Monday, April 27, 2015

SABEEN MAHMUD: AS WIDE AS LOVE

A tribute to human rights activist Sabeen Mahmud, murdered on April 24th: http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/04/27/sabeen-mahmud-as-wide-as-love/

I first spoke to Sabeen in December 2007, after a friend put us in touch. The friend told me about T2F, a café and public space in Karachi created by Sabeen to nurture and promote cultural dialogue. The friend suggested it as a place to launch my upcoming book, The Geometry of God, but because I have tremendous anxiety about book launches, I hesitated. The friend insisted, and then Sabeen called me, and her laughter was warm and contagious.
           I was and have always remained amazed that Sabeen cared enough to talk me into it, and to organize the event with such gusto. At the time, I was one of very few English-language writers living in Lahore. I was growing accustomed to being talked down by some Urdu language writers for writing in English, while, on the other hand, being a nobody among the English-speaking “name” families. I’d been living in Lahore long enough to become inured to its closed, cliquish circles. And to being asked, over and over again, “What’s your father’s name?” (a question I never heard put to male writers), followed by blank looks morphing into boredom. 
            So when Sabeen called, I thought – wow. She didn’t ask who I was related to or whether I knew so-and-so. She didn’t try to fit me into some artificial scheme of being and belonging. She just laughed and said it would be fun and of course I gave in, and even, somehow, survived the reading. 
           I later got to know that Sabeen lived with her mother (an educationist) and  grandmother. She had no airs. She did not frequent fancy drawing rooms. She was a tech geek turned activist with diverse influences. She was an unabashed Steve Jobs worshipper, listened to 1980s pop, loved Banksy (frequently posting the image of a man chucking flowers instead of missiles on her facebook page), and was funniest in Urdu. 
           In the summer of 2011, I visited T2F to catch up with Sabeen and to play with her dazzling cat, Tetris (named after the Mac puzzle game). It was three weeks after a group of armed men had robbed the café, but she was calm. The robbery took place during a show called “Art Loot Maar” (meaning, ironically, art theft). She changed the subject, seeming to prefer talking about me. I’d recently visited Portland, Oregon, so we talked about how cool it was, and then we met a group of young writers whom she’d asked to join us, because that is what she loved to do: bring people together, in the most relaxed and stimulating way.
            Afterword, she sent me a message that I have with me still. “Am kicking myself for not taking a picture of you and Tetris.” I wrote back to say I was kicking myself even harder. I still am. I took no picture of her or her cat, who died not long after.

