First lines are gateways to open up worlds, I’ve heard, but how to start if one wants to close them instead?
Humanizing victims is a writers’ formula for alchemy, turning gore into gold. One option was to write about an innocent child maimed in the US-executed drone strikes in Pakistan, the tactically efficient one-click assassinations of violent militants which also killed scores of civilians as collateral damage. But human suffering is so emotive, so universal, that it almost flattens the context into sheer heartache, leaving only a residual sense of the tragic and a tsk on the state of the world.
Nor is there a point in starting off this essay with public ire at America’s propping up of military dictators in Pakistan while it preached to us about personal freedoms. Rage emanating from Muslim countries is considered clichéd, boring, and outdated now. As long as it’s unarmed, the anger is passé.
I’m left with the absurdities that contour us. The cover image on my grade school Urdu textbook was a man sitting backwards on a donkey. It was Nasrudin, the celebrated wise fool in Muslim cultures, his title changing by country: Mullah, Hodja, Hoca, Effendi, Juha. The mythical folk hero is loved for his tales: jokes at one level, outwitting conventional wisdom and limits of rationality; a portal at another level, making different patterns of cognition possible. When asked why he was sitting backwards, Mullah Nasrudin replied, “It’s not me sitting backwards; it’s the donkey who is facing the wrong way.”
Nasrudin is no tortured or earnest Sisyphus, suffering through a pointless existence of pushing a boulder up a mountain only to have it roll down again and start anew. Mullah Nasrudin makes a spectacle out of his rock rolling, inviting people to his theatre to come revel in its absurdity so that the audience, in perceiving it and laughing at it, can transcend it.
Rage-drained and empathy-fatigued, I wonder if this is my cop-out. A wry tone, some self-directed mockery, some smirking at others, all easier than delving into wells of despair to unearth hidden stories.
Mullah Nasrudin lost his keys in the marketplace and asked his friends to help look for them. As they searched, they noticed he was standing and peering under a street lamp. “Why are you looking only over there? Is that where you dropped your keys?” they asked him. “No. It’s the only well-lit spot. What’s the point of looking where it’s too dark to see?” answered Nasrudin.
9/11 taught large swathes of the world the value of American lives. Justice for those lives lost required that the US cement a military dictator in Pakistan, while mandating regime changes elsewhere; it necessitated carving Afghanistan into 700 military bases; it obligated the conjuring of weapons of mass destruction to invade Iraq; it compelled drone attacks and military operations and incurred billions in warfare technologies. The near-3,000 American deaths on that fateful day drew an indelible meridian around our memories and lives.
Those Americans resisting COVID-19 protocols in the US may have adapted to them more easily in our lunatic lands. Expats have been practicing social distancing for quite some time here, walled inside secured embassy compounds, some replete with schools, shops, and underground bunkers. In Islamabad, locals were not allowed to enter security-cleared enclaves without an invitation registering their citizenship number. Rents became astronomical and had to be paid in US dollars; special-value features on home rentals changed from rooftop gardens and swimming pools to shatter-proof glass and bomb-proof reinforced safe rooms. Many locals were willing to pay, vying for the status that comes with such privileged proximity, but accommodation advertisements in classified sections specified “for foreigners only.”
Public places accessed by expatriates took on siege architecture. Bremer walls—those 12-foot-tall steel reinforced concrete blast walls, first developed by Israel for the West Bank barrier. Hesco bastions—those wire mesh containers lined with heavy duty fabric and filled with sand as a barrier against explosions, to stop bullets and even rocket propelled grenades. Concertina coils—those razor-blade, flesh-slicing, galvanized steel takes on barbed wire. Motor cavalcades of hardened ballistic steel and Kevlar flooring with B6 or B7 levels of armor.
The main targets for terrorists continued to be Pakistani citizens, none of whom were afforded such security. There is no official total, but media accounts report fewer than twenty deaths of US citizens in Pakistan in over twenty years—apart from the American citizens killed by American drone attacks. A security coordinator in Islamabad assured me, “If it seems we’re being paranoid for no reason, it means the measures we took worked.”
Mullah Nasrudin carried a door with him wherever he went. When asked, he used to explain it as a security measure. “The only entrance to my house is this door, no one can enter without going through it. So I keep the door with me.”
The racial premise underlying nineteenth-century European empires is well-established. Colonial extraction combined with a distortion of Darwinism to claim there was a hierarchy of constantly competing, biologically separate human subgroups. US imperialism modified biological distinctions to civilizational differences.
The burden evolved from civilizing the savage to democratizing the intractable.
