Travel Tales: Police Robbers of Switzerland

Place: Geneva; Country: Switzerland

A bird’s eye view of Geneva’s skyline

This was my first ever solo trip to a European destination and it was made memorable due to an interesting albeit unpleasant incident. So I am going to kick start this section with a story about Swiss police.

I sat down for lunch at a Turkish owned eatery after exhausting my list of places-to-see in the compact Geneva town centre on my second day of the trip. I decided to spend the rest of the day with a cruise in Lake Geneva, locally known in French as Lac Léman, which is presumably the largest lake in Western Europe and also borders France .

I originally wanted to take a ferry to Lausanne but no company was operating scheduled services due to off season. Either that or perhaps there were none available at that time of the day. So I had to make do with an hour-long circular trip of the lake, which, incidentally, also happened to be my first ever ferry ride.

There was some time to the departure. I was strolling leisurely round the waiting area and enjoying the blue crispness of the waters. A stretch of hillocks brushing the clouds in the sky could be seen across the narrow stretch of the lake. The famous fountain (Jet d’Eau) was magnanimously spurting gallons of water upwards, sending chilling vibes down my spine. It was partially overcast. Short spells of sunshine made no difference as it was particularly windy and chill factor was causing my nose and fingerstips to freeze.

Jet d’Eau in Lac Léman, Geneva

As I took in the surroundings, basking in the beauty of Geneva, a man approached me: Short height, shabbily dressed, large brown eyes, rough hands like those of carpenters, but decidedly emitting the air of a tourist. “Parlezvous Français?,” he asked. I understand enough French to inform the asker that I don’t understand. “Non”, I excused. Fine. No problem for him. He switched to English.

He was an Italian tourist visiting Geneva. Enchanté. Glad to meet him. (Smiles). Could I take a few pictures for him. Sure. Why not. No no. This isn’t the right place. Why don’t we go down those stairs closer to the fence. It would give perfect view of the lake. Fine with me. Travelling solo I had realised how vitally important it is to help out other solo tourists with their camera clicks. I could empathise.

The little corner down the stairs was deserted. It hid us from the few other people in the waiting corridor, some of whom queued at the ticket office. He handed over his camera to me. It took me some time to work out some clicks. Not because the camera was too complicated for the techno-simpleton like myself but because it was too old and not working properly. I developed an immediate disliking to both the camera and his owner, who, for some unfathomable reason, uncannily reminded me of the Venetian characters of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice.”

I had hardly clicked a couple of times when two uniformed policemen appeared out of nowhere. “Excusez-moi […..gibberish in French…]”, one of them said, with a suspicious, almost hostile look on his face. I immediately sensed that something was amiss. I did not know what. One of the uniform, a dark-skinned man with a pot belly, assuming I would definitely speak English if not French, asked me what I, and the Italian man, were doing down there. To take some pictures? What’s the matter?

I was asked to show my passport. I produced it. They couldn’t find the Swiss visa. Interrogation began. How the heck did I enter the country? Well, I have the UK student visa. Yeah but, this is not UK! Yeah, this isn’t BUT….but…(could he possibly know that at that time Third World passport holders like me were exempted from obtaining Swiss visa, provided we had a multiple British visa stamped in our passports, to enter Switzerland for the sole purposes of tourism?) I began to explain. He didn’t listen. Suddenly the visa lost its importane. It apparently didn’t matter to him anymore.

A view of Lac Léman from the ferry

Next thing I knew he wanted to do a body search on me. Shucks. Well, no way in the world I could refuse. So I let him. Nothing objectionable was found. How much money I was carrying? A few hundreds Swiss Francs. So? Show you? Ok. I did not dare ask why he wanted to see my money. I, being a South Asian alien apparently without a Swiss visa, were a deliciously prime suspect of deliberate misunderstanding and could easily land into prison for offences unknown and unheared. I didn’t want to be another entry in their police registers. I just wanted to get rid of those two monsters and leave that haunted nook.

I took out my money from the belt round my waist and handed over to him. He searched through the stash of cash as if trying to find something tucked in between the notes. Then he began to count it. The other, the one with the pot belly, who was doing most of the interrogation, snuggled up to me and put his arm across my shoulders, pointing with the other hand over the fence across the other end of the lake. I followed his pointed finger as a reflex. “You know”, he said, “this place is dangerous.” He dropped his finger. I dropped my gaze. Confused and uncertain, I turned to look at his face. “Drug dealers come here”, he continued, pointing at the floor, “and sell drugs to tourists like you”. (It came as a relief to learn that I was a tourist). Oh ok. I got it. Sorry. I won’t come here again. My money please?

I got back my stash of cash. The bewildered Italian tourist was made to go through the similar procedure. But his wallet was not taken for inspection, neither his passport demanded, nor the cash on him counted. Then they both turned, up the stairs, got into their mobile, and left as abruptly as they had come.

