God and Me
Nadeem Aslam, pictured right at one of our launch events last week at the Wapping Project bookshop in London, wrote the novella which opens our Pakistan issue, ‘Leila in the Wilderness’. With its story of a woman severely punished every time she gives birth to a baby girl, and a mosque that appears magically on an island overnight, it marries ancient myth with some of Pakistan’s more contemporary concerns.
Nadeem Aslam’s previous contribution to Granta was published in issue 93, ‘God’s Own Countries’, for which a group of writers was invited to relate their experiences of religion. We reproduce Nadeem’s contribution to the series, below, free to read from our archive for two weeks.
God and Me
One night some years before I was born, my mother balanced a ladder on two thick branches within the canopy of a tall tree and climbed upwards, emerging out of the leaves and flowers, her arms free and outstretched as she arrived at the topmost rung.
The tree was a jacaranda, neelum in Urdu, its high flowers a delicate blue-violet, as though the floor of an English bluebell wood had been made airborne. It stood behind my grandparents’ house in Pakistan, and I have seen it, have imagined a young woman rising above the blue haze of its flowers. Just beyond the furthest rung, her mother was leaning out of a window and she pulled her young daughter into the house safely, the ladder falling away.
That evening my mother had attended a performance of devotional Muslim music at a house in the next street. Her brother, my uncle, had become a follower of a strict unsmiling sect of Islam which forbade such gatherings; on discovering where his sister was, he had installed himself at the front door of my grandparents’ house waiting for her return, a cane in his hand.
On the very first page of my first novel, I wrote about an adult who takes children’s toys from them and hands them back broken. Islam forbids idolatry. Toys can be considered idols and are to be smashed. My uncle did that to me: he snatched from my hands a mask that I had just bought from a vendor in the street and tore it to bits. I can still remember my feelings of shock and incomprehension. My uncle’s version of Islam was the same kind practised by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan three decades later. It would be state policy in the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan to ban children’s toys, as well as music.
In Turin, Italy, in the spring of 2005, I went to a reading given by the Syrian poet Adonis. He would read a few verses in Arabic and then pause while they were translated into Italian for the audience. I know neither language and yet, not long into the reading, I discovered that my eyes were full of tears and realized that if I did not exert control I would be weeping openly. I was puzzled and when I told my friends about it later, they were amused. It is only now, months later, that I think I know what made me cry.
As a child I was made to read the Qur’an without any understanding of the grammar or idiom of Arabic. I had to learn the words by heart simply because they were sacred. My mind, even then, did not work like that, and ‘I remember him crying out under the blows one day at the mosque…’ I was regularly slapped or beaten with a cane on the hands and body by the clerics for not having memorized the verses. Even more frightening than the thought of being punished myself, was the thought that my brother would be beaten. I remember him crying out under the blows one day at the mosque. My uncle, who was feared by everyone, including my mother, would sometimes wake me at dawn with his loud chanting of the Qur’an. As a result of such associations, the very sound of Arabic came to sicken me.
I cannot be certain but perhaps there is more—another layer to this revulsion towards Arabic. During my teenage years, Pakistan was changing under the military rule of General Zia-ul-Haq, who legitimized his regime by promoting what he called ‘Islamic’ values. The Qur’an came to be chanted on television and radio at every opportunity and people began to give their children archaic Arabic names. These ‘Islamic values’ also meant the flogging of criminals and public hangings, as in Saudi Arabia. This was new to Pakistan and I found it horrific, this brutalization of my country’s civil society.
I loved—and continue to love—the pages of certain copies of the Qur’an: the lovingly illuminated borders, the geometric designs on the title pages; a small chrysanthemum flower employed at the end of each verse instead of a full stop. One of my oldest notebooks has the following sentence: Allah will surely prove his love for his creatures by filling Paradise not only with wine and beautiful girls and boys, as promised, but with arabesques as well. The sinuous calligraphy of Arabic was greatly pleasing to my eyes but I stopped myself from pronouncing the words.
I left Pakistan in my mid-teens. Here in England, I had no real contact with spoken Arabic—any more than with Chinese or Greek—until I began to hear the taped interviews and finger-wagging pronouncements of Osama bin Laden and his fellow terrorists; and they too were full of hatred and the firestorms of Hell.
I have not lived a very cosmopolitan life. My parents to this day do not know any countries other than England and Pakistan. (They have a few memories of India where they were both born before Partition.) I only started to travel when I became a published writer. And so that day in Italy—on one of my very first trips abroad—when the great Adonis recited the poems I had known in English translation for many years, it was a struggle for me to reconcile the hated sounds with the loved words that were echoing in my head. Her name was walking silently through the forest of letters.
I have read widely in Arabic literature, beginning, yes, with the Thousand Nights and A Night. I have read the Qur’an several times as an adult, and of course there are the novels of the magnificent Naguib Mahfouz; ‘After a few moments he seemed to remember himself and closed his fist around the shape, crumpling and tossing it aside.’ pre-Islamic pagan poetry; the fables of Kalila wa Dimna; extracts from a sorcerer’s manual from eleventh-century Spain; the wounded and wounding lines of Mahmoud Darwish. But I have read them all in English, silently in my study. The aural connection was severed long ago. Until that day sitting in front of Adonis. And then there was confusion because how could a sound that spoke to me of brutality, express words of love, of kindness, of longing? There lay the source of my tears. Qays used to say I have clothed my body with Leila and clothed the human race.
Of course if I can change the other side can too. One day I saw my uncle become fascinated by a small intricate bird I had folded out of red paper and left lying around. After a few moments he seemed to remember himself and closed his fist around the shape, crumpling and tossing it aside. But for a few moments he had encountered wonder and seen the possibility of beauty within something he loathed, something he went on to destroy.
See also… ‘High Noon’ I, II & III, work by contemporary Pakistani artists from our print edition; or our cover for the issue, a special commission made to Karachi-based truck artist Islam Gull. Also recently published are a new translation of a short story by Saadat Hasan Manto, and ‘Power Failure’ – Bina Shah’s essay on the ongoing electricity crisis in Karachi.