In and out of Kingdoms

[A guest post by Tipu Sultan]

Once, I Was An Oil Drop

I was taught that oil was the most glorious thing that had ever happened to humankind.

My first memory of this education was at age six. I was inducted into the girl-scouts, along with some of the other girls in the corporate-garrison town-city of Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, where I grew up. We were made to dress up as oil drops for the annual Saudi ARAMCO Day Parade. Who dresses six-year-old girls in large black plastic garbage bags to be paraded around for two hours, in over a hundred degrees of heat? That is some serious love of the Company. As the mothers effusively took our photographs, beads of sweat coagulated between the thick, dark plastic, and my skin. I wasn’t just dressed up as an oil drop—I was turning into one. We all felt hot, suffocated, and sticky. But the adults had decided that we looked too adorable dressed up as oil drops. For what felt like forever, we walked all around Dhahran in single file, and were rewarded for our efforts afterwards with soft drinks and chocolate-chip covered cake. The great love for the Rumplestiltskin-like benefactor who spun oil into dollars, had transformed otherwise cautious adults who would keep kids away from wearing plastic bags, into oil-besotted tyrants. Oil was anthropomorphized in that moment. We were made to experience the ‘life’ of an oil drop.
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“Everyone’s Got Their Indian” – II: Entanglements

[Editor’s note: This is the first part of M. Neelika Jayawardane‘s two-part essay on South African Desis. A longer version of this essay appeared in Transition 107]

In my return to Southern Africa as an adult, I was delighted to find a space in which “Indianness” was engaged in a different conversation. It was only then, almost twenty years after I first left, that I realised that it is possible to renegotiate a relationship with a place that had little patience for the nuances of difference. But that interstice—where confluences between seemingly vastly different bodies could take place—wasn’t found on the front pages and the blaring headlines. Just by the pervasiveness of samosas along the eateries of Cape Town and the interior of the Western Cape, for instance, one knows that there had to have been Indians in these quarters for much longer than the nouveau-riches that make the front page. We don’t know exactly how the famous fried savory pastry got to Cape Town, but it’s firmly ensconced there.

But one does not have to rely on taste alone to see the hallmarks of India all over the Cape. The cobblestoned streets that line the hill of the Bo-Kaap, a historical neighbourhood built by those transported forcibly from Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and parts of India – the locations in which the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (the Dutch East India Company) carried out “colonial activities,” empowered by the 21-year monopoly granted by the States-General of the Netherlands in 1602 –are swirling with signs of the Indian Ocean. I recognise one person’s sidelong shy smile, the hairline on another, and the disgusted curl on the lips of a street-hawker, spitting unhappily as a deal goes awry. These embodied connections, as old as the slave ships that brought people from that region, reach back to 1654.


Continue reading ““Everyone’s Got Their Indian” – II: Entanglements”

“Everyone’s Got Their Indian” – I: Separations

[editor’s note: This is the first part of M. Neelika Jayawardane‘s two-part essay on South African Desis. A longer version of this essay appeared in Transition 107. Our sincere thanks to her for allowing CM to host it.]

As a child growing up within Southern Africa’s socio-political landscape, I found no easy, seamless fitting in. South Asians were always Indians in Africa, and Africa’s encounter with Indians didn’t teach them about the beauties and wonders my own father had encountered there: his stories about his student days in India were littered with nostalgia for the seven temples of Mahabalipuram crumbling into the Indian Ocean, and the fineness of silk saris that could be threaded through the eye of a needle; he conjured up Calcutta as the beloved seat of Indian literary knowledge and classical music, and the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu as Sri Lanka’s once-conjoined siblings, separated by the imprecise surgery of oceanic waters.

I remember that our small Sri Lankan community in Zambia did everything they could to differentiate themselves from Indians in Africa. But for all practical purposes, no one on the continent (or anywhere else, for that matter) could see any difference. We corrected those who mistakenly misidentified us. We listed and elaborated upon our differences from Indians. But our attempts to separate ourselves from Indian barbarity were to no avail: for Africans, India remained a broken nation. And Indians in Africa were the shop-keeping, corner-crisps-shop-running, trader-cum-smuggler-cum-briber, arse-kissing, yes-no-head-lolling-and-“r”-rolling, expel-from-your-African-nation-Asians. Africans thought of Indians in much the same way as much of the world thought of India and Indians back then: dusty, diseased, starved, overpopulated.


