Stranger to History: A son’s journey through Islamic lands by Aatish Taseer
When he was eight, Aatish Taseer sent a letter to his politician father, who was contesting elections in Pakistan, through his journalist mother, who was coming from India to cover the polls. They met and the letter was passed, but Taseer received no response. A few years later, from his boarding school in South India, Taseer decided to make a call to Lahore. His father picked up and said, curtly, that it was not a good time to talk. So, Taseer called the next morning and was told, perhaps by his dad himself, that the person he was looking for was not available. At 22, after finishing college in the US, Taseer decided that his quest to discover his father would require going to Pakistan.
It was perhaps Taseer’s most important decision. In particular, it was one that would eventually lead him on a journey to confront the past – his own and that of his family, going back generations. But that journey came later, a few years after he had gone to Pakistan to meet his other family; after a thaw in the father-son relationship; after Taseer began working as a journalist in London; after his attempt to be a writer had left him with a failed novel; and after he did a cover story for Prospect magazine on the rise of a strong Islamic identity among Britain’s second-generation Muslim immigrants. His father contemptuously dismissed the story as one pandering to the West with “invidious anti-Muslim propaganda”, a story in which Taseer had “posed as Pakistani … without even superficial knowledge of the Pakistani ethos”. The reaction shocked Taseer, especially because his father was a pork-eating, Scotch-drinking man: not one who held the views of a radical Islamist, but one who nonetheless accused his son of being, essentially, anti-Muslim.
It was then that Taseer packed his bags and got on the road, with an eye to grappling with who he was. He knew he would have to deal with Islam, the religion and civilisation, which was integral to his own identity despite having grown up in the hybridised Hindu-Sikh culture of New Delhi, with an occasional element of ‘cultural Islam’ thrown in. (He realised he was different from the Sikh family of his mother only as a five-year-old, when he was urinating and a cousin stared at him and screamed, “Aatish ka susu nanga hai!” At that time, he wondered why anyone would say he had a naked penis.) So began Taseer’s journey to understand the Subcontinent, ravaged by divisions that had shaped and destroyed the relationship of his parents. To fulfil this goal, he would have to navigate not only through Pakistan – the land of both his father and his maternal grandparents – but also other Islamic societies, to explore the ‘ethos’ that his father had accused him of failing to understand.
The despondent journey
At an Islamic cultural centre on the eastern side of the Bosphorus Strait in Turkey, Taseer meets a young man named Abdullah, whose voice lingers on in the narrative long after the setting changes to other countries. What Abdullah tells Taseer touches on all the macro themes that confront the Global South: the struggle with modernity, and the manner in which individuals and communities are coping with the transformations therein. This struggle and the rage it produces, buttressed by a deep sense of historic injustice, assume a particular intensity in large parts of the Muslim world today. Abdullah knows that what he calls the “world system” has encircled him; he and his friends are happy with “Marlboro cigarettes and technology”. What bothers him deeply, however, is the conflict that exists between the world and “our ideas, our beliefs, our culture”. Becoming a part of the system may be a reality, but he asks whether this is actually acceptable. And the answer, he says, is no, for “Islam says you should live in a particular way … but if you do that, it is really hard to stand up in a capitalist economy.” Acutely self-conscious of the overwhelming nature and reach of the forces of modernity, Abdullah still wants to find ways to resist it.
Abdullah’s situation takes on a particular poignancy because of where he is. Turkey’s secular extremism, Taseer writes, “produced men … who were not content to be told to conceal their religion and wear European clothes.” If, in the more authoritarian countries in the region, non-Islamists and secularists have little space, here it is the Islamists and their sympathisers who have been forced to the margins. Both have produced their separate forms of dislocation, a theme that runs throughout Stranger to History, through Syria, Iran and beyond.
Is there then a fundamental incompatibility between Islam and modernity? Taseer argues that Islam has several interlocking elements – politics, history, those to do with daily faith and ritual. “It can be hard to disentangle all that,” Taseer said recently in conversation with this reviewer. “Modernity is a great threat, not because it is Western or Christian, but because the Islamic way will have to revise itself to make peace with it.” Responding to the accusation that such views reinforce theories such as Samuel Huntington’s ‘clash of civilisations’, Taseer is quick to point to the nuances of his argument, that there is a civilisation common to the world. “Islam exists within that, battling with some parts of it,” he said. “It has anger and resentment, but it is not as if there is an alternative world, unless it is a world of retreat and encircling yourself.” While such theories make it seem as though there are two camps with parallel world views, Taseer is adamant: “It is not like that. One is a reality and there is a reaction. It would be strange to give it parity.”
