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.”

Link to a Friday Times piece…


Going through some writings I’ve published over the last couple of years, I came across this piece I wrote for one of Pakistan’s best-known weeklies called The Friday Times, published from my birth city of Lahore.

I include a link to it in my blog because I see how the events I report on during my 3 month stay in Lahore in spring of 2018, are being approached and understood by me through the methodological prism I’m calling “traveling feminista”

Subjects and objects blur into a heuristic whole; travelingfeminista is no longer me, it’s a vision of an us that could be the better parts of youmeitthem knit together, moving toward a more hopeful futurity.

As my description of the women’s march, workers struggles, and Lahore’s first art biennale in 2018 attest, the spaces we inhabit are riven with class and gender and so many other forms of hierarchical differentiation, which some of inhabit uneasily, but inhabit we do.

What seems to be required, at the very least- what I’m suggesting (to myself perhaps most of all)–is to make of such privileged habitation an unheimlich space. And in doing so, to bring my powers of witness to bear upon the stitching together of unravelled and unravelling edges of our social fabric so that we might be able to glimpse what co-habitation might look like.

Glamma Travels

Glamma Travels

My first grandchild- a beautiful, healthy, cheerful little girl named Nylah by my daughter and her hubby—with “Bano” affixed by me as a salute in remembrance of my mother who is also known as Bano (her nickname)—is now two months old.

I’ve been traveling in grandma— or should I say glamma—‘hood (given my penchant for the glamorous-which she has inherited 😂 !)—and its a kind of travel that is raw and new on so many levels that I’ve had a hard time grappling with how to write about it.

My own mother, who though alive, is in the clutches of the sad disease known as Dementia and hardly knows us any more. Like me, she was a professora of English lit, became Principal of a well known women’s college in Lahore, raised three kids, with me being the eldest and the only girl, one of my two younger brothers born with Down syndrome whom she raised with much love and grace, never once complaining either about that or about the blow she must have experienced when my beloved dad landed up with a (luckily for us), non-malignant brain tumor that nonetheless left him, as a young man, with young kids and a much younger wife, partially paralyzed for the duration of his life as a result of the operation to remove the tumor.

I find my mind traveling in an internal landscape that is full of complicated feelings of love, anger, resentment, sadness and self-critique resulting from my difficult relationship with my own mother who seemed to me distant and self involved in a way that I coped with only by running far far away, all the way from Lahore to Boston to New York where I’ve lived for longer than in my birth town.

My anger toward her bubbled up strongly when I became pregnant with my daughter and I blamed ammie for the norms I had internalized, needing to marry and then to produce children, all to please her and the heteropatriarchy of which she was the grand matriarch. She, who should have been encouraging me to fly and be the Someone I wanted to be, felt destined to be—instead had such ordinary hopes for me, that I would marry and “settle down” (oh how I hate that concept, how I’ve rebelled against it all my life, in confusion, in sorrow, in hurt I’ve caused, in glorious moments of excitement )—and, produce babies. What about my career, mom, what about your own career? Why was the life of the intellect, of thinking beyond societally approved gender roles (even as you drove that red car very fast, bossed my dad, screamed and yelled at the servants, yes, even as you loved and served us)—whywhy was that “elsewhere” life never a dream you could allow to take shape, a hope and a life you might have imagined for me, your only daughter? Or did you? Am I now here because you were there?

And now, and now, my wonderful kids all grown up, my challenging relationship with my husband in a better, less fractious, more loving place, I feel for Nylah Bano aka my little kinnoo (yes, delicious fruit sprung from the womb of my womb, from the daughter I traveled with in the land of the naranjos, remembering the myth of Demeter and Persephone)—I feel, I don’t know how to put it in words- I feel, such overwhelming love. Such joy and contentment just holding her, cooing at her, laughing along with her gurgling smiles, my beautiful brown grandchild.

Reading the 3rd book in the Ferrante quartet, I came across the following passage that expressed so precisely, so amazingly in sync with what I’ve been struggling to understand in the whirlwind of emotions that have been my journey these past couple of months, that I want to share here, so I can re-turn to savor Ferrante’s deep insights into what it meant, what it still means, across time and even different cultural contexts, to be, to become, to be in process of becoming, a certain kind of woman.

