Happy or not / Grateful or what?

It’s as if i’m a passed away author, fifty or so years have gone by, and now my work is in the public domain. Some writers and publishers are crazy about my Punjabi novel ‘Skeena’, so they go ahead and convert it from Shahmukhi script to Gurmukhi, edit it, get someone to create a brand new cover page, dtp it, print it, and send it to a bookstore near where i live.

I’m not kidding.
Gurmukhi edition of novel ‘Skeena’ now available in India and Canada

Last month, Rajwant Chilana, an author and the owner of India Bookworld in Surrey, contacted me to say that Skeena’s Punjabi edition had arrived and he invited me to come and see it. First, i thought, the bookstore has acquired the Shahmukhi edition from Sanjh Publications in Lahore but then I remembered that when someone from a Sikh cultural background says ‘Punjabi’, they mean Punjabi in Gurmukhi script, just like when someone from Muslim cultural background says ‘Punjabi’ they mean Punjabi in Shahmukhi or Arabo-Persian script.

I went and saw it, it was in Gurmukhi. Skeena’s Punjabi edition got published in India after twelve years of being published in Pakistan and its Gurmukhi edition got published after eight years of getting published in Canada (script conversion and editing by Surjeet Kalsey, limited edition, Libros Libertad 2011). It took so long because as an author i was unwilling to pay the printing costs as is still customary in Punjabi publishing. Indeed, it is a compliment to me and my work that a group of people invested their time and money to bring out a nice edition, and now it is finally available to all Punjabi readers, and that makes me very happy.

Yet there is this feeling of taken-aback-ness, curiosity, and i must admit- some amusement. In this scenario of un-asked permissions, un-authorised script conversions and un-acknowledged royalty rights, the aspect that intrigues me the most is the brand new cover art. Indeed, the woman on the cover is sitting in a much favored pose for women on book covers in South Asia, the popular ‘waiting-bride’ pose.

Covering Skeena

Below is the original cover art of Skeena: a stylized depiction of a woman lying on a bed with an open book, her body tattooed with decorative shapes and newsprint, with a background of minarets and moon.

Painting by Ahmad Zoay, Cover design by Sadaf Chughtai

At the back, to point to the possibilities of how a woman’s person may flower, and, to counter the male gaze, the figure is turned upright- thanks to graphic designer Sadaf Chughtai in Lahore.

I am grateful to publisher Amjad Saleem Minhas for giving me the right to choose the cover art for the debut edition in 2007, and later to Manolis Aligizakis for keeping it for the English edition in 2011. I had chosen it after going over hundreds of paintings and drawings. This was important to me because my novel Skeena traverses a delicate line- it is based on the cliche plot of a young Muslim woman who is brought up in a Punjabi village and she arrives in Canada via an arranged marriage- in this cliche plot original real life characters breathe, reside and flourish changing the nature of the plot and its situations. The cover art expresses a part of Skeena’s essence, and it serves as a caution to people of a conservative traditional mindset to not pick it up. I was also aware that it can alienate a portion of Skeena’s ‘natural’ readership of women who may find it hard to pick up the novel, buy it and read it in public- but, there always is a first time.

What we have on the cover of Gurmukhi edition now is a realistic projection of a Muslim woman from lower middle class or from the more conservative sections of middle class. Nice art work, i especially like the thoughtful expression on the woman’s face where she seems determined to figure things out for herself, the soft colors and contours of the image provide a palpable base for her efforts. It depicts the apparent or outward mannerism of Skeena at least as it is in the first three sections of the novel. But Wow! Catch me if i fall, what a transformation. If the original was a caution because of a woman’s sprawling non-pornographic nudity, than this is an invitation because of the harmlessness of the fully-clothed safely-sexy ‘girly-book’ look. Indeed, based on the cover, it can easily pass for an A. R. Khatoon or a Razia Butt kind of novel that feeds into and perpetuates most of the entrenched systemic myths and prejudices about women and people in general.

A few years back, a friend in Lahore who had immensely enjoyed reading Skeena, asked a woman who was studying it for her research, to encapsulate Skeena and she had instantly responded with ‘She is a rebel’. View it here:
it’ll-live-for-a-long-long-time-a-comment-by-younas-khan/

Given that it is the same novel, let’s see if the ‘invitation’ works better than the ‘caution’, as we know that Skeena’s Shahmukhi edition is Pakistan’s all-time best-selling Punjabi novel since 2008.

