Adding ‘Complexity’ to the ‘Simplicity’ of Racist Constructions – and a rabbit that was not allowed to come out of the hat

Fauzia Rafique
2018

Art work by Ed Kuris

During the 2010 Winter Olympics, I found myself doing a short term minimum-wage job in Vancouver soliciting signatures on a climate change petition from the streets surrounding some of the sports venues. I was part of a small team instructed to work in pairs for safety. In the first couple of hours on the job, I received many ‘raceompliments’ such as, ‘Your english is good’; ‘Lucky, you don’t need no sun tan’; ‘Paki-bitch’; ‘Where is your hijab?’; ‘Where did you come from?’; ‘Where did you learn your english?’; and, of course, ‘Go back where you came from’.

Right away, it was necessary for me to put in place a defense strategy, and my instinctive temporary solution was to begin sharing these ‘comments’ with my team mates in order to stop the racist attacks from piling up on me. Keep in mind that these comments were like fresh items being thrown onto a compost heap as high as a downtown highrise, since I have been a Canadian for over thirty years, and before that, I was raised a woman in Pakistan, so the heap was already made up of numerous ‘sexompliments’ and other ‘woman-abusements’ from there and here. So, I began sharing these racist vignettes in the form of small jokes, and my team mates, all young White people studying at local universities, were supportive. We laughed together and that made all the difference to me in terms of continuing to work while taking these insults at the rapid frequency that they were being dished out to me as a Woman of Color working on the street.

By the end of that week, I was asked to meet the Boss, who after listening to me became a bit restless in his chair. He said that perhaps I was making the situation more complex than it actually was by exaggerating my street encounters. That threw me off a bit because he seemed like an educated person who was apparently committed to bringing change for the better, and I couldn’t reconcile it with his blaming-the-victim mentality regarding my direct encounters with racism. So, as if joking, I asked him if he was a racist. At that, he jumped up from his chair, and said something that I could never forget, and these were his exact words (except for the name of the country perhaps): ‘How can I be a racist? My wife is Jamaican!’ To me, his concept was, and is, as baffling as: ‘How can I be a sexist? My wife is a woman!’ But, I recovered quickly, and asked if his wife had ever ‘shared with him’ any of her experiences of racism. He said no or seldom. That confused me a bit more, so I asked him about her profession, and it came out that she held a well-paid position with a government or education agency. That, of course, figured. I know how most professional middle class South Asians do not acknowledge that racism exists in this society, and they are adept in minimizing it when it happens to them or to others in front of them. Some even go as far as to stand with the settler-colonialists to condemn or to put down their own or other non-White ethnic groups. Racism takes many different forms, such as in this scenario where it is in-your-face naked, not woven in subtle processes of an educational or governmental office.

I must also note that for his part, the Boss was indifferent or clueless about the impact upon me of being exposed to those hateful racist comments, questions and statements said directly to my face, on the street, and at that high frequency.

When people choose to not see race as it factors in their lives and in the lives of others, they also may not see a few other things such as ‘class’. In this case, I was also taken to task by the Boss for soliciting and getting signatures from people who did not have an email address. Let’s see, what kind of people or which population groups are likely to NOT have an email address in Vancouver in this day and age? Yes, many homeless and older jobless people don’t have an email address, add to them some of the seniors of Color who have not yet made the transition from mail to email, people who live marginally, those with no access to technology, or ever learned to use it, rural folks, the poor. Does that mean they don’t have an opinion on the state of our environment, or that they are not impacted by it, or that their opinion is not worth having, or that their voices do not need to be heard in this matter?

The reason provided by the Boss was that signatures with email addresses could fetch the campaign a much-needed $5 each. It is interesting that he told me this even when at my job interview with him a few weeks back I had made it clear to him that I do not support selling people’s contact information when their signature was taken for one specific purpose, but that it was okay with me if a non-profit organization to whose representative that information was given, used it to send occasional messages regarding their own campaigns and events. It was as if that conversation had never taken place, and I was asked to stop soliciting signatures from those people who had no email addresses to be sold.

Since an average of only 2-5% of the signatures I took were solicited from homeless/jobless people or seniors of Color, why would a non-profit environmental protection organization not make room for them, in order to have their point-of-view and to include it in that democratic process? Instead of including the City’s marginalized voices, I was asked to stop gathering their signatures, opinions and input. Could this be because, like racism, it would have been too much of a challenge for the all-White middle-class organizers to reconcile these voices with their self-serving well-funded environmental activism? One wonders what the reasons could be.

Leaving the wonderment aside, let’s go to the end result: Even when I was the most punctual and hard-working member of the team who daily scored many more signatures than others, I could not last in that job for more than four of the six weeks, and even though they said they have my resume ‘on file’, I was never again asked to do any other work for them. Again, one wonders why.

This was a clear example of directly-administered racism on the street, and, it also showed us how that experience was NOT IDENTIFIED as racism by an all-White non-profit organization.

But that’s not the only form of racism encountered by People of Color in the workplace; there are various indirectly-administered forms that are subtle and way more lethal than the above. In those instances none of the ‘raceompliments’ are directly uttered but the actions, discussions and conversations show that that is what may have ‘informed’ the individuals who in most cases have not given the issue of systemic racism enough thought to determine where they stand or they have given it thought and have decided to continue to support the current prejudiced systemic structures. And, unlike the varied representation of people on the Street, in a non-profit organization a more homogeneous population may be found where individuals are well-educated and ‘aware’ of racism, and so the expressions are not as blatant. This unprocessed or processed, deep and submerged racism creates a much more difficult experience to live through and point to than the one shared above. We, as People of Color, must confront racism in all its varied forms in all different aspects of our daily lives- economic, social and political.

Art work by Ed Kuris

I had a four-month long debilitating experience of this ‘deep and submerged’ racism while working with another non-profit organization whose claim to anti-racism, or ‘diversity’ (their name for it), was to hire a hijab-wearing woman as their receptionist. Perhaps I was the only Person of Color ever hired by them in a decision-making role (the Project Lead); and, it seemed they didn’t know what to do with me. I was honored when they offered me the job on the basis of my work with Surrey Muse, as well as my ideas about the project that I had earlier presented in their community consultation meetings, and so I was delighted to accept. Three other people were also hired at the same time to look after publicity, technical direction, and coordination of available resources. I was asked by the Project Manager to develop a plan on the basis of project mandate and the notes from community-consultation meetings. I worked full-time (and into overtime) for the next three weeks to research and develop our plan, that was then sent to the Project Manager and the other three hired staff. That’s when strangeness began, where two opposites were at work at the same time, and one could not know which one was operating when.

For example, even though the Project Plan was unanimously praised by all concerned and it was approved without any significant critique or modification, much hostility began to come through to me via emails. As I was asked by the Project Manager to begin implementation, two of the three co-workers began to question my every move, from my developing the plan to getting the project logo redesigned. A meeting held between us was spent in squabbling about job descriptions instead of hashing out the implementation of the project. Soon, it began to feel as if I did not have colleagues or coworkers, but fierce competitors whose main job was to take me to task with excessive, and often self-serving and ill-informed, scrutiny.

I used the terms ‘ill-informed’ and ‘self-serving’ because in most cases, the concerned co-workers either had not taken the time to read the whole message or document under discussion, or they had not taken the time to inform themselves about the issues involved. For example, the person who sent long messages to say that I didn’t have the right to get the project logo made, hadn’t noticed that the project already had a logo and that I was only getting it re-designed (it had appeared too ‘simple'(!) to me and I had said to the Project Manager that we could add some ‘complexity'(!) to it). My second co-worker was dissatisfied with her designation and assigned areas of work (that had been agreed upon by her and the Project Manager before I was hired), and she remained focused on those throughout the four months of my tenure with them.

