Punish this Literature

(Syndicated from Viewpoint Online)

Imagine my shock and dismay when a woman claiming that my chapter on Madina was based on her—did a most unimaginable thing. She sent a letter of “intent to sue” to my publishers and myself, claiming the book had defamed her character, even though she was not named in it.

The memoir project, Lahore With Love: Growing Up With Girlfriends Pakistani-Style, grew out of my obsession with my past—growing up in a secular, if conservative, Lahore of the 1970s, before Pakistani history and culture began performing Islam with a vengeance  on a national and global stage. As an immigrant, I came to the USA to do my Phd. at the end of the 70s when Z.A. Bhutto, the star of a failed democratic drama (tainted by obsequious gestures toward an “Islamic” socialism by a man who wore Mao caps but was himself a wealthy and autocratic feudal of Sindh province) – was about to be hanged by the avatar of Islam himself, General Zia ul Haq. In the tumultuous decade that followed with the illegal Martial Law regime  of the General buttressed by the country which became my adopted home after I competed my Phd and began a teaching career there, that paean to a skin-deep democracy, the US of A—I, despite the physical and now increasingly, psychic and spiritual distance from it, never really “left” the place of my birth. I held on to the memories of my childhood and early adolescence as a way to pay homage to a past and a place which had held such promise in my retrospective gaze…but had careened badly out of control and fallen apart as had the lives of many of the girlfriends of my youth. Holding on to happier memories both personal and political then, became a way to keep hope alive of a return to the native land at least on the level of the imagination, allowing for the productive paradox of un-belonging and rootedness which all immigrants embrace to one degree or another to ward off a permanent season of anomie.  Then, as it became clearer that I was in the USA to stay,” in a state of permanent and at times, exhilarating outsiderdom, which was parallel to my role appearing as a “guest” performer on the Pakistani stage during my frequent trips “back home,” the project of the memoir this dossier is about suggested itself to me as a way I might  make some peace with the country I had left behind—as the extremist mask it had begun to wear so well began to eat deeply into people’s psyches to the point where the mask began to turn to reality—like the 1964 Twilight Zone episode, “The Masks,”—in which the characters become the ugly, frightening masks they wear.

I began the memoir ten years ago, haltingly, writing in fits and starts, interrupted by other demands of my professional and personal life, and by the smells and sights which assaulted me on memory lane and made it impossible to carry on in what seemed a poor substitute for the real thing—but carry on I did, to record, and in the recording to honor, the Way We Were.  I wanted the shared herstories with my girlfriends to shed a gendered lens on the masculinist national Pakistani narrative  as a way, perhaps, of understanding who we were as a people and how we might have gotten from a historical moment which despite its conservatism held some promise, indicated some paths open for us to carve out or create a less restrictive, less sexist, more egalitarian society—to a present that made a mockery of what appeared to have been such naïve optimism.

I began shaping my memories of those days and those girls into a narrative sequence in the genre of memoir , which performs the “real,”  and as such relies heavily on fictional techniques and strategies for effect, I began to realize that the roots of oppression had lain deep—even for those of us who came from relatively liberal families and educated, middleclass backgrounds. Notions of feudal honor, tied to class privilege, permeated the minds of even those who suffered the  gendered oppressions of such feudalistic thinking, and in all of these cases, it was women who had to perform as bearers of family honor—or suffer the consequences of abandonment and often, death. My own “escape” via the colonialist trope of “brown girl saved from brown men” by settling into career and “freedom” in the West (the USA) — began to emerge as one possible reading of my memoir, to my horror– given my training and belief in postcolonial debunking of such racist imperialist thinking. How was I to counter what I knew to be not-quite-the-entire-story of the country and culture of my birth as it might appear to some reading my memoir? This became an especially important ethical task after the USA began to embrace Islamophobic discourses following 9/11, and Pakistan became a focal point of interest in the US-mandated “War on Terror.”

