Parul Sehgal, ace literary critic formerly of NYT Books and now writing for The New Yorker, wrote two top-notch essays this week. One, in the Times, is about Joan Didion and her impact on America. The other is called “The Case Against the Trauma Plot” for the New Yorker that has set Twitter ablaze with fury. I won’t summarize either essay here because they merit your full attention and time, if you have any of that at this busy time of the year. The second essay interests me as a writer and as someone who has suffered trauma.
Sehgal makes the case that trauma does not serve a story well, be it novel, television show, movie, short story. She writes about the current fixation on trauma as the engine that drives all narrative in many storylines and plots. Sehgal says that this is a weak engine, one that “flattens” characters into “a set of symptoms” rather than something that pushes the plot forward and deepens characters. Instead of forward motion, you are dragged into the character’s psychological past, and this is not a good thing.
The essay is complex and complicated, and Sehgal supports her argument by referring to writers such as Woolf and Morrison, referencing Netflix shows, and tracing a history of trauma as psychological/psychiatric phenomenon. She doesn’t put a foot wrong when talking about literature.
However, she falters when she dismisses the work of psychiatrists such as Bessel Van der Kolk, who wrote the book The Body Keeps the Score (a handbook for therapists and psychologists everywhere these days), by saying that his work is not supported by scientific evidence. The study of epigenetics shows that the environment and other factors can affect gene expression. Traumatic events have been scientifically proven to influence gene activity even if it doesn’t alter the sequencing of our genetic codes. You can read more about this here.
Of course, rather than reading Sehgal’s essay and taking time to digest and absorb, the Twitterverse took this essay to mean “Trauma doesn’t matter” or even worse, “I don’t care about your trauma”. The meltdown that followed was epic, maybe epigenetic. Ah, Twitter, always a place of subtlety and nuance. We learn in therapy that we are not responsible for the emotions and responses of others; we can only work on ourselves and our emotions and responses. You’d think all those people with trauma might have learned that. Recognize the article triggered you, take yourself to a quiet place and do some breathing, and then self-soothe, instead of lashing out at Sehgal on Twitter.
While I agree that fixating on trauma isn’t a great characteristic of a good story (or even a good life, come to think of it), we can’t avoid the fact that trauma exists, and that it really damages the lives of people affected by it. However, both in a story and in a life, there is a way out of the trap that trauma sets for you: healing. But healing is hard work. I’ll say that again: Healing is work, HARD work. It can take months, years, decades. It requires time, money, dedication and commitment. It requires excellent therapists (usually more than one). It requires the belief that you CAN heal from trauma, that you don’t have to carry it around like a rucksack weighted down with rocks for the rest of your life. Sometimes trauma is like a railway station in an abandoned town, where you can get stuck and stay there, pretending to be ready to board a train that never comes. Your job as a traumatized person is to build a handcar and pump yourself the fuck out of there.
Anyway, just some thoughts I had when I reflected on the essay over a couple of days. That’s the way to really engage with an essay, not just to react to someone else’s tweet about it, or read the title of the essay and freak out. And now, I’ll leave you with the quote by Joan Didion that ends Sehgal’s essay about the literary icon:
“I’m not telling you to make the world better, because I don’t think that progress is necessarily part of the package. I’m just telling you to live in it. Not just to endure it, not just to suffer it, not just to pass through it, but to live in it. To look at it. To try to get the picture. To live recklessly. To take chances. To make your own work and take pride in it. To seize the moment. And if you ask me why you should bother to do that, I could tell you that the grave’s a fine and private place, but none I think do there embrace. Nor do they sing there, or write, or argue, or see the tidal bore on the Amazon, or touch their children. And that’s what there is to do and get it while you can and good luck at it.”
And guess what? What Didion writes about is actually the way to move forward from trauma and live a damn good life while trauma gets further and further away from you in the rearview mirror.
I took up watercolor painting over the lockdown and here are a couple of paintings I’ve done, paired with some simple thoughts. I’m no Picasso, and I’m no Rupi Kaur, but I still enjoyed putting these together.
