On March 21, 2012, Shaima Alawadi, a 32-year-old Iraqi woman, was fatally beaten with a tire iron in Southern California. A note found near her said, “This is my country. Go back to yours, terrorist.” The investigators asserted that it was an isolated incident and that other Iraqis need not worry. Lumping disparate peoples into threats and describing violence against them as “isolated incidents” works in tandem. The former justifies sustained violence and the latter diverts our attention from the systemic nature of this violence. What we see instead are exceptional events — “isolated incidents” of violence suspended outside the broader societal context and exigencies of the national security state. We don’t see them as the latest in a long chain of violence on a particular group of people or an episode in the nation’s deep history of violence and dispossession.
Alia Malek’s work of oral history, Patriot Acts: Narratives of Post-9/11 Injustice, gives the lie to the frame — isolated incident — that holds within it the image of the idyllic American society as it effaces its systematic injustices. By including the violated as victims of isolated crimes, this frame excludes the chorus of their voices. It shuts out the stories of unrelenting violence: of racial terrors such as beatings and violent deaths; of legal terrors such as incarcerations, detentions, and deportations; of routine, everyday violence such as bullying at school, employment discrimination, travelling made arduous, racist jibes and sneers. In Malek’s words, “the personal stories and lived experiences of these realities remain excluded from the general understanding of the American experience, as well as the mainstream narrative about 9/11 and the War on Terror.” In Patriot Acts that chorus pushes at the constricting margins of the frame and enables us to see the lives damaged and the families shattered by America’s domestic war on terror.
Here is how I introduced Jahangir earlier:
I walk down towards the rooms – there is an old man, in white wife-beater, a dhoti, and two fistfuls of shockingly white beard. He is sitting in front of a canvas on which is a bucolic village scene with a tube-well and a date palm. He looks up, and smiles, and kinda springs off the chair. He is wearing hipster glasses and he has only one tooth in his mouth, which is stained with nicotine or with paan.
I spoke with reporter Rabia Mehmood, and she followed up and produced a wonderful video-essay that I urge all to see, since my words could not do justice to his colors.
The christian colony, the milk colony, the officers colony, the even more ridiculously named murghi-khana (hen coop) neighborhood, all packed together, surrounded by acres upon acres of open spaces teeming with puchal parei, churail, jinn, chalawa.1
*I should note that this will be the last in the series. I needed to begin a writing project and some basic things had to be worked out – my voice, my archive, my approach. What you read is some of what I am playing around with. I would appreciate any comments you have and I think the rest you will see in print in the future. Thank you. The complete series: I, II, III, IV, V, VI. Next up, Berlin.———
- In Rang Mahal, under the Gold-worker’s bazaar, is a rib-crackingly tight alley that meanders for half a street and abruptly runs into a house. Off to the right, there are high steps which take you to a green door. Inside that door, used to sit an old man, hair white, wearing a small smile and cradling in his big hands, beads. I see him every sunday morning. My grandmother, my uncles, or my mother accompany me. To him, our family, is betrothed. One day, my grandfather tells me of meeting him early in his Lahore life, in the mid-40s. He repairs shoes for a living, and a tall man brings him fruits from Srinagar. Fruits that were out of season. That man, grandfather says, was a jinn and he was one his murids. I note this down. Jinns, in my world, bring you fruits.
Many years forward, and I begin to want to write about Lahore again. I am composing a piece on the spiritual landscape of Lahore, and I want to talk about Rang Mahal, but from there, I want to talk about Data Darbar, LUMS and GCC and Chowburgi and whatnot. The idea is to trace some notion of sanctity, sacrality and landscape cutting across time in Lahore. I am taking notes, and talking to people. I join a sufi halqa which is reading the medieval Sufi text written in Lahore, Kashf al-Mahjub. I see a wide swath of Lahore – men with grease permanently etched in their folds, emergency room doctors, writers and businessmen, very young and very old, and the military man who cannot bend his back.