Later during the day, when I counted my cash, I realised that almost half of it was missing. That night in my hotel room, disturbed and anguished, as I leafed through my LonelyPlanet, I read a sentence which made me laugh hysterically. The Swiss police are the most effective and least corrupt in all of Europe, declared the travel guide assuredly, right in my face.

Note: All pictures are my own unless stated otherwise.

A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear by Atiq Rahimi

Translated from Dari by Sarah Maguire and Yama Yari

(First published 2006)

It is a work of fiction from an Afghan expat which has been translated neatly into English. The regime of Hafizullah Amin and Nur Muhammad Taraki, who deposed Daoud Khan, the president of the short lived Republic of Afghanistan (1973-1978), forms the background of the story.

Two friends who are not involved in political activity are taken for rebels when, one night, in a state of merry drunkenness, they are found in breach of the curfew hours in the city of Kabul.

The narrative starts with a confused, nauseous and nightmarish monologue of the main character, Farhad, who regains consciousness at a strange place but cannot make out where he is and what has happened to him.

After a painful attempt to make sense of his surroundings, he begins to piece together his thoughts as he rewinds the events of the last night. He remembers being rescued from a sewer by a woman and taken to a dark and quiet place. The woman has a young son who thinks his father has returned after a long absence. In fact, as we later learn, the husband of the woman was killed in a political upheaval a few years ago.

Farhad wants to leave the place and return to his family in the other part of town. His mother and siblings must be worried about his sudden disappearance. But he cannot leave the house as the street outside is strewn with jackboots in search of would-be rebels.

The woman and her somewhat irritating but endearing child take care of Farhad. The mysterious and quiet posture of the woman intrigues him as he wants to know more about her. His heart kindles with amorous feelings for her as he learns about her plight. He wants to do something for them, but in fact, it is he who needs to be done something about as his life is in danger.

His mother is informed and she arranges for a trafficker to escort him to Pakistan where his father, who walked out on his mother with a second wife, lives. Farhad is forced to leave the country against his will. He has no choice; he must go in order to save his life.

He is rolled up in a carpet and put in a jeep and a long and perilous journey to Afghan-Pak border begins. He arrives at the border town where he is supposed to spend the night before crossing over to Pakistan. There, due to his being a clean-shaved, jeans-wearing Kabulite, he is mistaken for a “godless communist” by the devout village-dwellers. They chase him out of the mosque and subject him to torture till he bleeds. The novel ends there.

It is an emotional saga of Afghanistan’s war torn families, their broken dreams, wasted aspirations and a life of continued war and famine which is now in its fourth decade. The most important character in this novel is that of the rescuer woman. She comes across as extremely determined to do anything it takes to help the suffering, often to the point of putting her own life in danger.

My rating: 3/5. Find the book on AMAZON.

Shaykh Mufid by Tamima Bayhom-Daou

(First published 2005)

The book under review belongs to a series labelled “Makers of the Muslim World” conceived by Oneworld Publications, Oxford, UK. It is a highly readable biography of Abu ‘Abdullah Muhammad ibn Muhammad ibn al-Nu’man al-‘Ukbari al-Baghdadi, popularly known as Shaykh al-Mufid (949-1022), who was one of the most influential Shia Muslim scholars of the classical period. It also summarises the findings of modern academia on Mufid’s works, his place in Shia scholarly tradition and his influence on the subsequent generations of Shia scholars.

Contrary to my expectations this book turned out to be a non-specialised account written for basic readers who do not have prior acquaintance with Shia theology and jurisprudence. The author says in the preface that this book is mainly written from secondary sources, that is, recent modern work done on Shaykh Mufid’s thought which is highly specialised and therefore inaccessible to general readers. However, he makes use of primary source material including, but not limited to, Shaykh Mufid’s “Kitab al-Irshad”, which he translates as “The Book of Guidance”.

Shaykh Mufid was born only eight years after the Greater Occultation of the Twelfth Imam (began AD 941) and lived and taught mostly in Baghdad. Around the time of his birth, the Abbasid caliphate came under the control of Perisan Buyids who became the de facto rulers in Baghdad as well as in Western Persia where they had already established their empire. These Buyid rulers were of Zaidi Shia persuasion, most not all, but they allowed a remarkable degree of independence to all Islamic sects to practice their religion and engage in debates, discussions and polemics on theological issues. It was during this time that the Shia Itha `Asharis (Twelvers) were allowed to hold their religious events publicly. The Shia Ithna `Ashari scholars took full advantage of the safe environment and disseminated their teachings and engaged openly in debates with their opponents. Shaykh Mufid, during these circumstances, led the Shia Ithna `Asharis from the front.

