Stranger to History

Aatish Taseer

Taseer is the son of Indian journalist Tavleen Singh and a Pakistani businessman-cum-politician Salman Taseer. He grows up in Delhi with his Sikh mother and her family after his father abandons her mother and his infant self in London, studies in a boarding school down south, goes to college in America and works as a reporter in London with Time, before embarking on a quite ambitious book at the age of 27.

Stranger to History is an account of Taseer’s travels through the Islamic world in a quest to dig deeper into his Muslim heritage. This journey is the consequence of a harsh critical letter from his father accusing him of betraying his Islamic legacy when he writes an article about radical Islam in Britain. The book is a record of his impressions as an outsider (with an insider’s name and background – Islam considers him Muslim because his father is) of a world that is quite the ‘other’ for the rest of us. Taseer fuses this record of a journey with glimpses into his personal story – his on-off relationship with his father and his Pakistani family, growing up in a Sikh family with an absent Muslim father. The result is a book tasting of searing and brave honesty.

Taseer’s first stop in the book is Turkey. Having just finished Elif Shafak’s The Bastard of Istanbul, Taseer’s Turkey seems familiar. It is a unique country in the Islamic world – a Muslim country whose founding hero bans the veil and where today Muslims live ‘in a Muslim country with a sense of persecution’, where ‘the link to the great Islamic past and the cultural threads to the larger Muslim are proscribed and broken’, where its ‘secularism was dogmatic, almost like a separate religion.’ He meets radical Muslims here, like Abdullah, who are hoping to revive the glorious Islamic past (the Caliphate which Ataturk destroyed) in a country that is so desperately trying for acceptance in the liberal western world. In a way, Turkey is the reverse of the rest of the Islamic world Taseer visits – elsewhere, the glorious Islamic past is the only history remaining.

Syria, under the closed, autocratic regime of Assad provides Taseer a look at a society where a mosque is the only place for people to congregate and discuss politics. He describes the foreigners flocking to Abu Nour, the Islamic university and mosque drawing people from all over the world, from Norway to Mali to Indonesia. Here, he masquerades as a Pakistani and learns how to pray. When the Danish embassy is attacked following the publication of the cartoons depicting the Prophet, Taseer learns how it feels to be in the midst of a crowd ready to kill and be killed for a cartoon published in a faraway country. He writes “The offensive cartoons could not have been understood Islamically. The democratic rights and interlocking institutions that protected them were outside the faith’s compass… the cartoons came from places that considered it an achievement for religion to be able to take a joke.”

And as Taseer travels through Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan, it is this point he keeps discovering. A literal Islam could not explain a modern day world – of democracy, of religion as personal and not political, of human rights and gender equality. And a cultural Islam (a more local, hybridized form, taking into account variations of culture) that could be a bridge is more and more in retreat; as Islam becomes more global, more homogenous. Yet he finds traces of this in the unlikeliest of places – in Iran, where Khomeini’s revolution wiped out a glorious pre-Islamic history and where today, he finds people resurrecting that awareness, voicing that sense of loss. Iran is a bit of a revelation – he meets a Hare Rama Hare Krishna follower, women who defy the cultural edicts, a rising undercurrent of rebellion. The Islamists are no longer the revolutionaries overthrowing a corrupt Shah; instead they are the establishment. But he is forced to leave Iran in a hurry, hounded out in his attempts to get below the surface of dissent.

Pakistan is almost a homecoming for Taseer, as he makes his way to his father and his current family. He discovers the family and a new country, yet neither his father nor his new country can make him feel as if he belonged. He finds a country whose basis is more the rejection of India than the assertion of Pakistan. The absence of a middle class was really the difference between the two countries, Taseer comments. And here again, he sees a rejection of a cultural Islam that could have bound the two nations and an assertion of a bare-bones Islamic tradition. That really then is Taseer’s discovery in all his travels. That cultural Islam is giving way to a narrower, literal religion, out of sync with the rest of the world. That this narrowing also comes with a miraculous “transfiguration of one’s culture and history, by either a profession of faith, or an inherited profession of faith.” And “what would it take to believe in a history like that?” he asks. It is clear what Taseer’s views are. Of his own roots, he says “ meant the possibility of a different education, of embracing the three-tier history of India whole, perhaps an intellectual troika of Sanskrit, Urdu and English. These mismatches were the lot of people with garbled histories, but I preferred them to violent purities. The world is richer in its hybrids.”

The unsatisfactory parts of the book are his excursions into his personal story – that of trying to find an absent father and not connecting with him when he does. At these points, you want to tell him to move on, to continue his observations of the world around him and discard the autobiography. The writing is average. It is what Taseer has to say rather than how he says it that makes this book a really fascinating read.


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