Continue reading ““Everyone’s Got Their Indian” – I: Separations”

The Journey of Everywoman

I. Years ago, while writing my dissertation, I stepped out one evening to one of those enormous drug stores that are open all night in cities. I browsed idly among the nail colors, wondering if I should consider adding layers of glitter to my already elaborate manicure. The aisles of women’s products were full of women browsing and wondering such things. Over the loudspeaker the music changed from one anodyne pop hit to another, until all at once Whitney Houston’s voice slid into the audioscape, then erupted into her super hit “I Will Always Love You.” The women began to hum, and then to sing, softly, as they gently cradled canisters of hairspray in their hands. And then they sang, loudly; we sang loudly, unashamedly: “I will always love youuuuuuuu!” And I thought, “Yes. Yes, I can go with glitter. Yes, I will do blue. Yes. Yes. Yes.”

II. In her memoir of her time as a sex slave to Osama bin Laden during his playboy phase, Kola Boof, a Sudanese poet, wrote that bin Laden was in love with Whitney Houston. It was his fantasy that he would give her a mansion he owned in Khartoum and take her as one of his wives. And he would order a hit on Bobby Brown. If only he had. If only he had shown that same sticktoitiveness he showed later in life, he could have helped Americans avoid a national tragedy.

III. An essay eulogizing Whitney Houston from India compares her tragic tale to that of Choti Bahu (played by Meena Kumari) in the Guru Dutt film Sahib, Bibi aur Ghulam. Choti Bahu wants to attract the attention of her husband, who ignores her each night in favor of the courtesans that entertain him and drink with him. She takes up drink herself. The plan backfires and she becomes a sad drunk, spurned yet again by her cruel husband.

Whitney did it all for Bobby too, argues Lakshmi Chaudhry, quoting an Oprah interview in which Houston said:

He was my drug. I didn’t do anything without him. I wasn’t getting high by myself. It was me and him together. You know, we were partners. And that’s what my high was. Him. He and I being together. And whatever we did, we did together. No matter what, we did it together.

“Because you were his wife.” Responds Oprah. “Yes,” she replied, “Yes. And he was my husband.”

IV. In 2003, Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown made a visit to Israel on the invitation of the Black Hebrew Israelites. In all the photographs of the trip, Houston looks skinny and unkempt. The trip involved a spiritual dip in the Jordan River near the Sea of Galilee. Brown and Houston, both wearing red dashikis, also met with then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. When Sharon held out his hand to shake hers, Houston looked visibly uneasy and made Brown shake his hand in her stead.

V. When Whitney Houston died in her bathtub, I tried to block out the sordid image with thoughts of Pre-Raphaelite Ophelia, floating peacefully among the flowers. Numerous articles and blog posts explored the depressing details of the life of a drug addict. This one even discussed, from first-hand knowledge, the unsurprisingness of a celebrity drug addict dying in her bathtub:

So while stars are infamous for their hard partying, their dizzying downward spirals, their headline-making binges, but the truth is, when they use most heavily and subsequently die, it’s usually in their most private places, where they can relax, be in quiet, and don’t have to appear functional to the outside world.

Much more rare are the overdoses out in the world of the living, like River Phoenix’s in front of the Viper Room many years ago. After beds (recently these deaths include Anna Nicole Smith, Heath Ledger, Casey Johnson, Michael Jackson), it seems that bathtubs are where drug abusers die.

I tried to blot the image out again by painting it but could not. I meditate instead upon the famous painting by John Everett Millais, a postcard of which my mother hung next to the bathtub in the house where I grew up.

The Fantastical Nature of Our Times

CM friend, Neelika Jayawardane, reviewed Lapata’s The Little Book of Terror for Africa is a Country.

Rather than fall into the sort of pop-psychology that claims to sort out why the children of the well-off (Osama bin-Laden included) may find “radicalism” attractive, Daisy Rockwell’s “cheeky little volume” of paintings and minimalist essays, The Little Book of Terror, offers a series of “big-name, international rogues” as well as the small fry caught in a big net. But, as Sepia Mutiny reports, “the feeling of uneasiness comes not from these over-chronicled villain archetypes whose images we’ve all seen scattered over televisions a hundred times over.” Instead, that unease comes from the realization that “The State is…a makeup artist,” as Amitava Kumar writes in the introduction to the book: the theatre surrounding “the bad guys” portray the accused as the “shabbiest” of actors with the “worst lines.” But beyond the re-plays repeated on CNN, we also see that the State is skilled “at presenting us with people who come to us stripped of any sign of place or past”: this way, we only see terrorists and terror without a contextualising history.

Rockwell works from some of those highly publicised photographs for many of her paintings, giving the captured people a depth that photography and the State’s vision of them often robs. She writes, in an email correspondence, “I have been interested in Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab for some time. Looking through photos of him on the internet, it was almost hard to pick which one to work with because he looks kind of sad and lost in all of them.” Her fauve painter’s techniques capture the “ordinary teen” who sported jeans and T-shirts, track suits, headphones, and rode a red-and-blue motorbike too fast sometimes. Her painting also reveals a significant moment in the life of a young man: he has found himself in a location where, perhaps, his limited understanding of subjectivity intersects with power structures that had over-determined the fortunes of vast swathes of humanity. It is far more than he is ready to face. Here, in this photograph, Rockwell points out, “he seemed excited to model his new Nike hat, and perhaps excited to be in London.” In a way, he had too much understanding, but little wisdom or equanimity. “I felt like that interaction with Empire might have somehow informed his eventual decision to attempt to make himself into a human bomb.”

