A Suitable Boy, “Decent” People, and Names that Pass (The King is Out: Part IV)

by Huma Dar

[read Part I Part II Part III]

Ripping Apart the King, Separating Him from Kajol

In the second half of the film, My Name is Khan (2010), Karan Johar shows that Rizwan Khan’s wife, Mandira (played by Kajol) is on a personal journey to obtain justice for her son and accountability from the perpetrators of a hate crime.  It is thus ironic that Mandira’s own negligence towards Rizwan Khan (played by SRK) and the lack of accountability for making him set off on an ostensibly unfeasible mission, albeit in a fit of grief and anger, is not problematized at all in the film.  A mission that might very well have remained unfulfilled but for Rizwan Khan’s Herculean efforts, his unusual talents and disabilities, and a string of exceptional circumstances.  Rizwan Khan, given his Asperger’s syndrome, “fear of new places,” and his Muslimness (actively practiced), would have been equally, if not more, susceptible to the kind of hate crime that victimized Mandira’s son.  After the initial outburst at the place of death, Mandira had had enough time to re-think  the consequences of her angry directive to Khan, yet she never apologizes to Khan.  Here too, the immediate context of Bollywood, the multiple Hindu-Muslim marriages amongst the stars of Bombay, and the general lack of acceptance of such marriages in mainstream India are crucial to keep in mind.

Continue reading “A Suitable Boy, “Decent” People, and Names that Pass (The King is Out: Part IV)”

Placating the gods of Citizenship: the Ritual Sacrifice (The King is Out: Part III)

The obligatory declaration of cinematic patriotism for Indian Muslims necessitates a continuous performance of “loyal citizenship” invariably through offering the sacrifice of a “disloyal” one. This leaves little space for critical engagement with the nation and the state.

by Huma Dar

[read Part I Part II]


King Khan and his divinity

The obligatory declaration of cinematic patriotism for Indian Muslims (discussed in Parts I and II earlier) necessitates a continuous performance of “loyal citizenship” invariably through offering the sacrifice of a “disloyal” one. This leaves little space for critical engagement with the nation, the state, and the unending wars.  An example of this ritual performance is the sequence in My Name is Khan where Rizwan Khan, played by Shahrukh Khan (SRK), reports the “doctor” in the Los Angeles Masjid to the FBI.  How do we know the “bad” doctor is an al-Qaeda member or a terrorist?  Dr. Faisal Rahman does indeed talk about his “blood boiling” at the oppression of the Muslim Ummah in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Chechnya, Kashmir et al and even exhorts the handful of audience in a completely open space inside the Masjid to “join him and do something.”  The details of that “something” are never revealed.

Continue reading “Placating the gods of Citizenship: the Ritual Sacrifice (The King is Out: Part III)”

Shahrukh Khan and the Pound of Flesh: the Cost of Stardom (The King is Out: Part II)

by Huma Dar

[read Part I]

Shahrukh Khan (SRK) has a long history of playing the fraught field (of the Indian context) with flawless diplomacy, perhaps even overplaying the field.  In early 2002, precisely during the days of the state-sponsored anti-Muslim pogroms in Indian Gujarat, the then Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, from BJP (a Hindu Nationalist party), released an MTV-esque album,Samvedna [Sensitivity]. Widely broadcast on Doordarshan, the State-owned television channel, as well as on Indian-American programs (at least in the San Francisco Bay Area), the video features Vajpayee reciting his Hindi poetry while Jagjit Singh, the ghazal singer, sings in tune.  The album is prefaced by the rhapsodizing words of Javed Akhtar — another famous Muslim from Bollywood, narrated by Amitabh Bachhan.

Continue reading “Shahrukh Khan and the Pound of Flesh: the Cost of Stardom (The King is Out: Part II)”

“Veil in the Time of War” or “Veilin’ the Time of War”

In the context of the current multiple arenas of war and occupation in Muslim-majority regions, the issues of gender and sexuality are vitally linked to the casus belli, both within and without academia. Such linkages, with a long and complicated genealogy thoroughly imbricated in the politics of colonization, decolonization, and neo-colonization, also indicate an obsessive desire to re-enact the “discovery narrative” or the “rescue narrative.” Examining current contestations in popular media – including recent articles written by Maureen Dowd, Naomi Wolf and Phyllis Chesler et al and the poster designed by Alexander Segert, which was integral to the success of the anti-minaret Swiss referendum – this essay investigates whether, how, and where the neoconservative, neoliberal, and the mainstream feminist discourses converge, diverge, and intersect.

