I’ve recently read Nadeem Aslam’s finely-constructed and richly metaphorical novel “Maps for Lost Lovers”, which portrays a British Pakistani community and its rigid boundaries over a year of daily life and crisis. Save for some occasionally unconvincing dialogue, the writing is beautiful and poetic. Unlike, for example, Martin Amis, Aslam respects his characters, who are well-rounded and complex enough to evoke sympathy even when they behave badly. He shows them busy with gossip, work, poetry – and plenty of murder. For example, a book shop owner is murdered for money by his relatives in Pakistan. At the heart of the book, Chanda and Jugnu are murdered by Chanda’s brothers for ‘living in sin.’ Chanda wants to divorce her husband so she can marry her lover, but her husband has disappeared for years, and she doesn’t know where to. Another girl is murdered by a ‘holy man’ during exorcism-beatings. And so on: a litany of crimes motivated by ‘honour’ and superstition.
One subplot revolves around a woman being forced by sharia law to marry another man before returning to a husband who has divorced her once while drunk. The actual regulation is this: if a man divorces his wife THREE times he cannot remarry her unless she has been married to someone else and that marriage has also collapsed. This is generally understood as a warning to husbands not to divorce their wives without considering the consequences. Furthermore, a divorce announced when the husband is angry or intoxicated is not recognised. As for the stranded Chanda, sharia would automatically grant her a divorce if her husband disappeared for a day longer than a year. Fair enough, Aslam is writing about uneducated people’s partial and skewed understanding of their religion, or of their confusion of tradition and religion, but this point will be lost on non-Muslim readers.
Most offensive to Muslims in Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses” was his rehearsal of Christendom’s old slurs – his depiction of the Prophet’s wives as whores and of the Prophet himself as a power and sex-crazed epileptic. In this, Rushdie was being unnecessarily offensive to hundreds of millions of people. He was showing off. He was dancing for his Western audience. (The front cover of an early edition of “Midnight’s Children” declares: “It sounds like a continent finding its voice.” Despite his English education and residence and his ‘cosmopolitan intellectual’ influences, and despite the enormous and ancient subcontinental literary tradition, Rushdie was cast as the articulate native who, at last, speaks a language ‘we’ can understand. A paper could be written on how the marketing of Rushdie as much as the offensiveness of “The Satanic Verses” fuelled the angry Muslim response to this later novel). But I think most non-Muslim readers recognised that Rushdie’s version of the Prophet’s family was very far from the truth, or at least from more standard narratives. More damage was done, in my opinion, in Rushdie’s mixing of truth with malicious fantasy in his description of the religion itself. On one page, for instance, a character reports that the new religion allows a man four wives (which is true) and that it forbids any sexual position in which the woman is on top of the man (which is not). An informed Muslim reader will understand Rushdie’s self-congratulatory postmodern games, but the book wasn’t written for Muslims.
I don’t mean to put Aslam in the same category as Rushdie. Aslam is undoubtedly a better, more serious writer who confronts real issues rather than making a virtue of insults for their own sake and an ultimately unchallenging iconoclasm. Neither do I want to suggest that a writer should subvert the power and focus of his writing in order to be politically correct or to nanny the reader through his themes. I merely want to bring up the delicate issue of a writer’s responsibility in an Islamophobic climate. When Irvine Welsh (“Trainspotting”, “Marabou Stork Nightmares”, etc) writes about Scottish people in relation to drug abuse, rape and infanticide, his audience understands that he has chosen to focus on only one aspect of Scottish life. But honour killing and the rest are presented on a daily basis in the newspapers and the wider popular culture as emblematic of Muslim communities. For many readers, it’s not one aspect of Muslim reality; it’s comprehensive.
Perhaps Nadeen Aslam should have included a better-educated Muslim character to point out the possibility of more liberal readings of Islam. Perhaps he could have included a preface or an afterword to explain, for example, the reality of divorce and remarriage regulations in Islam. Perhaps these tactics would have diluted the work of art that “Maps for Lost Lovers” undoubtedly is. I don’t know.
