December 11th, 2014
In Madras on Rainy Days, the most glaring theme was the discrepancy in society’s acceptance of Sameer’s secret, versus their condemnation of Layla’s. Although outward expressions of sexuality – homosexual or otherwise – were frowned upon in Indian society, at least according to our discussion in class, sexualities of all kinds were allowed to flourish behind closed doors. This made Sameer relatively safe: Although he couldn’t broadcast his sexuality, he could act upon it without fear for safety so long as it remained a private matter.
Layla, however, harbored a secret that could kill her. The fact that she lost her virginity to a man to whom she was not married, not to mention the fact that she was, for a while, pregnant with his child, would have won Sameer the right to return her as a bride to a dangerous and shameful life. If, that is, she was allowed to live.
Perhaps this results from a traditionally patriarchal worldview in which men were left largely to their matters and women expected to live for the men – including denying themselves sexual pleasure – up until and through marriage. Though this post would leave questions lingering about women in a homosexual relationship, the identification of a male-dominated society could explain this discrepancy.
In order to represent this, I constructed a visual poem that makes use of two figures: One male, to represent Sameer, and one female, to represent Layla. Sameer is composed in this case of his sexuality: It is a large part of his identity, and so I made his body of a short poem regarding the identity he holds and the pressure he faces to hide this. Layla is composed of her decision to have pre-marital sex, and identified as society would identify her for her actions. Both characters are hidden under a culture that surrounds them, dictating the acceptedness of their actions. Sameer’s culture tells him simply to remain quiet, and to continue acting as he is, while Layla’s threatens her existence, talking of “ineffective merchandise” as though she is objectified and reduced to her sexuality. The distance between the two is felt verbally and visually, as represented by the walls separating them in the poem and the strength of the language establishing how different their situations are.
Madras on Rainy Days addressed many questions of sexuality, but the discrepancy between expectations for male sexuality and female sexuality in the novel are very different, and this is represented in the poem that I created.
December 11th, 2014
In Hamid’s Reluctant Fundamentalist, the young Changez experiences the difficulties of living with inherent duality: His Pakistanian side and American one attempt to coexist under the pretense of princehood that he allows his friends to believe, and thrives easily in college. Upon reaching his work, this trend continues until 9/11, at which point extreme anti-Middle Eastern sentiment ransacks the United States and causes the unfair treatment of this man as caused by racial profiling. The resentment that he feels towards America for the treatment that he receives as a result of his ethnicity manifests itself in his attempt to more strongly represent that very identity. The two cannot exist in one: Given New York’s paranoia and general ignorance towards the difference between Middle Eastern terrorists and Middle Eastern citizens and the cultural expressions that are common among both, Changez’s decision even to grow his beard is met with uncertainty, hostility, and discrimination.
The idea of identity is complicated. We all have many identities, and the intersectionality of the issues that those identities face (such as our race, gender, class, ability, and nationality) defines the struggles that we face in daily life. These identities are rarely directly conflicting, however. For Changez, his American identity clashed directly with his Pakistanian one, and as a result, he was forced to pick one identity over the other. He could not be both American and enjoy the experience of his culture in a society that was ignorant of that culture, lest it be misperceived. In the eyes of New York society, his Pakistani-ness directly degraded his American-ness, and in his eyes, abandoning his culture because the Americans by which he was surrounded simply because they were too culturally ignorant to identify the terrorists as lone actors, not representatives of an entire society, was betraying his Pakistani roots.
I represented this idea with a two-sided sculpture. One side shows the stereotypical American financial worker, as Changez was, while the other shows the dress of those Middle Eastern men featured by the media immediately following 9/11. These sides, though part of one sculpture, exist at exact opposites from one another, much as Changez’s identities did. This post thus explores the concept of identity, explaining that while some identities can intersect and coexist to define our living circumstances, others cannot. When identities cannot exist together, the possessor must choose between them: In Reluctant Fundamentalist, this explains why Changez went back to Pakistan.
December 11th, 2014
In Khadra’s The Swallows of Kabul, love is a major theme: Specifically, the novel discusses the ways in which love manifests itself in the lives of two different couples, both of which encounter problems surrounding their love for one another. The existence of love in such a dark place as Taliban-ruled Kabul as an escape from the oppressive streets is both a relief and a burden: Upon loss of love and the happiness that it yields, the loneliness and bareness of life in as repressive a culture as this one is emphasized. Love ends tragically in this book, and it does so in multiple ways: The stunning and loving Zunaira accidentally causes her husband to trip and he hits his head in a way that results in his death, while Atiq, a prison guard for the Taliban, struggles to love his dying wife. Even his wife’s final act of love is dark – she poses as Zunaira, who was condemned to death, in order to allow Atiq to escape with Zunaira, who did nothing wrong. She is brutally executed.
