Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Sound of Dublin

The Sound of Dublin

The sound of Dublin is seagulls calling over the streets in the evenings as the crowds walk along Grafton Street, unexpected summer sunshine leaving the buildings like a slowly cooling oven. The colour of Dublin is green, green everywhere, above head, trees nodding wisely along the boulevards and grass underfoot softer than spongecake. The smell of Dublin is fresh air, tinged with salt from the sea and coolth from the mountains. And the taste of Dublin is sweetened cream, light as clouds, and clotted cream, thick as secrets, and pints of Guinness that taste like cream when it runs from the taps in the brewery.

But Dublin is confusion, with its language that doesn't sound anything like it's written, and people who when they talk you can't tell if they're singing or speaking. There should be mermaids everywhere, singing of the past but there aren't; there are children instead, skin soft as pudding and round blue eyes taking in the world, big heads covered in fine blonde and red hair and strong legs carrying them along the duck ponds and laughing laughing laughing because the ducks are so funny, Mammy, and look at the swans!

Yet the feeling of Dublin is time in all its ages because like Picasso said, youth has no age, and Dublin feels old and young at the same time, containing all its people in all their multitudes. And Dublin is a beautiful thing in all its ages.


There’s no place sadder in Dublin than Kilmainham Gaol, where children and adults alike were jailed during the Famine for stealing a crust of bread. Thousands were transported to Australia or Van Diemen’s Land, where penal servitude and hard labor waited for them on the other side of a grueling three month journey by ship.

In the museum you learn that people would often steal on purpose because they were assured of three meals a day; each meal weighed four ounces more than what they’d get in the poorhouse. You walk around the museum, the Irish breakfast you had that morning sloshing around in your stomach: eggs cooked four different ways, soda bread, almond croissants, baked beans, muesli with yogurt, orange juice, tea and honey.

No talk of ghosts in Kilmainham Gaol but you could swear they’re there, running around the corners, staring at you with wide, starving eyes, hands outstretched for a few coins or a crust of bread. You can hear their footsteps echoing off the stone walls if you listen with the ears God gave you.

This is the cell where Joseph Plunkett and Grace Gifford are allowed to spend ten minutes together after their chapel wedding and before his execution. They thought they’d be alone, get to exchange a kiss and a few caresses, but instead they’re surrounded by soldiers watching their every move. So they sit on the bed and look at each other, unspeaking. Tell me you love me, implores Grace with her tearful eyes. Leave the talking, Joseph doesn’t say. We’ve no need for words. And now here’s Grace’s own cell, where she was jailed for three months during the Civil War. If you peer in through the peep hole, you can see the Madonna and Child painted on the back wall, and the sight of it makes all the words fly out of your head like seagulls in the Dublin sky.


You’re in the front seat of a Dublin taxi, sitting next to a Nigerian cab driver who’s got the stereo on so loud the car windows vibrate as you drive on the long road hemming the River Liffey. Children are diving into it on the corners of the bridges, screaming and splashing in a ritual they’ve been warned not to do but they do it any way because this is summertime in Dublin and they’re the kings of Dublin in the summertime.

If you talk to any of those kids they’ll tell you We hate the English because they know their history. And because you don’t want to hear the history of hate, you turn to the cab driver and ask him, What are you listening to?

He responds, Fela! Do you know him?

And you say, Do I know him? Turn it up. Let’s listen to it loud.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Confessionts of an Anti-Fashionista

I am invited to one of the shows at the FPWAW 14, which is one of the Fashion Weeks that takes place in Pakistan. I'm one of the most unglamorous women in Karachi, but I still enjoy the spectacle of the shows, the buzz is exciting, and where else could you find styles and trends from New York, London and Paris being sported by our own fashionistas? I'll just throw on some black clothes, try to brush my hair, put on some red lipstick, and hope I get mistaken for a journalist. Oh, wait. I am a journalist. Okay then. Off we go.

8 PM
The show's meant to start "on time" at eight. We somehow decide that 8:03 is the perfect time to get into the car and leave the house for the venue, the Pearl Continental Hotel. Where else should you arrive fashionably late, but at a fashion show?

8:15 PM
We are stuck in traffic outside the PC, the management having decided to inexplicably switch the entrance and the exit since the last time I was here. We desperately text our friend inside the venue who informs us the show hasn't started as yet. Breathe a sigh of relief.

8:30 PM
Still stuck in traffic. Flop sweat time.

