Bond travels

Learning of the original James Bond’s passing away this past weekend—at a fittingly Bondsian location, I might add, in Nassau in the beautiful Bahamas— made a time traveler of me.

I found myself, like D.H. Lawrence, “taken back down the vista of years…” till I found myself, like the child in his poem, recalling my young and beautiful mother, wearing one of her famous sarees, flowers in her hair coiled around the joora she used to wear in those days, pretty jhumkas adorning her ears. Her coral pink lipstick, a Revlon gift from a friend in London, was, I’d like to think, applied as a deliberate gesture to connect her glamor to that of the world of the British secret service agent played by the handsome (and later to be Sir) Sean Connery on the screen he was gonna light up at the Plaza cinema on Mall Road where my parents were headed with another couple for a night out. “From Russia With Love” was the film they were going to see, and then have dinner with their friends at Mei Kong, a favorite Chinese restaurant of that era in Lahore. I shamefacedly recall how I vomited the first time my parents took us children to try Chinese cuisine there; and now I can’t live without Chinese food which I’ve enjoyed on a regular basis since that first embarrassing incident when I was 6 or 7. An important early lesson in understanding how “other” tastes and experiences turn into lifelong companions in our journeys of selfhood.

And so, back to the dashing world of Bond and his fast cars and sexy women…. I was too young then to understand the sexism of this screen world and it’s connection to the patriarchal mores of all cultures then and now. But I do recall hearing my parents laugh salaciously afterward at some remembered joke or pun…. and mom’s giggling peels when I asked her if she could take me to see the film, I too wanted to share in her fun I said, and she, twinkling her eyes at her darling ghooshoo, my dadd-y, telling me no, darling, not yet, not yet, this movie is for grown ups only.

Oh how mad I was then, this Sean Connery was taking her away from me, I could hear her later saying to my dad, oh darling, wasn’t Bond dreamy, much as I now tease my husband, oooh, now here’s the sexiest man alive each time the Scotsman appears onscreen….

But the day I learnt of his death at age 90, almost exactly a year to the day after my own mother, the Ava Gardner of her time and place had passed away aged 86 in lahore, a few miles away from the cinema she’d gone to all those years ago with my dad n her friends to see the handsome Bond escape death time and again—-I was surprised at the depth of my mourning.

Like the grown up poet of “The Piano,” I was overcome by “the glamour
of childish days upon me” my womanhood “cast
Down in the flood of remembrance” as I wept “like a child for the past.”

Grandma routes/loving roots

This past month leading up to Halloween 2020 today, has been a gift of love to me from my beautiful granddaughter Nylah “Bano” Thompson and from me, her “Nano”to her.

Each Monday, Wednesday and Thursday morning for this past month (these being my non-teaching days this semester)— I have picked her up from her parents’ home in nearby Yorktown Heights between 8 and 8:30 am, and driven her in tomato red car 🚘 which is my link to my mom, her great grandmother who died a few days ago this time last year in her home in Lahore— to the town of Croton on Hudson. That is the town where her mother was brought to her first home after I gave birth to her almost 35 years ago.

Our destination each of these mornings has been the Black Cow Coffee shop, where we stop for “Nano” to get her Java fix, and Nylah (who I call Nynah for some inexplicable reason 😂 much to the chagrin of her mommy!)— to get a sugary treat such as a pumpkin muffin or an almond croissant, which we both end up sharing (no more sugar after this month, I promise—at least, not until thanksgiving 😛 😉). We also read her favorite Babar book, “Babar Goes to America”— and it is apt that she enjoys her “Baba” book since she calls her grandpa by that moniker and he also happens to spell his name in the same way as the little elephant! We are all truly connected! And lil Nynah of course has made friends with all of the coffee shop regulars even as we sit at our socially distanced tables, bemoaning the fate of our country under the present regime that seeks to keep the Babars of the world out of its borders.

While we end up on our morning outings at the Black Cow, the real treat is the route we take there.

My first stop is on the country road that brings us into town, where I pull up next to the humongous front yard of a house jam packed with Halloween paraphernalia: there are skeletons reclining on pool chairs, paddling boats and playing a spooky piano, next to a black coach driven by a skeleton, next to 5 horse skeletons one of which has a headless rider holding a pumpkin, and various ghostly figures hanging on trees including a late addition of a werewolf.

