In Plato’s Cave

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The above image is taken from the second of the five videos released to showcase Osama bin Laden in his compound in Abbottabad by the US Department of Defense after the 2 May, 2011 operation of US Navy Seals that was to kill or capture him. It was told that the footage was found among the treasure trove of data collected from his compound. This is a remarkable image. The body, which is supposed to be terrorism personified (let’s call it terrorism-body, for more than being of a terrorist, it represents much that is terrorism and the War on Terror), is hidden from view by a blanket wrapped over it and a winter skull cap on the head. Its rear side view doesn’t reveal much; only a side glimpse of a face with a beard and a hand on remote control being its revelatory organs. For all that is hidden, this is its only manifestation: a terrorist Muslim’s body that has its hand on the trigger.
Continue reading In Plato’s Cave

No Healer of Glass

Fanon wrote about why the anti-colonial struggle targeted doctors and intellectuals. It did so, he surmised, because the colonial doctor or the colonial ethnographer were not mere healers and intellectuals. They were also critical participants in the daily life of the colony; they had property, employed colonized bodies; the healers were torturers and the ethnographers were erasers of native pasts. For Fanon, the native doctor and the organic intellectual were the hope for the freed nation– these figures who would carry the episteme of Europe through the burning colony, and assimilate the two. We now know that project to be just as flawed as the colonial one.

The mis-titled ‘post-colonial’ nation that emerged in 1947 bent its will to dominate Kalat, Kashmir, Swat, Bengal, Sind, Baluchistan. At each, they erased the organic intellectuals, the healers, those who could offer a narrative counter to their enlightened nationalism. Fanon’s organic intellectuals were targeted and killed by the post-colonial state in 1971 in East Pakistan, in the 1970s in Karachi. The healers are being killed across Pakistan right now.

Today, as I sit and think about Sabeen Mahmud, my mind keeps going back to the state-sanctioned killing of intellectuals in 1971. Why kill Abul Khair and Munier Chowdhury? They wrote. They taught. In the perverse logic of the nation-state, their ideas, their capacity to have a dialogue, were the very reasons for their eradication. There is only one idea, only one conversation, only one speaker.

I started to talk about Baluchistan here when the insurgency started in 2005. Ten years later, the state has assassinated a number of leaders and over 3,000 have ‘disappeared’. The Baluchi men, women and children walked over 2,000 km to see if someone can answer them. No one did. One of those marchers, Mama Qadeer, was the participant at the talk held in T2F, organized by Sabeen Mahmud. She was killed after the event. She was killed because she provided a forum for a conversation that cannot be held in Pakistan. It is a conversation that pits the dreams of a Chinese-Pakistan Economic Corridor against local resistance. Just days before the T2F conversation, the State forced LUMS University in Lahore to cancel their talk on Baluchistan. It is this re-scheduled talk that led to the death of Sabeen Mahmud.

There is no doubt in my mind that the Baluch cause will be crushed. Whether economic nationalism triumphs or the sacral one, does not really matter in the end. The corridors will be built over the hidden mass graves and the charred dreams of self-autonomy. With the murder of Sabeen Mahmud, there is the end of decade old space for dialogue in Karachi. That space is not coming back. No one is going to step forward and create such spaces anew. The killing of Sabeen Mahmud is the shattering of T2F. We can now cry and hold these broken shards as much as we like. But, to quote Faiz, there are no healers of glass.

موتی ہو کہ شیشہ، جام کہ دُر / be it pearl or glass, uncorked or full
جو ٹوٹ گیا، سو ٹوٹ گیا / is broken is broken
کب اشکوں سے جڑ سکتا ہے / when can tears mend?
جو ٹوٹ گیا ، سو چھوٹ گیا / is broken is gone

تم ناحق ٹکڑے چن چن کر / for nothing, are you picking these shards
دامن میں چھپائے بیٹھے ہو / storing them in your lap
شیشوں کا مسیحا کوئی نہیں / there is no healer of glass
کیا آس لگائے بیٹھے ہو / what hope do you have?

The Lies of American Sniper

A guest post by @historianess.

