Passport Tales

I.

page 2

My Pakistani passport is the most Pakistani thing about me. When I clutch it approaching the border agents, I carefully keep the seal facing downwards. No need to scare off the grandmother next to me. Yet the green does seep out of my palm. My expiring passport was the older variety – not readable by machines. The ticketing agent and the border agent had to laboriously decode the trilingual (Arabic, English, Urdu) categories to hunt for my date of birth or the expiration date. Eagerly, I would try and point them to the right pages. This digital intrusion into their domains was rarely met with a smile.

I needed to get a “Machine-Readable” passport.

My father who got his in 1967, once spoke to me about passports. He had won a scholarship to go study Engineering in Ankara. He recalled it taking a laboriously long time to acquire. He had kept it – as he had kept all of his passports. When I took hold of it, I carefully went through its yellowed pages, filled with strange looking stamps and hand-scribbled notations of entries and exits.
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Whence Muhammad?

‘Muhammadanism’ was always a heresy, a contamination, a deviation – and hence, always needed satire. Where humor inserts the uncanny into the mundane, satire exposes the decay inside the ordinary. Muhammadanism has always been understood through the satirical gesture, whether couched in scholarly objectivism or bazari insouciance.1

The earliest Christian polemics saw Muhammad as a corruption, and as an imposter who was taking on the crown of Christ. The eighth century epic The Song of Roland – written in the eleventh century – depicts Muslims as idol-worshippers of a trinity of gods – Apollin, Tervagant and ‘Mahomet':

“From Tervagant take they his ruby, and into a ditch they throw/ Mahomet, where foul swine rend him, and dogs hale to and fro.”

The histories of Crusades written in the twelfth centuries – such as the Gesta Dei per Francos – cast ‘Mathomus’ as an epileptic who was inspired by the devil to corrupt Christians. The effort to portray a bumbler, foamer-at-the-mouth, a charlatan is a theme in many of these narratives. This is most legible in the tradition of a biography of Muhammad – Vita Mahumeti – that cast him specifically as a Christian heretic who got a garbled message of Christianity from a Monophysite or an Arian or a Nestorian or a Jewish monk.
Continue reading Whence Muhammad?

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  1. Since long, I have been meaning to finish an argument about the centrality of the Prophet to Pakistan but … the work remains; and one import of my argument will be to demonstrate that the European understanding of the centrality of the Prophet is now the reigning understanding in Pakistan, in distinction with the pre-colonial. []

A Matriarch in Exile

A version of this is published on Public Books on Jan 9, 2015.

She moved to NYC in 1990 or 1991, according to her son. According to her own melodious Punjabi, she has been in exile for “vi ya panji saal” (twenty or twenty five years). For some hours, she has been speaking of her time in NY, but her first few sentences are stuck in loop inside my brain – an animated GIF of exile. kithay lay aye dane paney de khed? Where have these games for grain and water landed us?

She looks to be in her late 60s or early 70s but I did not inquire. I said very little as she spoke, sitting quietly, my mind half-a-second after her speech, deciphering the cadences of her language and disentangling the similes, metaphors, landscapes.

For a while I have been writing about cities – Lahore, Berlin, Uch Sharif – and I have been reading those who write about. The men especially because it is a very masculine form of writing: one that posits itself either as insular or as vulnerable to the charms and dangers of the city. The City as inhabited by a woman does not have the same place in the marketplace of narratives. Panels on the City in this city, feature men who have written Big Books on The City with apt quotes from Benjamin or Sebald, Simmel or other clever French cities-writers like Augoyard or Perec. They are keen to show me “inequality” which exists, or perhaps the “immigrant” or perhaps the “wanderer”. No matter, friends, I always want to say, those Germans and Frenchs you cite have already said it.

What do they know of the city when they know only themselves?