            T2F kept swelling in popularity. I’ve never known a space in Pakistan to be so inclusive of class, gender, sexuality, religion, ethnicity, and cultural scope. Sabeen organized book launches in Urdu and English, western and eastern musical evenings, tabla classes, film screenings, and talks on current affairs, politics, science, philosophy, literature, and more. The café included a gallery, a discount bookshop (with books in Urdu and English), and a little stall selling mugs, posters, CDs, and more. Everyone was welcome. No boundaries.             
            T2F defined spaciousness, because its maker, Sabeen, was the definition of spaciousness. Her spirit was, to borrow an idiom from Colum McCann, “as wide as love.”  
            The words are taken from McCann’s short story, “Everything in this Country Must,” and its title comes from this moment “… I was shivering and wet and cold and scared, because Stevie and the draft horse were going to die, since everything in this country must.”
            Pakistanis are familiar with the lament. We are shown, daily, that everything must die – everything good and meaningful, that is. What is brutal and deadening must never die.
            Sabeen was shot dead on the night of Friday, April 24th after leaving an event she organized at T2F, titled “Unsilencing Balochistan – Take 2.” The speakers were a group of Baloch activists, among them Mama Qadeer, a leader of the Voice for Baloch Missing Persons, and Farzana Majeed Baloch. Both have lost loved ones.
            Mama Qadeer’s son Jalil went missing in 2009, and his tortured corpse was eventually found in 2011. In an interview with the journalist and author Mohammand Hanif, Mama Qadeer lists the injuries on his son’s body “without betraying emotion, as if remembering his son’s collection of books.” But even more wrenching is when Mama Qadeer decides to take his four-year-old grandson, who was born with a hole in his heart, to see his father’s mutilated corpse. His reason: “I didn’t want him to grow up with the regret that I didn’t let him see his father one last time. So I took him and showed him his father’s body and told him everything. One of Jalil’s eyes was badly damaged and my grandson asked me who had done that to daddy. I said Pakistani agencies. And then he asked me who were Pakistani agencies. And I told him that too.”
           The other speaker on that ill-fated night of April 24th was Farzana Majeed, whose brother has been missing since 2009. Since then, she has set up protest camps, first all over Balochistan and then in Karachi, attended court hearings, and led protest rallies. She tells Hanif, “International media came. TV cameras came. But they didn’t really do much. Nothing changed.”
           Why are they missing? Why doesn’t any one want to hear about it?
           The answer rests in the decades-long battle for an independent Balochistan, the largest and poorest province of Pakistan. Its literacy rate is the lowest in the country. Its representation in the armed forces negligible; in industry and commerce even less. Yet, it has the greatest wealth of natural resources in the country. The federal government earns billions annually from its gas fields, while Balochistan receives a pittance. The construction of the Chinese-run Gwadar Port in south Balochistan and the displacement of Baloch from their land – which China uses as a naval base – has only added to the conflict. If the province sees itself not as a part of Pakistan but as its colony, it is with reason.
           Before Farzana Majeed’s brother disappeared, he was a student of English at Balochistan University, the same university where Farazana did her Masters in biochemistry. He was in an organization committed to raising awareness of Baloch rights. A number of the organization’s leaders have gone missing. Mama Qadeer’s son was also involved in politics. He was the information secretary of the Baloch Republican Party and a campaigner for Missing Persons. Before his disapperance and subsequent death, his friends had warned him that he would be next. It didn’t stop him. 
            When on April 24th Sabeen Mahmud organized the event “Unsilencing Balochistan – Take 2,” she knew she was taking a risk. The event was meant to be held at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), but was called off. Sabeen opened a space for dialogue with Baloch activists when every one else backed away. She apparently received a bullet in a letter a few days earlier. But she stayed true to her belief that, “Fear is just a line in your head. You can choose what side of the line you want to be on.”
            Her mother, who was also shot and was in critical condition, and is now recovering, reports that two gunmen followed them on a motorcyle after they left the event. Five bullets entered Sabeen, who died before reaching the hospital. She was thirty-nine years old. The gunmen have not been identified. Many people argue that the murder may not be linked to the last event she was ever to host, but the chronology is impossible to ignore.
            Since Friday, there’s been a continuous outpouring of grief for Sabeen in the media. People remind themselves to keep her legacy alive, to never give in to fear and censorship. Her death cannot mean the end of the dream she made real: an inclusive public space where it is possible to evolve – regardless of your background and beliefs, or who you know and don’t know. Like Sabeen, each of us must choose which side of the line of fear to live on. But at what cost? Her death comes at the heels of so many deaths for Pakistan it is hard to know which ones to name first. Must we learn to list them as stoically as Mama Qadeer lists the torture wounds on his son’s corpse? Either that, or anger impossible to bear.
            But among the things Sabeen had no patience for was self-pity. One of her instagram photos was of a protest banner held against the religious cleric Abdul Aziz. The banner read: “Do not pity the dead, pity the living, and those who live without love.”
            Sabeen lived the way she wanted, true to her immense vision for justice and freedom.             
            And she will always be loved.


          photo credit: http://rambleswithacamera.blogspot.com/2012/03/banksyart-or-graffiti.html

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Thinner Than Skin is out in France!


French speakers, and those who know French speakers, please spread the word!

