How does one look at religion? Do we consider the theology? Do we first ask whether this religion entertains one God or many? Must we ask, then, what this God’s role is? Or, should we forsake the nitty-gritties and ponder on what that God means to someone? Or do we negate both of these methodologies, and go by way of assumption, which seems to be a rather popular strategic maneuver when one thinks about religion. I wish I could tell you. I wish someone would tell me. I wish someone would tell everyone so we can, once and for all, put the skirmishes behind. In a way, I’m glad that I was a participant in uncovering this great question. I think we probably reached the first layer of complexity. In the same vein, I find myself disappointed that human understanding is so limited in its approach and so clogged with misunderstanding. This class has convinced me there is no formula that reveals the bare bones of religions. On day one, Professor Asani said something that has stuck ever since; which Islam, who’s Islam? This applies to every religion.  When we look at religion, it is an utter ignorance on our part to identify anyone as a representation of anything when they are only a representation of themselves. I am a Muslim but I do not represent Islam, but rather my own islam. This distinction is very important especially in such turbulent times where the beliefs of some are seen to reflect the beliefs of everyone. We all hear how every person’s worldview differs from one another but this class made me realize how often I ignored that piece of information myself. The readings of the seminar greatly reemphasized this pertinent aspect for me.  This blog is my takeaway from the seminar, in a way, and in another way, this is a snapshot of my experiences tied in with everything I’ve learnt. Many of our discussions have enlightened my perception of past situations, and I want to hold on to that as we move forward.

Pakistan came up repeatedly in our class. I think I was grateful for the hints of nostalgia caused by it, but mostly I was surprised to see how much I learnt by embracing the role of a spectator rather than a participant. Little did I know that I had to fly across oceans to reveal many little, yet highly significant, well-kept secrets of my country. Many of these posts are directly linked to the establishment of that new relationship; my country and I. I was always of the perception, even before coming to Harvard, that I had escaped the bouts of indoctrination and had a very neutral view of my country. What I did not know was that I still had a single threaded view of it, whatever it is. I needed multiplicity in my narrative. Week after week, I added pieces to the puzzle (still incomplete) that coloured my vision. No longer was it monochromatic. I saw my country through the eyes of my class fellows, scholars, Professor Asani and it was indeed a rewarding experience. I did not want for my blog to be solely about Pakistan, but I still ended up with various pieces that linked back to it. I realized, then, that it was Pakistan’s role in shaping my experiences and world view that kept coming back to me. And that is also when I realized I no longer had to fight that.

My comic strip, inspired by Persepolis, is, in fact, the most Pakistan specific piece in my collection. Reading Persepolis was indeed a treat but also a door opening to a new dimension of story telling. Prose and film aren’t the only strongholds of narrating tales, and Persepolis is testament to that. Marji’s story does nothing but tell Marji’s story, and there is something rather beautiful about that. It never preaches that Iran is what Marji’s perspective says it is. Never does it produce general commentary on Iranian society. It shows only Marji’s understanding of the people she encountered and the political scenarios she encountered them in. Therefore, I decided to try my hand at it as well. I took moments that related to religion in particular. Like Persepolis’ author, I am not trying to portray anything but I’m only putting it out there for people to understand. I don’t compare my experience to anyone in Pakistan, and neither will I say this is what life is like for everyone there. This, as we’ve learned all semester, is a dangerous way to look at things.  My second piece that relates to Pakistan is the poem that I wrote. Right off the bat, we have discussed the Other in quite detail. The ‘othering’ of people as a means to not only form your identity but by ‘othering’ people for the mere purpose of having someone in antagonism to us is a rather prevalent phenomenon. This concept hit home right from the start. I decided to write a poem on the situation of drones in North West Pakistan. The countless innocent people that have suffered because of their ‘Otherization’ is heart wrenching. The poem emulates the voice of a child in midst of all this havoc. I have no desire to debate the merits and demerits of the situation-maybe another time- but I write this in order to provide another narrative. I write this to counter the single story that surrounds drone attacks. Moreover, I write this to uplift voices suppressed, or simply unheard. It saddens me, as I write this, to know this will, too, hardly be heard. But, I put this out there to start the revolution against single narratives.