The coexistence of love and death is a popular theme in literature, perhaps because one attempts to make the other more manageable. Love is an accomplishment, and finding and experiencing it perhaps makes death feel less like the rushed end to an unaccomplished life, but rather a closing to time well-lived. The darkness of the death that occurs in The Swallows of Kabul questions this, however, by writing love a bloody and violent setting. To illustrate this, I designed a visual poem centered around the ideas of love and death. It examines death as an act of love (as Atiq’s wife, Musarrat saw it) and the call to meet at as dark of a place as an executioner’s tree.
The poem occurs on a background of “love is —-“ poetry that I wrote. This simply lists the various forms that love takes in Khadra’s setting, in order to give us a way to discuss the death that occurs simultaneously. “The dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had” is a line from Gary Jules’s “Mad World,” and represents Musarrat’s literal wish to die for her husband’s happiness. Because of her decaying state and her husband’s fitful love, death is an enviable alternative to life and offers at the same time a version of happiness for her husband. This wish is the one upon which the requests to meet at the “hanging tree” are made. These lyrics are excerpts from Mockingjay, a film inspired by Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games series, and speak of two lovers who are meeting at the site of the one’s death in order to escape, as it is revealed later in the song, just as Zunaire and Atiq meet at the “site” of Musarrat’s death, to escape the oppression they face once again into the blissful state of love.
This representation describes the way that love is both the background upon which death takes place, and also is enabled to exist by death’s presence, a major theme in The Swallows of Kabul.
December 11th, 2014
Persepolis is the story of a young girl’s tumultuous journey through the Islamic Revolution in Iran and all of the cultural implications that this transition carried. Perhaps most memorably, she writes a section about the veil in which she discusses the way that she and her friends were forced to wear the article in school and separated from the boys, but that there was a general conclusion of not understanding exactly why this had to be worn. While Marjane, the young girl, and her family’s opinions are made known throughout the comic, the feelings of the perpetrators of this cultural shift appear only to yell on televisions or from behind podiums. Where did these men come from, and why are they demonized in this work?
It’s simple to understand that Sartrape, the author and illustrator, would harbor resentment toward the men that set her back from school and forced her to wear a restrictive piece of clothing that she did not understand, but while reading this, I couldn’t help but consider the thoughts and feelings of all the men that enforced these rules. No young people, inspired by their youth and perceived power to make a difference in the world, use that motivation to consciously do bad things: Who says they want to grow up to be an oppressive dictator or hated militiaman? Certainly there are a few, but for the number to exist that would have sustained such a culture-wide movement in Iran, young people would have to be significantly more – well, evil, than they are. Thus, what did some of the well-intentioned members of this regime think about the change?
In my reproduction of the first page of this comic, I attempt to address this question, highlighting the ways that even those advantaged by this society – the men in the regime and nearly all boys – were harmed by it. I recreated the page in Sartrape’s black and white style, even copying exactly her portrayals of the men behind the podiums to represent the journey into the actual life and opinions of that individual. I create a scenario in which the man, who fought very strongly for the revolution, becomes a teacher following it and must enforce the beard among the teenage boys that he teaches. While the man supports the revolution and its cause, he has qualms with enforcing rules regarding the beard, noticing when this rule hurts the students that he teaches and feeling sorry for those affected. I only included the first page because of my comprehension of the group mentality that was likely present in this situation: I felt that I could represent only the first page accurately: After that, the pressures of the government’s opinions regarding “Islamification” and the need to fit those goals in order to continue living with relative freedom under the regime may twist the man’s behavior past basic human kindness and empathy. Thus, I deliver only the introduction to the man’s situation, before it can be argued that he has fundamentally changed due to the group to which he belongs.
While this is no excuse for oppressive action, it allows us to consider the dimensions of a character that is otherwise portrayed purely as evil. This multi-dimensionality highlights a theme of the course insofar as it discusses the ability of Islamic identity to coexist with other opinions and behaviors in one person. Though this person may support the Islamic Revolution, this is not the whole of his identity, and the empathy he feels for his students, though contradictory to the declared goals of this regime, are necessary to fully understanding the character in his complexity.
December 10th, 2014
In The Beggar’s Strike, the author illustrates an interesting contrast between the privilege of the elite class and the poverty of the beggars. The power imbalance between the two classes involves a relationship where one side legislates the actions of the other: In this case, to decree where the beggars may and may not work as part of the effort to “cleanse” the city. Yet, the beggars hold a relative degree of power over this elite class, exercised in their strike: By making themselves difficult to access or demanding high donations in exchange for blessings and promises, they revealed the degree to which the governmental elite rely upon them, and controlled the disposal of much of their income with their exorbitant demands.