Shaykh Mufid is credited with introducing an increased role of reason in Shia theology and jurisprudence. During the time of the Minor Occultation (AD 874–941) and earlier, traditional Shia scholarship was concentrated solely on transmitting hadith reports from the Imams. Shia scholars at that time made minimal use of interpretative reasoning to explain away certain laws and beliefs as reached them from the hadith. The most important and historically immediate theologian of that approach was al-Kulayni who had already composed his collection of hadith reports under the title of al-Kafi (The Sufficient).

Ibn Babuya al-Qummi, a teacher of Shaykh Mufid, in his theological works relied almost exclusively on traditional sources, preferring to quote Quran and hadith reports and ascribing them sole authoritorial and explanatory power over his own interpretative words. In Qummi’s view kalam as a theological discipline was superfluous; he believed that all the necessary rational arguments had been formulated by the Imams themselves and might already be found in hadith reports. Shaykh Mufid criticised his teacher’s viewpoint and argued in favour of a role of reason and defended the use of kalam.

Shaykh Mufid is said to be influenced by the rational theology of Mu`tazili school of thought. Despite, he did not make reason as one of the sources of religious knowledge as Mu`tazila had done. Rather, he regarded reason essentially as a means of constructing arguments in the defense of doctrines which have already been established by revelation and hadith. Recent research, argued the book, has rather incorrectly concluded that Shaykh Mufid single-handedly shifted Shia scholarship from one that relied on traditionalist approach to one which was reason-oriented, much in the imitation of the Mu`tazila. The author disputes these findings and suggests that it was a gradual shift which had started in the latter part of the 9th century, the time when Minor Occultation began, and continued till the end of 10th century. Mufid was an instrumental link in the two approaches in that he employed the methods of interpretive reasoning more rigorously than any one had done before him. Later, his students took it further and dominated Shia scholarship for the next century or so. Shaykh Mufid’s famous students included Shaykh Tusi and the brothers Murtada and Radi. This concludes the central argument of the book.

Further, the book is divided into chapters detailing Shaykh Mufid’s positions on various historical, theological and jurisprudential issues as well as his disagreements with other Ithna `Ashari scholars before him and with non-Ithna `Ashari Shia like the Zaydiya. Two chapters outline his views on the Imamate as proved from historical accounts (like the event of Ghadeer Khum) and from theological arguments (like the necessity of having an Imam at all times). The other two chapters provide a brief summary of Mufid’s theology and jurisprudence.

The scholars of Minor Occultation and later period were particularly hard pressed by the objections of the non-Shia who ridiculed the concept of Imamate and denied the existence of the Twelfth Imam as a fantasy. It was a period of transition for the Shia scholarship; from near-complete reliance on the words of a living Imam to complete independence in the wake of Greater Occultation. Before that, physically present Imams directed them in religious and other matters; now they were left to their own devices with the job of satisfying perplexed believers without any direct guidance from an infallible Imam.

Some Shia scholars of the day rejected ijtihad (interpretive reasoning); they believed that every problem a believer might possibly face could already be found in hadith reports from the Imams, and that no “new cases” could ever come up for which ijtihad (interpretive reasoning) or qiyas (analogical reasoning) might be required. Shaykh Mufid appeared to have accepted this view but later changed it in favour of ijtihad as being a necessary tool to deal with “new cases”, for he realised the inevitability of new cases for which there was no precedence in the Islamic scriptural canon, and therefore a qualified scholar had to indulge in ijtihad (as opposed to qiyas) to find a hukm (ruling) in line with the Shariah.

Thus, in conclusion, Shaykh Mufid stands as vital link in the Shia Ithna `Ashari scholarship which, in times of confusion and perplexity caused by the absence of an infallible guide, found it hard to answer its opponents and satisfy its believers. The methods of interpretive reasoning introduced by Mufid in Shia scholarship were to reach new heights in the times of his students, who in their turn were some of the biggest names in Shia scholarship.

My rating 4/5. The book is on AMAZON.

The Leopard and the Fox: A Pakistani Tragedy by Tariq Ali

(First published 2006)

This short drama set in Pakistan chronicles the last years (1977-1979) of the government of Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, his overthrow in a military coup, and finally his execution at the hands of the military junta led by General Zia-ul-Haq through the connivance of a tainted judicial process.

BBC commissioned Tariq Ali to write the screenplay for the documentary they had planned on the said military coup leading up the execution of Z.A. Bhutto. They suddenly abandoned the project when everything was ready and the documentary was about to go on air. The BBC, as the screenwriter soon found out, was pressured by the British government to either censor the documentary, or failing that, abandon it altogether. The part where the author alleges that the United States gave the green light to General Zia-ul-haq to hang Bhutto became the bone of contention.