The East vs. West or Islam vs. West debate was ever present in our conversations. The Iqbal piece has less to do with Pakistan and everything to do with Pakistan at the same time. A post colonial state that has never escaped Eurocentric standards for everything seems to be tied between the two spheres that Iqbal describes in his Complaint and the Answer. Are we really an embodiment of the East? But, can we fit into the West? This identity crisis has far-reaching implications and is not just true for Pakistan but many other post colonial states. I’m unsure if I agree with Iqbal’s initial compartmentalizing of the East and the West, but I wholeheartedly accept his vision for the world: one where love and intellect are in such a mix that they are indistinguishable from one another. I remember hearing about how the term ‘Middle East’ was coined, and that it depends on where you’re viewing it from. The constructions of ‘East’ and ‘West’ are our doings. To weight them as mutually exclusive is a mechanism that has done much harm. My piece ‘Of Bridging Gaps’ focuses on the aspect of enlightenment. Not technology or progress that Iqbal sort of focuses on, or the extraction of the newest discoveries from the West to bring to the East, but rather that of enlightenment of each other. Of understanding the differences and accepting them rather than making each the ‘Other’, which, frankly, gets us nowhere.

Another theme that struck was the importance of perceiving everything in context. In order for us to understand the literature of Africa, we needed background/context to help us comprehend the situation. We had background readings for everything that provided us with context which made our struggles less burdensome when it came to understanding the many different manifestations of Islam. Also, with the rise of Islamophobia, I identified how it has much to do with the lack of context in which we see things. The Quran is a piece of literature. As all pieces of literature, it is open to interpretation. It is ambiguous—I have always felt that way—and it is a complex text. Sometimes, we let other people understand it for us. Other times, we dabble with it ourselves. The selective interpretation and representation of Quran has led to much havoc as we see with many Islamist insurgency groups. It is indeed unfortunate. But, we do not have to propagate that sort of ignorance further. I decided to portray to sides of Islam only by way of agenda-specific selection: to make Islam look violent and to make it look peaceful. This piece, I hope, will highlight the importance of context when we read or look at anything before we jump to conclusions.

Another focus of mine during this seminar was definitely the position of women in the societies we read about. My piece ‘Of Silenced Sexuality’ is an ode to all of the themes we came across in relation to women. Another of my favourite readings, We Sinful Women, was a major influence for this but, in a way, this represents all of the pieces. In the Suns of Independence, the description of rape and female genital cutting is written in a way that I see as callous. Therefore, I emulated that callousness in my piece as well. First, none of the female figures I draw has a face. Then, I use blunt crosses to mark off parts of the body that we came across in all of the texts. Ranging from facial features to feet and hair, some text or the other ruled those out for women. Reading We Sinful Women was me discovering female, feminist poetry from Pakistan for the first time. It is a pity we are not taught these works of genius in school. It is a pity these voices are silenced. My last piece focusing on women is directly related to the Hijab. This is influenced partly by Persepolis but more by the discussion surrounding the debate regarding imposition vs. choice when it comes to the Hijab.

Coming back to world views and differences in socialization, there is a thin line between all of the contributing factors to both a person’s world view and the way he/she/ze has been socialized. My prose about a tattoo artist who also devoutly practices her Islam (emphasis on ‘her Islam’) sheds light on this theme. If I discuss my own socialization, I have been taught to perceive tattoos as unislamic without much reasoning having been provided to support that claim. This piece was also to contribute to the discourse of art’s place and value in Islam, which as we’ve seen is immense. The second piece that focuses on socialization and world views is “Of Alien Traditions.” This photographic evidence of a procession in a Shia gathering that I partook in during the month of Muharram is a snapshot into my socialization. Thinking more and more about the cultural studies approach, I find that it is not only for exploring new cultures but rather alienating yourself from what you have been brought up to see as normal and then observing it as an outsider. According to my world view, this seems like the most natural thing. But, to anyone else, it might not be. Hence, it is important to always remember that no two people look at things the same way and it is uncalled for to generalize any or many group of people.