Fauzia Rafique
October 15, 2019

Skeena
Gurmukhi Edition
Script Conversion & Editing: Harbans Singh Dhiman
ISBN 978-93-5231-317-4
India Bookworld, $15
604-593-5967
info@indiabookworld.ca
Sangam Publications, India
sangam541@gmail.com
01764-501934
..

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.

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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Checklists

checklists

I was walking to the nearest khokha convenience store a few blocks from my place while my mind was absorbed by my novel Saheban that I was in the process of sending to the publisher the next day. On a side street, there was an older woman with a cane walking toward me from the other end of the footpath. I got the feeling, she stopped when she saw me, and she had. For the rest of my walk on that street of young trees and new houses, I felt being observed at every step. It made me lose my focus on the novel, and I felt that funny feeling I get when meeting strangers, of being pushed into the booth of the Accused in Hollywood’s Victorian courtroom where cases were decided on the basis of various laws that I had, in my own experiential courtroom, pronounced unacceptable in the previous century.

The best way to not lose my focus was to not get effected by the uneasiness of it to the point of generating a series of reactions that I know actually cause the courtroom feeling in me. I quickened my step as if in a hurry, and reached the woman fast. I had seen her before, and we had exchanged wishing-well gestures. So, I did that again, a smile, joining of palms, bobbing of head. She did her part by accepting my greetings with a sweet smile and a wave of her hand. We came across each other, I passed her by. Success!

But No. She was speaking to me, saying something like ‘you live on that side?’ I turned back, said ‘Yes!’ and kept walking.
‘We used to live there too,’ she followed me matching my speed, came alongside, held my arm, stopped me, and said: ‘In the house next to yours. Do you live in the upper portion?’
‘No,’ I had no choice but to stop and to let her put me in her courtroom so that she could go through her checklists. ‘Main floor’, I said, surrendering to an examination that I knew I wouldn’t pass.
‘Oh, main floor basement.’ She said, checking off the first item. ‘I live in a basement too, in that house. We were living with our son but he moved to Amrika with his wife and kids, we stayed here because my husband works here. How many children?’
‘Three.’
‘Boys?’
‘Two girls and a boy.’
‘They live with you?’
‘No.’
‘All married?’
‘No.’
‘Girls must be married?’
‘No.’
‘Oh. You live with your husband?’
‘No.’
‘Who do you live with?’
‘No one.’
‘You live alone? So sorry…’
‘Nothing to be sorry about, it’s very relaxing to live on one’s own,’ I said, encouraging her to think on those lines.
‘I’ll go sit with my husband now,’ she said, giving me the verdict and moving along.

The verdict: under 23%, and this is how:

33% on Children question as in 66% for two boys and 99% for three;

0% on Married-Woman question since women not living with their husbands have either been ‘divorced by them’ or they are widows who are not good enough to find other husbands;

35% on Respectable-Woman question because of body-covering clothes and familiar ‘south asian’ mannerism;

0% on Motherhood question if neither my son nor daughters are willing to ‘take my burden’;

15% on Class question since I don’t own the property I live in, have no car or car-keys, clothing covers the body but does not establish any acknowledged power status;

50% on Ethnicity for being Punjabi but not Sikh or White.

Score: 133 out of 600, a mere 22.16% of the total. I had been ‘Aunteed’.

It’s interesting that my Uncled score is always higher- sometimes as high as 50% because most uncles usually give me some mark on living by myself as it seems to intrigue them all. But if you think that my Aunteed score is low, wait till you see what I get when Begumed.

A South Asian Begum may choose to give me 2.5% for simply standing on North American soil instead of sitting on it, and that’ll be the end of my scorecard because nothing in me would be of use to her. On the other hand, a White Begum won’t be able to locate me sitting or standing, and if she is made to pay attention to me, her radar would go fuzzy making me appear and disappear from her vision like an incarnation of some character in a hollywood box office hit on poverty-in-another-continent that she may have watched at some point in her life. I’ll get 0% when lucky.

Unlike the difference in score when Aunteed and Uncled, my score remains consistent when Begumed and Sahibed by South Asians and when Begumed and Sahibed by White, Black, Red or Yellow people: the same 2.5 and 0%.

