The quest for a monolithic-authentic-higher-stable self is the central theme of Umera Ahmed’s latest novel Alif. This highly idealised aspiration drags the novel into a realm where a very specific interpretation of a particular religion — in this case, Islam — gets invoked. The notion of stability of the human self — a quintessentially metaphysical one — finds its validity in the backdrop of a mundane, secular, material world which, remaining unendingly in a state of flux, eventually destabilises itself. So, it makes sense when one sees that everything redolent with secular, mundane and worldly stains is painted as ‘sinful’, consequently desisted, lamented and finally abandoned.
The main characters — Qalb-i-Momin, Momina and Husn-i-Jahan — are made to ditch the secular world of showbusiness in order to tread a clear spiritual path. Master Ibrahim, another lead character, also follows the same path and gives up his prosperous business of shoemaking in a bid to give in to Allah.
The Muhaqqaq style of Islamic calligraphy, which evolved in 15th century Turkey, becomes not only a metaphor for the characters’ transformation into spiritual beings, but a ‘sole’ path that leads to spirituality and falah [salvation and spiritual wellbeing]. Playing on ecstasies, transformative progression is made to happen; ecstasy stemming from the affluence of flesh and then from the affluence of the soul. Having abandoned secular showbiz life, all the major characters finally embrace the art of Quranic calligraphy.
Umera Ahmed’s latest novel is all about simplistic binaries and the rejection of the world in favour of the author’s chosen truth
Qalb-i-Momin’s grandfather, Abdulali, comes from a family of Turkish calligraphers. His son, Taha, revolts against family tradition by painting dancing images of Husn-i-Jahan — images that become ingrained in his imagination when he sees her performing at a cultural show in Istanbul. He falls in love and marries Husn-i-Jahan, a leading Pakistani film actress of the 1980s. She takes a mere second to bid goodbye to the ‘profane’ world of showbiz — and, of course, Pakistan — to lead a simple family life in Turkey. Their son, Qalb-i-Momin, joins the Pakistani film industry and soon becomes an icon. In the words of Abdulali, he chooses the path of worldly success instead of falah, as the novel seems to consider Islamic calligraphy as the one and only alternate form of art.
The path of alif, the first letter of ‘Allah’, is portrayed as the wahid [single, incomparable] path to spirituality. However, seeing how the characters are transformed into spiritual beings, the word ‘spirituality’ in the novel’s context appears most problematic. In the story, spirituality means “woh seedha raasta jo GPS dikha sakta hai na aql ... wo raasta dil ki galiyon say guzar kar rooh tak pohonchta hai aur sirf iman ki roshni men nazar aata hai [that straight path which neither GPS nor rationality can lead to ... that path reaches the soul after passing through the alleys of the heart and can be seen only in the light of faith].”
An aversion to human intellect and its products — ranging from the imaginative arts to free thinking to freedom to individuality — seems entrenched in Ahmed’s notion of spirituality.
The main theme of her novel is unravelled through fabricating the lives of characters deeply embedded in sets of binaries and the continuous process of othering. The major binary consists of religion and the material world. Sacred and profane, spirituality and rationality, godly and human, soul and body, permanence and mortality, falah and success are subsets of the said binary. These binaries have been in place since modernity. Modern philosophy, social sciences and modern fiction, too, have been, in one way or another, entangled in the discursiveness created out of these binaries. Imagining the world through the lens of binaries ends up in an either/or state; either constructive and liberating or destructive and enslaving.
One side of the binary coin is deemed to be wrapped in absolute darkness while other side is thought to be permanently glowing. The world of human art, its amusements and vivacities are regarded emblematic of the darkness that pulls people away from the straight path of falah. Falah, with its godly rewards, resides at the centre of Islamic calligraphy. Falah is not just superior to the success which Qalb-i-Momin, Husn-i-Jahan, Master Ibrahim and Momina experience in the field of human art; it possesses an exclusionary value. None of the characters cast even a cursory glance at the possibility that the core aesthetic value of human art can give disinterested pleasure that doesn’t collide with spirituality — a much cherished and celebrated notion in the novel. Each major character is made to desist and consequently abandon their destabilised, distorted selves — reminiscent of their successful lives — for single, stable, higher selves which the path of falah augurs.