Nylah exclaims each time with delight and awe at these macabre displays, the “keletins” and “hossies” and headless horseman fetching squeals of pleasure from the 18 month old bundle of joy in my arms.

Our next stop is the side street in downtown Croton where I park, and there Nylah and I hold hands as we walk on the sidewalk past the houses with front porches decorated with Halloween witches and carved pumpkins and spider webs and “ghosties” and “ ‘carecrows” and gnomes— and even a life size chimpanzee sitting on a chair! One of the houses has a box of colored chalk on its steps so we stop and pick a few pieces, pink and purple, orange and red, and draw on the pavement, thanking the owners for their thoughtful invitation to a wee bit of coloring fun this grandma and granddaughter can share in, giggling and cuddling and exclaiming in excitement as we perambulate up the street. It’s been a monthlong ritual neither of us has tired of, each walk we take bringing us into ever more intimate touch with the sap that rejuvenates the spirit long after the leaves have fallen to the ground.

A house in Croton Nano and her Nynah (Nylah)— have enjoyed on our route/root
Nylah drawing her masterpieces on the pavement

I look forward to seeing my daughter and granddaughter dress up as Avocado and Toast today as we try to enjoy a scaled-back version of Halloween; but I am truly grateful for this month’s gift of exchange that I hope will turn the physical route Nylah and I have traveled each morning into the deeper roots of memory, blossoming into a tree of many branches. These branches of leaves changing colors with the seasons, are our futures interwoven with travels in which the skin of the past breathes through the pores of the epidermis we call the present. Nothing stays, everything remains. I see my loving Nani and my Ammi in my Nylah who I hope will remember me with the love that binds us together in an unbroken chain of human connection.

Resurrection: Ertogrul. Countering Orientalist Travels

So I must have been one of the exceptions to the rule in not having seen any of the massive output in pop culture- especially through the medium of TV soap operas- that have made Turkish contributions to the genre famous and beloved across the world, including its legions of fans across Muslim lands. So I decided to travel back in time and space to the pre Ottoman era and stories of the Kayi tribe whose entry into Anatolia in the late 12th century AD served as the foundation stone for the building of the Ottoman Empire that spanned the regions of south east Europe, Western Asia and Northern Africa; the Turkish descendants of the Kayi tribe ruled this powerful Islamic state from the 14th till the 20th centuries.

While the 100+ episodes of the series called Resurrection: Ertogrul — are cartoonish in the black n white depiction of characters and the heavy handed music and cinematography reinforces this black/white view of the world with the brave Kayi leader Ertogrul and his Alps being too good and mighty and always on the side of virtue, and the Templar knights the epitome of all cruelty and vice possible—the series serves an important function: it’s a caravanserai for travelers weary of knowing the history of our world from the point of view of the West. A point of view that Edward Said termed “orientalist.”

And so perhaps there are some lessons to be learnt from these anti-orientalist travels. For instance, I loved seeing the women’s work: the rug weaving, the dyeing of colorful cloths for sale in the Aleppo Bazaar, showing the male and female roles working in complementary fashion to help the Kayi Tent survive the harsh conditions of their existence. Viewers also observe the respectful and loving relationships between men and women despite the heavily patriarchal nature of the tribal society. These representations are a good counter to stereotypes about Muslim male treatment of women that both Muslim men and those who stereotype them would do well to observe.


What I’ve enjoyed about this representation is that it counters the lack of historical knowledge about the pre Ottoman world and its conflicts. I also like the centralisation of the character of the Muslim mystic Ibn al Arabi and the world view he brings to the table of binaries; he counters the oppositional framework that structures that world and which continues down to our own day sadly—through adumbrating an Islamic cosmology that is spiritually elevating because it is humanistic at its core, in a pluriversal way, embracing as it does, all of the life forms that sustain our worldly existence. It is a mythology we need to be aware of, especially as we also witness the internal conflicts in the Muslim world of those times which parallel what’s going on in the contemporary Muslim cosmos. And it’s useful to be reminded that just as no nation or people or place in earth has the lock on the good— so too, fanaticism is not the purview of any one religious group or ideology; the Knights Templar being a case in point, the “fundamentalists” of the Christian world who were as reviled by their saner counterparts as the extremists of the Muslim world today are seen as outliers and are disavowed by the majority of Muslims.

Traveling through Covid with Love and Solidarity

Back in early May as classes via Zoom were winding down, I decided to reach out to my desi Feministas— the 4 women of Indian origin, immigrant academics like me with South Asia as our heritage in common, and who were founding members with me of the South Asian Feminist Caucus of the National Women’s Studies Association of N America that is one of our professional homes.

