Why I am a Feminist in Pakistan

My name is Bina Shah and I am a writer, essayist, and feminist.
Feminism is really nothing to be afraid of, even though in Pakistan it is a dirty word, a sign that you’re an atheist, a Western agent, a threat to the system. I’m neither an atheist nor a Western agent. But I am a feminist. I am a threat to the system, to the status quo that dictates where women “should be” in our society. I decided a long time ago that the system was rotten, and that feminism was the best way for me to upend that system. In my talk with you I’m going to explain to you why I made that decision and what I think is at stake.

Continue reading “Why I am a Feminist in Pakistan”

Why Pasoori has nothing to do with India or Bollywood

A recent article in the New Yorker about the Coke Studio song Pasoori claimed that it was “uniting” Pakistanis and Indians, and attempted to explain/analyze the song’s provenance through that lens. Perhaps the author, Priyanka Mattoo, was looking for a feel-good angle, a little bit of good news in a time of division and discord, where Indian Muslims are subjected to increasing violence and discrimination every day.

But what ended up happening instead was that the article made an implicit assertion that everything good that comes from Pakistan is actually derived from India. I do not think the author meant to say this; she wrote her article in good faith. But let me say it clearly: there is nothing Bollywood about the video for Pasoori or the song itself. It is quintessentially a Pakistani vibe, beat, and aesthetic that has been developing in Pakistan for the last 20 years.

Let’s decode some of the elements in the video that an Indian viewer may not be familiar with: Sheema Kirmani, the classical dancer featured in the video is a pioneer of the Pakistani women’s resistance movement. Her devotion to Indian classical dance is about upholding a South Asian art form that has been seen as suspect since the 1980s, the time of military dictatorship that also, interestingly, spawned Pakistan’s pop scene.

Unlike a Bollywood actress, Shae Gill sits sedately in a shrub-filled sehen (a courtyard, typical of Islamic architecture in mosques and homes of Muslims), without gyrating even once — bringing to mind the Benjamin Sisters of the 1980s. Her innocent dance with Ali Sethi reminds me of Nazia and Zoheb Hassan, Pakistani pop stars from the same era.

The song itself is composed by Xulfi and Abdullah Siddiqui, homegrown musicians whose influences are anything BUT Bollywood. Entity Paradigm, Xulfi’s former band, was one of the hottest rock acts in Pakistan 20 years ago. Abdullah Siddiqui, talented artist and producer, is a frontrunner in the electronic music scene in Pakistan, which has been bubbling over very nicely for the last decade or so, and includes shoegaze, trip-hop, and psychedelia. Not very Bollywood at all.

The video is NOT shot in Bollywood technicolor style. This is a style that evokes Pakistan of the 1950s, with its own thriving movie industry, visuals, colors, and lighting. It makes me think of Manto, who wrote for Pakistani cinema in its golden age, of Pakistani actresses in kameezes and crisp white shalwars with motia in their hair. (I can’t really understand Ali Sethi’s outfit, but it brings to mind safari suits and materials from East Africa, rather than a Bollywood style shirt-pant combo in violently clashing neon colors.)

To say this video is derived from Bollywood traditions, or that it’s “uniting” Pakistan and India, is something that could only be said by a writer viewing this video through an Indian — hegemonic — lens. Through the eyes of a Pakistani, it means something completely different. a coming of age of our music scene, that can stand on its own and command global attention and respect.

Oh, and one more thing. Nobody in Pakistan calls it a “jingle truck.”

Thank you for your attention. Support Pakistani musicians, artistes, and the cinema industry.

A Feminist in Mecca

I’m back after a whirlwind 6-day trip to perform the Umrah, the minor pilgrimage in Islam. I traveled with my family from Karachi to Jeddah, from Jeddah to Madina by plane, and after two days in Madina, to Mecca by car. Another three days in Mecca and then back to Jeddah and on a late-night flight back home to Karachi. My mind is filled with so many impressions and thoughts, my physical body is feeling the toll of the Umrah, but my heart is completely at peace and my soul feels fulfilled.