The story of the character called Madina in my memoir began to emerge as the perfect foil to the stories of some of my other “girlfriends”—who, after all , became “types” in a story that meant to shy away from recreating stereotypes of “poor oppressed Muslim women.” So  then, Madina. Strong-willed, aggressive even, foul-mouthed, a steamroller who never bowed her head to man or God in her single-minded pursuit of a life in the theatre—first as actor, then as founder-director of a theatre group performing plays on contemporary issues of social and political relevance. I wanted to paint a picture of  a veritable force of nature in the guise of a woman, making a mark on the performative “real” of Pakistan to suggest alternative readings to the state-mandated religiosity in thrall to extremist philosophies dictated by rightwing parties and their leaders, who, despite having never won at the polls in any election, nevertheless have taken over the national psyche through the pervasive culture of fear and hypocritical adherence of the elite and poor alike,  to outward forms of piety. In this Talibanization of the society, ofcourse, these religious outfits are and have been for a long time, aided and abetted by the US’s successive militaristic interventions in the region, and both military and civilian governments can no longer ignore them or the lip-service everyone now feels is necessary to be paid to overt displays of extreme pietism.  Madina, in her work as theatre director, stands in the memoir as a fearless contrast to such hypocritical groveling of the ruling elite at the feet of the religious extremists.

When Syracuse University Press agreed to  publish the book, I was, naturally, thrilled that my venture into a new form of writing, one considered was going to be read by many more people than the select few who read  works of theoretical scholarship, would soon hit the bookshelves and thus make available my modest contribution to the proliferating discourse on Pakistan which nevertheless suffered from shortcomings  in writing about gender, class, sectarian and religious themes in the complex ways in which I hoped my book was treating these. Imagine my shock and dismay, then, when a woman claiming that my chapter on Madina was based on her, a woman about whom I had written extensively in the pages of TDR (Afzal-Khan 1997), when she had begun important theatrical work in conjunction with the Pakistani Women’s Movement as a way of challenging the dictatorial anti-woman regime of the Islamist General Zia ul Haq, and in whose early popular play Barri I had performed a pivotal role—did a most unimaginable thing. She sent a letter of “intent to sue” to my publishers and myself, claiming the book had defamed her character, even though she was not named in it. She demanded that Syracuse Press—who had already published the book and had begun distributing it—withdraw it from circulation, and that both the Press and I publish an official apology to her in major newspapers and media outlets in Pakistan—to the same extent and degree as announcements and excerpts of my memoir and its Pakistani book launch had appeared in the press in Pakistan in March of 2010 when I was visiting there to promote the book. Refusal to comply with her demands would result in her filing a lawsuit against both myself and the Press, for a sum of 2 million US dollars. If the Press withdrew the book, and offered the public apology, then her demand for reputational injury would be decreased to a mere 1 million US dollars! In June of 2010, two months after the “letter of intent to sue”—written in the poorest of English and making the most frivolous of claims of defamation and libel, based on pulling some quotes in which she is never named out of context and interpreted in the most literal and banal of ways—the Press caved in to fears of a possible lawsuit on their hands, and informed me of their decision to cancel their contract and to cease further publication and circulation of the book. The Acquisitions Editor with whom I had enjoyed a close and cordial relationship in the several years leading up to the actual publication of the book and who had been a big supporter of it, disappeared from the scene, refusing to answer even the simplest of requests from me to inform me of what was going on and what I should be doing while the Press supposedly was investigating the libel claims.

What amounted then, to a banning of my book by Syracuse and the would-be plaintiff —coincided with a campaign by the plaintiff herself, Ms Madeeha Gauhar of Ajoka Theatre—in Pakistan, for Freedom of Speech and Human Rights—so that Ajoka’s play, Burqavaganza, critiquing religious extremism in Pakistan, be allowed to be performed on the national stage. It is a play which the government has repeatedly tried to prevent from being performed in official venues, and was even banned for a short period during President Musharraf’s regime. ( Afzal-Khan 2010a). In March of 2010, it was again under threat of being banned by a member of parliament, and I defended Ajoka’s right to perform it in an editorial for Dawn (2010 b),  which has the largest circulation of readers  for an English newspaper in Pakistan.

That Madeeha Gauhar, a lifelong theatre activist and campaigner for free speech and women’s and human rights, whose  own theatre work has been based on championing such democratic rights in a country where they are routinely held in abeyance, should turn around and call for my book to be banned, is a hypocritical, unconscionable act that boggles the mind. Or maybe, sadly, it is simply reflective of the distance the country of my birth has traversed between promise and reality, where even those few folks whom one expected to do the right thing and stand behind their proclaimed principles, turn out to be idols with feet of clay. Theatre of Conscience—the genre of theatre Ajoka claims to perform- in such a scenario becomes, like everything else, a farce.