidence to be examined and understood.

Having not, in fact, read the original Artforum article, I confess that I am flummoxed as to how the video managed to pass directly from the hands of Homeland Security (or the CIA?) directly into the pages of one of the nation’s leading art journals. It’s so hard to keep track of what art is nowadays.

My interest was piqued by the description, however, as it reminded me of one of my personal favorites in the galaxy of GWOT imagery, specifically the Iraq war: the photographs of Saddam Hussain receiving the best of all possible medical care at the hands of the United States military after he was dragged out of his hiding spot and taken into custody. It’s one of those pieces of propaganda that makes it hard to decide whether you are looking at a really clever piece of psy-ops or an elaborate visual gag. How civilized, and how supremely humane of the United States to supply that bastard Saddam with the best possible dental care in the world! And yet, when Americans see the picture, we know what’s really going on: they’ve sent the dentists in; he’s being tortured.


The saying goes that we all have rituals – and the sayer points, often times metaphorically, to baseball players. The raise, the pinch, the shuffle, the swing, the dust-off, the spit, the spit, the spit. Ritual seems a bad word, suddenly. Habit? Superstitious habit? Let us stick with ritual for a second. I don’t think I have many rituals that I can consciously identify. Even now, as I sit thinking about my rituals (how do I write when I write?) I get mostly vague mental images of turning on music before cooking.

My ritual, my habit, the thing that I planned when I planned was to shave before going to the airport.

This ritual is a habit because, well, I fly a lot. Since moving to Berlin, I have been flying even more than my usual a lot.

Yesterday, in planning for my airport flight tomorrow, I went to my usual barber (a gentle man from Istanbul who speaks with kind eyes) and asked him to go ahead and make me pretty for the immigration control officer. As I sat there looking at the mirror, I realized that 1) I rather liked my face covered in short, grey, splinters. And 2) I was afraid of what these short, grey splinters would tell someone else about me.

I realized that this particular habit began ten years ago. I flew back into Chicago from London on Sep 16th, 2001. I was originally scheduled to come back on Sep 12th. I remember shaving. I remember shaving every single time since then. Now, this was not a rather well-thought out thing. There was no reason, I don’t think in retrospect, to conclude that NOT having a beard was a good idea.

Except that the images we were watching were of Usama and Omar and I was reading about Sikh elders getting attacked and the world had decided that a beard was really the marker of hate – but only on brown skin, naturally.

My younger brother grew a beard around 2006-7. He had a manicured kind long before, but then he began a proper Sunnah beard – emulating the Prophet. Long, uncut, with little hair on the mustache. My father as well. I love their beards – they represent faith, devotion, a sense of commitment to their ethical and moral lives.

My own adventures in hirsuteness came from laziness. I was not a fan of the daily shave, preferring the shadow. Either way, there was not much stock in my facial hair pot – it represented nothing, I believed.

But my clean shave on the eve of flying did make a representative gesture and maybe even an identitarian one, as well. I did because I wanted no “trouble” at the border. I wanted to see my loved ones and reach my destinations. It was a small thing to do.

Ten years later, the small thing was a grooved-in habit.

There is, of course, much to say about the last ten years and I feel that we all should. There is every reason to think back, willfully and in full light of history, about what we lived through, enabled and participated in. The wars, the killings are but one aspect of our global re-ordering. When I say “we”, I ought to qualify it by saying Americans or Iraqis or Afghans or Pakistanis or Muslims or whatever else. I will not do that. I read some of the fiction that came out after 9/11 when I was writing this piece and I remember a discussion (phone, was it?) with my editor Jonathan Shainin (who wrote this must-read tracing Updike’s post 9/11 novel) about pointillism or minutiae in the American gaze on 9/11. I remember, if I can recreate my own thoughts, being very adamant that this microscopic examination was another form of refusal by the American imagination to look up and out, to refuse to be historical and global.

I will probably still make that argument. Perhaps with more qualifiers, though.

In the meantime, I want to look at my own minutiae.


I have a new piece up at The National, Pakistan: why the US must think outside the ‘military’ box:

A decade after the events of September 11, we continue to know little and understand even less of Pakistan. This despite the fact that we are entering a golden age of production of knowledge on that same nation. But there is a critical distance between knowledge and understanding.

“They understand that they must not understand,” commented Robert d’Humières on British imperial troops back from the fronts of Africa and Asia in 1905. The British soldier, he mused, was wary of bad analysis, of ill-perceived contexts – best to act; best to focus on ways to act. Rudyard Kipling, the prominent commentator on all things imperial before and after the beginning of the 20th century, agreed with d’Humières (he was Kipling’s French translator) and wrote that “to understand everything may be to pardon everything, but it also means to commit ­everything”.

There is a flexibility of action and intention that is possible only in the lack of knowledge. To understand fully is to be constricted, imperially speaking. The empire must not understand for that understanding carries with it a price that is simply too dear. Therein lies the distance between knowledge and understanding at the core of all imperial ventures. Knowledge is created, in heaps and mounds, by the empire – this is clear. However, understanding is something quite different.

Kipling’s warning is apt – if the empire understands the position of the colony, the condition of colonialism itself, it cannot maintain any lie about either its civilising mission nor its emancipatory one. Hence, the must of d’Humières. Understanding Pakistan requires an empathetic move that remains outside the bounds of knowledge production by the empire.

This concluding para came courtesy of my dearest Babu who sent me the d’Humières quote. I abused it myself, however. Would love to hear your thoughts.

