Sunday, July 08, 2007

Erotic Politicians and Mullahs by Hanif Kureishi

From Granta 17: Graham Greene, While Waiting for a War, Sep 1, 1985.

(It would be an interesting assessment to make as to how relevant this piece appears in the current scenario in Pakistan. I paste it here for the sheer pleasure of reading that Kureishi provides and for the rarity of this non-fiction piece for the British playwright. In this text two thoughts have remained with me since I first read it. The first is the fate of the villagers who believed they could walk across the sea at Karachi and reach Karbala and secondly the comment by a woman that if God ever comes to Pakistan, the women will tear him apart. Very powerful imagery and juxtapositions that remains Kureishi's hallmark. This perhaps maybe a good opportunity to map the radicalisation of British Asian youth that the author has been marking through his fiction much before the Al Qaida started recruiting them, for example, My Son, the Fanatic and The Black Album. If only the British counter-terror operations had begun with creating a more congenial race relations situation in their home territory. If only strategic experts had the time and inclination to read fiction, that in hindsight appears to map social attitudes more sanely than political reports and we might have been spared the shock and ignominy of being surprised by highly educated individuals taking the suicide bombing route. The excerpts begin in the continuing paragraph.)

The man had heard that I was interested in talking about his country, Pakistan, and that this was my first visit. He kindly kept trying to take me aside to talk. But I was already being talked at.

I was at another Karachi party, in a huge house, with a glass of whisky in one hand and a paper plate in the other. Casually I'd mentioned to a woman friend of the family that I wasn't against marriage. Now this friend was earnestly recommending to me a young woman who wanted to move to Britain with a husband. To my discomfort this go-between was trying to fix a time for the three of us to meet and negotiate.

I went to three parties a week in Karachi. This time I was with landowners, diplomats, businessmen and politicians: powerful people. This pleased me. They were people I wouldn't have been able to get at in England and I wanted to write about them. They were drinking heavily. Every liberal in England knows you can be lashed for drinking in Pakistan. But as far as I could tell, none of this English-speaking international bourgeoisie would be lashed for anything. They all had their trusted bootleggers who negotiated the potholes of Karachi at high speed on disintegrating motorcycles, the hooch stashed on the back. Bad bootleggers passed a hot needle through the neck of your bottle and drew your whisky out. I once walked into a host's bathroom to see the bath full of floating whisky bottles being soaked to remove the labels, a servant sitting on a stool serenely poking at them with a stick.

It was all as tricky and expensive as buying cocaine in London, with the advantage that as the hooch market was so competitive, the 'leggers delivered videotapes at the same time, dashing into the room towards the TV with hot copies of The Jewel in the Crown, The Far Pavilions and an especially popular programme called Mind Your Language which represented Indians and Pakistanis as ludicrous caricatures.

Everyone (except of course the mass of the population) had videos. And I could see why, since Pakistan TV was so peculiar. On my first day I turned it on and a cricket match was taking place. I settled in my chair. But the English players, who were on tour in Pakistan, were leaving the pitch. In fact Bob Willis and Ian Botham were running towards the dressing rooms surrounded by armed police, and this wasn't because Botham had made derogatory remarks about Pakistan. (He'd said it was a country to which he'd like to send his mother-in-law.) In the background a section of the crowd was being tear-gassed. Then the screen went black.

Stranger still and more significant, was the fact that the news was now being read in Arabic, a language few people in Pakistan understood. Someone explained to me that this was because the Koran was in Arabic, but everyone else said it was because General Zia wanted to kiss the arses of the Arabs.

I was having a little identity crisis. I'd been greeted so warmly in Pakistan, I felt so excited by what I saw and so at home with all my uncles, I wondered if I were not better off here than there. And when I said with a little unnoticed irony, that I was an Englishman, people fell about laughing. Why would anyone with a brown face, Muslim name and large well-known family in Pakistan want to lay claim to that cold decrepit little island off Europe where you always had to spell your name? Strangely, anti-British remarks made me feel patriotic, though I only felt patriotic when I was away from England.

