Coming from Abroad II: Refugee Nations

I opened this conversation with the question of hospitality and a fragment of the history that the legal regimes of United States has rendered into the soil of New York. The liberal response to the banning of travel from the seven countries has been largely a variation of “Muslims are Welcome Here” with many a strands of thought dedicated to the “right” refugees have to come to America. The right is based on the wars US has waged in Somalia, Yemen, Syria or Iran. For example, NPR has focused almost exclusively on “Refugees are Welcome Here” while highlighting “justice” and “American values” as the moral grounds on which such dispossessed can claim to come.

Forgotten, perhaps dismissed, is the long and bloody of history of America making refugees of the Native people here on this soil. Let us recall the over 500 legal treaties made between the various Native nation-states and the US Congress and we know that each was broken. Let us recall that these treaties excavated legal rights to land, and created massive internal forced migrations and re-locations. Let us recall that these “refugees” did not disappear into the cultural “melting pot” but continue to live in horrendous “reservations” across United States in abject poverty and their status is legally and politically frozen in time.
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Coming from Abroad

My friends and many thousand strangers to me, are gathered at various airports across United States trying to let strangers in. The strangers, in this particular case in early 2017 America, are Muslims born or affiliated with the un-desirable nations of Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan. Some 134 million are theoretically barred from this country for 90 days. They are barred pending some ‘extreme vetting’ that will determine they are … non-Muslims.

I do not, as a rule, write about my present or past here and this will be no exception suffice to say that perhaps my longest theoretical engagement has been with the question of hospitality in America. As a young immigrant, Emma Lazarus’s words “give us your poor” were often, repeatedly, insistently recited to me as indicative of America’s putative promise of hospitality. A few years ago when I moved to NYC and started walking bridges, I learned about Lazarus’ inspiration for this creed of hospitality, when I visited the National Park on Wards Island. Here is what I read:

The island lay largely abandoned until 1840, when overcrowded Manhattan sought convenient locations for almshouses, mental health facilities, and potter’s fields (graveyards for the poor). Hundreds of thousands of bodies were relocated to Wards Island from the Madison Square Park and Bryant Park potter’s fields. The State Emigrant Refuge, a hospital for sick and destitute immigrants, opened in 1847 and it was the biggest hospital complex in the world during the 1850s. The predominance of public works led the City to purchase Wards Island outright in 1851. Twelve years later, the New York City Asylum for the Insane opened on the island. From 1860 until the 1892 opening of Ellis Island, Wards Island along with Castle Clinton on Manhattan’s southern tip welcomed America’s newcomers at its immigration station. The New York State Department of Mental Hygiene took over the immigration and asylum buildings in 1899, opening Manhattan State Hospital. With 4,400 patients, it was the largest psychiatric institution in the world. It later became the Manhattan Psychiatric Center.

Lazarus worked in the immigration center at Wards, where she encountered sick and destitute applicants for entry– detained before their cases could be heard. The foreigners stood directly on the re-interred bones of the slaves and poor of New York. Where they stood, would then stand, those termed insane and deviant.
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Thinking about the Last Hindu Emperor

Gentle Readers: A small discussion of Professor Cynthia Talbot’s book The Last Hindu Emperor (2015) that I gave on March 5, 2016

Thank you to Professors Akbar Haider Ali for the invitation to come today. To Professor Kamran Asdar Ali and Rita Soheila Omrani at the South Asia Institute for their hospitality. I am very pleased to be here today, and honored to speak about Professor Cynthia Talbot’s book- which is great, and you should purchase it, and read it immediately.

Let me start with a joke and an observation.

The joke was told to me by my advisor sometime ago in his class on Hindu Kingship.

I was in a rickshaw in India and I saw an ancient monument that I did not recognize, so I asked the rickshaw walay “How old is that building?” and he answered it is “five thousand and ten years old” and I said, “wow, that is very specific” and he said, “ji, I was told it was five thousand years old about ten years ago”.

Ronald Inden’s point in that telling was to mark the way in which totemic past (five thousand years) and material past (the monument) intersect with the re-telling of that past.
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How Best to Not-Surrender

The first lesson I learned in resistance was to surrender. It was a hard lesson. It was the apocryphal year of 1984 and General Zia ul Haq was our leader. The General had come to power in a military coup in 1977– deposing an elected and popular Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. In short order, he had hung Bhutto, for conspiracy to commit murder and corruption and had donned the mantle of a populist cleanser of political rot. When in 1979, Soviet Union entered Afghanistan, the General became the conduit for US “resistance”.