When you live in a Muslim country, one of the sounds that becomes most familiar is the Islamic call to prayer, the azaan, which echoes five times a day from mosque loudspeakers. When you travel to a country that doesn’t have this unique sound, you miss it.
It’s a comforting sound, announcing the time of the congregation that gathers in the mosque to pray. Every Pakistani child has the memory of being told by their mother or father, “Chalo, beta, azaan aa rahi hai, namaz paro.” (Come on, child, the azaan is coming, say your prayers) It marks the progression of the day, dawn to noon to afternoon to sunset to night.
The first namaz was given by the Prophet Bilal, may Allah be pleased with him. According to the Web site Blackpast, “Bilal ibn Rabah al-Habashi was a loyal Sahabah (companion) to the Prophet Muhammad and thus one of the earliest converts in the newly-emerging religion of Islam. He was also the first mu’azzin (prayer caller) in the Muslim faith. Rabah is the first person of known African ancestry to become a Muslim.”
Here is a scene from the movie “The Message” which depicts the Prophet Muhammed requesting Bilal to give the call to prayer. It’s probably one of the most emotional scenes in the film. This 1976 movie, too, is a classic — it stars Anthony Quinn as the Prophet’s uncle Hamza, a legendary figure in Islam. It was filmed in a very innovative way, that you never see the Prophet, but you can see his companions addressing him.
Almost every Muslim child growing up in an English-speaking milieu has seen this movie as an essential part of their Islamic education… This scene always makes me teary-eyed (in the original film, you hear Bilal saying the words of the azaan in English, but they’ve dubbed it with the Arabic).
There’s no way you can grow up as a Muslim in a Muslim country and not know the words to the azaan:
Allah is Most Great. Allah is Most Great. Allah is Most Great. Allah is Most Great.
I testify that there is no god except Allah. I testify that there is no god except Allah.
I testify that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah. I testify that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah.
Come to prayer. Come to prayer. Come to success. Come to success.
Allah is Most Great. Allah is Most Great.
There is no god except Allah.
These words are said millions of times a day in every corner of the world. It is the first thing whispered in the ear of a newborn Muslim child, marking the beginning of that child’s story as a Muslim in this world.
The Azaan itself is the story of Islam, from start to finish. Everything you need to know about Islam, and everything you need to do as a Muslim, is embedded in these words, from the declaration of God’s supremacy, to his position as the only deity, to the status of Muhammad as his messenger. And there is a very powerful act contained in the azaan: that you testify to these facts. Testifying, or witnessing, is one of the most basic requirements of a Muslim, and the repetition of this witnessing through these words reinforces this like muscle memory. Then there are the instructions to worship God, and the teaching that through that worship you attain success in this world and the Hereafter.
The lovely thing about the azaan is that because it is only ever called by a human voice, and because every human is a unique individual, every azaan in the world is unique as well as the same. There are different ways to say it, different intonations, different melodies, differences in timing and tone of voice.
Every azaan, from Pakistan to Saudi Arabia, to Bosnia, to the United States, to India, to Turkey, to China, to Indonesia, is a timeless repetition of the same words (in the dawn prayer, an additional line goes “Prayer is better than sleep). And yet each and every human being who recites the azaan and each and every human being who hears it brings their own story of striving and struggling, of pain and heartbreak and disappointment, and lays it at Allah’s feet. And in doing so, derives comfort and hope from the idea that Allah will bring them relief.
If you listen to the azaan as an aural experience, it is extremely musical, even though it’s not a song nor meant to be sung. It is neither in a major nor a minor key, but it has a pattern that is familiar to anyone who knows music theory: that a musical composition uses chord progression to move between tones in order to bring a sense of completion to the listener.
The azaan doesn’t move between chords — it stays on the same note, with variations of tone up and down from the tonic — but the combination of the words, the recitation, and the melody of the human voice gives the exact same feeling of progression, from the start of the call to the end. There is an opening, a middle, and an end. It feels as though you get on a ship, sail across a river, and reach the bank at the other side when you listen to it.