But I couldn't allow myself to feel too Pakistani. I didn't want to give in to that falsity, that sentimentality. As someone said to me, provoked by the fact I was wearing jeans: we are Pakistanis, but you, you will always be a Paki—emphasizing the derogatory name the English used against Pakistanis, and therefore the fact that I couldn't rightfully lay claim to either place.

In England I was a playwright. In Karachi this meant little. There were no theatres; the arts were discouraged by the state—music and dancing are un-Islamic—and ignored by practically everyone else. As I wasn't a doctor, or businessman or military person, people suspected that this writing business I talked about was a complicated excuse for idleness, uselessness and general bumming around. In fact, as I proclaimed an interest in the entertainment business, and talked loudly about how integral the arts were to a society, moves were being made to set me up in the amusement arcade business, in Shepherd's Bush.

Finally the man got me on my own. His name was Rahman. He was a friend of my intellectual uncle. I had many uncles but Rahman preferred the intellectual one who understood Rahman's particular sorrow and like him considered himself to be a marginal man. In his fifties, a former Air Force officer, Rahman was liberal, well-travelled and married to an Englishwoman who now had a Pakistani accent.

He said to me: 'I tell you, this country is being sodomized by religion. It is even beginning to interfere with the making of money. And now we are embarked on this dynamic regression you must know, it is obvious, Pakistan has become a leading country to go away from. Our patriots are abroad. We despise and envy them. For the rest of us, our class, your family, we are in Hobbes's state of nature: insecure, frightened. We cling together out of necessity.' He became optimistic. 'We could be like Japan, a tragic oriental country that is now progressive, industrialized.' He laughed and then said, ambiguously: 'But only God keeps this country together. You must say this around the world: we are taking a great leap backwards.'

The bitterest blow for Rahman was the dancing. He liked to waltz and foxtrot. But now the expression of physical joy, of sensuality and rhythm, was banned. On TV you could see where it had been censored. When couples in Western programmes got up to dance there'd be a jerk in the film, and they'd be sitting down again. For Rahman it was inexplicable, an unnecessary cruelty that was almost more arbitrary than anything else.

Thus the despair of Rahman and my uncles' 'high and dry' generation. For them the new Islamization was the negation of their lives. It was a lament heard often; this was the story they told: Karachi was a goodish place in the Sixties and Seventies. Until about 1977 it was lively and vigorous. You could drink and dance in the Raj-style clubs (providing you were admitted) and the atmosphere was liberal—as long as you didn't meddle in politics, in which case you'd probably be imprisoned. Politically there was Bhutto: urbane, Oxford-educated, considering himself a poet and revolutionary, a veritable Chairman Mao of the subcontinent. He said he would fight obscurantism and illiteracy, ensure the equality of men and women, and increase access to education and medical care. The desert would bloom.

Later, in an attempt to save himself, appease the mullahs and rouse the dissatisfied masses behind him, he introduced various Koranic injunctions into the constitution and banned alcohol, gambling, horse racing. The Islamization had begun and was fervently continued after his execution.

Islamization built no hospitals, no schools, no houses; it cleaned no water and installed no electricity. But it was direction, identity. The country was to be in the hands of those who elected themselves to interpret the single divine purpose. Under the tyranny of the priesthood, with the cooperation of the army, Pakistan itself would embody Islam. There would now be no distinction between ethical and religious obligation; there would now be no areas in which it was possible to be wrong. The only possible incertitude was interpretation. The theory would be the eternal and universal principles which Allah created and made obligatory for men; the model would be the first three generations of Muslims; and the practice would be Pakistan.

This overemphasis on dogma and punishment strengthened the repressive, militaristic and rationalistically aggressive state seen all over the world in the authoritarian Eighties. With the added bonus that in Pakistan God was always on the side of the government.

But despite all the strident nationalism, as Rahman said, the patriots were abroad; people were going away: to the West, to Saudi Arabia, anywhere. Young people continually asked me about the possibility of getting into Britain and some thought of taking some smack with them to bankroll their establishment. They had what people called the Gulf Syndrome, a condition I recognized from my time living in the suburbs. It was a dangerous psychological cocktail consisting of ambition, suppressed excitement, bitterness and sexual longing.

