Did you hear that the American Ambassador in Rome went and lit seven candles before the case containing the Shroud of Turin on behalf of President Barack Obama? Or, that the Secretary of State, John Kerry, ordered a diplomat from the American Consulate at Chennai to go and place flowers on the deity in the holiest temple at Thanjavur? I’m sure you did not. And for a very good reason—neither incident actually happened. I made them up just now to catch your attention. Now consider the following news as reported today (April 21, 2015) in some Urdu newspapers in India:

American President sent a chador [a ceremonial sheet of cloth] to the annual observation at the shrine of Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti at Ajmer.

All papers also published images to complement the news. Here is one report in the Sahafat (Lucknow). Chador at Ajmer 4:21

The caption reads: “Ajmer: At the occasion of the 803rd ‘Urs of Khwaja Mu’inuddin Chishti people are carrying the chador sent for presentation by the American President Barack Obama.” The same image appeared the same day in the Aag, another daily published from Lucknow, with some additional details:

report in Aag 4:21

Ajmer: A special chador was presented on behalf of the American President  Barack Obama at the 803rd ‘Urs of Khwaja Mu’inuddin Chishti.  Today was the first day of the six-day commemoration. Richard Verma, the American Ambassador to India had given this red sheet to Salman Chishti, an attendant at the shrine, on Thursday in Delhi. And today he, [i.e. Chishti], offered that sheet at the shrine and read out the message sent by the American President in which the latter had said that no matter what our beliefs and traditions we must strive to make Peace a certainty, and that we must spread light where there was darkness and love where there was hatred.

A different image was published in the daily Sahara in its New Delhi edition.

Sahara image

The headline reads, “American President sent a chador for the ‘urs of Khwaja Mu’inuddin Chishti.” The report mentions that it was given by the American Ambassador to an attendant of the shrine and was carried to the sacred grave by some “officials from the Embassy.”

Khwaja Mu’inuddin Chishti (d. 1236) was the founding saint of the Chishti Sufi order in India, and is popularly regarded as the “Head” of all Sufis in India. His ‘urs or the annual commemoration of “the day he joined his Beloved”—God—is celebrated in a grand manner. Over the years it has become common to read in the news about Bollywood stars of any age and Indian politicians of every hue visiting the shrine, and further displaying their devotion by offering elaborate chadors. These are usually draped over the grave of the saint for a while and then shared by the attendants or resold to another devout visitor.

Not having come across any previous indication of President Obama’s devotion to saints and shrines even of the Christian kind, I was quite intrigued by these reports. Bollywood celebrities and Indian politicians go to Ajmer to ensure success in their enterprises, both business and electoral. Ordinary folks visit the shrine hoping to get the saint to intercede with God on their behalf and let them have a child (preferably male), be ridden of some possessing spiri (male or female), escape conviction in some court case, succeed in examinations and interviews, get a job in Dubai or a visa to the United States, and so forth. But why, I wondered, should the President of the world’s greatest power and its most exceptional nation send a gaudy satin sheet to have it draped over the grave of a 13th century saint in a remote town in Rajasthan, India?

Then other questions came up. Did he pay for it personally, or did the Embassy buy it? And if it was the Embassy in New Delhi, then under what account did they list the expenditure to satisfy the General Accounting Office nitpickers? The last question revealed the whole story, for it was, as young people say, a “no brainer.” The money for that gaudy red satin sheet must have come from the funds earmarked “War on Terror; sub-category: Islamic Extremism.”

Obviously either the White House or the Embassy in India—probably both—has swallowed the latest snake oil being peddled by the experts on “Islamic Terror.” Turn all Sunni Muslims into Sufis, the latter declare, and the world will become safe from all the Wahhabis, Salafis, Deobandis, Ikhwan, Jama’atis, and other baddies. An attractive solution for many reasons. Just compare the price of a satin sheet with the cost of a missile fired from a drone. There is no collateral damage either. And it offers much better photo opportunities.

Curiously, only just recently, similar “experts” in New Delhi brought a bunch of Imams and Sufi shrine-keepers, led—you guessed it—by another caretaker from Ajmer, to meet with Prime Minister Modi. The worthies offered their “Sufi Islam” in the service of the new government. Here is an image of that historical meeting on April 6, 2015 as reported in Sahafat in its Delhi edition of April 8

. Ulama and Modi copy

Could it be that it was not some hapless junior officer at the Embassy but Prime Minster Modi, who recommended this low cost-high gain “sheet diplomacy” to his friend, admirer, and biographer in the White House? And that it was the Defender of the First Amendment who chose to go along just to humor his new-found soulmate in New Delhi? We will never find out.

