Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Book review: 'Stranger to History'

'Who am I', is a question most of us ask at some point as we grow up. But after examining the evidence and experimenting with the 'other' we settle into the comfort of our cocoons. The family, community, religion of our birth.

A few, very few, have the unique position and privilege of belonging, and yet standing apart. And their quest for identity throws up questions that increase our understanding of the whole.

If you've read Barack Obama's 'Dreams from my father' - you know exactly what I mean. Aatish Taseer's 'Stranger to History' reminded me so much of that book - different locations, but similar circumstances!

Obama was born of an African father and white mother, and grew up with his grandparents in Hawaii.

Aatish was born of an Indian mother and Pakistani father, and grew up with his Sikh grandparents in Delhi.

Both fathers abandoned their sons at a very early age and were absent from their lives as they grew up.

Ultimately, each of them embarked on a journey to find out who they were; and in the process examined what it means to be black (Obama) and to be a Muslim (Taseer).

'Stranger to History' is sub-titled 'A Son's Journey through Islamic Lands' and that's exactly what it is. The story alternates between the 'son' discovering himself and Islam in its many forms.

The first 'big principle' Aatish discovers is that wherever he went, "there was some current of macho comradeship and familiarity" Never mind that he did not feel particularly Muslim, or even know the right way to pray. His name, and parentage were reason enough to be accepted by the faithful.

That belonging, or 'extra national' Islamic identity is a thread that runs through most of the book.

In fact, this project came about after an article Aatish wrote about second generation Pakistani radicals - born in Britain - who bombed London buses and trains in 2005. When he sent the article to his father, Taseer senior responded by saying that Aatish was doing his family name disservice by spreading 'anti-Muslim propaganda'.

"To me, the most interesting aspect of the letter: my father, whi drank Scotch every evening, never fasted or prayed, even ate pork... was offended as a Muslim by what I had written."

Doubtless, that sentence alone would have caused further embarassment to Salman Taseer, a prominent figure in Pakistan who is now serving as Governor General of the Punjab province!

But the question that journalist in Aatish is asking is this:"Am I Muslim because of my outward appearance and adherence to certain rules laid down in 6th century Arabia?" He seeks answers across lands and cultures...

The journey begins in Turkey, a country where Kemal Ataturk banished the fez, the veil, changed the script to Roman and ended the office of caliph in the early twentieth century.

But he finds that even in this Turkey there are now outposts where people have adopted Arabic dress and radical Islam. And young men like Abdullah who sincerely believe that "Muslims have to be at the top.. we have to determine all the things in the world, otherwise we won't be free ourselves."

From Istanbul Aatish goes to Syria, where there is no free press or intellectual life and under the watch of a fierce secret police,the mosque became the only place for people to congregate and discuss politics. He observes that important issues are raised from the mosque and then 'smothered in prayer'.

The Grand Mufti at Abu Nour seeks "to restore believers to a pure historical and political world order, free of incursions from the modern world". It's the same desire that prompts young radicals to bomb those London trains.

Aatish describes the sermons as "a long narrative of former greatness and defeat, reversible not through education, new ideas or progress but through closer attention to the letter of the Book". An example which would have been funny had it not been so... mindblowing is a man asking a priest if his wife is permitted to wear nailpolish.

"Expecting the answer to be no, he is surprised when the priest says that of course she can; why shouldn't she look beautiful? However, it is written that when she washes for prayer, the water must touch every part of her body, including her nails... So yes, she can wear nailpolish as long as she removes it every time she is at prayer: five times a day!"

Aatish then proceeds to Mecca where he completes the Haj, feeling like a 'fraud' and is 'found out' in a sense when at the House of God he is ticked off for wearing strings from various Sufi shrines in India. Islam, as defined by the Wahabbis, does not approve of that...

The most interesting part of the book is the time Aatish spends in Teheran. And especially in the context of the current unrest in that country, there are many insights.

In Iran, Aatish meets Muhammad Rahimi, an ITT Delhi graduate who enthusiastically participated in overthrowing the Shah of Iran. He was one of those who stormed the Iranian embassy in New Delhi and took the Ambassador hostage. But the whole night, people were drinking and partying - and the next day the same men were standing in a formal ceremony and reading from the Koran.

What kind of Islamic revolution was this? Muhammad was deeply disillusioned and decided to quit the idea of politics altogether.

"And you know what's worst? They burnt our libraries and books. They tried to kill Farsi!.. Textbooks are shortening the country's pre-Islamic history.. The youth of today are strangers to their history!"

It seems like Islam may have led a revlution but it could not win the hearts and minds of its people. "Have you seen the mosques?" says a young man called Amir."They're empty but for a few people and Basiji (militia of young Iranian men whom the regime uses to enforce religious morality)."

"If you look into their eyes, they seem like a different species. We call them Homo Islamicos."

Aatish observes that 'trifles' had become the instrument with which regimes sought to control their population. How you can dress, or eat, or whether or not you can party... And what's more the regime is completely corrupt so ultimately you can 'buy your lashes'!

Phew. From the Danish cartoons which set the Muslim world on fire, to the assasination of Benazir Bhutto, Aatish manages to experience it all. And transmit to the reader some thoughts, some ideas that linger.

"The world is richer in its hybrids', he concludes. If only religion-driven men and women of all faiths and hues realised that!

However the book is not an easy read... I think it's been heavily edited so as to not get the author in trouble because he prefers to quote others speaking, much of the time. Unlike Obama's memoir which was so much more personal, and touched me so deeply!

I also wish Aatish had desisted from showing off from time to time, by using very GRE word list type words! "Conflation', mala maayat nahi!

But I still recommend 'Stranger to History' for its braveness and its boldness. Writing about religion is a delicate and hazardous task; I think Aatish has managed it skilfully.

Lastly and quite irrelevantly, in a ruffian-sort-of-way, the guy is very good-looking. Half Pakistani-half Sikh is an explosive combination :)

Rs 495, Pan Macmillan (hope the paperback version is cheaper!)

P.S. There are multiple covers of this book. The pic featured with this review is not the one selling in India. Shall scan the Indian version and upload tomorrow!


  1. Good review !! Thank for writing

  2. Excellent Review.
    Bravo Aatish !

    It's good to see Oasis of hope (i.e. rational thinker) in the dessert (brainwashed islamists)

    Thanks for sharing the review.

  3. Interesting review. I will pick up those two books.

  4. mala maayat nahi!

    *Malaa Maahit Nahi!


  5. I have already read this book and completely in love with it.

  6. sounds like a great book!

  7. Do you know if this book is available in the US? How can I buy it here?

  8. The author is very close to know the reality of Islam.
    Sounds to be a great book, would give a try for sure. We need more such books as there is no such free media in any of the Islamic lands. (Does Allah dislike it?) It's time to expose all the reality out there. The author should read some Ex - Muslim websites on the reasoning as to why these people behave absurd and write another book after that.

  9. This is the kind of review that would make non-admirers of non-fiction like me to pick up and actually want to read the book too! A really good review.

    Howard Roark

  10. Please avoid AirBus

  11. hey, had read your articles on IIPM, and not sure if yuor still following that...

    either ways, you should check this out...

    In case your not following that story anymroe than its all good, but if you are, this could help.

  12. I'm not at all much of a reader, but there was something about the title, this book, this review.. I read all of it.. just in the first time.. :)
    Thanks.. would have to start reading i guess.. :)


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