Dec 9, 2013
Dreams of His Father
Posted on Dec 5, 2012
By Rayyan Al-Shawaf
To read a Truthdig excerpt from “Stranger to History” click here.
“Stranger to History: A Son’s Journey Through Islamic Lands”
Perhaps the most important lesson to be gleaned from “Stranger to History: A Son’s Journey Through Islamic Lands” by Aatish Taseer is that if you come across a historical paradox, especially one in which the welfare of millions of people is bound up, don’t try to “fix” it. For what you gain in logical rigor, many could lose in freedom and comfort. In “Stranger to History,” a memoir recounting the author’s travels through several predominantly Muslim countries, Pakistan emerges much worse after an attempt to “fix” it, a project that also eventually leads to the killing of the author’s father.
Aatish Taseer is the son of Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province from 2008 until 2011. “He was like an embodiment of the paradox on which Pakistan had been founded: as a nation for Muslims, but not necessarily for Islam,” Taseer observes of his late father. The governor was assassinated in 2011 by one of his bodyguards. His sin? Asking that one Aasia Bibi (also known as Aasia Noreen) be pardoned. Bibi is a Pakistani Christian woman who was sentenced to death after being convicted of insulting Islam’s Prophet Muhammad. Suspicions that she was unjustly accused are augmented by the fact that her alleged blaspheming occurred during an argument with Muslims about her drinking from a well that was off-limits to her. In the book’s foreword, Taseer points out that “there is a distinct suggestion of caste to this story: of the old Hindu caste system and Untouchability—though strictly forbidden in Islam—still hanging on in Pakistan after all these years.” Two months after Salmaan Taseer’s killing, Shahbaz Bhatti, minister of minority affairs and the only Christian in Pakistan’s government, was also slain, almost certainly for his defense of Bibi and his long-standing call for the country’s blasphemy law to be amended.
In addition to probing Pakistan’s identity confusion, “Stranger to History” provides a moving portrait of the author’s father who, despite his fervent—and at times chauvinistic—patriotism as well as his deference to Islam’s public role in society, was fast falling out of step with the rising forces of religious extremism in his country. His life was ennobled by principled stands, such as opposing Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s dictatorship (1977-1988), but tarnished by his bigotry as well as his cold and aloof treatment of his son. Arching above all this is the story of his curious and lifelong loyalty to an increasingly belligerent Pakistani Muslim Weltanschauung of which he should have been wary. Such fidelity seemed slightly pathetic until he was killed, when it became tragic.
Stranger to History: A Son’s Journey Through Islamic Lands
By Aatish Taseer
Graywolf Press, 352 pages
“Stranger to History” was published in the U.K. in 2009, well before the author’s father was slain. Taseer has since written a couple of novels. The U.S. edition of “Stranger to History,” published in 2012, includes a foreword about the assassination. Taseer does not exaggerate when he speaks of wide swaths of mainstream Pakistani society lauding his father’s killer. And though the assassin would ultimately be convicted of murder and sentenced to death, the arguments his legal defense team employed on his behalf—he confessed to the crime, maintaining that his victim deserved to die—reveal much about perceptions of good and bad in Pakistani society. “The defense, in building their case against my father,” recounts Taseer, “sought to rubbish his credentials as a Muslim, moving easily towards the conclusion that if he had not been Muslim in the way they wanted him to be, he deserved to die.” The murderer’s lawyers even enlisted the aid of Taseer’s book in their bid to malign his father. “[‘Stranger to History’] was used in court to condemn my father,” notes Taseer, “making the case that he was not a practicing Muslim; that he drank alcohol; that he ate pork; that he—in another life some thirty years before—had fathered a half-Indian child by an Indian woman.”
That child, Aatish Taseer, was born in the U.K. in 1980 and raised in India by his Indian Sikh mother. She and his father—who was already married with children, and fearful for his political career in Pakistan—ended their affair when he was still an infant. After his schooling in India and college in the U.S., Taseer became a journalist, first in the U.S. and then in the U.K. His career choice proved decisive in his path toward this book.
Taseer wrote an article in 2005 on the religious radicalization of young British Muslims. He mailed it to his Pakistan-based father, who accused his son of failing to understand “the Pakistani ethos,” and of engaging in “invidious anti-Muslim propaganda.” Taseer, chastened, embarked on a journey to better understand the Muslim world, and in the process possibly forge a bond with his father, whom he came to know only as an adult, and never intimately. “Stranger to History” includes prosaic and sometimes superficial observations about a number of Middle Eastern countries. It also presents a perceptive, though somewhat narrow, analysis of Pakistan’s condition as well as insights into Salmaan’s confidently espoused but increasingly endangered identity as a “cultural Muslim.”
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