Jihad: a War Journal by Ari Sitas: Page 4 of 9
A For it is not the story that counts" mused Herman Charles Bosman.-Awhat matters is the way you tell it. The important thing is to know just at what moment you must knock out your pipe on your veldskoen...Another necessary thing is to know what part of the story to leave out."(21)
The membrane implies two narratives and two story-tellers with different parts necessarily left out. Has globalisation created the necessary third-space that allows for the telling of both stories simultaneously and the crafting of the Aleft out" parts in a non-threatening way? Do all these, translocal cosmopolitan encounters make it possible to speak Atruth to power" without the subjects of the telling, exploding into smithereens?
There was a philosophical moment when that felt possible. Marx's profound influence in the
thinking of one world without exploitation, oppression or fear, gripped substantial parts of the globe: Camoens in Rushdie's Moor's Last Sigh Asat with Belle and her cough, wiping her eyes and lips, putting compresses on her brow, and he would whisper to her about the dawning of a new world, Belle, a free country Belle, above religion because secular, above class because socialist, above caste because enlightened, above hatred because loving, above vengeance because forgiving, above tribe because unifying, above language because many-tongued, above colour because multi-coloured, above poverty because victorious over it, above ignorance because literate, above stupidity because brilliant, freedom, Belle, the freedom express, soon soon we will stand upon the platform and cheer the coming of the train" (22)The narrative is too familiar for comfort throughout the Global South: progress, emancipation, freedom.
Immanuel Wallerstein's socio-economic history of the creation of a World Capitalist Economic System through European expansion and colonisation stands as a less-optimistic scenario of the one-ness that was to have engulfed us all. His tracing of the development of a global inter-state system, of the transformation of boundaries and households, his detailed historiography of its oppressive and liberatory features does not stop him from asserting: Ait is simply not true that capitalism as a historical system has represented progress over the various previous historical systems that it destroyed or transformed. Even, as I write this, I feel the tremor that accompanies the sense of blasphemy. I fear the wrath of the gods, for I have been moulded in the same ideological forge as all my compeers and have worshipped at the same shrines."(23)
For at least a decade, but starting forty years back since Joseph Needham's study of China's historical contributions to knowledge, values and norms, (24) there has been a persistent call to transform our understanding of the social formations that preceded European modernity. Yet, when scholarship turns to conversation and argument, the membrane's ideological filters consider it a Ablasphemy".
The latest blasphemy is Martin Bernal's Black Athena (25) which traces (or attempts to as his manifold critics insist) the Afro-Asiatic roots of Hellenic civilisation. The battle lines are clear- the certainty of the membrane depends on an Aryan version of Hellenism, a creature of romantic and according to Bernal, racist scholarship that cut its Egyptian and Phoenician threads. This safeguards European-ness from Rest-ness; the opposite is dangerous, behind Michaelangelo lurks the tom-tom and the oude, the sitar and pentatonic scales. With Bernal's narrative Asia is Cyprus and Crete, Europe and Thebes the product of black Danaos's murky passions. And behind that, Diop's Nubians. Although I cannot pass judgement on the scholarly evidence disputed, I can feel the membrane's clarion calls.
Furthermore, that a novelist like Nawal El Saadawi writes both as a Adaughter of Isis" and a daughter of Islamic laws and traditions, to create a freer space for women within a rethought Islam seems to be one of the most difficult acts of re-definition. (26) Each sentence as it bends towards defining an internal space of differentiation, slips out of the fold to be castigated as Western. Each objection to the maiming of a clitoris is seen as a treachery and her status as an educated professional is seen as the poison of West-centric worldviews. Her refusal of the familial kitchen in search of books, is seen as a denial of the Book. That she is not alone globally is hardly a compensation for her multiple exiles within.
Rushdie's tale, grapples with all such contradictory domains: the tale seems at first simple and provocatively lighthearted. It starts from the two protagonists Gibreel and Saladin falling Alike titbits of tobacco from a broken old cigar," once their Air India plane cracked open over the English Channel, on their way to Eloween Deoween or Vilayet or, commonly known as London. The tale ends back in Bombay with an emotional wreckage, difficult to distil or package.
Rushdie tells us how the two protagonists, now enemies, now Achums", flapped and sang during their descent to London, and how they were reborn, creatures of the air, their Aroots in dreams and clouds, reborn in flight" (27), reborn against their pasts.
