Is One Iraqi’s Self-Hatred Newsworthy?

Crusaders in Iraq?

M. Shahid Alam

An Arab-American of Lebanese descent, fluent in Arabic, Anthony Shadid was one of a handful of unembedded Western journalists reporting from Iraq during the US invasion in 2003. At the time, he was The Washington Post’s correspondent for Islamic Affairs in the Middle East.

His dispatches from Iraq were about Iraqis, about the destruction visited upon them by a war whose architects claimed that they were bringing democracy to that country. He reported the destruction and mayhem caused by this war by letting the Iraqis speak for themselves: and they spoke of their pain, their anguish, their perplexity and their anger.

For his honest reporting, for a job well done, Anthony Shadid received some of the highest accolades of his profession. In 2004 he received the Michael Kelly Award and the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting. Other honors followed, all well-deserved. He had won his spurs for reporting, not cheerleading, neither praising nor denouncing the United States. He was reporting for The Washington Post, a neoconservative newspaper.

On Jan 29, I noticed for the first time a report in The New York Times that carried Anthony Shadid’s byline. Was this a promotion? It was written from Halaichiya, a remote village in the southern tip of Iraq, untouched by the war. The village has never seen Americans before, neither troops nor diplomats.

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Al-Biruni on India

M. Shahid Alam

Painting - Ajanta Caves

Speak the truth,
even if it were against yourselves.

Quran (4:134)

It was my master, Abu Sahl, who led me on to it.
“Write what you know about the Hindus,” he said,
“There are people who want to converse with them,
To understand their religion, science and literature.
We only have hear-say, a farrago of materials never
Sifted for accuracy. Give us facts with analysis.”

And so I put my heart to it, starting with Sanskrit.
This wasn’t an easy undertaking, without grammar
And dictionaries. I traveled through their country
Quite a bit, talking to learned Brahmans, and spared
Neither trouble nor money collecting manuscripts.
Often I invited their scholars from far-away places–
Kashmir and Kashi–to come and work with me
In Ghazni. I have endeavored in writing this book
Not to be polemical. I intend this account of India
To be nothing but a simple historic record of facts,
At once comprehensive and objective. I present
To you the theories of the Hindus, exactly as they
See them, supporting my explanations of them
With ample quotations. If any of this strikes you
As heathenish, then try to understand that such
Are the beliefs of the Hindus, and they themselves
Are best able to defend it. This book should suffice
Anyone who wants to understand the Hindus,
And discuss with them their myths, metaphysics,
And mathematics; their astronomy, arithmetic,
And astrology; their codes, customs, and conceits
On the very basis of their own civilization.

First published in Swan, 2004

–M. Shahid Alam is professor of economics at Northeastern University. He is author of Israeli Exceptionalism: The Destabilizing Logic of Zionism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009). Write to him at alqalam02760@yahoo.com.

Inviting David Brooks to My Class

The Zionists are prisoners of a bad dream: they must first free themselves, break free from the prison in which they can only play the part of tormentors, if they and especially their Palestinian victims are to live normal lives.

M. Shahid Alam

On January 12, the New York Times carried an article by David Brooks on Jews and Israel. It so caught my eye, I decided to bring its conservative author to my class on the economic history of the Middle East. I sent my students the link to this article, asked them to read it carefully, and come to the next class prepared to discuss and dissect its contents.

My students recalled various parts of the NYT article but no one could explain its substance. They recalled David Brooks’ focus on the singular intellectual achievements of American Jews, the enviable record of Israeli Jews as innovators and entrepreneurs, the mobility of Israel’s innovators, etc. One student even spoke of what was not in the article or in the history of Jews – centuries of Jewish struggle to create a Jewish state in Palestine.

But they offered no comments about Brooks’ motivation. Why had he decided to brag about Jewish achievements, a temptation normally eschewed by urbane Jews. In my previous class, while discussing Edward Said’s critique of Orientalism, I had discussed how knowledge is suborned by power, how it is perverted by tribalism, and how Western writers had crafted their writings about the Middle East to serve the interests of colonial powers. Not surprisingly, this critique had not yet sunk in.

I coaxed my students, asking them directly to explore if David Brooks had an axe (or more than one) to grind. Was there an elephant in the room they had missed? What was the subtext of the op-ed?