Sometimes they have to be reminded to change the color of the packaging, though. When the US government airdropped humanitarian daily rations (HDR) over Afghanistan while bombing it during the War on Terror, the sealed plastic packages were the same color as the deadly, unexploded BLU-92 cluster bomblets, making villagers run away in fright every time they fell out of the sky. The HDR packs eventually made their way to the bazaars of Peshawar. I bought two as souvenirs, and they became the centerpiece of dinner conversations for months. Emblazoned with “Food Gift From The People Of The United States Of America,” they included potatoes in tomato sauce, crackers and vinaigrette, peanut butter, pop tarts, plastic spoons, and culturally sensitive alcohol-free moist towelettes. If you know, you know.
Mullah Nasrudin used to take a donkey across the border regularly, panniers loaded with straw. The guards suspected him of smuggling. They searched him, the donkey, the panniers, and the straw, but found nothing, despite the Mullah’s increasing prosperity. Years later, he met one of the guards, who had by then retired. The guard implored, “Tell me, what was it that you were smuggling that we could never catch you for?” Nasrudin smiled. “Donkeys,” he said.
There’s an apocryphal anecdote about the police getting an emergency phone call and confusing the caller’s reporting of a dead ghorha (horse) with a dead gora (white man) and running over people to get there in a haste. Whether this actually happened or not, it speaks to police officials’ ultimate nightmare, to have such a thing happen on their watch. And not just the police.
My cook, George, was prone to drama. He had a fit when I told him some American journalist colleagues of my husband would be coming for dinner and to hold back on the spice. He spent the week bemoaning that one of them could get an allergy attack and die because of some ingredient he cooked with and he’d end up being transported to Guantanamo Bay. He found a soundtrack to his anxiety. An instantly recognizable beat, a classic song from the Indian movie Laawaris, where the working class hero dances around with a tambourine, singing of surviving all threats to life, travails of time, and quirks of destiny with a casual shrug because he didn’t matter either way, and asking the rich bad guy, “What will become of you, my lord?” George played it the entire time he cooked that meal. “When beads of sweat flicker off your forehead, the skies shake and the earth quivers. Your sweat is more precious than blood, while my blood is valueless,” he sang, questioning how the powerful antagonist with a supremely valuable life will be able to deal with the vagaries of fickle fate. “What will become of you, my lord?”
To be fair, it wasn’t all just fear. While “anti-American sentiment in Pakistan” has been written about in news and think-tank publications, most informed analyses point out that the resentment stems from hostility to US foreign policy and not cultural antagonism or religious or racial considerations. In contrast with the George Bush presidential diagnostic, “they hate our freedoms,” until very recently, few were aware of or concerned about dynamics in the mainland United States. When I get in a taxi pretty much anywhere in the Global South, the cab driver, after establishing that I’m from Pakistan, will shake their head and commiserate with some variant of, “You do something bad, and then the Americans come save you from yourself, then you’re much worse off—do you know what they did to us?” The “last best hope of earth” looks a bit dim from here.
Mullah Nasrudin was deputed as a temporary judge when the appointed one went on leave. When the first case was brought up, he heard the prosecution side and proclaimed, “You are right.” He then heard the other side’s defense and stated, “You are right.” “But both cannot be right,” objected a member of the public in the audience. “You are right,” said Mullah Nasrudin.
Women’s movements in Pakistan have been contesting Islamic fundamentalism for decades, since at least the 1960’s. Then, in confronting militancy in the War on Terror, the Western world stumbled upon Islamic fundamentalism. Then, in seeking internal challengers to it, they discovered Muslim women. Then, we became kitsch.
Lauded, liberated, laminated, published, packaged, paraded. Kundera describes it best. “Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all of mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch, kitsch.”
Kitsch has an antidote: irony. And the situational irony here, the contrast between expectation and reality, is the society-wide pushback against “saviors.” But the hyper-irony here is that we were screwed either way.
For one, Pakistan for the first time in its history voted into power a provincial government of a religio-political alliance which crested the wave of anger against the West for allied aerial attacks on Afghanistan. It went on to institute a range of regressive policies for women. On the other side was the local ultimatum: you could demand secular rights for women and a government crackdown on violent militants and in turn be cast as a native informant, or you could externalize the problem entirely and blame Western hypocrisy in a gesture of anti-imperialist cultural solidarity.
I mentioned resenting this dilemma when offered to speak at US universities about a report I wrote on the religio-political alliance vis-à-vis women. My would-be hosts were thrilled. To crudely paraphrase from memory, something to the effect of “Come say this. We’d love to support a Muslim woman breaking stereotypes and berating DC. Show them how far you’ve come.” It was an earnest, well-meaning group, yet this came across as a self-directed toast at the paternalist largesse of showcasing dissent. I had no interest in being exhibited as a middle finger to the establishment. I begged off.
The Mullah couldn’t think of a topic to preach to his weekly congregation. To deflect, he asked if they knew what he would discuss in his sermon. When people said they had no clue, he blamed them for ignorance and left. The following week, he asked the same, but this time people assured him they knew. “Then there is no point telling you what you already know,” the Mullah said and left. The third week, the people were prepared. When he asked if they knew what he wanted to speak about, they said some knew and some didn’t. “Then those who know can tell those who don’t,” Mullah Nasrudin said and left.