He is in pain. His AD rushes to the side of the Sufi Master and whispers urgently that for the last few months, this very-high-ranking-officer has not been able to sit down or stand up without help. The Sufi Master gestures him over. I am seated by the column of the hall and I can hear them talk. I take notes. Next to me, is a 18 year old, rocking on his buttocks in a rather frenzied pace. I am slightly distracted by him. He sees me looking and smiles. I will have a muwakkil soon! I nod. Then the question forms in my head. Um, What will you do with a muwakkil? He shakes his head and goes back to his incantation. I scribble in my notebook: Man wants Jinn.
The Sufi Master calls me over. The stiff military man stiffens. I scoot nearer, keeping a respectful distance from the brass. TSM places his hand on the Brass’ chest and exhales. The man melts. He is carried away. TSM calls the young reciter. He has memorized the Qs. I have very little idea of what the Qs are but, keeping to my ethnographic practice, I nod. The young reciter, with a flow that MC Ren would envy, raps out a string of words and phrases all beginning with the letter ق. He exhales after a solid 2 minutes. I am visibly impressed and TSM smiles. Tell us what and where do you perform this incantation?
I am at Ravi two hours after ‘Isha; have to work until 5pm at the mechanic’s shop. You know it has been hard since my father died and I am the only one who can earn – I am determined that the younger brother will stay in school. I take him to school myself. Not even trusting the van wallahs. And then it is mechanicay until 5. It is tiring, hazoor, but I never stop the recitation. All day. I am focused on my work and on reciting. Malik is very happy with me. His old hand was always stealing the drained oil and selling it off at the corner but I have not stolen a pint. He likes me. They do cuss a lot and I am always keeping pure so sometimes, it makes him cuss me more because I won’t cuss. Yet, he respects my riazat. Once I get to Ravi, I sit there, by the water for two whole hours, as you instructed. Huzoor, they take the form of dogs and attack me. Vicious things. But I keep my focus. It has been 30 days. 10 more to go. I am never afraid because I know you will protect me. I have now seen the muwakkil twice. He scared me so. So. But I persist. I work hard.
TSM looks over him and blesses him. I venture a rare question. What will you do with a Jinn, who is beholden to you? He looks bewildered. I will have a powerful being under my control!
Stretched across Lahore are stories of invisible beings and visible non-beings. My uncles often tell many. They like to tell stories, full of both bravado and menace. There was the one about the newly-wed bride seen alone by the roadside, whose touch rendered flesh cold and dead. There was the one about a kid goat who seemed lost and was picked up, only to develop a severe case of leg drag (they elongated to ten feet). There was the one about the undead mother looking to steal the young. And then, the love stories.
What do I make of this landscape of Lahore? There is a mosque in GaRhi Shaho where Qur’an is recited all day but no one can be seen. There is the tree in Miani Cemetery which blooms red flowers that smell of blood. There is the alley that, after dark, refuses passage to non-residents. I have these spots mapped out. There are many more. I will keep writing them into the footnotes. [↩]
[A version of this essay was published in Counterpunch.]
During the run up to the invasion of Afghanistan, three burly American classmates jeered at me. They said, “We’re gonna kill Osama.” Presumably, I would be especially aggrieved at Osama’s death, since I am a Muslim, and therefore, an Osama sympathizer if not also a bomb-carrying terrorist. My classmates were full of assurance and triumphalist pride. They said: “We can hit even a coffee mug in a cave.” The cave stood for where I am from, the enemy territory, the blank space on the map, the primitive place that lacked modernity. I couldn’t stop myself from asking how they would know which cave to hit. They said: “If you can bring down the whole mountain, you don’t have to know which cave to hit.” This is how the empire reveals its darkness: behind the fantasy of technological dominance lies a world of complete violence.
The capacity to do violence allows the powerful to exercise the privilege of what Gayatri Spivak has called “sanctioned ignorance.” To put it more crudely, if you have enormous power you have the right to be stupid. Since the powerful can command and punish, they do not need to do the interpretive work of understanding. Moreover, power is incapable of recognizing its own violence. It maintains a self-image of a benign, civilizing force. This violence is seen as delivering justice, a burdensome necessity to counter the perils and terrors of places far away, places imagined as lying at the fault line between civilization and barbarism. It is this willed ignorance that historian Manan Ahmed brings into focus in his book, Where the Wild Frontiers Are: Pakistan and the American Imagination, a curated collection of his blogposts and published essays. Continue reading “Archive Remix II: Empire’s Ways of Knowing”