Read the full piece here.

Phillygrrl’s Q&A with Lapata at CM rival-friend, Sepia Mutiny:

 In her portrait of Alessa, Rockwell depicts him in bubble-gum pink tones, prone on a floral bedspread, cuddling with his beloved cat, Princess Tuna. Unsettling. The narrative of terror that we often see seldom contains photos of wannabe terrorists cuddling with their kitty cats, or of the underwear bomber as a sullen teenager, posing during a school trip.

CNN Outfrontblog: Her grandpa painted Amrikans, and OMFG, she paints terrorists!!!!!!

Read, Think, Burn (repeat as necessary)

My review of Habibi is out in The Sunday Guardian today. It was originally longer. The full piece is below:

I. Hating Art
I have hated many pieces of art in my life. An Italian restaurant I used to go to was decorated with enormous abstract oil paintings. The paintings were so aggressively bad they made me feel physically ill. But the food at the restaurant was good, and we always ended up trying to find seating that placed me facing away from the walls with a view of the street. It’s easy to hate art. Growing up in a family of artists, hating, and loving, works of art was a preoccupation. I fully understand hating art for aesthetic reasons, but I’ve always had trouble understanding taking offense at art for religious or moral reasons.

A number of years ago, in an attempt to understand the question of political and religious offense at art, I designed and taught a course in South Asian literature called Art that Offends. I chose for the syllabus texts that had at one time or another become the focus of controversy with charges of obscenity or blasphemy. Most notable among these was The Satanic Verses. The university where I taught attracted families from religiously conservative backgrounds with a promise to ‘strengthen faith’ in students (rather than to proselytize the Catholic faith of the institution). There were several students in my class from conservative Muslim backgrounds. As we began to read The Satanic Verses, some of these students approached me outside of class and told me that members of their families had advised them not to read the book due to its blasphemous content. Having ascertained that none of these relatives had read the book, I asked the students to consider reading it for themselves and then deciding whether or not it was blasphemous. I assured them that they were free to decide whatever they wished and I would not grade them on the basis of their assessment, but rather on their participation and completion of assignments.

The students were required to keep a journal throughout the class and to hand it in once a week. Since The Satanic Verses is long, it took us some time to get through it. Over the period of weeks that we read the text, I noted with interest the reactions of the students who had worried about reading it. The reactions of one girl in particular stood out. A Pakistani American, she was enthralled with Rushdie’s writing style and expressed pride that one of her people could write so cleverly and skillfully. Nevertheless, she did decide by the end that the book was, if not blasphemous, at least willfully offensive with respect to the sections portraying a brothel populated by prostitutes equal in number to the wives of Mohammed and bearing the same names as his wives.

For a final project, that student, and another Pakistani American friend of hers in the class, wrote up an indictment of Rushdie that they read to the class. They had also filmed themselves arguing with a liberal Muslim friend about what punishment he deserved. In the film they resolved to burn a photograph of Rushdie, which they then did, in the bathroom of their apartment. Some students in the class were horrified by the presentation, as have been friends and colleagues when I have told them the story. Yet the tone of the video was playful and exuberant.

I have always prized the memory of that class, feeling that those students took away the valuable lesson that they must determine for themselves what offends them and what does not. They loved the book, and yet, they wanted to burn it. Until recently, I have never been able to fully understand this tension, this desire to burn a work of art that one admires.

II. Orientalism Rides Again
There have been many works of fiction and writing that have sought to dig into the territory of the post-9/11 zeitgeist over the past ten years. One of the most recent is Habibi, a 600+ page graphic novel by artist Craig Thompson. Habibi is a book I really wanted to love. Thompson, who previously wrote and illustrated the insipid (and award-winning) autobiographical graphic novel Blankets, has said that Habibi was born of a desire to learn more about Islam and the Muslim world after the intense negativity leveled toward both in the US following the 2001 attacks. He spent seven years on the book, which he richly illustrated with Islamicate patterns and designs and a fair amount of Arabic calligraphy. The binding makes it look remarkably similar to a holy book, and numerous stories from the Quran are included in the text. In interviews, Thompson has said that he wanted to embrace what was positive about Islam and the Middle East to counteract prevailing narratives of terror and violence. He describes how he then proceeded to ‘embrace Orientalism’ (his words) and immerse himself in both a study of Islam and ‘traditional’ tales such as the 1001 Nights.