You truly feel as though you’ve taken a journey when you hear the azaan. You feel as though you’ve heard a story, the story of humanity’s relationship to God, the purpose of our existence, and our momentary existence versus the eternal nature of the creator. You hear this azaan when you are born, it is imprinted on your cells; you hear it all throughout your life, and it will be recited when you die, at your funeral prayer. And yet God will go on, even when you have stopped breathing.
In July 2021, Malala told Vogue, “I still don’t understand why people have to get married. If you want to have a person in your life, why do you have to sign marriage papers, why can’t it just be a partnership?”
And now, in November 2021, Malala has announced she’s gotten married. With a nikah, not even a civil ceremony! What a hypocrite!
Well, she fooled us all, didn’t she? Telling us that she believes in “live-in” relationships, that she didn’t believe in marriage, and she wouldn’t ever get married herself. I mean, that is what she said, isn’t it? That is EXACTLY what she meant without any of us projecting our biases onto her words, right? And how come she got to change her mind without asking for our permission or approval?
What she said in British Vogue is written in stone, it can never be changed, it’s immutable. We must take her words more seriously than those of our politicians and leaders, because she has been chosen by the West as the poster child of … something or the other. We should live and die by her words, because she has that much power.
How dare she question that most holy of institutions, matrimony, which in Islam is held more sacred than prayer, Hajj, fasting, and zakat! After all, in Islam, there is only one type of marriage — the nikah, conducted between one man and woman. We have never had any other tradition, including temporary marriage (mutah), or misyar marriage (where the spouses don’t have to live together)!
We have so much respect for marriage in Pakistan that nobody ever commits adultery, nobody ever gets divorced, there’s no such thing as watta-satta, or child marriage, or forced conversions and marriages. I mean, with such high standards, Malala should be the paragon of virtue as the chosen representative of the entire Pakistani nation and Muslim ummah.
And now that she’s gotten married, to a Pakistani man no less (not a white, as Taslima Nasreen repeatedly reminds us), we have to burn her at the stake again, because she’s disappointed us once more. How come she didn’t choose to live with some English guy in a nice little house in Oxford, and have a couple of kids out of wedlock? Wouldn’t that have been better for her, and better for us, so that we could continue to rail against her on every social media platform there is?
What a hypocrite. Fine, Malala, go and get married if you want to. I for one am going to protest outside the Pakistani Embassy in London because you subscribe to such a patriarchal institution and you went and married someone who feels like home.
Her marriage is a Western conspiracy anyway.
Over the weekend I watched the ARY telefilm Aik Hai Nigar (There’s Only One Nigar) about the life of Lt. Gen. Nigar Johar, the Pakistan Army’s first female lieutenant general (and first female Surgeon General). The film stars Pakistan’s sweetheart Mahira Khan as Nigar, and Bilal Ashraf as her husband Johar, who served in the army as an engineer.
The film follows Nigar’s life from childhood in Swabi, through her studies at the Army Medical College, her marriage, and her steady climb up the army ranks until she achieves her goal of becoming a general. Her trials and tribulations, the loss of her parents and sisters in a car accident, her determination to serve her patients as a national duty, and her single-mindedness in pursuing excellence are all highlighted nicely in the film.
The relationship with her husband Johar is also portrayed in an intimate and warm way, almost too good to be true. Whatever Nigar does, Johar supports her and shows no qualms about having an ambitious and career-oriented wife. As they say, behind every successful man is a successful wife, but Aik Hai Nigar shows the opposite is also true. It would have been interesting to see if Nigar would have gone as far as she did without such a supportive husband, but that can only be hypothetical. Still, it’s nice to see a marital relationship portrayed on the screen that is full of positivity, affection and harmony. They are confidants and partners to each other, and certainly very photogenic. Good casting in general, especially of Bilal Ashraf as the handsome and loving Johar.
Neat cameos include Dr. Sarah Nadeem (an endocrinologist in real life) as Nigar’s mother, and Natasha Humera Ejaz (a talented singer and performer) as a tart colleague at the Army Hospital. It’s always great to see friends pop up like this!
