Monthly Archives: July 2004

Naipaul on Inadvertent Journalistic Heresy

Nusrat had lived through hard times before. I had first met him in 1979, at the time of the Islamizing terror of General Zia. Nusrat, a devout man, had tried to meet the fanatics halfway, but had had little stumbles. And one careless day he got into serious trouble. He was working for the Morning News. It was Mohurram, the Shia mouming month. He thought it was a good idea to run a feature piece from Arab News about the granddaughter of Ali, the Shia hero. The piece was flattering about the woman’s looks and artistic attainments. But the Shias were outraged; to them it was insulting and heretical even to say that Ali’s granddaughter was good-looking. There was talk of taking out a procession of forty thousand and burning down the Morning News. For three days the paper was closed down. Nusrat himself was in danger; he could have been set upon at any time. Some months after this incident I passed through Karachi again. Nusrat had turned gray

When we said good-bye he said, “Can you arrange for me to go to a place where I can read and write and study for five years? Because in five years, if you see me again, I may have become a cement-dealer or an exporter of ready-made garments.”

That, spoken at a bad time, showed his style. And, in fact, he had become a public relations man for an oil company, and done well. The oil-drilling business was not affected by the troubles. But life in the city had been a day-to-day anxiety and Nusrat had developed a heart condition. His gray hair had gone white and short and thin; he was still under fifty.

SOURCE: Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples, by V.S. Naipaul (Vintage, 1998), p. 350

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Changing Chin Identity in Burma

The July 2004 IIAS Newsletter includes a review of the book In Search of Chin Identity: A Study in Religion, Politics and Ethnic Identity in Burma by Lian H. Sakhong (NIAS Press, 2003).

Traditional tribal society was exclusivist and tightly knit, with a hierarchy of nobles, commoners and slaves. At its apex, chiefs (ram-uk) were not only owners and distributors of land, heads of their communities and commanders in war, but also high priests, responsible for offering sacrifices to the Khuahrum, locally rooted guardian deities whose good will was believed necessary for prosperity. When Baptist missionaries challenged the power of the Khuahrum and Khua-chia (evil spirits, causing accidents and disease), conversion to the new faith was eased by the old belief in Khua-zing, a Supreme God to whom the chiefs did not sacrifice, because He, viewed as the source of all life (zing), is ‘good, never cruel and never harms people’ (p. 46).


The British ‘pacification’ of Chinram between the first invasion of the country in 1871 and the Anglo-Chin War of 1917-19 cleared the way for ‘detribalisation’, the breakdown of the old ‘chief-land-god’ nexus. Sakhong, however, argues that detribalisation did not result in dehumanisation, as the Christianity preached by American Baptist missionaries provided the Chin with the basis for a new way of life. The latter overcame the traditional isolationism of the tribes, creating a new Chin identity based on a community of worshippers in a wider world where they could relate as equals to ‘civilized’ lowlanders….

The author does not carry his narrative through to the Ne Win (1962-88) and State Law and Order Restoration Council/State Peace and Development Council (1988-) periods. This is unfortunate, since there is limited information in Western languages on how the Chins maintain their identity in the face of military-enforced ‘Burmanisation’, including the post-1988 junta’s aggressive promotion of the Buddhist religion. While the SPDC builds new pagodas nationwide, it discourages the construction of new churches and mosques and the renovation of old ones.

This same pattern broadly describes so many parts of the boondocks of Southeast Asia, where the hill people only began to “join civilization” and adopt one of the major evangelical religions during the 19th and 20th centuries, often converting to some variety of Protestant Christianity, no matter whether the long-converted lowlanders were Buddhist, as in Burma, Thailand, or Cambodia; Muslim, as in the Malay Peninsula and Indonesian archipelago; or Catholic, as in the Philippines.

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Naipaul on Malay Chinese Muslims

On a hill overlooking the Perak River, and almost at the entrance to the royal enclave, was the house of Raja Shahriman, a sculptor and a prince, distantly related to the royal family. It was an airy house of the late 1940s, and it was furnished in the Malay style, with rattan chairs, brightly colored fabrics, and cloth flowers.

The sculptor was small, five feet six inches, and very thin, in the pared-down Malay way. There was little expression on his face; the nature of his work didn’t show there. He worked with found metal; there was a forge in the yard at the back of the house. He created martial figures of great ferocity, two to three feet high, in clean flowing lines; and the effect of the black-metal figures in that house, with the pacific, restful views, was unsettling.

The sculptor, in fact, lived in a world of spirits. He also made krises, Malay daggers; it was part of his fascination with metal. Krises found out their true possessors, the sculptor said; they rejected people who didn’t truly own them. He had a spiritual adviser, and would have liked me to meet him; but there wasn’t time. The world of Indonesian animism felt close again. In more ways than one we were close here to the beginning of things, before the crossover to the revealed religions.

The sculptor had a middle-aged Chinese housekeeper. She would have been given away by her family as a child, because at that time Chinese families got rid of girls whom they didn’t want. Malays usually adopted those girls. The sculptor’s housekeeper was the second Malay-adopted Chinese woman I had seen that day. It gave a new slant to the relationship between the two communities; and it made me think of the Chinese in a new way.

