Saturday, September 17, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: The Good Muslim

Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy

Published in Daily Times / Saturday, September 17, 2011

Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal
Author: Tahmima Anam

They call it a debacle for a reason.

Once the victory lap is over — the drumbeats of war lie silenced, the voices of protest are stifled — new questions arise. Can a landscape of fear be used to stage a new production of hope?

The sequel to A Golden Age is set in the immediate aftermath of the 1971 Indo-Pak war. The map of the subcontinent has been hastily rearranged — a new country has staked its claim on the spot where once stood East Pakistan.

Thirteen years on there are no thanksgiving celebrations.

Tahmima Anam takes a brooding look at the horrors of war and the price of peace through the eyes of Maya and Sohail — siblings who played their part in carving out a fresh national identity. One is a crusading doctor newly returned home and the other, a former warrior, has replaced arms with the Book. The story is centred on a fraught homecoming and a fractured relationship.

It is the early 80s and they have been estranged for several years. While Sohail is slowly being consumed in a religious fire, Maya’s emotional journey takes a circuitous route through purgatory; one second she struggles with her faith trying to circumvent the new barriers that surround her home, next she embarks on a rescue mission parting the veil between liberal and fundamentalist forces. Tahmima furnishes the scene with rich characters to offset the bleak moment of creation and its tragic consequences.

The book jumps back and forth between different time frames to explore the murky aspects of religion, politics, and morality, drawing energy from the remnants of a 40-year-old secessionist movement that left deep imprints on the land. Survival, redemption, desperation, injustice are the centrepieces while unsettling images of the carnage hover in the background. The primary focus of this cultural tour is not on what they won but what they lost.

Bringing that era back to life posits many challenges. History will be recalled and depending on which side is being represented, it will be used to vindicate or incriminate the participants. The post-war period continues to suffer from the aftershocks — it harbours a deep resentment for a retreating army that cannot be assuaged. It bristles at its own inadequacies. It trembles for the fallen women. The sorrowful murmurs of its shameful past are amplified while places that continue to reverberate with their echoes are revisited.

The ending feels a little contrived but Tahmima skilfully keeps readers occupied with questions: what turned Sohail away from the world; is the nation ready to acknowledge their unwanted legacy of war; how much can be salvaged from the fiery cauldron of hate?

These sombre memories strike a chord because of the presence of characters carried away on dangerous tides of religion at a time when madrassas were not on the radar and fundamentalism had not attained a hold over the region. The ideological strife between Sohail and Maya reflects a deeper more pervasive problem that holds resonance in these troubled times. The radical Islam depicted here however has yet to develop the terrifying capabilities that could engulf the globe. In the early days, only those who stand too close get burned. The sole casualty of Sohail’s obsession will be his own kin.

'The Good Muslim' takes a winding road lined with shell-shocked freedom fighters who crusade against inner demons and a nation’s desperate struggle to reclaim lost souls — both converge in a countryside continually blighted by allusions to war. Maya labels her newly acquired land as a fast acting country — “quick to anger, quick to self-destruct”. There is talk of ‘prisoners of war’, about whom she thinks were “released, put back into their uniforms and sent home to Pakistan adding how no sorrys were exchanged. Anointed by the hand of forgiveness, they would grow old without shame”.

Her critical self-examination captures the misery at home but carefully sidesteps the troubling role its own played in the war crimes. Such elisions upset the balance. The book, which is the second part of a trilogy, is both an ode to the living left to tend the scorched earth and a wake for the dead.


Harper; Pp 304; Rs 995

Monday, September 5, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: Playing with fire: Pakistan at War with Itself / By Pamela Constable

Published in Daily Times / Monday, September 05, 2011

Reviewed by Afrah Jamal


So this is where your people retreat from fundamentalist kind?”

It was not, but to the nice American perhaps that golf course appeared like a sanctuary in a land riven by violence. While it is true that every day something new drives a stake in this illusion of security, that day — at least — there was not a single fundamentalist in sight.

Today, such private islands are under threat alongside everything else. Pamela Constable, foreign correspondent and former deputy foreign editor at The Washington Post, puts the nation under intense scrutiny, identifying the war for Pakistan’s soul “with one set pulling it forwards towards a modern international era, the other back toward a traditional and ingrown world”.

