Sunday, February 7, 2016

My experience at KLF 2016

At KLF this year I had two panels; "Italy Reads Pakistan" and South Asian English Fiction. Both were excellent experiences, but my overall experience at KLF was a mixed bag...

Italy Reads Pakistan
At the first session the Italian Consulate launched, with Andrea Berrini of Metropoli d'Asia, independent publisher of Asian-focused fiction in Italy, the "Italy Reads Pakistan" prize. The contest seeks to discover an emerging Pakistani writer who has written an unpublished novel in Urdu or English (or published only in Pakistan). The winner, after being chosen by a Pakistani and then an Italian jury, will be published by Metropoli d'Asia.

Joined by Gianluca Rubagotti, the Consul General, and HM Naqvi, the author of Home Boy, we had a lovely talk about how translations build bridges between cultures. Naqvi had brought both his English and Italian editions of Home Boy, and we heard Andrea Berrini read the translation in Italian, a visibly moving moment for HM. We discussed the problem of Orientalism in book covers, and how Berrini works to bring reality rather than media distortion to an Italian reading public.

South Asian English Fiction
In my second panel, I talked about South Asian English fiction in a fascinating panel with Kamila Shamsie and Uzma Aslam Khan, and expertly moderated by Muneeza Shamsie. We discussed the delineations and confluences between mythology, history and storytelling; oral vs. written traditions; matriarchal vs. patriarchal lore; and whether or not art and life can be separated. I paid tribute to Sabeen Mahmud as someone who lived her life in harmony with some of the highest values of art, and promised that we would make art out of her. Kamila astutely observed that she is now a living legend.

Olivier Truc
I had the good fortune to meet Olivier Truc, a crime fiction writer from France by way of Sweden. He's the correspondent for Le Monde in Stockholm, but he's also the author of Forty Days Without Shadow, a crime novel which has won at least a dozen prizes. Imagine my bemusement to see him on a panel about Pakistan's religious minorities, conducted almost entirely in Urdu. Organizers could have made great use of Truc's experience as a crime writer -- when Omar Shahid Hamid launched The Prisoner, there was huge interest in the genre and it was a pity this wasn't followed up this year with Truc's presence.  With the number of foreign visitors greatly reduced this year, organizers have to make sure that they think of excellent, relevant panels so that both the writer and the audience can benefit.

The festival was as crowded as it usually is, but there seemed some lack of focus about panels, and with a lot of dropouts from India, some of the hype had been deflated before the festival even got rolling. I did notice a vast improvement in arrangements for parking (dedicated lots with shuttle buses so no congestion around the hotel) and the food court which was moved to the Beach Luxury's own parking lot. But the organizers must do a better job of informing festival goers about last-minute cancellations by keeping the Web site updated for the duration of the festival.

I also experienced for the very first time at the Festival (and I suppose I was lucky that this never happened to me before) men who were openly leering at my body as I moved around amongst the crowds. I found this very disappointing, and contributed to my decision to leave early. It's wonderful that the festival is free and open to the public but when that decision results in overcrowding that makes women uncomfortable, perhaps that decision needs to be revisted, or a kind of lottery system for free passes can be introduced in the future.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Mapping a man's heart

Mapping a man’s heart is not a task for
the cowardly, or the foolhardy
Intrepid cartographers
Have stumbled and fallen,
sunk neck-deep in quicksand
Drowned in rivers whose depths
And currents they underestimated
From the safety of their drawing rooms
Back home in their discovered lands.
Cardiologists, too, have failed to
Understand that a man’s heart has
Many more chambers than previously
Realized: not four but forty, all
Drawing in and expanding, with breath,
With time, with the passage of
Days and seasons.
For a man’s heart is a shifting thing,
Part chrysalis, from which hatches insensible beauty
Part alchemist’s vessel, from which emerge both
Overwhelming envy, and ordinary terrors.
No man’s heart is safe territory
The map is deceptive, it doesn’t include the
Bridges that were bombed out years ago
Flower-filled meadows dotted with landmines
Roads erased, castles crumbled, mournful
Graveyards where the bones of the dead bake in the sun.
Who are you at war with?
You who were born so innocent
Are now a body criss-crossed with scars
You cut yourself with your own knife
To sever the lines, you broke your own back
Pulling up the drawbridge
The map to your heart’s a white flag
Begging you to stop the aggressions,
But you exploded the grenades a long time ago,
Your eardrums still bleed,
Still pierced with the swords of your lost countries.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Erasing Cultural Diversity in the Muslim World

This collage of photographs really doesn't need much explanation. On the left, women in Saudi-style abayas and niqabs. They've been convinced or coerced into wearing this uniform. They've been told that this is the way to paradise. Or they've been threatened with violence, or fines and jail if they don't comply. For many of them, this is the only way to leave the house.

