Who was Eqbal Ahmad?

I gave these comments at an AAAW event at Museo El Barrio some years back

I.

I miss that which refused to become a commodity. I want that which cannot be assimilated in the histories of “Left” or “Dissent”. I seek that which dissented from participation in our purchasing power. Eqbal Ahmad is one such figure, I think – an essayist and speaker who left no one book for us to buy and put on our shelves; a thinker and activist who made no distinction between theory and praxis; a specialist only of resistance not of geography; a comrade for all, whether religious, academic, white or brown. His is not a history we can excavate from obscurity, because he was on the pages of New York Review of Books, New York Times, Left Review.

I encountered Eqbal Ahmad as a young man in Lahore, reading his sometimes weekly columns in the Dawn. I did not know him more than his sub-head, but I liked his columns. They always informed me of structural issues, drew my attention to histories elsewhere and had a clear moral eye towards critique of power. When, in the mid 1990s, I was an undergraduate in a small, white, liberal arts University in southern Ohio, I was assigned Edward Said’s Orientalism in a number of classes. I liked the book, but as a regular reader of British Orientalists in Pakistan, the book was not the revelation that it was for some of my class-mates. But I kept reading Said, and it was when I opened Culture and Imperialism and saw the dedication For Eqbal that I realized I needed to go back to reading the columnist. I followed Ahmad after that; reading his essays, or making vague plans of visiting him at Hampshire College where he taught. But I never managed it, before his death in 1999.

II.

Ahmad was a prolific writer– and his Collected Works are proof. To illustrate, I will just cite one footnote from Edward Said’s 1989 essay “Representing the Colonized: Anthropology’s Interlocuters” in Critical Inquiry to give you a rough idea of Eqbal’s production. In Said’s essay, the first and third footnote is Fanon and the fourth is Ahmad, glossing this sentence:

“To have been colonized was a fate with lasting, indeed grotesquely unfair results, especially after national independence had been achieved. Poverty, dependency, underdevelopment, various pathologies of power and corruption, plus of course notable achivevments in war, literacy, economic development: this mix of characteristics designated the colonized people who had freed themselves on one level bit who remained victims of their past on another.”

The footnote reads (in its entirety): “See Eqbal Ahmad, “From Potato Sack to Potato Mash: The Contemporary Crisis of the Third World, ” Arab Studies Quarterly 2 (Summer 1980); Ahmad “Post-Colonial Systems of Power,” Arab Studies Quarterly 2 (Fall 1980); Ahmad, “The Neo-Fascist State: Notes on the Pathology of Power in the Third World”, Arab Studies Quarterly 3 (Spring 1981).”[^Footnote Said]

I think that is a pretty amazing sentence to get glossed by the thought of one intellectual’s work over two years.

III.

Ahmad’s first piece of writing in the United States was an essay for The Nation (August 30, 1965) titled “Revolutionary Warfare: How to Tell When the Rebels Have Won”. He grounds that essay in his “own personal observation of the Algerian struggle” and proceeds to lay out a rather structured, bullet pointed reading of guerilla warfare in Algeria and Vietnam. In doing so, he directly critiqued W. W. Rostow, Dean Rusk and other “failed prophets” of Washington for their shoddy policy work. The war in Vietnam was lost, he said, in 1965, when the truth of that statement was not held in Washingtonn for another decade. He ends that essay with a quote worth quoting:

“I know how Asians feel about America’s action. They call it neo-colonialism; some think it is imperialism. I know this is very wrong because Americans are naturally sympathetic to peoples’ struggles for freedom and justice, and they would like to help if they could. I prefer the term “maternalism” for American policy in countries like Vietnam, because it reminds me of the story of an elephant who, as she strolled benignly in the jungle, stepped on a mother partridge and killed her. When she noticed the orphaned siblings, tears filled the kind elephant’s eyes. “Ah, I too have maternal instincts,” she said turning to the orphans, and sat on them.”

That essay, was read into the Congressional Record at the very first hearing on Vietnam and it proved to be a seminal essay for Noam Chomsky whose “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” (February 1967) was the launch of that linguist as a war-critic.