Her new book knits disparate elements of Pakistani society extracted from various testimonies into a grotesque tapestry littered with bloodcurdling tales of injustice and violence. Segments from crisply titled chapters — Hate, Khaki; Talibanisation; Honour; Siege — read like a dystopian novel where a society is slowly being unravelled by its own prejudices and “where no cause (is) too noble to subvert, no beneficiary too humble to cheat and no martyr too scared to exploit”.

A smorgasbord of issues like social injustice, intolerance, corruption, and class warfare are served up with relish. Some, like terrorism, are given ample coverage in the media. Others that touch upon the inherent bigotry or gender politics get sidelined by security issues. Here she moves from stately corridors of power to the saintly looking houses of worship — already fractured before the Taliban made an appearance; where people are shown to be complicit, squandering away their hard won freedom in a hundred different ways — collectively caught in the crossfire.

This rendition generates a mix of fear and loathing — with some pity thrown in for the common man caught in a vice. The upper crust, which cannot carry out a polite conversation for more than a few minutes “without the host/hostess interrupting to order about some servant or the other to do tasks they are perfectly capable of performing themselves” invoke her contempt. Her point is that “these requests, no matter how politely framed, no matter how genteel the patron, reinforces the gulf of class and place that has long kept Pakistani society stagnant and stratified instead of allowing it to become dynamic, creative and diversified”. She adds a chorus of voices to her own like Roedad Khan’s who believe that a major obstacle to democracy “is not the anger, frustration and religious activism of the poor but the passivity, silence and cynicism of the elite”.

About the diversity she fixates on the contrasts between the women from different backgrounds that in her opinion “are so stark that women of Pakistan truly might as well be living in several different nations and centuries”. About the bosses she speaks of Washington and Rawalpindi (home of the army) in the same sentence, while Islamabad (the Presidency) recedes into the background.

Then there are the Taliban whose behaviour, according to her, is not that far out of line. Why? Because Pakistanis are accustomed to living with a brutal police culture, “a domestic spy apparatus that used slander, lies and espionage techniques as political weapons, topped with a ‘tradition of tribal codes that mandated harsh punishments for moral offences”. This argument is repeated ad nauseam. “There is very little liturgical space between the demands of the Taliban and calls by other conservative Sunni groups for a total Islamic state,” she adds. Citing a poll that shows 80 percent of the population in favour of harsh punishments drives the point further home. Yet, many would argue that were this true then the outrage at the infamous Swat video would not have sent the army to liberate Swat; or kept religious parties at bay (so far).

But at the same time it is hard to deny the disturbing trends where “an accusation of blasphemy — however vague and unsubstantiated — has the power to sweep away reason and objectivity even among officials charged with enforcing law and administering justice” or the closet Taliban mindset that allows the real deal to thrive. Or the fact that the sole noble laureate Abdul Salam, an Ahmedi, is seldom mentioned and whose achievements she insists “were an embarrassment and a glitch in the official narrative that Ahmedis are enemies of Islam — infidels to be avoided, mistrusted and despised”.

There are minor corrections — August 14 is Pakistan’s Independence Day and not its Defence Day. True, Karachi is home to a “volatile mix of criminals, business mafias, political shock troops, Islamic sects, militant factions and warring ethnic enclaves” but to state that Afghan migrants fleeing invading Soviets built the city is a stretch. The sole comfort in this miserable scenario — the writer does not think Pakistan is a failed state;: fake yes; failed no — agreeing with Roedad Khan’s assessment that it is “one that has means, opportunity but no moral values/political will to use them”.

For her the single greatest political achievement in this nation’s entire 64-year existence will be “ensuring that an unpopular corrupt and indifferent leader stayed in office for his full term”. For Pakistan’s sake, one hopes she is wrong. The book sums up 64 years of mistakes, misdemeanours and masquerades and delivers it with merciless precision. The one person who comes out with his dignity intact is Edhi — a man who she says “has always perched from an unassailable perch on the lowest rung of the ladder; who “runs far more than an ambulance service”. In her words, “It was a philosophy of life.” Fortunately, there are many such voices of reason. They just tend to get lost in this din.


Random House; Pp 352; Rs 1,495