On the right, the beautiful array of traditional clothing for women that you can find all over Muslim countries. Not one of these outfits is immodest or obscene. Some include a head covering, some don't. Yet they have all been deemed sinful, and a deliberate effort is going on to suppress and erase women's traditional clothing (and in many cases, men's, in favor of the Arab-style thobe and skullcap).

This is not Islam. This is cultural imperialism, mixed with misogyny.

As Inas Younis wrote in her deeply insightful essay "The Moderate Muslim Misogynist,"

...he too believes that God has created him to be a rational being,  except when it comes to his sexual capacity, where he is totally helpless and inclined by nature to gravitate towards the path of least resistance.  And to prevent him from falling into the deplorable world governed by loose women, he demands that all women exercise whatever degree of modesty he needs to maintain a state of chemical castration.   All women must, for the benefit of preserving his dignity, and the dignity of his society, act as one organism and not as individuals.  In some places this is taken so literally that all women are legally required to dress exactly the same.  In other societies they are expected to be completely desexualized.  Naturally this has had the opposite effect,  by hyper- sexualizing  the most benign and innocent expressions of female beauty.   And  if a woman  should step out and express her individuality,  it is perceived as an invitation to violently put her  in her place.

 I read those words yesterday, but it was the photograph above that really made it hit home. Younis goes on to write, about Muslim women who take part in this travesty, "Nevertheless, women in Islam continue to fulfill their part of the social contract, by feigning weakness as a sign of spiritual strength." But Muslim women who take up the abaya and niqab by choice also are complicit in the lie perpetuated by misogynists (who can be found the world over) that they are responsible for keeping men from sinning, by erasing every inch of their bodies so that they do not tempt men.

I have met women who attended Al-Huda classes who refused to wear perfume for fear of arousing strange men, as if men would turn around and sexually assault them if they got a whiff of Chanel No 5. In some countries women's voices are silenced from public broadcasts because of the fear that men will become aroused listening to them. Salafi interpretations of the Quran add to the verses instructing women to draw their outer clothes over themselves with a parenthetical instruction to cover their faces entirely so that only one eye can see the way.

When Muslim women believe in this sort of nonsense, they imprison themselves, and they insult men. They deprive men of the opportunity to practice exerting self-control over themselves. They do not allow men to deal with their temptations and conquer them and emerge better men. Even our prophets had to deal with these very human urges and control themselves. By hiding themselves away, women contribute to the sexual immaturity and underdevelopment of the men in their society.
And it's not as if those urges go away; when repressed, they emerge even more strongly and destructively in the form of sexual violence.

Women have a responsibility: to be normal, and to move in the world normally, so that men can also be normal. Carrying yourself in the world as if your very existence is a sin will never allow that to happen.

PS: Don't use this post to justify anti-Muslim bigotry or prejudice, or anti-immigrant racism. That's not what this post was meant for. Also, I have no problem with women wearing the hijab; it's the complete erasure of women that I protest.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

On Charlie Hebdo's Aylan Cartoon

Let me start with the obligatory disclaimer that the attacks on Charlie Hebdo last year which killed members of its staff and Ahmed Mirabet, the French policeman stationed outside to protect CH, were completely and totally wrong. Nobody should be killed for writing a book, drawing cartoons, or painting a picture or writing a poem. If it's wrong that Saudi Arabian poet Ashraf Fayadh is sentenced to death for his poetry, then it's wrong that Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and editors were murdered by the Kouachi brothers.

Now, let me say that while I've seen the backlash against the Charlie Hebdo cartoon depicting Aylan Kurdi as an "ass-grabber" if he had had the good fortune to grow up,  I also know what the cartoon is trying to say. The Charlie Hebdo cartoon is like one of those optical illusions - is this two faces or a vase? Once you've seen it both ways, you can't unsee either. Charlie Hebdo has always had a pro-immigrant, anti-racist stance. The cartoon mocks those Europeans who expressed grief for Aylan Kurdi's death by drowning, but at the same time want to kick Muslim refugees out from Europe because of the New Year's Eve assaults in Cologne.

