Tuesday, June 28, 2011


Edit: Someone implied to me that maybe Pawan Durani is not the writer of 'that' post. I don't know. How ridiculous all this cloak-and-dagger business is. In any case I am replacing his name, just in case.

 If there's anything I find trying, it's a complete misreading of something I've written by people I don't really care to invest time in. But the misinformation is so annoying, it must be set right.
Last September I wrote an opinion piece in the Hindustan Times 'Are We Ready To Let Kashmir Be?' which was followed by the usual noise and backlash from trolls or other readers who saw much in the piece that I did not even imply. As happens always, the noise faded after a while, and I even had a few civilised though very opposing responses such as this one by Primary Red. One does not have a problem with a different point of view. One even welcomes it provided it is done with a certain amount of reason, sense, civility, absence of silly assumptions, and an impersonal-ness. [I made that last word up.]

Anyway. I was linked to a Tweet about my article [but no mention or tag given to me, hmm.]  This post happened yesterday, and it's coming on to almost a year since I wrote the column in 2010, so I was a little surprised at the timing. Soon after, surprise turned to irritation turned to amusement.

Just to quickly get back to certain observations made by AnonWriter Ji, the writer of the piece ['Ji' implies a lot of respect as I gathered from his blogpost where he has addressed me as Sabah Ji every single time ~ yay! thank you!]. 

I'm going to keep it short and simple. Here we go. AnonWriter Ji's quotes in blue:

1. 'Sabah Haji starts with why does it justify to be called a Kashmiri for those living in the state of Jammu & Kashmir. How can a person from say Ladakh , who may not even be able to say “hello” in Kashmiri call himself a Kashmiri ?  How can a Dogra from Udhampur , Jammu , Kathu , Samba call himself a Kashmiri when he hardly knows the language or doesn’t even live in . How can a a Gujjar Muslim from Poonch or a Shia from Kargil call himself a Kashmiri , when they speak a different language  ?

Errr. Yes, thank you. I never said a Ladakhi or a Dogra should call himself/herself Kashmiri. I was speaking for people like me who live in the Jammu belt but speak the same language. Instead of repeatedly implying that this is a Kashmir Valley-specific movement, please know that there are substantial portions of the Jammu pahari belt that identify with the sentiment. Within Kashmir, I can call myself Pahari. Outside, I take the generic Kashmiri to apply to me. To quote myself [since it was an opinion piece coming from me about what I feel]: 'We speak Kashmiri. So that's our identity.'

2. I would be delighted to know how does a 5 or a 6 year old child know what different nations are ?  What “Azaadi” means ? Why  India should be hated ?  Does this not get picked up while watching how the elders behave or act .  This is purely a behavior a child from any community in Kashmir or elsewhere is likely to pick up from the parents or elders he/she witnesses each day .

I would love to delight you, but am at a loss as to how. I tried to do this in simple English in the original post but it seems to have escaped your notice.
If you pick up my line immediately after the one you've quoted: 'Somewhere between infancy and childhood, I had picked up unwittingly on what most of my family and people felt.'
Now, when I say my parents or any of my cousins'/friends' parents or any adult that I know of, did not feed us kids revolutionary mantras or hold daily sessions to tutor us in the art of 'knowing something is wrong', it is quite possible that that is exactly what I meant, and can you believe it, that I was actually stating the truth! You can, of course, imagine that we are some sort of sick 'others' where parents don't even know how to bring up their children without introducing politics and prejudices in their heads, but that's your call. And has nothing to do with what I've written. What you're saying quite simply then is that I'm lying. Errr. Oh-kay... *shrug* Whatevs.

3. Sabah Ji has very intelligently tried to balance and clear the issue of exodus and atrocities upon Kashmiri Pandits. Now isn’t that interesting , nowhere a courage to call spade a spade ! Instead she goes to extent of even blaming , yes you have read it right , she has ‘blamed’ some Kashmiri pandits of ‘communalising’ the ‘movement’ as well.