Initially, I just wanted/needed the comfort and camaraderie of our long term friendship, with its professional edge that has kept us sharing our work and presenting it together at the annual conferences of the NWSA, as a ballast in these crazy anxiety-ridden times we are living through. And so we raised a glass of wine (or water!) to toast each other’s resilience in the time of Corona, to share our stresses and worries for the future of our worlds— back home, this home, the literal travels and shuttling between them now on hold (who knows for how long, we wondered, with sadness and angst, esp those of us with family/aging parents awaiting our annual visits in our countries of birth).

And then, in the way of feminist travels, we opened up our weekly zoom sessions to friends and neighbors, and then, soon enough, to shaping these sessions into serious musings on the rapidly unfolding picture of the intertwined social, political, economic and dimensions of this dreaded plague of our times, blowing open the racism and sexism that underpins everything.

And thus, May and June were dedicated to weekly Zoom meetings that lasted 75-90 minutes apiece, bringing so many engaged and concerned feminist minds together to think on the state of our world and offered ideas on how we might be part of the change that is surely coming— a new journey, to a new place.

I am honored and grateful to have had the opportunity to listen to so many wise voices in friendship and solidarity over these past few challenging months. And how fortuitous that Prof Diana Fox who I know through my connection to the great feminist icon of our times, Dr Nawal el Saadawi, should show up as an attendee and participant in our sessions, and offer to archive our humble journey in the pages of the online journal she edits, the Journal of International Womens Studies (JIWS).

Here is a short description of this venture, and links to where those of you who would like to be part of these travels, can access our sessions.

Current Issue of JIWS ( Journal of International Womens Studies), Volume 21, Issue 4 (2020):

Three Months of the Global Covid-19 Pandemic: A Selection of Liberatory, anti-racist, feminist webinars, panels and interviews.

This special issue can be accessed at the link below. Once inside the journal, sub-links are provided to each of the Zoom sessions of “Love and Solidarity in the Time of Corona,” organized and moderated by Fawzia Afzal-Khan with the support of the South Asian Feminist Caucus of the National Womens Studies Association (NWSA).

https://vc.bridgew.edu/jiws/

Joint Introduction by Diana Fox and Fawzia Afzal-Khan can be accessed at:

https://vc.bridgew.edu/jiws/vol21/iss4/1/

Class Travels

So I’m grateful my traveling is intimately integrated into my teaching life, and no wonder since I teach courses in World Literature, which are explorations, through the lens of literary and cultural texts, of the ongoing aftermath of colonialism affecting all of us to this day.

One of the advantages of Zoom technology is the ease with which we can connect with large numbers of people in different parts of the globe during a class session.

Thus, yesterday, I was able to bring Palestine into my virtual classroom or you could say, take my students to the Gaza Strip whose reality they/us know so little of. Since we are reading and discussing the novel Men in the Sun by Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani this week in class, I thought to invite my friend and colleague Professor Isam Shihada of Al Aqsa University, Gaza, who teaches in the Dept of English and Gender Studies, to share his insights about the author and on life as a Palestinian based on his own daily experience. 147 of his students some now situated in Iraq and Kuwait, also joined our session.

The rest of the world’s Covid-instigated lockdown has been THEIR REALITY for over half a century! It was an observation that my students could now feel viscerally after their own enforced lockdowns of just a month’s duration and without having to also deal with the added daily humiliation of being an occupied people (though we are now in a way, under occupation by Covid 19!). During my conversation with Prof Shihada it became clear to the students that the inhuman continued occupation by Israel of the Gaza strip has turned it into the worlds largest open air prison, with NO infrastructure left after repeated attacks and bombardments over decades, to enable the 3 million or so inhabitants of Gaza fight back against the pandemic should it spread there; such an eventuality would effectively become the Final Solution for Gazans in a repetition of history that led Hitler and his Nazi party to wipe out 6 million Jews in the Holocaust during World War 2.

Is that a “solution” the world is willing to live with? In learning about the Occupied Territories, about the courage and commitment of Kanafani to use the pen as an instrument of resistance, of how he paid with his life for daring to inform the world of the unjust treatment of his people (he was assassinated in Beirut by the Israeli Mossad at the young age of 36, along with his teenage niece, Lamis, who was with him at the time)— my students’ eyes were opened to a reality they don’t normally see. In the process, as several of them asked— “ what can we do to help change things?”