Lastly, my stand alone-out of the world piece (literally)-is meant to encapsulate the spirituality that we encountered during this seminar. I have always found the philosophy of the dervishes to be magnificent and it is probably one of the very few things I can use the word ‘magnificent’ for. To transcend the world and its beckoning is to elevate to the size of the world, where you become only a means to an end, to take and to give.

While we’re on the subject of giving, I want to take a sentence or two to acknowledge how much this class has given me. I am ever grateful for the wisdom that surrounded me every Tuesday from 7 to 9:30. I am indebted to Professor Asani for such an enriching experience, for which I am, again, extremely grateful. I emerge a little less ignorant from this class, and a tad less cynical. Thank you, and, welcome, reader!

 

 

Of Alien Traditions

December 7th, 2015

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This is a picture from a Muharram procession in a Shia gathering. When we talk about world views, it is extremely difficult for us to separate the things that creates a particular world view. It is also rather difficult to recognize that your world view might be completely nonsensical to other people. For me, this gathering was the epitome of normalcy, but this time, I tried to look at it from the perspective of an outsider. I asked myself, what would my friends say? Would they be at ease I am? The answer was an obvious no. When we were reading Suns of Independence and the Saint’s Lamp, many traditions and norms came up that were alien to many of us. Female genital cutting came up and we were all opposed to it but then if everyone’s socialization varies, who are we to decide what is correct or a moral injustice, as we all saw FGM to be. The ‘cultural studies’ approach does not only apply to cultures that are unknown to is but even ours. Sometimes, embracing the shoes of an outsider helps us reconsider things.

Of Single Stories (Undangerous)

December 7th, 2015

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This piece is heavily influenced by Persepolis; one of my favourite readings of the seminar. Narratives have the power to shape the views of receivers of that narrative. Reading Jasmine and the Stars and Persepolis was an important reminder that every narrative stand on its own, and does not represent a grander scheme of things. This is a little (very badly drawn) snapshot of my experience of things in Pakistan. Persepolis was a great story that stood on its own and included the good parts and the bad parts of Marji’s life. Like Persepolis, I did not mean for this to portray anything except for my own experience and understanding of things when it came to religion. Coincidentally, the same week we were reading about the importance of narratives and how delicately you must handle them, I came across the TED talk by Chimamanda Adichie “The dangers of a single story” where she also mentions the importance of having multiple narratives. And since this is only a glimpse of mine, I think it’s safe to say that there are no dangers posed by it. But, I must present a disclaimer to you, please read this as one of the many narratives that exist.

Of Iqbal’s World

December 7th, 2015

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Reading Iqbal in class was a very rewarding experience. Not only did I see his writing in a different light, but I was excited to see the views of those who were complete outsiders to his work. Therefore, Iqbal’s view on the ever present conflict of East and West is illuminating. It’s interesting to see that he attributes the quality of love to the East and intellect to the West. First, he presents both of them as mutually exclusive as we can see in the first set of Venn Diagrams. However, his final conclusion, in the Complaint and the Answer, is that the union of the two is what will elevate both societies. Here, mutual exclusiveness is disregarded by Iqbal. By this analysis, we can say that Iqbal no longer wants the mutually exclusive view to prevail but rather an intersectional, fluid perception of the two.

Of Various Art and Islam

December 6th, 2015

“Oh, shit. Not today. Oh, no,no,no.”

I stare at the clock for a slight second before I grab my jacket and run out the door.

You see, I work as a tattoo artist and I’m actually pretty good at what I do. And today, I am interviewing for the Tattoo Galore. Yes, the biggest and most famous tattoo parlour in all of New York. Not just the city; the whole state. Last year, they ranked no.1 in the Tat-a-Tat List, which is the holy grail of the tattooing world.

I can’t tell you how long I’ve dreamed of this. Ever since I wanted to get my first tattoo at 17—a diamond engraved with the initials of my grandmother—I had been in love with the world of tattoos. In a world so alienating, any sort of identity is welcome. It was my second year of college when I realized I wanted to become a tattoo artist. So, you see, there are two aspects of tattoo art; one’s actually imprinting the art onto skin, but the most important part is satisfying the imagination of your customers. If they tell you they want a unicorn, and you notice their hair is a specific colour of purple, that’s what you incorporate into the design. It’s so fulfilling to see the look on their face when you give them what they didn’t even know they wanted.