I’ve written a novel myself, so I’m aware of the difficulties. Mine is about people in London, but there is backstory in Syria and Iraq. I worry that the aspects of Syrian reality that I shine light on – torture, political violence, sectarianism – could serve neo-con stereotypes, especially given the lack of good news fed to the West about Syria. It’s the traumas of Syria that are important to my British Syrian protagonist’s drama. And it’s a novel, not an essay or a piece of reportage. And .. I didn’t realise it would be published when I started writing. Neither did I anticipate the level of American-Israeli threat that would be directed at Syria in 2008.
Back to “Maps for Lost Lovers”. In Pakistan a woman is sacked from her job as a hotel receptionist for shaking hands with a man. When Chanda visits, a man attempts to molest her. Jugnu’s niece returns to marry a cousin who burns her with his cigarettes. Pakistan is a country, a character tells us, not just of wife-beaters but of wife-killers. This unremittingly dismal picture reminds me of the Bangladesh of Monica Ali’s “Brick Lane”, a country of pure poverty and injustice described in the ungrammatical letters sent by our immigrant heroine’s sister. (And why are these letters – supposedly written in Bengali – so gratingly poor in spelling, grammar and style?)
Of course I’m not suggesting that there is no misogyny in Bangladesh or Pakistan. But that, contrary to what the Daily Express tells you, is not the end of the story. When I lived in Rawalpindi, I shook hands with plenty of women – who didn’t immediately lose their jobs. There were many cases of wife-abuse in the papers, and many illiterate mullahs abusing the confidence of gullible villagers, but also many Pakistanis working to end such abuse, and an unlimited supply of jokes targetting ignorant, lascivious, hypocritical mullahs. I clearly remember people’s appalled attitudes to the Britain-returned Pakistani who kept his women shut in the house. “Where does he think he is?” they complained. “Some village in the 50s?”
And it’s not as if misogyny draws a cultural dividing line between East and West. The primary cause of death for women under 35 in the UK is domestic violence. One third of women killed in the US are killed by boyfriends and husbands.
The key issue is not religion but class, and Aslam’s world recognises this. He shows a rich Pakistani’s horror of her poor compatriots in Britain, and the ‘bad image’ they give of Pakistan in the eyes of the English. In the real world, class is forgotten by those commentators who blame Islam, or multiculturalism, for the poverty, educational underachievment and extremism of some British Pakistanis. Compare the Muslim ‘African Asians’ who arrived in Britain with a great deal of pre-existent cultural capital; they were already the business and professional class in Kenya and Uganda, and now they earn more and do better at school than their white neighbours, and are in general politically content.
It is in his depiction of alienation that Aslam excels. The community’s northern town is called ‘dasht-i-tanhai’, which means ‘wilderness of desolation’ or ‘desert of loneliness’. Britain’s Pakistani immigrants were often illiterate peasants who intended to stay no longer than five or ten years. They were focussed on making money rather than education, and anyway did not have access to good education in the industrial towns they moved to. In those days they considered it shameful to bury their dead in Britain. They had little or no interaction with white people, except for entirely negative experiences of white racism (Aslam is good on this). In many northern towns, once the factories closed even workplace interaction of Pakistanis and whites came to an end, and relations deteriorated further. Old world taboos and stigmas were clung to because they established borders around the community and expressed refusal of what was beyond it. The behaviour and beliefs that made the community overly rigid and illiberal also strengthened it and gave it cohesion. Aslam writes of this with compassion as well as revulsion, showing the tender loves maintained in private, between husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and sisters, and the pride in beleaguered identity.
Today this traditional Pakistani community has to a large extent collapsed. The children have rebelled in a thousand ways, and the older generation feels it has lost everything. Meanwhile, the outside remains hostile. In fact, hostility is growing, and globalising. Pakistan itself is in crisis. The British government engages in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, backs Israel’s rampages in Palestine and Lebanon. The police arrest hundreds of dark or bearded men under terrorism legislation, and end up charging almost none. Muslims are taken to court for downloading things from the internet or writing verse no more unpleasant than the gangster rap you can buy on the high street. The media prints anti-Muslim scare stories every single day. The elders despair. Some of the younger generation, unable to believe in the pieties of their parents, unable to bow their heads, no longer enjoying and suffering the structure of taboo and refusal described in Aslam’s novel, turn to crime, and even to suicide bombing.
- Thanks to my friend Tariq Yusuf – a British Pakistani – for the conversation from which these thoughts arose.