Segert's Anti-Minaret Poster

by Huma Dar

In the context of the current multiple arenas of war and occupation in Muslim-majority regions, the issues of gender and sexuality are vitally linked to the casus belli, both within and without academia.  Such linkages, with a long and complicated genealogy thoroughly imbricated in the politics of colonization, decolonization, and neo-colonization, theorized by Inderpal Grewal, Gayatri Spivak, Lata Mani, Leila Ahmed, Sherene Razack, Saba Mahmood, Sunera Thobani amongst others, also indicate an obsessive desire to re-enact the “discovery narrative” or the “rescue narrative.”  Examining current contestations in popular media – including recent articles written by Maureen Dowd, Naomi Wolf and Phyllis Chesler et al and the poster designed by Alexander Segert, which was integral to the success of the anti-minaret Swiss referendum – I investigate whether, how, and where the neoconservative, neoliberal, and the mainstream feminist discourses converge, diverge, and intersect.  I undertake to deconstruct the ongoing debates that obsessively revolve around the veil or the sexuality that is variously professed to be suppressed, annihilated, or even “discovered” beneath the veil by some liberal explorers.

Continue reading ““Veil in the Time of War” or “Veilin’ the Time of War””

The King is Out, His Name is Khan: Long Live the King (Part I)

My Name is Khan, although narratively based mostly in the USA, has to be theorized within and around the framework of Bollywood; the Urdu-Hindi film history, and its transnational circuits of production, distribution, and consumption; Shahrukh Khan’s star narrative, and the determining context of the Indian political scene along with that in the US and its “war on/of terror.”

by Huma Dar

 

The Defacing of Khan: It's Not Easy Being Muslim in Mumbai or in Newark

My Name is Khan, although narratively based mostly in the USA, has to be understood and theorized within and around the framework of Bollywood; the Urdu-Hindi film history and its transnational circuits of production, distribution, and consumption; Shahrukh Khan’s star narrative, and the determining context of the Indian political scene along with that in the US and its “War on/of Terror.”  Even prior to the Indian Partition in 1947, most Muslim artists had what Sa’adat Hasan Manto (1912-1955) mockingly called “shuddified” or Hinduized names – Dilip Kumar for Yusuf Khan, Madhubala for Mumtaz Begum Jahan Dehlavi (1933-1969), Meena Kumari for Mahjabeen Bano (1932-1972), or the more ambivalent (non-halal) Johnny Walker for Badruddin Jamaluddin Qazi (1923-2003) and Nargis for Fatima Rashid (1929-1981).  At the contemporary moment, the biggest stars of the Urdu-Hindi film industry in India are Khans: Shahrukh, Salman, Aamir, Saif Ali et al.  It might therefore be tempting to conclude that the Bombay film industry is indeed a level playing field.  The Khans are all Muslims, at least nominally.  Cinematically, they enact, with a few notable exceptions, Hindu characters.  Culturally, the vigorous fanzines of Bollywood idolize them as comfortably suave denizens of metropolitan Bombay[Mumbai] with understated or unexpressed Muslimness — their Hindu wives, girlfriends, or mothers facilitating this imagined assimilation or passing.  Of course, for regular, non-filmi (“film-related” in Urdu-Hindi) Muslim men, this assimilation through marriage to Hindu women is generally frowned upon and can have potentially fatal consequences.