IV.

Ahmad’s revolutionary praxis was to speak. He spoke most often at college campuses and most vividly at churches and mosques. He spoke to young students, and he spoke to citizens – and he spoke always to Americans in a truly engaged manner. He spoke a lot and he spoke everywhere. I have heard from a number of people that he was an electric speaker. Incidentally, it was his speaking (not his writing) that got him into trouble. J. Edgar Hoover announced on Thanksgiving Day 1970 that this “Arrogant, Self-Righteous Alien” wanted to kidnap Kessinger and blow up some pipes in the Pentagon. The unsuccessful trial against Ahmad lasted more than a year– and the Harrisburg 7 as they were called were freed with no charges. The whole thing was a suggestion that Ahmad made over dinner in Connecticut that they should take advantage of Kissinger’s ego and philandering and have him put under Citizen’s Arrest for crimes in Vietnam.

V.

Ahmad’s was not only a writer and speaker on anti-colonial movements in North Africa, Middle East and America, he kept his critical eye trained on India and Pakistan– his place of birth and his nationality. In 1971, at the height of criminal proceeding against him, he wrote against the brutal military regime of West Pakistan in East Pakistan and the subsequent creation of Bangladesh. In the NYRB, he wrote a Letter to a Pakistani Diplomat:

“I know that I shall be condemned for my position. For someone who is facing a serious trial in America, it is not easy to confront one’s own government. Yet it is not possible for me to oppose American crimes in Southeast Asia or Indian occupation of Kashmir while accepting the crimes that my government is committing against the people of East Pakistan. Although I mourn the death of Biharis by Bengali vigilantes, and condemn the irresponsibilities of the Awami League, I am not willing to equate their actions with that of the government and the criminal acts of an organized, professional army. I do not know if my position would at all contribute to a humane settlement. Given the fact that our government is neither accountable to the public nor sensitive to the opinion of mankind, our protest may have no effect until this regime has exhausted all its assets and taken the country down the road to moral, political, and economic bankruptcy. However, lack of success does not justify the crime of silence in the face of criminal, arbitrary power.

VI.

How do I present Ahmad without making him into a commodity for you to buy? A book of essays? A wisp of ideals? I think I must tie him to some idea that I shall struggle to explain to you. I must articulate that he was counter to a culture in a specific key, a resonance that we must strain to hear. We must think back to the culture that he represented as a Perso-phone Urdu-speaker from Bihar, and that we need to pay attention to his particularity, his nuanced life.

I do not find it easy to salve his anti-Vietnam, anti-Zionist, anti-Indian military, anti-Pakistani-military intellectual positions, with his love for India, for Pakistan, and for America. I find it harder still to see in him a lover of Persian and Urdu poetry. Hence, I must turn to this difficulty and face it.

So, let me call him something that he will instantly recognize, if he hears me today.

Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Beirut, 1979 Meray Dil, Meray Musafir

Yes,
we are burdened by fidelity
o world’s beloved;
But,
does anyone treat
one’s lovers
as you do?
May your gatherings last beyond eternity;
we are but
a moment’s guest,
no matter.
(translation mine)

What does it mean to be burdened by fidelity to love. To do what you must, because you are obliged in love. Ahmad, the thinker, the rebel, the intellectual, was always working under the burden of his love – for his birthplace (in Bihar), for his community (Pakistan), for his comarades (in anti-imperialist struggles), and for his home (in America). His ethics is an ethics that comes out of love, and this enabled him to never turn his eyes away from what his love was enacting – what violence, what hubris. It enabled him to speak as only one who loves can speak to the lover – with deep awareness of an unbreakable bond, and a realization that nothing can be left unsaid, that the lover may be transient but the love remains, and if it is to remain, it must speak truth.

On FATA

Gentle Readers,

My op-ed in NYT on the recent FATA/administrative developments that connects the history of spatial politics and territorial otherness.