During this time, the Project Manager and his role also began to seem strange. For example, when the very first squabble arose (about whether I had the right to develop the plan) the so called ‘discussion’ went on and on for days before he made himself available to confirm that indeed he had asked me to develop the plan. I wondered why he didn’t do it sooner? Unfortunately for me, he followed this pattern regarding all such interactions- let the abuse happen, let me deal with it by myself. But if it appeared that I was beginning to embarrass my co-workers, step in and end it.

What this situation did to me was to put me under a lot of ongoing unneeded and unnecessary stress, and it left me alone to do the implementation of a sizeable project. What rescued me from this two-faced atrocity was the response from the members of Metro Vancouver’s arts community who were contacted by me to contribute their skills and time to the project. My heart softens and my eyes moisten with appreciation when I think of the fact that these were all volunteer positions. The project received support from individuals, organizations and businesses. Within a month or so, the project’s web page was receiving over a thousand views a day without us spending any money on advertising or promotion. Our calls for submission for different genres were reaching deep into the community where artists and writers of all ages and descriptions were motivated to contribute to the project. The implementation was going according to the plan, and everything was successfully in place in four months.

By that time, becoming tired of the abusive routine of my co-workers, I sent them an email message summarizing my work, and asking them to tell me what they had done for the project in four months. I went on to suggest that it might turn out better if they were to focus on their work instead of focusing on me. That brought the situation to a head, and within a couple of weeks, I was asked to resign by the Project Manager, and so I did.

In this regard, my curiosity remains with the priorities of the Executive Director and the Project Manager regarding that decision. They did not seem to understand nor care for the project mandate. Their actions seemed to indicate that they did not care, respect, nor honor the over thirty people from the arts communities who had committed to the project on a volunteer basis, half of whom were established and recognized professionals in their fields. The fact that official calls for submissions were made public, and the end date for submissions was near did not matter to them. Commitments made with the larger arts community also seemed ‘off their radar’ as they seemed unimpressed that they had, as an organization, made commitments to the public through the project. It was difficult to see if anyone was worried about the possibility that it might be an abuse of public funds to shelve a fully developed and community-engaged project in the middle of its implementation, and for no apparent reason. One may wonder, what were the true priorities in play, as it seems to this author that the goals and objectives of the project did not form a part of those priorities.

I have some clues regarding my question about the priorities of the administration. When the Project Manager asked me to resign in an email message, he also made some interesting comments. He said that they had been wondering if ‘a rabbit will ever come out of the hat’; and, that doing this project was a simple matter of organizing a few devising workshops (art creation through a collective process, mainly used in theater-making), but I made it unnecessarily complex by sending out calls for submissions and getting independent arts consultants for each genre to make the final selections.

The mandate of the project was to help produce art and literature meaningful enough to encourage a change for the better in our society. Focus themes had been drafted through community consultations that artists and writers were asked to speak to through their practiced art forms. In my view, the devising-workshop method was not a good tool to fulfill the goals of the project since it would require artists and writers to be physically present in the workshops to participate in the project. This factor alone could place serious limitations on the quality of submissions or on the art produced on the spot as it would filter out people because of their geographic location, class, color, and other marginalizations suffered historically by certain population groups.

If most of the marginalized communities are filtered out, then what kind of art-for-change we can expect to produce? Devising workshops indeed work well in the field of theater but outside of it some people and organizations may favor this method because the results might be predictable as the majority of participants would be known to the organizers, and so, the end product/s would likely be amenable to the system’s powerful but highly-prejudiced structures.

The methods evolved through the project plan assured the widest participation from diverse communities of Metro Vancouver. It engaged the arts communities through direct volunteer involvement of community leaders and youth into different layers of its implementation including outreach, solicitation, and the selection of submissions. Most prominent among the people engaged were Indigenous writers and artists because of the central position that community must hold in any kind of ‘art for change’ project in Canada. The integrity of the process was evident in requiring blind submissions and in hiring of expert professionals as selectors who were independent of the project and its parent organization. If it was allowed to go through, the project would have enriched us by surfacing meaningful poetry, short fiction and memoir that would have been published in the form of a chapbook; paintings, sculptures, sketches, cartoons, multimedia and photographs that were to be displayed in an exhibition; songs, dance and music in performance, audio and video; drama skits and monologue in live performance and videos- all featuring artists and writers from the different arts communities of Metro Vancouver.

But that lovely rabbit was not allowed to come out of the hat- not because the administration doubted that it would, but because they weren’t sure of what kind of rabbit it would be. The only thing obvious at the time was that it was not going to be an all-White rabbit with token spots of color hidden behind the ears or a few on the forehead to make them super-obvious. It is amazing that the administration was not interested in the ‘rabbit’ herself but was hung up on what she would look like.

Why is there so much fear in CanLit of the writers and artists speaking from the diverse communities of its metropolitan cities? Why is it that the necessity to create and provide space to marginalized communities is not recognized in an ‘art for change’ project? Why were the methods evolved by the project (that were successfully in place in four months) to assure that the historically marginalized communities had an opportunity to participate, not validated by the administration? If the administration was in any doubt about the project, those community members (artists et al) could have been invited to evaluate this program, their voices would have been heard, and the efficacy of the program would have been better understood.

But it was not the plan nor the project itself nor my work. I was made to go through this jarring experience, and the approved working plan of a project was shelved because of a sense of White Entitlement held by my White co-workers and the all-White administration. In the first and last meeting we had as a group, I had asked my co-workers why was I facing such hostility from them, and one person had said that I was ‘too good’ and the Plan I had presented was ‘perfect’ but that she was unhappy for not being a part of developing it. I did take her first statement as a true compliment even though the one following it was false.

The project’s organizing group was not a collective structure; I was asked to develop a plan to be presented to the Program Manager, but I had sent it to everyone for feedback and input; first the sketch of the Plan where all three co-workers had made it clear to me that they were concerned only with their own areas; accordingly, their feedback on the Proposed Project Plan was limited to those areas. Under the circumstances, it wasn’t clear what I should have done- present a project plan that did not fulfill the mandate or had many loopholes, something that did not make sense or did not jell together, just so my ‘entitled’ co-workers could feel better about themselves?

It was White Entitlement that made it possible for my two co-workers to not do nothing in four months for that approved-by-all project plan and still face no consequences from the administration. I shudder to think what would have been the consequences if two Women of Color were to try to do that in that exact situation- they would not last a few weeks let alone four months. When I, as the Project Lead, confronted them on this, I was asked to step down. The Executive Director was part of making that decision, and she made it without responding to any of my concerns and without giving me a moment of her time.

I was still reeling from this experience, unable to share with anyone, when I saw this on Facebook: The “Problem” Women of Color in the Workplace, by Emily Yee Clare, an educator and illustrator at the Centre for Community Organizations (COCo) in Montreal. The tool is originally created by Safehouse Progressive Alliance for Non-violence, and it corroborated my experience from beginning to end; from ‘honeymoon’ to ‘exit’.

To me, it’s in sync.

White leadership – Tokenized hiring
Woman of color enters the organization.

Honeymoon
Woman of color feels welcomed, needed and happy.
Yes, these were my feelings. I felt happy that my vision for the project was supported by the organization, and my hiring to me meant that the organization wished to encourage inclusive and representative art and literature.

Reality – Repetitive injury
Woman of color points out problems, tries to work within, pushes for accountability.
Indeed, I did point out problems to the individuals responsible and to the Program Manager, but nothing was done about anything, I had no choice but to keep working. And, yes, I was asked to leave the moment I directly pushed for accountability.