8:40 PM
We finally enter the PC parking lot. Our car is checked for bombs by guards and a very attractive yellow Labrador. Why isn't he wearing a Swarovski-encrusted coat that says FPWAW14?  He should be.

8:50 PM
Shove and push our way into the venue. Man with four month old baby in carriage is doing the most pushing - with the carriage.

8:55 PM
Now this is more like it! Get into the lounge, which has a swanky red carpet, a Toni & Guy hospitality bar, and lots of paparazzi. Not to mention all the fashionistas, tottering about in platform heels and blow dried hair. So this is where all the tall people in Pakistan have been hiding!

9:00 PM
Arrive at the entrance of the main stage, but turned back by bouncers who tell us the show is full and to come back in forty minutes, when it's over. I spot the abandoned baby carriage by the entrance. Must remember to bring a baby with me next year.

9:02 PM
Get inside the main stage. I cannot see anything for the crush of people in front of me. First time in my life I've actually wished to be taller, not so I can be a model but so that I can actually see something.

9:03 PM
The girl in front of me in a scarlet red jumpsuit is so thin I could break her with one hand. Spot the man carrying his baby everywhere, grinning. Resist trying to grab baby and make a run for it.

9:05 PM
Back in the Toni & Guy hospitality lounge, watching the people go by. There's some hot fashion here. This girl looks fabulous.

9:07 PM
Announcer says the show is finally about to start. I eye the entrance sadly. The bouncers shake their heads sadly back at me. I slump back in my seat and pretend I am someone too important to actually be at the show.

9:10 PM
More fashionistas trip by, posing for selfies on red carpet. A group of three girls standing together, each trying to look thinner than the other.

9:12 PM
What am I doing here? Everyone sporting latest trendy styles and fashions. Footwear: ankle boots and Louboutins. I look down at my feet in sandals. I need a new wardrobe. New handbags. New shoes. New hairstyle. And plastic surgery.

9:15 PM
Spotting lots of women in jumpsuits. If I wore a floral jumpsuit would I look enviably chic or like an overgrown toddler in a romper suit?

9:20 PM
Realize I am in the Pakistani version of The Devil Wears Prada. With brown people.

9:30 PM
Women in shalwar kameezes running out of the hall in shame, mocked by girls in leggings and boys in jeggings.

9:40 PM
The paparazzi take one look at me and turn their backs. It figures. They're all prettier and better dressed than I am.

9:45 PM
I spot the only person wearing glasses besides me. It's a Bohra man, dressed in full Bohra regalia, with his wife next to him. She's wearing a yellow Bohra dress and headscarf.

9:50 PM
Looking down at my feet when the Bohra man comes up to me and says hello. He turns out to be Hatim Dabawalla, my old friend from the Dawn and Web site designer to the stars, including Deepak Perwani and Aamir Adnan. His wife is in the beautiful sunflower yellow Bohra dress. "How do you like it?" I ask him. "It's a bit much for us," he replies honestly. "I came because Deepak-bhai and Aamir-bhai invited me." We say our goodbyes and I watch them leave, thinking that somehow they look like the best dressed couple here.

9:55 PM
The show is over and it's time to leave. I pause for a selfie. This is as fashionable as I get, folks. Try not to be too disappointed. See you next year!!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Disobedient Women

There are many stories going around in the news right now, but three have emerged with a theme that keeps repeating itself. This theme is the struggle between men who want women to obey them, and women who want to be free to decide for themselves what they are going to do.

The first story is about Turkish Prime Minister Recip Erdogan's remarks about women. In a recent speech, he said that women were not equal to men, and it was a woman's job to be a mother. Refusing to be a mother, as feminists did, was tantamount to rejecting nature. The backlash to Erdogan's remarks was swift and angry from Turkey's women. They recognise that it's a special patriarchal trick to dangle motherhood over the head of all women and declare that mothers are more worthy than others.

Do we tell men they're worthy if they're fathers but going against nature if they don't have children? No, we do not. In most conservative, patriarchal societies, men are recognised as being more than their reproductive organs while women are reduced to uteruses with legs and arms attached. But for Erdogan to come up with a ridiculous statement like "Equality turns victims into the oppressor" either indicates his stupidity, or his deep-seated desire to keep women in an inferior position, with men maintaining authority and control over them (perhaps they're both the same thing, really).