Is it a sophisticated form of French humor that only French people can understand? Maybe. Plenty of non-French Westerners say they "get it" too. Is it funny? Not really. Is it insulting to Aylan Kurdi's memory and his family? Probably. Is it worth getting worked up? Definitely not. The best reaction to Charlie Hebdo, in my opinion, is a French-style shrug and the word "connards".  Yes, you have to be French to understand that because only French people understand French insults.

I can't wait for Charlie Hebdo's cartoon showing a grown-up Holocaust survivor Anne Frank to be a soldier in the IDF shooting Palestinians, to protest the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. Not going to happen, you say? But it's funny!!! You probably don't get it because you aren't French.

Friday, January 15, 2016

When A Poet Is An Enemy of the State

When A Poet Is An Enemy of the State

When a poet is an enemy of the state, when they
Set plans to behead him so he cannot speak
The truth anymore, they only show how
Fearful they have truly become. This life
Needs more poets, more artists, more
Men and women who bare their hearts
So that we might know our own souls.
Men with swords can never silence
Their voices; the more you kill them,
The more the world will sing their songs.

Palestinian poet and artist Ashraf Fayadh sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia (Updated) - See more at:

Monday, January 4, 2016

On Self-Censorship in Pakistan

Last night I learned that four Pakistanis and their organizations were longlisted for the Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression awards for 2016. These are, of course, Sabeen Mahmud and the Second Floor; Hamid Mir of Geo, Samar Minallah Khan, and Bolo Bhi, for its campaign against the Pakistan Electronic Cybercrimes Bill 2015.

This is excellent news, and I'm pleased to see these individuals and groups recognized for their "courage and creativity" as they fought against silencing by the state. In Pakistan we know exactly what they face as they strive to speak the truth. One of them lost her life, and another almost did, which illustrates the grimness of the reason for their nominations.

It brings to mind an incident of censorship that took place last week -- not state-instigated, though. The editors of the Express Tribune removed an article from the front page of the International New York Times which discussed the murders of secular Bangladeshi bloggers by Islamists. On Twitter and Facebook, the liberal intelligentsia condemned the Express Tribune for its cowardice. The move also drew comment from Margaret Sullivan, the NYT's Public Editor, who said it was not in line with the Times's values.

On the other hand, I was somewhat relieved that they had removed the article: in Pakistan, where being a journalist or a writer or a blogger can get you in a lot of trouble, nobody needs to be given ideas about slaughtering us to silence us. People labor under the misapprehension that only a small sliver of society would actually read the Express Tribune or the INYT, but this is a mistake made by the elites in our society, who look upon the non-English speaking media as somehow not as au courant with world events or unable to access the same media as the English speakers can.

Yet the times are gone where we could rely on the buffer of things being in the English press and not reaching the Urdu press. Articles are translated into Urdu and regional language papers all the time (I get translated regularly in the Sindhi press). And these days every television anchor reads the English and international papers (or their researchers do) and then they discuss it all on their evening talk shows in Urdu. Pakistani media has now reached the point of digital, print and broadcast convergence.

Still, the Express Tribune has its own reasons for having deleted the article. From 2013-2014, attacks on Express TV cameramen and vans, as well as on the Express Media offices took place, by people who were never identified. But fearing that it might have been the work of extremists, the executive decision was made to not run anything critical of the Taliban or of Islamic extremists. A cowardly decision borne of self-preservation, perhaps, betraying the principles of freedom of expression? Of course, when looked at in a certain light.

But when you have to answer to a weeping woman who is now a widow, her children orphaned, because the man who worked for you as a cameraman to support them was shot dead, practicality trumps idealism. When every day you drive by the place where your beautiful friend was assassinated, passing it on your way home from her cultural center where you wrote your novels and read them to audiences, your courage wavers.

As Afia Salam, a well-respected media trainer in Pakistan who also consulted with Bolo Bhi, says: "You know, in the trainings we conduct for journalists, we always tell them that no story is worth their life and they need to live to be able to tell the tale. If not carrying that story saves the Express journalists from serious threat, then we are no one to quarrel." She continued, "We don't seem to realize the threat journalists work under and while I would take up the cudgels on behalf of freedom of expression... there is no absolutism."

These are the ground realities of speaking out in Pakistan, of conveying the truth all the time. Is it a moral absolute? It should be, but it isn't. Is it a delicate balance between speaking out and saving your life? Yes, that's more like it. And I would be a liar if I told you otherwise.