Ah. My favourite bit. Where you play the famous Muslim versus Pandit card, implying that because I am a Muslim I don't think what happened with the Pandits at the time of their departure was wrong.
And slightly hyperbolic outrage that I was blaming some, yes you read it right! blaming some Kashmiri Pandits for events around  the time.
I am not into the blame-game you and other easily side-lined Kashmiris are so fond of on the Twitters. That Pandits were made to leave is indisputable fact, as is the reason why. That there were Kashmiris - Muslims and Pandits - who worsened the situation, is also indisputable. I am not blaming the entire community for having to leave. I am not stupid, but thank you for attempting to imply that. It amuses me even today.

4. Can Sabah Ji pls let us know if Subhas Chander had killed innocents and raped women ? Did Bhagat Singh go out and plunder places of worship of others?

Hmm. Let me see... NO! These two heroes of the Indian Independence Movement never did rape women or plunder places of worship that I know of. You really should read your history textbooks closely. It's all mentioned in there. 
Now, Bhagat Singh Saheb was in fact hanged for shooting a police officer - I am unable to comment on whether that qualifies as killing an innocent or not. [Also, according to Rang De Basanti, random people were shot by the revolutionaries. Okay, okay, I won't take facts from a movie. But awesome film it was! Have you watched?] 
Anyway. What these two gentlemen did advocate, which is what I was referencing, d....uh!, was violent resistance. The same ideology that was the armed resistance in J&K in the '90s. I don't support it, but I find it laughable that people throw this in our face all the time as if India's Movement was something wholly sacrosanct and its leaders never had to resort to violent means to get their point across.
Another beauty by you of course is the implication that ALL the militants of the time were into killing innocents, raping women, and plundering places of worship. Nicely done! But, mehhh, lame. Not so. Certainly outrages were committed, there were horrible crimes done, and again, this is indisputable fact. I'm not going to ask you to look at the outrages done on the other side because apparently they don't matter.  
Am also not into comparing wrongs or pitting numbers against each other. We know how that works.

What's next, what's next?

5. As for someone asking “Aap Hindustan se hai ” to people in Kashmir , all I can say is that the argument is a bit to stretched by Sabah Ji . Unlike her, I am from the valley while she is from Doda district .

Tsk tsk. AnonWriter Ji, there you go calling me a liar again. And also all my friends and their families who have told me that their tour guides have asked them this question. Erm... What does my being from Doda district have to do with the simple fact I stated that tourists from India ARE considered as coming from Hindustan, and therefore not Kashmiris? I'm not saying it happens to each and every tourist. I'm saying it happens, and has happened often enough. My point was one of Kashmiri identity. I'm sure the very intelligent and quick-witted tour guides even KNEW the tourists were from Hindustan and therefore asked them. You see? 

Oh, forget it.
This was fun. *insert smiley*

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Convert - NOT a book review, just a response

Deborah Baker’s latest biography ‘The Convert - A Tale of Exile and Extremism’ chronicles the astounding story of Maryam Jameelah - a ‘prominent female voice for conservative Islam’ [Wikipedia] and a well-published author - her conversion to Islam, her sudden move to Pakistan and her life and work there.
The ‘tale’, spanning a period from Jameelah’s childhood in the ‘50s to her ‘hijrah’ or ‘escape’ to Pakistan in 1962, and thereafter her life and work till even as far as 2009, is ‘astounding’ in its very essence. Jameelah was born Margaret Marcus in a Jewish family in post-WWII New York and ‘The Convert’ traces the story of how she gradually came to reject America [and all that the West symbolised] and embraced Islam as her chosen way of life. It is even more fascinating as we see Jameelah’s story intertwined with that of her mentor and guardian in Pakistan, Maulana Abul A’la Al Maududi. [Maududi was the founder of the Islamic evangelist group and political party Jamaat-E-Islami, but is more famously known as the intellectual founding father of militant Islam.] It is on Maududsi’s invitation that Jameelah eventually moves to Pakistan and renounces her life in the America she grew up in.