Response – Denial of racism
Organization denies, ignores and blames, puts responsibility back on woman of color to fix the problem, people of color are pitted against each other.
Yes, this was my experience exactly, on all three counts. The Program Manager ignored what was going on, and when he couldn’t, he blamed me; and, the Woman of Color who was the only one supportive of me in the first three months, was pitted against me by the fourth month.

Retaliation – Target and attack
Organization decides that woman of color is the problem and targets her; organization labels the conflict as a communication issue, a personnel issue or claims the woman of color is not qualified or ‘not a good fit’.
Yes, the conflict was labeled as a ‘communication’ issue, and I was labeled as an ‘isolationist’- someone who prefers to work in isolation, and, of course a magician with a magic hat, and, someone who made simple art projects unnecessarily complex.

Woman of color exits the organization
I was asked to resign: to undo everything I had done in the previous four months; to lose face in front of my communities and all the people who had promised their time, skills, resources, ideas and money to the project.

It is apparent that adding ‘complexity’ to the ‘simplicity’ of racist constructions in a Canadian workplace is a serious offense that is not going to earn you any distinctions. Rather it’ll make you lose your current job and shut a few doors on future ones. Even worse can happen if you start to talk about it. But then, how can we not.

My story exposes some of the pain experienced and the damages sustained by myself, and it points to those experienced by other People of Color elsewhere in Canada. Losing a job is damage enough in itself, yet we as Women of Color lose a lot more than a job; there are damages to our physical and mental health, yet no one who caused it is held responsible. Such is the reality of living in a racist, sexist and classist system.

I recommend accountability for organizations who wish to hire People of Color. Each non-profit organization needs to have an Anti-Racism Action Plan of its own that provides for mandatory anti-racism training for staff and volunteers. To have it, not just because the funds that are being used by non-profits are contributed by People of Color as well, but to do it to make it safe and possible for all of us to work together to the best of our abilities.
..

Fauzia Rafique is a novelist and poet involved in rights activism through her writing and organizing. Working with non-profit organizations, she has developed print resources around racism, violence against women, Islamophobia and poverty. This includes ‘Developing an Antiracism Action Plan: a manual for workers in service organizations‘ (Toronto 1992), and anthology ‘Towards Equal Access, a handbook for service providers working with survivors of wife assault‘ (Toronto 1991). Fauzia coordinates Surrey Muse, an inclusive art and literature presentation group serving Metro Vancouver since 2011.

edward stefan kuris is a painter, sculptor and poet who has exhibited his work since 1969 in many solo and juried group shows including Fergus, Elora, Toronto, Quebec, Slovak Republic, Cuba, and Japan. His paintings were used in a film by Academy Award winner Brigitte Berman. He is an Associate of the Ontario College of Art (OCAD) since 1970. Visit Ed’s facebook page.

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Shah Madholal Hussain – Dead Poets Reading Series

A shorter version of this article was presented at the Dead Poets reading Series on May 6, 2018. It was a privilege to hear Laifong Leung present the beautifully crafted poems of Michael Bullock (1918 – 2008), Tariq Hussain rendering the songs of Gord Downie (1964 – 2017), and, the highlight of the evening, Wanda John-Kehewin‘s presentation of the poems of Vera Manuel (1949 – 2010). The evening brought together many fabulous people including Heidi Greco, Randeep Purewall, Pamela Bentley, Joy Haskell and Rahat Kurd, with organizers Joanne Arnott, Kevin Spenst, Diane Tucker and co-founder Christopher Levenson.

I seek permission from Shah Madholal Hussain to present some of his work to you.

Shah Madholal Hussain was born in 1538 in Lahore (the city i come from), that’s where he died in 1599, and that is where he is now buried. Last month, the 429th anniversary of his death was celebrated. A three-day festival called ‘Mela Chiraghan‘ or the ‘Festival of Lights’ takes place in his honor each April in Lahore that is attended by thousands of people from all over Pakistan, and usually a public holiday is declared on one of the three days. He wrote only one book of over 160 poems, in that he crossed many boundaries of form and content where he also introduced a new form of poetry to Punjabi literature called ‘Kafi’ (a short poem of 4 to 10 lines that is written to be sung). Najm Hosain Syed, a Punjabi poet and playwright who has done valuable work on Madholal Hussain, in one of his articles has shown very well how Shah Hussain’s poems though based on the rhythms and stories of folk songs transcend the folk song by imbibing a different content- most often a different feminine voice/persona. There are many editions of Shah Husain’s book, and it always stays in print being one of the six or seven all-time best-selling Punjabi books. I have a few editions, but this is the one I use: ‘Kalam Hazrat Madholal Hussain: 1k sau te treth Kafian‘ ‘Poetry of Respected Madholal Husain: One hundred and sixty three kafis’. The collection is made possible by Najm Hosain Syed, and it is edited and published by author Maqsood Saqib who also runs a publishing house in Lahore called Suchet Kitab Ghar.

This is Shah Madholal Hussain’s official photo:


To tell you the truth, it gives me the creeps when I look at it. This is the image of a Muslim scholar- that he also was- but he had rejected this image along with all of its privileges when he was 36 years old, and for the rest of his life he wore red cotton clothes, no beard, and he sang and danced on the streets of Lahore. He would probably look more like this, without the hair of course:


This is a malang : mendicant dancing dhamal : spiritual-dance at the court of Shah Hussain.

Shah Hussain’s ‘official’ image differs from what he chose for himself. He chose to be a malang, not a religious scholar; he chose to wear red, not white or green; he insisted on keeping his gay identity public instead of keeping it private as was/is the norm; he was a religiously tolerant person yet he is rumored to have converted Madholal and his family from Hinduism to Islam. Shah Hussain was the son of a weaver who began religious studies at ten and continued to study and train till he was in his mid-30s. Soon after, he found himself in disagreement with his religious teacher on the meaning of a Quranic verse where the world was called a game or a sport, the popular interpretation was to reject the world because of that while Shah Husain thought it meant for us to value life and to enjoy it. He renounced all teachings of the organized religion along with the status that awaited him, and became a rebel poet with a following of over a hundred thousand people. But he was not into those things either, he says:
ik Shah Hussain fakeer hai, tussan na akho koi peer hai
‘assan koorri gal na bhavndi

‘Shah Hussain is a dervish-beggar, don’t call him a spiritual leader
‘We don’t like false statement/s’
In his poems, he identifies himself as a ‘jolaha‘ weaver, a ‘fakeer‘ dervesh/begger/malang, a ‘choorrha‘ sweeper, but not as a dignitary, clergy or anyone holding conventional power. It is interesting that one of the few times he has included himself in the ‘shahs’ (Kings or descendants of Prophet Mohammad) is in a kafi where he uses the context of an individually-owned shop to depict life, and in the end after giving advice on how to run it successfully, he says ‘eh Shahan de matt lae‘: ‘take this advice of the Shahs’. His diction is not intellectual but folk, the images that come through in his poems are of common men and women. Shah Hussain was in full ownership of his low class origins, and even after qualifying as a scholar he refused to go up the ladder; instead, he chose to stay true to his low social class, his gay self, his exceptional understanding of this world, and all his creative and spiritual powers. As well, he may be the only sufi poet who rose to prominence from low class origins, all others were from ‘nobility’ hailing from families of educators, professionals, civil servants.

