What would it take for a modern Sufi to lose his optimism? A lot, it seems. Raza Rumi has published yet another book called, Being Pakistani, and it has three things that will come in handy this post-election season: the effortlessness and readability with which he defines what being Pakistani means to him; the diversity of thought and of course the utter feminism of ancient Pakistan. This is why I find this book to be a great fit into my feminist book corner and for the first time ever, a male author is in it.
I jumped straight to the chapter where Rumi focuses on how Pakistan, ancient and present, has been obsessed with the cult of female. Be it the Sindhi folk women’s glorification; the temples that retain artifacts and statues of the Hindu Kali god or the several women heroines of folktales like Laila; Heer; Sohni or Sassi. Even now, Benazir Bhutto is revered deep enough to last a few hundred thousand years in our narratives. If you need evidence to learn if this land treated women with awe, read this book. If you want to know why then they treat women today like beetle dung, well, that is still being figured out. The question, however, is asked here in the book with astuteness and granularity: Why do Pakistanis worship-hate women.
If you need a confirmation that Pakistan was a puritan project that began with Mohammad Bin Qasim, then don’t turn to any of the chapters.
Pakistan was Hindu, Christian, Sikh, and Buddhist before it was Muslim, and Rumi calls for a double take on the past before we dig deep into the majoritarianism we pride ourselves on. He provides through poetry and song and music a Pakistan beyond the headlines. For those young people that voted for the party that’s now in power, this is no light reading. For those whose consciousness is rooted in Pakistan Studies textbooks published during the Afghan war, Rumi’s book may feel like a windy descend into a fatal fever.
Descend away; fevers are nature’s way of curing infections. The past can set us free every single time.
The author of Being Pakistani launched his book in leafy Islamabad, but amidst friends that were there to see him, it was evident that the mood was just as bittersweet as it was celebratory. I asked Rumi what he missed most about Pakistan since he left to be a Dean at Cornel University in the US. I asked him to list three things besides the bitter gourd meals he always brags about. After a heavy chuckle, he said, “I miss the intensity of seasons and the songs they bring; friends and family of course and the ability to converse in a language like Urdu where the jokes and insults alike are not lost upon people.”
4 years ago, Rumi conducted a TV show at prime time and warned young people of the perils of religious extremism and busted myths about the idea that Pakistan is singular and Sunni Muslim alone. He taught and wrote and spoke and he said over and over again: “There were people on this land before Mohammad Bin Qasim and there are people after him.”
In 2014, he was heading home with his driver when an unknown splinter terrorist group opened fire at his car in Lahore. Rumi survived, but his young driver did not. The killers were apparently caught, but even that could not guarantee Rumi’s safety in Pakistan.
Being Pakistani is a triumph of Rumi’s rebirth after that trauma, guilt, and burden. Reading it reminds one of how a human reading of History is both an antidote to violence and also a glue to patch one’s link with one’s phantom limbs and identity.
Rumi turned to the rootedness of stories this land tells us in order to be whole again. He lived in temporary exile in the US but continued to work on a free Pakistani press. The results of his observations and research in the book are like summer rain: sensorial rich and spiritually gentle.
Also, they are borderline bold: Rumi returns to the power the people of this land took away from the feminine when he quotes Laloon Fakir:
What mark does one carry when
One is born, or when one dies?
A Muslim is marked by the sign
Of circumcision; but how should
You mark a woman?
Three men who he says challenged gender roles were Kabir; Bulleh Shah and Laloon Faqir. These three men had an anti-priesthood approach; irreverence towards organized religion and the belief that one should not be unkind towards human beings because God dwells in the heart. These ideas reverberated across religion and class and found a unifying force in South Asia. These men’s shrines become places of catharsis for the brokenhearted – Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian, Buddhist etc. The breaking down of Sufi shrines we now hear in the newspapers by sectarian forces is a fairly recent phenomenon. The fact that shrines and sculptures of deities still existed in modern Pakistan, meant that regardless of who ruled, pluralism was a practice in this part of the world, not just a motto.
Rumi points out in the book that when Mohammad bin Qasim built a mosque, right underneath it, lay a Kali temple. “Pakistan is a place with unmistakable physical layers of History.” In his quest to make Pakistan anything but a single dimensional unit, Rumi repeats the diversity mantra: “Respect genealogies, because you will learn that we are more than what we are born into and yet, we are all still Pakistanis.”
Learning that we aren’t as special as we were told we were; that oppressors make up our ancestry; that women and men for eons in this land have deviated from what it meant to be male or female and that was both celebrated and condemned, also that and the people who were rebels of thought found their own tribe again and again in this land.
Today it would take a lot for Rumi to give up on Pakistan. Even at the cusp of the 2018 elections, marred by the rhetoric of division and self-righteousness, he said we should still celebrate the three-time transfer of power to a democratic government and also to find solace in our bright Pakistani youth that is seeking answers by looking further back than just a century ago.
When Rumi was shot at, I thought that the Pakistan I was living in and dreaming of was elsewhere. With him back, walking the streets, having its food and drinking in its music, I feel Pakistan has come back too. The love for a plural Pakistan must retreat when shot at and must return when the killers are taking a breather. May the Gods that have kept this land inclusive and humane, never let the schedules of the storytellers and the murderers converse.
Kishwar Naheed said it best at the book launch of Being Pakistani which took place at Kuch Khas in Islamabad: “Pakistan is Raza Rumi’s and Raza Rumi is Pakistan’s.”
More about the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Being-Pakistani-Society-Culture-Arts/dp/9352776054