In Golden Hues

Musharraf Ali Farooqi’s Between Clay and Dust is microscopic examination of a mood. The mood is nostalgia or if that word evokes more negative connotations, wistfulness.

Then Ustad Ramzi’s attention wandered away. He could not tell how long his mind was blank. When he regained his attention, Gohar Jan was saying:
‘A girl’s face is the only memory I have of our family. She may have been my sister, younger than myself, for I remember her following me around the house. I don’t know if my father was around, but I can feel the presence of my mother. It surprises me sometimes that I do not recall her features. My sister’s face is all I remember. I wonder if she remembers me still. It is a harsh sentence to know that somewhere, someone who was a part of you and whom you will never see, perhaps still lives. The thought has not left me since the day I was separated from my family. (p. 183)

The novel largely comprises the story of two men – Ustad Ramzi and his younger brother Tamami – who are wrestlers in an un-named north Indian city in the immediate aftermath of Partition. Gohar Jan, a singer and courtesan, is the third protagonist – though her sketches are limited.

The novel is about ruin. One part of this ruin is about a place (the falling roof of Gohar Jan’s ‘kotha’), another about the body (Ustad Ramzi’s knees, Gohar Jan’s voice) and more about practice (wrestling or singing): “She thought about the furrowed faces of old tawaifs sitting idly in their dark kothas waiting for their lives to end” (p. 75). But ruin is also a process affecting the novel, and remembering it.

Many years have passed since G. E. von Grunebaum examined early Arabic poetry and concluded that nostalgia for the lost place and contemplation of the deserted was a central motif of the literary register – and along with it, a discussion of ruins. Here, in the mid eleventh century, the poet discusses the ruins of al-Andalus palace (Madīnat al-Zahrā): O Paradise such that the wind of separation has blasted it and its people so that both have been destroyed…/O dwelling place on which and on whose inhabitants the bird of separation has alighted so that they have decayed and have become unknown…/1 This motif of nostalgia remains a central literary trope and one can point to infinite examples – mostly resting on the cityscapes of Spain or the deserts of Najd.

The sack of Baghdad, the fall of cities in Iran, the many sacks of Delhi all contributed robustly to the poetic imagination and the heralding of times past and glories lost; but perhaps the greatest effluence came in the aftermath of 1857 and the end of the Mughal State in Delhi. In the latter half of nineteenth century, in the hands of stylists such as Sharar, Shibli and Azad – the Perso-Urdu ashraf class – the lament for the past reached its apex. Sharar’s Guzishta Lucknow (Past Lucknow), written between 1910-20, being one exemplar. Sharar’s register is the detached, passive voice, tinged with both sorrow and pleasure, as it describes the rich ethnographic and social detail of Lucknow’s past. The many novels, memoirs, literary histories produced around sites such as Delhi, Lahore, or Lucknow or about personages attached to ghazal or nawabi created a rich imaginative tapestry into which any reader, and most writers, could breathlessly place their own particular nostalgia.

Ruin is, of course, the present state of nostalgia. Partition created its own epistemic ruin across northern and eastern India. A great many memoirs written after 1947 dealt with cities before Partition or lives interrupted by its violence participated as well in the function of nostalgia. The discussions of lost Lucknow or Delhi or Lahore were always discussion of lacks and lags in the present of Lucknow or Lahore. What is notable is that these productions were not concerned with anything outside of the literary register – since nostalgia works precisely on freezing time, it cannot show change except as a discontinuity or disruption.

Nostalgia is also a claim on the future. It argues against the present to push a possible return (the hipsters call it ‘retro’) to the golden age. This act of standing outside of time, to contemplate the past and make an argument for the future, is also a political act. The politics of nostalgia, however, is the least remarked upon aspect in the voluminous work on the practice and procedure of understanding memory. The detachment of the nostalgic gaze from the politics of the present is one aspect, but another is a comment on the politics of the present.