Shah Hussain is revered by a cross-section of population. At his burial place, one can see a strong community of men and women malangs who keep the lights burning throughout the year; and, at the time of the Festival all different interest groups converge- including religious and political leaders, city administrators, and people from elite to all different low classes. In that, Shah Hussain is interpreted by each interest group in ways that may suit them but interpretations that are projected by the system are those of the elites. That’s why his ‘official’ photo offers an image that the ‘respectable’ moneyed people can find acceptable. Yes, the same kind of people that he had refused to associate with. He lived the life of a low class gay poet drinking and dancing on the streets in a long red cotton dress: a malang! But it must stay under wraps; and, that’s one reason why most of the translations of his kafis are pretty un-usable for me because they are laden with the beliefs and preferences of his translators who invariably are middle class heterosexual male intellectuals who may never have done anything rebellious or offensive-to-establishment in their entire personal lives.

This is my favorite Shah Hussain kafi, it is so profound to me that i translated it and made it a preamble to my first novel Skeena that was published in both Punjabi and English. Here’s the translation, and the original will come after.

Kafi 131

Swaying in ecstasy play on in the inner yard
all is near to those meditating
Rivers flow in this yard, thousands of millions of boats
Some are seen drowning, others have reached the shore
This yard has nine doors, the tenth is locked shut
No one knows the door, from where my lover comes and goes
This yard has a pretty curve, a hollow in the curve
I spread my bed in the hollow to love my lover at night!
In this yard, a wild elephant is struggling with the chain
Says Hussain the Beggar of His Beloved, (the elephant) is teasing the awake

And now, the original, in roman:

Jhumme jhum khail lai munjh vehrray
Jupdiaan noon hur nairray
Vehrray de vich nadiaan wugun, bairray lakh hzaar
Kaiti iss vich dubdi vaikhi, kaiti lunghi paar
Iss vehrray dey nau durwazay, duswain kuluf charhai
Tuss durwazay dey mehram nahin, jitt shawh aaway jai
Vehrray de vich aala soohay, aalay de vich taaqi
Taaqi de vich saij sjawaan apnay pia sung raatein!
Iss vehrray vich makkna haathi sangal naal khairray
Kahay Hussain Fakeer Saeen daa, jagdeyan koon chairray

There is a tradition in Urdu and Punjabi poetry where male poets assume a woman’s voice to express the emotions of love, pains of separation, and the levels of devotion. They say, it’s because only a woman’s voice can express these emotions in top form. I think, it’s one of the ways of a segregated male-dominated society to tell women how to love men, how to pine for them, how to sacrifice our lives for them, and how to show devotion to them. The tradition is called ‘rekhti’, and most known male poets have used this form, and so has Shah Hussain. But there’s a difference between the women that come through in the ‘rekhti’ poetry and the feminine person that comes through in Shah Hussain’s poetry because he did not ‘use’ or ‘assume’ a woman’s voice, he simply acknowledged and celebrated his own feminine self by letting that self speak. Shah Hussain’s feminine self is vocal, wise, intense and empowered. Falling in love is fully celebrated; if there’s sorrow of separation, by the end of the kafi it’s apparent that the Lover must reach the Beloved, and the feminine persona instead of remaining buried under the weight of sorrow as projected in ‘rekhti’, sounds more like Tracy Chapman in ‘She’s got her ticket I think she gonna use it I think she is going to fly away’.

Not only here but also in South Asia, the term ‘sufi’ is used without discrimination. Shah Hussain represents a distinct tendency in sufism called ‘malamat‘ meaning ‘shaming’ where an individual chooses an anti-establishment stance in his/her personal and political life knowing that they will be shamed by their social and political environments, and they resolve to take that shaming, and to take it as a compliment and an honor. Most non-malamti sufis taught pacifism that suited the establishment/s and both sides benefited, but not the Malamati sufis. Shah Hussain was known to have given sanctuary to peasant rebel leader Dulla Bhatti who was later publicly beheaded by Mughal King Akbar. Though Shah Hussain did not give open support to Dulla Bhatti but he was present at the beheading where King Akbar first saw him. The Mughal King was apprehensive about Shah Hussain also because of his rebellious self and the growing number of his followers, and so a writer-historian was appointed to keep tabs on him and to record everything that he did, this account titled ‘Baharia‘ after the name of its writer Mir Baharia, was later published and it attributes many supernatural and miraculous happenings to Shah Hussain.

Shah Hussain remains to be the most influential Punjabi author, and that is apparent in many ways, here are two examples of his direct influence. He wrote a six-line poem ‘ani husainu jolaha‘ ‘looki (that) weaver husainu’, that allowed another malamti sufi poet Buleh Shah (1680 – 1757) to write a masterpiece simply by unpacking those six short lines, the poem titled ‘ke janan main kon‘ ‘how do I know who I am’; and, Shah Hussain gave such depth and character to folk heroes Heer and Ranjha that it became possible for Waris Shah (1722 – 1798) to write an all-time classic in the love story ‘Heer Ranjha’. And, the ways in which Shah Husain has explored the passion of love remains unparalleled, as does his contemplations on life and death. He says,
Shah Husain, hyati lorrein
te marn theen aggay mar wo

‘Shah Husain if you want your life
die before your death wo’
Sometimes, I feel it in my gut, sometimes it alludes me; but as an idea this is how i see it: when someone is dead, nothing of this world exists for them or matters to them, they are free of all its fake, unequal, man-made rules, boundaries, limits and determinations- and that’s when it may be actually possible to experience and enjoy life. Yes, that’ll be something.

At the end of my presentation at the Dead Poet’s, there was an opportunity for me to say some more but nothing came to mind though there were a lot of things to share. These two incidents are a part of those things. Both incidents happened in the same day. In 2007, after more than three decades, I was making my way to the shrine of Shah Hussain in Lahore, there were many narrow unmarked lanes and I lost my way. There was a man who was preparing to make sweet jalebis at a little corner shop, i asked him, ‘Shah Hussain da mazar kehrray pasay ae, Jee? Which way is Shah Hussain’s shrine, Jee?’ He gave me a cold stare, and said, ‘Shah Hussain da durbar odhar ae: Shah Hussain’s court is on that side.’ That was a stern correction (and i never made that verbal mistake again). After finding the durbar, i went in, crossed some nice jewelry stalls to go to the chamber where Shah Hussain and Madholal are buried. There was a short staircase going up to it, I was about to take it when I saw a sign on the side that said that women were not allowed beyond that point. Wow! That was unexpected, i could not recall confronting it in the 70s; perhaps it was one of the impacts of General Ziaul Haq’s Islamization of Pakistan in the 80s. I was standing there perplexed when I noticed a child of six or seven standing beside the sign, looking at me intently. I felt being caught in my anguish.
Tuhanoon patta eh board te ke likhya ae? Do you know what this sign says?’ I asked her.
‘Na’, she said.
Likhya ae ke aurtan, yeni tussein te main, utay nahin ja sakday, It says women, meaning you and I, can’t go up there.’
‘Oh’, she said, clearly disturbed.
Eh insaf de gal ae? Is it fair?’ I asked.
‘Na’, she said right away.
Assein ais rule noon torr ke utay chaleye? Shall we disregard it and go up anyway?’
She gave it some thought, smiled, and nodded ‘Yes’.
Theek ae, tussein aithay khlowo, te main hunay ayi, Okay, you stay here, and i’ll be right back’, I said. Being a responsible adult i was not expected to bring an underage accomplice on an unlawful gate crashing mission. The next moment I was climbing the stairs; there I entered the chamber, saw the two graves, and I put my hands on the stone covering the physical remains of Shah Hussain. By then, about three caretakers had arrived from the inner entry, I was silently propelled back to the door. I retreated, stationed myself outside the door blocking it while my hands were clasped in front of me in a defiant yogic stance. The caretakers consulted with each other, and then one of them picked up a garland from the grave, and he gave it to me. I was delighted.
Coming down I saw my accomplice standing by the stairs ahead of the small crowd that had gathered to see what was happening; a young woman was now standing behind her. I raised my garlanded hand, she jumped and clapped in appreciation. Of course then, the garland was hers.

