October 2010

Daisy Rockwell

White Chick With A Hindi Ph.D.

Getting to Know You

I. Savory Snacks

Last summer, at the local farmers’ market, I was surprised and pleased to see a stand advertising “Pakistani Food.” Who would expect such an offering in a small New England town? But when I approached the stand, I found that none of the food, a series of fried, stuffed turnover-like snacks called "mantus," seemed all that Pakistani. I struck up a conversation with the man behind the counter. His English was poor. I tried Urdu. His Urdu seemed poorer. I was confused. He was confused. Finally, I asked, in English, very slowly, “You’re not Pakistani, are you?” He acknowledged that he was not. He suggested he was Persian, but said he was not from Iran. Finally I ventured that he might be from Afghanistan, and he agreed, but hedged his response by mentioning that he had lived for some time in Pakistan. He seemed convinced that advertising his food as Pakistani was a smarter business move than associating it with Afghanistan. This summer the booth has been a fixture in the market again, but now the banner reads “Afghan-Pak Foods.”

Thanks to such characters in the ever-expanding cast of the Global War on Terror (the officially retired title soldiers on in popular usage, despite the Obama administration’s weird new appellation “Overseas Contingency Operation”) as Faisal Shahzad, the loftily nicknamed "Times Square Bomber" (can you really be called a "bomber" when your bomb didn’t go off?), an awareness of Pakistan has suddenly burst into the American popular imagination. Our previous unfortunate lack of awareness of Pakistan in the United States has now been replaced with a perhaps more unfortunate awareness of militancy in Pakistan. Even the disastrous flooding of vast swaths of the country in what UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has characterized as a "slow-motion tsunami" has failed to make much of a dent in perceptions of the country. The chances that an increasingly xenophobic populace will agree to buy stuffed savory snacks from Afghanistan over those from Pakistan have diminished greatly over the past year.

II. Plain Vanilla

Green is the theme color in the Shahzads' bedroom. The curtains pick up the tone of the bed linens, and a bamboo print hung between the windows extends the botanical motif.

"There was nothing out of the ordinary about the house," Del Vecchio [his real estate agent] says. "There was nothing obvious; no radical posters or anything."

--From a description of the home of Faisal Shahzad (“The Times Square Bomber”) in Connecticut, in CNN Money

When Faisal Shahzad was arrested for trying to detonate a bomb in Times Square last spring, his prepared statements, read out when he entered his guilty plea, were mostly ignored by the media. Instead we were treated to speculations about how and where he was "radicalized," and real estate slideshows of his abandoned over-mortgaged home in Connecticut: “Our conversations were plain-vanilla, mostly about the real estate market,” muses his former real estate agent. Where in this suburban drab do we see the makings of a bloodthirsty killer? Lorraine Adams’s moving piece in the new Granta 112, an issue dedicated to Pakistan, is the first in-depth look at Shahzad’s case that takes us beyond this befuddlement over the yawning chasm between his suburban décor and the quickie seminar he took in bomb-making techniques from the Pakistani Taliban. Adams’s piece discusses another wannabe bomber as well, Matin Siraj, a Pakistani American convicted of attempting to commit a terrorist act and bomb the New York subway system. Unlike Shahzad, Siraj never even made a bomb, but was caught on tape by an FBI informant who nudged him along the path toward forming a plot to commit a "terrorist act."

The case of Siraj, whom Adams believes might be semi-retarded, is also discussed at much greater length in another new book, Amitava Kumar’s eloquent analysis of the weird cocktail of buffoonery, violence and inefficacy that is the War on Terror, A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of his Arm a Tiny Bomb. Kumar quotes at length from the transcripts of the FBI informant’s conversations with Siraj. Unlike Shahzad, who has pled guilty and clearly stated that it was his intention to bomb Times Square, it is unclear from these tapes that Siraj actually wanted to bomb the subway at all, or that he would be capable of doing so. Kumar ably demonstrates how stereotypes of the terrorist helped to solidify the argument against him in his trial, pointing out:

How has it come to be accepted as a fact that a young Muslim man is likely to be a terrorist? We recognize Matin Siraj’s every word and action as irrefutable evidence of a terrorist’s personality because it matches the profile we have registered on our retinas.

Adams’s essay includes a profile of a counter-terrorism expert in the NYPD named Ajani Marwat, whose insights into Shahzad’s motivations are clear-headed and incisive:

[Marwat] laughs at what some might consider Shahzad’s minor deprivations -- a suburban house that wouldn’t sell, a lousy commute. And he doesn’t think they had much to do with Shahzad’s radicalization.    

"If I put myself in his shoes, it’s simple. It’s American policies in his country. That’s it. Americans are so closed minded. They have no idea what’s going on in the rest of the world. And he did know. Every time you turn on Al Jazeera, they show our people being killed. A kid getting murdered. A woman being beaten. 24/7."

What makes the remote control drone attacks on the populations in Pakistan’s border regions palatable to Americans is of course their very remoteness: the fact that no real humans man the bombers is accompanied by a sense that no real humans are being killed by the bombs. As Judith Butler, Talal Asad, and others have argued so eloquently, American public discourse frames killing in terms of just wars and unjust wars. The lives lost in the Northwest Frontier Provinces (NWFP) of Pakistan are a negligible expense in the accounting of America’s War on Terror. The people killed are easily considered less human than "us" because we do not even know who they are. But what if "they" are also account analysts living in over-priced pre-fab houses in suburban Connecticut, holding US passports and sitting in the next SUV over in bumper-to-bumper commuter traffic? Faisal Shahzad, a Pathan whose prominent family hails from the NWFP, lived in both these worlds, and, as Marwat pointed out, he merely had to switch on the news to begin the process of radicalization.

