Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Stranger to History: Aatish Taseer on Islam's 'enclosed world'

At one point in his travelogue-memoir Stranger to History: A Son's Journey Through Islamic Lands, Aatish Taseer finds himself in the streets of Damascus on the day that the city's Danish embassy is burnt down by furious mobs protesting the cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. How can anyone have the freedom or the right to insult the Prophet, an acquaintance asks him, and observing the chaos around him Taseer realises that
The offensive cartoons could not have been understood Islamically. The democratic rights and interlocking institutions that protected them were outside the faith's compass. I couldn't explain how one could have the right to insult the Prophet unless I was to step outside the circle in which it was written that it was wrong to make graven images. To explain to Nedal, I would have to ask him to suspend his faith for a moment and believe in sanctities greater than that of the Prophet and his Book...It could be said that the systems that protected the cartoons now had been set up in part to protect public life from the excesses of religion. The cartoons came from places that considered it an achievement for religion to be able to take a joke. It had not always been that way.
Taseer's own childhood couldn't have prepared him for such encounters with the certitudes of religious fundamentalism. Born of a short-lived relationship between the Pakistani politician Salmaan Taseer and the Indian journalist Tavleen Singh, he grew up with his mother in Delhi and had an irreligious upbringing. When he writes "As a child I made my way through all the sub-continent's major religions...Shiva remained the focus of my devotion until I discovered He-Man", he could be speaking for many Indian youngsters brought up in liberal households where religion, if it played a part at all, stayed on the fringes of everyday life (and where it was possible to revere the comic-book version of Lord Shiva not because he was divine but because he was such a bad-ass, with the serpents and the trident and the ganas). Later, he studied in a Christian boarding school in south India, "adding the final coat of paint to a happy confusion that was as much India's as my own". He didn't properly meet his father until a visit to Pakistan in 2002, and then the relationship was a strained one.

The starting point for this book was an angry letter Taseer received from his father in response to a magazine article he had written. As a young, London-based reporter visiting Beeston – where most of the perpetrators of the July 2005 bombings had hailed from – Taseer had been struck by the generational divide in the British Muslim community, by the need of the youngsters to forcefully assert their cultural identity. "Some were dressed in long Arab robes with beards cut to Islamic specifications. They lacked their parents' instinctive humour and openness; their hatred of the West was immense and amorphous... The younger generation was adrift: neither British nor Pakistani, removed from their parents' economic motives and charged with an extra-national Islamic identity, which came with a sense of grievance...their story began in rootlessness and led to the discovery of radical Islam."

Returning to London, he included these observations in a cover story for a British political magazine but was unprepared for his father’s strongly critical reaction, accusing Aatish of spreading anti-Muslim propaganda and failing to understand the "Pakistani ethos". The interesting thing was that the senior Taseer had been offended as a Muslim, despite being an irreligious man himself – he ate pork, never fasted or prayed and once said of the Koran that there was nothing in it for him.

"The question I kept asking myself," Taseer writes, "was how my father, a professed disbeliever in Islam's founding tenets, was even a Muslim. What made him Muslim despite his lack of faith?" Stranger to History: A Son's Journey Through Islamic Lands is an account of the journey he undertook to try and answer these questions. The arc of countries on his route included secular Turkey, where Islam had been banished from the public sphere since the 1920s; Arab-nationalist Syria, which had become the most important destination for radical Islamists; Iran, which had experienced Islamic revolution in 1979 but still had a clear idea of its past before the coming of the regime; and, of course, Pakistan itself, a country that bears the burden of having been created specifically in the name of a faith, and where even secular people live with a confusion about their history.

The result is a varied travel narrative. In protean Istanbul, Taseer visits the religious neighborhood Fatih Carsamba, a little world that has closeted itself off from the forceful secularism that was Ataturk's legacy. In Damascus's Abu Nour, with its mosque and colleges teaching the "correct face of Islam", he attends a Friday sermon that is unexpectedly political. In Tehran he encounters a covert group of Hare Krishnas and meets people who have been "made corrupt, stunted, twisted, criminalised by the tyranny of trifles" as the regime uses the faith as a pretext to pry into the private details of people's lives. And in rural Pakistan he spends time in the company of a landlord referred to only as the Mango King. Running through all these encounters are questions of what exactly it means to be a Muslim, the difference between religion and culture, and how politics and history can affect personal relationships.

Taseer's writing is thoughtful and understated and I liked many of his descriptions (a view of the Indus river reduced to a ribbon of green water; the showpiece Imam Khomeini airport as "the Islamic Republic in miniature...the world had to be kept out for it to look as it did") and little observations (a glimpse of a Muslims-only McDonald's), but I also felt that some passages had too much extraneous detail – which may be an offshoot of the author's journalistic training – and that this interfered with the narrative’s progress. (When he enters his hotel room in Hyderabad with a Pakistani-Hindu contact – a passage that exists only to make a quick point about the status of Hindus as a minority group – do we really need to know that “the room had a large white plywood bed with a satiny bedcover and thin, dirt-encrusted carpeting”? There are many other such examples.) Also, the personal bits – the details of Taseer's relationship with his father, which are interspersed with the travelogue – aren't always compelling in their own right, though they provide context and help ground the larger story.

