Sharing annotations from “Stranger to the History” by Aatish Taseer

After reading a book, a person is left with many thoughts, some of which are quite subjective but some can be quite unsettling. My reading experience with this book is in middle of both. I don’t know how many of you have read it but I’m sure those who did will agree with me on the “unsettling” part.

This blog post is not a review of the book but more or less, noting down the phases where this book left me speechless. In a way it answered so many questions which were travelling in my mind for quite a long time. But also, left me with many new ones.

Before I write down some excerpts from the book which are quite engaging to me, here is a short intro about the book. This book is a travelogue written by the son born to a Pakistani Muslim father and an Indian Sikh mother, in a quest to know his father, his culture and religion. In journey to get to know his father, he travels across the Islamic states to first know the religion his father belongs to and then his country. During his journey he comes across many thought provoking ideologies about the politics, religion and culture of some popular Islamic states.

[While in Turkey]

The modern republic of Turkey aspired to be part of the European Union. Turkey had been among the most open Muslim countries, but its secularism was dogmatic, almost like a separate religion. The state didn’t stay out of religion, it co-opted religion; it wrote Friday sermons, appointed priests and hounded people it thought to be religious out of the establishment. It was the army, along with Istanbul’s educated elite, who had enforced Ataturk’s aggressive secularism since the founding of the republic in the 1920s.

[While in Syria]

The country had been closed for decades. The regime, for most of its existence, had been socialist, intolerant of religious politics, and the people had only received propaganda. With their role in the world suddenly internationalized, the city was plastered with these cryptic, high-pitched messages. It was the government’s response to trouble in the world beyond. President Bashar al-Asad and the Syrian people were not kneeling before anyone but God. And so, in the absence of a free press, an intellectual life and a political culture, and under the watch of a fierce secret police, the mosque became the only place for people to congregate and discuss politics.

[While in Saudi Arabia]

And, just as it was possible to imagine Islam as organic in Arabia, it was possible to imagine it as alien in places where the faith went. Hybrids would have formed between Arabian Islam and the cultures of the places to which the faith spread. Cultural Islam was the result of these mixtures and it was this, rather than the letter of the Book, that was followed. This Islam, with its mysticism, its tolerance, its song and poetry, its veneration of local saints, often common to Muslim and Hindu in India, was the religion that gave me the string I wore round my wrist. But in modern Saudi Arabia, this type of worship felt like a religion apart from the literalism that was followed.

[While in Iran, talking to a former activist]

“Cyrus, 2500 years ago, had laws that today are displayed in the United Nations. He set out human rights and said that no human being has the right to enslave other beings. This was 2500 years ago! And these mullahs try and tell us that if the Arabs hadn’t come and saved us we’d be eating ants now.”

[Author’s thought] The awareness Iranian Muslims had of the time before Islam, and their conversion, didn’t exist among the subcontinent’s Muslims, most of whom believed they came with the Muslim invader.

…What I had discovered in Iran, and had sensed in Syria, was how violent and self-wounding the faith could become when it was converted from being a negative idea, a political and historical grievance against the modern world, into a positive one.

[In Pakistan]

And here there was a deeper irony. It was thought that the faith, as the basis of Pakistan, would trump all other identities. It didn’t matter what kind of Muslim you were, what language you spoke or even if you lived at the other end of India. As long as you were Muslim, Islam would bridge the differences.

I met a person in Istanbul, who said “To be Muslim is to be above history”. But here history did matter, not just the faith’s encased and symbolic history, but history as realized in language and culture. It was a distortion of faith that all this didn’t matter, and in Pakistan people seemed to fall back on regional, linguistic and denominational differences.

-The Mango King said that things wouldn’t change and that feudalism would go on. He also spoke of the importance of the Hindu middle class who left in 1947 and in doing so identified the key component in the change that came to feudal India but not to Pakistan: the middle class.

The power of the middle class in India dismantled the old feudal structures. In Sind, the cost if realizing the purity of the Indian Muslim state was the necessary departure of Sind’s Hindu middle class. The muhajjir population that arrived in its place had not been able to replace its social function; the bonds that had held together the diverse society of Muslims and Hindus had not arisen among the co-religionists.

My mother’s family were the equivalent of muhajjirs in India- they had come as refugees from the Pakistani side, just as the people here had come from the Indian side- but in India there was no equivalent grouping: the concept didn’t exist.

My journey to seek out my father, and through him, his country, was a way for me to make my peace with that history. And it had not been without its rewards. My deep connection to the land that is Pakistan had been renewed. I felt lucky to have both countries; I felt that I’d been given what partition had denied many. For me it meant the possibilities of a different education, of embracing the three-tier history if India whole, perhaps an intellectual troika of Sanskrit, Urdu and English.

The world is richer in its hybrids.

Love and Peace,

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