Through the War on Terror years, Pakistanis were assessed, researched, reported, and covered, at times judgmentally: “What’s wrong with them?” At times curiously: “What do they think? Feel?” At times open-mindedly: “What’s up? What’s goin’ on?” Thing is, most of the time, we didn’t know either. So we jumped aboard the quest for legibility. Except now I wonder about a maxim of the Greek gods inscribed at a temple in Delphi: “Know Thyself.” Was it a command or a curse?
Faithful yet not particularly bound to consistency, most people were comfortable with a selective reading of religion—literal, allegorical, pedagogical, historical, mechanical, fanatical, heretical, critical, lyrical. Is there a German word for contentment in the liminal zone between knowledge and ignorance, acceptance and denial?
Whatever it was, it’s gone now. The ambivalence crafted across generations, eviscerated in the need to know, to understand and be understandable, to not be seventeen things simultaneously. Radicals? Extremists? Islamists? Revisionists? Moderates? Agnostics? Culturally Muslim? A near complete focus on investigating piety and its gradations at the expense of political, economic, and other relational structures that mediate lives. Disciplines as diverse as history, theology, psychology, anthropology, conflict, and terrorism studies were deployed for understanding.
Maybe quantum physics should also have been part of the mix. We had been poised in a superposition, where a system is in all possible states at the same time. Which state it eventually ends up in is determined in the instant it is examined. We got examined.
By examining a particle’s path, the observer changes the outcome. The inquiry, the asking of questions, changed the answers. In the search for legibility, televangelists became superstars with live shows, fielding callers asking what Islam instructed about the minutiae in their lives; dedicated religious channels popped up; proselytizing daawa circles became ubiquitous; graduating networks for religious knowledge proliferated; people flocked to Islamist parties; religious affiliation and identity peaked; attire became a marker of authenticity; even music and art turned to spirituality.
Nasrudin was trying to nap, but the children playing outside were creating a racket. To get some peace, he told them a lady was distributing sweets and halva at the other end of the village. They ran off immediately. He lay back down but couldn’t sleep, anticipating their return and noise. When they didn’t come back, he figured it was because the desserts must be excellent and plentiful, and went off to get some for himself.
Visuals of the storming of the US Capitol were exasperatingly familiar and incredibly strange, like the Voyagers sending back footage of a husband and wife floating through interstellar space quarrelling over damp towels. The coups come home to roost.
Genealogies will be written once academics probe the history of the present. Presumably, the War on Terror will show up as one of the inflection points. The “othering” cultivated to justify secret detention at CIA black sites, “enhanced interrogation techniques” and torture; the notion that in special circumstances, rule of law impedes survival and must be broken or circumvented; returning war veterans wired to think of difference as a bodily threat; the conflation of immigrants with terrorists; the idea of radical evil operating as a political force. Ideas germinate and take on a life of their own.
As I saw the news footage on American television channels, anchors raised the same questions we’ve asked ourselves here about those who rose up against the state, albeit with unspeakably brutal violence that targeted common citizens. The same dejected conclusion—they’re us, but we’re not them. In Pakistan, we learned the hard way and at a steep cost: what you do outside seeps inside. It comes across better in Nietzsche’s famous line: “If you stare into the abyss long enough, the abyss stares back at you.” A cautioning based on experience: this is not over. Not, of course, that it’s the same phenomenon, nor is it at all comparable.
One day two men went running to Mullah Nasrudin’s house. When he asked what happened, they said a man who resembled him was badly injured in the market; they thought it was him so they had come to inform his wife. “My height and build?” asked Nasrudin. They nodded. “Bearded like me?” he asked. They nodded. “Same colored eyes?” They nodded. “What was he wearing?” he asked. “A pink shirt,” they said. “Pink!” exclaimed Mullah Nasrudin in relief. “Then it wasn’t me. I don’t have a pink shirt.”
Full disclosure: I’ve experienced honorary whitehood a few times while doing consulting projects with Western aid agencies. The first time I went to Iraq, I hadn’t expected to be met at the airport by six white army men carrying guns, get strapped into a bulletproof jacket and sped into the safety compound in a convoy of three reinforced bomb-proof vehicles, and to repeat this protocol every time I stepped out. I told the guy in charge that it was over the top; the security detail was the only thing that made me conspicuous in Erbil, at that time statistically safer than the city I lived in. He explained that those were standard operating procedures for their staff, all of whom were white. They couldn’t downgrade security measures for me just because I was brown. “That’s discrimination,” he said. “Are you suggesting we be racist?”
Mullah Nasrudin squatted in the marketplace with a large, wide bucket with fishes in it, trying to pick them up with a spoon. One man came and sat next to him and asked, “How many have you caught?”
“You are the ninth,” said Nasrudin.