The US and UK were at good terms with the military junta in power because it was helping them fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The intimate relations between the US-UK and Pakistani military junta could be at risk if the documentary had been aired with the “objectionable” content as it might have angered the general. The final say rested with Tariq Ali when BBC, bowing to the government pressure, offered a censored, watered-down version to him. Tariq Ali refused to budge and therefore the documentary was shelved for good. The official reason given by the BBC, however, was that the content of the documentary were potentially libelous. It was, of course, a red herring.

The play starts with the depiction of a politically charged atmosphere in the country in the aftermath of the national elections in which Bhutto is reelected for the second term in office. There is ample evidence of widespread ballot rigging. The opposition demands nothing less than fresh elections. As Bhutto government and the opposition enter into intense talks to hammer out a solution amid continued street unrest, the military led by General Zia-ul-haq, fearful of loosing its power and finances, is plotting a coup in order to get rid of Bhutto for good.

The military top brass views Bhutto with extreme suspicion and contempt. The national and foreign policies of Bhutto government are increasingly angering the United States, The army, by virtue of Cold War alliances with the United States, depends heavily on US aid for its proper functioning. Wary of Bhutto’s policies, the US threatens to withdraw its aid and/or put embargos on Pakistan if Bhutto does not change his socialist policies. Even though Pakistan is US ally in the Cold War, Bhutto during his time in office attempts to cultivate cordial relations with China as well as warm up to the Soviet Russia. This also doesn’t sit well with the US officials. Furthermore, his public proclamations to develop a nuclear bomb at any cost further jeopardises the relationship between Pakistani establishment (led by military) and the United States. This, then, becomes the raison d’être of the coup. The military wants to take advantage of the country’s current unrest and oust the prime minister.

The scene is set. The drama unfolds. A couple of top generals, however a minority, do not support the idea of a coup. They are threatened with serious consequences or silenced with incentives, thereby eliminating all opposition to the coup within the military save one general who tries to warn the prime minister in subtle terms. Bhutto, being carefree and whimsical as he was, dismisses that general’s concerns with a wave of hand, naively believing that the chief has no guts to pull such a stunt. It is the same chief who Bhutto promoted to that position over five senior generals, thinking he’d be the right guy for him. However, that was not to be. The coup happens, Bhutto is put under house arrest and a sinister plot is hatched with the connivance of the Supreme Court. Bhutto is found, in a complete travesty of judicial norms, guilty of political murder during his prime ministership and therefore sentenced to death by hanging.

This play is written with much better care than the other one about the BCCI that I reviewed earlier. It depicts the historical events craftily, the characters are strong especially of Bhutto, the dialogue delivery is poignant, and the sequence of scenes with two parallel storylines keeps the reader interested throughout the play. I enjoyed it a lot.

My rating 4/5. Find it on AMAZON

Chero Hath Na Murli by Ashoo Lal Faqir

چھیڑو ہتھ نہ مرلی – اشو لال فقیر

(First published 1989; Language: Saraiki)

A fascinating collection of poems in Saraiki, the language spoken in central Pakistan*. I was unprepared for the immense referential scope of the poems which, despite their modern dress-up, are steeped in the classical metaphor of Saraiki poetry. Many poems are peppered with folkloric and mythological references, which demands a good knowledge of the Indic classical world to fully comprehend them.

Most strikingly, there are many poems referencing and modeled on characters and stories from the Hindu mythology, linking the troubles of the present to that of the past, tied to the terrestrial scope of the land where today the language is spoken, the land which once was a very important part of the ancient Hindu civilisation. Multan, the old cosmopolitan Mulsthana , was the city where the famousSun Temple had stood in ancient times, on whose imaginary ruins still lie the ruins of another, latter-day, temple. Although it is no more than a mound today and archaeologists have failed to unearth any historical evidence of the lost temple, it is alive in the collective lore of the city, through the legends that have come down to us.

I digress, but Ashoo Lal Faqir, our poet, by bringing the past into the present socio-political milieu, seems to position himself as a keeper and reminder of the tradition which has all but forgotten under Muslim influence, and particularly after the Partition of British India. In that respect these poems represent a unique and lone voice in modern Saraiki poetry and one that I cherished as I read these poems with great relish, understanding some metaphors and missing others, under the grip of a newborn nostalgia for the past long lost.

*Indo-European language, today written in Persian-derived script, although a small number of speakers in India also use Devanagri. I’m a native speaker of the language.

Re-read and rewritten the review July 2016

Saadat Hasan Manto: Selected Stories

(Translated from Urdu by Khalid Hasan; first published 2007)

Saadat Hasan Manto (1912-1955) is widely acclaimed as one of the best short story writers of Urdu. He broke away from traditional story writing (epitomized by Maulvi Nazir Ahmad) and laid the foundation of progressive fiction in Urdu. His genius lay in writing about topics which were hitherto considered social taboos in Indo-Pakistani society. His stories mostly revolve around characters previously thought as too “unimportant” for pristine literature, such as prostitutes, pimps, thieves, tonga-walas, sewage-cleaners and generally about women under male patriarchy. Socioeconomic inequality and brutal criticisms of the nobility and supposedly respectable people are some of the currents running through his fiction.