A few weeks later, I visited the shrine/durbar of Bulleh Shah in Qasur with some man-friends who I knew would be allowed to enter the burial chamber without me, so I went ahead and walked straight inside, and this time, I took a few flowers from the grave, the rest can be seen below:
thriving-on-the-culture-of-exclusion-punjab-auqaf

Randeep Purewall, a Punjabi poetry enthusiast, was quick to write an interesting report on my Shah Hussain presentation, and it’s posted here:
no-ordinary-sufi

It was an absolute pleasure, thank you.

Fauzia Rafique

Also published at Academy of the Punjab in North America (APNA)
apnaorg.com/prose-content/english-articles

Online sources

Madho Lal Hussain Mela Chiraghan 2018, video report
youtube.com/watch?v=Gz4iVmJ3itU

‘AT THE SHRINE OF SHAH HUSSEIN: FOUR PUNJABI-ENGLISH KAFIS’ by Naveed Alam
at-the-shrine-of-shah-hussein-four-punjabi-english-kafis

‘That laughing son of a weaver – Shah Hussain (1538-1599)’ by Manzur Ejaz
thefridaytimes

‘Shah Hussain’ by Najm Hosain Syed
apnaorg

‘Why ‘Sufism’ is not what it is made out to be’ by Zahra Sabri
herald.dawn

‘Madho Lal Hussain of Lahore: Beyond Hindu and Muslim’ by Dr. Alan Godlas, Marina Montanaro and Yafiah Katherine
wichaar

‘MADHO LAL HUSAIN’ by Lajwanti Rama Karishna
wichaar
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‘Welcome Back- Idrian. Home is Everywhere.’

Vancouver writer Idrian Burgos caught a flight from Taipei, Taiwan, after a short vacation in the Philippines, and he said on facebook:
Departing for YVR. But what is home?’
My response was:
Welcome Back- Idrian. Home is Everywhere.’
Everywhere?
No!

Home is where the heart is.*

Home away from home.
Go back where you came from.
Home sweet Home.
‘Where thou art, that is home.’**

At the end of the day, it isn’t where I came from. Maybe home is somewhere I’m going and never have been before.‘― Warsan Shire. ‘How often have I lain beneath rain on a strange roof, thinking of home.’― William Faulkner. ‘Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.‘― James Baldwin.

Home is where you park it.

A house is made with walls and beams. A home is made with love and dreams.’― Unknown. ‘Our country is where ever we are well off.’― John Milton. ‘The first essential for a happy Christian home is that love must be practiced.’― Billy Graham. ‘Sell your home for $3499‘.

It takes a woman…

A hundred men may make an encampment, but it takes a woman to make a home.‘― Unknown ‘Woman, the more careful she is about her face, the more careless about her house.’― Ben Jonson. ‘They created a home where I felt safe. I could make mistakes. Failure wasn’t punished.‘― Sarah Williams.

I thought, enough people had written and are writing about home for me to begin as well but some themes are never fulfilled. A desert of unquenchable thirst, a deadly predator in the clutches of its own obsession, the ‘home theme’ is the Demon Deity of thought and emotion. Home is love of a person, warmth of many people; it is past, childhood, youth; it is the first love, the initial betrayal, a deep loss. It’s a carefree smile, unstoppable giggles, resounding laughter. It’s everything that was, and can’t be. It’s a village town city province country continent, the earth; it is a building, hut, a tent; it is investment, property, commodity, mortgage and debt. Some homes are taken away, demolished, lives threatened, lands taken, people murdered.

The theme of home as we have constructed it, attacks migrants, the ones who leave their home countries to live elsewhere, from all sides. The personal loss of people, things and places that is experienced by a migrant is topped with racist slights of ‘go back where you came from’ in the host country; and accusations of familial and national betrayal, selfishness and greed in the country of origin. The sense of security and ‘ownership’ of a home-space that an individual may need to feel grounded, is constantly challenged and obfuscated in both places. In the racialized colonial cultures of host countries where most colored migrants come from the ex-colonies or from countries that are now being colonized through drones and wars, it remains forgotten that many Brown people are forced to leave their homes because of violent situations initiated and created by these same governments; that most Black people are here because their ancestors were brought over by White profiteers; that Indigenous people did not come from anywhere else; that the White people are migrants as well.

The flare of ‘nationalism’ to the theme of home is the deadliest double edged sword that we face as colored migrants. In 1941, BC’s Japanese people were picked up from their homes and shipped to a camp in another province of Canada: ‘Japanese-Canadian Internment was the removal and detainment of Japanese Canadians from the British Columbia coast following the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong and Malaya and attack on Pearl Harbor, and the subsequent Canadian declaration of war on Japan during World War II. This forced relocation subjected many Japanese Canadians to government-enforced curfews and interrogations, job and property losses, and forced repatriation to Japan.’ (wikipedia.org). The White-Supremacists in Canada and US wave their ‘nationalism’ flags when they attack or spew hatred against colored people in general and Muslims in particular. At places, they are so bold that they wear their hate symbols and slogans on their police uniforms (Sign, if you have time: campaigns.organizefor.org). On the other hand, i know many writers in the diaspora who are challenged by their peers back home on their right to write about their home countries because ‘they left’, as if the act of leaving was a surgical operation to extract the brain and the heart. For example, i am allowed to miss Lahore, Punjab and Pakistan and express my remorse at leaving and sing praises for my city, province and country but i better not be critical of anything in there because then ‘go back where you came from’ of the ‘host’ country is used as a silencing weapon in the ‘home’ country. No wonder, so many writers become ‘Homeland Wailers’.

As well, in the nostalgic throes of its loss, we forget that ‘home’ is where most women and children are abused, that homes are also ‘cradles’ of prejudices against all who are placed as ‘others’ by the mouthpieces of prevalent systems, that the ‘nationalism’ flare is added by the moneyed classes to get more control for themselves. As a house, a product, most people on this earth can’t afford to buy a home; that they are built on land- yes, land that may have been stolen to benefit settler colonial economies, and that settler-colonial economies may still be the beneficiary of these lucrative real estate markets. In short, the ‘home theme’ is employed to buy and sell many things to benefit the Privileged of this World ranging from satisfying a basic human need for privacy and security to waging wars to gain more influence for the Influential.

Where is home?

As i begin to explore the theme of ‘home’ for myself, i realize that i actually DO have several homes- different for different levels of existence. My first home is where my soul resides, in my body. This is the most vital, the first and the last home without which i would not exist. My second home is in the cities where my children are, and those are Surrey and Vancouver in Canada, and that’s where my third home, where i now live, is also located.

Then i have a few ‘memory homes’ or ‘homes of memory’ or ‘memorial homes’, out of which the largest and the loveliest is Lahore (‘mera sohna shehr lhore nee / my beautiful city Lahore, girl friend’), the city where i was born, grew up, have family, school/college/university friends, where i knew the names of trees without learning them; recognized the birds from the songs they were singing. Where i heard the sound of the night in the plainfields, saw the brightest stars, the hottest sun, and experienced the thickest monsoon rains… Yes, memory retains it, and cherishes it- to nourish the soul, my actual home.

I am lukewarm about Toronto, where i lived for a decade, and Lyallpur aka Faisalabad, London and Rawalpindi where i spent a couple of years each.