Then a disturbing incident occurred which seemed to encapsulate the going-away fever. An eighteen-year-old girl from a village called Chakwal dreamed that the villagers walked across the Arabian Sea to Karbala, where they found work and money. Following this dream, people from the village set off one night for the beach, which happened to be near my uncle's house in fashionable Clifton. Here lived politicians and diplomats in LA-style white bungalows with sprinklers on the lawns, Mercedes in the drives and dogs and watchmen at the gates.

On the beach, the site of barbecues and late-night parties, the men of Chakwal packed their women and children into trunks and pushed them into the sea. Then they followed them into the water in the direction of Karbala. Soon all but twenty of the potential émigrés were drowned. The survivors were arrested and charged with illegal emigration.

It was the talk of Karachi. It caused much amusement but people like Rahman despaired of a society that could be so confused, so advanced in some aspects, so very naive in others.

About twelve people lived permanently in my uncle's house, plus servants who slept in sheds at the back just behind the chickens and dogs. Relatives sometimes came to stay for months, and new bits had to be built on to the house. All day there were visitors, in the evenings crowds of people came over; they were welcomed and they ate and watched videos and talked for hours. People weren't so protective of their privacy.

Strangely, bourgeois-bohemian life in London, in Notting Hill and Islington and Fulham, was far more formal. It was frozen dinner parties and the division of social life into the meeting of couples with other couples to discuss the lives of other coupling couples.

In Pakistan there was the continuity of the various families' knowledge of each other. People were easy to place; your grandparents and theirs were friends. When I went to the bank and showed the teller my passport, it turned out he knew several of my uncles, so I didn't receive the usual perfunctory treatment.

I compared the collective hierarchy of the family and the permanence of my family circle with my feckless, rootless life in London, in what was called the 'inner city'. There I lived alone, and lacked any long connection with anything. I'd hardly known anyone for more than eight years and certainly not their parents. People came and went. There was much false intimacy and forced friendship. People didn't take responsibility for each other. Many of my friends lived alone in London, especially the women. They wanted to be independent and to enter into relationships—as many as they liked, with whom they liked—out of choice. They didn't merely want to reproduce the old patterns of living. The future was to be determined by choice and reason, not by custom. The notions of duty and obligation barely had positive meaning for my friends: they were loaded, Victorian words, redolent of constraint and grandfather clocks, the antithesis of generosity in love, the new hugging, and the transcendence of the family. The ideal of the new relationship was no longer the S and M of the old marriage—it was F and C, freedom plus commitment.

In the large old families of Pakistan where there was nothing but old patterns disturbed only occasionally by new ways, this would have seemed a contrivance, a sort of immaturity, a failure to understand and accept the determinacies that life necessarily involved. So there was much pressure to conform, especially on the women.

'Let these women be warned,' said a mullah to the dissenting women of Rawalpindi. 'We will tear them to pieces. We will give them such terrible punishments that no one in future will dare to raise a voice against Islam.'

I remember a woman saying to me at dinner one night: 'We know at least one thing. God will never dare to show his face in this country—the women will tear him apart!'

In the Sixties of Enoch Powell and graffiti, the Black Muslims and Malcolm X gave needed strength to the descendants of slaves by 'taking the wraps off the white man'; Eldridge Cleaver was yet to be converted to Christianity and Huey P. Newton was toting his Army .45. A boy in a bedroom in a suburb, who had the King's Road constantly on his mind and who changed the pictures on his wall from week to week was unhappy, and separated from the Sixties as by a thick glass wall against which he could only press his face. But bits of the Sixties were still around in Pakistan: the liberation rhetoric, for example, the music, the clothes, the drugs, not as the way of life they were originally intended to be, but as appendages to another, stronger tradition.

As my friends and I went into the Bara Market near Peshawar, close to the border of Afghanistan, in a rattling motorized rickshaw, I became apprehensive. There were large signs by the road telling foreigners that the police couldn't take responsibility for them: beyond this point the police would not go. Apparently the Pathans there, who were mostly refugees from Afghanistan, liked to kidnap foreigners. My friends, who were keen to buy opium which they'd give to the rickshaw driver to carry, told me everything was all right, because I wasn't a foreigner. I kept forgetting that.

