Archive for April, 2012

Uzma Aslam Khan’s The Geometry of God

April 24, 2012

Uzma Aslam Khan’s The Geometry of God tells the story of a heretical scientist, his family, and his detractors as they struggle with their lives and professions in 1970s-1980s Pakistan. The frame story is that as a young girl Amal accompanies her grandfather Zahoor, a paleontologist, on a dig. She finds a bone important to the evolution of whales, a topic that Zahoor is too outspoken about for his own good in an increasingly conservative Pakistan. The book follows Amal and her blind sister, Mehwish, as they grow-up and explores the different ways that people around them try to integrate science and religion. Noman, a young man who is burdened by his father’s strict creationism, becomes close with the family as he tries to find his own path.

I found the book enjoyable and compelling for several reasons. First, it offers a thoughtful reflection on an issue in many cultures: namely, how do we reconcile rationality and faith? Khan poses this dilemma in different ways through various characters, with some rejecting any conflict between the two whereas others come down strongly on one side.

On a more specific note, Khan offers a moving picture of people of different classes trying to carve out decent lives in a troubled country. Many Pakistani authors have tried to do this, but often get bogged down in stereotypes about simple villagers or the wild, out-of-touch wealthy. Khan focuses decidedly on urban life, and her characters are well-written, difficult to understand at times and yet easy to empathize with. Many reviews note that the book is set against the backdrop of Zia’s Pakistan, but this level of political specificity is not mentioned in the book. Rather Khan’s focus remains on her characters as people making decisions about how to be in the world rather than as simple mirrors of their society.

Last, one of the great pleasures of this book is how it plays with the English language. In particular, Mehwish’s speech and rewriting of words is absolutely delightful. Khan’s intentions here remain open to interpretation, but to me it serves as an invitation to reflect on the importance of language in how we frame questions about modernity as well as the crucial role of language politics in modern Pakistan.

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Rory Stewart’s The Places In Between

April 22, 2012

Rory Stewart’s The Places In Between is certain to be one of the most unusual travelogues you’ve ever read. Unfortunately, however, it is most notable as a lost opportunity for cross-cultural inquiry and a case study in near total lack of empathy.

In the book, Rory Stewart, a British citizen, chronicles his adventures walking across Afghanistan in January 2002, only a few short months after the American-led invasion. Rory travels alone to the extent possible, carries his possessions on his back, and relies on villagers’ hospitality for food and shelter. He times his trip to winter in Afghanistan and so is often pushing through many feet of snow.

Rory gives little background about why he’s decided to do such a trip. He talks about following in the footsteps of Babur, the sixteenth century founder of the Mughal Empire in India. But early on he dismisses this trope as irrelevant to modern Afghanistan (although he inexplicably continues to quote Babur throughout the book). Rory seems to know a bit of Dari (the Afghani dialect of Persian), although rarely enough to get beyond the obvious observations that relationships in Afghanistan are complex and many supported the Taliban out of necessity.

What I strongly disliked about the book is Rory’s unwillingness to humanize the Afghanis he meets. He talks several times about being irritated with villager hospitality and often ridicules (in print) those he met along the road. This seems like simply a case of bad writing until Babur the dog makes his appearance about midway through the story. Babur was an old dog, being barely kept alive by villagers who were too poor to feed him much, who was given to Rory as protection along his walk. Instead of treating the dog as such, however, Rory views him as a pet and spends an undue portion of the rest of his book talking about the dog’s difficulty walking, trying to figure out his emotions, and worrying about this 21st century Babur.

In short, Rory was far more interested in and empathetic towards the dog than any Afghanis he mentions in his entire travelogue. Moreover, when instances arise every night of villagers being uncomfortable or even upset with how Rory treats the dog, he seems unconcerned about anybody involved except the animal. Most shocking to me is when Rory slips Babur meat, a precious commodity in an undernourished country. Rory never reflects on how or why he is able to relate to an animal more than the people he meets, but it comes across as a chilling example of self-absorption and lack of human compassion.