The theme of transformation appears in more than one guise. In one encounter with his grandfather, Qalb-i-Momin is told that his success in films is based solely on sexually exposing the female body. Challenging this claim, Qalb-i-Momin decides to make a film on spirituality, though at the time he has no idea of spirituality. In that, he unconsciously takes the first step towards the twin transformation of his mundane self and the medium of film. As the notion of spirituality is portrayed as a path to alif, every sign of worldly success begins to disappear; one by one, actors and actresses who owed their plumage of success to him begin to distance themselves from him. His grandfather’s prognosis proves true: flesh doesn’t go with the soul.
Momina — who took a long while to heal from the wounds of insult inflicted upon her by Qalb-i-Momin during a film audition — rescues him from total disaster. As Qalb-i-Momin’s celebrity status rapidly declines, Momina’s star is on the rise. She signs his film on spirituality gratis; although initially she demands the seven pieces of calligraphic art presented to Qalb-i-Momin by his grandfather on his birthdays. As the story concludes, it is revealed that Qalb-i-Momin’s film on spirituality was an attempt to learn of his past, family and associations with Master Ibrahim, Momina and her father Sultan — a make-up artist and disinterested lover of Husn-i-Jahan. After the success of their film Alif, Qalb-i-Momin and Momina decide to leave the film industry and lead a transformed, spiritual life — symbolised by calligraphy — together in Turkey. Why Turkey? The answer is obvious: constitutionally secular Turkey is presently witnessing a revival of its Islamic past.
In constructing her novel, Ahmed makes full use of the modern techniques of storytelling. Instead of just telling the events, she ‘shows’. She harnesses flashbacks and the epistolary style — letters written to Allah by Qalb-i-Momin as a child — and crisp, albeit emotive dialogues. She breaks major events into small acts and leaves gaps at the ends to keep readers curious. Ironically, while aiming to build a strong narrative against ‘success’, she does her best to make her novel a hit. Yet, she cares less about the art of novel. The novel was an art form invented by modern man to resist orthodoxy. It has no room for anything that professes to be the sole custodian of
a truth. To write a novel is to manifest that no single, authoritative text can offer answers to the questions humans must face. Every novel is quintessentially a quest into the dark, unexplored spheres of human existence — although ‘dark’ doesn’t necessarily mean a bane or vice.
Humans need a truth that they can find through their suffering and so, every fine novel invents characters who suffer at the hands of earthly gods or of destiny. Though motifs of quest and suffering find their way into Ahmed’s Alif, too, they end up asserting a truth that already existed, though forgotten. Where does this truth exist? In the postcolonial history of Pakistan.
A year after Partition, Saadat Hassan Manto wrote a satirical essay, ‘Allah ka Bara Fazal Hai’[There Are Lots of Allah’s Blessings], which states that every form of art, from music to poetry to painting, has been abolished. Manto presaged a time when it will be decreed that art has no place in a country created in the name of Islam. A bunch of Urdu writers came forward to remove the discrepancy between art — a secular thing — and religion. They set out to politically Islamicise the art of fiction by writing on themes of halaal-o-haraam [permissible and forbidden], Sufism, the Muslim Arab and Persian past and spirituality. This sort of fiction was basically an exercise in purging art of its secularity. It is not surprising that these novels didn’t present readers with an opportunity to interrogate those authoritative versions of reality that compel humans to surrender unconditionally, suspending their doubts, opinions and views formed by using their intellect.
Alif lacks explicit political denotations, yet it calls forth political connotations. In brief, Ahmed’s novel serves as a bulwark against all the signs and forms of a secular, free, artistic life. It is obvious who requires such kind of fortification against genuine art and secular thinking.
The reviewer is a Lahore-based critic, short story writer and author of Urdu Adab ki Tashkeel-i-Jadid (criticism) and Raakh Say Likhi Gai Kitab (short stories)
By Umera Ahmed
UA Books, Karachi
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 22nd, 2019