Farooqi’s nostalgia – in which the novel participates fully – is a comment on the present. Though Farooqi manages to freeze in his minuscule observation the destruction of presentist violence on the past, the past remains supra-real. While Farooqi’s triumph is in showing that the disruption is not without its own logic and that Ustad Ramzi is himself a ruin merely participating in nostalgia – the past is stripped from the weakened hands of Ustad Ramzi by the effort of his own vanity, his own blood, his own followers and his own town; the question remains, what does the novel bring to the discussion? How does one say anything new, or explain the present, while participating fully in a genre – this is a question that has bedeviled the likes of Rumi and Hafez, not to mention Mir Dard.

The small moments – such as the conversation between Gohar Jan and Maulvi Hidayatullah or Ustad Ramzi and Kabira – where Farooqi plays upon the ways in which the internal logic of the past is disrupted (not because of the arrival of the ‘new’ or the ‘army’) are the best bits in a novel for me.

There are also some discordant bits: the voice of the text is over-the-horizon omniscient (“The crowd silently witnessed the struggle without fully comprehending the situation”) and severely interior (“In that silence Tamami heard his heartbeat and Ustad Ramzi’s breathing which maintained a broken rhythm.”) in the same paragraph (p. 68). This causes some discomfort to the reader; as does the broadly passive construction which contributes an air of predestination to the happenings. “Powerful and conflicting emotions always made Tamami take the avenue of self-repraoch whenever he attempted to reflect on the events of that fateful day when Imama was felled by his hand” (p. 123). While I understand that language is itself a tool for telling of tales and Farooqi’s work as a translator of Urdu epics and a reader of Urdu canon is clearly the influence for his choice of writing voice, it lends the novel itself as an object for the subject it participates in.

Furthermore, the character of Gohar Jan remained to me unexplored – though Farooqi puts a lot in her limited appearances – and I wonder what happened to Malka. (This would be the Gender Question).

In that vein, the laudatory press on the novel seems, to me, functioning in ruinophilia as well. It lauds the novel precisely because the language, the tone, and the relationship to the real, allows the desi readers access to the long literary tradition of nostalgia without fully questioning the structural and plot choices of the novel.

The greatest strength of the novel is its razor-sharp focus while the background goes blurry. The quote I opened being one primary example, and perhaps a clear coda for the whole work. It is the pain of memory which also has to acknowledge its own fallibility in remembering.

  1. as cited in Julie Meisami’s Between Arabia and Al-Andalus: Nostalgia as an Arabic Poetic Genre” (2003) []

Islamophobia in the US

[A shorter version of this essay appeared in Dawn.]

Empires carve out and sustain their political and economic privilege with unrelenting violence, but, without a hint of irony, deem their mission moral and ethical, verging on the altruistic. A necessary counterpart to this blindness, is a paranoid fear of a dark, hostile world. Islamophobia serves these mutually reinforcing delusions, so pivotal to the American empire’s self-justification and erasure of its violence. In Islamophobia: The Ideological Campaign Against Muslims, Stephen Sheehi seeks to “historicize Islamophobia in its proper political context in order to flush out the fullness of its violence.” Sheehi examines Islamophobia as fear, derision, and/or hatred of Islam and Muslims, not as an individual prejudice, but as a socio-political reality instrumental in the control of domestic populations and projection of American power in the world. Specifically, Sheehi’s is a study of Islamophobia in the United States as an ideological phenomenon of the post-Cold-War “unipolar world.”

