Sunday, 21 June 2009



Trying to know the unknown has been one of the many traits of human beings. And the unknown could be a distant place or the functioning of a system or concepts that might change things for good, or even a person. Young journalist Aatish Taseer wanted to know Islam, the religion that he inherited from his father Salman Taseer. Aatish’s recent work — Stranger to History: A Son’s Journey Through Islamic Lands — has been his endeavour to explore the many facets of the religion in the varied settings of Turkey, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan.

Born to a Sikh mother (senior journalist Tavleen Singh) and Pakistani politician Salman Taseer, the young boy partly grew up in New Delhi — with his maternal grandparents and cousins, as his mother remained busy with her assignments. His father, who was already married in Pakistan, had moved out of the lives of Aatish and Tavleen; it was from his mother that Aatish tried to form an impression of his absent father. Stranger to History therefore keeps going back to the formative years of the author. The yearning to come face-to-face with his father and the values of a ‘cultural Muslim’ possibly guided Aatish to take the journey through those lands where the acceptance of, or disassociation with Islam plays an important role. “The narrative was complicated. But I always knew that there was an important connection between the travel and the memoir. It was a matter of making the two narratives run together so that one helps explain the other, both stories deepening as they go on,” Aatish explains.

Mirror images
The book begins with the author’s journey to Turkey where, as he describes, secularism is fiercely guarded and is often used as a “tool of oppression”. But at the same time there are places like Fatih Carsamba, where citizens rigidly follow those norms that they consider to be Islamic. I ask Aatish whether these pockets are tolerated by the Turkish authorities because they act as a valve to let out the frustrations due to secularism. “No, not tolerated. Not by the army at least,” he replies. “They are full of anxiety, the neighbourhood has been broken up in the past and the people there live with a sense of fear. But at the moment, there is a government in power that is more Islamic in its attitudes and so they're experiencing a spring of sorts”.
In Turkey, among the several people Aatish met, there was Abdullah who had a distinct vision of the ‘world system’ that was thought to be against Islam. Abdullah’s views were based on the repression that he and other Islamists faced from the authorities. Repression was also evident in Iran where Aatish met those secularists who were picked up and tortured by the Iranian authorities. The accounts narrated by Amir of Tehran or the sufferings of a lady called DesirĂ© find a detailed mention in the book. “If I had bumped into DesirĂ© on a beach in Goa, I would never have thought to write about her,” Aatish says. “But in Iran she becomes important because she’s important to the Islamic Republic. And in the brutality she experiences, the subjugation that seems almost to turn her into someone else, it is possible to see the smallness of the country’s motives. No grand programme, no high aspirations in the name of religion, just a petty tyranny, a tyranny of trifles,” he adds.

So can Amir of Iran and Abdullah of Turkey, who both feel repressed, meet on a common platform against the State’s tyranny? “Yes, I think they were mirror images of the same problem, namely the trouble Islam faced in adjusting to the modern State,” affirms Aatish, adding, “In Turkey, there was a very forced and deliberate attempt at secularism, the religion and its culture banished from public life. It wasn’t really secular in the sense we understand it: the State appointed clerics wrote Friday sermons, generally co-opted religion rather than distancing itself from matters of faith. And this was also a kind of repression.” But it was “not equal of course to the sort of tyranny the Iranians have set up”. In Iran, says Aatish, the religion has become “an instrument of control, a way to subdue people”.

After his “relatively trouble-free” experiences in Syria and Saudi Arabia, Aatish was hoping for easier days in Iran as well. There was no effort on part of the Iranian authorities to stop him from communicating with Iranians till the administration “informally” took him into custody and gave him 48 hours to leave the country, the author informs. “It was only then that I was able to see something of what the young people I had met in Iran spoke so fearfully about. And it is true that Iran felt so serene up to that point that I was fooled into lowering my guard,” he adds.

There are several references in the book about the concept of ‘cultural Islam’ of the Indian sub-continent that the author heard from his father. At one point while describing his visit to Saudi Arabia, precisely Mecca, Aatish mentions about the differences between ‘cultural Islam’ and the ‘Islam of Arabia’. The difference, says Aatish, is because of the “hybrids” that developed in the places where Islam went. “As a conquering religion, it was able to absorb the cultures of the places it conquered. This didn’t happen only in India; it happened in north Africa, in the Levant, and especially significantly for the subcontinent, in Persia. But those hybrids today are endangered,” he says. “Many — and this is easy to do with Islam — confuse the culture of the faith with its principles, feeling that if they were purer in their ways and followed an Islam closer to that of the Prophet’s, they would regain their rightful place in the world again,” Aatish explains.

The book portrays the theological school called Abu Nour in Damascus where hundreds of students from across the world enrol themselves to learn about Islam. It was during this visit that the whole controversy about the pictorial depiction of Prophet Mohammed in Danish newspaper erupted and Aatish witnessed how the teachers at Abu Nour preached hostility against the West and how the mob attacked the Danish Embassy in Damascus. However, despite such violent atmosphere, there were no signs of racism as we might witness within some other religions, the author informs.

Rejection of the past
In Pakistan Aatish travelled to a number of places, besides Lahore where his father stays. There are interesting descriptions about Sind, where he saw how the feudal system is at work. “I don’t think that the feudal life of Pakistan is comparable to anything you have in India,” Aatish informs. “The word ‘feudal’ in Pakistan is used to explain away all kinds of bad behaviour and it creates a false impression that this is a long-standing way of life, something traditional. It is not. The problems of Pakistan are very modern and related to the failures of the State that was created in 1947,” he says. “Its brutality, its hysteria and rootlessness are the products of a society dismembered and adrift in a very modern way, something that would only have been possible to imagine in the 20th century”.

In this context he mentions how the ethos of Pakistan revolves round the “rejection of India”, not the secular country on its eastern border, “but the land and its culture”. The concept of Pakistan turned out to be absurd, unworkable and intellectually unsound, he says. “This rejection of India was the only thing that was able to nourish it in later years”. For Pakistan, the “soft power of India”, Bollywood for example, is “deeply uncomfortable”. It is a daily reminder of “how familiar India still is and how they must turn their back on that familiarity”. So it is this, “the deeper rejection of our shared civilisation, that causes the pain and confusion in Pakistan”.

In the book, Aatish has been candid about his relationship with his father. I ask him about the senior Taseer’s reaction about the book. “Silence”, says Aatish. However, his mother Tavleen has been “supportive though it must have been uncomfortable for her too”. “She has always understood what part of this thorny inheritance is mine, for me to understand and process as I find necessary,” Aatish adds.

While writing, did he have any idea of the possible readership, I ask. “No,” says Aatish. “It would have been impossible for me to write in that way. And as you might know the book has many readerships - something like eleven. This year alone it has been published or is to be published in Norway, Canada, the UK, India, Australia and China,” he adds.

Aatish has just finished a novel about Delhi called The Temple-goers which will be published next year.