Isn’t this what traveling feminista, eyes 👀 wide open, ears 👂 alerted to hearing the voices of the underrepresented “others” of our world, hope travel will lead to?

https://youtu.be/3h_drCmG2iM

You can watch a video interview of Kanafani at the url above where the bias of the interviewer Richard Carleton is so obvious but which Kanafani challenges so smartly!

Corona Travels

I haven’t been able to write for a while, for a variety of reasons. At the beginning of the year, my travels to my home country to teach short term as a Fulbright Specialist in Lahore and participate and help organize three major launches of my latest book, took up so much time there that I found it impossible to keep up with the blogging. And then I had to rush home mid March not just to resume my classes back here at my university in Montclair NJ, but because by then Covid-19 had become a serious global threat. I was lucky to manage getting back in to the US given the flight cancellations and quarantine restrictions on travelers etc.

Since then, like everyone else, I’ve been on what feels like house arrest, going nowhere and seeing no one except immediate family. Luckily my son moved in from NYC to ride out the pandemic with us, and I spent my first week back training to use the Zoom platform to conduct my classes online. Our daughter n son in law live nearby so we meet them daily and help look after our darling granddaughter, which is a bright spot in our otherwise anxiety-ridden days.

Teaching and cooking, taking neighborhood walks and watching Netflix shows fill up my days that are marking the passage of time, as people around the globe wake up to the same nightmare, worried, unsettled, angry, resentful, simultaneously scared and pessimistic yet hopeful too for a better, more just world that could emerge from this catastrophe.

Traveling in this interior landscape is its own adventure, not one any of us was looking for, but now as it has become the new “normal”, we all are having to deal with it one way or other.

In my following posts I’ll describe some of these new travels I’ve been undertaking sitting in my home study, and intersperse those musings with descriptions of my recent time in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad; all the while hoping/imagining a world after Covid….

From Lahori Grill to PENN Station: a Brief, Wondrous Life Journey With Shahidul Alam

I jumped on a train to Grand Central from the river town I live in upstate, to make an hourlong journey in to NYC, and then walk briskly for 20 more minutes to the Lahore Grill shop next to the apartment Shahidul Alam was staying at during his recent trip here from his native Bangladesh.

I had mobilized some good friends and their contacts in the museum world of Manhattan to put me in touch with Shahidul once I heard he was in town (I’d never met him)–and spent the previous day playing WhatsApp tag with him, trying to figure out some window of time we might meet. I am hoping to write a conference paper on his photographical performance, which transforms the mundane into the magical, rendering visible what is no longer there.

The French word “bouleverse” captures best the “coup de foudre”— bolt of lightning— effect Shahidul’s photographs had on me when I first encountered them a month ago at his first major retrospective exhibition in the USA curated by Beth Citron at the Rubin museum.

As my dear friend Tim Mchenry who is chief program director at the Rubin showed me and a young artist friend around the exhibit, I found myself struck by the way Shahidul uses his aesthetic aperture to frame tragedy as a consequence of political and moral failure. The beauty of his photographs is heartbreaking precisely because it points not to the inevitability of “natural” or “political” disappearances— of, for instance, land disappearing under water forcing a woman to cook atop a corrugated rooftop in a sea of submerged cottages against the surreally beautiful backdrop of brightly colored cloths flapping in the wind; or his images of women activists burnt onto straw mats who are still keeping alive the search and memory and demand for justice for a 23 year old social justice activist, Kalpana Chakma, who was “disappeared” at the point of a gun by the Bangladeshi military and 2 local village defense party men 20 plus years ago; or the way a photograph of her dress hauntingly recalls the shape of her body when it wore that fabric. Rather, these images show such phenomena of the natural and political worlds to be both intertwined and avoidable— for both are a result of man-made policies aimed at a vision of “development” and “progress” that has unleashed so much violence for the majority of the world’s peoples. And yet, when tragedy strikes, survivors refuse to be victims, the camera captures their resilience even when they or their worlds are disappearing in front of our very eyes….