A feminist probably wouldn’t choose to go to Saudi Arabia based on all the reports coming out of the Kingdom about the discrimination against women, enshrined in Saudi law thanks to a very very (very) conservative interpretation of Islam that has been in place for decades. Social and religious conservatism has been the hallmark of Saudi Arabia for longer than the reign of the House of Saud, and yet the combination of religion and politics had taken on a particular intensity since its rule.

The latest Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman had embarked on a modernization drive over the last five years which has seen women being allowed to drive, travel without mahrems or male guardians, and a host of other advances. The activism of Saudi feminists had a lot to do with the pressure put on the Kingdom from inside and outside to even things up for women. I have no lived experience of what things were like before the reforms, and in a six day trip I couldn’t possibly begin to understand or absorb the changes and their effects on women. For that you’d have to consult a woman activist. I have had Saudi friends over the years, however, who assured me that things weren’t as they were portrayed in the media.

I knew that in going to Saudi Arabia, I’d have to comply with a strict dress code. So I purchased several abayas and hijabs, skull caps and hijab pins to keep myself appropriately dressed. I might disagree with needing to be covered from head to toe politically, but I wasn’t going to let anything stop me from performing my pilgrimage. Besides, I thought to myself, perhaps effacing my own intellect and ego for the sake of God might be good for me. I’m always certain that I dress in a manner that gives me utmost dignity in my everyday life, but when going to the House of God, as the Kaaba is known, it doesn’t hurt to be extra careful. I could sacrifice a few days of my usual clothing in order to bare my soul to God and beg for His mercy and forgiveness in the afterlife.

Yes, I’m making a public confession here: I’m a believer, and I try to maintain a level of piety that I don’t talk about publicly, preferring to let my actions do the talking instead. I hate bragging about my religious beliefs or shoving them on to others in order to make myself feel superior. I like to keep my practice to myself. I used to think that the biggest compliment was when someone could not tell what religion I followed, or that I followed any religion at all. You could call this a reaction to growing up in the Zia era, when an Islamic martial law dictator equated piety with political loyalty, and everyone began to perform Islam in order to prove how loyal and patriotic they were to the country.

I had three abayas: one in black for travel (it hides the grime much more easily), one in sage green, and one in peach. I intended to keep the colored ones for Madina and Mecca, for the heat of the midday sun, and for the sense of occasion. Although pilgrims are not allowed to wear fragrance or makeup, I wanted to look my best for God.

I changed into my Islamic getup before we landed in Jeddah, but the flight attendants told me that wearing an abaya and hijab was no longer required for foreign women. The decision was taken by Prince Salman in order to encourage tourism in 2019. As a Muslim woman, though, I wasn’t sure that the new law applied to me, and I kept the abaya on, although I was fearful that it would be too much for me in the heat. I’d heard horror stories of female shurtas, the religious police, hitting women if they weren’t dressed appropriately, hair uncovered, an ankle showing.

When I looked at myself in the mirror, I still recognized myself, albeit a version of myself that was on her best behavior. Ihram is about much more than clothing: your actions, your attitude and your manner must also become as pure as possible, but the clothing is an outward reminder of how you must maintain your inner state.

While transiting in Jeddah Airport, every woman I saw had on an abaya and a head covering, whether it was a scarf, a hijab, or another form of the above. Except for one woman, who left her hair open and loose down her back. But nobody said a word to her. I might have done the same, but I thought it best to practice for Madina and Mecca (I’d had many trial runs back home of trying to move around in the outfit, and I even practiced praying in it, but when I went into a full sajdah on the floor, the headscarf fell off my head).

Every Arab man I saw was in traditional attire: the long white thobe and kandoora (the red and white checked headscarf with the black rings, or ghufran) if they were Saudi, or other colors of thobes, skull caps, scarves tied around their heads. If they were pilgrims on their way to Mecca, then they were dressed in the ihram, which for men consists of two pieces of white unstitched cloth, belted around the waist with a money belt or other contraption, and the other worn around the shoulders. I felt a little jealous of them being able to walk around so uncovered, but then I thought about going under the hot sun and getting burned, and I couldn’t decide which was the better deal.