Gibreel was an Indian movie hyper-star, eveready to make eleven movies Asy-multaneous." A child of Bombay's slums, of its informal sector, Gibreel was scraped off the streets by a wealthy benefactor who after a while sent him off: Gibreel was Atoo damn goodlooking to carry tiffins on his head all his life...Get gone" he was told by his benefactor Ago, be a homosexual movie actor. I fired you five minutes back." (28)
After a stint of acting out idiotic parts, he had his Abreak" in theological movies, made lots of money and as we are told, Afrom the beginning, it seemed he could fulfill people's most secret desires without having any idea of how he did it" (29).As the storyteller tells us, Ahe had so many sexual partners tht it was not uncommon for him to forget their names even before they left his room. Not only did he become a philanderer of the worst type, but he also learned the arts of dissimulation, because a man who plays the gods must be above reproach." (30) And so it came to pass that he destroyed lives around him and atrophied his great capacity for honest and devoted love. And then he collapsed and almost died from a mystery affliction. His miraculous revival and return was marked by his denial of God- Ato prove to himself the non-existence of God, he now stood in the dining-hall of the city's most famous hotel, with pigs falling out of his face."(31) But it was also marked by his infatuation with Allelluia Cone an AAnghrezi", the climber of mountains, Avanquisher of Everest, blonde yahudan...queen." (32)
And so he disappeared, he Avamoosed" from Bombay to follow her to London, leaving behind unfinished celluloid and uncollected rupee. And so, singing and flapping through the air after the plane cracked open, he was reborn, saintly, with a halo over his head emitting a Afaint but distinctive glow" (33).
No such luck visited poor Saladin Chamcha; he was reborn with two bumps, under his Asodden and still in-place bowler hat." (34) This was his second entry of Vilayet. Year back, Ahe grew increasingly impatient of the Bombay of dust, vulgarity, policemen in shorts, transvestites, movie fanzines, pavement sleepers and the rumoured singing whores of Grant road"...he dreamt instead of that Adream-Vilayet of poise and moderation."(35)
Chamcha, the child of Bombay's prosperous classes, poised and moderated his soul, whitened his psyche to become a stage actor in London. In fact, after overcoming the look, the scent and texture of his first breakfast kipper, he stooped low enough to cackle and conquer. There was at first, children's television where as Maxim Alien he starred in the AAliens Show", a Asituation comedy about a group of extraterrestials ranging from cute to psycho" (36) Then, there was his role as Athe Man of the Thousand Voices and a Voice. If you wanted to know how your ketchup bottle should talk in its television commercial, if you were unsure as to the ideal voice for your packet of garlic-flavoured chips, he was your very man. He made carpets speak in warehouse advertisements, he did celebrity impersonations," he did, Abaked beans and frozen peas." (37) And with tenacity he muffled the India that gnawed at his intestines.
They did not die. The Aterrorist" bomb that cracked the plane and catapulted them towards London did not kill them. Nor did the drop. They were reborn in flight. They landed. Gibreel Asainted", Saladin Adevilled", Agoated"foul-smelling and grotesque to be arrested by immigration officials despite his protests that he was, indeed, a member of Actor's Equity, the Automobile Association and the Garrick Club.
At one level, and, the novel has many, we witness how Gibreel and Saladin get broken down in London. And, their Abreaking" is intimately linked to their own very contradictory inclinations, their lives and what Englishness does to them. At that level, the novel is within the traditions opened up by anti-colonial writers since Aime Cesaire. At another, like Cesaire's, the narrative cannot return to its Anative land", it does not feel at peace with the Bombay of dust and pain, it reveres no tradition, it rediscovers little to reassert with confidence, it finds no past to find a home. The post-modernist in Rushdie refuses such historical props.
And so it comes to pass that the one Chamcha helps, like an Iago, to destroy the other, Gibreel, in Vilayet.
At another level, Rusdie's pen is etching a defining presence within post-modern sensibilities. In post-modernism, Rushdie seems to have found, Like Cesaire had found before him in the 1930s, in militant surrealism, a form capable of undermining Europe's aesthetic prowess.
Rusdie's texts disturb all sense of depth, tradition and colonial pretension. For Rushdie life becomes an endless seam of Ayarnables" to be Ayarned" into stories within stories, texts within texts and as the post-modern semiotic craft insists, he does so within a maze of discursive constructions. And for Rushdie their telling has to be fabulous, hyperbolic and extreme in order to disturb and approximate the feelings of transition, of border crossings, of colonial power and its meaninglessness.