In 1979 I had been looking mainly for Islam, and I had seen the Chinese in Malaysia only from the outside, as the energetic immigrant people the Malays were reacting to. Now, considering these two gracious women, and their fairy-tale adoption into another culture, I began to have some idea how little the Chinese were protected in the last century and the early part of this, with a crumbling empire and civil wars at home and rejection outside: spilling out, trying to find a footing wherever they could, always foreign, insulated by language and culture, surviving only through blind energy. Once self-awareness had begun to come, once blindness had begun to go, they would have needed philosophical or religious certainties just as much as the Malays.

SOURCE: Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples, by V.S. Naipaul (Vintage, 1998), pp. 369

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Naipaul on Ahmed Rashid

I had got to know Ahmed Rashid [author of Taliban]. He was a journalist. He also owned, with a partner, a coal mine in the Punjab hinterland. The news, from him, was that three of the mine’s jeeps had been stolen, and six of the men kidnapped. The stealing and the kidnapping had occurred in stages. First a jeep and the two men in it had been taken, in the big town of Sargodha. After ten days there had come a ransom demand for two lakhs, two hundred thousand rupees, five thousand dollars. Ahmed had sent two men in a jeep to negotiate with the kidnappers. He hadn’t sent any money by these two men. This had enraged the kidnappers. They had seized the two men and the second jeep. Ahmed, taking the hint, had then sent two clerks in a third jeep with the ransom money. But the kidnappers were apparently still very angry. They held on to the two clerks and the ransom money, and made a fresh demand for twenty lakhs, fifty thousand dollars.

Ahmed, ever the journalist, was excited by the whole thing, this nice little story breaking on his own doorstep, as it were; and in his detached journalist’s way he found the sequence of events funny, the men from the mine going in two by two into some kidnappers’ pit somewhere in the frontier. He had got in touch with the army and the intelligence people; only they could help him. And he thought now–and this wasn’t going to be so funny for the kidnapped men–that negotiations could go on for many months. It was important to keep the negotiations going, and in this way to prevent the kidnapped men from being taken across the border. If that happened, it was all over; the jeeps and the men could be forgotten.

Where there was no law, no institutions that men could trust, the code and the idea of honor protected men. But it also worked the other way. Where the code was strong there could be no rule of law. In the frontier, as Saleem Ranjha’s Pathan guest had said at Mansura, the modern state was withering away; it was superfluous. People were beginning to live again with the idea of clan and fiefdom; and it was good for business.

SOURCE: Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples, by V.S. Naipaul (Vintage, 1998), pp. 328-329

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Reports from the Land of Oz

Language Hat has another post on Aussie slang, which I think should be officially declared an Intangible Cultural Heritage of at least the anglosphere. Fortunately, this particular cultural asset doesn’t seem to be in any danger of dying out.

Meanwhile, the Head Heeb has a long and interesting post, Terra Nullius Revisited, on settler-aboriginal relations in Australia, as a follow-up to his earlier post, Terra Australis Cognita, after returning from a trip Down Under.

Australia seemed less foreign than any other country I’ve visited. There are certain things about Australia that can mislead an American tourist, however, and the aborigines are one of them.

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Naipaul on the Barber-Factotum of the Northwest Frontier

A small dark mustached man came in and, without saying anything, sat down in one of the armchairs. He was wearing the flat pie-shaped felt cap of the frontier and the mountains. He was the nai, the barber, Rahimullah said, and he had come to find out whether anyone in the house wanted a trim or a shave. His name was Qaim Khan. He came every Friday, and sometimes on other days as well; there were certain households that he served. This explained the ease with which he had come in and sat down, while others appeared to wait. He was in a pale blue shalwar-kameez with a raw-cotton gilet. Rahimullah and his brother and his son were in pale peach; the color spoke of cleanliness and sabbath rest. For the barber, though, the sabbath was a busy working day, and the blue he wore could more easily disguise dirt and wear.

And, indeed, as Rahimullah began to tell me, the barber didn’t only cut hair. He had other duties, and he was available all the time. He could act as a cook when there was a wedding or a death; he would bring his big pots and tubs and cooking implements to the house, create a cooking place in the yard, and cook rice and other simple things in quantity. He was also a messenger; he took round wedding invitations; he broke the news of deaths. He could do circumcisions. Qaim Khan had an extra, inherited skill. He could sing and play on the flute, and people sometimes asked him to perform. His wife also sang. She and Qaim Khan’s mother and sister were also always on call, to serve the women of the households in certain ways, taking messages for them, or accompanying them when they went out.

In the transplanted Indian community in Trinidad, on the other side of the world, the village barber (where Indian villages existed) had ritual duties like this (though not all of them). This went on up to fifty years ago, when I was growing up. So what Rahimullah was saying was half familiar to me; and I thought it remarkable that in a shaken-up and much-fractured colonial community this ancient kind of messenger and go-between and matchmaker should have reappeared; and that in that other world people of this caste calling, not a high one, should have declared themselves.