Lake Champlain and the Erotic Life

According to Audre Lorde, we’ve been mistaking the erotic for the pornographic, which is a plasticized, trivial, psychotic sensation. This is a rather deliberate confusion she tells us, created by men to be used against women, so that we wimmin become afraid of the power of the erotic in ourselves, and in so doing, learn to suppress our true feelings.

Yet, she reminds us- to ignore our own erotic power leads us to dismiss the “internal sense of satisfaction” which acknowledging, recognizing and embracing the erotic can bring us in our lives. As she puts it so powerfully:

“…the erotic is not a question only of what we do; it is a question of how acutely and fully we can feel in the doing.” By giving in to a fear of feeling fully and passionately (because we’ve been taught to shun the erotic)–we become “unintentional” and in so doing we become the “Other” of Man- the “feminine” creatures lacking ontological existence as Simone de Beauvoir had philosophized in her 1949 tome, “The Second Sex.” Or as Lorde tells us, we become those “who do not wish to guide their own destinies.” Easier perhaps, to let another bear the burden of our being, to not have to make decisions about what to do and how to live– but in relinquishing such a burden of making our own choices, however tough the path may turn out to be, we also give up the “internal requirement toward excellence which we learn from the erotic” that sense of “satisfaction” and “completion” which only an embrace of the erotic can bring us, an embrace that “will bring us closest” to a fullness of being and living.

My friend Zeba who I’ve known for the past four decades- a bit longer if you count the year I joined Kinnaird College for Women in Lahore and she was a senior and part of a group of wimmin I found dashingly daring because even back then in that conventional space where they were so different from the norm–well, to me she epitomizes the power of the erotic that Lorde talks about.

She came to N America when very few single women from Pakistan went abroad to study, earning spending money by babysitting and later making her way to the top of her profession by working hard, staying curious and always alert and full of fun. In short: passionate about her work, her passion has been for life itself, bursting with interest in the world and in the people and in books and animals and objets d’art around her. She has been one of my favorite travel companions, through whom I have learnt to enjoy, appreciate and appropriate the funkiest of musical tastes from Spinal Tap to David Byrne, in whose company I allow the wind to mess up my hair, wake up to sunrise kissing my face in a lakeside cottage, drive madcap from Barcelona to Pamplona to indulge my fascination with Hemingway and bulls in Pamplona, walk through purple-covered moors in search of Heathcliff and Cathy, all the while marching up and down the dales of a female friendship punctuated by similarities that have helped us overcome our differences through respect, not by sm/othering or collapsing into a forced sameness.

And so, celebrating many decades of embracing the power of the erotic, as we enter the senior stage of our lives, marking my entry into grandparenthood and her own remarkable ongoing struggle with a chronic illness that she has pushed back most definitely through her passionate joie de vivre –a few days ago we got in to her black turbo-charged Beetle and drove several hundred miles to a charming sun-filled cottage on lake Champlain just south of Montreal. The hours of our journey flew by. Our personal and political selves entwined as we sang along to or danced in the car with the music of Cesaria Evora, Gilberto Gil, Junoon and Noor Jehan, and the “Bismillah, I will not let you go” of Queen.

At our lakeside retreat we have read and chatted, cooked together and soaked in the susurrus of the water amidst the silence, gazed admiringly at the majestic green mountains across from us on the other side of the lake’s lapping waves, gone for a hike on the paths around a chasm created 13,000 years ago, enjoyed an ice cream cone at a roadside creamery and chatted some more about our families, friends, the state of the world we live in and our deep engagement with it.

Through the process of this “becoming,” this life-long journey into each others intimate worlds where the personal and the political become one, I feel I have entered what Jane Lazarre calls “a heightened awareness which always seems to involve the entwining of my own life with something outside of myself.” The Nigerian author Chinua Achebe called this state of feeling “imaginative identification,” an ever-strengthening link between “self-discovery and humane conscience.”