The second story, two years old but posted by an Iranian friend on Facebook recently, is an amusing one: a cleric in Iran told a "badly veiled" woman to cover up and she responded by pushing him to the ground and giving him a beating. Women in Iran have reached breaking point with the control exercised over their clothes. Prescribing a dress code that is enforced using threats, intimidation, harassment and physical force strikes me as the very opposite of Islamic. What it really is, is misogynistic: men dictating to women how they must present themselves in the world.

You see this in Saudi Arabia, too, with the religious police chastising women if they aren't covered enough. I also saw a story from earlier this month in which Saudi religious police can make women with attractive eyes cover their entire faces in order to remove the temptation that those eyes present for men.  As illogical as this may seem to the rest of the world, it makes sense in Saudi Arabia because men have always been able to force women to obey their whims.

But what doesn't make sense to me is if men are so eager to proclaim themselves the stronger, superior sex, why then do the faces and bodies and very existence of women present such a grave threat to their strength? It's like they're proclaiming strength and weakness at the same time. If you're such a strong, powerful man, surely something as inferior and wretched as a woman would be no danger to your morals and willpower. Instead, men place women on the same level as Satan, tempting them with their eyes, offending them with their hair, going against nature with their childless bodies. This does not speak to me of a man's masculinity, but of his insecurity that women must be controlled and covered, or else a woman will overwhelm him. And if this is true, then who really is the superior sex?

Which leads me to the last story, a tragic and maddening one coming from Pakistan, where a man shot his sixteen year old niece dead because she wouldn't turn down the music in her house when he came to visit. Anyone who lives intimately with patriarchy knows that this wasn't about the music, but about the girl's refusal to obey her uncle, about her daring to argue with him, to raise her voice.

Men devise many strategies to make women obey them. This is because they feel weak inside, and controlling women gives them a false sense of strength. Knowing this, they must shore up a wealth of resources and regimes to make them feel self-righteous in their crude desire for power over the opposite sex. They quote the Quran. They quote the Sunnah. They form Committees to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice and religious police. They come up with formulas for how long and thick the stick must be when it is used to beat a woman. They twist science to claim that a woman who wants to control her reproductive system goes against nature and God.

But in the end, if a woman refuses to obey a man, he picks up a gun, a knife, a rock, his fist, and kills her.

This post was edited with

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Female Artist and the Muse

The importance of the muse in the male artist's life has been well documented over the ages, from the Greek classical poets all the way up until today. Female artists, not so much. For a male artist (painter, writer, poet, musician) the muse is often a young, beautiful woman. Who is it for a female artist? A beautiful young man? Or an older one? A beautiful woman? Someone unattainable, or someone within reach?

Here is a wonderful quote from Germaine Greer about the psychological necessity of the muse:

A muse is anything but a paid model. The muse in her purest aspect is the feminine part of the male artist, with which he must have intercourse if he is to bring into being a new work. She is the anima to his animus, the yin to his yang, except that, in a reversal of gender roles, she penetrates or inspires him and he gestates and brings forth, from the womb of the mind. 

Does this mean that for the female artist, the muse is the masculine part of the female artist? And if female artists have women's bodies, that already can gestate and bring forth life from their physical wombs, what role does the male muse have for the female artist? Are we as "penetrated" by our muses as male artists are by theirs, or, because that is our role biologically in real life, do we penetrate our male muses instead, in order to be the progenitors instead of the bearers of life?

We know a lot about the muses of famous male artists. Many times, the muse was also a talented artist in her own right, but subsumed by the ego of the male artist, who couldn't compete: Camille Claudel, Rodin's muse, who was a sculptor but ended up locked away in a madhouse is the best example of this. Male artists have needed women in their lives, not just as inspiration, but in the roles of caretaker, companion, nursemaid.

Some of the female artists have also had muses well recorded in history. For example, the French writer Colette had her Cheri.  But she's the only one I could think of that immortalised her muse, a younger man, in her work; I searched the Internet to find more examples, but could only come up with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, or Yoko Ono and John Lennon: both men served as mutual muse and lover to the woman artist, and neither gave up his career in order to take care of or pose, figuratively speaking, for the woman.

Is this because we are uncomfortable with the idea that a woman, too, can actively desire, instead of being the passive object of desire? Or are we more uncomfortable with the idea of a man taking up that passive role?

In my own work, I have never consciously picked someone -- male or female -- to be my muse. But in tandem to my work, I have always had someone or the other in my life who I have liked or loved, but who was largely unattainable. The yearning for that person somehow gets sublimated into the writing, lends it urgency, energy and passion. Sometimes that person gets written into the work, as a character. Other times, the work is addressed to that person indirectly - I write to evoke feelings in that person's heart. Sometimes the person knows who they are, and what they mean to me, and many times, they don't.