Anyway, I digress.

This interview. Let’s come back to it. Let me tell you how I got it. Last month, I was shopping at CVS and this lady came up to me. She said she loved the tattoo work on my arms; that it was intricate enough to be personable. There’s little works of art embedded in the bigger works and you need to have a good eye to be able to spot them. I knew this woman knew her stuff.

“Thanks, I did them myself. “ I awkwardly laughed. The reason I hid the art was so no one but me would be able to notice it.

She was still staring at the upper corner of my right arm—the dragon fly with a hundred tiny little butterflies surreptitiously hid in the wings. An ode to the countless strangers you interact with everyday. For every human’s existence to have mattered to me. A desperate attempt at juicing meaning out of life.

“Well, not all of it.  It’s hard to reach some parts of the arm. A friend helps, but the designs were all mine,” I muttered trying to waver her gaze from my arms. I felt invaded. I also realized, at that point, how proud I was of the secrecy and the intricacy of my work.

“I’m blown away. You are one talented girl.”

And there it was: my ticket to my dream. If I get there in time.

The bus is taking forever today. I could have taken the Subway but I’d forgotten my card. Thank God, I always carry quarters. Once I’m on the bus, I pull out my pocket Quran and begin to recite. This is part of my daily routine. Before anything big, I remember God more than usual. But, today, I’d missed my morning prayer. It’s okay, though. I’ll offer it later. The bus starts moving, and so do my lips, as I began to mouth the magic words that instantly soothe me. I can’t explain it, and I’ve stopped trying. It’s like when people ask me why I like to ‘pain’ myself with needles.

The only answer I’ve come up with is to each his own.

And this is me.

 

 

This piece ties in the theme of diversity amongst all religions. We tend to generalize Muslims with beards and the hijab, forgetting that there our millions that don’t fit the stereotypical description. Peeking into different regions where Islam prevails was also tantamount to this conclusion. This prose depicts a woman who, in my imagination, is covered with tattoos but also takes solace in her Islamic faith. In Islam, the dominant perception of tattoos is a negative one. Some say they are forbidden; some say they are frowned upon. But, that’s another story of interpretations. But, art is such an integral part of Islamic history and tattoo art is also just one form of it. However, it is unaccepted in popular Islam. I just wanted to shed light upon many other sorts in which art is expressed that dont necessarily have to be in conflict with Islam. Again, it depends on ‘who’s’ Islam we’re referring to, and ‘which’ Islam we’re referring to. Many pick and choose from religion but still have the tendency to comment on the choices of other people. Tattoos are also considered an emblem of the West. This piece also touches upon the theme of the intersection of Islam with the West. The popular notion of the incompatibility of the two is challenged by this narrative where the two seem perfectly in sync with each other; both unexplainable aspects of the character. This was also partly influenced by books such as Persepolis and Jasmine and the Stars that focused on specific identities of a person’s islam. Not everyone looks, acts, feels the same. In the same vein, no two people practice religion the same way. It is all about a person’s worldview and their personal experiences. A Muslim from Africa might not see eye to eye with an American Muslim, and that goes to show the spectrum in which Islam is manifested and practiced.

 

 

 

Of Bridging Gaps

October 29th, 2015

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The concept of the conflict between East and West has been presented to us many of the texts. The Saint’s Lamp, the Children of the Alley, Iqbal’s poetry, Ambiguous Adventures all deal with the popular notion that Islam is considered at odds with the West, or is incompatible with the ideals of the West. As we saw in the Saint’s Lamp as well as in the other texts, the one way to bridge this vacuum of misconception is through gaining knowledge. This also disproves the idea that Islam opposes the pursuit of science. In my piece, I have used the White House is used as a symbol that represents the West and the mosque is symbolic of Islam. The bridge has a symbol of ‘enlightenment’, not knowledge, and that distinction is very important to me. Enlightenment signifies a learning of sorts. On the West’s side, learning about Islam and dispelling the negative notions about it is contingent on the success of this bridging. On the side of Islam, a pursuit of knowledge should be a priority and learning the real essence of Islam that is absolutely compatible with progress and science.

