Cuba Kahani: Dubai, America, Mexico Aur Cuba Ka Safar
By Mustansar Hussain Tarar
Let me begin by saying I’ve chosen to review only the 200-odd pages forming the bulk of Mustansar Hussain Tarar’s Cuba Kahani: Dubai, America, Mexico Aur Cuba Ka Safar [The Cuba Story: Travels in Dubai, America, Mexico and Cuba]. Around 70 pages at the beginning are about the author’s flying visits to the other places and, in my opinion, very much out of place in a volume which is otherwise about a steadfastly socialist country, of which people know little. There is much to distinguish between Havana, and the three aforementioned watering holes of the rich that could easily have formed a separate book. Therefore, for this review, they go undiscussed.
As is usual with so many of Tarar’s travelogues, this one begins with a death scene. In this case, it is the real death of Che Guevara, the Argentinean revolutionary and one of the founders of the modern Cuban revolutionary state. His assassination by Bolivian forces on Oct 9, 1967, is considered one of the most important political events of South America.
The chapter is titled ‘Voh Jo Tareek Raahon Mein Maaray Gaye’ [Those Who Were Slain in Dark Alleys] after a famous poem by Faiz Ahmed Faiz. The account ends with ‘Moments’, a poem misattributed to Che’s fellow — albeit right-wing — Argentinean, the writer Jorge Luis Borges but actually written by the American Don Herold. Be that as it may, for Tarar’s generation — and he admits this in as many words — the Cuban Revolution was one of the most formative events, and this awestruck reverence can be detected throughout the 82-year old writer’s account.
For Pakistanis of Tarar’s generation, Cuba represents an iconic event of the 20th century, when a small but resolute band of revolutionaries led by Guevara and Fidel Castro achieved one of the most definitive victories of socialism against imperialism. This victory has held firm for over 60 years, despite destructive sanctions by the United States and malicious propaganda from the Western media. Indeed, the Cuban Revolution can be compared to other significant successful Third World revolutions of the last century, such as those in China, Vietnam and Iran.
Mustansar Hussain Tarar’s latest travelogue documents a valuable part of Cuban society, in contrast to the usual discussion around the country’s politics
To millennials, Cuba is the small but benign country which was the first to send a whole corps of doctors, nurses and paramedics when a devastating earthquake struck our Northern Areas in 2005. It was a time when the Pakistani government had neither asked Havana for any assistance, nor did diplomatic relations exist with Cuba. More recently, thousands of Pakistani students have availed free scholarships within Cuba’s much-admired health system.
Tarar is, of course, not the first Pakistani writer to visit Cuba and write about it. Before him, Faiz and Abdullah Malik wrote their own observations about the revolutionary island. What distinguishes Tarar’s account is that the former two were written during the Cold War, when Faiz and Malik, as members of the Communist Party of Pakistan, were official guests of the Cuban state. Tarar’s visit took place less deliberately: he was visiting his daughter in the US. Be that as it may, when one of the foremost Urdu writers of our time makes it a point to visit this lone socialist outpost in the Caribbean, we are bound to take notice.
Each of the travelogue’s 25 short chapters has an intriguing title, which enhances the book’s readability. Arriving in Havana from Orlando, Tarar — the inveterate traveller in the communist states of the ex-Soviet Union, Poland, China and Vietnam — is struck by the fact that there are no life-size portraits or statues of Cuba’s legendary leaders in any of the city’s public squares, buildings or even government offices. Quoting a Cuban banker, Tarar says this is because Castro was wary of personal projection, so much so that he even willed that his corpse neither be preserved nor any tomb be built after his death.
Tarar’s Cuba is not the “red paradise” described by Faiz and Malik, nor is it the hell-hole routinely denounced by much of the Western press. In fact, one was rather amused when, last March, journalist Wajahat Masood carried in his magazine Hum Sab a grotesquely Photoshopped image of Castro ensconced between two women, the caption claiming he had had sexual relations with more than 35,000 women! The fake image and ‘news’ were later revealed to be lifted without any investigation from the pages of the right-wing, anti-Castro American newspaper The Washington Times.