I could certainly write without that muse, but I think the writing would be flatter and less interesting without him. The muse gives my work its life. How I wish, though, that the process was a little less torturous, and a little easier on my heart. 

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Pakistan Celebrates Anti-Malala Day

"I am not Malala, I am Mirza Kashif Ali" - an exclusive interview with the brains behind the Anti-Malala Day

Two days ago the All Pakistan Private Schools Federation, headed by Mirza Kashif Ali, celebrated “I Am Not Malala Day” (which was also being called an “Anti-Malaria Day” thanks to auto-correct on the new iPhone 6).

It’s said that the association, which represents a network of some 150,000,000 private schools in Pakistan, is planning a “Pro-Polio Day” for its next stunt, followed by a “Flat Earth Day” in solidarity with the members of the Westboro Baptist Church in the United States.

“We are all for education and women’s empowerment,” Mirza Kashif Ali, the organization’s president, told the New York Times on Tuesday, November 11, after he chaired a panel consisting of six middle-aged men at the Islamabad Press Club, where not a single woman was visible in the audience.  He then picked up his mobile phone and rang his wife, demanding to know how many dishes she had cooked for dinner.

He continued, “But the West has created this persona who is against the Constitution and Islamic ideology of Pakistan.”  When asked what that Islamic ideology actually was, he consulted his copy of Maududi’s Muslims and the Present Political Turmoil, Vol III, but was unable to answer the question.

When shown Maududi’s quote that the idea of Muslim nationalism was as likely as “a chaste prostitute,” Kashif Ali then said that Malala Yousfuzai was a supporter of Salman Rushdie and that was why he opposed her. “It is clear that Malala has a nexus with Salman Rushdie and is aligned with his club.”  He was asked to identify the name of the club, to which he responded, “I am not sure, but it is either the Sind Club or the Manchester United Football Club. Both are well known for their anti-Islam, anti-Pakistan content.”

Asked if he had ever read either The Satanic Verses or I Am Malala, he responded in the negative.  “Why should I read books? There is no need to read books. Pakistani students only need to know what happened in the 7th century. And since there were no books at that time, there is certainly no need to expose students in Pakistan to books.”

Responding to a rumor that he did not actually know how to read, he responded angrily, “That is not true. Of course I know how to read. It’s only girls who should remain illiterate in this day and age.”

He said that he hoped the Anti-Malala Day would catch on all over Pakistan. “We hope to make it even bigger and better next year. We’ll hold anti-Malala processions, anti-Malala debates in all the schools, and we will produce a film about why Malala’s message of universal education for children is a Zionist, American plot. I will star in this film as the hero exposing Malala’s evil plot to the world. Salman Rushdie will be approached to play the role of Malala. Malala’s father will be played by Christina Lamb.”

At this point Mr. Kashif Ali asked to be excused, saying that he had to go celebrate his birthday, otherwise known as “Illiterate Fools Day”.

This post was proofread by Grammarly

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Catch-22 of Blasphemy

I've been reading with sorrow and disgust the news about a young Christian couple were burnt to death in the Punjabi village of Kot Radha Kishan. The woman, Shama, 24 and pregnant with her fourth child, burned papers belonging to her recently deceased father-in-law, a faith healer. A local mullah stirred up a raging crowd after someone said there were pages of the Quran amongst the burnt papers.

Announcements that blasphemy had been comitted were made on loudspeakers from mosques in two neighbourhoods. The mob turned on the five policemen sent to protect the couple. The room where they were taking shelter was torn apart. They were assaulted by a mob, beaten, and thrown into the kiln where they worked as bonded labourers.

By the time the mob was done with them, all that was left of them was their teeth and their bones.

The lynching of this Christian couple brought about the usual "condemnation" and official enquiries from the rulers of the country and calls for changing the blasphemy laws, or repealing them, from outside the country. The Islamic scholar Javed Ghamidi said on Twitter that the blasphemy law goes against Islam, the Quran, and the Hanafi tradition of Islamic jurisprudence that is prevalent in Pakistan. No surprise that Ghamidi doesn't live in Pakistan as he'd previously received threats to his life for his moderate views.

