Sunday, December 27, 2009
Stranger to History by Aatish Taseer
I had just finished reading Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Travels with Herodotus when I started to leaf through Aatish Taseer’s non-fiction book, Stranger to History. In some ways, the books are strikingly similar. The legendary Polish journalist Kapuscinski’s posthumously-published book dwells upon his journeys during his time as a foreign correspondent for the Polish News Agency. As he travels to far away countries, The Histories by Herodotus, the Greek philosopher-historian, serves as his constant companion. But this was in the 60’s and 70’s, a volatile period in which Kapuscinski witnessed a staggering 27 revolutions and coups, mainly in third world countries.
Cut to 2005. Taseer, a former Time magazine reporter, embarks on an exploration of Islamic lands (Iran is the only country both these writers travel to). And, Islamic faith is to Taseer what The Histories was to Kapuscinski. But there’s an important historical as well as personal element in Taseer’s journey. Upon the publication of a cover story about the disillusioned Pakistani-origin youth in Beeston, a small suburb in Leeds in the U.K., at The Prospect magazine, he sends a copy to Salman Taseer, his estranged Pakistani politician-father. To his dismay, his father writes a scathing letter in which he asks: “Do you think you’re doing the Taseer name a service by spreading this kind of invidious anti-Muslim propaganda?”
This question, along with his long separation with his father who had an affair with Tavleen Singh, his Indian journalist mother, during Salman’s book promotion tour of India in 1980, and his meeting with radical Muslims such as Hassan Butt, a spokesman for an extremist Muslim group in the U.K., prompts the young journalist to search for answers. His father, who drank whiskey every evening, never fasted nor prayed, raises this question in Taseer who is torn between his secular upbringing in a Sikh household and an identity as a Muslim. “Caught between feeling provoked and needing to act, I thought of making an Islamic journey,” he writes.
In the first leg of his odyssey, he travels to secular Turkey, “to see how Islam has been banished from the public sphere since 1920.” Then, his itinerary takes him to nationalist Arab-country Syria, Islamic republic Iran, Saudi Arabia—the custodian of two holy mosques, and finally to Pakistan, his fatherland. What emerges is a portrait of Islamic countries steeped in age-old orthodox conventions coupled with vicious regimes. To read Taseer’s finely written book is to immerse oneself with civilisational fault lines. In Turkey, for instance, he runs into a Muslim neighbourhood called Fatih Carsamba, which he calls “a hilltop of radicalism.” He is baffled by the discovery of such a conservative settlement amid a secular Turkey.
In the first chapter titled The License-plate Game, his cousins discover that he’s been circumcised. This turns his small world topsy-turvy. He writes, “If there was a link between the missing foreskin and my missing father, it was too difficult to grasp.” Then, on another instance, when his mother takes him to his maternal grandmother, she bitterly remarks: “Yes, he is lovely but Muslim, nonetheless.” Incidents like these, in which he is treated like an oddity, cast a deep shadow and an aspect of melancholy in his life. But, on a positive note, this also triggers the exploration that culminates into this book.
Divided into two parts, the book (subtitled A Son’s Journey through Islamic Lands) is part memoir and part travelogue. The language is evocative, the observations minute, and the narrative gripping. In between the description of his journeys, he goes back to his past, to his roots, and to his father. To enliven the story, he brings characters from his other meetings into context.
Arriving immediately in Syria after the Danish cartoon controversy, he finds it “closed and depressed, with an autocratic ruler who allowed neither a free economic nor a free political life.” Then, the narrative is intercepted by his experience of visiting Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia. “That’s Tehran,” is how he is introduced to Iranian capital where he runs into more trouble than he was prepared for. He meets his old family friend Muhammad who studied in India and took part in the 1979 Islamic revolution by capturing the Iranian Embassy in Delhi, just like many students of his generation who took part in the revolution that overthrew the Shah monarchy. But now, Muhammad is disillusioned with politics.
In Iran, he runs into trouble with the omnipresent regime. The Discplinary (sic) Force of the Islamic Republic denies an extension to his visa, thereby putting his plans to visit the religious cities of Qom and Mashhad into disarray. He is interrogated by the regime’s dogged sleuths. The interrogation is so thorough that every detail of his life in Iran is extracted. In the evocative chapters dedicated to Iran, he paints a horrifying picture of a country where the entire population is taken hostage while the resentment against the regime runs high. Despite the regime keeping an eye on every aspect of its citizens’ lives, Iranians are undeterred: there are homosexuals, they follow Hare Krishna, a Hindu cult, clandestinely, and whenever time permits, the hip Iranians love to party.
In Iran and Pakistan, he chooses to meet the ordinary people to get a sense of how the state’s policies are affecting them. The chapters that deal with Iran and Pakistan are rich in anecdotes. I particularly liked the one entitled Mango King about a landlord in Sindh, which evokes rural and feudal Pakistan superbly.
Taseer has framed his intensely personal questions into the larger historical, political and religious enquiry. The book can provide an impetus for authors who want to see the political from the personal prism and explore it.