Not knowing anything about either Baker or Maryam Jameelah, and only very little of Maulana Maududi except his renown as an Islamic scholar, I approached the book with no preconceived notions at all. My first impression was based on the cover of course. A fully-veiled Muslim woman, the by-line to the title ‘A Tale of Exile and Extremism’, and a typically dramatic blurb by Fatima Bhutto on the face of the book did not recommend themselves to me and already I was rolling my eyes. Happily, judging the book by its well-marketed cover proved to be premature. Because Baker’s careful biography turns out to be a very interesting, balanced read on a decidedly difficult and intriguing subject spanning many years.

‘The Convert’ was an easy read, start to finish; pacy in portions and lagging sometimes. It is told to us through a series of letters/correspondence between Jameelah, her family and Maulana Maududi, interspersed with Baker’s thoughts at the time of reading and her narration. The correspondence is not always arranged chronologically. My reactions to Maryam Jameelah’s story, with a female Muslim point of view at my core, were as follows.

First and foremost, I do not ‘get’ Maryam Jameelah. In that, despite a detailed observation of her childhood and thoughts growing up [through her correspondence], it is still pretty unbelievable to understand how she [or anyone] could suddenly opt for a complete change of life, religion, culture, geography and situation – with the mere support of an as yet unknown but generous stranger halfway across the world [Maulana Maududi]. It boggles the mind and is unsettling till the very end. This and various other clues and ‘reveals’ throughout the book [tantrums, nervous breakdowns, schizophrenia, stints at various mental institutions], point to a Maryam Jameelah who is not entirely the most reliable narrator of events.
From the beginning we see a maladjusted, intellectually precocious, socially misfit Margaret with contrarian views and a fixed opinion on everything. There are periods of prolific writing and correspondence, and then periods of total silence. We are also told that there is much that Maryam Jameelah does not reveal about herself, and that a significant portion of her correspondence is written much later than the dates shown in them. Which means Maryam wrote the letters retrospectively. Why? We find out towards the end of the book that Maryam continued to show behavioral problems in Pakistan.  There are so many oddities like this which leave one with a feeling of skepticism about Maryam Jameelah. She comes across as very eccentric, particularly in the all-too-brief meeting Baker has with her in Pakistan. Baker tells us in her ‘Note on Methodology’ at the end of the book that Maryam’s letters do not appear as she wrote them in the original and are mostly edited, rewritten and condensed by the author. There is no reason to believe the real meaning of the letters was changed, but this fact casts a slight shadow over the reading. Just a bit. Was it the author’s intention to cast a doubt over Maryam’s credibility at the end of the day? Because it certainly comes across as such, though Baker never at any point makes a statement one way or the other. Being the subject of the book, I was expecting complete clarity and a better understanding and appraisal of Maryam’s personality and thought process. Unfortunately I am left disappointed.

As to her writing and work as a scholar, there can be no doubt that Maryam Jameelah was lucid, trenchant and very on the ball in this regard. She was scathing in her criticism of the West and all that it signified. She believed that ‘Western civilsation and Islamic civilsation were implacably opposed’. This coming from an American Jew who had completely rejected her life there was a major attraction in the Islamic world, and the Jamaat naturally encouraged and patronised her. Maryam’s writings have ‘bristling and grandiose titles’ and open denunciations of the West, which appealed to many Muslims. As they still do. Together with Maududi, Maryam rendered the gap between a superior and just Islam and the unjust, overbearing, morally deficient western world as unbridgeable. This goes down very well with a huge population particularly in developing and poor Muslim countries. Again, I cannot understand where the ferocity of her convictions and her distaste for the West spring from, and this is another aspect that makes Maryam’s story so unique.

In her personal capacity, Maryam believed in a very severe form of Islamic living. To her it was an ‘all or nothing’ practical life choice. I may not agree to such a rigorous interpretation [full purdah, complete segregation, women not leaving the house], but I can neither begrudge her those choices nor stand in superior judgment on her. If that is the choice she made for herself, I can disagree on an ideological and intellectual level, but that’s about it. This part of Maryam’s life – her purdah, her being a second wife - is what will irk most people, women especially. I don’t see why.