The best part of spending even a tiny bit of the afternoon with Shahidul yesterday, was how the encounter with a resistant, artistic human being can just add so much joy and optimism to your day. Here was a man who had been rounded up by Bangladeshi security forces and hauled off to jail in August 2018 for 104 days, tortured by his own account, all for the crime of speaking truth to power. For his amazing work in the cause of social justice he was recognized by Time Magazine as one of their 2018 Persons of the Year, and in his smiling, humble company, I forgot about the depressing US presidential impeachment trial for a while, as in between packing Shahidul a Lahore kebab sandwich for his train trip to Philly, snapping photos of him with an admiring fellow Bengali and the grill shop’s owner (and myself!), jumping into an Uber with several bags and two large frame packages, his camera equipment and my heavy coat, then jumping out at PENN Station and racing higgeldy-piggeldy with all this stuff to help him make it in the nick of time to board his train—- phew! well— in between this madcap rush to get him to his train in time, we somehow, magically, managed to connect/communicate our passion for justice in the world…. and I’d like to think, to recognize kindred artistic spirits in each other. We looked across the train platform once Shahidul and his many packages were safely on board— and grinned, as if to say, another world is coming, built on the mad hopes of solidarity.

I hope to deepen our acquaintance in the coming years– and look forward to working on the paper discussing his work that I’m planning to present at the International Federation of Theatre Research later this year

In the Beginning, there was the dream….goodbye dear Mother

Jan 1st 2020

I haven’t been able to blog for a few months— since Oct 27th, 2019, to be precise.

That’s the day my mother made her final journey, to a place which I, you, we together here, in our world, can only access like the character played by Robin Williams does, as he invites us, interlopers all, to What Dreams May Come after we shed this mortal coil, and travel to destinations as yet unknown whilst we live and breathe….

What dreams might come then, mommy? Will I get to you in them? I see you still, so still, your flesh cold and hard as I join the ritual bathers in pouring water over you to prepare your body for your final journey. Are you headed home, mama? Will you be my guide when I’m ready to travel back to Hades? My beautiful mother, I see you in your great granddaughter, my Nylah Bano— you’ve passed your soul to her, I can tell, a journey through successive generations who I hope will continue these travels long after my own have ceased….

For friends and other interested readers of this blog, I paste below my final goodbye to my mother, honoring her memory at the Du’a (prayer) ceremony held at her house, 190 Abid Majeed Road in Lahore Cantonment, the seed of my past and ongoing travels…. here’s to new beginnings in 2020, tethered to all that has enabled me to fly far and wide; the paradox of home and abroad, roots and rootlessness, life, death, and dreams everlasting.

In the beginning, there was the dream…

Eulogy for Mom:

“Thank u all for coming today to be with us on this sad occasion and to share in the suffering of our immense loss. Many of you have already experienced this loss, others will do so in the future, as we are all mortals and life for the living is about learning to cope with the passing on of our near and dear ones.

Coping well is a skill and like all skills, requires mindful cultivation. Our beloved mother, Rashda Afzal, also lovingly known by close friends and family as Bano, Bano apa, Rashi, aunty Rashda, Ami, mommy, maaji, ami Hazoor, Mrs Afzal—had honed it to perfection. From being a beautiful and carefree young bride, she soon became a mother for the second time (after me)—to my brother Rizwan aka Biji-who was born with Down Syndrome. What might have (and usually does)— destroy family equilibrium, cause major distress and dysfunction- instead became one of life’s greatest lessons for me (and so many others)— in what one of my favorite writers has called, Grace Under Pressure. My mother turned what could have been a tragedy into a blessing- the blessing of growing up with a most wonderful kid brother who traveled the world with us, from lahore to Africa, to England, to America, who blossomed into a whole human being because of the love and care she showered on him and who we never felt was less than us in any way. She treated him like she treated us, and so we never thought he was different or strange or anyone to be ashamed or embarrassed of.

She dealt with the second great challenge of her life, the brain tumor of our darling dad, which luckily was non malignant but caused him to come back home to her and us after his operation a changed man, never quite fully able to regain his physical balance as his left side became semi paralyzed as a result of the brain surgery. Our beautiful, vibrant mother took this blow too in stride in her characteristically stoic way—in the process adding to her list of roles that of the family chauffeur, driving dad from home to work, Irfan and me to school, herself to Islamia college Cooper Road, where she would arrive dressed and coiffed to perfection, never a proverbial hair out of place, calm, smiling, ready to serve her students, enjoy her colleagues, and participate in all the sports days winning first prize for three legged races she’d run with her colleague who became a dear family friend, known to us as aunty Irshad. They were quite a pair! And I remember aunty saying when people always praised my dad for being such a good husband and human being- she’d say, “lo- to hamari Rashda bhi to kam nahi!”