The nai Rahimullah was describing was also, I thought, in some ways like the village coum of converted Java: the handler of dead bodies, and also the cook, a man of low Hindu caste absorbed into Islam. Though the coum had been given the dignity of leading the Muslim congregation in prayer–as if in this new incarnation he destroyed older caste ideas–his other functions were still, after five hundred years, recognizably part of the old Hindu order.

In some such way, here in the frontier, the nai, as Rahimullah was describing him, seemed to be part of the Hindu past, a thousand years after conversion. (Though here, too, there were fantasies and a general neurosis about racial origins and the history.) Sitting in Rahimullah’s guest house, considering Rahimullah and the blue-suited nai, the one man big and scholarly-looking and gracious, the other small and dark and with respectful eyes, I felt I could see how, when the older religion lost its footing, the antique social order had been lifted with small adjustments into the new religion. It was as though in the subcontinent the idea of caste was ineradicable.

Qaim Khan had no land and no house. Many nais had become well off now, but few of them had their own house. Qaim Khan would have loved to buy some land and build a house, but he had no money. To earn money he would have to go away. He wouldn’t mind going to local towns like Mardan and Peshawar. But–he was speaking through Rahimullah–he didn’t want to go too far. What he really wanted was to live and work here in the village.

When I asked–Rahimullah translating for me–whether he wouldn’t like to go outside the village and open his own barbershop, he fixed Rahimullah with his eyes, familiar yet respectful, as though the question was Rahimullah’s own, and he began to look very small. He said that if he went to Peshawar or Karachi and found a job in a shop he would make thirty-five rupees a day at the most, less than two dollars. With that kind of wage he wouldn’t be able to save. A number of his friends and relations had gone to Karachi. He himself had once gone to Karachi. He worked for somebody who had a barbershop, a richer relation from the village. He was the servant of this family, and he got twelve hundred rupees a month, sixty dollars. It wasn’t enough for him, so he came back.

He had gone to school until he was eight or nine. He had reached the third class. He had had one daughter, and she had died. That was his story. He had nothing else to say, and he was content after that to sit in the armchair and say and do nothing.

SOURCE: Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples, by V.S. Naipaul (Vintage, 1998), pp. 317-319

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Micronesian Diary: Yam Feast in Kitti, Pohnpei

I’ve only just discovered archaeologist Felicia Beardsley’s Micronesian Diary, an illustrated diary of her visits to various parts of Micronesia in 1998-99. Here are excerpts from what she has to say about a yam feast in Kitti Municipality on Pohnpei.

We are supposed to attend and document a traditional feast — the ritual presentation of the yam (and opening of yam season) to the Nahnmwarki [high chief] by one of the villages in Kitti Municipality. That should be interesting….

We arrived to find huge yams hanging from the rafters of the nas [ceremonial house], as well as lined up outside on large racks made especially for such things. In one location outside the nas, there are piles of kava plants (for sakau [= Samoan te kava]) and sugar cane. These were collected by the four sections of the village — sort of a competition. And just outside the nas, an um (earth oven) was well underway — the wood was burning, stones had been piled high and were beginning to be heated. Those stones in the middle of the pile looked as if they were already starting to glow red with heat….

Then, just in front of the um and nas, a line of pigs stretched out on banana leaves. The pigs are killed on-site. Apparently, each village section was also responsible for supplying a pig or pigs (their choice). Someone also laid out a carabao. I am told that in the ranking of animal offerings, dog is the highest ranked, then pigs. Carabao are extras, with no rank. This was the first carabao I had actually seen here, and it was dead. It was almost immediately cut up into little pieces, with a leg offering given to the Nahnmwarki. The pigs are thrown onto the top of the um to burn off the hair, then they are opened up, cleaned and thrown back onto the banana leaves splayed. They and the pieces of carabao are covered up to keep the flies and dogs off of them. There are plenty of dogs wandering around, trying to lick up the blood from these animals….

The food is distributed to everyone; then comes a presentation of fabric and sugar cane. Yams are called (by title) for the um and pigs are placed on the um. These are then presented to the Nahnmwarki. The pigs are cut up, with the pieces distributed to various title holders. Next, the carabao. (We were given a piece of carabao; I gave it to Rosenda. She has a bigger family; besides, I know Teresa [her daughter] would not eat any of it because she saw the animal killed.) …

Finally, the last event of the day: Sakau pounding. All the stones in the nas (there are supposed to be six) are prepared. They are set up on tires and/or coconut husks. The kava is prepared, and the pounding begins. It is quite rhythmic, and in sync. One wonders if there is someone directing the pace of pounding. The whole sound echoes throughout the nas. One stone is pounded by all women; and their companions are dancing and singing, whooping and hollering to the rhythm of the stones. Sakau is traditionally pounded by men, who work with their shirts off. So, when these women were in the process of preparing their stone, one of the men involved in the event told them they had to take their shirts off just like the men because that is the way it is done. They didn’t, and gave him such a scolding that he walked off and left them alone.

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