February 04, 2018


My last monograph, Britain Through Muslim Eyes, as its title suggests, emphasised the Muslim author’s gaze on the United Kingdom. Drawing on the work of theorists from Jacques Lacan to Jeremy Hawthorn, I argued that images of eyes, optics and the gaze dominated the texts produced by Muslim writers who spent time in Britain during the period 1789 to 1988.

Now I am writing the sequel, Muslim Representations of Britain, 1988Present. In this later period I notice Muslim writers’ interest in sound, speech and listening. I have realised that visualism or ocularcentrism, otherwise known as a privileging of looking over other sensory perceptions, has led to a neglect of the aural in academia.

Recent years have seen the emergence of the field of sound studies. Yet, even within this category there are hierarchies. For example, more attention is paid to voice and speech than hearing. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak famously enquired in 1988 whether the subaltern could speak. The flip side of Spivak’s work on speech is her neglected consideration of listening. For example, she tells one interviewer, Sneja Gunew: “For me, the question ‘Who should speak?’ is less crucial than ‘Who will listen?’” And in an essay from 2004, ‘Terror: A Speech After 9/11’, Spivak again frames her argument in acoustic terms, writing about listening to others even when they have committed acts of terror.

In part building on Spivak’s research, a significant ‘politics of listening’ oeuvre is developing. This research positions listening as a type of responsiveness or an ethical openness rather than listening per se. Yet, in the current political climate, some people are listened to more than others. In her book, The Politics of Listening, Leah Bassel puts those who are typically inaudible within earshot. She quotes a Somali Muslim woman based in Canada as saying: “I wish white liberal women would stop saving us. They only listen to you if you bash your culture.” Yet, if people listen hard for harmonious notes amongst the dissonance separating them from others, it will result, Bassel argues, in greater political equality.

How does this apply to literature? Gerry Smyth judges that critics need to “listen to the novel”, paying attention to representations of music, for example. In 1995, Hanif Kureishi co-edited The Faber Book of Pop with music journalist Jon Savage, in which he writes, “Literature had too often been used as a boot stamped in the face of the young … It was rejected.” He goes on to discuss pop music which, he judges, “is a form crying out not to be written about. It is physical, sensual, of the body rather than the mind, and in some ways it is anti-intellectual.”

In her book, The Politics of Listening, Leah Bassel ​puts those who are typically inaudible within earshot. She quotes a Somali Muslim woman based in Canada as saying: “I wish white liberal women would stop saving us. They only listen to you if you bash your culture.”

This quotation is helpful to understand Kureishi’s novel from the same year, The Black Album. This book centres on the rise of extremism in Britain, but is also, perhaps surprisingly, preoccupied by music. The protagonist Shahid secures his place at university by impressing his attractive lecturer Deedee with his knowledge of Prince, an artist he describes as “half black and half white, half man, half woman, half size, feminine, but macho too.” Later, as he and Deedee start an affair, they attend a warehouse rave where Shahid “had never heard music so fast; the electronic beats went like a jackhammer.” Despite its “summer of love” tag, the repetitive beats scene of 1989 depicted here is far from inclusive. The warehouse space is known as the White Room, and Deedee is remorseful for taking Shahid to such a monocultural club where he seems out of place because of his Pakistani ethnicity. Shahid feels torn between — on the one hand — music, “sex and secularity,” and — on the other — the discipline and anti-racist solidarity he finds with Riaz, Chad and other members of a nascent Islamist group.

Another diasporic Pakistani writer, Kamila Shamsie, published Home Fire last year. This is another, largely London-based novel that listens to others, to individuals who are usually unattended to: most notably, radicalised subjects. Shamsie’s Islamist character is Parvaiz, whose transformation from a gentle boy dreaming of a career as an audio engineer to a disillusioned youth who heads for the Islamic State in Raqqa is a narrative arc where the topoi of sound and fury need to be highlighted. Parvaiz finds an astute ‘listener’ in the fold of his friendship with the sinister character Farooq. This causes him to break away from his sisters, whom he views as disregarding him as well as disrespecting the memory of their jihadist father. Shamsie trains a careful ear on Daesh’s violent cacophony, recording Parvaiz’s screams of pain when Farooq tortures him on Parvaiz’s own instigation so as to share the pain his father went through at Bagram airbase. Shamsie puts the susurrus of homoeroticism between Parvaiz and Farooq almost within readers’ earshot. Readers are also made privy to Aneeka’s complaint that British Muslims experience “rendition, detention without trial, airport interrogations, spies in your mosques, teachers reporting your children to the authorities.”

The woman quoted by Bassel was right to point out that the mainstream Western media only listens to Muslims if they denigrate their own culture. But literary fiction offers something that journalism cannot. What fiction brings to the table are its sensual qualities of visual and aural texture. Fiction delves beneath words to shadow forth why individuals have spoken them, and what symbolic bearing they have on our age.

The columnist teaches global literature at the University of York and is the author of Britain Through Muslim Eyes: Literary Representations, 1780-1988

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 4th, 2018