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Death By Sanctions

Guernica
M. Shahid Alam

Iraq deaths double under UN sanctions.”
New York Times, Feb.17, 2000

Sleep my child, do not wake now.
The portents in the sky foretell
a searing death for you.

The couriers of death have come,
stealth in their cyber gaze:
they scour the land for Saddam.

They poison every river, creek and well.
They darken school and hospital.
They warp the words you spell.

For star, for oil and cross they fly.
They will not cease to tyrannize
your dying days and hellish nights.

They will not cease their deathly watch.
Their mission is to fossilize
your bones, your heart, your eyes.

Sweet my child, do not wake now.
Your eyes once soft are hard
as rock: your hair is white as snow.

– M. Shahid Alam is professor of economics at Northeastern University. He is author of Challenging the New Orientalism (IPI: 2000). You can reach him at alqalam02760@yahoo.com.

Iqbal, Is the Sky Yours or Mine?

Allama Iqbal
Muhammad Iqbal, 1877-1938, was a poet of Urdu and Farsi, philosopher, sufi, and revolutionary, who combined in his works the traditions of Al-Ghazzali, Rumi, Ibn-e-Khaldun, Ahmad Sirhindi and Shah Walilullah. While he understood the power of the West, had read the Western philosophers, and was familiar with the advances in physics, unlike Syed Ahmad Khan, he remained firmly rooted in Islamic tradition, and refused to re-examine the Islamicate through Orientalist texts. He was criticial of the West’s excessive emphasis on reason, its materialism, and the depredations of capitalism. Many decades before Frantz Fanon and Aime Cezaire, he was the deep thinker and stirring poet of self-discovery, urging peoples of color to regain their dignity, to dig deep into their own traditions in order to overcome, and transcend, the materialism, racism, excessive rationalism, and the West’s abuse of power and its own principles.

This ghazal is a translation from Wings of Gabriel, the best collection of Iqbal’s Urdu poetry. From time to time, I will be presenting translations from this collection.

اگر کج رو ہیں انجم آسمان تیرا ہے یا میرا

translation by M. Shahid Alam

If the stars are topsy-turvy: is the sky yours or mine?
Should this fret me? Is the world yours or mine?

If Heaven lacks the tug, the heat of love’s adventure,
Dear Lord, this cosmic enigma is yours: not mine.

On that first dawn of creation, how dared he to defy
Your decree. Was he your emissary: or was he mine?

Muhammad is yours, Gabriel and the Qur’an too.
But these melodic words: are they yours or mine?

It’s this star, scintillating, that lights your creation.
Whose loss is it – the fall of Man? Is it yours or mine?

— M. Shahid Alam is professor of economics at Northeastern University, Boston. He is author of Poverty from the Wealth of Nations (Macmillan: 2000), Challenging the New Orientalism (IPI: 2007), and Israeli Exceptionalism (Palgrave: 2009). You may reach him at alqalam02760@yahoo.com.

Pakistan’s ‘Oral’ Society

Public library of Hulwan, Baghdad

M. Shahid Alam

(Note: This essay was written nearly twenty years back, in April 1991. A great many changes have come to Pakistan since then, but I am afraid that the observations I had made then about ‘orality’ of Pakistani discourse still hold true. Pakistan’s best young minds do not go where their hearts and their talents lead them. Instead, overwhelmingly, they still pursue job security. Sadly, education – even for the brightest – is still mostly vocational education. With the introduction of multiple private cable channels, however, orality has entered a new age. The oral discourse, previously confined to drawing rooms and campuses, is now led by ‘talking heads’ in television studios. Is this discourse now more solidly rooted than before in the written word, in history and the social and natural sciences? I doubt it: and why should it? Pakistan’s brown Sahibs continue to drag the country deeper into dependency; they work overtime to trap Pakistanis in the most superficial consumerism, without the capital, technology and skills that support this malaise in developed Western societies. In other words, Pakistan is still caught in the disease that Jalal Al-i Ahmad had described in his book, Gharbzadagi Occidentotis: A Plague from the West.)

I first became aware of differences between ‘oral’ and ‘literate’ societies when I returned to Pakistan in 1979 – after an absence of some five years in the United States and Canada – to take up a fellowship at the Applied Economics Research Center, affiliated to the University of Karachi.

