Stranger to History: A Son’s Journey Through Islamic Lands, by Aatish Taseer
The publication of Stranger to History is likely to be turned into a fiery political event in Pakistan. The author is the half-Indian son of Salman Taseer, the glamorous and controversial Governor of the Punjab and one of Pakistan’s most important newspaper proprietors.The work is a heartfelt cry for attention from the old mogul, and with its talk of alcohol and of illicit liaisons it provides plenty of fuel for the Governor’s enemies.
But it will be a pity if Aatish’s first book — part family memoir, part an account of his journey through the heart of the radical Islamic world — is exploited by his father’s foes. This is a work that ought to be read by policy-makers in Whitehall and Washington as well as in Islamic countries — for its insights into the thinking of angry young Muslim men. Identity, imagined history, alienation and the idea of Islam as a nationality and a ‘mode of being’ are the recurrent themes of both narratives.
Aatish’s mother is an Indian Sikh and after his parents’ estrangement he grew up in Delhi. As a young adult he became close to his father’s second wife and his other children but struggled to establish the relationship he had wanted with Salman Taseer himself.
In 2005 he wrote for a British magazine about radicalised young Yorkshire Muslims, most of them of Pakistani extraction. He saw that they ‘felt neither British nor Pakistani, that they had rejected the migration of their parents, that as Muslims they felt free of these things’. Although a Muslim himself, Aatish admits that he knew little about his religion at that time and was intrigued by their ‘extra-national identity’.
Salman Taseer reacted with fury, describing the article as ‘invidious anti-Muslim propaganda’. Since he had earlier described himself as a ‘Cultural Muslim’, Aatish was bewildered by the ferocity of his father’s attack: ‘the hold of the religion, deeper than its commandments, of religion as nationality, was something that I, with my small sense of being Muslim, had never known.’
Stung, Aatish set out on a journey through the Dar al Islam, the land of the believers, in the hope of tying together ‘the new, energised Islamic identity working on young Muslims’ and his own late discovery of his father’s religion.
In the course of his travels the author shares a joint with Turkish conscripts on a train, finds himself caught up in violent protests over the notorious Danish cartoons in Syria and encounters Hare Krishna followers in Iran.
The adventures are colourful, but the importance of Stranger to History lies in Aatish’s conversations with the religionists he meets. He casts a gaze of almost childlike intensity on them, gravely describing their certainties about Islam and about the world outside. Bewildered by their dogmatism, he is nevertheless beguiled by the inclusiveness of the male Muslim world, the fraternity of the faith. Its comforts elude him, though.
If this book has a flaw it is that Aatish’s sensibility, through no fault of his own, is thoroughly secular. He simply does not understand religion. As he scrupulously describes what he encounters, endlessly gauging his own reactions, there is only an occasional glimpse of the beauty and simplicity of Islam. Of his time in Mecca he says, ‘I took as long as I wanted for the submission, which I liked’, adding ‘and although I had no prayers to say, I enjoyed the privacy.’
Relentlessly, the author questions what the idea of the Islamic world — to which his interlocutors constantly allude — really means, and concludes that the concept is used as a counterpoint to modernity. He hears talk of Muslims feeling robbed culturally, of the influence of foreign ideas, of modern genocide, ‘of racism, of the clutter of modernity — being bombarded by emails and adhering to drab routines — of children from mixed marriages, and of loss of identity, resulting from the large-scale migrations of the last 50 years’, and he comments that these scenarios define the modern experience. ‘There was nothing about them that was particular to Islam.’
In Turkey and in Syria, as in England, Aatish finds zealots insisting that Islam offers an alternative world on earth. In Iran he sees at first hand what a Shia attempt at theocratic rule has actually become. The faith that a Turkish interlocutor had described as ‘having something to say to the believer in every second of his life’ has been turned against the people of Iran. ‘Though Iranians had not known the great machines of socialist and Fascist repression, they knew a subtle, daily harangue’.
Moving East, Aatish arrives in his father’s land. Despite his upbringing abroad, he is deeply rooted there. When India was partitioned in 1947 his Punjabi Sikh grand- father opted for Pakistan: not only were his lands there but his regiment, the illustrious Probyn’s Horse, was going to Pakistan. The massacres of August 1947, however, forced him to move to Hindustan. In 1965 he found himself fighting against his own regiment and with some pride sent an artillery unit to accept the surrender of a Pakistani prisoner-of-war from Probyn’s Horse who refused to surrender to the infantry.
Although Aatish professes affection for Pakistan, this is clearly uncomfortable territory for him. The distractions of history, Pakistan’s and his own, crowd his time in his fatherland.
But, in the end, he comes to understand, and even to forgive, the Governor. Stranger to History closes with Aatish and Salman Taseer together in Lahore on the night of 27 December 2007. As the author watches his father, who had served both Bhuttos, stricken with grief and horror at Benazir’s assassination, he is overcome with tenderness. ‘I felt a great sympathy as I watched the man I had judged so harshly, for not facing his past when it came to me, muse on the pain of history in his country.’