Of Worldlessness

October 29th, 2015

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Learning about the spiritual aspect of Islam has been my favourite part of the seminar. The idea of spiritual uplifting involves a lessening of the self and distancing the self from the material world. However, many a times, as we saw in the Beggar’s Strike, this spirituality was misused for material gains. Again, we saw this in the Suns of Independence. However, we also had examples such as Haneen from the Wedding of Zein and Arafah, to some extent, from the Children of the Alley. Their spirituality was validated by their removedness from worldly things. Here, in my art, I have used a dervish because I love their message of give and take as represented by their hands and I have shown that the dervish has found an exit from the world by ways of his spiritual journey. And, indeed, it is a beautiful thing to remove yourself from a world that will otherwise consume you.

Of Silenced Sexuality

October 27th, 2015

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In most of the areas we encountered thus far, some narrative of the female was ever present. The woman is presented as the impure, the deviant one. Eve was the one that provoked Adam. In the Children of the Alley, we see that this is portrayed by the wife of Adham in the Children of the Alley. Mahfouz, the author, tries to correct this interpretation through Adham’s admittance of the blame. The foundation of humankind is based on the idea that woman leads astray. How do we, then, even begin to think about the mutilation of women or rape (that we see in Suns of Independence), and the inheritance of wives as well the traditions of polygamy when the entity of woman is considered the one that causes sin, and therefore, sinful? Moving on to We Sinful Women, we have writers from Pakistan that discuss the same concept. This piece is mostly inspired by the Pakistani poetry by women that we read but applies to many of the other writings as well. It depicts the human body, of female gender, and the social interpretation of the parts of the body. I’m not saying the social stature of woman/women because it is important to note that the inherent differences emerge from difference in biology. But, why is that so important or sinful? Why must women cover their heads, why must there be excision, why must bare chests of women are an atrociously sinful sight while men can go around bare. Here, I am only trying to point out the differences. It is poignant that we think of these things. Because precedent entails, or religion prescribes are reasons not enough to satiate the mind. Many a times, we ended up concluding that somehow, somewhere along the way, the interpretation of women’s status in Islam became inundated with cultural practices and withered from its true approach of the position of women. If the female body is so sexualized, why must we undermine female sexuality? Yet, we see that happening. Even today, in Africa, excision as well as the ironing of breasts is a common practice. The ‘clitoris is impure, evil’ says Suns of Independence. Women sexuality is unalloyed and unacknowledged. In the poems of Fahmida Riaz, I received the greatest literary shock of my life to discover that women in Pakistan were addressing topics such as sexuality in their work. The uber strong poem, ‘Chador’, is a counter narrative to the covering of the female body. It reverses the argument and inflicts it on the enforcer. The Hudood Ordinance in Pakistan saw great detriment to the standing of women in society, but yet, we have women standing up and saying no to enforcement of anything. The art piece depicts the rejection of the female body in many cultures. The baring of legs and arms is an offense against God knows who. The rest of the body is sexualized to such an extent, and for such unnecessary purposes. The hair is also apparently a powerful sexual tool. Even the eyes are covered too in some cases. Yet, the female sexuality remains ignored. It is not a thing befitting women, but only men. God only knows why.

Of the Hijab-O-Meter

October 24th, 2015

IMG_8946In Persepolis, there were many instances where the main character or other girls were asked to ‘correct’ their Hijab. Countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia also specify a legal code for the Hijab. This made me think of what the hijab is judged against or how it is decided. Is there a Hijab-O-Meter that decides these things? Should anyone decide these things? What would the variations on it look like? Even after an approved state of the Hijab, are there degrees even after that to measure who’s hijab is better?

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The title of this post is self explanatory. Selective presentation and selective interpretation can both lead to chaos; something that came up in the seminar recurrently. It is indispensable that we observe things in context, especially when it comes to written texts and the Quran is no exception. In this piece, I have shown the perils of selective portrayal. In one slide, one may assume Islam to be a barbaric religion while the other proves for it to be nothing but good. Both are misinterpretations for they lack balance and operate with the agenda of portraying Islam at either extreme.