If you ask me, I prefer being Brownbagged more than being Aunteed, Uncled, Begumed or Sahibed because at least it’s more of a general wrap and it hides me like it hides my lunch, and for sure, it’s better than being Blackburned or Nativebrowned.

This is not a complete index of Checklists I encounter, but I need to veer off of it because it’ll be unfair to not tell you about my own system of locating others in my mind.

I seem to have Signs instead of Checklists; here are a few examples. When I see a man in a non-thriftstore suit and tie or a woman wearing designer angelina-jolie clothes there emerges in my mind a STAY AWAY sign, and in most cases I do. The RUN sign appears for people using the latest academic/literary/ideological jargon or putting up a show for the camera; STOP sign appears at people singing or smiling, dancing or laughing- at a protest rally or away from it- but this is not to be confused with the red traffic stop signs that said ‘STOP Harper’ and are now saying ‘STOP Enbridge’ because those i FOLLOW; and, a STAY sign shows up if someone invites me to have a joint.
..

Toronto’s Tempting Wild Flowers

Memoir

torontowild-flowers-mehidotme-3

Before reading this story, you need to know that I grew up with the belief that I can’t defend myself in a physical fight. Some of it has to do with the way I was brought up but more comes from my few experiences with physical violence in my youth where I did not hit back, and so was easily overpowered by the offending party in an all-girls school yard. It was un-settling, so I tried to figure it out and discovered that there was no desire in me to have an eye for an eye, one was enough, even when mine; if at all. As well, I realized that Gandhi, another skinny South Asian, had the answers for me in this area: the tactics of nonviolence. To stand your ground without hitting back, and to continue to speak your mind. This, as we know, is the backbone of any protest movement across the globe.

So now, the story. The first week I was in Toronto, it was summer of 1986. Me and my ex partner Saloo Khan Durrani had had some tense few months while packing up and leaving Pakistan with our two children and to start living in Canada as Convention Refugees. We had a rental apartment in Scarborough, a suburb of Toronto much like Surrey is to Vancouver; both stigmatized and frowned upon for their dense South Asian and other colored-immigrant populations. We were out with our children Mariam 10 and Yermiah 6, to do groceries and we decided to go to the mall through a park.

It was nice, but it rapidly became exciting as we went further in. Away from flowerbeds and green patches and paths, there were wild flowers on a slope, loads of them, the likes I had never seen before. We all have something or the other that we are drawn to. My friend Nefertiti SheLa is drawn to traumatized bub rats and she writes stories about them, Janene White is transfixed by all small animals and she goes onto write poems for them, Janet Kvaman can’t get enough of the dragonflies, Deborah Kelly coo-es over cats, and my long time friend Broyni Baxter is crazy over dogs. For me it’s flowers, and fruits, and any vegetation. Now, having lived in England for a couple of years, and from knowing gardens of Lahore, I was aware that in a city even if flowers appear to be wild, they probably are not. But I was a new refugee, there was no question for me to buy any kind of flowers, but I still had a heart. So, I went in, and began to touch and smell them.

Saloo saw that, and he hurried ahead with the kids, encouraging me to follow. I did feel that pressure but could not leave the flowers, and then after asking their permission, I began to softly pick them. I chose and took a few, long-stemmed, one each of a kind. As I was admiring them right at the scene of the crime, a young white woman passed by on a bike. I held up the flowers, and with a big smile, shared their beauty with her. She did not smile back, and continued on. Never mind, I thought, she must be in a hurry. I got up, and began to walk to the path. Just then, I saw her come back. Something in her manner made me stop.
‘Do you know that picking flowers is against the law in Canada?’ She asked, disembarking from her bike.
My mind shouted NO but ‘Yes’ came out because it’s hard to tender lies to sudden direct questions.
‘So, you broke the law on purpose?’
‘Look at the abundance! They won’t mind if I took a few’, I said.
‘Who won’t mind?’ She asked
‘The plants’, I said.
‘You broke our law and you think its a joke? Fucking Bitch! I am making a Citizen’s arrest’, she gave a quick look around for a place to rest her bike.
‘Do what you like but please don’t use abusive language’, I said.
At this, she dropped the bike, and began to shout and froth about dirty brown immigrants, criminals, lawbreakers, welfare bums, and illiterates; a barrage of filth that I don’t remember.
A small crowd was gathering around us, and I felt as if I was being enclosed into a rapidly forming, and moving, boxing ring with a crazed individual who was about to pounce at me.
‘Are you trying to assault me?’ I asked her to make sure.
And she did.
She pounced, I ducked; but what actually saved me was Saloo who had wedged himself between me and the blow just in time. With that, my situation changed as I could now take cover, even when human. Meanwhile, the young woman’s tongue was getting the best of her.
‘You are a racist, violent and abusive individual’, I said, raising my head over Saloo’s shoulder.
She hit again. Saloo stopped the blow.
‘This is assault!’ I said.
Some people in the crowd also began to challenge her, and because Saloo was non-violent but firm in his defensive moves, she finally left, still hurling insults at me and my brown-ness, paki-ness, refugee-ness; my visible-minority-ness. Most of all, at my insistence on my right to have a bunch of wild flowers even when I was a newly-arrived, unemployed, paki brown, refugee woman, living in Scarberia.