My ruminations on My Name is Khan, like a typical Urdu-Hindi film, lengthy and replete with intermissions, are an entryway into not just the film as cinematic text, but also its complex and rich transnational contexts that must be read in tandem.  In a series of six thematic posts, with this as the first, I will expand on:

(i) The (B)Onus of Muslimness in Bollywood

(ii) Shahrukh Khan and the Pound of Flesh: the Cost of Stardom

(iii) Placating the gods of Citizenship: the Ritual Sacrifice

(iv) A Suitable Boy, “Decent” People, and Names that Pass

(v) The Price of Translating a Narrative and its Context

(vi) Outing the Muslimness, Finally: Some Viewing (and Hearing) Pleasures

Continue reading “The King is Out, His Name is Khan: Long Live the King (Part I)”

(Neo)Orientalism with an Attitude: In the Footsteps (and Beyond) of Richard Burton

Getting one’s picture taken with the Dalai Lama or the Pope will guarantee neither Buddhist enlightenment nor beatification: my apologies for shattering the hopes of some New Agers. Similarly, entering the Ka’aba in Burtonesque disguise — specially minus his arguably relevant though shifty linguistic skills and textual knowledge — will not and cannot necessarily guarantee much “learning” about Islam.

by Huma Dar

The March 10, 2010, page A27 of the New York edition of New York Times carries an Op-Ed piece by Maureen Dowd titled, “Pilgrim Non Grata in Mecca.” Dowd writes about her desire to “learn about the religion that smashed into the American consciousness on 9/11” via “sneaking” into Mecca in “a black masquerade cloak.”  Her self-proclaimed inspiration is Richard Burton’s “illicit pilgrim[age] to the sacred black granite cube…in Arab garb” thereby “infiltrat[ing] the holiest place in Islam, the Kaaba [sic].”

Dowd, however, decides to “learn about Islam” in a way “less sneaky,” “disrespectful,” or “dangerous” and yet more entitled and privileged than Richard Burton could ever have dreamed of.   She herself describes Burton as “the 19th-century British adventurer, translator of “The Arabian Nights” and the “Kama Sutra” and self-described ‘amateur barbarian.'”  The words “illicit,” “Kama Sutra,” and “infiltration” and Dowd’s voyeuristic desires resonate with the Orientalism of yore.  Moreover Dowd’s valuable US passport and USA’s special relationship with Saudi Arabia (read: enabling of the oppressive monarchy) entitle her to meet Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister — of the “sometimes sly demeanor” — on her “odyssey” to that country.  “Infiltration” in disguise is no longer required, and yet this ease of access also disguises and makes more difficult the complexity of any real learning.

Dowd “presses” al-Faisal for the privilege to watch in Mecca, the “deeply private rituals” and “gawk at the parade of religious costumes fashioned from loose white sheets” although she knows in advance that “Saudis understandably have zero interest in outraging the rest of the Muslim world.”  While talking to this high-ranking minister, Dowd bristles at al-Faisal’s reassuring suggestion that if she desired to see any mosque in a place other than in Mecca or Medina, and was prevented from doing so, all she had to do was to contact the “emir of the region” who would comply and enable the fulfillment of her desires.  (Anyone else reminded of Aladdin’s djinn/genie?)  Without conceding the irony of the situation that she, after all, is speaking to Prince al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, Dowd quips, “Sure. Just call the emir. I bet he’s listed.”   Imagine what Richard Burton would have done with the special privileges of this particular magic lamp provided by the New World Order!

Finally Dowd does indeed witness the Hajj — in an IMAX theatre watching Journey to Mecca: In the Footsteps of Ibn Battuta. Dowd, much to her surprise, makes the belated discovery that “the Kaaba [sic] was built by “Abraham, the father of the Jews” [why Jews only?]— a reminder that the faiths have a lot to learn from each other.”  It is also a reminder that journalists like Ms. Maureen Dowd have a lot of homework to do before they set out on their surely expensive travels — and I am not even including the much recommended language lessons.  Any commonly available text on Islam, for example by Karen Armstrong, Jamal Elias, Michael Sells, or Ziauddin Sardar, might have served the purpose.  Dowd could thus have avoided relying solely on the “amateur barbarian” Richard Burton or Newsweek’s own Fareed Zakaria.  The former’s scholarly credentials are hardly beyond doubt — see his problematic remarks on “Jewish human sacrifice” in The Jew, the Gipsy and el Islam (1898).  The latter’s forte is not his knowledge of Islam — or at least no more than Zakaria’s mentor, Samuel Huntington’s forte is Christianity.  Dowd might thus have disabused herself of the notion of “the sacred black granite cube.”  The “sacred black” stone is not a “cube” and neither is the “sacred cube” — the Ka’aba — all granite!

