28 March, 2009

Global Civilians

This is the news of the latest attack by proponents of terrorism, this time in Pakistan:

“A suicide bomber blew himself up during Friday prayers at a packed Pakistan mosque, leaving around 50 dead and scores wounded in one of the bloodiest recent attacks in the nation.”

The bomber set himself off at the precise climax of the service, leading the words spoken by the Imam, God Is Great to be the last heard by the living, the wounded and the dead.

On this side of the once closed ocean, something else was going on. In an address to a nation weary of sending its soldiers overseas, President Obama said, “I want the American people to understand that we have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan.” You can read that story here.

And while we all debate the precise details of a war on terror as it is carried out among the terrified against the terrorists (of one nation) by terrorists (of other nations), I am reminded of something my brother, Malinda, a senior Sri Lankan journalist wrote to me recently:

“Everyone loves a rebel as long as he is a foreigner, and terrorists are freedom fighters as long as they kill people in other countries.”

I put these thoughts out there in the context of the news mentioned above, as a point of departure for our private intellectual negotiations with these terms. The fact of the matter remains that everything is simple and clear until it happens to us, and I am just as guilty of this dance as anybody else.

Recently another friend asked the following on a discussion list pertaining to South Asia:

“I guess I am trying to understand what a Muslim invention is and how it differs from a Hindu or a Christian invention. I would hazard a guess the organizers have collected inventions made by Muslim inventors or that originated in Muslim countries. What links these inventions together ? Did the inventors’ religious belief or cultural practice in some way influence the invention ?

Islam is widely dispersed geographically. An advance in solid state electronics in Indonesia, the concept of micro-credit as developed in Bangladesh and some agricultural practices in Morocco could all be said to be Muslim inventions. But what synthesis is achieved by assembling these under one roof ?”

Indeed. And perhaps literature is where, in the end, we find our best answers. This week, Sana Krasikov, won the Sami Rohr Prize for emerging writers of Jewish literature for her collection, One More Year (Spiegel & Grau), which tells the stories of Russian and Georgian immigrants to America in the aftermath of the Cold War. It is an important contribution not simply to Jewish literature, but to the literature of movement of human beings between countries. The other winner announced this week, was Dalia Sofer, author of The Septembers of Shiraz (Ecco) for her novel about a Jewish family in Iran in the period after the Islamic Revolution. There is a great review of her book by Claire Messud, in the New York Times. And, once again, I am struck not so much by the particulars, but by the general appeal of this novel.

In Jewish Sofer’s Iran, there is a “Shirin.” In Tamil Preeta Samarasan‘s Malaysia there is a “Shamsudeen.” In my Sri Lanka, predominantly Buddhist but also Muslim, Hindu and Catholic, there were Shereens and Samsudeens. In all our three countries, there were dates, Kandos chocolates and burfi. There were Septembers and infidelity. In the literature that belongs to us all, in the stories we tell, are the same strangers who visit, and known angels who depart, the same untranslatable desires. Where, then, are the things that divide us, among countries and, within those countries, among people? Where are the words that persuade some among us – who, no matter how misguided are still products of the societies to which we contribute – to blow themselves up inside a place of worship?

I cast this thought out without confirmation, except that which I can attest to at the anecdotal and conjectural levels: the fault lies not in our religions but in a failure to instill a love of reading. For literature, no matter who her patrons might be, afford us a look into other lives, and a way to discovering that there are fewer particulars to our definitions of ourselves as belonging to a certain tribe or culture or country, but that the accurate classification for ourselves is that of global civilians.

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The Books:

The Books:

On Sal Mal Lane

In the tradition of In the Time of the Butterflies and The Kite Runner, a tender, evocative novel about the years leading up to the Sri Lankan civil war.

A Disobedient Girl

A Disobedient Girl is a compelling map of womanhood, its desires and loyalties, set against the backdrop of beautiful, politically turbulent, Sri Lanka.


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