Mahira Khan’s performace as Nigar is consistent with her other roles as a woman who overcomes odds and triumphs in the end, no matter what the circumstances. But sometimes she doesn’t take enough risks with the roles — and that could be the fault of the script, as it doesn’t leave much room for Nigar the human being as opposed to Nigar the heroine. I’d personally have liked to see a more human side of Nigar: the one who doesn’t always cope with a smile after a short spell of crying. One who gets angry, who gets frustrated, or who doesn’t always get along with everyone around her. The biopic risks turning into a hagiography this way.
But for a couple of hours, it isn’t a bad thing to lose oneself in the story of this — by all accounts — extraordinary Pakistani woman, and enjoy a story that ends on a positive note. Lt. Gen Nigar Johar is still alive and well, serving in the army as the Surgeon General. One particularly nice piece of dialogue for me: at school, the wife of a General presides as chief guest at a function. Nigar’s mother tells her she could be a general’s wife one day, but Nigar responds that she will be a general herself one day, wait and see.
And we do.
“When the wedding was over, Zarghuna climbed aboard the
bus, leaving the evening’s cool breeze for the pungent, stuffy
air of the women’s section. All in all, there were about forty of
them – men, women and children – returning home from the
celebrations in a neighbouring village. The women sat at the
front, swathed in burqas hiding wedding finery underneath,
their faces made up in carefully hoarded foundation, bright
red lipstick, eyes rimmed with kajal. Earrings and necklaces
clinked as they laughed and talked and gossiped, while
children lay bundled up around them, tired and sleepy in the
dark. Further back, their husbands sat together in the men’s
section, rubbing stomachs full from the six rice dishes served
at the feast.
“It had been Zarghuna’s cousin’s daughter’s wedding; the
other women had teased her cousin, asking if she was ready to
become a grandmother. She was only thirty-five.
‘May you be the grandmother of seven grandsons,’ they
called out to her raucously making her laugh and the bride
cover her face in embarrassment, clearly smiling through her
hennaed fingers. Everyone knew you needed sons for inheritance,
for land, and for feuding. That is to say, for war. Each house had
its own graveyard, at the front of which the bodies of recent
casualties were buried, each grave marked only by a small,
modest stone. The more stones, the more honour for the family.”
This is the first page of my new short story, “A Bird With One Wing”, which appears in the collection of short stories The American Way: Stories of Invasion published by Comma Press. Here’s a snippet from writer Andrew Blackman on what the story is about:
It was a real challenge to write this story. I’ve never been to Waziristan, so I had to do my research and use my imagination. I had read Professor Akbar Ahmad’s excellent The Thistle and the Drone and it helped me understand the intricacies of what was called the Tribal Belt a long time ago. (Professor Ahmad read my short story and provided invaluable feedback).
After the story, in the book, there is an essay by Dr. Ian Shaw, Associate Professor of Global Security Challenges at Leeds University, about drone warfare and its impact in Pakistan. In fact, all the stories in this book are paired with a commentary by an expert on the situation or historical event that form the background of the pieces.
On the 26th of October, there will be a virtual event by Housmans Bookshop in which I’ll be discussing my short story, along with Afghan-American journalist Fariba Nabwa. You can register for the event here.
Review first published in The Conversationalist
I was a first-year student at a prestigious U.S. women’s college, back in 1989, when the college’s alumnae association invited me to speak at a large event about my experience in coming to America. It wasn’t very long into my first semester, and I’d just arrived from Karachi. I was 17 years old.
Karachi had been wracked by ethnic violence for more than a year, with student groups clashing all across the city and the entire province of Sindh. That was a very frightening time, with the media reporting daily death tolls and the military enforcing 24-hour curfews. It is still fresh in my mind.
There were two other speakers at the event, both women: one was a youth organizer and peace activist in her troubled Black urban community; the other had survived a slave camp in Southeast Asia and had been subsequently adopted by an American family. The audience, however, was composed almost exclusively of white American women, many of them rich, older, well-traveled, and educated. Yet for all their worldliness, they seemed unaware that they had propped us up on a stage as though we were exhibits on display…
Read the rest of the review here
Yesterday on Twitter, I wrote an angry tweet. It went like this:
“I just really need to know how Judith Butler’s definition of women applies to Afghan women who are being beaten on the streets by the Taliban. Have you ever considered that your academics really don’t fit the lives of women in the global South?”