The book is as much a story about Maulana Maududi as it is of Maryam Jameelah. At the same time as Maryam was discovering herself and Islam, on the other side of the World in Pakistan, Maulana Abul A’ala Al Maududi was already at the helm of a powerful political-Islamic organization called the Jamaat-E-Islami, which aimed at the establishment of an Islamic state as the ideal.
For me, I got a clearer picture of Maududi’s mind and the Jamaat-E-Islami’s history than Jameelah herself through the reading of this book. There were many interesting things I picked up, like excerpts of his writing, and personal details of his home and family which we find out through Maryam’s correspondence with him. Instead of a raving, blood-thirsty fanatic, we see a very reserved, serious, no-nonsense, scholarly, and powerful man, completely dedicated to his cause and beliefs. That he was very set in his convictions, that he thought an Islamic state was the best form of governance for leading a true Muslim life and propagated it is indisputable. I am not familiar with any of his treatises on ‘jihad’ and hence unqualified to comment on whether or not he is truly the ‘father of militant Islam’ and the cause of its more virulent strain that we see rampant today.

As a female Muslim reader, there was certainly a lot of food for thought in this book. Because it is presented matter-of-factly and without condescension or that patronizing tone I have come to expect in the context of ‘women in Islam’ and ‘Islamic extremism’, I found it an enjoyable read. It is interesting to note Jameelah’s and Maulana Maududi’s school of thinking. I have the slightest misgiving about the title of the book, ‘A Tale of Exile and Extremism,’ which gives quite a different idea of what to expect in the book and what I find there. 
On the whole, Baker’s narration of Jameelah’s life, her relationship with Maududi, her life in Pakistan and her views on Islam are objective and non-judgmental. However, and to me this is the greatest failing of the book, Jameelah comes across as quite unconvincing and non-credible as a person. At the end of reading a biography on her, I wish it wasn’t so.  

There is no compulsion in religion.

Here's an edit of my reflections on reading 'The Convert' and 'The Good Muslim' as published in Tehelka Mag.

And below is my original, lengthier piece.

What is it about burqa-clad/veiled Muslim women that gets so many people’s goats? Such condescension, such disdain! Especially from women, and surprisingly to me, from Muslim women who choose not to wear the veil. Note: None of condescending/disdainful/disapproving women’s voices come from ladies who actually choose to wear the hijab/burqa. Like myself. Or so many other fantastic Muslimahs [female Muslims] I have interacted with in real life and online. Like regular girls, we like our share of laughs, our silly (oftentimes risqué) jokes, our music, our sports, our books and what have you. The only difference is we have chosen to wear the hijab, others haven’t. I don’t hold it against you that you don’t want to wear something, why must you hold it against us if we do? Or rather, and this is what I’m getting at, what gives anyone the right?

I recall the hue and cry from not so long ago regarding France’s ban on the full face veil. The intense debates online, especially on the worst forum for having any debate: the 140-characters-a-time-restricted Twitter. What a waste. To me, the debate was not about man’s gross injustices upon womankind over the ages, nor forcing women to cover up, nor was it about culture-over-religion, nor about a misreading of religious texts [‘It doesn’t say hijab anywhere in the Qur’an!’]. These were beside the point, which was: a matter of choice. Anyway, what happens in France can stay in France. The good thing is it opens up a very interesting subject for discussion.

One of the most endearing lines of the Qur’an to me, is the beginning of verse 2:256: ‘Let there be no compulsion in religion.’ I read it in the broader sense of ‘I cannot impose my religious will/practices/dictates on you, and you will kindly return the favour to me.’ Please note, it works both ways. This verse tells hardliners not to enforce their strict, often unreasonable rules, on others. It also demands that the other extreme not judge and rail against those who choose a certain way of life, dress and conduct. A more conservative way of life, if you will. No compulsion either which way.

I read two newly published books recently, both with their focus on female Muslim characters and Islam, both primarily set in the Indian [or South Asian] subcontinent. One was a biography by Deborah Baker, The Convert, and the other, a work of fiction by Tahmima Anam, titled The Good Muslim. I am not going to discuss the literary or factual merits of either work. I’ll pick up certain points that struck me in their reading, as a young Muslimah with a decent grasp of my religion.