We reached Madina and settled in for the evening, and some of my family went out to explore the Prophet’s Mosque and pray there. I was on my period at the time, so I could not enter the Mosque, and had to content myself with sitting in its outer courtyard for zhikr and other types of worship. During the five daily prayers, I sat with the women who were praying in the outer courtyard, but I did not pray. Nobody questioned me about why I was or wasn’t praying.

It does make you feel a little left out, not being able to pray while you are not in a state of purity, while men never experience that exclusion. Is it fair? Perhaps it’s practical; you don’t always feel well during this time, so being given a little break from it can seem like a small mercy, or a huge disappointment. (As for the ruling that men should pray in the front and women in the back — I’ve never minded that one, as I don’t like the idea of men looking at my backside while I’m down in prayer. Let them take the embarrassment of that situation).

Umrah is a minor pilgrimage, so you can complete the rituals in half a day, and time it so that you are not menstruating on that day, if you’re lucky. But yes, women do take tablets to delay their periods so that they can complete the Umrah and Hajj rituals, and those who can’t do that, or their period arrives unexpectedly, as it can do during perimenopause, run the risk of missing out if they are not through with their period. These are biological realities and risks that men simply do not have to undertake. Is that complete equality for women? Not in absolutist terms.

As for me, I did my research and talked to a scholar or two and learned that I could enter the state of ihram even if I was menstruating, but I would have to delay the rituals of tawaf, circumnambulating the Kaaba, and the ritual of sa’ee, or running back and forth between the hills of Safa and Marwa, until my period ended. The consideration given to women is that they do not have to leave Mecca and go to the place of meeqat to make their intention for Umra again. They can do this while on their period, and simply take a purification bath in Mecca to complete the rituals when they are done.

So I waited. Went to the courtyard of the Masjid e Nabawi. Sat and prayed on my tasbih and recited the prayers I knew by heart. Listened to the prayers of other people. Drank the water of the holy well of ZamZam, which was brought in from Mecca and distributed via water fountains. I watched the beautiful giant-sized parasols open during the day to shield worshippers from the sun, and in the evening, they closed again, like flowers, so that the green-lit minarets of the mosque stretched into the night sky, lighting the darkness.

I watched as visitors bargained for prayer mats and prayer beads and dates and keepsakes and mementos in the shops to take home for friends and family. Several times a day I walked with what seemed like a flood of people toward the mosque, everyone moving in one direction. One day I sat among a group of Indonesian women, wearing white hijabs and bearing bags and backpacks emblazoned with their tour companies’ logos. I sat while the women who were not in “haidh”, or menstruating, prayed. There were young women, teenaged girls, women my age, and rows and rows of elderly women in wheelchairs and on folding chairs.

On Friday, the holiest day of the Muslim week, I parked myself among a sea of women from an Arabic-speaking African country, possibly Sudan or Somalia, where children wore dresses of matching fabric and sang and amused themselves while their mothers slept, talked, waited for the Juma prayer. Suddenly, mosque guards came to shoo them away from the mats where we were all sitting. I thought we were being thrown out until I listened carefully and realized the guards were allowing the women to go into the Prophet’s mosque with their children for a short while before the prayer began (Normally children are not allowed into the mosque at all, which is why the women were waiting outside).

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After Friday prayers, we set off for Mecca by car. It’s a four to five hour journey, but it took us a good six hours, and the traffic coming in to Mecca, through mountain tunnels, was horrendous. During Hajj, I’m told it’s complete gridlock, but even still it took us a good hour from the outskirts of Mecca to our hotel right opposite the Haram. We were exhausted, but my brother and sister insisted on performing their Umra late in the night, while I rested in the hotel room after having eaten my dinner at midnight. I am a creature of routine, often neurotically strict, because of a stomach condition that I suffer from, which precludes me from fasting, but I decided that my body would listen to me for once and cooperate with me through the delays and interruptions that the trip was necessitating.