Another theme that grips Taseer is the notion of the faith as supreme, above national loyalties. This is inextricably linked to what he, like V S Naipaul (to whom he acknowledges an “intellectual debt”), sees as the tension between pre-Islamic and Islamic history in non-Arab Muslim countries, and the tendency of Muslims to live in denial about their past. Taseer also points to the old Islamic identity he encountered during his travels, which is different from the radicalised militant one taking roots among younger British Muslims. Formerly, the identity was a meeting of the religion and the existing culture, says Taseer, giving the example of Sindh. There, Islam was full of local characteristics – local saints were common, as were local rites and rituals. “It was a robust world, and that is breaking down,” he said. “Islam of the 20th and late 20th century was an attack on that kind of local Islam, besides being an opposition to some kind of Western threat.” This worries Taseer, who as a result sees people doubting themselves, their own culture and the world they grew up in, making them feel as though they have to meet some higher faith-based ideals.
The idea of an ummah goes back centuries. But in dealing with this notion, Taseer is on dangerous ground, for this is similar to the arguments of the Hindu right in India, which often accuses Muslims of having split loyalties and thus questions their patriotism. But Taseer is quick to distance himself from the anti-Muslim extreme. He argues that such views speak with little knowledge of history, or dismiss 1000 years of the Islamic past, while his own views embrace that history.
Taseer’s views can be seen as those that emanate from a Western liberal school of thought. His judgement, often critical, of the evolution of Islam in several countries may have been shaped by that prejudice. This also leaves him without the ability to turn the gaze back to the West, and the part it has played in affecting the developments of South and West Asia. When asked whether his secular, modernist perspective may have its limitations, Taseer says he sees immense value in secular high culture, while simultaneously believing that the Islamic world has declined by its own standards. “Take an example. The entire corpus of translated work done in Islamic countries over the course of centuries only equals what is generally translated in a country such as Spain in less than six months. Sometimes places can become saturated and cultural circles can close.” Meanwhile, the Islamic world’s response to this broader decline, he says, has been to retreat still further.
An ‘ugly’ idea
In Pakistan, Taseer travels with a feudal lord, who, he calls the Mango King, deep in the Sindh interiors. There, he sees a different world, one in which the state is barely present, where the bosses heft AK-47s, lieutenants hover around them, family rivalries are intense and landholdings are huge. He meets ideologues and Islamist politicians in Karachi and Hyderabad, and walks away impressed by their commitment. The system has been so corrupt that “the good men have turned to faith,” even though it provides no answers. He also spends the night that Benazir Bhutto died watching television with his father, the politician-businessman Salmaan Taseer. From struggling against Zia’s regime during the 19 80s, Salmaan Taseer had moved on to business and had only just returned to politics.
But did Aatish Taseer ever locate the Pakistani ‘ethos’ he had set out to discover? “Yes,” he responds. “It is sadly full of nihilisms.” The idea of Pakistan as a secular state for Southasian Muslims, Taseer found, has been debased. Instead, it has become a nation that defines itself in term of what it is up against, with most of the challenges beginning with India. Now, even as it is turning its back on the West, Taseer says that Pakistan is also straining away from the Subcontinent – which he maintains cannot happen. Ultimately, Taseer does not find anything vibrant or positive in the Pakistani ethos, because he says the very inception of Pakistan was “an ugly idea”. Logistically, Partition was madness, and intellectually, the idea of cutting the people away from their past and hoping to carry on was dangerously flawed.
Taseer may be right about Pakistan’s present existential crisis. But his assessment of Partition and its logic seems simplistic. His tendency to paint history in broad brushes has meant he has ignored – deliberately, perhaps – the set of circumstances and high politics that led to the 1947 upheaval. But the issue here may be less intellectual than emotional. Taseer’s rejection of the Pakistani ethos is also directly or indirectly related to a questioning of his father’s politics and life.
Salmaan Taseer has not read his son’s book. But he has heard of it, and isfurious that it deals with fundamentals such as his personal life, Islam and Pakistan. He has ceased all communication, and the awkward father-son rapprochement now lies in tatters. Taseer understands that as a politician, his father has to be doubly careful to “keep his nose clean”. Taseer senior cannot afford to be seen with an Indian family, which was one of the key reasons he separated from his wife, the well-known journalist Tavleen Singh, more than two decades ago. But Taseer is not apologetic about what he has written. “What he does not understand is that these are my personal circumstances too, and I have a right to deal with them,” he says. But his initial sense that reaching out to his father would move forward proved to be false, and Taseer is today left “without a relationship with my father”.
The strength of Stranger lies in its weaving together of the personal with the political. Taseer is honest as he struggles to understand the world around him. His voice – understated yet assertive, full of empathy but with a critical detachment on issues – lays bare his own story, detailing the sadness of someone who appears victimised by the very history of the Subcontinent.