We in Pakistan are too afraid to even suggest that the blasphemy laws need reform, let alone that they should be repealed. Anyone who has said so has been threatened and charged with blasphemy himself. It's a Catch-22 as extremist mullahs tell us these laws are from God and so are unchangeable. Never mind that nothing about blasphemy even appears in the Quran, or that the law is a remnant of British rule, when they tried to keep people from provoking one another by insulting their respective religions. It has persisted for decades, and is now used to destroy the lives of our religious minorities and anyone who attempts to speak up for them.

Our leaders who condemn the killings and lynchings of people before they can even be taken to court (where they'll most likely be sent to jail to rot, look at Asia Bibi's case) are also too scared to call for any change to the law, even to make sure that those who abuse it are punished. The religious right resist any attempts to make people accountable for their accusations and won't countenance the addition of any clauses that would address false accusations under the law. Those leaders, religious and political, who are calling for an inquiry into the killing of the Christian couple, are merely saying that they shouldn't have been attacked before being taken to court where they could have been tried.

But even if we did reform the law, it would not stop people from accusing others of blasphemy. An accusation of blasphemy has become a convenient way of getting rid of weak minority members when they have land you want, or money, just as an accusation of adultery is a convenient way of getting rid of a woman whose money or land you want, or who you've just gotten tired of.

Guarding against blasphemy is also almost a matter of pride, as those who wield its weapon feel righteous about it, as if they are protecting Islam's honour. This is an extension of the South Asian principle of "honour" that also takes the lives of girls and women in "honour crimes." We imbue anything valuable with "honour" and strive to preserve it as if it was a fragile construct that needs protection and vigilance. Those who protect the "honour" of Islam are garlanded and treated as heroes; those who besmirch it are murdered without impunity.

What happened in Kot Radha Kishan also exposed the clannish nature of Pakistani society: if you aren't in my clan, you don't deserve my protection/support. It's a mindset that comes about in societies where there is a lot of poverty and everyday violence, and to survive means allying yourself with the people who are most like you. That's why nobody would think about rallying to help the Christian couple or Asia Bibi or anyone else in this situation, besides the fear of physical harm. Policemen might go where they are ordered, but there is an innate need to divide ourselves into "for" and "against" in any situation. And the police are men from the very same area as the murderers, so their internal motivation to protect a poor Christian man and woman would have been very low. The stronger feeling would have been to align themselves with those who were attacking them, or to not try very hard to help them.

We have given legal cover to the destructive impulse that we all have in us, the one that wants to demonise and dehumanise whoever we perceive as "Other" and drive it out from our midst. This is the part of us that doesn't want to tolerate difference or diversity, perceiving it as a threat to our integrity as a whole. The result is beatings, burnings, lynchings like what we saw in Kot Radha Kishan. Changing the law will not change this sociopathic impulse, nor fix the broken conditions of our communities, or teach them how to not fear and hate diversity. Psychological help, community building, and education all have to be marshalled in order to bring about change in the mindset of people, even if the strongest, most flawless laws regarding hate speech existed in Pakistan, and were implemented consistently in the country.

Still, I am reminded of the conditions in America during the time leading up to the civil rights movement, where murders and lynchings of African-Americans took place with depressing regularity. The Jim Crow laws, a set of anti-black laws that operated from after the Civil War all the way up until the 1960s, can be compared to the blasphemy laws we have here in Pakistan. They did not engender the hatred of minorities; they were promulgated because of a bigoted mindset that already existed in America before the civil rights movement, and protected the prepetrators of crime rather than the victims, by turning them into the offenders. Under Jim Crow, many Christian ministers preached that blacks were lesser people who deserved to live in servitude, and that this was sanctioned by God.

This sounds all too depressingly familiar to me when I look at the status of religious minorities in my own country. I do not know what kind of bravery it will take to make things right in Pakistan with regards to the protection of minorities. Perhaps it demands the kind of leadership that the United States saw with Martin Luther King Jr. Perhaps it demands the sacrifice of lives like that of King, and of Salman Taseer and Shabaz Bhatti who spoke out against the injustice that they saw.  Perhaps it requires the awakening of an entire country, and the honesty to understand what it is that underlies our inertia, and our complicity.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

A Season For Martyrs: Live Chat and AMA

My new novel A Season For Martyrs was released yesterday. I can't even begin to describe the feeling a writer gets when her work is published...

I am doing a BookTrib live chat on Thursday, November 6 to talk about the book.  This is open to anyone!

I will also be doing a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) on Friday, November 7 at 12 pm EST.

Please join me if you can.