Her driving style, esp in her red Mazda 929 became legendary in Lahore—her father, my grandfather, would often get calls from his friends saying “ aap ki Beti Bano to buhat Tez gari chala rahi tee Jee canal bank pey…”—the woman in the red car driving very fast— this was the 1970s, when she was one of a handful of women who owned and drove their own car! My brother just told me the other day that she was saluted daily by a traffic light policeman on Mall Road who referred to her as “the First Lady driver of Pakistan”!!! She’d been driving since the late 1950s….

As many of you who knew her have attested in your reminiscences of her, she lived a full life, mashallah, who never let the seams show.

She was a brave and independent woman who was a pioneer of her time, inspiring thousands of young female students who later settled in every corner of the world— so that wherever we traveled, there was sure to be that encounter we had come to expect: “Mrs Afzal? Aap yahan?” And then would follow the inevitable invitations to lunch, tea, dinner etc. She loved her career, her students, her colleagues—a career which ended officially with her successful stint as a popular Principal of the same college she’d taught at for over thirty years, but she then continued her commitment to women’s education and rights by serving as treasurer and then president of the Business and Professional Women’s Club for many years. She also supported many charities and schools, and gave generously of her time and money to help all those who needed such support. She would always tell us, Agar kissi ki madad Kat saktey ho to Karo. Haqooq ul Abad was as important if not moreso than haqooq Allah in her book.

She was truly a great enabler. I am sorry I never fully expressed my gratitude to her for all that she did for me: if I can speak French and sing, it’s because she drove me for years to lessons at the alliance francaise, because she engaged a wonderful Ustad who came to give me lessons at home when such things were often frowned upon in our society at that time.

The biggest sacrifice she made was to let me go far away from her to the other side of the world to continue to pursue my desires and ambitions, even though I was her only daughter and she knew very well I would never return- though she was happy I had married a man who in all the essentials was like her “darling”husband.

Yeh hothi hai maa. This is a Mother. I will never have another. Khudahafiz Ammi Ji, it is your turn now to go away, never to return. I will miss you with every breath I take.”

Kashmir/Cauchemar

Kashmir/Cauchemar

I remember a dream that I had more than two decades ago which was vivid enough to wake me up with tears flooding my face; I’ve had reason to recall it lately, as the Indian state has once again unleashed its terror and might on Kashmir.

Traveling in the nether world of dreams and nightmares—in French, the word is “cauchemar” and cauche meaning “to tread on” captures perfectly the weight pressing on my chest that I needed to push off to come awake, to feel saved from a dangerous journey. No such safety for the trodden-upon Kashmiris, not then, not now. But it must have been 1992 when I had that nightmare, that cauchemar, in the wake of the hoisting of the Hindutva-draped tricolor flag by BJP up n coming stalwart Narendra Modi with Murli Joshi in Lal Chowk, Srinagar. Or perhaps it was in 1999 when there was a “limited” war between Pakistan and India in Kargil around the Line of Control in Kashmir. Or maybe as recently as 2002 after the Gujarat riots also referred to by some as the Gujarat Pogrom against Muslims, presided over by Modi who by then was Chief Minister of the state.

What I recall as clear as day is that I dreamt the dream during one of the more heightened moments of possible war breaking out between India and Pakistan. And what I dreamt was this:

—I’m at a conference in India, having left my young kids with my husband back in New York. While there, war breaks out between the two countries. It goes nuclear very quickly. There is widespread panic and the conference delegates, myself included, are huddled into some sort of lift that promises to shoot us up into the atmosphere, to get above the nuclear radiation in an attempt to save our lives…. my last thoughts are, my children, my beautiful babies, my husband…. will I ever see you again? What will happen to Noddy, to Faryal, without their mom to love and protect them? Oh God, oh god….—

And that’s when I came awake, sobbing.

Today, the nightmare is back, the dream only inches away from reality.

I heard from my dear friends Angana Chatterji and Nyla Ali Khan, both with strong ties to Kashmir. The former is a longtime scholar-activist of the region who has risked much in uncovering unmarked graves of Kashmiris and working on reparative justice which has not come for this paradise on earth. The latter is granddaughter of Sheikh Abdullah who believed Nehru was going to uphold his promise of plebiscite and thus agreed to lead Kashmir as an autonomous region awaiting the vote of self determination; that day never came.