During all this strife that took about 10-15 minutes, where the ring of violence was moved from a narrow pathway to open area; ducking, retreating and standing my ground; after taking a load of verbal abuse and close encounters with violence, i still had the flowers in my hand; beautiful, fresh and smiling.

The interesting thing is, that this somewhat is the story of my life. At the end of each unpleasant experience, I find myself standing with a few beloved people and some very supportive strangers while holding in my hand an equivalent of a bouquet of fresh cut, undamaged, wild-looking, bright-colored flowers.

Perhaps because i’m not, for example, a Black man in America, an Indigenous woman in Canada, or a member of a minority in Pakistan.

Photo: mehi.me, Inset: Saloo Durrani

Presented at Surrey Muse August 28/15
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‘Something in that name…’ by Fauzia Rafique

.

In the Pakistani city of Sargodha in 2007, i was launching the Punjabi edition of my novel ‘Skeena’, and had just heard some wonderful things about it, and also the very best review called ‘Peerni’ from a poet/educationist. Questions followed, and the first person wanted to know who my favourite novelists were. Easy, i thought, and began my SalmanRushdie-MargaretAtwood-ToniMorrison-LindaHogan bit.
‘Salman Rushdie, Marga…’ I could not finish the first name of the second novelist because five six people (actually men) had risen from different locations of that small hall, and they were all speaking at the same time.
I stopped to listen.
‘What kind of Muslim are you that you are taking the name of that Murtid (apostate)?’ An outraged man asked.
My answer was as unbelievable as the question, ‘i am a human before being a Muslim’.
At this, the hall became more restless, and the local organizer and my publisher were there on both my sides.
‘The question period is over’, someone said.
I was led away, and out the side door. The event ended.

There’s some good news that may not be available later in this post. Out of the 55-60 (or 45-50) people present there, i was supported in private by two women and a man of Christian descent who were working with a local human rights organization.

Together, we were reminded of Ayub Masih, arrested for blasphemy in 1996, and tortured, for suggesting to his Muslim neighbour to read ‘The Satanic Verses’ before going against it, and for showing preference for Christianity over Islam. After years of international lobbying while he was being tortured in prison, in 2002 he was acquitted and taken away from Pakistan. The extent of torture suffered by Ayub Masih led John Joseph (1932–1998), the then Roman Catholic Bishop of Faisalabad, to commit suicide in protest against the cruel treatment of Pakistan’s minorities by it’s Muslim governments.

Back at the rest house i found an uncompromising silent stance from my companions that said it’s FINAL that Salman Rushdie has insulted the Prophet and he deserves to be punished; this isn’t up for discussion, Bibi, and it doesn’t matter if Iran has withdrawn the fatwa or not. My publisher gave the most elegant response. He said, ‘It’s not what he wrote, it’s what people associate with it. You know that it’s a sensitive issue to mention that name here’.

Sure, i knew, i had removed it from the Punjabi edition of ‘Skeena’. I knew it to be a sensitive issue in the general social environment but this was not a general ‘public’ gathering. Most people attending Skeena launches were left-leaning or progressive writers, artists, activists and journalists. I didn’t think it would be such a taboo with this set of people. The silencing, but more so, the sense of endangering other people felt oppressive but we were leaving in the morning.