This is very much a book where the personal and the political commingle (the very title can be seen as a reference to the different ways in which the author and his father are strangers to their histories), and towards the end Taseer attempts a summarising explanation of his father's position as a "cultural Muslim". However, Stranger to History is best seen not as a work that provides solid answers but as one that attempts to understand the very complex history of a religion and its effect on various people. It reads best in the passages about the beliefs and dilemmas of individuals. In a richly engrossing chapter, Taseer meets a man named Abdullah who tells him that being a Muslim is to be "above history", but who shows a touchingly vulnerable, conflicted side when he tries to reconcile his beliefs with the more desirable aspects of the modern world: Marlboro cigarettes, technology. A mention of Iranian cinema leads to a near-surreal discussion about the camera and the question of how its existence can be "sanctified" by making it represent something in the Islamic worldview - a scary rationalisation process that lies at the heart of many fundamentalist beliefs.

For Taseer, this is an insight into Islam's enclosed world of "prescriptive and forbidden action, which was more detailed than most other religions, but in the end could only cover those things that were common to the world of today and the Prophet's world in Arabia".
As his later experience in Damascus shows, this enclosed world can become a vacuum where modern concepts like freedom of speech hold no meaning.

Little wonder then that he counts himself fortunate to have both India and Pakistan - their combined histories, garbled though they are, still preferable to "violent purities". In this, he has a kinship with
Saadat Hasan Manto, some of whose short stories he has just finished translating into English (and a writer whose most famous creation Toba Tek Singh ended up finding a spot for himself under the barbed wire separating India and Pakistan). As Taseer reminds us in the closing chapters of Stranger to History, the world is richer in its hybrids.

[Also see: the Johann Hari controversy]


  1. Shiv is the coolest of 'em all. If I wasn't an atheist, I would probably worship him. I mean the guy was high all the time and was totally secure about his sexuality (all that tandav).

    Which self respecting straight male wouldn't want the mold of his organ prayed to by thousands of women generations after he lived (if indeed he did exist).

    The Hindu fundamentalists can actually use Shiv to appeal to the conscience of the younger generation of non-believers that have stridden astray, and bring them back to the path of righteousness.

  2. O par di gidgid di, thanks for the review. Well concluded, especially. Would have liked an unbiased assessment, though, of how honest the work really is, in the sense of the extent to which it is either written or not to satisfy a particular kind of market demand, seen by some (erroneously, would venture) to be on the upswing. Does the book acquit itself of the charge of being a function of the author’s lopsided upbringing?

    If not, then the joke, as with the stop-stop-we’re-running-out-of-virgins-up-here cartoon (which by the way is acutely funny), might well be on the unwitting caricaturist himself. Speaking of brains in bubblewrap, Mr Flemming Rose of the turbanator justification infamy may not have set out to be so premeditatedly explosive in those doodled depictions if he had been a truly liberated liberal: someone, that is, who is not a slave to his own petty fixations/handiwork (or anyone else's), and would rather not have others be such slaves either.

  3. Jai perhaps you could also try reading Amartya Sen's Identity and Violence exploring issues surrounding the point of religion and why it suddenly becomes the only thing people identify themselves with. A brilliant essay although I thought the book could do with a better editor.

  4. Anon: I've written about Identity and Violence here. Might take it out and reread it sometime.

    ArSENik: yes, I was quite the Shiv fanboy myself - and I used to get mighty annoyed when my pious nani proudly announced to anyone who cared to listen that I was a "Shiv bhakt"!

  5. How does it compare to Naipaul’s Islamic journey? Sure he focused on non-arabs (charmingly called converted peoples) and his intolerant rants made it very easy to dismiss him as an islamophobe, but he raised some hard questions. It’s interesting to see them echoed here by a writer who I assume has a far more sympathetic view of the culture.

    Is there anything on his mother’s political opinions? That would be quite an interesting subject.

  6. Nicholas Kristoff (NYT), in "The Daily Me", warns all "selective" readers against retiring from intellectual life into the "reassuring womb of an echo chamber". Discussions on religion when tinged with latent bitterness and inner hatreds are mostly stuck there. Tsk Tsk.

  7. The unfortunate thing is that you don't need to get out of the realm of Islamic teachings or history for that matter to pinpoint how all the ruccus that ensued after the cartoons were published was 'wrong', at least 'islamically', if such a word exists. If defiling the prophet was a crime that needed murder or wide scale violence, early history of Islam would involve murdering every single Meccan and Medinite. However, people who were out on the streets do not comprehend that. Their brand of religion is something that is completely governed by ego, pride, irrationality, and whatever the hell some sheikh told them, or worst by the constant paranoia of being "threatened by the jews".
    They even failed to understand that the buildings and franchises they were demolishing and looting did not belong to anyone but themselves (fanatical mobs in Lahore e.g. stoned banks and attacked restaurants). Interestingly, about 25% of these 'muslims against jewish/american/western conspiracy/attack' wore rip-offs of Levi's jeans and hollister t shirts. I am also 100% +ve, that if u were to ask any one of these rioters "need a visa to denmark", they wud say "aye aye sir", forget everything and march off to denmark!

    Men do a lot of things under the name of religion. It is, like patriotism, one of the best tools to exploit and ignite. Sadly, in case of religion, the behavior, even the predominant behavior at times, does not reflect anything of the actual religious teachings or history.