THE question above is agitating many minds today. If we believe in the domino effect, other states should follow suit. Egypt came after Tunisia and now there are rumblings in other parts of the Arab world.
I tried to look for the answer to this explosive question in the poem Fahmida Riaz recited at the Critical Discourse session of the Sindh Education Foundation recently.
Here Fahmida Riaz spoke on the Urdu dictionary published last year by the Urdu Dictionary Board of which she is director. This 22-volume publication is no ordinary work of lexicography. In Fahmida’s words, “it actually traces the history of our civilisation, being a discourse on 1,000 years of our culture, tradition and customs”. Containing approximately 254,074 head words, it took 51 years to complete when the first Oxford English Dictionary was compiled in 70 years and had 414,825 entries.
Described very simply yet eloquently in the invitation as “a poet, feminist, human rights activist”, Fahmida Riaz, gave an insightful talk on her team’s experience of compiling the Urdu dictionary. The animated discussion that followed made it a wide-ranging dialogue on the Urdu language.
It was her poem that she recited at the meeting that was thought-provoking in the context of Egypt. It shed ample light on our national psyche as it has evolved over the centuries. The fact is that the people who stage revolutions — it is still too early to say how much will change in the land of the pharaohs — should have the capacity for collective action of the kind that was witnessed in Cairo.
The first attribute that distinguishes the Muslims of the subcontinent from others is our innate desire to cling to what we have conventionally believed. Even when we discover that our belief is flawed, we do not let it go. Fahmida described this national weakness succinctly when she narrated her experience of researching the roots of various words. She found it disquieting when her team discovered that the word ‘ababeel’ which figures in the Holy Quran is not the name of a bird as many of us have believed all along. To her utter surprise she learnt there is no bird by that name in Arabic. ‘Beel’, a collective noun, stands for a flock of birds.
Drawing an analogy with our tendency to reject what negates our own popular perceptions, she says it is essential for one to uncover the truth howsoever unpleasant it might be. These lines from her poem say it all:
‘Banatay hain hum ek farhang-i-nau/ Jis mein har lafz ke saamnay darj hain/ Wo muanee jo hum ko nahin hain pasand’. (Know that we seek to set down a new lexicon/ where each entry has writ against it/ meanings we frown upon).
The other quality that would disqualify us from an Egypt-like revolution is the exclusivity displayed by those who would be expected to spearhead the process of change in society and the political dispensation. Fahmida dwelt at length on this concern when I met her later. She is pained by how supremacism has penetrated deep into our soul. This has its roots in the overblown distant memories we still cherish of the great Muslim empires of yore. “But the fact is that there was a lot of diversity in those empires which also included non-Muslims in their fold,” Fahmida reminded me.
The need for us is to adopt an inclusive approach and acknowledge the greatness of others as well — even the non-Muslims. When Muslim societies embraced diversity and plurality they flourished. When we abandoned this quality of acceptance of the ‘other’ living in our midst, our society went into a state of stagnation. This is how she puts it:
‘Doosron kay liyay sirf nafrat liyay/ Khushk honton pe harf-i-hiqarat liyay/Jo khala hai jahan us ko bhartay naheen/ Chaar aankhen haqeeqat say kartay naheen’. (Harbouring but hate alone for the ‘other’, our lips gone sapless with brother’s contempt for brother; we fail to re-incubate the worlds gone up in smoke and fire, and failing to assume the truth, we do not look in the eye the liar).
She is spot on. After witnessing all the hatred that is being spewed around us, an article I read in The New York Times struck a chord. Writing two days before Hosni Mubarak stepped down, a spokesman of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest Islamic party, wrote, “We aim to achieve reform and rights for all: not just for the Muslim Brotherhood, not just for Muslims, but for all Egyptians.”
In contrast our Islamists delight in branding as ‘kafirs’ our non-Muslims and the minority sects. They even abuse ulema from other parties. How can there be any orderly change here? There can only be chaos.
But Fahmida Riaz tried to inspire some hope in the future when she spoke of the daybreak opening up new possibilities when pluralism, diversity, equity and egalitarianism will become our norms.
‘Is gulistan kay har ek mehmaan kay/ Roo buroo hon gay hum asl imkaan kay/ Jis kay aagay barabar hein mein aur too/ Jis ki nazron mein yaksaan hein hum aur woh/ Banatay hein hum ek farhang-i-nau (we shall be flowers all, beholding the joy of possibilities that smile at us, as if to say, between you and me, there stands no wall, no difference; all illusions done, revealed we are as one; such do we intend to be this our lexicon — translation by Badri Raina).
But can one share this optimism? The fissures run deep. They are multiple and overlap one another. Can they be bridged in a lifetime?