The men of the north were tough, martial, insular and proud. They lived in mud houses and tin shacks built like forts for shooting from. Inevitably they were armed, with machine guns slung over their shoulders. In the street you wouldn't believe women existed here, except you knew they took care of the legions of young men in the area who'd fled from Afghanistan to avoid being conscripted by the Russians and sent to Moscow for re-education.

Ankle deep in mud, I went round the market. Pistols, knives, Russian-made rifles, hand grenades and large lumps of dope and opium were laid out on stalls like tomatoes and oranges. Everyone was selling heroin.

The Americans, who had much money invested in Pakistan, this compliant right-wing buffer zone between Afghanistan and India, were furious that their children were being destroyed by an illegal industry in a country they financed. But the Americans sent to Pakistan could do little about it. The heroin trade went right through Pakistani society: the police, judiciary, the army, landlords, customs officials were all involved. After all, there was nothing in the Koran about heroin. I was even told that its export made ideological sense. Heroin was anti-Western; addiction in Western children was what those godless societies with their moral vertigo deserved. It was a kind of colonial revenge. Reverse imperialism, the Karachi wits called it, inviting nemesis. The reverse imperialism was itself being reversed.

In a flat high above Karachi, an eighteen-year-old kid strung out on heroin danced cheerfully around the room in front of me pointing to his erection, which he referred to as his Imran Khan, the name of the handsome Pakistan cricket captain. More and more of the so-called multinational kids were taking heroin now. My friends who owned the flat, journalists on a weekly paper, were embarrassed.

But they always had dope to offer their friends. These laid-back people were mostly professionals: lawyers, an inspector in the police who smoked what he confiscated, a newspaper magnate and various other journalists. Heaven it was to smoke at midnight on the beach, as local fishermen, squatting respectfully behind you, fixed fat joints; the 'erotic politicians' themselves, The Doors, played from a portable stereo while the Arabian Sea rolled on to the beach. Oddly, heroin and dope were both indigenous to the country, but it took the West to make them popular in the East.

The colonized inevitably aspire to be like their colonizers—you wouldn't catch anyone of my uncle's generation with a joint in their mouth. It was infra dig, for peasants. They shadowed the British, they drank whisky and read The Times; they praised others by calling them 'gentlemen'; and their eyes filled with tears at old Vera Lynn records.

But the kids discussed yoga, you'd catch them standing on their heads. They even meditated. Though one boy who worked at the airport said it was too much of a Hindu thing for Muslims to be doing; if his parents caught him chanting a mantra he'd get a backhander across the chops. Mostly the kids listened to the Stones, Van Morrison and Bowie as they flew over ruined roads to the beach in bright red and yellow Japanese cars with quadrophonic speakers, past camels and acres of wasteland.

I often walked from my uncle's house several miles down a road towards the beach. Here, all along a railway track, the poor and diseased and hungry lived in shacks and huts; the filthy poor gathered around rusty standpipes to fetch water; or ingeniously they resurrected wrecked cars, usually Morris Minors; and here they slept in huge sewer pipes among buffalo, chickens and wild dogs. Here I met a policeman who I thought was on duty. But he lived here, and hanging on the wall of his falling-down shed was his spare white police uniform, which he'd had to buy himself.

A stout lawyer in his early thirties of immense charm—for him it was definitely the Eighties, not the Sixties. His father was a judge. He was intelligent, articulate and fiercely representative of the other 'new spirit' of Pakistan. He didn't drink, smoke or fuck. Out of choice. He prayed five times a day. He worked all the time. He was determined to be a good Muslim, since that was the whole point of the country existing at all. He wasn't indulgent, except religiously, and he lived in accordance with what he believed. I took to him immediately.