Both works convey a slight puzzlement at conservative Islam. Maryam Jameelah in ‘The Convert’ and Maya’s brother Sohail in ‘The Good Muslim’ are individuals who go the whole hog in terms of Islamic convention. In the former, Maryam opts for complete seclusion, full burqa, no physical contact with the outside world etc. In the novel, Sohail undergoes a transformation beginning with a change to ‘the garb of the faithful’, and eventually he moves to the strictest Islamic lifestyle [or his interpretation of it], and a severance with even his family and friends. In both cases, the author/narrator’s reaction is perplexed. Why this change? HOW can anyone think and choose this voluntarily? This here then is my grouse. While I may not agree with many points of someone else’s religious practices, I must always understand that it is after all their personal choice and I cannot compel them otherwise. Non-religious, liberal voices have a particularly self-righteous way of holding up the faithful to scrutiny. Why? In your minds, are you better than us for the choices we make inside our hijabs and burqas and with our long beards and short trousers? Is it my clothes that bother you, my overt display of my religion? Or does it peg me in your mind as someone that thinks a certain ‘dhakyanoosi’ way? [I am sorry I cannot come up with a proper English translation for that word – unfashionable, outmoded, backward?]

Again, this works both ways. I might let the extremely conservative be, but will he/she kindly stop asking me to become a better Muslim by covering up, not going out, not doing this, that and the other? To stop haranguing against the ‘kuffaar’ and spreading negativity? Is my mullah going to answer for me on the Day of Judgment? *insert sound of the Last Trumpet* I think not. So, to the religious conservative, kindly pass on your words of wisdom and guidance to me, and then let me do my thing. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work this way in real life.

What is visible in both stories are the kernels of an unsavoury truth that we see all around us – that religion is hijacked by the narrow, often baseless interpretations of a few ‘scholars’ - those ‘deemed’ religious people, who eventually gain huge popularity as stalwarts of Islam versus the evil, decadent West. It is always a case of one-upmanship with these voices – our religion is superior, yours is inferior because of so and so. Unfortunately, this formula seems to be very popular with most. It is also responsible for most of the religious diatribe which taints what is essentially pure.

What is also visible is this other judgmental voice I speak of. The aghast-at-religious-conservatism section which really irritates me. Maya’s character in ‘The Good Muslim’ is clearly outraged at the ‘Islamisation’ of her brother. She despises any show of religiousness [for example a spat she has with a vegetable vendor who replies ‘Allah Hafiz’ instead of ‘Khuda Hafiz’]. In the novel, we see a possible justification for her feeling this way [the horrors of the Bangladesh war for independence are telling], but even so it irks. Other characters are also depicted realistically, always ready to mock religion. This is very common, we see it every day. I see this attitude online in well-read, well-educated people.

Religious judgement works both ways. The flag-bearers of ‘complete freedom and no rules’ versus the flag-bearers of closeted, narrow religious notions – neither are in the right.  At the end of the day, ‘Let there be no compulsion in religion.’ Please.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Cousin Riaz debuts in Tehelka Mag

What joy! What kicks! 
On the last evening of my last trip to the village, Breswana as you all should know by now, I scribbled some information after quickly interviewing young Riaz on the Government's new BPL classification policy.  Riaz is one of five brothers, all of whom are the hardest-working, most decent lot of kids I know from the current generation. Like all the rest of my village, he is a sort of cousin to me.
Spot the Riaz: Correct! Sweet fellow on extreme right.
To my utter delightful delight. Riaz's piece was picked up for a Tehelka report compiled by lovely Nisha Susan, who BTW is a brilliance. I do love her. 
Anyway, moving on. I proudly present 'The New Fortune List' in Tehelka mag, featuring the first lad from our area in any publication. 
*rabble rousing cheers*
Instructions to find Riaz:
1. Look at the page.
2. Appreciate the two columns of faces, and their info.
4. Click on 4th thumbnail in right column. Yes, the one that clearly says 'Riaz Ahmed Batt. 22'
5. Enjoy reading about his take on things.