It was already announced that Friday evening was the start of Ramadan, the Muslim Holy Month of fasting, which meant there would be no restaurants open during daylight hours. My brother and sister decided to fast the next day, while I surveyed the room service menu and felt skeptical about my dining choices. But I wasn’t going to complain, as long as food was available. Besides, it would be fun to see what happened at Iftar; and of course, the fact that we were performing Umra during Ramadan meant that all the blessings and rewards of our worship would be doubled, trebled, perhaps multiplied by the thousands. We certainly felt very lucky to be here in this month, with no Covid curbs but with the crowds still low.

The next morning, my parents went for their Umra. I accompanied them, to give them moral support, especially as they weren’t sure if they’d find a wheelchair person to take my mother into the Haram and for her tawaf. As soon as we descended the ramp from the hotel area, a man with a wheelchair was sitting at the foot of the bridge, materialized by my mother’s prayers. I ran towards him, signaled and gesticulated and brought him back to where my parents waited. His wheelchair was made comfortable with a thick prayer rug laid on it as a sort of cushion for his passengers; my mother gingerly sat herself down in it. “Where are you from?” he asked us. “Pakistan,” we replied. “Oh!” he laughed. “I thought you were from South Africa.” I entrusted them to the wheelchair attendant and to God, then and then I sat in the shade and coolth of a wind tunnel created by another ramp going to a parking space, and watched the people coming to and fro.

Most were dressed in ihram, but with women, you can’t tell. Due to Covid, only pilgrims were being allowed to perform tawaf, but women seemed to have open access because they dress the same in ihram as they do in ordinary times. There were no shurtas anywhere, just guards directing people which way to go, asking them if they were performing Umrah and directing them to the appropriate gate (There are 210 gates to the Haram, 5 of which are counted as really significant, and each gate is named after important people, places, or incidents in history).

The day was already becoming hot. I just looked at the walls of the Haram and marveled. The front where I was sitting, nearest to the King Fahd gate, was covered in scaffolding and construction was going on everywhere. That’s the sound of Mecca: the voices of pilgrims, the call to prayer, and the noise of construction as the Haram is being expanded in a project called the North Pass Expansion. There was an intense pull coming from within, like a magnetic force. I felt myself on the verge of tears because I couldn’t go inside just yet, and I wanted to, so badly. But I comforted myself with praying zhikr and making dua. I was within steps of God’s house, I had to remain steadfast and patient for just a little while longer.

I waited an hour, then got restless and stood up, stretched my legs, walked back up to the ramp. Seated on the ground along one of its railings was a young woman reading the Quran in a sweet voice. I sat down next to her to listen to her recitation. When she took a break, we got to talking; she was an Indonesian woman, working in Dammam. She and a friend had decided to come for Umra together, and she was waiting on the friend, reciting Quran until then. I asked her what it was like living in Saudi Arabia. She said it took a while to get used to it, but she enjoyed it.

Meanwhile I was getting text updates from my father about his progress; he’d finished his tawaf and was now heading for the sa’ee. My mother called me soon after that, worried because they’d been separated. I assured her that everything was all right with my father, bid farewell to the Indonesian woman, and then I went back inside into the cool of the mall I stopped to pick up chocolate gelato from a gelato stand, astonished that it was open right within meters of the Haram. Then I ran upstairs to my room, clutching it like a greedy child, fearing that someone would take it away from me if they knew I was going to be eating. As soon as I got to my room, I ate it in huge gulps. And then, all of a sudden, my parents had returned, their Umra complete. We hugged and congratulated them; there’s a particular joy that arises when Umra is completed, and I couldn’t wait to feel it for myself.

Four down, one to go. My parents and siblings had come out of Ihram and could wear their normal clothes. I still had to remain in Ihram until the completion of my Umra. The time passed in a way that made you feel like it wasn’t passing at all. Every couple of hours, a PA system in every hotel room clicked on and broadcast prayers from the Haram, which enabled people resting in their rooms to pray in unison with the congregation. The products in the bathroom were unscented, to keep in line with the rule of Ihram which doesn’t allow you to wear any fragrance.