Meanwhile let us hope that the caretakers of the Shroud of Turin and the priests at the temples of Thanjavur do not come across this blog and start demanding similar displays of faith and devotion from nearby American diplomatic missions.

***

P.S. Today’s (April 22, 2015) Sahara (New Delhi) brings the news that Sonia Gandhi, Atal Bihari Vajpeyi, and Narendra Modi have also offered chadors at the shrine. The chador sent by by the President of the Indian National Congress, as seen in the picture below, could be the grandest—it is definitely larger and more elaborate than that sent by the President of the United States. As always, the State Department chooses to economize where it shouldn’t. A chador being brought from Pakistan is reported to be a mile long. Now that is some sheet.

Sonia's chador

 

 

 

Our Ungenerous Little World of Urdu Studies

 

The final issue of The Annual of Urdu Studies came out last week. When I got my subscription copy I put it aside after glancing through the table of contents. There was nothing that demanded immediate reading. But some hours later came an anguished email from an old friend: ‘Did you see the lead article in the current AUS by Tehsin Firaqi? I’m not qualified to judge many of the details (as far as I can tell, Fran’s choices were mostly justifiable), but it is written with incredible, hurtful animus, not only against Fran but also against any “non-native” who might dare to intrude upon the study of Urdu. What do you make of it? Why is the little world of Urdu studies so ungenerous?’

I had to stop what I was doing and read the article. It is titled: ‘The English Translation of Ab-e Hayat: A Review Article.’ Its author, Dr. Tehsin Firaqi, is a senior Pakistani scholar. After a distinguished career at the University of the Punjab he is currently the Director of the Majlis-e Taraqqi-e Adab, Lahore, an institution preeminent in publishing carefully prepared editions of Urdu’s canonical literary texts. I soon discovered that my friend’s anguish was not misplaced. It was not an academic essay but a nasty hatchet job. The author’s vehemently aggressive tone shocked me, for having met him twice and read a few of his writings I had always considered him a reasonable person. Equally shocking was the fact of its publication in the final issue of a cherished journal, thirteen years after the book came out. My friend was right: the article was a shrill tirade exclusively directed against Prof. Frances Pritchett, the principal author of the book under discussion, even though she had done both the editing and translation in association with Mr. Shamsur Rahman Faruqi. And why does Firaqi so privilege her? Because she happens to be a ‘non-native.’

Firaqi begins with a bald statement: ‘Though the translation was made and edited “in association with Shamsur Rahman Faruqi,” a distinguished Urdu critic, I tend to think that he played only a minor role in the enterprise….”[1] He then states his intention to substantiate that claim with examples that follow. However, he first gives two examples of what he considers to be perspicuous and superb translations, adding that similar passages are ‘liberally sprinkled’ throughout the book. He then makes another bald assertion: ‘These sections may indeed have benefited enormously from Faruqi’s extensive linguistic knowledge, his extraordinary translation skills, and his profound cultural insights. It is highly unlikely that Faruqi could in any way be responsible for some of the glaring errors found in other parts, where the translation lapses into sheer travesty and seriously damages its literary value.’

Now if that were indeed the case, and if that is all that bothers Firaqi, he should at least lay a charge of negligence, deliberate or otherwise, against Faruqi, the man with ‘extraordinary translation skill.’ Apparently, some days, he just didn’t do his job and let Pritchett get away with ‘travesty.’ Firaqi does not offer any explanation why an arguably reasonable person like Faruqi would be so callously irresponsible. He is more eager to make a third claim. ‘Pritchett cannot be expected,’ Firaqi declares, ‘to fully comprehend the cultural context of Urdu in a wider semantic perspective and to properly evaluate the linguistic complexities and stylistic innovations native to it. As a result, some specific Urdu cultural devices, linguistic niceties and idiomatic turns of phrase seem to evade her. Her reach is necessarily limited, while the arcane civilization of the Subcontinent and the essence of its poetic language are too lofty to be fully grasped by a non-native.’

In other words: every success goes to the credit of the ‘native,’ but all failures accrue to the ‘non-.’
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07. May 2014 · Comments Off on Two Verses of Ghalib · Categories: Archive, Enjoy a Verse, The Only World We have · Tags: , , ,

 

 

Two Verses of Ghalib

(for Fran Pritchett)

There is a Persian couplet by Ghalib that has long fascinated me. It is quite unusual, even for Ghalib, for it employs a theme that to my belief was never so clearly expressed by any other South Asian poet be it in Persian or in Urdu.

با من میاویز اے پدر فرزند آذر را نگر
هر کس که شد صاحب نظر دين بزرگاں خوش نكرد

The two lines may roughly be translated as follows:

Do not quarrel with me, father; look, instead, at Ázar’s son—

He who gains a discerning eye never favors ancestral ways.