Fallujah

I have a very vivid memory of when I first heard the Adhan‘s call, on an early July day in 2012. I was in a car in Lahore with two friends; their father was driving. It was twilight, a moment in which the buildings around Liberty Market were cast in shades of rose and violet, and the air shimmered with sunset colors. At that moment, mosques around the area starting broadcasting the evening Adhan. The sounds of the Takbir (Allahu Akbar, or, God is Great) echoed with the fading light. For a moment, traffic stopped, and the attention of all seemed to be focused on the evening prayer. This didn’t feel foreign to me; it felt, on the contrary, rather familiar. I remembered the passage in Johan Huizinga’s The Autumn of the Middle Ages about the sound of bells in the late medieval European city. “But one sound always rose above the clamor of busy life and, no matter how much of a tintinnabulation, was never confused with other noises, and, for a moment, lifted everything into an ordered sphere: that of the bells. The bells acted in daily life like concerned good spirits who, with their familiar voices, proclaimed sadness or joy, calm or unrest, assembly or exhortation.”1

The Adhan, I immediately understood, was like the sound of bells in a European city. The effect of hearing the call to prayer was not one of alienation for me. Instead it reminded me of a commonality between Islam and Christianity–the use of sound to govern the liturgical day and to foster community.

In the film American Sniper, the Adhan serves the opposite purpose. The film opens with the Adhan and a panoramic shot of a city with many minarets. It is meant to be Fallujah, and it is meant to evoke a feeling of strangeness and foreignness in the moviegoer. The viewer experiences a frisson of fear–the muezzin calling Allahu Akbar is a threat, a representative of a civilization that our hero Chris Kyle (most confirmed kills of any American sniper! Ever!) will repeatedly call “evil” and “savage.” The Adhan is a symbol of barbarism. This is the film’s first lie.
Continue reading The Lies of American Sniper

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  1. Johan Huizinga, The Autumn of the Middle Ages trans. Rodney J. Payton and Ulrich Mammitzsch (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 2. []

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. []

Death is Iconic

Death is Iconic IThis summer, Israel bombarded the Gaza Strip, killing hundreds of civilians, bombing schools and hospitals, and even UNRWA shelters. This might just have been another chapter in the ongoing occupation of Palestinian territories, but this summer, there was something new: an unprecedented number of photographs and videos made it through to the international community via twitter and other social media platforms. Those who refuse to believe the extent of the humanitarian disaster in Gaza, or who believe the oppression of the Palestinian people is strategically justified for the survival of the Israeli state, were in denial about the many images rushing into the rest of the world.

Most famously, George W. Bush’s former speech writer, David Frum, latched onto a conspiracy theory that held that a series of images of two Palestinian brothers expressing raw grief over the death of their father whom they’d just brought to the hospital was simply a piece of propaganda. According to this theory, the photographs were staged, and this could be seen from the fact that in one, the more distraught brother had blood on his hands, and in another, he did not. The blood had been added for effect, went the theory. Unfortunately for Frum and his ilk, these photos had been taken by numerous professional photographers working for international news services, who spoke up and outlined the sequence of events, showing that while the men arrived at the hospital soaked in blood, in the interim, as their father lay in the operating room, they’d washed their hands. Death is Iconic II

When I saw these striking images, I understood immediately what it was really all about. It was about the iconic nature of the photographs. Two men, in a state of mourning, embracing: they look like figures in classical paintings, or religious icons: figures of saints and martyrs. It was a dangerous turn in the image war, and the Frums of the world were scared.

[My paintings are acrylic on wooden panel, 5” x 7”. The original photographs were taken by Hatem Ali/AP, and Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters; my hat is off to these brave photographers who put themselves in the path of danger on a daily basis. My desire was to engage with the ways in which the underlying photographs looked like religious icons.]

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 []

My Dear Americans

My Dear Americans
My Dear Americans
Happy July 4th, my dear Americans. Here is a short made by Arpita Kumar, being screened at PBS ONLINE FILM FESTIVAL.

Here is what Kumar told us about the short:

I made My Dear Americans during my Project Involve fellowship at Film Independent in Los Angeles. We were asked to pitch short film projects focused on the theme of traditions. I thought it would be interesting to focus on an American tradition but from the point-of-view of an outsider. I chose to build a narrative around the 4th of July tradition since it’s the most American and patriotic of the holidays. And, I decided on a Sikh couple as the outsiders largely because around that time there was a shooting in a Sikh Gurudwara in Wisconsin. The white supremacist perpetrator associated the Sikhs with Osama Bin Laden and it shocked me that there was such ignorance about the Sikh community still. It had been more than a decade since 9/11 and the backlash continued. I realized that we cannot do much about the ignorance of others. What we can do is change our reaction to their ignorance. And, that inspired the film and the actions of the wife, Tejpreet.

I arrived in the U.S. eleven years ago with the unbearable enthusiasm of Baldev – the husband in the film – for all things American. Over the years, the enthusiasm has not tapered but my mind has gained a more complex understanding of national identity, displacement, and the idea of home. The film is a window into that mindscape.

Additionally, every time I start a film I give myself a challenge and for this one it was to tell a story with as little dialogue as possible. Watch and let me know if I succeeded. Also, vote.