For a while I have been interested in thinking about exile – working through Said, Agha Shahid Ali, Faiz Ahmed Faiz. I came to this country almost 20 or 25 years ago as a very young man, and I spent a lot of my early time, reading Faiz as if he held the key to unlock the reality that was around me. My relationship to exile was shaped by my reading of Faiz. My relationship to Faiz was shaped by my exile. I gave up thinking about exile, when I moved to Berlin. Rather, I gave up thinking about it in the terms I had become accustomed to. What do I know of exile when I only know myself?
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Kill the Future

Kill the future
Shut down twitter, facebook, linkedin, google
Unplug the internet, the hydro-dam, the nuclear reactor
Shutter the few generators of electricity
let those hooked to machines, die

Spray with fire our books; plug the holes in our logic with bullets. Erect a flag, on a bamboo stick. Plant it in the father’s chest.

Tear the scream from the mother’s throat tune it to the national anthem set the reverbs of the blasts as rhythms release it for us to Like

Pour gasoline on me,
Flick your thumb against the flint
Light me.
Make me watch how I burn and then shoot me
shoot me
shoot me
shoot me
shoot me
shoot me until 132 bodies are full of your lead.
shoot me in the eyes.

Write my obituary
Find out who fought for my cause
Make of them Heroes of Islam
Garland them in poppies.
Let them smoke my ashes.

wear your uniform to my funeral, have your dharna at my door, make your reconciliation, enjoy your appeasement, drone me, fill my shed skin with petro-dollars, sing me a hindu lullaby.

murder the past, kill the future.

An Account of Autumn – Manūchherī

Divan “An Account of Autumn and in Praise of Aḥmad bin Abdus Samad, Vizier of Sultan Mas’ūd”, a wine-panegyric or khamriyya by Manūchherī Dāmaghānī (d. 1040 C.E.)
(trans. Prashant Keshavmurthy)

The Lord be praised – for autumn’s month is here,
The month of shrinking and swelling vineyards.
So much do they harvest and heap the grape
Now the vineyard teems like the milky-way.
For when the grape leaf, rainbow-like, is many-hued
The rainbow seems to hold grape clusters.
Blue purses hang from yellow leaves,
In each blue purse a largish seed of grape-flower.

And in the heart of that seed’s vinous flower
Are hidden ten sacks all concealing musk.
And that fruit’s as if it were someone unwell,
Of double aspect among all its limbs and body, One of its cheeks yellow, the other red.
Of them one’s breathless, the other jaundiced.

That pomegranate’s like a pregnant woman
And in her belly – a fistful of sons.
She won’t give birth until you beat her to the ground.
And when the child’s born its birth’s the same as eating it.
A mother gives birth to a child, or two or three.
Then why’s this pomegranate a mother of three hundred?
Continue reading An Account of Autumn – Manūchherī

Editorial Notes for Opinion Editorials on “Independence Day”

Open with Nehru’s “Tryst with Destiny” if you are a male* Indian/Gora author.
Open with Jinnah’s “You are Free to Go” if you are a male Pakistani author.
No one will ask you to write anything if you belong to current state of Bangladesh, so do not worry (one imagines you may have something to say about 1947).

Connect Nehru to Development; development to Congress; Congress to Decline; And turn to Modi, and open Markets. This should take one paragraph.
Connect Jinnah to secularism; secularism to Taliban; Taliban to lack of civil will to fight, and open Terror. This should take one paragraph.

If India: your nut graph should be keywords: trade, growth, poverty, rights, political.
If Pakistan: your nut graph should be keywords: turbulence, crisis, terrorism, US, failure.

Literary Value: For India, Established Male Fiction Authors should evoke example from a “classics” text here to peg. EMFAs for Pakistan do not exist, so you will necessarily be a One Book Author and should focus on evoking a White Author (preferably Russian writing in short pithy sentences about Chaos).

Human Interest Value: For India, Slums and Sexual Violence. For Pakistan, Persecution of Minorities, Terrorism *focused on Gender Abuses.