To me, this is the gift of feminist friendship: where we celebrate the erotic in the endeavor, the hard work that sustained and meaningful friendship requires of us. This “work” that is the hallmark of a life well-lived, is indeed a conscious decision; one that unleashes the power of the erotic, understood as commitment, to something bigger than some narrowly-defined self-interest. In Audre’ s hallowed words, when we celebrate the erotic in any endeavor, that means we are making a conscious decision to commit to it, because we want to, because we believe in it.

And so this long-term friendship–like my other life endeavors –has been a conscious decision, akin, in Audre’s words, again, to “a longed-for bed” which one “enters gratefully” and from which one rises up “empowered.”

It is empowering indeed, to live and bask in the light of the erotic in yourself: a feminist flowering into the world, where you become a better you in the company of a few good wimmin, with whose help the I becomes a you becomes an us.

Thank you Audre, thank you Jane, thank you Zeba.

2018 Travel Highlights

It’s been a while since I blogged but honestly–nonstop traveling takes its toll, even on an energetic feminista 😆!!!

I’m amazed looking back on 2018, at the extent and frequency of my physical travels, which are an extension of living a life informed and structured by feminist principles of autonomy and engagement.

Starting in January, I stopped off in Cairo en route to Lahore where I was headed to spend several months being with my mother as her dementia was worsening, and as a daughter, I had to take time off from my work life to just be with her; this too is a feminism of care. In Cairo, I wanted to spend a few day’s discussing our complicated family situation (my middle brother who lives with mom has Down syndrome), with my youngest brother Irfan, who has been living and working there for a few years. And while there, I wanted to spend some time visiting with my dear friend Nawal el Saadawi, who has been an important influence in my evolving feminist consciousness and being in the world. It really was great seeing how her feminist activist spirit keeps her going at an advanced age, still writing critical columns and op Ed’s for Al Ahram on the political situation in Egypt, still plotting and planning to get her Center for Creativity off the ground, so to encourage feminist art making in writing, filmaking, theatre and musical fields.

From Cairo I made my way to Lahore to enjoy the last few months of my mother’s company when she at least knew me; now, a year later, her condition has much worsened so that she doesn’t seem to know who I am when I call. Sad, but I’m glad for the strength she still exhibits . As a career woman from the 1950s in Pakistan, my mother has definitely inspired me in ways I’m not even fully conscious of.

In Lahore I connected with students at kinnaird college for women- my undergrad alma mater- and gave lectures on feminist theory which bonded me with some wonderful young women and with some of whom I’m still in touch via a WhatsApp group

From lahore I visited Sehwan Sharif near Karachi-the shrine of Sufi saint Lal Shabaz Qalandar. Sufis like him blurred the binarism of gender to create androgynous personas and elevate the feminine principle whilst challenging hierarchies of all sorts as well as the divisions caused by religious dogma. At his shrine, men danced and women too did the dhamaal- dancing to reach ecstatic states where one becomes ego-less.

After Karachi visit (where I stayed with an old friend whose life has been a feminist parable of gritty evolution from male dependency and abuse to one of self sufficiency and independence)-I flew to Khatmandu, Nepal. My old friend and fierce feminist Barbara Nimri Aziz- Creator and host of WBAI’s Radio Tahrir program focusing on Arab American and Muslim American cultural, literary and political issues, who has and continues to do amazing work in Nepal in the field of education and whose early research into Marxist feminist resistance cultural politics (her book on the life and work of the Marxist “nun” Yogamaya is amazing)–was there on her annual months-long visit. So I wanted to visit and see her in the context of the work that made her who she is… and it was really edifying and encouraging and gave me the reassurance we all need that yes, our work and commitment matters. I also made a crazy bus ride on my own to and from Khatmandu to Pokhara (7 hours each way!), in the foothills of the Himalayas which was quite an experience!