His construction of what it might mean to embrace Orientalism does not appear to have included any study of the works of Edward Said, and seems to be predicated entirely on studying Orientalist art and literature, which he believes should be considered positive aesthetic depictions of the Arab world and Islam. Both in terms of the narrative and the drawing, Thompson heavily references Orientalist painting and storytelling. The results are visually lovely, but highly problematic in terms of the storyline, which follows an odd quasi-sexual relationship between a child-bride turned courtesan named Dodola, and a slave-child turned eunuch, Cham, whom she adopts. These two inhabit a non-specific Middle Eastern country in the modern era that most of the time resembles the sort of kingdom one would find in the Arabian Nights. In this kingdom, there is a sultan with a harem, and eunuchs to guard the courtesans. Odalisques recline on divans smoking hookahs, and a dwarf marches about the geometric gardens chatting with the castrati. As if this weren’t enough, Dodola is subjected to a seemingly endless stream of sexual violence. The only positive character in her life, her adoptive son, Cham, actually volunteers to have himself castrated out of his shame for his desire for her. In the end, they fall in love, and adopt another slave child together.

Thompson’s infatuation with Orientalism, and his preoccupation with the use and abuse of highly sexualized heroine combine to produce the opposite effect to what he claims he had in mind. The Orientalist tropes are deployed in a non-ironic fashion and are not updated in any way, save for the fact that they are eventually welded to current stereotypes about the Middle East, as the characters move outside the Sultan’s palace and make their way through the corrupt, filthy and immoral universe of a generic modern day Middle Eastern city. When asked to defend his use of Orientalism, Thompson has said that it should be seen as a fantasy genre that can be referenced without replicating the racism of the original Orientalism, like ‘cowboys and Indians,’ he explained. As for the rape, prostitution and all manner of misogynistic depictions of women in the book, well, these have long been the stuff of comic books and graphic novels without the help of Orientalism, and undoubtedly Thompson’s influences came from that direction as well.

The fusion of Orientalist tropes and misogyny has a special place in the landscape of post-9/11 rhetoric, however. Susan Faludi, in her book on sexism in post-9/11 America, The Terror Dream, has rightly pointed out that the plight of women in the Middle East and Afghanistan became a sudden cause célèbre in the Bush administration. The co-opting of feminist rhetoric was a useful tool for winning over liberals to the plan to invade Afghanistan in particular. The Americans were not just going to invade another country; they were going to liberate women brutally oppressed by the Taliban. This message was elided with the rhetoric of the Iraq invasion as well, despite the fact that women’s rights have reportedly been set back substantially since the Americans landed there, and despite the fact that women enjoy very few rights in the countries of some of America’s closest allies in the Middle East, such as Saudi Arabia. Faludi rightly highlights the knight-in-shining-armor rhetoric deployed by the Bush administration to frame its role in the Middle East as one concerned with rescuing women. Thompson’s statements about his aim in creating Habibi, that he wanted to create a positive image of Islam and Muslims, mirrors this rescue-mission rhetoric. He then enacts a rescue mission through the creation of the book, creating a helpless and victimized woman and then rescuing her from her fate. Of course, the rescue itself is bizarre: to escape a life of rape and exploitation, she must be saved by a man who desires her sexually but is unable to have intercourse with her. Oh, and he’s sort of her son.

The question of how much one can describe or illustrate sexual violence against women before crossing the line from realism into voyeurism is the subject of much heated debate. But here’s a useful yardstick: if you illustrate it once, maybe you are informing your audience about a problem. If you illustrate it twice, or five or ten times, you are reproducing it for the salacious enjoyment of your viewers. Thompson illustrates sexual violence against his heroine at every possible opportunity, and his lavish and ornate drawings make each incident unforgettable. Interspersing the narrative with detailed stories from the Quran and the Hadith of the Prophet does not make the voyeurism go away.

When I had finished reading Habibi, I thought, well, it’s Orientalist, it’s misogynist, but damn, he learned how to write Arabic calligraphy well. I admit I was even a little jealous. I decided to find out how much Arabic he had studied. To my surprise, I discovered from reports of people who had seen Thompson read and discuss his work, that though he had learned the basics of the alphabet, the intricate calligraphy in the book was all traced from outside sources. As an artist, I found this very difficult to understand. If the work took seven years, and if he learned the alphabet, wouldn’t he want to try his hand at creating his own calligraphic designs? Wouldn’t he want to learn more Arabic? But this is simply one more example of the shallowness that undergirds the entire work: a laudable impulse to learn more, to reverse prejudice, was followed by a lazy embrace of Burton over Said, of voyeurism over empowerment, and tracing over writing. Habibi is a beautiful book and a terrible book. I am grateful for how much it has offended me. I could almost burn it.