Psychoanalysis is the defining theme of his stories. He links it with the study of human behaviour especially of acts of mass insanity in times of unrest. Further, he is credited with the creation of a particular subgenre exclusive to the Subcontinental literature. Partition literature, as it is popularly called, stories and novels revolving around the human tragedy of the partition of the Subcontinent into India and Pakistan in the wake of Independence from British rule, is a rich and diverse subgenre, with new writings still being produced. The other major theme is his insistence on writing openly about sex lives of his characters; openly enough that he was dragged to the court under British obscenity laws.

I have read Manto in original Urdu since my teenage and have always enjoyed the simplicity of his language and spontaneity of his characters. This is the first time I have read translations in English. This collection boasts some of his most important stories, including “Toba Tek Singh”, translated variously as “The Lunatic Asylum”, and “Exchange of Lunatics”. Sometimes it goes by its original name, since Toba Tek Singh is the name of the main protagonist as well as a small city in the Punjab, now in Pakistan.

“Toba Tek Singh” is the story set in an insane asylum or madhouse. After the partition of British India and the creation of independent India and Pakistan the governments of both countries decided that, just as they had exchanged populations, civil servants and military assets, they ought to exchange clinically insane interned in their respective jail-like madhouses. So Muslim inmates from India were to be shifted to Pakistan and Hindu/Sikh inmates were supposed to move to Indian madhouses.

The story gives a harrowing account of the unrest that ensued in the madhouse of Lahore whose Hindu and Sikh inmates didn’t want to be separated from their Muslim friends. In the confusion that followed, the people who were supposedly insane behaved most sensibly and those who were sane resorted to utter madness. It’s a scathing critique on the ethic of mass scale population exchanges that followed the partition of the Indian Subcontinent, which, at that time, in 1947, was the biggest ever population exchange ever in the world.  It’s an excellent story. Other stories I particularly like are “The Return”, “A Woman’s Life”, “A Man of God”, “The Last Salute” and “The Blouse”.

“The Return”, sometimes translated to the effect of its literal Urdu title as “Open it” (Khol Do) is a story of a Muslim girl who escapes with her father to Pakistan when the rest of her family is killed in partition riots. They are separated from each other on their way to the safety of Pakistan. Her father, upon reaching his dream country, enlists the help of Pakistani volunteers who are keeping guard at the new borders and are also in the process of retrieving stranded Muslims in Indian Punjab which, by now, has become a cauldron of riots. They finally retrieve and bring the girl back to Pakistan, but only after she has been kept in confinement and raped several times by the same men who were supposed to protect her. The father, upon seeing his daughter alive, jumps in utter joy and thanks the paramilitary volunteers without realising what has happened.

A note on the translation: I am not impressed with the quality of the translation. Khalid Hasan, the translator, is otherwise a fine translator but I feel that he hasn’t truly captured the essence of the linguistic style of Manto in English. In fact, reading some stories, Manto sounds like a language disaster. He comes off as having his hand on the social pulse but fails to articulate it in good language. Is it perhaps because the simplicity and spontaneity of Manto is best suited to Urdu and not fully translatable into English? I can’t say. There is another translation of a selection of Manto’s stories by Aatish Taseer, the son of the assassinated Punjab governor Salman Taseer. I am going to read it for comparative purposes as soon as I get the book. Despite, I will give 4/5 to this collection. It’s available on AMAZON.

Sectarian War: Pakistan’s Sunni-Shia Violence and its links to the Middle East by Khaled Ahmed

(First published 2011)

This book is one of the most comprehensive and impartial accounts of sectarianism in Pakistan. It evaluates the development and solidification of Pakistan’s religion-based nationalist discourse through the decades and charts the origins and politics of Pakistani sectarian organisations and explains how the Sunni-Shia schism in the Middle East was shifted to Pakistan in the wake of the Islamic Revolution of Iran, and how it turned into a proxy war between Iran and Sunni Arab states led by Saudi Arabia with the connivance of Pakistani military dictator Zia-ul-Haq. The book further links recent sectarian violence in and out of Pakistan with the shift in Al-Qaida’s focus to include Muslim targets which were perceived to be “collaborating” with the West in the so called War on Terror. Read below for details:

After gaining Independence from Britain, the Pakistani leadership attempted to divide people on the basis of religion, into Muslims and non-Muslims, under what the they termed as “the ideology of Pakistan”. This attempt at carving a uniform and homogenous identity in an otherwise extremely diverse country, with a mosaic of different Islamic sects, cultures, languages, ethnicities and, indeed, religions, was bound to turn the society into a cesspit of sectarianism. This not only led to the exclusion of non-Muslim religious minorities, who were practically delegated to the status of second class citizens, it also led to the chastisement of minority Muslim sects who were seen by some sections of Sunni majority as deviant and therefore, outside the pale of Islam.