I posted the above tweet after reading about the now infamous Guardian interview in which Butler said that TERFs (trans exclusionary radical feminists) align themselves with right wingers and fascists. I don’t identify as a TERF, or much of anything really (cis? that too feels like an imposition upon me) because this debate about trans rights and gender identity seems so far removed from the lived reality that I and millions of women in the South Asian/Central Asian region experience. I certainly don’t align myself with right wingers and fascists in my thinking, which is different and far more independent from the groupthink or pressure that people in, say, an academic environment face as they adapt to new rules and laws about gender.
But it was Judith Butler’s statement that “we need to rethink the category of women” that got me going. It coalesced from quite a lot of thinking I’ve been doing about gender identity theory as it is being adopted in Western countries. And it comes at the same time as I’ve been watching Afghan women getting beaten by the Taliban as they protest for their rights, for safety and security and for inclusion in the government, and for the freedom to work and study.
Afghan woman: Save me from the Taliban
Judith Butler: We’ll redefine womanhood, you’ll be finehttps://twitter.com/BinaShah/status/1435550607914459137
I was asked to clarify my thinking about my statement, because it seemed vague or perhaps obtuse to people for whom gender identity theory is far more familiar and agreeable. It’s good to be challenged because it forces you to think harder about what it is you really believe.
In Afghanistan (extreme example) but also in Pakistan, where I live, in India, in Nepal, Bangladesh, Middle Eastern countries, North Africa, women (or people with female bodies) are being abused, harassed, assaulted and killed not just because they have female bodies, but because they refuse to hand those bodies over to men to do with as they please.
Because this possession and ownership of female bodies is absolutely tied to female biology and the production of children and sexual comfort for those men, separating sex from gender completely negates this form of oppression which is hugely insulting to all of us who are still fighting to end sex-based discrimination in our countries and regions.
At the same time a particularly empowering thing for women is the fact that their bodies are capable of producing life. This is something so innate to women’s identities and sense of themselves in Muslim/global South/non-white countries that to insist it is something that does not belong to them is actually a form of mental and emotional violence on them, a double trauma visited upon them by Western Feminists who wish to impose their ideas of gender and sex on those of us whose understanding and experience of these issues is very different.
Imagine a Muslim woman in the UK who escapes a violent marriage and threats of honor killing. She goes to a shelter where she feels safe because it is a female-only space. Not just because she is away from the realm of immediate male violence, but because as a Muslim woman she does not feel comfortable sharing intimate quarters with a person with a male body. This allows her to reconcile her awful situation as well as her need to feel she is acting in congruence with her identity and principles of modesty as a Muslim woman.
But if a trans woman with a penis is in the same space, then the Muslim woman will be in a terrible conflict about her actions in leaving her home. Suddenly, she is not able to remove her hijab or undress because she cannot do those things in front of a person with a male body who is not a family member. This not a hypothetical, there are Muslim, Sikh, and Hindu women who are now excluded from single sex-only spaces because the definition of woman has changed to include women with penises. To call that Muslim woman a TERF because she expresses discomfort is yet another abuse for her.
All this to say that we have yet to negotiate safety and freedom for women with female bodies and not ignore or override minority women in the West or women from my part of the world out of these negotiations. Afghan girls and women have in fact had to disguise themselves as boys and men in order to move outside the home, earn a living or perform vital chores during the rule of the Taliban. Would this be called “performing gender” as Judith Butler calls it, or a resourceful survival strategy that Afghan women adopted in order to be able to live?
I’m afraid the trans rights activists are acting like Western colonisers and imperialists all over again, imposing their ideas of gender and sexuality on us the same way their Empire was imposed on us for a good part of the 20th century. I don’t really want gender colonialism in the 21st century. Do you?
Thank you for coming to my TERF Talk.