In America, this is not the case: The “1%,” as the Occupy Wall Street movement declared, controlled much of government but had no obligation to the people. They argued that the close relationship between big money and government representatives destroyed the representativeness of American democracy because of the clashing interests of the rich and the middle class: The government could not adequately represent both, but because favoring the rich promised higher economic yield, they ignored the middle class. What is different about American society and the one in The Beggar’s Strike that causes this discrepancy?
Among other things, this could be the presence of Islam in the story. While America is increasingly secular, the society of The Beggar’s Strike was strongly Muslim, and this accounted for much of the relationship between the elite and the poor. The Qur’anic mandate to donate to the poor was fulfilled only by the existence of beggars, and facilitated by the ubiquity. A blessing from a beggar signified the fulfillment of the alms-giving duty, and in a society where religious duty plays a heavy role, this made the beggar’s continued existence an integral part of the elite’s life.
I chose to represent this idea with a black tapestry. Unfinished, and left yarn still hanging from it, it is changeable and remains with parts to be written, much like society today. The different streaks of color represent the different elements of society that are united and, unlike American society, not stratified: They intermingle because they are codependent. The integrity of the tapestry – woven in several pieces – depends upon the strength of these strands, which, only with support from one another, hold the tapestry together. In this way, the society in The Beggar’s Strike required help from the elite, the beggars, and all classes in between to fulfill religious duty and maintain their society, one which culturally depended greatly upon Islam.
December 10th, 2014
We Sinful Women is a powerful anthology, in the form of traditional Urdu poetry, compiled to demonstrate the potential of women to both add to cultural repositories of literature as well as to write on the subject of problems facing themselves as a community and their larger nations. In this blog post, I explore the places in which such potential can be harbored, and why, in certain situations, it is released.
Like a bar of soap, worn thinner with daily use, it is not difficult to gradually lose sight of a goal of social equality in a system that is overwhelmingly unequal, such as the one in which these women existed. Despite the sparkle of possibility on the surface of an issue, the way in which cultural norms are deeply ingrained in all members of a society – subjugated or otherwise – makes it extremely difficult to enact social change. Those who can turn struggle and daily abuse into powerful statements are few and far between, but some of those who were able chose to produce literature regarding social equality. This is represented by the pieces of newspaper in the base of the soap bar: These female poets, after working through unspeakable discrimination in their societies, wore away the layers of their own existence to find extreme literary potential and eventual publication at the bottom of it.
The path to a literary work is extremely important, and can help illuminate why some of these poets have become so famous: They became so not despite of their womanhood, but because of it. Poetry motivated by happenings – especially those not under control of the author – tends to be particularly emotionally strong. Though containing perhaps fewer literary mechanisms, its emotional power due to the closeness of the author to the subject and the fact that it was thrust upon them, not chosen, makes it especially potent.
The wearing away of layers is a difficult process, and takes time – yet, the idea that with further use by society, these women came closer and closer to the literature that they would eventually publish, is encouraging. Given literature’s potential to spark social change, the fact that a subjugated class still has access to a readership is promising, especially in today’s society. As race is becoming an especially salient aspect of our lives, and is bringing to the surface many claims of denial regarding the plight of minorities in America, we can only hope that the way in which minorities have been worn against – passed over for jobs, stopped unfairly by police, and mistreated socially – (though regrettable, unfortunate, and certainly a mistake) will produce emotionally convincing literature to yield an America that, as a whole, has the power to enact social change.
Subjugation is not silence, and We Sinful Women proves this handily.
November 1st, 2014
A major theme in the theme of “Complaint and Answer” is the feeling of victimhood. The poet who sends his plea to Allah, in the form of the first part of Iqbal’s work, explains how non-Muslims are succeeding while his people are suffering, asking God why he has allowed this to happen. God answers with the idea that they need to look around them: Other people are adhering to their faith, which explains their success. Muslims have strayed from the original path, it is argued, and if the poet issuing the complaint were to look around him, he would see and understand this to be fact.
The idea of answers to our prayers and problems being embedded in the society around us is a theme that I wanted to explore, so I considered a sort of feminist interpretation to complaints in the modern age, and illustrated the process with a comic strip. I show women in two societies, one where Islam is used to oppress women, and another where Western culture is used to oppress them, in order to demonstrate the universality of many of the problems that human beings face. They do not arise necessarily from culture, many are phenomena experienced by all.