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Allama Iqbal, God’s Command To Angels

translated by – M. Shahid Alam

 اٹھو میری دنیا کے غریبوں کو جگا دو

Marshall the meek of my world. Arise, set them free.
Seize the towers of the rich. Shake their tyranny.

Lift the slaves. Ignite them. Instill a faith that rocks.
Teach the feeble sparrow to fight the taloned hawk.

Power belongs to the people: their kingdom has come.
Burn the totems of tyranny: their history is done.

Why do toiling peasants reap death and misery?
Capture the gilded castles. Seize the granaries.

These minders, meddlers, ushers play for a fee.
I do not need priests to parse my words for me.

I have no use for painted walls and ornamented frieze.
Build me a tabernacle with mud, thatch and leaves.

This age of smoke and mirrors: is this modernity?
Move the poet. Make him rage. Hitch him to Eternity.

_________________________________________________

— M. Shahid Alam is professor of economics at Northeastern University. He is author of Israeli Exceptionalism: The Destabilizing Logic of Zionism (Palgrave Macmillan: 2009).

Native Orientalists at the Daily Times

M. Shahid Alam

The more a ruling class is able to assimilate the foremost minds of the ruled class, the more stable and dangerous becomes its rule.
–Karl Marx

A few days back, I received a ‘Dear friends’ email from Mr. Najam Sethi, ex editor-in-chief of Daily Times, Pakistan, announcing that he, together with several of his colleagues, had resigned from their positions in the newspaper.

In his email, Mr. Sethi thanked his ‘friends’ for their “support and encouragement…in making Daily Times a ‘new voice for a new Pakistan.’” Wistfully, he added, “I hope it will be able to live up to your expectations and mine in time to come.”

I am not sure why Mr. Sethi had chosen me for this dubious honor. Certainly, I did not deserve it. I could not count myself among his ‘friends’ who had given “support and encouragement” to the mission that DT had chosen for itself in Pakistan’s media and politics.

Contrary to its slogan, it was never DT’s mission to be a ‘new voice for a new Pakistan.’ The DT had dredged its voice from the colonial past; it had only altered its pitch and delivery to serve the new US-Zionist overlords. Many of the writers for DT aspire to the office of the native informers of the colonial era. They are heirs to the brown Sahibs, home-grown Orientalists, who see their own world (if it is theirs in any meaningful sense) through the lens created for them by their spiritual mentors, the Western Orientalists.

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A Ghazal from Ghalib

translated by M. Shahid Alam

Chughtai painting

نقش فریادی ہے کس کی شوخیِ تحریر کا
کاغذی ہے پیرہن ہر پیکرِ تصویر کا

Where is the Artist whose art they protest? Every
prop, every player, dreads his part in the play.

Hard, it is hard, digging through granite nights.
It takes a thousand sparks to break into day.

The heat is intense when lovers pine for death.
When she lifts her sword, the edge strips away.

Go, weave your snares with logic and design.
The arc of my flight will take your breath away.

The irons on my legs are like braids over fire.
Ghalib, I walk on cinders to pass my prison days.

–first published in Chicago Review, Summer 2003.

How Eurocentric Is Your Day?

M. Shahid Alam

Muslim AstronomersAt the outset of the classes I teach, I always address the question of bias in the social sciences. In one course – on the history of the global economy – this is the central theme. It critiques Eurocentric biases in several leading Western accounts of the rise of the global economy.

This fall, I began my first lecture on Eurocentrism by asking my students, How Eurocentric is your day? I explained what I wanted to hear from them. Can they get through a typical day without running into ideas, institutions, values, technologies and products that originated outside the West – in China, India, the Islamicate or Africa?

The question befuddled my students. I proceeded to pepper them with questions about the things they do during a typical day, from the time they wake up.

Unbeknownst, my students discover that they wake up in ‘pajamas,’ trousers of Indian origin with an Urdu-Persian name. Out of bed, they shower with soap and shampoo, whose origins go back to the Middle East and India. Their tooth brush with bristles was invented in China in the fifteenth century. At some point after waking up, my students use toilet paper and tissue, also Chinese inventions of great antiquity.

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