Today, both these women, academics at US institutions, are unable to track down their friends as Angana has been trying to do, or contact their family members in Kashmir as in Nyla’s case.

Travelling to freedom remains a pipe dream for the 10 million or so Kashmiris and for those who fight alongside them

If war does break out between India and Pakistan over this latest abrogation of the Indian constitution by Modi and his ruling party, it will surely be a nuclear one.

And that will spell the end of all journeys; a Cauchemar from which no one will wake.

Woke Travels

Waking up this morning to the news about Beloved Toni Morrison’s departure from this benighted world of ours, now, at this awful time in history when we need herstories more than ever to light a path out of the darkness that seemingly envelops us from all sides—well, it just felt like the breaking of the proverbial straw.

I did not know her personally but her work created worlds I could travel in, not as a tourist, but as a fellow traveler searching for the shared questions we are compelled to ask, must ask, keep asking. Her creative spark met the sparks that fuel the dissident, questioning, questing creativity of other great writers especially the women of color from around the world like my dear and respected friend Nawal el Saadawi of Egypt. Their creative dissidence has stoked my own, emboldened me in my life to take the steps, however small, to live with courage, and without resting on easy answers or being content with glib questions dealing with symptoms rather than causes of illnesses that continue to afflict our souls.

In one of the many memorable comments she made in her Nobel award acceptance speech, Morrison claimed that “oppressive language does more than represent violence, it is violence.” At a recent gathering in New York City that I was invited to attend, I had occasion to ponder the deep wisdom of her observation, when I found myself in a situation that I only gradually realised was one of verbal and intellectual assault.

I was invited on a week night, late, to a smoke filled gathering inside a Manhattan building (yes, lots of smoke, a throwback to another era that still haunts our present)—of a handful of artists and literary types, 4 women including me, and 4 men, to meet with a famous Egyptian novelist. This Big Man, is known for a bestselling novel originally written in Arabic which was translated into English and later became a film. I went despite some trepidation that the writer might turn out to be rather like one of the misogynistic men who populate that novel (in other smoke-filled rooms); and I was unfortunately not mistaken even though as a writer and literary critic, I always try to give a wide berth for differences between authors and the characters they create. There’s no way to sugarcoat this encounter, however: he turned out to be just what I’d suspected. And his language expressing disdain for academics, scholars, especially for women who talk or write about sex, for eg those who write about female genital mutilation (like Nawal), for anyone and everyone with opinions different from his own— well, it was indeed the language of violence, full of anger and sarcasm belittling others’ efforts and achievements in order to inflate his own.

“Can I say something, can you all give me a minute?” became his constant refrain every time any one of us (esp the women) tried to say something; this was his passive-aggressive way to shut us up so he could talk endlessly about his own fame, about how he was “Da Man,” standing in heroic defiance against the military and the mullahs of Egypt. Indeed, it was this critical stance of his that had attracted me to the gathering to meet him in person—but his “dissidence”’turned out to have none of the creative solidarity which is the hallmark of women writers Iike Morrison and Saadawi who also have fought the powers-that-be, while simultaneously helping and providing empathy for others in struggle. The former shepherded the work of so many African American writers including women like Angela Davis, through the publication process in her role as Editor at Random House. And Saadawi has been a role model throughout her long career, encouraging connections between women working for social change across borders, inviting us to participate in the Arab Womens Solidarity Association conferences she organized in the 1990s in Cairo where we could develop and nurture cross cultural connections.

No-Mr Big wanted to talk only about himself, his lone heroism in taking on all his critics, including academics who “knew nothing about writing” and were simply there to mooch off the “real talent” of which he was a prime example! When I mentioned I was an academic he smiled and said disparagingly to the company assembled, “ ah you see, now this woman” ( at one point I encouraged him to just call me “nasty woman”—he didn’t get the reference)—“ this woman will not like me, she’ll try to attack me”— all the while refusing to let me get a word in edgewise about anything he or his Iranian sidekick were saying! The Iranian guy-lets call him Mohsin-—played the sycophant throughout, excitedly thumping on the table anytime I or anyone else tried to intervene in said writer’s monologue, “let him speak” or “let him finish”…

When an Egyptian-British woman-a visual artist sitting next to Mr Big— muttered the word “fuck” at one point trying desperately to make a point about the challenges faced by women in society, one of the rare times she actually spoke/was allowed to speak—the famous novelist turned to her, cutting off her larger point, to ask salaciously, “why do you use this word, fuck? Explain to me how “fuck” is used in the English language. I thought it’s a word to talk about how you have sex in a particular way, but you are using it to express, what, exactly?” His vulgarity made “that woman” uncomfortable as she gamely tried to hold her own, although she apologised for using the word “fuck” and remained deferential to the “great writer.”

