Jihad: a War Journal by Ari Sitas: Page 6 of 9
The ASatanic Verses" is both an exemplar of an aesthetic sense and of a moral dilemma. However noted and celebrated the novel is, it not a defining work- it lacks the flamboyant discipline of Midnight's Children, perhaps one of the four or five novels in English from any side of the past century. Nevertheless, it is precisely the passions that it has evoked and the currents that it has signposted that made the book's core feelings central to our categories of judgement as we face the Anew" in our brand new times.
The feeling without weight, roots, tradition, essense, Aousia" that permits the manipulation of surface texts to tell stories and to increase our feelings of intense pleasure and desire, a feeling so crucial to post-modernity occupies its own social space. It is comprehensible only in the forcefields created by the late 20th century's financial centres, the century's megacities. A field produced, shared and celebrated by decontextualised urban intelligentsias.
In the Bay Area and in Los Angeles, as much as in New York and Bombay, as much as in Durban or Rio de Janeiro (but especially due to the iron laws of economic dominance, the USA) the world's cultures present themselves as patterns of playful consumprion, as so many pleasures to be chosen, to be mixed and matched, a playful market of desires. Similarly, the weakening of the cultural and communal hooks coupled with the lifeworlds possible in these urban monstrosities, have conspired to create the stage for the experience of multiple identies.
In the old colonial world, the Metropolis exercised a distinctive fascination; it was the flipside of the myths the colonial mind created for itself. Colonised intellectuals approached Paris (54) and London with a literary awe: they were cast in their minds by missionary teachers and brochures; but also by Dickens, Blake, Hugo and Zola. They were always mysterious and treasured spaces. Their encounters there, good or bad, exemplary or mundane formed their sense of distinction that allowed them to lead, and to be expected to lead in the countries of their birth; they in turn obliged to create the networks and stirrings of anti-colonial nationalisms. It is only during the post-colonial period that these megacities assumed a Satanic quality and a monstrous existence.
The fascination could not accomodate the fact that each one of these Acapitals of the world" was a contested and fraught terrain. Baudelaire's and Rimbaud's Paris was not the same as Proust's. Bely's St Petersburg was not the same as Dostoyevsky's or Gorky's. (55) For them, scripting endogenous passions, differentiation and variety was the norm. What was available to emigre intellectuals and writers though was a different aura- an aura that surrounded their specific pilgrimage, so difficult to connect with endogenous discord or variation.
Similarly, once the encounter was completed, the return to the older, classical cities of Istambul, Cairo, Athens, Calcutta and so on, was not a return to Aindigenous culture"; rather, it was a return to bureaucratic corruption, slums and shame.
At most, the bed of a Londoner offered a glimpse of something closer about the other culture, however distant the gaze remained; Gibreel's and Chamcha's lovers offred a way in and a way into a new Aoutside", a way on the outside, a way always on the margins of London's experiences. There was the thrill of an organism out there, bigger, elusive, strange, as if this soulless mechanism of Apoise and moderation" had a soul or a centre- a centre from which Conrad's characters launched out from, through the Thames river to reach the oceans, a centre, , a heart, like Jolyon Forsyte's from which life and the world could be run. (56) But for the Gibreels and Chamchas there was no such thing: their existence remained ornamental and betrayed a sense of their presence there never being control of their own script.
ANo one today is purely ONE thing" (57) argues Edward Said in his powerful work ACulture and Imperialism"- we are hybrid creatures in search of a post-colonial identity.We are Ahomeless wanderers, nomads, vagrants" and the Aunassimilated" (58). Our world is of Aunhoused, decentred, exilic energies, energies whose incarnation is the migrant, and whose consciousness is that of the intellectual artist in exile, the political figure between domains, between forms, between homes and between languages." (59)
Said though should have been speaking of two hybridities", indeed two exiles; one, melancholy, one pragmatic. On the one hand it is the exile and spiritual homelessness of the artist, the intellectual which is celebrated in the social spaces described by Manuel Castells as the Adual cities" of the information age (60)- the world of flows and energies and the new flows of international classes. On the other, it is the exile and migration of multitudes of handworkers, appendages, poor outworkers, illegal immigrants, wage-seekers and refugees whose lives have been in rather than ad hoc in the spaces that constitute the metropolis's ghetto.
Rusdhie knows this: Afrom Indianness to Englishness, an immeasurable distance. Or, not very far at all, because they rose from one great city, fell to another. The distance between cities is small; a villager, travelling a hundred miles to town, traverses emptier, darker, more terrifying space." (61)
If the aesthetic sense captures the moment of a new intellectual project, it also rakes up and gathers the dust of a moral dilemma: this sense is experienced by but not shared with the Avillagers", those whose lives differ, those who have peopled the tenements, the inner-cities, the shacks of the Apoised" world. Those who in England lined up the streets to burn his book. Theirs has been the experience of loss, of escalating socio-economic pressure.
Both Aexiles" experience the intensity of Adisvaluation". Whereas the one has turned this dizzying feeling into a rhetorical, figurative resistance, a critical suspension of all values, the other, has turned it into a compulsion to militantly re-valuate: ethnicity, religion, discipline, control. For the latter, Elloween Deoween is Shaitan, and Satanic Verses is the work of someone who has lost his soul to Elloween Deoween. Rushdie describes how Saladin grew horns like a Aturban of darkening bone." (62) and how this turned him into the image of the Adream-devil...becoming popular...where the beat meets the street." (63). But Rushdie's Adream-devil" has been a secular energy defined as the precise Aanti-that" they have been supposed to perform.
