Journalist Aatish Taseer's book attempts to taps into the complexities of the history of Islam.
“The Kaba could not disappoint because it was nothing. Its utter poverty expressed cosmic contempt for the things of the world. So silent and unrevealing a sanctum was this, that it implied faith, rewarding the believer with nothing, as if faith itself was the reward.”
Questions about unbending religious faith — the role it plays in the lives of different types of people, the constraints it creates and the repercussions for the modern world — are central to Aatish Taseer’s Stranger to History: A Son’s Journey Through Islamic Lands. At one point in this travelogue-memoir, Taseer finds himself in the streets of Damascus on the day that the city’s Danish embassy is burnt down by mobs protesting the cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammad.
How can anyone have the freedom or the right to insult the Prophet, an acquaintance asks, and observing the chaos around him Taseer realises that the offensive cartoons could not be understood in Islamic terms because “the democratic rights and interlocking institutions that protected them were outside the faith’s compass…[you had to] step outside the circle in which it was written that it was wrong to make graven images”. In the enclosed world of fundamentalist belief, concepts like freedom of speech have no meaning; they are literally unfathomable.
The freedom-of-speech ideal also allows magazines to publish feedback that is fiercely critical of their content, and the starting point for Taseer’s book was an angry letter in response to an article he had written about radical Islamism among young British Muslims, for a British political magazine. The letter came from his estranged father, the Pakistani politician Salmaan Taseer, and accused him of spreading anti-Muslim propaganda and failing to understand the “Pakistani ethos”. But the interesting thing was that the senior Taseer was himself an irreligious man — he ate pork, never fasted or prayed and once said of the Koran that there was nothing in it for him. “The question I asked myself,” writes Aatish, “was how my father was even a Muslim. What made him Muslim despite his lack of faith?”
Stranger to History is an account of the journey he undertook through secular Turkey, Arab-nationalist Syria, Iran and, of course, Pakistan, to try and answer this question. The result is a varied travel narrative. In protean Istanbul, he visits the religious neighbourhood Fatih Carsamba, a little world that has closeted itself off from the forceful secularism that was Ataturk’s legacy. In Damascus’s Abu Nour, he attends an unexpectedly political sermon. In Tehran he meets people terrorised by a regime that uses faith as a pretext to pry into their lives. And in rural Pakistan he spends time in the company of a landlord referred to only as the Mango King. Interspersed with this travelogue are short chapters about his tortuous relationship with his father, whom he properly met only as an adult, and soon we see how father and son are both, in different ways, strangers to their histories.
Taseer has a restrained writing style and many of his descriptions are thoughtful and moving — a view of the Indus river reduced to a ribbon of green water; the showpiece Imam Khomeini airport as “the Islamic Republic in miniature... the world had to be kept out for it to look as it did”. But some passages have too much extraneous detail, perhaps an offshoot of his journalistic training, and this occasionally interferes with the narrative’s progress. Also, the personal asides aren’t too compelling in their own right, though they provide context and help ground the larger story.
For better and for worse, this is very much a book where the personal and the political come together, as Taseer searches for the link between his missing father and the missing foreskin that he first became conscious of as a child (growing up with his Indian mother, journalist Tavleen Singh, in Delhi), when a cousin saw him peeing and exclaimed “Aatish ka susu nanga hai!”
At times it’s difficult to escape the feeling that Stranger to History was always going to be a very self-conscious book, constantly aware of the weight of its subject matter, from conceptualisation to writing to publication — that it would try to extract much mileage from the author’s unusual personal circumstances, which presumably put him in a position to make wide-ranging observations on a subject that people are very interested in these days: the relationship between Muslims and their faith. Inevitably, then, parts of it can seem simplistic or even patronising. For this reason, even though Taseer attempts a summarising explanation of his father’s position as a “cultural Muslim”, his book is best read as one that attempts to understand the complex and ambiguous history of a religion and its effect on its people.
STRANGER TO HISTORY: A SON’S JOURNEY THROUGH ISLAMIC LANDS