It’s not just a place, it’s that time and those people in a place that i retain and recall. In that, memory plays many tricks, it omits, presents incomplete scenes and undefined feelings. I want to visit a place again to finish memory puzzles, but no, i don’t want to move back. Mainly because it’s not there any more, my home, with my mother, sister, brother, and everyone, in and around it.

Home is where my mom is.

My ‘mom’ is in the ‘other’ world, so to speak, and that’s where my future home is.
But, for now, my home is right here.
And, that’s where my heart is.
In my body.

* Pliny the Elder
** Emily Dickinson

ranker.com/list
wow4u.com/home-quotes

Image from AneezaNaseem RoshniChanda.

Fauzia Rafique
Surrey, August 4/17
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‘Fishing for Rare Fish’ by Fauzia Rafique

Art by Ed Kuris

In anticipation of the Poetry Month coming up, i began to look for some non-political poems. My quest soon became similar to fishing for a rare fish in the ocean of plastics and indigestible sea creatures. Based on what i found, here, still a bit fuzzy, is the inventory of my fishing expedition. You are welcome to check it out, and add to it if you like.

Poetry is the most practiced form of writing across cultures. It can be said that in a gathering of ten authors, eight-and-a-half may be poets where one can be a fiction writer and the remaining ‘half’ could be the writers of non-fiction. I write poems too, and I just love the way this form of writing morphs into song, spoken word, slam, rap and drama. Reading, more so hearing, poetry is one of the luxuries I often enjoy. So, barring all my favorite poets, here’s what i found.

A number of poets write what my colleague Sana Janjua calls Tourism Poetry where the beauty of a place, often ‘foreign’ and ‘exotic’ to the poet, is expressed in detail without including the people of that place. This is how we are taught to look at the world, as a tourist attraction where local, often under-privileged, people are themselves a part of that attraction or a distraction or just irrelevant to the purpose of travel or creating a poem about nature. If i’m not mistaken, it is a political standpoint; in fact, a colonial political standpoint.

Then we have The Ethnic Flagship poetry that explores, in case of South Asia for example, myths of spirituality and mysticism of the ‘East’, and in doing so affirms the Western readers’ historical/generational experience of colonization of that east, and in most instances, the poet stands with their historic/generational colonizers by looking at and presenting their own culture of origin in the ways the colonizers did, and they still do.

The Sufi Sphinx poems take this a step further by offering tons of usable mysticism with solutions such as ‘self-correction’ and/or ‘self-annihilation’ to decidedly take the reader’s and the poet’s attention away from actual problems and their possible solutions. This saves both from stumbling into uncomfortable territories, for example, into the possibility of systemic in-equity as one of the causes of human dis-content.

A large proportion of diasporic poets are Homeland Wailers writing poem after poem on the pain of separation from their homeland while saying nothing much about the conditions of the society they live in or the one they wail about. It appears as if the main issue is the pain of migration or of the time passed (especially their youth where many, mostly male, poets get fixated), not why it occurred or how situation in the present may be less than desirable in both the ‘home’ and ‘abroad’ countries.

There are ample Lego Party poems where each poem is a puzzle or a puzzling game created by the Settler poet or poets as a delightful exploration into the art and craft of poetry that does not require or encourage critical thinking, positioning poetry as a worthy distraction from personal and societal burdens of the past and the present.

Promptesque, the thriving domain of Lego Party poets, provides training for emerging writers to be able to write a poem on a given word/words or terms, songs or paintings, within a given amount of time. The emphasis on craft continues at the expense of theme/content as the fetish of government-funded prompt-poetry grows.

Dutiful includes poetry prompted by catastrophic events or by certain violations of human rights such as violence against women, that is devoid of any deeper understanding of the issue, and so, it rhymes a dogmatic sermon in support of the ‘official’, often incorrect and misleading, version of the tragic event. As well, such poems appear to have been written to provide evidence that the writer is ‘with it’, aware, and a sensitive human being.

Then, we have a whole range of Kithartica where this art form is used to loadshed some of the poet’s emotional baggage, and employed as a tool for the healing of the self.

I am not against any of it. In fact, we all use all these forms as we continue to work with our favored ways of saying different things. My problem is with stopping short, not acknowledging the politics of it, and then, misrepresenting it as ‘non-political’ art.

Stopping short where one minor ‘fact’ or outcome is taken and presented as the whole; and where the ‘whole’ is hidden by a tiny, often irrelevant, detail. Example: ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ is sometimes presented as the cause for the failure of a relationship. Yes, in certain cases, it may be part of the mix, but it never can be the reason. Relationships fail because two people may have diverse perspectives or different goals in life, they may not have synergy, they may come from diverse cultural backgrounds or from different class/privilege spectrum, they may have varying sexual orientation or sexuality, there could be emotional/psychological/sexual/physical abuse, some control issues perhaps, or any other combination but it’s definitely not because ‘familiarity breeds contempt’. This method of creating and spreading Nonsense-Wisdom, like many other such constructions, not only stops short of the actual issue but it also leads to depressive, even oppressive, outlook. In this case, for example, it means that all our relationships are doomed to breed contempt just because they would require for us to become familiar with each other. So then, stopping short is not an innocent act of personal choice, it’s a conscious standpoint obliterating reality to safeguard the value systems that serve interests of certain people or groups of people.

In a similar way, the discussion to determine if someone’s art is political or not is a misleading detail manufactured to hide the truth of the entrenched politicalness of pro-system art; to validate the lie that there is some art or literature that is not ‘political’ that there is ‘non-political’ art. Among other things, this helps to avoid answering some important questions such as ‘since we all write political stuff so is this the politics I want to perpetuate’ or ‘what is the politics of my poems?’ It is such a taboo that poets may be willing to meet to discuss the poetics of their poetry but never its politics.

Art is created from the experience we as individuals receive from all direct or indirect interaction with our environment. It is the re-emergence of parts of this continuing experience where all our interactions, passive or active, conscious or unconscious, past or present, manifest the culture and politics that we practice in order to live our lives; it is inside us and it surrounds us yet it remains unacknowledged by most of us. Perhaps this is, in part, because we relate to politics or we are ‘taught’ to relate to politics as something that stands outside of our personal lives; something that isn’t an intrinsic part of our public/private selves but perhaps a tool to organize, arrange and safeguard the larger ‘worldly’ things around and outside of us. In reality, art is born out of a symbiotic embrace with politics; inescapable. Even when we think that a poem, novel, song, video, film, painting is not ‘political’, it may be highly so.

Take for example, any of the stock romance novels, a form of literature we believe is a non-political escape/entertainment/comfort reading- or we think that because it is escape/entertainment/comfort reading so it is non-political, and add to it the fact that a large portion of art created in the world is a ‘copy/paste’ operation that continues to reproduce itself in novels, films, paintings, music and drama. This ‘mainstream’, ‘entertainment’, ‘commercial’ art, the so-called ‘non-political’ art is political inside and out. In it, everything systemic including current myths about race, class, caste, religion, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, ability not only abound but are affirmed; problems are viewed from one of the few peepholes provided by the prevalent political value systems; and, the proposed solutions perpetuate and protect the existing unfair/unequal political, economic and social structures. This is not non-political art but the art of bountiful ignorance.

The writers and artists who do not readily accept the myths projected by systems and their mouthpiece multinational media and arts organizations as truths, and the ones who do not acknowledge their prize-winners and scholars as icons and experts, may see images of our societies different from the ones offered; this when expressed in art is than classified as ‘political’. Another myth, a half truth, created to hide the political nature of pro-system art and literature.