Our view from the hotel room was on the opposite side of the Haram, so I spent a lot of time looking at the brown mountains and buildings dotting them. It was like nothing I’ve ever seen before: dust and mountains and roads. A few buses sat forlornly in a gathering station. During Hajj the whole place is packed with buses and pilgrims, two million of them, but for now, the roads were relatively uncrowded. The way the buildings rose up out of the mountains reminded me of Hong Kong, although there were no skyscrapers and no greenery. But it was compelling in its own way. I thought about how the Prophet lived here in the 7th century. He would not be able to recognize his city now. We won’t be able to recognize our cities in the future either.

Saturday evening saw the first Iftar, the breaking of the fast. We gathered in the hotel’s prayer room, men on one side with a partition and women on the other side of the partition. The anticipation of the Maghrib azaan combined with the hunger and thirst and tiredness had everyone a little giddy. As soon as the call to prayer came, women broke their fasts with a few dates and water. Two girls from Dubai offered me dates, mamool cookies in packets, and hot tea from a thermos. Then the prayer began. We were on a high floor, 25 stories up from the Haram, but the windows of the prayer room were angled so that you couldn’t see the Kaaba itself, just some of the courtyard and a lot of the construction cranes.

It was a difficult task to find our allotted hall for the Iftar meal after the prayers, but after a few tries, we located our place in the basement ballroom. A veritable feast was laid on for the several hundred pilgrims. Arabic dishes of all sorts: Moroccan tagines, Saudi roasts (a large part of a cooked animal sitting on top of rice in giant tureens), Egyptian mahshi (stuffed roasted vegetables), and all the mezze you could dream of. Plus biryanis and pulaos and Chinese dishes, fresh bread cooked in a small indoor tandoor, salads galore, and separate tables groaning with fresh fruit and small cakes and Arabic desserts like Umm Ali and baklava. As fun as it was to eat all that food, it was even more fun to see all the people: mostly Arabs, dressed in their robes and abayas.

After the meal, which doubled as Iftar and dinner, my parents returned to their room to rest, and my brother and sister and I decided to go down to the mall and do some shopping for gifts. We went to an attar kiosk, where the young men selling the attar made us try all the fragrances, dabbing our wrists with perfumes with names like Attar-e-Madina, Rose Musk, Jannat-ul-Firdaus, and so on. The Prophet liked fragrances and wore attar a lot, so Muslims emulate him and wear it too. The fragrances were delicate, even though attar is known to be heady and strong. After a while my nose got confused and all the scents blended together. We bought bottles of it for our friends to give as gifts to our friends back home.

It was only hours later, back in my hotel room, that I realized with a jolt: I’d broken my Ihram by wearing the fragrances. A few moments of frantic Googling “what is the penalty for breaking Ihram” and “How much does a sheep cost in Mecca” while my heart pounded and I berated myself for forgetting. But it was the very act of forgetting that meant I was forgiven for the infraction, and I had only to redo my wuduu and ask God for forgiveness. Phew, I wouldn’t have to leave Mecca, don my Ihram all over again and return in the space of a night.

I woke up for the fajr prayer, then a few short hours later, I was awake, showering and ready to make my way to the Haram. I had a quick breakfast, then went to tell my parents I was leaving. They gave me their blessing and prayed that I would be able to complete my Umra safely. I was almost too impatient to wait, but it was also the emotional significance of the moment. You’ve heard the phrase, walking as if your feet had wings, and I’d always laughed at it, but that’s exactly how it felt as I raced out of the hotel, down to the lowest floor (25 floors below the hotel’s lobby), out through the mall, and toward the Haram. The ground was air and I was flying.

I went to the wrong gate at first, confused between my siblings’ and my parents’ instructions (“Go to Gate number 96! No! Go to the King Fahd Gate!”). The guards sent me back to the King Fahd gate, where I hustled through the checking and on to the entrance. It was a wide one, and I tried to walk and take off my shoes at the same time, slipping them into my bag and walking in my socks. I almost couldn’t balance but there was no place to sit down and besides I was in too much of a hurry to do so.

When you first see the Kaaba, they say you should shut your eyes and only look up when you’re ready, so that all the prayers on your lips are granted, as long as you keep your eyes fixed upon it and don’t blink. But that’s for the luxury of those people who are accompanied by someone else, who can guide them and hold them by the arm and say “Don’t look, not yet, keep your eyes closed — all right, now, NOW.”