In fact, it is worth quoting in full what an Italian pilot, whom Tarar met in the lobby of his Havana hotel, had to say about his feelings for Cuba: “I personally do not like socialism, etc, but Cuba is at the top in the whole of South America in three things: their medical system is such that, perhaps in proportion to the population, Cuba has the most doctors in the whole world, and treatment and check-up facilities are free. The literacy rate is 100 percent because a lot of attention is given to education. In addition, the law and order situation is enviable. I feel safe here.
“But there is poverty, too. I needed a pack of milk; I went to the store and found out the milk had finished, come tomorrow. If you go to exchange currency in the bank, one has to stand in line for a very long time. The ordinary man makes do with difficulty. The things of daily life, available everywhere in our countries, are found here with difficulty. However, they are better than many of their neighbours.”
Tarar writes that, at the end, the Italian pilot said — a bit mischievously — that Havana is a very dull city with respect to nightlife, “so my evenings are not well-spent. The whole city indeed sleeps at 10 pm.”
So here, in a few words, the citizen of a G-8 country exposes us to more than what more well-informed Western sources do!
In Tarar’s deft hands, Cuba is a country of contrasts, from the variety of inhabitants ranging from European and white to very dark, but all happy; from the “luxury” Hotel Meliá Habana where Tarar stayed, to the bare, unpainted buildings wearing an austere “socialist” look; and the showy 1960s Chevrolets, Cadillac and Ford cars, whom Tarar calls the “brides of Havana”, a holdover from the 1960s Cold War days.
Whether Tarar is demystifying a daiquiri — a cocktail allegedly born at Cuba’s iconic El Floridita restaurant — or detailing the various stages in the preparation of the renowned Cuban cigars, or recounting the heroic exploits of Cuba’s national hero José Martí and the ‘Guantanamera’ song made world-famous by one of his poems, or indeed encountering the banjo, a staple of Cuban music, he is documenting for us a valuable part of Cuban society, in contrast to the ubiquitous mentions of the revolution, or Cuba’s founders, or the often-dispiriting news about the sanctions maintained against it by Washington. There is ostensibly much more to Cuba than all this.
One of the most delightful and moving accounts in the book is when Tarar and his wife turn back the years to enjoy a ride on one of Havana’s famed aforementioned antique Chevrolets, which costs a fortune in dollars for a one-hour ride. Tarar compares the experience to riding a roller coaster, as if the couple had become children on a swing.
The longest chapter is devoted to the Nobel Prize-winning American author Ernest Hemingway, who had a lengthy and productive relationship with the island towards the end of his life. A visit to Hemingway’s abandoned home near Havana on the very last day of Tarar’s sojourn is an occasion for Tarar to engage in an extended meditation on the life and legacy of someone whom he struggles throughout this chapter to define as an important, but not a great writer.
Nevertheless, the effervescent description of Hemingway’s novella The Old Man and the Sea, which is set in Cuba and was cited by the Nobel Committee in awarding Hemingway, actually forced this scribe to seek it out as well. One wonders, though, why it would not have been more suitable for Tarar to dedicate this long chapter to discussing a Cuban or indeed a Latin American writer rather than an American one, but that is a minor quibble.
Readers may also be put off by Tarar’s constant references to Urdu and Hindi film songs while negotiating Havana. While these references may be interesting devices for a Western reader who reads the book in translation, for local readers they serve as a huge distraction from the real topic of the book at hand.
Though only covering a short trip of five days, Cuba Kahani brims with insights about a country and a culture still relatively unknown to most Pakistanis, despite diplomatic relations between the two countries being re-established in 2005. In fact, as Tarar himself admits in the book, Cuba is sadly not a preferred travel destination for most Pakistanis, who prefer the razzmatazz of American cities such as New York.
One hopes that, with a friendly and sympathetic raconteur such as Tarar on Cuba’s side, more of us benighted Pakistanis will rectify this undeserved amnesia.
The reviewer is currently working on a book, Sahir Ludhianvi’s Lahore, Lahore’s Sahir Ludhianvi. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 17th, 2021