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!

 

 

Leave a Reply