This strip illustrates two women, kept from education in the relative dark, despite massive capability. They live in times where women are disadvantaged and abused through the legal system, and all they can think to do is send a plea to God, a question of why they must suffer as they are. As they wait, God says nothing, but sends them each a child – as marked by the first gifts of each culture to the child, it is a girl. The women, disheartened by this “gift” because of the knowledge of the difficulties their daughters will face, respond at first with tears, but on second thought by holding an umbrella for their children, shielding them from the hate and bigotry that was slung to them as young people. They give their daughters books and science materials to instill in them a love for learning, and when they succeed to see their girls engrossed in novels in school, the daughters experience shaming and mockery thrown at them because they are girls reading behind books, instead of gossiping or hanging out with the other classmates. They send their complaint to God and again, he answers with a daughter: This time, however, baby’s first gift is a book, instead of a covering/bow.
The idea that the answer to these girl’s complaints is twofold: First, a daughter to raise and strengthen and secondly, a mother who did so for them, explores the idea that the answers to our complaints are sometimes rooted in the societies and environments in which we exist. We must simply been brave enough to search for these answers.
November 1st, 2014
This creative response is in the form of a short book, largely mimicking the style of Naugib’s Children of the Alley. A theme in the book was the ongoing struggle for peace, and the author took special care to note that even the most extraordinary of prophets, each with unique ideas and opinions, were unable to cure the alley of its problems and return the region to peace. I wanted to explore this theme in America, both to understand how such problems can go unsolved for long periods of time, as well as to generalize the problem past one that can be blamed upon a regional society.
This book discusses various parts of a worldwide movement against racism, first discussing the life and effort of Booker T. Washington. Like Rifa’a, Washington was strongly against the use of force in the fight to bring equality for African Americans. Afraid of lynchings and the KKK, he believed that blacks in America first needed to prove their intelligence and reliability, and that this in turn would undermine the white’s stereotype of their inferior capabilities and allow them to assume political and social privileges. Washington’s efforts were largely contradicted by a movement against him calling for greater civil disobedience, but his work was valuable in calling attention to the problem. Though he failed to solve the issue, he played a role in the discussion of racism.
The next section discusses the twins Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr, Marovany and Mandolin, respectively. These leaders were alive during the same time and fought for the same goal, though they chose to do it in two different ways: One was violent, and one was peaceful. Their eventual unification on the side of civil disobedience and peaceful protest set incredible precedents for those who would follow them, and despite their early deaths, they made valuable social progress. The “solemn white buildings” of Congress were not moved completely, however, which is where the next character enters.
Nelson Mandela, whose story is transplanted into this same society as Nestor’s, is discussed as the leader with political tools, who used growing unrest and social opinion as a motivation for governmental change. He works to change the institutions that cause racism, and the world that results – though not perfect – is better.
This story was designed to show that the problem in Children of the Alley is a universal one: It should not be pinpointed on the customs of any one culture, nor confined to a nationality. Its problems transcends national borders, as shown in my story, although slowly, I believe that they can be overcome; hence, the hopeful ending of my edition, Children of the Arch.
November 1st, 2014
For me, the story of the wedding of Zein centered around the theme of authority, provoking questions concerning the origin and appearance of authority. I identified familial authority, specifically with the right of the father to accept or deny the offers of marriage for their daughters. Even in Ni’ma’s case, where the right to reject Zein’s offer was clearly within the daughter’s control, tradition and authority dictated that the father, the patriarch, holds authority. I noticed patterns in these ideas of authority that paralleled sources of authority in my life, so the first three parts of this poem discuss those parallels in the form of a slam poem. I discuss my grandmother, my mother, and my father, who hold authority of declining strength in that order, and the reasons that they hold this authority, as well as the ways that authority manifests itself.
Furthermore, the parts of the book that discuss the authority of tradition have strong equivalencies in my life. In Zein’s world, religious tradition is incredibly important to the process by which he asks for a woman’s hand in marriage, as well as to the establishment of the religious leaders in the village as a disliked, though necessarily respected, form of authority. In my life right now, it is the environment at Harvard which I find to hold dictative potential and a high degree of authority over the way that I think and feel.
Finally, I have had experiences myself as an authoritative figure, as Zein did. I express this through the stanzas concerning debate, which talk about the way that my role of authority changed based upon the needs of the teammates I was helping, much like Zein was able to provide a lighter mood (such as at the weddings) or a compassionate gesture (as when he helped the social outcasts that no one else would speak with).
I have chosen to present the poem in the form of the questions that freshmen ask each other in Annenberg: These questions are ridiculously commonplace, and rather frustrating to answer every time because the conversation never has the chance to wind its way into these deeper questions concerning our lives from back home, or the different parties that we feel are affecting the way we experience Harvard or the world. It further doubles to show that behind these simple answers, parallel to Zein’s comic, plain face, there exists a complex system of authority and interconnected factors controlling behavior and thoughts.