III. Corn on the Cob

I got a better sense of the absurdity and ruthlessness of the regime when I mentioned the bhutta, or corn on the cob, in a radio feature. The script editor made a minor mistake and the censors mistook it as a reference to Bhutto, the Prime Minister, whom the General had overthrown in a July 1977 coup and hanged two years later, in April 1979. The producer was removed from that programme, despite several explanations.

--From “The House by the Gallows” by Intezar Hussain (in Granta 112)

The beauty of Granta’s Pakistan issue lies in its presentation of an array of essays, stories, poems and artwork that bring together in a single volume a portrait of the country that is much more complex and enriching than anything readily available in the United States. Militancy is an important topic, but so are pop music, folklore, religious minorities and even glaciers. Even for readers who have some knowledge of the region, Granta 112 is bound to broaden conceptions of life in a region grown cartoonishly over-simplified in a media market obsessed with underscoring Pakistan’s role as "The Most Dangerous Place in the World." While some pieces in Granta 112 discuss militancy head-on, such as Declan Walsh’s “Arithmetic on the Frontier” (the title is taken from the Kipling poem by the same name, which, for those pressed for time, will do just as well as anything to convince the reader that Afghanistan and the NWFP of Pakistan is where empires go to die), others merely allude to it, and some show no interest at all.

The longest piece in the issue is the story “Leila in the Wilderness” by Nadeem Aslam. A modern retelling of the popular fable Laila-Majnun, a Romeo and Juliet tale of ill-fated lovers, “Leila in the Wilderness” takes up the issue of female infanticide. The narration’s quiet magical realism gives it a timeless, folkloric feel, brought to earth periodically by leaden reminders of contemporary life in Pakistan, as in this passage, describing the clandestine construction of a beautiful mosque on an island in the middle of a river:

The masons and labourers had to work with minimum light, overcoming fear of snakes, djinns and scorpions. Only once did they think they were about to be discovered – when a truck broke down close to the riverbank and its driver and passengers got out to repair it, their voices reaching the island, the truck’s headlights visible. But they were members of a jihadi organization returning from Faisalabad, the city full of textile factories from whose markets chemicals used in explosives could be bought in bulk without raising suspicion.

At first I was turned off by the use of magical realism and the author’s attempt to cover so many bases at once. It seemed like another piece of fiction that owed a little too much to Salman Rushdie, and perhaps it does. But ultimately, the blending of the fabulist’s style with modern themes and concerns started to remind me of the amazing paintings of Pakistani artist Shazia Sikander, whose work takes Mughal miniature painting as a starting point and then moves way beyond.

Granta 112 also devotes a sizeable chunk of the issue to the visual arts, including the works of the Green Cardamom Collective (introduced in an essay by Hari Kunzru). Numerous other artists’ works punctuate the issue as well, and Jane Perlez (a correspondent for the New York Times) frames her essay on the legacy of Pakistan’s founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, with a discussion of how politicians prominently display different portraits of Jinnah for strategic effect. But by far the most arresting and meaningful image is the painting shown on the cover of the issue, a specially commissioned work by Pakistani truck painter Islam Gull. Most trucks in Pakistan are completely covered with elaborately detailed and brightly colored paintings. Truck painting is an artisanal profession and the elaborate designs on Pakistan’s trucks make Indian trucks, with their handful of tinsel garlands and occasional embellishments to the front and rear fenders, look austere in comparison. If any symbol, visual or otherwise, stands for all of Pakistan, it is the painted truck. Granta should be commended for choosing this image rather than, for example, a photograph of a clutch of frontiersmen bristling with Kalashnikovs.

If there is any complaint to be made about Granta 112 it is the lack of linguistic diversity. This is not an insignificant detail. The press release for the issue boasts the latest writing from “the corona of talent writing in Sindhi, Urdu, Punjabi, Pashto and English which has burst onto the English-language publishing world.” But, disappointingly, most of these languages are only represented by translations of extremely short poems. The renowned Urdu author Intizar Hussain’s reminiscence (translated by Basharat Peer, whose excellent essay on Kashmir is also included in the issue) about life as a journalist under the military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq is all too brief. Beautiful, exciting writing is not a new thing in Pakistan and many important authors of languages other than English are living and breathing in the country as we speak. How much more worthwhile it would have been to have read a translation of a short story or a journalistic piece from Balochi, Siraiki or Sindhi than to be subjected to Mohsin Hamid’s ghastly, though mercifully short, Danny Pearl redux tale “A Beheading.”

Luckily Granta 112 coincides with the publication of another collection of essays and fiction, much of it from or related to Pakistan. Austerely bound, prosaically named and precariously funded though The Annual of Urdu Studies (AUS) may be, its pages are proof that Urdu literature is an exciting place to visit. The new issue, celebrating twenty-five years of existence, is just out, and the contents offer much more for the casual reader than the academic-sounding name would suggest. Included in the volume are translations of six short stories, five poems and over seventy-five pages worth of stories, essays, memoirs and manifestos related to debates on progressivism in Urdu literature. More Urdu literary goodness is also available in the September 2010 issue of Words without Borders, featuring Urdu fiction from India and the June 2009 issue, which showcases Urdu writing from Pakistan. It is perhaps too much to hope that even Granta 112 will reach much of an audience in the US, let alone the AUS or Words without Borders, but those who wish to develop a more complex understanding of the country we are most closely allied with in our never-ending war, these publications are a good place to start.

Daisy Rockwell paints and blogs under the name Lapata. Also, she has a PhD in Hindi literature. Follow her on Twitter.