Getting one’s picture taken with the Dalai Lama or the Pope will guarantee neither Buddhist enlightenment nor beatification: my apologies for shattering the hopes of some New Agers.  Similarly, entering the Ka’aba in Burtonesque disguise — specially minus his arguably relevant though shifty linguistic skills and textual knowledge (See Parama Roy’s excellent essay for more on Burton) — will not and cannot necessarily guarantee much “learning” about Islam.  On the other hand, a trip to any local library with a willingness to read and learn, and engagement with an open mind in meaningful conversations with the (gasp!) American Muslims, might be better starting points for undertaking this particular journey.

Did the Editor of The New York Times not know the price difference between the ticket to the IMAX theatre plus membership to a local library and the cost of Dowd’s lavish travels to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia?  The Neo-Orientalist fantasy to tread in the footsteps of Sir Richard Burton is accelerated with privilege and precisely because of this privilege skips and misses its target even more widely.

It is in the spirit of a gift that I offer Ms. Dowd this image:

Labeled elements are as follows: 1 – The Black Stone; 2 – Door of the Kaaba; 3. Gutter to remove rainwater; 4 – Base of the Kaaba; 5 – Al-Hatim; 6 – Al-Multazam (the wall between the door of the Kaaba and black stone); 7 – The Station of Ibrahim; 8 – Angle of the Black Stone; 9 – Angle of Yemen; 10 – Angle of Syria; 11 – Angle of Iraq; 12 – Kiswa (veil covering the Kaaba); 13 – Band of marble marking the beginning and end of rounds; 14 – The Station of Gabriel.

The ‘First Wives Club’ or the Politics of Visibility and Invisibility

by Huma Dar

In her article in The Observer, ‘The First Ladies Of The Arab World Blaze A Trail For Women’s Rights’, Helena Smith waxes eloquent about a very exclusive, seven-year-old club, called “Arab Women Organisation” with only fifteen members so far: the first ladies of Jordan, the Emirates, Bahrain, Tunisia, Algeria, Sudan, Syria, Oman, Palestine, Lebanon, Libya, Egypt, Mauritania, Morocco and Yemen.1

The first wives of the other seven Arab countries with “some of the more traditional societies” have also been invited and there are “tremendous hopes” that they, too, will join up, Smith gently reassures the reader.  This article carries the tag line: “A large and powerful alliance of leaders’ wives is making huge strides in breaking taboos and getting feminist issues on the political agenda.” The list of issues being “sexual slavery,” “trafficking,” “child exploitation,” “prostitution” and “rape” in the Middle East,” and, of course, this is duly prefaced by an obligatory, pious declamation that these “societies [are] not known for their commitment to feminist agendas.”

One wonders if this particular set of issues has indeed been adequately dealt with in any part of the world, and immediately thinks of the epidemic proportion of violence against women in the United States of America, which happens to be one of the more violent places for women as far as the proportionate rates of rapes, assaults, and murders are concerned, with every two minutes a woman being sexually assaulted, and every eight minutes a woman being raped.2

Continue reading “The ‘First Wives Club’ or the Politics of Visibility and Invisibility”

‘Going Deeper’ Not ‘Muslim’: Islamophobia and its Discontents

Photo by Ridwan Adhami

by Huma Dar

I deeply missed June Jordan today. Back in Fall 1995 (or was it 96?) the acclaimed poet read not her own poems, but those of her Arab students, at the first ever Berkeley “Poetry at Lunch” event. I adored her, and adored her even more when she courageously asserted that Arabs/Muslims were one of last groups it was explicitly kosher (read: not un-PC) to be racist or prejudiced towards in any given circle. Way before 9/11…

Tunku Varadarajan, a professor at NYU’s Stern Business School and a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, recently wrote a piece “Going Muslim: America after Fort Hood.”(1) He coins the phrase “Going Muslim” to “describe the turn of events where a seemingly integrated Muslim-American—a friendly donut vendor in New York, say, or an officer in the U.S. Army at Fort Hood—discards his apparent integration into American society and elects to vindicate his religion in an act of messianic violence against his fellow Americans.”(2)

Continue reading “‘Going Deeper’ Not ‘Muslim’: Islamophobia and its Discontents”

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