It's already received a strong review in Le Monde, and this, in Page des Libraires  http://www.pagedeslibraires.fr/livre-7145/seconde-peau.html

Friday, December 26, 2014

Death of a Father, The Cruelty of Borders, and The Geometry of God


Today is my father’s fifth year death anniversary. It was December 25th where I was living at the time (Hawai’i), but it was the 26th in Karachi, Pakistan, where he died. Each time I tell someone that I was not there, they say, ‘Ah, that is our nightmare.’ There is nothing you can do to take back the two absences – the death of a parent, and not being able to say goodbye.


I wasn’t just far from Karachi. I didn’t even have my passport with me. And as it was Christmas, every one was away, including Dave.

The passport was in the UK Consulate in Los Angeles. I’d submitted it for a UK visa just a couple days earlier, as I was scheduled to be in London in March/April 2010 for the UK release of my book The Geometry of God.

My father was in hospital when I sent the passport. He had pneumonia. Every day, I’d call the hospital, wondering what to do. I’d already been fingerprinted (before he got sick), which is what all Pakistani nationals must do before submitting a visa application. There is an expiration date on how many days after fingerprinting an application is valid. The clock was ticking.

My father would say he was getting better, and that I should submit the passport, go ahead with my plans, and have a beautiful book launch in the spring. I still kept waiting. Then on the 22nd he sounded so cheerful and we made each other laugh and I thought, “Okay, now or never.” The consulate would close for the holidays, and by the time it reopened, my fingerprints would have expired.

So I mailed off the fingerprints form, the application form, and my passport.

The next night, when I called him, he was not in his room. The morning after, I was told he was in ER. It was Dec 24th. The consulate had closed that very day. How was I to get my passport back now? There was NO direct number to the UK consulate. I had to go through some agency that charged an absolutely obscene amount per minute to speak with some total moron to get the message across that they just weren’t getting: send my passport back now. I called obsessively. I also sent faxes. And I called everyone I could think of in case they happened to know a human being who could help retrieve it. That was the 24th.

On the 25th I got the call: he had died.

On the 26th I finally found a kind person who’d once met someone who worked at the consulate and had her direct number. Luckily, she still worked there. By the time I left her voicemails I was a crazy person. She did call me back and I have little recollection of what we said, except that she had a Scottish accent, and that when I begged her to send it via Fed Ex overnight mail she said they only used UPS, but I was not to worry, it would be with me by the 30th.

I booked a flight home for the night of Dec 31st.

The passport did not arrive on Dec 30th.

UPS said it was due Dec 31,st during business hours. I did nothing that day but go online, to track it. I also called repeatedly to make sure they knew it HAD TO come today. They assured me they were on schedule. By 6:00 p.m. when it had not arrived, I again called. Their office had closed. I don’t know how I managed to get hold of someone at whom I screamed and swore more than I’ve ever screamed and sworn, till Dave (who’d returned) took the phone from me and told the guy what had happened. The guy on the line eventually promised to find out more. When he called back, he said there was a “mistake.” The driver of the delivery van they thought my passport was on did not have it. It was on another van, and he’d try to find out which one, but it might not be this evening...

The language I discovered at that moment involved not only swear words in at least three languages never heard before but a whole lot of scenarios along the lines of, What if it were your father. That usually changes them, if they’re human, which this guy turned out to be.

He found the truck. My passport was delivered at 9:00 pm. I left for the airport soon after.

When I got back from Karachi, I couldn’t find the strength to go through the whole wretched process of being fingerprinted again, in order to be “eligible” to apply for a UK visa to promote a book that took five years to write. It meant that I did not travel to London – or anywhere else – for the launch of The Geometry of God.

It is only this year that I found the courage to part with my passport again; for five years, I have clung to it like a limpet. I still live in absolute terror of being without it.

Those who’ve never had their mobility snatched from them because they happen to be the wrong nationality cannot understand. Those who’ve never missed kissing a parent goodbye because they’ve never had their mobility snatched from them because they happen to be the wrong nationality cannot understand.