I was alone, I had to keep my eyes open to make sure I didn’t stumble into anyone else. And before I was even ready to see it, it was there upon me, clearly visible through the arches and the warm morning light. The Kaaba. The object I’ve been directing my prayers toward, five times a day since I was 27 years old. It was right there in front of me. And it was real.

I felt a great joy, starting deep in my stomach, rising up toward my chest, and through my throat and face. If I believed in chakras, I would say that all of them were suffused with this joy, this utter happiness, pushing out everything else that had ever existed. I smiled: the Kaaba was so normal-sized, so near, so real — and so human. That’s not the right word for God’s house, for something divine and majestic, where the prophets had walked and kings and queens had prostrated. I’d heard people say they trembled and wept when they saw it, but all I felt was warmth and happiness.

I didn’t even stop to pause, to think. I just walked with the other pilgrims toward the courtyard. I had a small guidebook with me that I consulted to make sure I was praying the right prayers and doing the right rituals at the right times. I was very conscious of not making any mistakes. But I knew deep inside that it didn’t matter — that God knew all and forgave all mistakes before you’d even committed them. The blessing, the sawab, was in the trying and the doing, and here was a place where there was no failure.

There were about thirty or forty pilgrims doing tawaaf, and I walked straight towar them and joined in. You have to start at the Black Stone, a rock set in a silver frame at the eastern corner of the Kaaba. I’d always heard the stone was a meteor, but Islamic tradition says it is a stone that fell from Heaven and showed Adam and Eve, the first man and woman, where to build an altar. It was white in the beginning but has turned black from the sins of all the Muslims that it absorbs. Or, its black color might symbolize detachment and poverty, the annihilation of the ego, or any other spiritual value you might assign to it.

You’re supposed to touch the stone, or even kiss it if you can, but that was not allowed because of Covid. So we all started our tawaaf by holding up our right hands to salute it and saying the takbir, “Allah hu Akbar.” Men and women walked together; there was no separation between us. I was lucky enough to be right in line with the Kaaba, my left shoulder facing it, separated only by a roped cordon (also instituted for Covid; in normal times people touch and cling to the Kaaba).

I lost all self-consciousness, totally absorbed in the ritual of walking, praying, saying the takbir and raising my hand at each circuit. At the Yemeni corner, the prayer changes to Rabbana Attayna Fid Dunya (Our Lord, give us in this world that which is good, and in the Hereafter that which is good and protect us from the punishment of the Fire). Then back to the Black Stone, a takbir, and again on the next circuit.

After about the third or fourth time, I began to feel tired. It was so hot. I wasn’t sure if I could continue. My legs started to hurt. I almost started to panic. But then I put it all aside and kept walking. Let me die here, my heart said. This is the best place to die.

Of course, I didn’t die. I kept going, with the others, and more and more joined us. We looked like a swirling star from above, the Kaaba our nucleus. The group changed shape, sometimes a star, sometimes a throng, growing, shrinking. I was sent by sheer momentum to the outskirts of the circuit, but I’d had my chance to be closest, so it was all right with me.

I finished the seventh circuit in a little panic, wondering if I’d forgotten where I was and remembering what I’d told myself before — that here, there are no mistakes. I went to the Station of Ibrahim, a glass case containing a square stone with the imprint of Abhraham’s feet. This is where Abraham stood, Ismail on his shoulders, when the Kaaba was being constructed. Here I touched the case, Covid be damned, and then went back a little ways to offer two rakaats of prayer. But for the first time in my life, I was actually praying in front of the Kaaba, rather than on a prayer mat thousands of miles away with the image of the Kaaba imprinted on my mat.

I sat in the shade to catch my breath. And then moved myself to the water fountains to gulp down a few cups of Zamzam water. It cooled me down after the heat and sun of the tawaaf. But my legs were trembling. I quailed at the thought of the next ritual: walking between the hills of Safaa and Marwa. Bibi Hajra ran this distance, about 3.6 km, in search of water for herself and her infant son, the baby Ismail, in punishing heat and in fear for her and her child’s life.