Look what happened to me
We travelled back to Lahore, and i went to my family. When i was asked how did it go in Sargodha, i said, ‘look what happened to me…’ and began to tell my story, but before i could finish, the senior member of my family squirmed in his chair and then asked in a voice angrier than i had ever heard, ‘How could you take that name?’ For some reason, i was again not expecting it. Discussion became hot, and when it came to religion and religiosity, my respected elder told me to not ‘play smart’ with them, but to answer one simple question: do i believe in god or not. I said not. And that was the first time i was asked to leave a forever loving home. I did (but not for long). What puzzles me is that for those two family members, this was no ‘news’, they knew for many years that i don’t believe in god, i don’t practice religion, and that i think it’s influence suppresses the life force of people especially women, making them willing slaves to oppressive living conditions and/or to the interests of extreme religious groups. It is in my poems and stories; the character Skeena in the novel then being launched, denounces Islam at the end. So, why was i asked to leave after this discussion and not any time before? That name, perhaps.

While meeting a Punjabi poet and author at an event in Lahore, the ‘how could you?’ came up. I asked him ‘Can’t we even say what we think? We are not insisting that others be convinced’. The person just looked at me, no discussion.

Later, in an informal and warm home environment, i was asked by a group of friends to furnish them with the ‘why’ of mentioning ‘that name’. By that time, i had realized that it was not taking ‘that name’ that had appeared so unbelievable of me to all my progressive friends but it was it’s projection in a positive affirmative role that was causing the problem. From the sincere attention being paid to me over fine whiskey and golden garda, i felt that i needed to provide a reason, a justification, some rationale for what was being seen as my indiscretion, oversight, mistake. But while presenting my case to my enlightened writer, artist, activist friends in the room, i was not allowed to question the withdrawn guilty verdict given by a dead extreme religious leader. Challenging.
‘He is a very interesting storyteller’, I said, and that to me clearly expressed my involved experience of reading fiction by Salman Rushdie.
The faces stared at me in silence.
This was definitely not enough. Okay, ‘the master of magic realism, a world renowned author, he got the Booker of Bookers’, i said.
The faces remained unchanged.
So, i took a pause and began to roll a joint. For me, reading is to enjoy the story and the way someone told it, without analyzing or categorizing or rationalizing my likings and dislikings. But at that point, i was required to actually think why i like Salman Rushdie’s novels. It was difficult when their themes could not be mentioned so i couldn’t say ‘i like the fun way he integrates religion with the story’; and especially, when his being an interesting storyteller, the master user of magic realism, the Booker-winning world-renowned author, were all deemed insufficient. Am i expected to find something that the world has yet not found? To save my face that inexplicably was lost in the eyes of my friends, i had to come up with something. So i decided to share another factor that increases my level of comfort with it.
‘There’s no male nostalgia in his narrative’, i said.
‘Male nostalgia!’
This did draw some interest, and i was asked to elaborate on it.
‘Sometimes, i find strong male nostalgia in a story, plot, characters or underlying themes where for example, in a seemingly ‘equitable’ or ‘humanitarian’ theme environment suddenly you are confronted with the author’s desire to revert to a time with values that were, among other things, way more advantageous to men. The inconsistency is usually shocking enough to throw me out of it. But i am never confronted with that in Salman Rushdie’s novels; family, status, tradition, religion, nothing is held sacred’.
My friends appeared relieved. I had provided them with something unique to me, like a damaged leg or a crooked eye or some other disability, that had caused me to like the work of a Murtid. My offence was forgiveable because i had committed it under the understandable ‘influence’ of being a woman, an acknowledged aggrieved interest group. At that point, though Lal Masjid had happened the previous year, supporting women’s rights in Lahore was not that risky.

Extreme religious mindset
From Sargodha on, almost everyone i met had a similar response. Firm refusal to discuss the fatwa, The Satanic Verses or Salman Rushdie; and, a ‘betrayed’ outrageous persona saying ‘how could you?’. The last aspect involving the element of endangering my communities was the hardest to take because the fear, of course, was real. This same stance with unimportant variations was taken by people across the board; people who did not know each other to have developed the same positions by exchanging views. Also, out of nine cities, Hyderabad was the only place where religion was mentioned (by a leading Sindhi nationalist) in the context of Skeena, a novel that explores the negative impact of Islam on women. Can’t forget the chill that also did descend on my ‘social’ life.