I’m glad he got to read the book before he died. It had come out in the US, India, and Pakistan the year before, so he knew it well. He was excited for me, and would have been devastated to know that I missed the launch. But that would have been a small devastation compared with all the other grief that has taken hold of our country. He was a religious man and a Hafiz-e-Quran and some of his most serene moments were on Friday mornings, when he read from the very same Quran that he memorized as a six-year-old boy. (His mother’s brother was a book-binder; he bound those pages for him when they began to fall apart.) I’m glad he was not here on December 16th, to see what those who spit on all faith, all love, and all peace, did in Peshawar, when they killed those 132 children. It might have killed him.

If it is possible to quote one’s own work to the spirit of a beloved one, then it is this passage from The Geometry of God that I send him now, five years after he left us. “At one time, faith meant devotion to multiple pleasures – mathematics, poetry, music, anatomy, calligraphy. Knowledge was holistic. It had to be tasted. The mosque in Cordoba reflects that vision. It could not be built today. Tell me, how can an eye so penetrating have grown so dim?”

RIP.










Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Where Are the Women Tabla Players?

http://www.dawn.com/news/1103287/where-are-the-women-tabla-players

A partly autobiographical piece that asks why there aren't any well-known women maestros of the tabla. I drew upon my own conflicted history with music teachers and music lessons and posed the question a few days ago to a famous male tabla pandit from Benares. I didn't care for the answer. It inspired me to write the article.

(Many folks have written to me since reading the article to share their knowledge of one or two women tabla players. While it’s incredibly heartening to know that the handful exists, the point I was trying to make was bigger…)

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

THINNER THAN SKIN is Longlisted for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2014!

Got the happy news yesterday:

http://dscprize.com/global/updates/2014-longlist-dsc-prize.html

The road to and through a book is hypnotic, but it's a lonely hypnosis. Perhaps this was even truer with Thinner than Skin, my fourth book, than with the others. 

So this feels good. Yes it does.






Friday, August 16, 2013

TRESPASSING is released in Romania!

With this lovely cover:



And seems to be receiving quite a bit of press, including these recent interviews.

http://filme-carti.ro/slide/uzma-aslam-khan-interviu-in-exclusivitate-pentru-filme-carti-ro-36192/#more-36192

http://bookaholic.ro/uzma-aslam-khan-scrisul-e-compulsie-trebuie-s-o-fac-nu-e-o-alegere.html
(The English version is also available: http://bookaholic.ro/uzma-aslam-khan-writing-is-a-compulsion-i-have-to-do-it-it-isnt-a-choice.html#more-36917)



The book was also featured in Elle May as 'Book of the Month,' and there's an interview with me in Elle July. So if you understand Romanian, or know someone who does, or even if you don't, yet, take a look. 


Friday, June 28, 2013

Horror On Nanga Parbat

My article on the massacre on Nanga Parbat, presumably to avenge the death of a Taliban leader by a drone strike, went up today on CounterPunch:
http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/06/28/horror-on-nanga-parbat/

An extract from it:


On the night of Saturday, June 22, 11 men were slaughtered on Nanga Parbat’s base camp by a group of militants. In order to reach the camp at 4300m, the militants forced two local men to guide them. Even the trek to the camp is a treacherous one; it has one of the fastest elevation gains in the world, is encased in melting glaciers that hide deep crevices, requires crossing streams that can be high and bitterly cold, and maneuvering narrow paths bordered by giant boulders and ice walls. It is not a walk that can be taken without somber awareness of the smallness of human size. Unless you think your mission is greater. So great that local men with a level of skill and expertise that is in fact a kind of greatness should be threatened into playing a part in it. Before Saturday night, never had a murder been committed against foreigners here, let alone one in which local inhabitants had been made complicit. In bloodying their mountain, and their hands, an entire history and culture has been defiled.
What no self-appointed avenger of the US-led war has ever said is that these attacks primarily hurt Pakistanis. And on every level: through murder, the sacrilege of a land, the dishonoring of a culture that for centuries has survived peacefully on the land, as well as through the destruction of a tenuous economy... Add to this the toll the war has taken on other parts of the country and around 52,000 Pakistanis (have been) killed since 3,000 Americans were killed on 9/11. Or 17. 3 Pakistani corpses for every 1 American corpse.