This is done at another part of the Haram, in an enclosed area that is air conditioned and spacious. A track is built for people to walk and run; in between is a wheelchair track for people with mobility issues. My legs would not carry me seven times on the sa’ee; I already knew this. So I made my way upstairs, to the second floor, where my father had rented a scooter for his tawaaf. I would do the same for the sa’ee.

Anyway, this blog post is a work in progress, and I’ll take a break here to continue a little later. Stay tuned; the page will get updated as I am able to process my thoughts through the coming days.

Sara Suleri, Dark Star

I spent most of the last three days writing an essay on the passing of Sara Suleri, and my fingers are just cooling down from all the furious typing. Look out for my piece tomorrow in the Dawn. In the meanwhile, I’m remembering how she came to the 2nd Karachi Literature Festival. She was already quite frail at that point, and needed assistance moving around. My friend Claire Chambers, who chaired this talk with Sara Suleri and Aamer Hussein on memories, spent an evening with her looking out for her and was very pleased to be mistaken for her daughter.

I too sat at a dinner table with her and Aamer — they were great friends, he’s heartbroken at her death — and was completely intimidated, at least until a half hour or so had gone by. In that first half hour I couldn’t believe I was actually in the same company as her, but then when she spoke she was so gracious and nice with me that I lost my nerves and by the end I felt happy and honored to be doing khidtmat for her too, getting her water, helping her with her shawl, and so on. (I love our South Asian tradition of younger people looking after elders, just out of a sense of respect and admiration, and I’m glad my background and upbringing included knowing how to do that.)

She had a reputation of being “elusive” and “mysterious” and there was an element of that when she was her public persona on stage, but on that occasion at night she was tired and vulnerable, very humane, a bit world-weary. Often times you will hear the word “brilliant” used to describe her, but to me she was a dark star, which the dictionary tells us has a gravitational pull strong enough to trap light under Newtonian gravity. Perhaps my imagining of her as a dark star is a bit more poetic than the scientific definition, but she definitely had the luminosity of night rather than the searing brightness of day.

Before She Sleeps @ KLF

I was so happy when Before She Sleeps finally reached Pakistani bookshelves. The book was published in India in 2020 and should have been exported to Pakistan shortly thereafter. Except that since 2019 there has been a trade embargo on importing books from India, so there was no way it could come here.

My publisher, my agent and I tried to think of all sorts of different ways to get it across. Ship to their offices in the Middle East and then import from here? No go.

Finally Liberty Publishing decided to buy the rights from PanMacmillan India and the book came over in PDF form, where it was published and released just in time for the Karachi Literature Festival. You can order it here in Pakistan and here in India.

I launched Before She Sleeps officially in Pakistan at the 2022 Karachi Literature Festival. My moderator is the amazing Dr. Ayesha Mian, one of only four child psychiatrists in Pakistan, a tireless feminist, and an advocate for all things good and true in this world. Enjoy the conversation — I certainly did.

International Women’s Day 2022

It’s been a while since I posted on this blog, so what better day to restart than on International Women’s Day?

I want to let you know that for the next 48 hours, the Economist’s “Women Around the World” hub is open access and not behind a paywall. There, you can read the best of The Economist’s coverage about women’s lives around the world.

There are also some specially-commissioned essays guest-edited by Malala Yousufzai on the theme of girls’ education. And there are essays about women in the armed forces, feminism in China, abortion, the glass ceiling, women in fintech, Nawal el Sadaawi and Joan Didion. Don’t miss out, and spread the word, too.

I wanted to start writing on January 1, 2022, but I caught Covid in the first week of that month and it took me a while to recover. While I was resting, I had a lot of time on my hands but not a lot of energy. So I began to paint portraits of my friends in acrylic, a fairly new hobby for me.

Today, on International Women’s Day, I completed a portrait of my cousin Lena and her spirited seven year old daughter Aryana. This portrait represents, to me, the joy, beauty and mystery of being a girl or a woman in this world. I hope you like it.

On Pahrul Segal’s “Case Against Trauma”

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.

Every Azaan is a Story

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.

Malala the Hypocrite

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.