The worst part of the evening came when after listening to the interminable stream of self-aggrandising phrases pouring out of the writer’s mouth, about how he had won this prize and that, how he’d been translated in this language and that, who he had told off in no uncertain terms in this place or that, and on and on—i asked whether he knew Nawal. OMG! What a fusillade of words escaped his tongue, language as violence! Da Man started disparaging her in the ugliest of words, admitting at one point as I confronted him that “ yes ok, maybe one time she was an influential writer” but he insisted she was now a confused old woman who had no principles, was greedy and in the pay of western agencies and NGOs, and when I mentioned how she’d been left by her husband of many decades for a woman 40 years younger and to whom he’d made over Nawal’s hard-earned money and property, the writer sneered, laughing “she was the low class one, he didn’t need her money.” He then rolled his eyes and said to all gathered “you know Nawal only became famous in the West because she wrote about sex and female… what do you call it.. circumcision.” This remark really sent me over the edge. I yelled (the only way to be heard there, unfortunately ) —that it was female genital mutilation she had exposed as the evil it was, not to be compared to male “circumcision.” He shrugged and said “ it’s not so serious… “ I expressed incredulity at his ignorance, at which point the Iranian started screaming at me saying why was I so concerned with female circumcision ( he refused to use the term mutilation despite what I’d said)—.when really, men were equally oppressed by male circumcision? That it was as bad if not worse than, what I was calling FGM and far more prevalent? At this point, after pointing out that Nawal had fought for an end to male circumcision too in Egypt, I called both him and the famous writer sexists and misogynists, which invited more sarcastic eye-rolling from them both, and “ Oh so now this woman, this great academic who knows everything, calls us sexists, ohohoh..” from the sidekick.

To break up the ugly confrontation the evening had now clearly devolved into, the man who runs a literary circle in town and who’d invited me there, turned to another young man present, who hadn’t spoken a word all evening and begged him to tell us what he thought. The young man, who appeared to me to be in his early thirties and African American, said he had remained quiet as he’d wanted to “observe and learn” and “anyway, there hadn’t been much chance” to get a word in edgewise! He then, in a slightly halting at first, but increasingly firmer and stronger voice, said that he agreed with me, and that indeed he could see there was a very sexist power play going on around the table which needed to be recognized and stopped.

A bunch of older Arab and Iranian “progressive” men had been outed for their sexism by a young black American man! I jumped up then, thanked him for his courage in speaking out in such a gathering, and left; but not before the older of the other women there thanked me for coming and saying what I had; she said she’d appreciated the point of view I’d fought to express.

It had been a bizarre evening that was a real throwback to times and gendered ways of relating we think are past but aren’t quite…. we continue to “play in the dark” as Morrison underscored in her book of essays about the enduring ways racism and race relations continue to plague American literary culture.

And that is why it is so important to value and honour and nurture our friendships with other creative dissidents. One of my happiest and most cherished memories from this summer will be the gathering at our home with dear respected comrades like Ella Shohat, Bob Stam, Gayatri Gopinath, Awam Ampka, Gunja Sengupta, Jean Graham-Jones, Edi Giunta, Zoovia Hamiduddin. Here were folks whose work we celebrated, especially new books by Bob Stam and Gayatri Gopinath, Bob’s on World Lit and Transnational Cinema and Music, and GG’s on the Visual Culture of Queer Diaspora. I requested Edi Giunta to read from her recently completed memoir on growing up as a young woman in Sicily in the 1970s, and my friend Zoovia from her translation of a novel by a major Indian Urdu feminist writer of the 1920s, who happened to be her grand uncle. He also happened to be a man, quite unlike the men I’d met recently who had shown so little respect for women; although I’d been heartened by the young man at that gathering who represented a new generation and the hope that some of the hard work done by women and men like my friends —and their ancestors—will continue to mould a better, more equitable world.

We must stand up to the violence of thought and language the famous writer and his acolyte represent. We must nurture each other and build community through an alternative and uplifting language that accords respect to all beyond divisions of color, creed, class and gender . We must carry on. In Morrison’s words, “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”