So why are we so naive as to be misled by such tactics? Perhaps because we are part of the interest groups who need to distort this issue. Salvation Army founder William Booth once said: “a philanthropic body cannot afford to alienate the class which supports it”. Booth was humble when he limited his thoughts to just ‘philanthropic’ bodies. He could have easily lodged it as a universal truth that it is, that a ‘body’ cannot afford to alienate the class that supports it or ‘nobody’ can afford to alienate the class that supports it or ‘only nobody’ can afford to alienate the class that supports it.

I see that ‘nobody’ is a cool space for me.

Listen to ‘Fishing for Rare Fish’ on Soundcloud.
Rendition by Myrh & DARKPEAKER

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‘Those Nutritious Contraceptive Pills’ by Fauzia Rafique

The above image was being safe-kept in a folder named ‘ImagesForArticles’ with over twenty others, and that folder was not to be opened till perhaps 2020- yet here it is.

Last year, i copied this image from Facebook where it was being shared by my friends from around the world as a positive intervention in favor of a woman’s right to use contraceptives, the need for women to be enlightened, and as a way to resolve poverty. I again encountered it last week, this time it was the first item in a video collection of images about ‘today’s modern society’. In that context and if taken as irony it could work but no guarantees, so I stopped and made a comment:
Me: Pertinent, except for the first item that’s racist, classist and affirms colonial perspectives.
Friend: Are you saying that those issues don’t exist today?

There, let’s have another look at this image. We see two women with their children, two moms, one is younger, appears ‘smart’, well-dressed, seems ‘educated’, and she has her one baby in a pushchair representing a neat, emancipated and successful life; the other is older, ‘appears’ uninformed, tattered wardrobe, seems ‘illiterate’, she has one, two, three, four children, a baby, and, she’s begging along side them modelling a messy, exploited and failed existence. ‘Please help me’, she says. The ‘smart’ woman opens her purse, brings out a packet of contraceptive pills, and drops them in the hands of– someone who appears to be a destitute woman accompanied by hungry and under-clothed children.
Incredible!

I’m glad that at least the Recipient of the pills appears shocked if not the people who can not stop forwarding this construction as a positive message to the World.

Like many propaganda items carrying system-sponsored myths about poverty and how to resolve it, this image also supports the notion that under-privileged people are ignorant / illiterate / stupid, and that they are the cause of society’s ills including their own miserable state. Let’s view some of the messages this particular image is giving out, for example. It says that:
The responsibility of being poor is on poor people themselves;
People are poor because of their own ignorance, stupidity and lack of education/information;
The cause of poverty is over-population;
Poverty can be resolved, and emancipation of women can be achieved, through population control.

All of these are loaded and dangerous lies hidden, for our delusional benefit, in a small truth. It is true that less children cost less, and fewer children may allow women better lives, BUT that does not mean that the number of children causes poverty or affluence neither does it mean that it is the cause or the resolution of women’s exploitation. The causes and resolutions of both reside elsewhere.

In a world where the top 1% own half the wealth and the poorest half own just 1% or to put it another way, where the richest 1% now has as much wealth as the rest of the world combined, where one in nine people on the planet will go to bed hungry tonight, a small handful of billionaires have so much wealth they would need several lifetimes to spend it, where just eight individuals, all men, own as much wealth as the poorest half of the world’s population, and you continue to believe that economic and gender based exploitation is caused by too many people having too many children whose own fault it is to stay poor or that poverty and misogyny can be resolved by using contraceptives, it’s your choice, but please do consider the unreason of it.

The concept of the world exploding with a growing population, and the absolute urgency to stop it in order to save the planet, surfaced in the 1950s and rapidly took hold of the world through international influencing agencies such as the United Nations, the World Bank and the Western governments. During the next two decades, the White Saviors again descended on the poorest of people in Asia, Africa and Latin America with contraceptive technologies and superiority entitlements and went trampling over the rights and lives of millions of under-privileged people. This sustained assault was established through legislation dictating how many children someone could have, mass-forced and/or un-informed sterilization campaigns, and marketing of new technologies harmful to women’s bodies. It was another historic example of extreme exploitation of women, another campaign of extreme violence against innocent people, carried out by the richest of the World: The colonial and colonized governments, and global pharmaceutical/health/finance/IT/Media industries.

As to the riddle of who may be responsible for poverty, consider this.
‘In 2012, the last year of recorded data, developing countries received a total of $1.3tn, including all aid, investment, and income from abroad. But that same year some $3.3tn flowed out of them. In other words, developing countries sent $2tn more to the rest of the world than they received. If we look at all years since 1980, these net outflows add up to an eye-popping total of $16.3tn-‘ theguardian.com

On top of hiding the actual causes of poverty such as colonization, corporate greed, inequal/unfair distribution of wealth/resources, this image shifts the responsibility of causing poverty to over-population. As well, it projects class-based biases through the pompous condescension of the ‘enlightened’ woman, and it conveys strong racial overtones where the ‘featured model’ appears ‘Western’ while the other ‘seems’ to be hailing from the Middle East, re-enforcing the popular colonial myth of White Superiority.

To me, this image defines d&d: ‘distasteful & dangerous’.

Photo from: onsizzle.com/i/please-help-me-contraceptive-pill-3665055
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Getting the ‘name-thing’ out of the way

fr-renbooks-nov2016-byhonjo-1b

The booklaunch event of my novel The Adventures of SahebaN: Biography of a Relentlessc Warrior at Renaissance Books in New Westminster was a warm and inspiring event, thanks to Lavana La Brey (for having us), Nefertiti SheLa Morrisson (for hosting), Wendy Harris (for her vision about the novel), Valerie Parks, Franci Louann, Enrico Renz, Christopher Hamilton, Ibrahim Honjo, Sana Janjua, Idrian Burgos and Randeep Purewall.

Many interesting points came out during discussion; some required more time including the one about names that had also come up at the November 20th event at VG Playroom in Surrey. It expresses the thought that there are perhaps too many unfamiliar and difficult-to-pronounce names for the reader to deal with in both my novels, and if those could be made easier or replaced with more familiar names from the same cultural context, it’ll help the reader stay with the story.

This is not the first time i have heard these thoughts but this is the first time i’m taking the opportunity to respond to them. The words ‘reader’ and ‘readership’ mean two different things to me. A reader is one individual, readership is a category. I have deep caring for the reader with who i share my feelings and emotions, ideas and thoughts. Readership is an entity created by the marketing wizards of the publishing industry to coerce writers to write to make more money for them; they named the deity ‘readership’- but i’m an unbeliever anyway.

Most people who edited or evaluated my novel Skeena prior to publication told me that there were too many unfamiliar names in the first chapter, suggesting that it could be a barrier for the reader right at the beginning. About The Adventures of SahebaN also, it was noted for example, that the ‘N’ at the end instead of ‘n’ makes the protagonist’s name even more unfamiliar. Both these observations were, and are, correct. But from 2003 to now, each time i was presented with these ideas, i gave them my sincere honest thought, each time i chose to not act on them because these observations are correct from a certain point of view, a vantage point, that isn’t mine and when i deliberate on it i don’t want to own it.

Before coming to Canada, i had known that whoever ever colonized South Asia including the British, tried to change names of conquered places, peoples and things; and, because they were the conquerors they didn’t just try but they actually did change them. So, to this day, i hear this city or that road in Pakistan being renamed to be reclaimed by local people. A few years in Canada, and i realized that the same thing had happened here. The names of colonized peoples, places and things were changed. That brought to mind all the Hollywood movies showing the immigration desk at New York harbor where people were given ‘easier’ and ‘familiar’ names as they were stamped in to become US citizens. In our loving or hating relationships we give each other names to own parts of each other. Skeena begins with a description of that name from three different languages and cultures, and later in the novel, the character talks about a few ‘pet’ names her lover has for her that speak more to his own state than to hers. In SahebaN, i use my power as a writer to give ‘pet’ names to countries, people, places and organizations. Names are a currency of ownership; it’s important for me to know who has it in my novels. In other words, a name is an essential part of a character and its context, and i’m unwilling to alter it unless the theme/context of colonization or appropriation needs to be expressed.

