The Geometry of Uzma Aslam Khan
These “authentic” memoirs all come packaged in the same cover: a woman gazing out in terror from behind a burqa. I’ve had to fight to keep such covers off my books. As I said above, the kinds of stories the west wants from “Muslim women” is also prescribed. They want stories about passive housewives and battered daughters and veiled erotica. Who wants to know that in Pakistan girls go on fossil digs? Or that they have lively, curious intellects that lead them to make important discoveries?
I hope that my books don’t churn out the same tired images. I’ve thought a lot about why the woman-in-burqa story is so popular in the west and come to this conclusion: It signifies both the terrorist and the victim. It reinforces fear of them and redeems trust in us. It gives war a moral justification: the emancipation of the Muslim woman. After all, when bombs fall on veiled women, the veils fall off.
Your books have been published in over 10 languages. What has the international response been to your works? Has it varied from the response you have received in your homeland? Do you have thoughts on the ability of literature to bridge borders?
The response has varied greatly, depending on the country. India has published all three of my novels; Pakistan has published only one, Trespassing, after it was translated into thirteen languages. Pakistan published me only after every one else did! The Geometry of God will be published later this year in Europe, and in the US by a new imprint of Interlink Books called Clockroot Books.
The mainstream US media mostly ignored Trespassing, though the book did generate some interest in the alternative media (such as book clubs and online journals). This alternative media is a source of hope—not just for me but for many non-American writers and for artists in general.
It is in the UK where I have gotten the most politically charged interviews. When I was launching Trespassing in the UK in 2003, every interviewer I met asked me questions about “Islamic fundamentalism.” I always replied, “How come you don’t ask Christian or Jewish or Hindu writers about the rise of fundamentalism in their faith?” This only made things worse. Rarely was I given the chance to talk about my aesthetic; I was always required to represent my faith. The pattern is revealing of an overall rise in xenophobia and Islamophobia, giving rise to an unwillingness to enter the skin of a novel and novelist from somewhere “unknown.”
In early 2008 you wrote an open letter to Obama entitled "Where's the Change, Barack?" In it, you state that a US election is in fact a world election. Can you elaborate on this idea?
What the President of the US does around the world affects the world. Since WWII, what kind of political, economic, environmental, and military relationship has the US had with the rest of the world? What can we put on that list except sanctions, bombings, occupations, threats, crimes against humanity, supporting illegal regimes, breaking international laws, vetoing UN resolutions against war and global warming? I don’t know a single person outside the US who doesn’t hope that when Americans vote, they understand that who they bring into power will determine who lives and who dies.
What are your feelings about Obama now that he has been elected? What are your thoughts about his recent foreign policy plans and decisions, especially in regards to Pakistan and the surrounding region? If you had the opportunity to inform US foreign policy, what would you advise?
Obama talks very eloquently about peace. In his January 20, 2009 speech, he said, “Know that your country will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy.” I was almost mesmerized. Three days later, he authorized the use of two US-drone missile attacks on Pakistan. Fifteen innocent Pakistani villagers died. How is this change? Since 2001, under the Bush administration, the US had been regularly launching US missile strikes across the Afghan border and into Pakistan. During his election campaign, Obama repeatedly supported that policy. In fact, he promised that the war would shift from Iraq to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Well, he wasted no time in acting on his promise, all while promising peace.
There seems to be a belief amongst some of Obama’s supporters that he is being pressured to move the war from Iraq to Afghanistan and Pakistan, as if he’s a victim who wants peace but has to give in to war. That is a very, very dangerous way of thinking. Bush was never held accountable either. He is a free man today instead of being behind bars. Last month’s attacks on Pakistan were in direct contravention of international law. Why isn’t Obama being held accountable? The next time he authorizes an attack on Pakistan, it will also be justified as being in the interest of satisfying the war hungry, as if twenty or so Pakistanis dead every now and then is for the sake of the greater good. It is really a kind of cannibalism: Let’s appease the strong by feeding them the weak. If I had the chance to inform US policy I would advise that agreeing to feed the weak to the strong means sooner or later we will have to cook ourselves.
Right now, all eyes seem to be on Pakistan and Afghanistan. Much of the media coverage—specifically in the US—is focused on terrorism, extremism, and human rights abuses. What would you like the world to know about your country? Where do you see the most hope—both in terms of making progress against corruption and extremism, but also in terms of changing perceptions of your country around the world?
No country can be summed up in a few words. Just as America is more than terrorism and extremism, so too is Pakistan. Just as America is more than one successive President after another launching illegal attacks on sovereign states, Pakistan is more than one wretched military or civilian ruler after another. The only way to understand the complexity of any place is to first admit your preconceptions about it. Then be willing to shed them. Pakistan is music, food, mountains, plains, villages, seas, cities, shrines, textiles, Sufism. Pakistan is also a very poor country where lives are excruciatingly difficult in ways that have to be understood by listening to those who’ve lived them. And Pakistanis talk. That is something we do all the time so there is plenty to hear. We talk about everything—politics, literature, foreign policy, relatives, religion, clothes—and we hardly ever agree. So instead of listening to Fox and CNN, listen to qawali and Sufi music, listen to the Sabri Brothers and Pathanay Khan. Read about the latest bomb blast, but also read the poets Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Fahmida Riaz. Perhaps hop on a plane and go there. That is really where hope is: in people to people contact.