The novel could have been the final story of our times only if a coincidence, impossible but coherent, allowed the writing of the book after the emotive consequences of its publication. Neither the magic lamp from Chamcha's childhood nor the visionary utterances of a poet like Baal could conjure up the tragic trapped-ness of the book's emotions. If all discourses and texts are objects for transgressive imaginings then, the distinction between the sacred and the profane, te Text and texts melts down. It is possible to think of meltdowns in Elloween Deoween.
Yes, says Baal to Mahound, you are scared of writers and whores. AWriters and whores" replies Mahound, AI see no difference there." (64)
The archangel Gibreel is the central force in the narrative. Apart from the protagonist Gibreel imagining to be his incarnation in London, we are told of the divine messenger's special visitations to Mahound, to the Imam and to the young villager, Ayesha. Whereas the relationship between Gibreel and Mahound and the revelations it mis-implied is at the heart of the controversy of the novel, his relationship to the exiled Imam and Ayesha the beauty in Titlipur foregrounds two crucial passions.
The Imam is convinced of his heavenly mandate. He is impervious to Elloween Deoween. The city cannot swallow him the way it has swallowed up Chamcha. He sits in Exile always Alooking forward by always looking back,(65) dreaming of a revolution in a dark room, drinking wate to cleanse himself, playing with history's Aarachnid strings" (66), he is the source of all revaluations and stands as the symbolic figure of a Moslem political revival.
The Imam is outside the sway of the West's definition. For him the West is an abomination, a departure from the Path. The Imam conducts his revolt against history through the cadences of his Afro-American muezzin. The declaration is obvious: Ahistory is the blood-wine that must no longer be drunk. History the intoxicant, the creation and possession of the Devil, of the great Shaitan, the greatest of lies- progress, science, rights...History is the deviation from the Path, knowledge is a delusion, because the sum of knowledge was complete on the day Al-Lah finished his revelation to Mahound...Burb the books and trust the Book." (67)
Rushdie's distance from such a discourse is obvious. The author attempts to free himself from that membrane's fold to be atuned to the sentiments of migrant communities in London- where the Abeat meets the street"- and they are shown to find an orgiastic climax of discontent through the bedevilled Chamcha. AThey describe us" Chamcha is told by another immigrant,"that's all. They have the power of description, and we succumb to the pictures they construct" (68) Rushdie traces for us how they explode and rebel as the creatures they have become out of such definitions.
More passionate and empathetic is his account, despite its fabulous cast and exaggerated eccentricity, of the faith of the ordinary people of the village of Titlipur. Ayesha is also visited by Gibreel's many voices: Ayesha the beauty, the nineteen year old orphan who Ahad attaineda kind of agelessness, because her hair had turned as white as snow while her skin had regained the luminous perfection of a new-born child's." (69). She leads the villagers to walk to Mecca with the promise that the Arabian Sea is to open up for them.
We find her at first, Asquatting on the lawn, holding out her left palm." We find Abutterflies...settling on this surface while, with her right hand, she picked them up and put them in her mouth", brakfasting, Aslowly, methodically..on the acquiescent wings." (70) We find her later completely naked covered by butterflies Ain such thick swarms that she seemed to be wearing a dress of the most delicate material in the universe" (71) Later still, as leads the Titlipur villagers, the enchanted butterfly-swarm is there again to shade the pilgrims from the sun
And they did. The villagers of Titlipur walked the thousands of miles to exact their Pilgrimage. The two force-fields of a modernised Bombay and the faithful collide for a few sentences: Athe tide was in when the Ayesha Pilgrimage marched down on an alley beside the Holiday Inn, whose windows were full of the mistresses of film stars using their new Polaroid cameras,- when the pilgrims felt the city's asphalt turn gritty and soften into sand,- when they found themselves walking through a thick mulch of rotting coconuts abandoned cigarette packets pony-turds non-degradable botlles fruit pelings jellyfish and paper,- on to the mid-brown sand overhung by high leaning coco-palms and the balconies of luxury sea-view apartment blocks,- past the teams of young men whose muscles were so well-hoed that they looked like deformities, and who were performing gymnastic contortions of all sorts, in unison, like a murderous army of ballet dancers,- and through the beachcombers, clubmen and families who had come to take the air or make business contracts or scavenge a living from the sand,- and gazed, for the first time in their lives, upon the Arabian Sea (72)
And then, this brief encounter, so insignificant to the pilgrims' plight, flashes away. And then, they walked on" AAyesha....and the villagers of Titlipur subsided below sea-level; and were never seen again." (73)
Salahudin Chamcha is granted the last feelings of the novel: Ahe stood at the window of his childhood and looked out at the Arabian Sea. The moon was almost full; moonlight, stretching from the rocks of Scandal Point out to the far horizon, created the illusion of a silver pathway, like a parting in the water's shining hair, like a road to miraculous lands. He shook his head; could no longer believe in fairy-tales. Childhood was over, and the view from the window was no more than a sentimental echo. To the devil with it!...If the old refused to die, the knew could not be born," (74)
We are caught, Rushdie tells us between the Adream-Vilayet of poise and moderation," one of the capitals of the profound world and a Ahomeland" that corrupts even the imagination; we do so, in an era where morality has disintegrated. There is no evil, no horror, no verifiable Satan. All is Asurface", Ashallowness" Afalse revaluations" and most importantly stories. The Imam of course disagrees. The enchanted world of our youth has ended. The mess is ours to own.