From Nepal I stopped off in Abu Dhabi to see friends and colleagues at NYUAD and from thence back to lahore. After another month there I headed back to the US via Venice, Italy, where my hubby and I met at the little airport like long lost lovers… such fun and funny too! We enjoyed a wonderful week of sightseeing and delicious Italian food and wine–and gelato!–from Venice to Verona to Florence to the charming little town of San Gimignano in the Tuscan countryside, and from where we also drive to Siena and to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa. A much needed break and getaway for us both, and a nice way to reconnect after several months apart. This separating and reconnecting too, is a part of my feminist life.

From Italy we headed home to NY but within 10 days I was back on a plane with hubby and my son, daughter and son in law, to Ojai in California to attend a dear old friend’s daughters wedding. I have known Pradeep from the moment I arrived at Tufts university in 1979 to study for my PhD, where he was getting his masters in Engineering. I love that he and his family and mine have carried our friendship forward all these decades later.

All of this travel happened within the first four months of the year!!!! And then, in July, my feminista buddy Shoba and I, trotted off to my theatre conference in Belgrade, Serbia, where I presented my new work on Queer Performativities in Pakistan. From thence via overnite train to Montenegro and on to Dubrovnik in Croatia- all of which I’ve chronicles in this blogsite

Shortly after my return to NY I packed up to head out for the 2018-19 academic year at NYUAD in Abu Dhabi, end August. After starting teaching I left on a week long trip to Berlin and Amsterdam and a quick trip to Lahore. In Berlin, I was a talking head in a new doc film on women and Islam being made by another old friend, Ibrahim Quraishi, with whom I’ve shared a decade long involvement in an experimental theatre collective where we made cutting edge feminist and politically progressive work. After shooting my part in his film, Holy Mama, we hopped on a train to Amsterdam where we screened and then did a panel discussion on the film and I got to meet two other women who also appear in the film- Seyran Ates who is a lesbian female imam from Germany of Turkish-Kurdish background, and a Netherlands based Pakistani Dutch activist named Shireen Musa. I had my differences with both of these women’s approaches to women and gender rights in Islam in the European Context, and it felt good to be able to engage with our different viewpoints in front of an interested audience.

In October I traveled to Lahore again for my fall break, to work with a local camera team on shooting some new footage for my ongoing doc film project on women singers of Pakistan. I think the project might take a turn toward focusing on music as a tool for political and cultural resistance in general- I might want to include Taimur Rahman’s Laal Band as part of that story; alongside blind female singer Aliya Rasheed’s inspiring story of tenacity in pursuing her dream to become a singer of a difficult classical form: the Dhrupad style.

In November, I flew with a new friend I’ve made in Abu Dhabi, another Pakistani woman academic named Nadia Amin, to Morocco, to present a paper on the similar prejudices and challenges faced by Pakistani and Arab women performers at the Performing Tangiers conference. It’s a. Inference I’ve attended several times over the past many years, so it was great to see the local team of scholars and conference aides again in Tangiers. Khalid Amine is a great host! But Nadia and I had quite an adventure getting to Tangiers as we missed our connecting flight in Casablanca and had to end up taking a train that took 7 hours to get us to our destination! But we succeeded in taking a ferry across to Gibraltar which was an amazing side trip- the Rock of Gibraltar commands quite a view over the Mediterranean and the little British outpost has a quite interesting history… I had to go see my dear friend and colleague from Montclair, Norma Connolly, who is ill with a mysterious disease-possibly ALS- and had returned to her hometown, La Linea in Spain, just a few miles from Gibraltar to rest. Making the effort to spend time with old girl friends is an important mandate of feminist practice; one I take very seriously. So Nadia and I spent the evening with her and then enjoyed a very nice meal before sleeping off our exhaustion at a local hotel and then returning to Tangiers for one more day the following morning.

The year ended on a high note: I welcomed several leading feminist scholars and activists from India, Pakistan and Sweden- to a Transnational Feminist conclave at NYUAD that was structured on the model of Lois Weaver’s Long Table– allowing for an organic and non hierarchical (re: Feminist!)- method of engaging with our understanding of pressing issues around women’s and human rights in our respective locations. It was great to have Omnia Amin present a short video she made in Cairo of Nawal- it felt like my year had truly come full circle.