The first practical expression of this ideology reached its crescendo in anti-Ahmadis riots of 1952 (a sect considered heretical by mainstream Muslims). The lack of meaningful state policy to deal with the outlandish demands of mainstream Islamic parties led, in 1974, to the declaration of Ahmadis as “heretics” and therefore “non-Muslim” by the democratically elected government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. It was just the beginning. It was only a matter of time before sectarian groups turned on other minority Muslim sects. Shia Muslims, by logical extension, became their next target.

The book then focuses on the history and dynamics of anti-Shia politics in Pakistan. The most vehement opposition against Shia community came from the Deobandi sect of Sunni Islam which is ideologically closer to the puritanical Wahhabi sect (the official religion of Saudi Arabia) than Barelvi branch of Sunni Islam, which happens to be the largest Islamic sect in Pakistan. Three major factors contributed to the systematic targeting of Shia.

First, the success of the Islamic Revolution of Iran and the perception that it supported Pakistani Shia against that country’s Sunnis. The Arab Sunnis, fearful of Iran exporting its Revolution to countries like Pakistan, moved in to counter Iran by arming anti-Shia sectarian groups in Pakistan. Second, the rise to power of Islamist Zia-ul-Haq, a Deobandi army general whose religious sympathies lay with Saudi Arabia. And third, the US-Saudi backed Jihadi resistance to Soviet invasion of Afghanistan which further strengthened the Deobandi sectarian-cum-jihadi groups.

Anti-Shia edicts were already pouring in from certain Deobandi seminaries of Pakistan in the 50s, 60s and 70s but with little appeal. Pakistani politics and the society were not yet polarized to the point of these edicts having any larger, practical effect. However, in 1986, when the afore-mentioned three major factors were in full swing, an Indian Deobandi scholar called Manzur Naumani, fearful of the Islamic Revolution of Iran and its outreach, published a collection of religious edicts from classical Sunni jurists to the contemporary scholars with the singular aim of apostatising the Shia Muslims. It had a profound effect on sectarian politics in Pakistan.

Naumani’s anti-Shia credentials were already established with the publication of a polemic against Ayatullah Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic Revolution of Iran. An organisation funded by Saudi Arabia, Rabita al-`Alam al-Islami, tr. Muslim World League, commissioned the said polemic to be translated, among other languages, into Arabic and English. Some Pakistani Deobandi scholars lauded Naumani’s anti-Shia anthology and circulated it widely among their seminaries and general public. Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), the flagship Shia-killing politico-sectarian outfit, was created just a year ago, in 1985, with the tacit approval of General Zia-ul-Haq who was fearful of Iranian Revolution spilling into Pakistan. Naumani’s anthology couldn’t have come out at a better time.

The mayhem started.

The book documents major Shia massacres committed by Saudi funded Deobandi outfits during the ‘80s, including the Parachinar massacre and the Gilgit massacre of Isma’ili Shia. The Shia Turi tribe of Parachinar (concentrated in border regions with Afghanistan which was then a major supply route of so called Mujahidin fighting the Soviets) did not cooperate as they naturally looked toward newly formed Islamic Shia government in Iran. For instance, the famous Allamah Arif Hussain al-Hussaini, later assassinated, was a Turi Shia with intimate ties with Iranian leader Ayatullah Khomeini. This did not sit well with the Saudi-backed jihadi groups.

The sectarian conflict was, in large measure, one-sided. The Sunni sectarian groups killed Shia without discrimination. On the contrary, the Shia militant group, Sipah-e-Muhammad (SeM), created specifically to defend Shia properties and lives didn’t participate in the killing of ordinary Sunnis. Instead it targeted those Sunni elements which were responsible for inciting the killings of Shia and took part in it. In effect, the sectarian conflict of the ‘80s, thanks largely to the policies of General Zia-ul-Haq, was politicised to such an extent that it become a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, who supported their respective loyal groups with arms and money, turning Pakistan into a cesspool of sectarianism.

The last section of the book takes a critical look at the sectarian shade in the politics of Al-Qaida. The author links Shia killing in and outside Pakistan post 9/11 with Al-Qaida’s policies. Not many view Al-Qaida as having a sectarian nature, which, according to the author, is a view based on limited information.

So long as Al-Qaida, lead by Osama bin Laden, remained under the influence of its ideologue, Abdullah Azzam, it prime focus was to target and harm Christian and Jewish “infidels”. However, an important shift took place within the terrorist organisation when it fell under the influence of Ayman al-Zawahiri. He expanded the target base to include Muslim “collaborators” and made them the prime target of attacks. Henceforth almost all Muslim countries and Muslim minorities unsympathetic to Al-Qaida became potential targets. The Shia Muslims, who did not share Al-Qaida’s view of Jihad, were viewed, in the case of Iraq, as collaborating with the United States and therefore legitimate targets. Al-Zawahiri allowed the rabidly anti-Shia Al-Qaida operative, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, to attack the Shia in Iraq.