As a Colored writer in Canada, i’m ‘expected’ to write about my ‘cultural’ themes, preferably keeping myself confined to those, while affirming all the prevalent myths about them; but not just that, i am required also to disburse my art in a form that is easily ingest-able and digestible for the local, mainly white, readership. Since i actively avoid the various channels established by the local structures to make literature acceptable for that same readership through processes, courses and workshops, my writing remains untamed and uncensored, and that at times, can be a bit unexpected for a reader. Also because not only that i live in the ‘West’ but i choose to write in English, there is this assumption that i’ll make it palpable for the ‘English-speaking reader’. What is an ‘English-speaking reader’ is a good question to ask because my ‘English-speaking reader’ lives in Pakistan, India, Malaysia, UK, Denmark, Netherlands, Australia, Canada, USA; and, so which ‘English-speaking reader’ would like less and easier names in the first section of Skeena? Those right here in BC Canada! In BC Canada, my English-speaking readers include people from Lahore, Chandigarh, New Delhi, Karachi, Toronto, Mississauga, Birmingham, London, New York, San Francisco, Suva.

Literature 101? Yes, i know it too. As a reader i have put away books that required too much effort from me to go into them, some i returned to and picked up and some i didn’t. That’s okay. So, if you are not a Punjabi, and you go to a village in Pakistani Punjab, it’ll seem crowded, noisy and full of unfamiliar names and words- just like it is in the first chapter of Skeena. It’s difficult for me to make it any more manageable, easier or hollywood-bollywood-lolliwood familiar because it’s not that village, that theme or that context.

This brings forward the concept of my ‘primary’ readership that i’m expected to be true or loyal to. The underlying fatal assumption that writers write for specific readership groups or that they should write for specific readership groups may be true for paid writing where a writer agrees to produce materials for a specific set of people, say, for clients of a health service, students of a particular discipline, the employees of a company. But creative writing? I don’t know about you, but i don’t write for any particular group, and i’m not ‘true’ to any readership. I write to share my understanding and view of different contexts and themes with anyone or no one, and my art needs only to be true to its own context and to my perception of that context, because that in reality, is the only thing i have to offer my reader.

There’s a saying in Urdu, ‘who sees the peacock dancing in the jungle / jungle main mor nacha kis ne dekhha‘, that highlights someone’s failure to project their awesome art to a wider mainstream audience. This saying is based on a similar fatal assumption as the above, that the peacock dances for a human audience or that the peacock should dance for a human audience. The peacock dances to lure a mate, and that’s who gets to see one of those amazing and unmatched dance performances not to speak of the stunning wardrobe that is lavished by the gifted performer at the lift of the curtain. A flower does not bloom to be praised or revered, it blooms because it’s a natural expression of a plant who is expecting to grow ripened fruit and seed out of it.

So, if the name SahebaN originates from a folk lore character of Punjabi love story Mirza-SahebaN, then this is one of the ways to deliver it in English: with a (silent) capital letter ‘N’ at the end. And my reader who may be unfimiliar with this name, will find some expression to feelings of frustration within the novel where at a couple of places this name thing does come up.

Photo by Ibrahim Honjo

Buy SahebaN
the-adventures-of-saheban_cover_nov61 Libros Libertad 2016
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All in favor of the Burqa Ban party

fanon-themilligazatte

Those in favor of Merkel’s call for a Burqa Ban not only include the extreme right, right and center of the political spectrum but they also include a large section of white and brown feminists, leftists, atheists, and other shades of ‘progressives’. That’s a lot of my organic community coming out in support of, or not opposing, the legislated removal of burqa being implemented by various conservative governments.

I am not in favor of burqa/purdah, but i’m dead against governments who are legislating or calling for a ban on it in Europe, America, Canada, Australia, and in the similar etcetras because all the burqa ban moves in these places are used to fan the ‘national security’ hysteria to take people’s attention away from the real issues of disparity and prejudice they face, and allows these governments to continue their brutal aggression and interference in various Asian and African countries. The burqa bans further stigmatize Muslim women and Islam, and, validate the undercurrent notion that the legislated removal of burqa in the ‘democratic’ societies would or could lead to the liberation of Muslim women. This is sick, and sickening.

The colonizer mindset continues to present colonization to be ‘enlightening’, ‘liberating’, and ‘civilizing’ for the colonized, and many people believe this because that’s what all the media outlets are giving out 24/7- the world view of the colonizer as the Civilized Saviour or the Saviour of Civilization. The ban on burqa is just one entry in the long list of ‘gentrification’ policies carried out against stigmatized populations, for example, Indigenous children were taken away and families were torn apart in the name of education, and their headdresses, dresses and ceremonies banned in the name of civilization.

This colonial mindset is easier to market when wrapped in a burqa because of the fact that burqa/purdah indeed IS something that is used by the male Muslim culture as one of the tools to control women’s lives. Now, here is an interesting thing about it: Vocal against the opposition to Merkel’s burqa ban, are some of those privileged White and Brown women who are neither threatened with the violence that comes with such racist and misogynist legislation nor are they forced to wear burqa in their immediate environments. Fanon’s quotation about the colonizer was ‘frustrating’ to them also(!) because it happens to find something ‘positive’ in the assigned total negativity of burqa, a woman. A mysterious and romanticized woman perhaps, but a woman, a person, nonetheless. While the gaze thrown on burqa and burqa-wearing woman by the ‘frustrated’ progressive individuals is a gaze full of assumptions and prejudices. Just like the colonizer, this group believes that a woman wearing burqa is a backward and uncivilized low-life who has no opinion, no voice and no unique personality. If this assumption was true, we could say that all bikini-wearing women were forward-looking, educated and civilized, but we know it’s not true either. Burqa frustrates the colonizers because it’s a control mechanism the colonizers cannot use, if they move to break it, it’s not to liberate the controlled population, it is to control that population with their own tools of sexism, racism, hatred and violence.

I can understand the passion that can bubble up from a woman living for example in Pakistan, at the mention or sight of burqa as we have all confronted that barrier in our lives and we may still confront it, but it’s better to not confuse that passion against burqa with the politics of Western burqa bans. If a government in a Muslim majority country such as Pakistan called for a burqa ban or went on to legislate one, i would support it with all my heart because it would mean that women in Pakistan have gained enough power to outlaw one of the major tools and symbols of male hegemony. I would support it because it would be a step taken by Muslim women themselves (All power to Muslim women living in Muslim majority countries).

But the same policy of legislating a burqa ban changes shape when implemented in a country and continent where Muslim men and women are a minority, the country is not ruled by Muslim legal or cultural systems, it was/is part of historic oppressors of people in Muslim majority areas, and the time is after 9/11 when Muslims face stigma, racism, hatred and violence in these parts of the world. In this environment, a government places a burqa ban on Muslim women- you think it’s going to liberate us?

If anyone was interested in supporting the ‘liberation’ of burqa-wearing Muslim women in Western countries, they would show some respect and make way or at least get out of the way to allow women their own process to arrive at a stage where they choose to not wear it.

Opposing West’s burqa ban does not mean support for burqa/purdah or the use of it; it means these governments must stop dictating to Muslim women, stop stigmatizing and endangering an already vulnerable population, and, to stop marketing their colonial perspectives about Muslim women and women’s liberation through burqa bans.

Supporting or not supporting such hate-filled policies must need more than a tantrum against burqa.
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