And then, after the fall semester ended, I headed home to NY to host my annual Xmas time get together of friends and family, and to plan the first feminist event of the new year: a surprise baby shower for my daughter Faryal, who is expecting a baby girl in April 2019, and who will inherit the strong feminist genes of her mother and grandmother 👵 even as she enjoys wearing the plethora of pink outfits she received as gifts while she was still inside her mother’s womb!!!!

World traveling and transnational feminism

So we are reading for my Transnational Feminisms class that I’m teaching this fall at Nyuad, an essay by Yuanfang Dai, a Chinese American feminist scholar who expands on Maria Lugones’ world-traveling theory:

“World”-traveling generates deep understanding and makes one feel at ease. Playfulness is the loving attitude toward others and an openness to uncertainty while traveling, because when we are playful, we are not self-important, nor stabilized in any particular “world,” but rather, being creative and open to further self-construction and new possibilities.

( from “Bridging the Divide in Feminism with Transcultural Feminist Solidarity” by Yuanfang Dai).

I really loved this passage as it elucidates two key ideas or affective states that define my own sense of feminist travel. At their best, these affective states marked by 1) playfulness and 2) an openness to uncertainty, lead to an expansion of ones understanding of the self via a paradoxical diminishment of the ego as it opens to an embrace of the other by refusing the comfort of righteous certainty and the serious policing of the borders and fences we construct to hang on to our sense of ourselves as exceptional, an exceptionalism we have to shed if solidarity is our goal. Exceptionalism is a dead-end, a one-way street to oblivion

I find my traveling feminista-style is indeed transforming the space of the unheimlich into one of expansive and joyous connections across differences that cease to be radically “other” — I’m aware of the many different contexts of my colleagues and students and all the “others” I’m meeting here in the UAE, but the affective nature of our interchange allows for the possibility of theorizing solidarities that are rooted in careful listening and the willingness to suspend certainties that being in a space where we are all “different” encourages.

I’m reminded of Annette Kolodny’s wonderful essay from 1970, “Dancing Through the Minefield” on feminist literary criticism- the insight esp that feminist ideology allowed us to “bridge the gap between how we found the world and what we wanted that world to be.” She calls for a “playful pluralism” in our approach to making sense of the world that might lead to forging connections across differences. She asks that we entertain “the possibility that different readings of the same text” –our shared world?–“might be differently useful, even illuminating , within different contexts of inquiry.”

To be playfully serious, or seriously playful. To dance, even through minefields. To honor pluralism, playfully. To commit to justice, seriously. To dream, to play, to dance on the floor of beauty’s detritus knowing, believing, reaching across our differences, keeping hope alive.

” I could have danced all night… and still have begged for more”

Let’s do those thousand things we still haven’t done… including imagining and bringing into being, a world of solidarity, playfulness, uncertainty– keeping the borders porous, open, full of promise.

Haptic Spectacularity in the Desert of the Real: Love and Revenge and a Tribe Called Red

Turning 60 a few days ago, here in Abu Dhabi, I am hyper aware of the unsettled and transient quality of life that heightens/intensifies the real into its dream other, in a space that is uncanny because it is unheimlich. Such awareness informed my experience of the haptic visuality of a music-saturated evening that blurred the lines between reality and dream, turning the Real into the Hyper-real, visuality into a haptic spectacle of what one might also call, the aural gaze of a Re-oriented impossible sexiness–which is also

the horizon of our political imaginary.

An ironic orientalism….

It began with a viewing and listening experience of a double bill of music at the NYUAD Arts Center that immersed the audience made up of students, faculty and outsiders into the synesthetic realm of sound and vision created onstage by the veejaying teams of Love and Revenge and A Tribe Called Red respectively.

The former is composed of Lebanese-Palestinian dj Waël Kodeih aka Rayess Bek who lives in France, and vj Randa Mirza aka La Mirza who is also of Lebanese background. Along with their wonderful Oudh player and keyboardist, they create a lushly sensuous experience for audiences that turns the gaze into an organ of touch, reaching into the world represented onscreen by the glamorously melodramatic scenes of 1950s Egyptian cinema, a vanished world of impossibly sexy actress-singers who jolt audiences awake into a past that makes us yearn in the present. A literal immersion into Baudrillard’s Desert of the Real!

