Living in the Respectorate
By Irfan Husain
13 Aug, 2011
TRULY, we live in strange times. Of late, a spate of odd, purportedly Islamic injunctions have landed in my inbox. Let me start with the oddest: in Somalia, the group of Jihadi terrorists calling themselves al-Shabab have banned the humble samosa.
What these holy warriors objected to was not some forbidden filling in the triangular savoury pastry, but its shape.
Apparently, they consider its ancient, three-cornered design to be “too Christian”: according to them, the samosa symbolises the Holy Trinity.
Never mind that the familiar snack first appeared in Central Asia in the 10th century, and made its way to India in the 13th.
Since then, it has been carried to all points of the compass by migrating South Asians. Nobody had thus far spotted the secret Christian symbol concealed in its shape, so well done, al-Shabab. Oh yes, the group has also issued a strict edict against playing and watching football.
Close on the heels of this bit of madness was a recent Iranian crackdown on young people squirting water at each other with water pistols in the southern Iranian town of Bandar Abbas. Seventeen boys and girls were arrested for this terrible crime; 12 have been released on bail and face trial. Gen Ahmad Rouzbahani, the chief of the Iranian morality police, announced that his officers would “act forcefully” to quell any such attempt by young people to have fun. Clearly, laughter and high spirits threaten the foundations of the Islamic Republic of Iran. From Ghazni in neighbouring Afghanistan comes the news that the local Taliban have imposed a ban on selling or cooking frozen chicken. Cheaper at 110 Afghanis than the live variety that costs 150 each, imported frozen chicken was a relatively cheap source of protein in the impoverished country.
However, the Taliban have judged that the fowl were slaughtered in an un-Islamic manner in the countries they were imported from. Considering that they mostly originate in the United States, China, Brazil and India, it is unlikely that the Taliban have actually witnessed their slaughter.
Giving a rational, scientific reason for this ban, Habibullah, a spokesman for the Taliban in Ghazni, said: “When those chickens are boiled, waste comes out of their stomachs and that method itself is unfair.” Renowned for their justice to chickens, the Taliban clearly have a point. One Afghan religious scholar brought in a more sordid commercial angle when he accused Pakistani clerics of issuing the fatwa to block imports from India, thereby boosting the sale of Pakistani birds.
More seriously, the recent behaviour of SHO Rana Zulfiqar in Lahore’s Nairang Gallery has outraged many in Pakistan.
Apparently, the police officer was not very steady on his feet when he wandered into the gallery with a bunch of his underlings in tow. There he accused the young curator of fahashi for being improperly dressed, and hit her. When others at the gallery tried to intervene, they too were thrashed.
Although an inquiry has been ordered into the incident, Rana Zulfiqar need not worry too much as such official probes are meant to give an impression that action is being taken, when in reality, they are intended to cover up the truth. Nayyar Ali Dada, the owner of the gallery, is an old friend, and has written an impassioned letter to the authorities demanding strict action against the police officer.
Over the years, Nayyar has served the arts diligently under adverse circumstances, and deserves all the support he can get.
But in a society where creativity is all too often equated with vulgarity and obscenity, and where the appearance of religiosity has replaced reason, the arts are struggling for relevance. A handful of people like Nayyar persevere in keeping them alive in a hostile environment.
More and more, the ideas and ideals of groups like the Taliban and al-Shabab are seeping into the mainstream of the Pakistani public discourse. Opinion polls track the increasingly intolerant views held by the majority. With this backdrop of mounting extremism, incidents like the one at Nairang Gallery can only multiply.
In Salman Rushdie’s charming fable Luka and the Fire of Life, the eponymous hero enters a land known as the Respectorate of I. At the entrance, a Border Rat issues Luka and his friends this warning: “Here in the Respectorate we expect visitors to behave. We’re very thin-skinned. If you prick us, we bleed. And if we bleed, we make you bleed double: is that clear?”
A little later, a number of the citizens of Respectorate hiss their national song; one verse goes like this:
“If I sssay upside down is the right way round,
If I insissst that black is white,
If I claim that a sssqueak is the sssweetest sound,
Do you ressspect my Right?
Say, do you Ressspect my Right?”
Somewhat in the same vein, we strike absurd positions like banning samosas and frozen chicken, and expect the rest of the world to respect these decisions. And if others laugh at such absurdities, we take umbrage, much like the Border Rat. All too often, clerics and self-styled religious leaders revel in dragging us further back in time.
In a society where all actions and thoughts are governed by lengthy lists of do’s and don’ts, there is little need to think for ourselves. As part of the Respectorate’s national song has it:
“There’s no need to argue, no need to sussspect,
No need to think when you have Ressspect…”
We live in an increasingly complex world where ancient verities are under siege, and where we must constantly evolve new strategies for growth and survival. Above all, we need to accept and tolerate a diversity of beliefs, lifestyles and cultures. We must also acknowledge that nobody can claim a monopoly on the truth.
Our world is a wonderful mosaic with different people providing patterns that enrich the entire tapestry of life. To try and impose a dull uniformity on this vibrant design is to impoverish us all. So let people eat samosas and frozen chicken, and by all means allow young people to squirt water at each other. We have enough rules in our lives to invent more silly ones.
Source: The Dawn, Karachi