Sheehi demonstrates how entrenched Islamophobia is in the US public discourse across party lines and how it underpins the state’s domestic and foreign policy; how the naturalization of Islamophobia normalizes a crackdown on immigrants, civil liberties, dissent, and academic freedom at home; and how it justifies colonial wars abroad, complete with mass internment, torture, murder, and routine atrocities. To take stock of these diffuse effects of Islamophobia, Sheehi structures the book on a dual methodology: Islamophobia “on the level of thought, speech and perception; then [on] the material level of policies, violence and action.” The first level, the ideological edifice of Islamophobia, is constituted by “discursive archetypes taken in the form of two master-narratives,” or two “similar but competing paradigms:” one by historian Bernard Lewis, and the other by writer and media figure, Fareed Zakaria. The linchpin of these two “master-narratives” is the binary between Islam and the West, reproduced in many garbs, reiterating the old dichotomy between barbarism and civilization: Muslims and the United States, Islam and the West, Islam and modernity, Islam and democracy, Islam and human rights, ad infinitum. These stories are told through popular images, news, analyses, etc. and “function as ideological fulcrums” for state-discourses and policies. To understand these discursive archetypes, writes Sheehi, “is to understand the structured thought of the ideological justification of US policies.”

Having cheer-led  Islamic militancy as an effective anti-Communist strategy in the 1970’s, scholar-combatant, Bernard Lewis, whom Sheehi calls “the post-modern state-Islamophobe,” popularized the concept of the “Muslim Rage” in the 1990’s. Muslims, the theory goes, are “fundamentally trapped within specific limitations of their culture, which make modernity incongruent to the Muslim mind.” Thusly Lewis provided a rationale for American dominance through an explanation of Muslim grievances unsullied by the history of Western Imperialism, one that explained them away as stemming from their own cultural deficiencies and dismissed them as irrational hatred inherent to Muslims.

Fareed “Carefully Start Shooting” Zakaria, Sheehi’s other primary mark, shot to mainstream visibility immediately after 9/11 with a series of articles in the Newsweek starting with “Why They Hate Us.” If Lewis’ key to explain it all was the ahistoric “Muslim mind,” Fareed Zakaria’s is the Arab culture. Zakaria posits that the Arab world is caught between autocratic states and illiberal societies. The autocrats that America supports— like the Saudi regime— are more liberal, tolerant, and pluralistic than the Arab societies which, if allowed to have electoral democracy, will inevitably bring the Islamist bogeyman to power. The Arab masses, therefore, have themselves to blame for the autocracies that rule them with an iron fist: their failure to progress is a political and societal failure to master modernity. To bring these primitive societies into the modern world, Zakaria prescribes the therapies of privatization, trade and economic liberalization, and structural adjustment– in short, the invisible hand of free-markets backed by the iron fist of American military. Zakaria’s is an Islamophobia with a neoliberal twist, but his prescriptions of  pragmatic reform shift and change in lockstep with Washington, from Clinton-era neoliberalism to Bush’s “hard power” interventionism. And, as Sheehi deftly teases out Zakaria’s Islamophobic paradigms that haunt Obama’s Cairo Speech and Nobel Peace Prize Lecture, he shows that Zakaria has re-invented himself once more to tango with Obama’s “smart power” a.k.a empire with a smiley face. Continue reading Islamophobia in the US

First Terrorist: Review of Maia Ramnath’s Haj to Utopia

[Editor’s note: We thank Hussein Omar for contributing this essay. This review was commissioned by Bidoun for issue #27. We especially thank Bidoun for allowing us to run it. ]

by Hussein Omar

On the 15th of June, 1914, an obscure Egyptian newspaper based in Geneva printed a rousing call-to-arms:

To you, my fellow men and fellow Orientals, I address these few words of advice and appeal… The western races of the world… have made a religion of color. They fancy that all other races must serve them… Europe has subjugated India… she casts long eyes on other lands. She is slowly strangling Muslim Asia and Africa… Teach imperialist to stay at home and be happy, like the Swiss and the Scandinavious [sic], instead of roaming about the whole earth like wolves and hyenas… Read the history of European Nationalist movements in the 19th century. The Orient is destined to follow the same path in the twentieth century… Make common cause with all who are undermining and combating the British Empire.