From this manipulation of image and sound of Arab songstresses like Warda and Asmahan ( the latter was a Syrian princess who became a singing star and screen idol of Egypt later accused of spying for the British)— we were plunged in the next part of the double bill, into the electronic techno pop and powwow drum n bass musical that was created by the veejay experience of A Tribe Called Red. This is a Canadian duo comprising 2oolman and Bear Witness and their two onstage dancers who dance in full native tribal regalia of First Nations against the incongruous background of looped images of scenes from old racist Cowboy and Indian movies of Hollywood’s yesteryear. We are reminded of how the spectacle of the reel mediates our perception of the real; through their haptic remix that turns the audience’s gaze into an instrument of touch and hearing, we listen and observe the reel of real.

And from this sensory overload to an unfolding of an Ethiopian musical feast at a local club downtown where a bunch of us headed after the show— our party were plunged into a netherworld; here, observing beautiful young women clothed in native Ethiopian dresses, wearing incredibly outrageous high heeled shoes 👠, perform as background chorus to live singers of hypnotic dance music that mixed melody and rhythm of Ethiopia with Maghrebian sounds—turned into a Dionysian frenzy of dance and trance for all of us, blurring the lines between performer and observer, between performance and the real.

The dancers onstage became the focus of our haptic frame, turning the objectifying gaze back onto ourselves, participants in a destabilising move and mood that made us the objects of our own gaze.

To what world, then, do we awake? That is the question that continues its march into the matrix of mymymy mind….

Here is the post that inspired the writing above which I forgot to upload earlier:

So I’m leaving on a jet plane yet , again, to teach this academic year at NYUAD ( New York University ) in Abu Dhabi.

Having spent a semester there before, it is a space that is definitely spectacular in the way Zizek theorises the postmodern “passion for the real” in his 2002 book called The Desert of the Real. This book, written after 9/11, the title based on a phrase in French philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s book Simulacra and Simulacrum, and one that most of us remember from the movie The Matrix–proposes that the terror attacks of 9/11 were the kind of spectacle that has come to occupy- simulate–the experience of the Real in a world saturated with the optics of reality television.

When Neo in The Matrix wakes up from his computer-generated virtual reality, he experiences the real world as a nightmarish, desert landscape that is desolate but beautiful. According to Zizek, that is what the terror attacks, the horrific images of crumbling towers and jumping bodies- became or were experienced by the American public craving/fed on, a diet of the Real as Spectacle– a reality that becomes the ultimate “effect”, leading us into a war torn but spectacular geography that is continuing its march through the historical Real/reel of today.

Abu Dhabi and the UAE itself is a space where one experiences such reality as a simulacrum, at a remove, a nether-state that spectacularizes the desert, in which dreamworlds merge to create virtual realities.

In traveling to and through this desert of the real, I will keep trying to map its effects, staying alert to the glitz that overlays material historical processes in order to feed our postmodern penchant for the spectacular.

Journeying to Mother

I found an old black and white photo of my mother so young and beautiful- holding me in her arms with a beatific smile on her face suffused with a new mother’s love. She is wearing a sari with an elbow-length-sleeved blouse and sitting in what seems to be the front lawn of my maternal grandpa’s house in FCC Colony, Lahore. I must be 8/9 months old I think. She must be on a day off from Islamia College for Women, where her career spanned 4 decades as professor of English and later the Principal of the college- a post she held till she retired.

The photo fell out of the photo album that I brought with me to keep me company in my year of introspective adventure away from a home far far away from my mother land, when a backward glance seems apposite to mark my entry into my 60s.

Picking up the photo, I found scribbled on the back of it, in her handwriting, some verses of Urdu poetry. Written in pencil, I’m surprised they are still legible after almost 60 years. What is even more surprising to me is that the very first lines, from a poem by our famous Marxist poet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, are from a ghazal that has been a staple of my singing repertoire since I was in my twenties.

I don’t ever recall having been asked by mother to learn to sing this particular poem, nor, sadly, do I remember whether she ever heard me singing it.

