In February, the India chapter of Women's World, an international network of feminist writers that addresses issues of gender-based censorship, held the first ever colloquium of South Asian women writers to discuss 'The Power of the Word'. In New Delhi to attend the colloquium was Pakistani writer Feryal Ali Gauhar, whose book, 'No Space for Further Burials', has recently been published by Women Unlimited (2007).
Ali Gauhar, 47, has trained as a political economist and documentary filmmaker and is also a well-known television actress. Her first novel, 'The Scent of Wet Earth in August' (2002), was based on her film, 'Tibbi Galli'. In addition to having served as a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Population Fund, Ali Gauhar works as a development communications specialist and teaches film at the National College of Art, Lahore.
Set in Afghanistan in late 2002, 'No Space for Further Burials' is a haunting indictment of the madness of war and our collective complicity in the perpetuation of violence. The novel's narrator, a US army medic, has been captured by Afghan rebels and thrown into an asylum whose inmates are a besieged bunch of society's forgotten and unwanted: refugees and derelicts, disabled and different, resilient and maddened, struggling to survive the lunacy raging outside the asylum compound.
As the medic struggles to come to terms with his changed circumstances - the American liberator now sentenced to indefinite confinement in "a tomb for the living", much like his fellow inmates and, indeed, Afghanistan itself - the novel becomes a powerful evocation of the country's desolate history of plunder and war, waged by insiders and outsiders, both fuelled by ideology, desperation and greed. How, Ali Gauhar demands, do a people survive in a world where the boundary between sanity and insanity dissolves, reality blends into nightmare and friends and foes become blurred because brutality comes from within and without?
"There is a war going on," says Ali Gauhar, "but it's not the war on terror, it's a war within ourselves". The inmates' individual stories of displacement (including the medic's own family story) echo the dislocation of people throughout history, "wherever war and the colonial attitude of conquest has demanded that the less powerful give up what is theirs".
For Ali Gauhar, the slaughter of Native Americans as America expanded its Western frontier, the Great Game played by colonial powers in Afghanistan and the machinations of the Cold War are all premised on the same logic of Manifest Destiny that is relentlessly replayed: "I believe such terrible violence remains in the air, it lingers in the consciousness of the people, it is transmitted through generations and becomes part of behavior. Unless we confront this, we are destroying life and the earth."
Before the medic came to Afghanistan he wanted to be a writer. As it turns out, he narrates a war that eventually robs him of coherent speech. In the asylum, language - of story telling, of fear and of survival - both bridges the divides of nationality, politics and culture and also becomes unraveled in the depths of the medic's bewilderment and despair.
What is the role of writing in a state of siege? What makes Ali Gauhar write? "For people who feel the sadness they always see around themselves," she says, "it's very difficult to cope - not to resolve it, but just to relieve your heart of the burden of sadness. I only write from a place of siege, a sense of loneliness and an undefined sense of loss. This is not the same as a sense of deprivation. It's a loss of faith in humanity's ability to heal itself. Having arrived at this conclusion, the only thing I can do is relieve my heart by writing." Unlike filmmaking, "writing is a very solitary process. I wrote [this novel] not to get read. To be read is a bonus; to be understood an even greater joy. Empathy creates solidarity".
At the Women's WORLD colloquium, Sri Lankan writer Ameena Hussein spoke eloquently of the "private siege of self censorship" under which she works. Being part of a Muslim community that feels "globally suspect" exacts a toll on free speech: "I'm like the insider outside: if I critique the Muslim community, I'm a friend of the anti-Muslim; if I remain silent, I'm the enemy of myself". And while she empathizes with Hussein's predicament, Ali Gauhar feels it's also very important to challenge the stereotype of the silenced Muslim woman writer.
"I've been silenced in the West," she says, referring to her experience as a college student in the U.S, where she first realized that its much-vaunted rhetoric of free speech did not take kindly to a critique of the country itself. 'No Space for Further Burials' is "too violent", according to Ali Gauhar's American agent. "She told me, 'Honey, Americans aren't going to want to know about this.'" By contrast, Ali Gauhar has "great respect for the Pakistani print media" where she has "a clear voice, a privileged space".
Her silencing, then, is primarily outside Pakistan - in the West and in India - where she is assigned a particular identity of oppression and where she generates consternation by stepping out of that clich' and speaking as a global citizen. The Indian media's impressions of Pakistani Muslims, she feels, are "stereotypical and under-researched": "There's a fascination with and contempt of Muslim culture. I dress traditionally, so I'm expected to have a traditional voice. Once the dissonance is established, there's a sense of astonishment and intrigue. I'm asked to comment on the suffering, abused Pakistani woman."
Such questions indicate a misplaced sense of smugness about Indian secularism and a regrettable resurrection of the "Islamic bogeyman": "The Indian media plays off the relationship between Islam and violence. The clash of civilizations thesis would fall apart without the bogeyman, but just as the Great Game continues in a different form, so do the Crusades and Inquisitions."
Kashmir, for instance, "is assumed to be a Muslim question, but ordinary Pakistanis are not concerned about Kashmir. They're pushed up against the wall because of the rising cost of living, unemployment, lack of access to healthcare, justice and the political process - these glaring issues are of far greater concern to Pakistanis than some sense of being part of a global Muslim community".
Regardless of its source, silencing does not intimidate Ali Gauhar. "Silencing," she says, "is a very important part of the process of finding one's voice. In the silence, I think, I speak."