Its author was a mysterious, and by all accounts brilliant, Indian student of Sanskrit at Oxford. He wore a dhoti and a homespun shirt that shocked his prim Edwardian professors. Just months before graduation, he bewildered them further by dropping out. He defended his decision in a letter condemning the English government and denouncing its presence in India as illegal. Disgusted by Europe, he moved to Algeria to live the life of an ascetic but soon found himself drawn to Waikiki Beach, in Hawaii. There, Japanese fishermen mistook him for a Buddhist sage, fed him, and awaited his teachings. Yet his mind was filled — though his disciples could not know it — not with the sermons of the Enlightened Prince, but with Kant, Hegel, and Marx.

The barefooted scholar’s name was Har Dayal. Sometime later, he reappeared in California, where he landed a teaching job at Stanford and joined an ashram of Sikh farmers, Berkeley students, and Hindu laborers. On a rickety press, he printed a small newspaper that would become a beacon not just for Indians, but for Persians, Turks, Russians, Egyptians and Irishmen the world over. He called it Ghadar, “Mutiny.” Its aims, inscribed on the page by an amateurish lithographer, were unapologetic:

Pay: death! ; Price: martyrdom! ; Pension: liberty! ; Field of battle: India!

On any day in 1914 or 1915, at the height of the newspaper’s circulation, you could pick up a copy, if you knew the right people, in Astoria or Panama, in Bombay, Marseilles, even Rangoon. As it tapped into a generation of radical wanderers, or one might call them, progressive pilgrims, Ghadar counted over six thousand recruits, and innumerable allies. They were drawn from a seemingly incoherent mix of  “isms”: pan-Islamism, Irish republicanism and Bolshevism. Yet what bound them was a single mission: the destruction of the British Empire, and the capitalist world system that it so violently upheld. (The imperialists, the newspaper reported, ate both pig and cow!)

In Tokyo, there was Barakatullah, an Indian Muslim professor who took over the editorship of a minor pan-Islamist newspaper called Islamic Fraternity from its Egyptian founder. In Cairo — if we are to believe the paranoid British spies— a Maldivian scholar-prince was agitating to block the imperialists from sailing through Suez. And in Moscow there was Rafiq Ahmad, an impoverished Indian who was on a pilgrimage to Imam Ali’s tomb in Afghanistan when he was lured to Russia by Bolsheviks, who promised him a scholarship.

If the world of the Ghadarites was as large as the earth itself, Moscow was Mecca, as Maia Ramnath writes in her recent book, Haj to Utopia. Since a 1920 conference in Baku had declared the Prophet Muhammad and Lenin twin commandos in the struggle against injustice, the Soviets began sponsoring scholarships for Muslim students at their newly founded Communist University of the Toiling Masses of the Eastern Autonomous and Associated Republics. There, Rafiq might have met Ho Chi Minh or heard Nazim Hikmet recite his poetry. Both of them were students at the time.

As she charts her pilgrims’ peregrinations, Ramnath tries to show how they came to think and act outside the carefully patrolled borders of the nation. She strives to wrest the lives of Har Dayal and the Ghadarites away from nationalist historians who have straitjacketed the messy lives and legacies of these individuals into neat bundles intelligible to nations and their agendas. The heroes of her pages are treated as eclectic and exotic, with emphasis not on their position as nationals but as a part of a celebrated “global.” And yet, the book reads like an extensive catalog of curiosities — in which ideas are treated as trinkets or souvenirs accumulated along her travelers’ transcontinental journeys.

Though Ramnath’s cartography of anarchist intellectuals is impressive, the book never alights on what was truly novel about the period in time she describes. This peculiar era of world history is lodged between the age of empire before it and the age of nation after it. Why did the ideas espoused by the Ghadarites have such global currency that they could be read with equal enthusiasm in Panama, France or Japan? What was it about the early 20th century that made these ideas useful tools for apprehending the world? And what made them valuable — in a way that they had never been before, and would not become thereafter — to people so divided by class, race or religion? Ramnath might have done well to consider how new technologies of travel and large-scale displacement — so characteristic of the age of empire, or capital — made possible new kinds of personal relationships and antagonisms, domestic arrangements and modes of living. She leaves us wanting to hear of our heroes’ hearts, and what was in them, rather than the hyperbolic rhetoric of the newsprint they produced.