The nearly 40-year war in Afghanistan has produced its own idea of the “tribal” in Pakistan’s Tribal Areas — one that took the British colonial emphasis on “Pashtun” militancy and layered on top the American enemy, the Afghan Taliban. The Tribal Areas went from being a base for Pakistan and American military operations against Soviet troops to a platform for Taliban militancy against the United States and Pakistan. Deemed a geography outside the laws of the nation, the Tribal Areas were found by both the militant and the anti-militant forces a region where violence could be meted out with little regard to its inhabitants.

Pakistan has kept the frontiers in place, legally and spatially. Continuing the colonial practices, the president of Pakistan appoints a “political agent” in the Tribal Areas to keep power centralized. The political agent is the sole arbiter of law and order and one without any responsibility toward the people. The ethnic stereotyping and animosity has deliberately deprived the Tribal Areas of schools and hospitals. The war on terrorism has instead turned it into a landscape covered in police and surveillance stations.

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.

CM Roundtable I: Surkh Salam – Singh

[The CM Roundtable is a new series that presents multiple, in-depth reviews of an exciting new book. Each new roundtable will conclude with the author’s response. We thank each of our distinguished panelists and the authors for engaging in this public dialogue. We aim to have each roundtable available as a single beautifully produced e-book available at the conclusion– for classroom or referential usage.]

CM Roundtable I: Surkh Salam
Author: Kamran Asdar Ali
Panelists:
July 27– Ananya Jahanara Kabir, Professor of English Literature,  Kings College.
Aug 21– Author’s response
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Surkh Salam
Surkh Salam
Atiya Singh is a member of the Platypus Affiliated Society. Currently, she is working on her manuscript entitled, “The Vicissitudes of Democracy in Pakistan.”
***

 

Photo Courtesy: Dawn http://www.dawn.com/news/1270214
Photo Courtesy: Dawn http://www.dawn.com/news/1270214

A recent New York Times article, Posters in Pakistan Urge a General to Take Control of the Government, (July 15, 2016) reveals a not-so-astonishing demand of the masses of Pakistan requesting the military to establish control of the government—“For God’s sake, take over.” The gist of this slogan was further captured in a statement issued by Rana Jafar Ali, President of a political party, Move On Pakistan: “Civilians are corrupt. They only fear the military.” Both the posters and Jafar Ali’s statement resonate with the sentiment of most people in Pakistan, whether they belong to the Left or to the right. It comes as no surprise when conservative forces pledge allegiance to the rule of the army, but how are we to understand the Left’s flirtation with authoritarianism?

The history of Pakistan provides several instances of the Left conceding to the ideological stance of the right. Before delving into the details of this history, it will be useful for us to keep in mind that on the whole the South Asian Left—Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, etc.—was a direct expression of the ideological orientations existing within International Marxism. The rise of Stalinized communism in the 1930s signaled a shift in the idea of socialism away from overcoming capitalism, understood as an international and world historical phenomenon, toward the struggle for “socialism in one country.” This had significant consequences for the Left in regions that had struggled to find their national identity under colonialism. The story of the Left in India and Pakistan unfolds in this historical context. Anyone studying the history of the Left therefore has to contend with the implications of the legacy of Stalinism as a political problem that has continued, in the words of Marx, to “weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”

Kamran Asdar Ali’s Communism in Pakistan: Politics and Class Activism, 1947–1972, wrestles with the predicaments of leftist politics in post-independence Pakistan. The example of the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP), and later other variations of leftist politics that emerged in the form of the National Awami Party (NAP) and the Peoples Party of Pakistan (PPP), reveal problems in relating struggles for democracy with the struggle for socialism. Ali claims to recover the lost narrative of the Left in Pakistan’s history in order to uncover a series of political struggles led by the Left for the institution of democracy in the country. Undoubtedly, his narrative account has brought to light the unknown and forgotten tale of hardships confronted by a number of cadres, unions, and intellectuals at the hand of the state; the details of torture in the prisons are painfully vivid. In retrospect, confronting such extraordinary sacrifices, one is left to wonder how these martyrs understood their own political role. What did Marxism mean to these leftists? It is this conception of Marxism that needs to be directly addressed in Ali’s framework.
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