Even before this development Al-Qaida accepted within its ranks those jihadist militants who doubled as part-time Shia killers in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Thus the author concludes that Al-Qaida and its militant allies, unlike previously believed, have a distinct sectarian nature. The book also includes a study of inter-Sunni violence between Deobandi/Ahl-e-Hadith and Barelvi schools. Most attacks were aimed at Barelvis who were viewed by hardline Deobandi sectarian groups as not being “Muslim enough” and therefore legitimate targets.

This book is a scathing indictment on the role Deobandi militant nexus played in turning Pakistan into a cesspit of sectarianism and terrorism. A big share of blame lies with the Pakistani establishment which fostered ties with those groups in pursuit of strategic advantage in Kashmir and Afghanistan at the cost of great social instability at home and abroad. It’s a must read for those who want to acquaint themselves with the intricacies of sectarianism in Pakistan and Islamist terrorism in the region.

My rating definitely 5/5. Look it up on AMAZON.

The Balkans: From the End of Byzantium to the Present Day by Mark Mazower

(First published 2000)

The “Eastern Question” in Western parlance refers to the Balkans or, broadly speaking, Southeastern Europe. For long Western intellectuals have tried to create a context for the history of the mostly Christian Orthodox former colonies of the Ottoman empire and their relative place in Europe as a whole. The book under review also attempts to do just that but with a different perspective.

The main thrust of the argument of this book is two-fold: First, to show that the Ottoman ruled Balkans were thriving societies; culturally, socially and economically as opposed to miserable and backward ‘lost lands’ of Europe under the brutal and barbarian rule of the Turks, a view famous with Western intelligentsia well into the second half of the 20th century.

Second, the genesis of the political and social upheavals which have marked the Balkans since their independence from the Ottoman rule (the latest being the Serb-led genocide of Bosniaks and Croats in the ’90s) lay not in their cultural barbarity borrowed from their previous Ottoman masters, but rather it is rooted in the European ideology of language and race-based nationalism, whose ultimate aim is to create centralised, homogenous nation-states. Time has come to expand on both.

One marked difference between the peasant societies of the Balkans and their North European counterparts was that there was near-absence of feudal holdings in the former. The land belonged to the Sultan, people tilled it and shared the produce in the form of taxes with the imperial government. In North Europe, feudals held sway and literally owned their serfs like chattel. Through this the writer concludes that peasants in Ottoman Europe had far greater social and economic freedom than anywhere in the Europe (This however, changed a good deal in the latter part of Ottoman rule when things began to go awry for the Imperial state).

The dividing factor between the people was solely religion. Muslims, by virtue of the nature of the system, had it better. Christian and Jews were protected religions as per official view of Islam. This sanction allowed the Christians to retain not only their religion but also their languages, and consequently, their cultures. So neither the imperial religion nor the imperial language was forced down the throats of the masses. So much so that at one point Christians in the service of imperial court in Constantinople were so numerous that Greek, and Slavic languages were given preference over Turkish in official proceedings. In part due to geography, in part economy and in part the policies of the imperial state, the Balkans became diverse, racially, linguistically and religiously.

The weakening hold of Ottomans on their colonies in the Balkans coincided with increasingly assertive Tzarist Russia and Austro-Hungarian empires as well as rising powers of Britain and France. As Balkan countries started to gain independence, the first one being Greece, the new linguistic nationalists were posed with a problem. How to create homogenous nation-states with a single language (and later with a single language and a single ethnicity) in a landscape so diverse and mixed. In the end they ended up creating nation-states, spread over a period of many decades, which had large linguistic, ethnic and religious minorities (Albanians and Turks in Greece, Albanians in Serbia, Bulgarians in Romania, Greek, Turks, Jews in Macedonia, Greeks in Anatolia and in all major urban ex-Ottoman towns) and didn’t know what to do with them.

The writer argues that the ideology of language and/or race based nationalism which took root gradually in Northern Europe was suddenly thrust upon the whole population of the ex-Ottoman Europe. This led to large scale population exchanges (Greeks in Anatolia were sent to Greece and Turks and Albanians driven to their respective lands. Similar exchanges took place in other Balkan countries as well), massive uprooting of people, destruction of their economic lives, and finally a violent conflict with perpetuates itself to this day.

The newly independent countries adopted capitalist economics after the total dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. This failed as democratic institutions were weak and under the sway of larger powers who used them as their pawns in the larger struggle for their respective empires. Further, the Wall Street collapse of the ’30s put an end to all hopes the nascent democracies of the Balkans might have of delivering to the people. The WWII changed things when the Balkans save Greece came under the control of Communism. It led to massive industralisation and rapid urbanisation, ending the peasant nature of their economies and lifting the peasantry out of their perpetual hunger. The three decades after Stalin-Churchill pact were most productive period for the Balkans until Communist system began to loose out to globalised Capitalist economy led by the US.