Part of the reason for my year-long sojourn in Abu Dhabi is to be nearer to the motherland I had to travel away from to become a mother myself, to recognise the roots and sources of my feminist anger that acknowledges motherhood as complicated terrain; a land where she resides in a state of mental limbo now- occasionally remembering her own name and that she has a daughter who she often calls by my daughter’s name. My own halfway home here in NYUAD links my journey to hers in a state of empathy where belonging is suspended…. where one must find other ways to know oneself, perhaps to soar in some space of freedom difficult to imagine until one is in it, and in her case, impossible to articulate.

I will sing this ghazal that connects the poet, the mother and her daughter to the heart’s ineffable yearning that cannot speak its name, when I see her, soon, soon, just never soon enough.

My Year of Living Adventurously

Ordinarily at this time of year, I’d be getting ready to go back to a new academic year at the institution where this would be my 31st year of teaching. Instead, I’ve just finished watching a film that gave me hope for the future by reminding me of the past (The Post, about the Pentagon Papers published by the Washington Post in defiance of govt orders, that spelt the beginning of the end for Nixon’s presidency)–as I fly over the Atlantic to get to the Arabian Gulf, to spend a year teaching undergraduates at NYUAD

I wonder why some of us seek to leave the comforts of home, the reassurance of routine, the illusion of safety that the familiar facilitates; what inspires us to wilfully veer off into travel mode, and confront the illusions that lull us to sleep in the beds we claim as our security zones.

I think traveling away from the homestead is an important feminist act that proclaims a woman’s independence in a way few other actions can. It signifies the courage to face the world on her own, an acknowledgement that she can survive in spite of ( because of?)–having to rely on her own instincts and judgement-as Katherine Graham of the Washington Post does, leaving the comfort of her housewifely role. And it requires skill. The skill to figure things out, make new friends, conquer fear of strangers, smile at the world, be at peace in her own company; and learn to sleep in a strange bed; no easy task!

To embrace a traveling state of mind is to accept the truth that all states are temporary abodes, that the heart is not where home is, but rather, home is an uncanny place, the stranger within that the heart seeks to embrace. It is the abode of the Sufi whose wanderlust gives meaning to life’s journey.

I can’t fly. I must fly.


No one I’m close to has died recently but because I think about death a lot-as my husband reminded me yesterday eve when I was recalling a dear departed colleague after dinner–I decided to pen a few random thoughts on this obsession. A low key pizza and wine dinner to kick off our 36th anniversary weekend was obviously a fun but sobering reminder of the passage of time– all those Friday nite campus pizza dates at MIT!!–of lessons learnt, of love’s ebb and flow, of the miracle of giving birth to new lives entwined with the knowledge that it’s all going, going, going…..

It’s true death is a constant presence in my thoughts- but isn’t that so for anyone who lives life in travel mode? It’s a truism that we’re all travelers and that life is a journey but some of us inhabit the cliche more literally than others I suppose; I know I do and always have and I wonder if that is tied to a childhood spent taking off from terra firma, landing in far corners of the earth from what counted as “home” -and which imparted a lifelong adventurous approach to being in the world, but also a constant awareness of change, of flux, of letting go, dying as it were, so as to enable entry at new ports of call, different destinations, a new life that I might enter only if I could let go of the old one.

Will the big D be like all these little deaths? The thing is, I’ve managed to keep all of those past places and psychic spaces knit together in an ever-expanding mosaic of emotional and physical travel that at its best, keeps the edges of the universe from fraying too jaggedly even as I gad about in seemingly random runnings; indeed, the travel metaphor helps keep up a necessary figment of coherence without which I think life would become meaningless and like most folk–I do crave some sense that all of this meandering has a point.

It is the finality of a departure without arrival that blows the lid off the fiction of travel as unending adventure and opportunity for growth. Death with a capital ‘D’ is a full stop. No more sentences one can revise to make life more interesting, bearable, sensible, fun.

But the human mind is irrepressibly optimistic. Maybe its the travel we can’t anticipate that will be the real deal….