Concluding Paragraph for India must tackle what Modi’s visit to US will mean, and how do we want to remind Americans that they do not care about 2002. For Pakistan, the failure of the civil regime to make the military regime destroy the terrorists that they created to destroy the civil regime and what it means for Syria? Iraq? The Pakistan op-ed has more room to maneuver but “drones” are not on the table this year.

Open Remarks: No history lessons people. 1947 and 2014 are the only two important years with 2001 and 2002 as regional markers. Please try to keep your attention focused away from un-necessary people centered debates and certainly do not go into “domestic” issues. I heard from someone that infrastructure (water and power), IMF payments and Saudi Arabia/China were important players but we really do not have the space in 800 words to tackle this. Make sure that your novel has a catchy title for the bio line!

* The chances that a female authored piece will get published are slim but do give it a shot, if you are genetically inclined.

Looking forward to the submissions.

A Formula for Being Human


I am a man in exile in Beirut in 1982 – cast out by a military dictator.

On this ground too
unfurls
my blood stained standard

where the flag of Palestinian home
flows

Your Master has destroyed
one Palestine;
My wounds
have prospered
how many Palestines.


I am a woman; long hair, dreadlocked; ashes covering my naked body; living inside a tree; in love with an apparition. I am hunted by the emperor.

I, Lalla, set out
wanting to flower
                       like the bloom of cotton:
that was I, tenuous,
      whom the seed-picking cleaner
then the carder so abused
    when the woman spinning
had lifted me off
  thread by trembling thread
that was I, so cruelly used,
    set to hang in the weaver’s room.

I have seen a serious man hunger, and of hunger dying:
   as a leaf being taken in winter
         by the least wind,
                       ever so gentle.

I have seen a moron murderously beating a cook
      and since then I, Lalla, am waiting —
           will it not be torn? This love,
                  ever so delightful.1


I am a man; wandering; obese; in love with a young man who follows me, at some distance. I am sought by emperors for conversation. Eventually, they cut off my head.

O Sarmad, you won such fame throughout the world
After converting from kufr to Islam
And yet, in the end, what fault you found with Allah and the Prophet?
that you became a disciple of Ram and Lakshman?


It is hard for us to imagine what it means to speak outside of our privilege – to look at the world through the eyes of the dispossessed. We have sequestered our fears.

I quote three individuals: Lal Ded. Sarmad. Faiz. In fourteenth century Kashmir. In seventeenth century Delhi. In twentieth century Beirut. These individuals spoke, and acted outside the worlds which they inhabited. We tend to remember martyrs from the fact of their martyrdom but their life and words before had enough courage to achieve immortality. Seeing them as immortals before their deaths, allows us to conceive of the courage to speak and express our critical world view as an everyday courage, and a everyday concern.

Like many of you, I have done little but read the news from Gaza in the past few weeks. I have shuddered in witnessing how everyday life in Gaza has vanished under plumes of smoke and under debris. I feel helpless and I try to read poets and I try to reconcile my sorrow at a world spinning away.

For Gaza, for Syria, for Iraq, for minorities in Pakistan, this summer of destruction is etched in poetry. For resistance, for hope, please read Lal Ded, Sarmad, Darwish, and Faiz:

Forever thus
have people tangled with tyranny;
nor their rituals new, nor our ways new.

Forever thus
have we blossomed flowers in fire;
nor their defeat new, nor our victory new.


I am a woman; writing books and pamphlets in prison; working to unionize workers in Berlin. I am kidnapped, shot in the head, and my body is dumped in the canal.

I’m telling you that as soon as I can stick my nose out again I will hunt and harry your society of frogs with trumpet blasts, whip-crackings, and bloodhounds-like Penthesilea I wanted to say, but by God, you people are no Achilles. Have you had enough of a New Year’s greeting now? Then see to it that you stay HUMAN… Being human means joyfully throwing your whole life “on the scales of destiny” when need be, but all the while rejoicing in every sunny day and every beautiful cloud. Ach, I know of no formula to write you for being human…

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  1. translation from Kashmiri original by Sonam Kachru []