I think that my last three pieces have really been all about the same thing: knowing/understanding. Read all! or buy my book!

The Goat-Spy Diaries – Black Nipple


A Spy called Jassasa

Click on Page 1 to read the diary from the beginning

Page the FourthIn which one-half of the face of metropolitan evil is presented to Jassasa who makes small talk and a funny discovery

AS I WAS led up the narrow staircase and into the presence of the gang leader, I was already working out the agenda for the meeting in my mind. Master and I were the principal condiments of the jarred Apocalypse pickle. The canned pictogram was a new spice that had sped up the pickling process but carried unknown consequences for flavour and taste. On my part, I did not have any regrets about leaving the island early, but let us not forget that I was duped into it through artificial means. The diplomatic protocol was breached moreover, by the verbal excesses of 2-in-1 Eye. I had been had twice and was determined that anyone reaching for a third helping of me should get the full Jassasa.

I worked myself up in preparation for my meeting to which I was accompanied by 2-in-1 Eye and Panni-Pack.

2-in-1 rapped once at the door and we were in the gangster’s den.

I have since gone through the standard texts and all the iconic movies on gangsters, their psychology, and their universe, but I have nowhere come across the heavy ether and petulant gloominess that enwrapped Black Nipple. A man in his late thirties, bald-pated and clean-shaved, he was someone on whom a cultivated air of self -importance sat uneasily with a deep sense of personal inadequacy.

2-in-1 Eye went and stood behind his chair. Panni-Pack remained by my side.

“Jassasa! Jassasa! Welcome to the City of Lights!” Black Nipple raised a hand heavily adorned with rings from the table and took a sip from the cup he was holding in his other hand. I noticed approvingly the large bottle of single malt standing on his desk.

He had not gotten up to greet me. That called for heavy negative marking on the spot. I answered his greeting with all the dignity it merited, by showing him some teeth. It bothered him a little because he quickly turned his gaze into his cup. I could see that it bothered 2-in-1 Eye a whole lot more.

“And an advance welcome to your Master, the great Dajjal!” Black Nipple continued as he took another sip.

Quick-pacing a conversation is a game at which two can play. I now thought it prudent to set him straight.

“Master has sent you a message!” I said.

“A message? For me?” Black Nipple leaned forward then looked up at 2-in-1 who seemed confused.

“Master says, Fuck you!”

I don’t remember if I have mentioned anywhere in these pages that I am very good at playing it by the ear.

Everything moved rather quickly after that, what with 2-in-1 reaching for something nesting in his butt cleavage, my shouting, “Leash your bitch, Nipple!” and the latter raising an arm to restrain 2-in-1, and just as things were stabilizing, a foamy gob of spit flying from my mouth and audibly landing onto Black Nipple’s glass-topped desk.

“That’s hello from me!” said I.

Crimson in the face, Black Nipple rose from his desk with such urgency and violence that it knocked down his cup from the table, spilling all the good single malt.

I used the occasion to raise my right rear hoof and leisurely scratch behind my right ear and under the chin. From the corner of my eye I noticed Panni-Pack staring at me rather oddly. But I was pensive. I had just noticed a rather large paper bag on the chair before me writ with the words Chairman Mao. The Chinese were also involved?

I was feeling tired, and stepping forward I pulled out a chair and heavily threw myself onto it.

After rolling his eyes sideways sullenly, Black Nipple turned them upon me.

“I’m also very sorry for the misunderstanding!” I said earnestly.

Black Nipple lowered his eyes, looked up to exchange a quick glance with Panni-Pack standing behind me, and then his still crimson face broke into a diabolic smile. An economic laugh later he entered with, “What a fucking country!”

It would have been premature to make comment. I kept my quiet.

“Clean up this mess,” Black Nipple turned toward 2-in-1 Eye. “And pour me and buddy Jassasa here a drink. Show some respect to our guest!”

That was a nice touch. Black Nipple had realised that 2-in-1 Eye had now entered into my bad graces. To please me he wished to humiliate his minion by making him clean up the mess when he could have as easily asked Panni-Pack to do it. That would conveniently put him in his place.

“Thank you,” I said as I received my drink from 2-in-1 Eye. He avoided my gaze. I heard Panni-Pack chuckle.

“Now leave us, we’ll have a nice chat together,” Black Nipple said.

I guess the “sizing up” ceremony was over and I had been found of full measure.

Black Nipple was reaching for the Chairman Mao bag. It turned out to be food. I then remembered Master reading me some received wisdom about the way to a man’s heart passing through his big intestine. Or was it the small intestine? Either way, this Chairman Mao knew it and was trying to get to his man. I must look him up one of these days.

“Cheers!” Black Nipple said.

“Cheers!” I said, and took a sip.

Now I know my single malt. Both Master and I have a hard time keeping off it, and we have tapered off our excesses with the bottle after great struggle and mutual bonding. Thanks to the small dramas weekly enacted in the sea between the coast guards and the smugglers, we have often had occasion to fish out with Master’s long pole crates of the very best waters thrown overboard by the smugglers, and floating in the big saline in styrofoam packs, before they can return to collect them.

I can swear on my testicles that Black Nipple, this man who was supposed to be pulling the strings of Karachi underground puppet theater, was not drinking it. A city where even gangster lords do not know the difference between A-grade stuff and swill must be really something. Black Nipple had got something right after all. What a fucking country!

Page 5 (coming soon)