[Reader-list] Bahr e Zulmaat

rehan ansari rehanhasanansari at yahoo.com
Mon Sep 17 16:24:47 IST 2001

ON THE night of September 10, I went to watch a live interview of Bruce Willis, star of the disaster series Die Hard, Die Harder, Die Hard with a Vengeance (I am not too sure about the titles of the sequels, but you get the picture) and the sleeper hit (M Night Shyamalan�s) The Sixth Sense. The hall at Actors Studio of New School University, located on 12th Street and 6th Avenue, was filled to capacity. The audience was unanimously white. It seemed impossible that anything that made sense to this audience could seem sensible to the rest of the world. 

Other facts of Bruce Willis encouraged this impossible thought in my head: from his blue-collar adolescence in New Jersey, his father was a mechanic, his grandfather was a mechanic, as a teenager he was expelled for a while from high school for his participation in a race-riot (at the cost of being redundant: he was violent against people who were of a different colour), to his adulthood in New York and Los Angeles. After college he came to New York City and readily found work in off-Broadway theatres. Soon he was in television and then films. Disaster movies made him extraordinarily rich. In these he was an ordinary man in an extraordinary situation. In Die Hard he battles terrorists in a burning skyscraper. None of this Bruce Willis biography can sensibly be transposed on someone who is of Middle Eastern, Asian and South Asian origin in America. At the end of the interview the famous interviewer, the principal of the Actor's Studio, asked Bruce Willis the pronunciation of Shymalan's name. 

So what was I doing there? As long as I had only consumed action/thrillers, not getting too close to them, as in going to an interview of Bruce Willis, I was sane. 

Afterwards I went for dinner in Tribeca. I got off at Canal Station and turned around. I looked up at the World Trade Center Twin Towers, using them as a compass to figure out my direction. 

I had a job on Wall Street with a brokerage house in 1993 and one of the brokers used to think it was funny asking me how the Hizbollah was doing at least once every morning. He used to like rolling the word around in his mouth. My response to him was model minority. When the World Trade Center bombing happened that year, I was no longer with the firm and wondered what he would say if we were to meet again. 

Post bombing, I cannot escape the drone of the media. I have tried by making contrary comments. For example: if a reporter says ground zero in the financial district looks like a World War Two bombing, I say out loud, in the presumed safety of the indoors: why can't the reporter say that it looks like Baghdad. At least when Mayor Guiliani said a similar thing he remembered Dresden, a city that the Allies bombed. Edward Said happened to write in The Nation, a week before the bombing: if you decide to bomb a people then imagine them sitting across the table from you as you are making the decision. 

Baber, Ahmed, Rashid and me, independent of each other, decided to shave after it sank in that New York City was attacked. Later in the day I overheard Baber, my brother-in-law, speaking to his father in Lahore. He said that this is like Ayodhya. Not exactly. It is as if the minority destroyed the majority's mandir. This evening I have learnt that three women were attacked at the Penn State University, a mosque in New Jersey was vandalised, a mother who wears the hijab suggested to her 28-year-old daughter she take it off, a lawyer friend, Sahr Mohammed Ali, encountered four separate incidents of harassment in one day. From television I have learnt about attacks on Arabs, Sikhs and other South Asians in Manhattan, Illinois, Virginia, Texas, California. 

Many from my school, Karachi Grammar School, work on Wall St. Many of these people have worked for years and not gotten their green cards. Indentured labour for our times. It will be days before I will know who survived. None of us can empathise with the commitment, the planning, the training, the principles of those that carried out the bombings. Earlier this year in a Karachi neighbourhood I saw a poster of a masked man against a red backdrop, holding a Kalashnikov, the inscription a call for support for the Kashmiri jihad. I captured my response by remembering a line from William Blake: 

The vision of Christ that thou dost see

Is my vision's greatest enemy

Having won a scholarship from Vassar College, I left Karachi for New York in 1987. I was to be going to a liberal arts college. I would not have to think about my occupation for several years. It meant I would study for the hell of it. I believed my college catalogue description of the American liberal arts education. Studying History of Western Philosophy seemed a good idea and I took a whole year of it with a professor named Michael McCarthy, a big Irishman who gave copious notes and said the eyes are the windows to the soul. During the Persian Gulf War in 1990, Vassar organised many meetings and seminars. Michael McCarthy gave a public address in which he called the war a just war. He handed out copious notes to the audience. I think he had 30 reasons for why it was a just war.

Road blocks and spot checks in all boroughs on New York City. Karachi has plenty of this, so I am used to it.Non-residents are not permitted entry beyond 14th street and the National Guard checks for four kinds of ID. An aircraft carrier is in New York Harbor and F-14s are patrolling overhead. From 14th street and 6th avenue at dusk I look downtown and where the twin towers once stood is a haze and shell of light from the construction. It looks like a film set for a disaster movie. 

The attacks have pulled off a switcheroo of revolutionary proportions. Where the hand of capital was invisible and terror located in rogue states, capital became concrete (the military industrial complex became two buildings(!) � the Pentagon and the WTC � and terror decentered, everywhere and nowhere. The tools of the master used as weapons by the slave � the classic Hegelian paradigm. I have never seen New York commentators, from the New York Times to The Nation, so lost for concept in their first reaction. I saw a film billboard of an Arnold Schwarzenneger film and thought of the tired white men that him, Travolta and Willis will seem in their films. It is true that the studios are postponing their thriller releases, the ones with terrorism angles. They say they are being sensitive about public sentiment in the light of what happened. More likely reality overtook their imaginations to the extent that it embarrassed them. 

Many people are thinking about what has happened. About violence, cycles of violence, the price tag of American foreign policy. Does it take this to open their eyes? In Pakistan the word on the street is that the Americans now know how it feels to be at ground zero: a group of aunties gheraoed a gori at Lahore Gymkhana swimming pool and said as much. Qazi Hussain Ahmed, amir of Jamaat e Islami has promptly said he does not support terrorism. Pervez Musharraf wonders if he has the opportunity Zia ul Haq had to fight the good fight for the Americans. 


Its a mad day when the lines of that most dissolute of poets, Iqbal Lahori, resonate like bugle-calls.

Bahre Zulmaat mein dora diyay ghoray hum nay

Maut kiya cheez hai hum loh o kalm teray hehn

We have driven our horses into the Sea of Oppression

What is death when we can write our destiny

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