What does a young man, a love child of a cross-border romance between an estranged Indian Hindu journalist and a Pakistani Muslim politician-businessman, do when he seeks to understand his faith and an aloof father? Well, Aatish Taseer embarks on a journey of Islamic lands in what turns out be a robust debut in a thriving genre.
So in Stranger To History, two-thirds travelogue, one-third memoir, Taseer travels to what he calls a “strange arc of countries”—Turkey, Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan—to find out how faith works on the people and the state. An interlocking narrative of a search to connect with his Pakistan-based father doesn’t quite work all the time, but it is a brave attempt nonetheless.
Familiar worlds: Taseer lives in London and New Delhi. Theo Wenner
Taseer’s journey shows how once-rich and often heterogeneous societies have turned dysfunctional. Travelling through protean Istanbul, with its gay bars and Islamic cultural centres, he discovers that Kemal Ataturk’s legacy of “dogmatic secularism”—the state co-opted religion, writing sermons, hiring priests, hounding religious people—has now resulted in radical Islam coming in through the back door. Pushing secularism down the throats of people is no way to bring about a truly open and secular society. Crossing the border into Syria, he finds a closed, sullen Baathist dictatorship, a destination for international Islam teeming with spooks and souks.
Taseer travels to Saudi Arabia, offers prayers at Mecca which, he finds, has “very little to do with Islam and everything to do with Arabia”, but it is in Iran that he comes face to face with demons plaguing the faith. Tehran, he discovers, is a city of failed revolutions, the apotheosis of private profanity and public religiosity, of intelligence informants and gruelling interrogation sessions with passport authorities. The writer is in fine form here, trawling the city relentlessly, meeting Hare Krishna acolytes, partying with beautiful people away from the prying eyes of the secret police and meeting a female journalist who has been thrashed by the police. “Though Iranians,” he writes, “had not known the great machines of socialist and fascist repression, they knew a subtle, daily harangue” of a killjoy state.
Pakistan fares no better in spite of Taseer looking forward to meeting his father. The country’s assertion of Islam, he finds, is not quite the theocracy of Iran; it is through “purifying the population of non-Muslims”. The disappearance of the Hindu middle class after Partition also meant that the cleavage had deepened between the enormously rich and influential feudal class and the desperately poor—exemplified in Taseer’s depressing back-to-back encounters with a young mango baron and a poor, burnt man who is turned out of a hospital because he complained about the quality of treatment.
Taseer also finds a society of SUV-loving men living with faux macho delusions, not very dissimilar to caste-driven rich patriarchies in India. Corruption is as rife as it is in India, reducing the country to a “private limited company”, a fief of the rich and powerful.
But the greatest irony, Taseer writes, is that faith failed to bury Pakistan’s sectarian, regional, linguistic and denominational differences. “It was thought that the faith, as the basis of Pakistan, would trump all other identities,” he writes. But it didn’t. Nations and their people can live with multiple identities comfortably only in truly democratic and open environments.
What comes through in Taseer’s journey through Islamic lands and its people is unexceptional. It is a narrative of victimhood and grievance, of wounded pride, of living in denial, of myth-making and distortion of history (his father, and others in Pakistan, refuse to believe that some six million Jews perished in the Holocaust), of conspiracy theories, paranoia and a withdrawing, almost, from the world.
His journey is also a haunting picture of a faith in the throes of a struggle to come to terms with the rest of the world, taking refuge in what he calls the “tyranny of trifles”. Taseer’s cold and listless meetings with his father seem only to reinforce the gloom about Islam’s prospects in the modern world. He talks about the “smallness” of his rich and powerful father’s world, “the homogeneity of the place, in which people voiced ugly opinions without challenge”. In this safe house of “casual hatred” the writer finds no comfort. Closed societies beget closed minds. So do Muslims, as eminent scholar Fazlur Rahman says in his book Islam and Modernity, “need some first-class minds who can interpret the old in terms of the new as regards substance and turn the new into the service of the old as regards ideals”? There are no clear answers.
Soutik Biswas is India editor, BBC News website.
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