What is Adisturbed" is not only the Aimperial" or the Acolonial" in a crude sense: the racists, the miriad of apologists of domination, the mean exploitative down-graders of the Aother"- a text by Rider Haggard here or a Rudyard Kipling there; it is also the Aself-certain" largesse where no Aother" matters, where the Aother" is highly irrelevant, because s/he does not exist, that receive a thorough work-out. It is also the expressivity, indeed the cultural formation as a whole (the AWest"), the art without cracks, the self-referential project without internal questioning, the project perhaps too, of a Walt Whitman or a Richard Wagner that is forced to face its relativity, despite its universal claims.
What marks ASatanic Verses", what keeps it apart, is also the turning-over of the methodology of Adeconstruction" onto the author's own ethnic roots and religious traditions. His scalpel-of-a pen cuts at the certainties of the colonised as well: nation, history, homeland, past. These certainties and roots have also been turned into fantastical yarns and playful parodies. Partly, this new sensibility was started by Latin American fiction writers, in what has been baptised as Amagical realism." But whereas the early Gracia Marquez wrote such fantastical prose from Awithin" the people, their customs, superstitions and their foibles when he was penning A100 Years of Solitude", (38) Rushdie's authorial voice is suspended Aabove" and Abetween." the Amultitude." Like Chamcha he had left that Bombay of grime and dust. Unlike Chamcha he still yearns for something that was lost. Like Chamcha at the end of the ASatanic Verses" he declares the end of enchantment and childhood.
His total Ablasphemy" was to have flattened and rendered suspect the authority of Islam's arch-text, the Quran. The stories around Mahound, the transposed Mohammed become like other stories among stories, there, available for the playful and transgressive, distant and humorous imagination of the author.
Rusdie's Shaitan is neither a Mephistopheles to Faust, nor the Devil that haunts the villagers in Bashevis Singer's stories; neither is he a metaphoric one as in Ngugi's ADevil on the Cross", nor a modernising one, in an Italian suit, like in Thomas Mann's ADoctor Faustus." (39) He is bland, without depth, without horror, without a moral foundation, a trickster
Rushdie did not reconstruct a mythical Jahilia (40) to provide a rasping sensation against the expected grain. His description of the time when Athe caravanserais prospered" and Athe city had become famous for its liscentuousness, as a gambling den, a whorehouse, a place of bawdy songs and wild, loud music."(41) cannot be what had irked Abelievers". Nor could it have been the fact that this city of Amasquerade and madness" (42) or of untramelled libido takes its revenge against the repressive rational religion of Mahound, the businessman. Nor could it be the claim that Athe verses he (Archangel Gibreel) recited in the poetry tent, were not the real thing but its diabolic opposite" (43) All these scriptings would have caused a stir and a fierce debate. Rushdie could have though retorted by saying that these after all were the imaginings and dreams of a deranged Gibreel within the novel.
The Aunforgivable" transgression was two-fold: to have ridiculed the master-narrative of a faith by making it a secular text among texts and to have demeaned the Aparousia" of truth and destiny in its lines; and, to have denied Islamic intelligentsias the authentic symbolic capital that has empowered them against modernity.
Until then, the author of AGrimus", AMidnight's Children" and AShame" (44)was seen to be an anti-imperialist and a spokesman for the third world constituencies of Eloween Deoween- a guerilla of the spirit, courageous, demanding and principled. The distance from all he had identified to be colonial values placed him within the folds of the membrane. Such a distance works itself in the texture of his text: attempts in his prose to capture the Amale Anglo" border on caricature and the female on cold parenthesis: Chamcha's English wife we are told, had a voice, Acomposed of tweeds, headscarves, summer pudding, hockey-sticks, thatched houses, saddle-soap, house parties, nuns, family pews, large dogs and philistinism, and in spite of her attempts to reduce its volume it was loud as a dinner-jacketed drunk throwing breadrolls in a Club." (45) And Gibriel's Allie Cone was A a foggy light that dulled the heart and made it impossible to dream."(46) At least the two women were loved enough to matter, the men though are met with cold disinterested strokes.
Such a break though from the mobilising flows of an Islamic intelligentsia, despite its anti-colonial sentiments, was seen as a literal satanic versifying. From then on, Rushdie was seen as part of the elite he mauled or jeered at. The fatwa that followed, tore the membrane for him, forever. He too, has joined the most endangered species in the world: the writers from the Rest.