Ghalib is, of course, alluding here to Ibrahim/Abraham, Prophet or Patriarch, whose father, according to the Qur’an, was named Ázar. He was, we are further told, the high priest to an idolatrous king, and wished to raise his son in the same faith. The boy Ibrahim, however, refused, since he had gained a radically different certitude—as much through his own deductive powers as through God’s guidance. This is how the Qur’an (6:74–79) tells the story:[1]

“(74) Lo! Abraham said to his father Azar: ‘Takest thou idols for gods? For I see thee and thy people in manifest error.’ (75) So also did We show Abraham the power and the laws of the heavens and the earth, that he might (with understanding) have certitude. (76) When the night covered him over, he saw a star; he said: ‘This is my Lord.’ But when it set, he said: ‘I love not those that set.’ (77) When he saw the moon rising in splendour, he said: ‘This is my Lord.’ But when the moon set, he said: ‘Unless my lord guide me, I shall surely be among those who go astray.’ (78) When he saw the sun rising in splendour, he said: ‘This is my Lord; this is the greatest (of all).’ But when the sun set, he said: ‘O my people! I am indeed free from your (guilt) of giving partners to God. (79) For me, I have set my face, firmly and truly, towards Him Who created the heavens and the earth, and never shall I give partners to God.’”

On another occasion, the young Ibrahim secretly broke all the idols in the temple except the biggest. When accused of vandalism the next day he confounded the accusers by retorting that they should instead ask the big idol since they considered it god.

It is this questioning, independently thinking, iconoclastic Ibrahim that Ghalib celebrates in that verse—an Ibrahim who put his faith in a unique and transcendent God but only after fully employing his God-given intellect.

This young Ibrahim, as we also know, is very different from the older prophet and patriarch of the Bible and the Qur’an. The patriarch readily abandons a wife and a son in a wilderness to please another wife, and only a miraculous intervention by God saves the two. Another time, the same patriarch hastens to sacrifice his son on account of a dream that reminds him of a reckless and uncalled for promise he had made long ago. Once again, God has to directly intervene to avert the calamity. In other words, the patriarch Ibrahim/Abraham unquestioningly submits to what he only too readily takes to be God’s wish, and fails to employ the questioning intellect he had used as a boy. And that habit of unquestioning submission seems to be his believing sons habit too.
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09. March 2013 · Comments Off on A Must See Film: The Shooting of Thomas Hurndall · Categories: The Only World We have · Tags: , , ,

It was sheer chance that I watched Rowan Joffe’s powerful film, The Shooting of Thomas Hurndall, at home the same night when Oscars were being awarded. In fact, my watching it was also by chance, since I knew nothing about it. I had seen it listed in the Netflix catalog, and since the director’s surname seemed familiar had sent for it. Only later did I discover that I had confused the son with the father. Roland Joffe is the maker of such acclaimed films as The Killing Fields and The Mission. Rowan Joffe is his son, and a filmmaker in his own right. The two apparently share the same concern and passion for justice.

Thomas Hurndall was a young British photographer and activist who was volunteering with the International Solidarity Movement in occupied Palestine in 2003. On April 11, 2003, he was shot in the head in Gaza by an Israeli army sniper from one of the army watchtowers. Left in a coma, Hurndall eventually died in January 2004. He was barely 23. The man who killed him was 20.

The film (available on the internet) is as much about Hurndall and his family as about the trained sniper, Sgt. Taysir Hayb, who happened to be an Arab Beduin, . Most emphatically it is about the ordeal the two families underwent at the hands of the callously ruthless state of Israel and its army. Hurndall’s story did not make any headline in the United States, where even the story of its own Rachel Corrie—a tragedy of a similar nature—has not received any artistic tribute. But both Corrie and Hurndall received due attention in U.K, and in the latter’s case also some strong responses from its political establishment, the like of which was scant here in the United States concerning Corrie. Of course the most disgraceful example of the pusillanimous attitude of those who most whoop up ‘Triumphant America’ in the United States concerns the 1967 Israeli attack on the USS Liberty in which 34 American sailors were killed in the line of duty. Hollywood is yet to spend a penny or a moment on that dastardly incident. Its shame lies not in ignoring the plight of the Palestinian victims of Israeli occupation but in its utter neglect of even its American victims. Again,  BBC has an hour-long film, “Death in the Water,” about it on the Internet.

Incidentally, this year’s Oscars race featured two ‘Triumphant America’ films. One of them got the top prize. Israel had two finalists in the Documentary category. Both were denied the honor of an award. The great Israeli journalist Uri Avnery explains why in his admirable way.