In this vein, though Ramnath titles her work Haj, she ignores the pervasive piety of her protagonists. Her title instead derives from the world of sci-fi — from Mars trilogy author Kim Stanley Robinson, who wrote, “History is the Haj to Utopia.” With the exception of a nod to Pan-Islamism in the two final chapters, Ramnath succumbs to a tired Leftist tendency to reduce religion to, at best, strategy, and at worst, metaphor. And yet, in America for instance, the vast (silent) majority of Har Dayal’s followers were deeply religious Punjabis. Ignoring this, Ramnath strains to find in the Ghadar movement an authentic secular core, which deploys religion for instrumental reasons alone.

But this tells us more about Ramnath than it does about Har Dayal and his acolytes. An anarchist-activist herself, Ramnath clearly admires these figures in her own life — and yet in her valorization she might be misrepresenting her heroes. In her attempt to embed Har Dayal’s generation in the genealogy of international anarchism (further elaborated in a second book, entitled Decolonizing Anarchism) much of the complexity of this movement is lost. At times, it is obscured simply by the jarring tension between Ramnath-the-academic and Ramnath-the-activist, often palpable in the writing itself, which oscillates between the tone of a scholar and that of an advocate, punctuated with indignation.

Without pushing it, there was indeed plenty that was radical about the Ghadar movement. When they reappeared on the radar of the British, the Ghadarites were tried for treason and charged (not unfairly) with inciting violence, by endorsing the assassination of colonial officials. Their accusers described them as “terrorists,” a word largely used in the past — with a capital T — to describe Jacobins in the French revolution. Har Dayal and his comrades were the first for whom terror became a tool of political action. This in turn led to the first imperial legislation that was written against “terrorism.” Around the same time, a number of Har Dayal’s colleagues were executed.

For the Mutineers, terror was a new path of action. The globalizing Ghadarites increasingly began to conceive of the world as partitioned between East and West, a division that desperately and delicately needed to be balanced. It is from them, as well as from other “anti-westernist” movements contemporary to it, that we owe in part such nefarious ideas as “the clash of civilizations” and the “world order.” The afterlives of such concepts continue to reverberate all too clearly.

And as free roaming as Har Dayal was, the legacy of his “terrorism” was unequivocally constraining for his “oriental” descendants today. One wonders if it was our Mutineer’s spirit that the poet Agha Shahid Ali sought to channel in his poem, “Barcelona Airport.” Subjected to racial-profiling, in a post 9/11 world, the poet is aggressively interrogated at the Spanish border: “Are you carrying anything that could be dangerous for the other passengers?” Shahid replies, O just my heart — first terrorist.


Native Apologist

A snippet from my review of Irfan Husain’s Fatal Faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West:

The Global War on Terror has spawned a cottage industry of commentators and “experts,” who simply repackage the American public’s commonly held beliefs and serve it back to them: The Muslims are crazy, they hate America (and each other), and America is a force for good. Husain primarily posits himself as an internal critic of Islam, but also offers some tepid critiques of the US. This double maneuver gives him more credibility with his readers: He is fair and balanced. Suspended outside the context of power-relations, such “balance” serves to efface the violence that is imperialism. Besides, who better to provide apologia for the American Empire than an “authentic,” Muslim voice? Since the US has the largest military in the world, “it is inevitable that it has assumed the role of world policeman.” “Its economic and financial interests are so far-flung that it needs to maintain a global military presence.” The cop, however, is hated even by law-abiding citizens. (p54) Empire is thus America’s cross to bear for “mankind’s progress” – the White man’s burden for the 21st century, if you will.