Back in Canada, in 2009-10, i found Salman Rushdie’s (old) wall on Facebbok, it presented the most blatant written expression of the ‘nature’ of religious extremism- what it creates out of people. The unreason, intolerance, violence, bigotry, threats, and the filthiest verbal abuse- it was all there. I am glad that the owners began to confront this abuse, ended it, and developed a new page (Sir Salman Rushdie Fans), but i hope that the old page is archived somewhere for record.

In 2011, with an escalation in blasphemy killings in Pakistan, i became more and more involved with the movement against religious extremism. During that time, i realized that the blasphemy case against Salman Rushdie is crucial in fighting the mindset that supports the concept of anti-blasphemy in Muslim contexts. Though there are, and were, other Muslim authors accused of blasphemy but none gained this kind of Pan-Islamic exposure or became so central to the fight for freedom of expression around the world. For reasons, The Satanic Verses is one of the very few things where all major sects of Muslims find agreement: a purposefully created rallying item that can bring together all shades of Muslims in a ready condition to follow the Extremists’ agenda. It reminded me of the ease with which a progressive gathering of aware people in Sargodha turned into the voice of divine-ordained conservative intolerance. Something in that name?

A Harem and a Whorehouse
Something in that name hits a nerve where others fail. That nerve connects to a Harem and a Whorehouse. The Prophet’s exalted Harem is projected by the blaspheming author as a lecherous Whorehouse via the abuse of the names(!) of Pak BibiyaN, the Pure Respected Women, the Mothers of the Believers. Names again, so what may be hidden in these 11 names, i wonder, if not the ‘honour’ of a family. A family that over 1.6 billion Muslims (or about 23% of the world population) look up to and strive to follow.

Salman Rushdie can not be pardoned because the Muslim family structure must provide complete control to men over women, ‘harem is the cradle of Islam’, and Muslim men are reared on the idea of having the power to have multiple wives. The Prophet had 11 at the same time (13 in all), but the followers are allowed only four at a time. The promise of whatever number of hooris in the afterlife, and at least a mini-harem in this life, is at the heart of Muslim male psyche. And why not, it gives them decisive and absolute advantage over women, and so on all systemic structures, sanctioned by the Divine and duly practised by His Messenger. This is the family value that keeps the ultimate control of Muslim men over the persons and properties of their women, wives, daughters, sisters, mothers.

Imagine, the audacity of a Muslim male who tries to destroy the sanctity of that multiple-wife dream with ridicule, shattering that multiple-hoori promise by making fun of it. Salman Rushdie has attacked the very basis of this main method of societal control, the sacredness and the validity of the harem that assures Muslim men and women that having many wives is morally correct and religiously desirable. And even if most Muslim men don’t have multiple wives, they always can; it’s about what you are worth in relation to each other. In that case, how can i, a woman, even argue with a man bringing a second, third or a fourth wife, especially if he can ‘afford’ it and can keep ‘justice’ between them! What a creepy mind that thought of marrying women to ‘help’ them out, and that introduced the idea of keeping ‘justice’ between them- thirteen marriages in one lifetime, 11 at the same time, includes a child-bride! O’ what a disgusting family and what perverted sex life for a sanctified role model of 1.2 billion people!

To be honest, when i read The Satanic Verses, i felt that the author had made a successful fictional attempt to improve the living conditions of some women characters by moving their worthy names from one oppressive institution to another, less, oppressive institution. Instead of always having a ratio of 11 to 1 in a Harem, the women may have it 1 to 1 in a Whorehouse, at least in the most often-occurring situations. In place of being dependent on one man for the scocio-economic and psycho-emotional well being of 11, they can make their own money and take their own decisions while enjoying all the benefits of self-respecting working women. Most of all, the possibility, the mere possibility, of having a choice where they may refuse a client while they can’t refuse a husband, especially the one heading the most sacred Muslim family unit: ‘M’s 11’.

To explore the connection between that Sacred Exalted Harem and the Whorehouse in The Satanic Verses is a compelling call to sanity for Muslims. And the question i like to pitch is this: What is the difference between a Harem and a Whorehouse?

This came up while reading ‘Joseph Anton: a Memoir by Salman Rushdie’.

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