Reagan toasted Zia in 1982 as the key architect of a peaceful South Asia (Zia, in return, requested “Spread this America, Mr. President”). Zia returned to Pakistan with the full support of United States. In August 1983, Zia revealed a theological argument for his military regime: according to God and his Prophet, as long as there is a Muslim leader pursuing a strategy of bringing an Islamic state into being, there can only be complete obedience to his rule.

In 1983, Pakistan started its resistance against the General. The “Movement for Restoration of Democracy” (MRD) emerged as an umbrella for Marxists, Progressivists, PPP, followers of pirs, provincialists, feminists, atheists– all assemble only to resist Zia. They blocked highways, took over university campuses, shut-down bazaars and ports. The poets wrote verses that could be chanted. Sufi shrines become the rallying places for mobilizations. Someone stood in front of Zia’s motorcade and flashed his privates.

Zia’s regime cracked down. The army fired bullets in streets, campuses and bazaars. Thousands disappeared. Student unions were banned. Students vanished. In November 1984, Reagan won 58.8% of the votes cast and swept back into office. Not to be out-done, on 19 December 1984, Zia ul Haq held a referendum with one single question: Did the people of Pakistan support”the Islamic ideology of Pakistan?” Yes, would mean that Zia ul Haq would be elected President for five years, by the way. Well, if you put it that way.

Zia campaigned vigorously for the “referendum”. The nationalized Radio and Television illustrated the divinity of military rule, and the rule of the militarily divine. On the 20th of December 1984, he declared victory after receiving 97.7% of 60% votes cast. Lahore surrendered. My uncles, aunts, cousins, neighbors, friends all declared widely and publicly that Zia ul Haq was the “Mard-e Haq” (Man of Truth). No one would speak, in public or private, against the General.

The second lesson I learned in resistance was to remember 1983. In 2007— after September 2001, after George W. Bush– resistance came to Pakistan as the “Lawyers Movement” against General Pervez Musharraf. This history is known to the readers of this blog, so I will tell only of the shape resistance took. Like 1983, an umbrella covered the many forms of political differences into a protected space. It was on the street– the iconic black suits of the advocates of court battling the police. It was in cultural spaces– galleries, salons, tea shops. It was online– blogs, email listservs, youtube. It flashed Musharraf– making him an object of ridicule, of shame. This time I was not too young and easily silenced. This time I learned the way and power of resistance.

The playbook of the Generals of Pakistan may seem incongruous next to that of a democratically elected Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush or Donald J. Trump. Hence, the techniques of surrendering or resistance may seem equally alien. However, do not be too quick to dismiss. Our Pakistani strongmen had much that bolsters Trump’s appeal: the love of autocrats and technocrats, the claim to clean up corruption, the mode of ‘direct speech’ that cuts through ‘bullshit’, the claim to independence from special interests, the eye for gilded portraits, the male-ness, the love for big building projects and real estate acquisitions.

When I see Trump, I understand him and I understand the ways in which my uncles in Pakistan love him. Trump speaks that language already:Oh the Theater must always be… oh the University must endure… Oh the minorities must be protected. Trump’s hierarchies (America First) and promises (Make America Great Again) are easy analogues to Zia ul Haq’s “Islam First” or Musharraf’s “Make Pakistan Moderate Again”.

Against Zia, writers and artists like Anwar Maqsood and Moin Akhtar, used stand-up and prov sketch comedy in venues like the television program “Fifty-fifty” to subvert, to transgress, to document. Being on a National Television and subject to heavy censorship, their sketches had a pre-approved “official” reading and a reading that came clearly as disruptive resistance to the viewers outside. Performance that illustrated “all politics” is performance enabled that dissatisfaction with the “real”.

Against Musharraf, the tactic of satire as resistance was amplified in wildly popular shows like “Begum Nawazish Ali” and “Hum Sab Umeed Say Hain” (We are all Expecting). Jokes carried over instant messaging apps, blogs, and emails poked fun at the self-regard of the dictator. I collected them and promised myself I would write about them one day, and I guess I will one day.

Artists, poets, teachers, writers are the first line of defense against tyranny. They are also the first targets of censorship, condemnation or disappearance– hence Dhaka University in ’68-’71, hence Karachi University in ’74-’76, hence Punjab University ’83-’85. Against Zia and Musharraf, these were the critical spaces of collaboration– between students and professors, between poets and reciters, between artists and viewers. I spent a lot of time in living rooms of my professors learning the trade of resistance. I spent a lot of time on street corners complicit in the making of shadow discourses. The classroom, the living room, the street corner were all fed by texts– our Franz Fanon, our Kishwar Naheed, our Manto.