We had dinner in an expensive restaurant. It could have been in London or New York. The food was excellent, I said. The lawyer disagreed, with his mouth full, shaking his great head. It was definitely no good, it was definitely meretricious rubbish. But for ideological reasons only, since he ate with relish. He was only in the restaurant because of me, he said. There was better food in the villages. The masses had virtue, they knew how to eat, how to live. Those desiccated others, the marginal men I associated with and liked so much, were a plague class with no values. Perhaps, he suggested, this was why I liked them, being English. Their education, their intellectual snobbery, made them un-Islamic. They didn't understand the masses and they spoke in English to cut themselves off from the people. Didn't the best jobs go to those with a foreign education? He was tired of these Westernized elders denigrating their country and its religious nature.

The lawyer and I went out into the street. It was busy. There were dancing camels and a Pakistan trade exhibition. The exhibition was full of Pakistani imitations of Western goods: bathrooms in chocolate and strawberry, TVs with stereos attached; fans, air conditioners, heaters; and an arcade full of Space Invaders. The lawyer got agitated.

These were Western things, of no use to the masses. The masses wanted Islam, not strawberry bathrooms or…or elections. Are elections a Western thing? I asked. Don't they have them in India too? No—they're a Western thing, the lawyer said. How could they be required under Islam? There need be only one party—the party of the righteous.

This energetic lawyer would have pleased and then disappointed Third World intellectuals and revolutionaries from an earlier era, people like Fanon and Guevara. This talk of liberation—at last the acknowledgement of the virtue of the toiling masses, the struggle against neocolonialism, its bourgeois stooges, and American interference—the entire recognizable rhetoric of freedom and struggle ends in the lawyer's mind with the country on its knees, at prayer. Having started to look for itself it finds itself…in the eighth century.

I strode into a room in my uncle's house. Half-hidden by a curtain, on a veranda, was an aged woman servant wearing my cousin's old clothes, praying. I stopped and watched her. In the morning, as I lay in bed, she swept the floor of my room with some twigs bound together. She was at least sixty. Now, on the shabby prayer mat, she was tiny and around her the universe was endless, immense, but God was above her. I felt she was acknowledging that which was larger than she, knowing and feeling her own insignificance. It was not empty ritual. I wished I could do it.

I went with the lawyer to the mosque in Lahore, the largest in the world. I took off my shoes, padded across the immense courtyard with the other man—women were not allowed—and got on my knees. I banged my forehead on the marble floor. Beside me a man in a similar posture gave a world-consuming yawn. I waited but could not lose myself in prayer. I could only travesty the woman's prayer, to whom it had a world of meaning.

Did she want a society in which her particular moral and religious beliefs were mirrored, and no others, instead of some plural, liberal melange? A society in which her own cast of mind, her customs, way of life and obedience to God constituted authority? It wasn't as if anyone had asked her.

In Pakistan, England just wouldn't go away. Relics of the Raj were everywhere: buildings, monuments, Oxford accents, libraries full of English books, and newspapers. Many Pakistanis had relatives in England; thousands of Pakistani families depended on money sent from England. While visiting a village, a man told me that when his three grandchildren visited from Bradford, he had to hire an interpreter to speak to them. It was happening all the time—the closeness of the two societies, and the distance.

Although Pakistanis still wanted to escape to England, the old men in their clubs and the young eating their hamburgers took great pleasure in England's decline and decay. The great master was fallen. It was seen as strike-bound, drug-ridden, riot-torn, inefficient, disunited, a society which had moved too suddenly from puritanism to hedonism and now loathed itself. And the Karachi wits liked to ask me when I thought the Americans would decide the British were ready for self-government.

Yet people like Rahman still clung to what they called British ideals, maintaining that it is a society's ideals, its conception of human progress, that define the level of its civilization. They regretted, under the Islamization, the repudiation of the values which they said were the only positive aspect of Britain's legacy to the subcontinent. These were: the idea of secular institutions based on reason, not revelation or scripture; the idea that there were no final solutions to human problems; and the idea that the health and vigour of a society was bound up with its ability to tolerate and express a plurality of views on all issues, and that these views would be welcomed.

The English misunderstood the Pakistanis because they saw only the poor people, those from the villages, the illiterates, the peasants, the Pakistanis who didn't know how to use toilets, how to eat with knives and forks because they were poor. If the British could only see them, the rich, the educated, the sophisticated, they wouldn't be so hostile. They'd know what civilized people the Pakistanis really were. And then they'd like them.

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