There is no escaping the fact. Since 2011, I haven’t been in downtown Cairo except twice, heavily sedated and only for as long as it took to run my unavoidable errand. With the help of medication, my condition had improved enough for me to go there frequently when the protests started in January that year, instead of being confined to Heliopolis as usual. After I was shot with a pellet gun and had to run away from hospital on the first day of protests, for a few weeks I returned to the hotspots of the revolution, but tear gas, shooting and all kinds of attacks often forced me (along with everyone else) to run for my life. This fucked it all up again, in time. Protest hotspots became indistinguishable from vast, crowded spaces too far from home. And, succumbing to my terror of both, I confined myself to Heliopolis.
Rajasthan in four cities
My great-grandfather, a feudal landowner in West Bengal, had a troubled marriage with my great-grandmother, who finally left him in 1927 and came to live with her mother in Jaisalmer. Her mother, my great-great-grandmother was one of the few female doctors in the country at the time and was employed with the royal family of Jaisalmer. My grandfather grew up in the royal household but left home one unsettled morning. He left just a note: my heart doesn’t want.
He wanted to be a classical musician. Failure meant that my mother and uncle grew up in dire poverty in the dirty back alleys of the blue city. No one knows what happened to my great-grandfather or the house or the land. I have never seen a photograph, only an image narrated to me by a distant relative: a man on horseback with leather boots and the eyes of a snake.
Return of the Prodigal Muslim
Everybody knows the Enlightenment is dying. I don’t mean in the hells from which people board immigrant boats. It was never very alive here in the first place. I mean in the heavens to which the boat people seek suicidal access.
They end up drowning less for the love of the Postchristian West, it would seem, than out of despair with the Muslim East. Blame politics and economics, for sure. But could it be that all three phenomena – despair, poverty and dictatorship – are rooted in the same cultural impasse?
Today Brexits, Trumps and, let us not forget, the Islamic Invasion of Europe are spelling an Endarkenment all across the North, confining progressive and egalitarian principles to intensive care units. And I’m wondering what that could mean for despairing Muslims in the South.
A cloudy haze slowly subsides, making way for less blurry vision. Everything is opaque white. The 35m2 studio, the walls that make up its confines, even the ceramic wall tiles that adorn the open kitchen. The white-painted wooden desk neighbors the open kitchen. It looks onto a mini-balcony with a view of a small patch of greenery. It occurs to me that the yellow-turquoise color combination gentrifying the façades of nearby buildings is a grave mismatch, especially with the oliveness that commands the space. I push my sluggish body out of the side bed and onto the parquet floor whose hue is a confused mix of hazel and grey. My feet brushing against the ground is a daily exercise in groundedness. In my mind it is so intertwined with the whiff of floral spice that always follows minutes later. Tchibo’s African Blue brewed in a French press. I make my way to the grey couch, ceramic mug in one hand, a slice of Spinat-Knoblauch Quiche in the other. I don’t have much time this morning. It’s a busy Monday and I have two classes to attend at Freie Universität. I like being in Berlin, getting up early to read snippets from Ibn Khaldun’s Muqadimmah, discuss theories in Arabic Studies, and study patterns of city making in the “Muslim” world. I am struggling with my Deutschkurs. I don’t like the academicness dictating second-language teaching. I despise the words Hausarbeit, Test and even the kleine Pause, together they enshrine language-acquisition in a chronic anxiety. To me, acquiring a language is a deeply personal endeavor. It is the danke, tschüss and bitte that despite being inundated with the “wrong” accent grant me a temporary, maybe fake, sense of integration. Luckily, Berlin knows better than to single anyone out on account of ignorance of German, or so I think. I give way to cowardice and make temporary peace with my verbal ineptitude.
One of my favourite insults to the person of Macbeth comes towards the end of the play, when the aggrieved Macduff calls out to him: “Turn, hellhound, turn!” It is a testament to Shakespeare’s prowess that even after we’ve witnessed all the atrocities committed by Macbeth, the line jars. “He’s not a hellhound!” one feels like shouting back. The insult agitates us. By then we had already tried to alienate ourselves from Macbeth and his deeds, but we’re too intimate with the depths of his anguish to do so, an anguish not mysterious and beyond our grasp, like Hamlet’s. Macbeth is well within our understanding, his dilemma is laid bare for us to ponder and weigh.
The suggestion that in reading Macbeth there are things to be learnt about Bashar al Assad, Saddam Hussein, or al Qathafi, is often laughed to scorn whenever I dare mention it in polite company. It is generally assumed that the characters of these men do not rise to the complexity and elevation of a Shakespearean villain, as if villainy excludes finesse. I am told they are mere butchers, with no depth of feeling or capacity for insight. Yet it is exactly that, insight, that I feel the likes of Saddam have, and which allows them to reign in terror for such elongated periods. One can hate Saddam and everything he stood for, but can we in good faith dismiss him as a brute, or deny his sophisticated methods of intimidation? A viewing of the Al Khold Hall footage – where Saddam solidified his grip on power by effectively staging a play, one where murder was unseen, like Macbeth, but real – demonstrates Saddam’s credentials as a connoisseur of terror. His methods of breaking the wills of men require nothing less than a terrible talent.
One: Instagram Dreams
Sleep-deprivation is like being high. I know because I was high for a long time, then I started sleeping irregularly. It’s supposed to have something to do with lack of sugar in the brain, which is also the theory of what LSD does to consciousness. Things grow fluid and dreamlike, but at the same time there is a paranoid awareness of motion and a heaviness in the heart. Colour and sound become a lot sharper, and time feels totally irrelevant. Normal speed is fast but fast can pass for normal. A moment lasts for days, days can fit in a moment. Talking and laughing are far more involving, especially laughing. The grotesque animal implicit in each person comes out, sometimes messing up the conversation. And then it’s as if you have no body. As in the best music, an uncanny lightness balances the overriding melancholy. There is joy in flying when you don’t need to move. All through this, what’s more, every passing emotion turns into an epic experience.
My upbringing in Madras in the late 1980s and 90s led me to picnics in the beautiful country that dotted Enid Blyton’s books – just as it did many children of my generation and the generations before me. The Famous Five and The Secret Seven offered a generous serving of scones, marmalade, pears, fresh cream, crumpets and whatnot… And like any self-respecting EB-reading child, I nurtured a not-so-secret yearning to eat scones at tea one day.
When I finally tried them, surprisingly later in life, at a charming café in Madras, I was utterly disappointed. Perhaps it was the weight of all that expectation, perhaps I wasn’t a scone person, I could never figure out which.
Scones disappointed me, but I kept looking for food in my books. As I grew up and my taste took a turn towards writers closer to home, and to cultures similar to mine, I not only enjoyed local tastes in my mouth as I savoured the words that leapt out of the pages, but also actual dishes. That’s when it hit me: food, just like books, was political; perhaps that’s why we vacillate from wanting books banned to foods banned, once every few months here.