The writer puts forth the observation that the fissures and fractures induced by nationalism since the independence of Greece in the 1830s, through mid-19th century and until the WWII, when maps and populations in the Balkans changed every few years, didn’t die away during the Communist period. They were harshly controlled as Communism saw itself beyond language, race and culture. But as soon as Communism gave way, the old questions surfaced again. The experiment of Yugoslavia is an example of that. The situation in Bosnia and Kosovo was another sorry chapter of the same phenomenon.

Ironically, the author says, just as it appears that the Balkans might have solved their language and ethnic-based nationalist issues, the rest of the world (read developed West) has moved on. The creation of what is today called “multicultural societies” is the exact opposite of what the Balkans have been fighting for all along, until a couple decades ago, and much more closer to how they had lived under the Ottoman rule, i.e, in multi-x societies – a label which fits a typical Ottoman town of, say 1730, to a tee.

History repeats itself?

Having all things considered, the book categorically rejects the idea that there is something fundamentally wrong with the cultures of the Slavs which, having been ‘cut off’ from the ‘civlised European motherland’, have been tainted and brutalised during the 500 or so years of Muslim rule, a view which has been the mainstay of mainstream Western academia until recently.

There are so many other fascinating things which I must leave out and end this review or it will go on and on. My only criticism is that the author has tried to pack too much info in such a small volume – and my review reflects it. The book should have been the double of its meager size.

My book rating: 5/5. Find it on AMAZON.

The Company of Women by Khushwant Singh

(First published 2003)

It is a story of a millionaire Indian businessman, Mohan Kumar, who is trapped in a loveless marriage. He breathes the proverbial sigh of relief when his wife finally walks out on him with a divorce. Disillusioned, lonely and with a belief that the foundation of love is nothing but lust, he embarks upon a scheme of remarkable proportions.

He puts up advertisements in the national dailies for “paid love companions”, as temporary partners, to join him at his residence, for so long as it is fulfilling to either of them, in exchange for, among other things, handsome monetary benefits. Contrary to his expectations a surprisingly large number of women respond to his offer. And there begins a long narrative of raunchy sex scenes which reads quite like a cheap pornographic flick.

Khushwant calls this novel “fantasies of an octogenarian” for he finished writing it at the “youthful” age of 85, when, according to him, a man’s “sex instincts travel from his middle to his head”. An amusing cliché leave every recruited companion exclaiming hysterically, in bliss, of the massive phallus the protagonist commands, as soon as they set sight on it.

Reading between the lines the reader can vaguely discern a critique on the sexual ethics of Indian middle class and the taboos associated with it. The ending succinctly brings the point home. The free sex life of the protagonist ends in a lonely and bitter death as he catches Aids to which he finally succumbs.

My rating 2/5. The link from AMAZON.

Delhi by Khushwant Singh

(First published 1990)

It’s an usual novel; in part historical fiction and in part an invented story; in part a collection of independent short stories and in part a tale of a degenerate Delhiwala, but, taken in whole, it is an extremely rich depiction of the history and culture of Delhi.

It is, primarily, a story of the city of Delhi from the medieval till modern times. Two sets of narratives run simultaneously. First is the story of a journalist who returns to his native city after “having his fill of whoring in foreign lands”. Out of work, he sets out to explore his native city in the footsteps of an archeology historian. He accidently meets a hermaphrodite prostitute, a hijra, falls in love with her and moves her to his house. Through their dialogue, their outings and picnics, and their uninhibited sexual encounters, the geography and culture of Delhi comes alive.

The second set of stories is stand alone, independent pieces of narrative set in important periods of the history of Delhi. The stories are brilliantly told in the first person of figures such as Nadir Shah, Emir Taimur (Tamerlene), Aurangzeb Alamgir, Mir Taqi Mir and Bahadur Shah Zafar. They were prominent people, the attackers and the defenders, who tell their stories as they must have lived them.

There are more characters set in the times of Ghiyasuddin Balban and Khawaja Nizamuddin Auliya which take the reader back in time and make them a part of the setting. There is a semi autobiographical story of an entrepreneurial family which plays a major role in laying the foundations of a new city off the historical metropolis of Delhi, which was soon to be known as New Delhi, now the capital of India.

In the end, the novel narrates first person accounts of the upheaval of Partition and ends with the murder of thousands of Sikhs on the streets of Delhi in the wake of the assassination of Indra Gandhi. It’s an excellent read for anyone interested in the history of not only Delhi but of the whole Indian Subcontinent. My rating 5/5. Get it on AMAZON.