Neither Here nor There: The Shifting Identities of Raza Rumi

by  and Caitlyn Christensen  /  May 18, 2016  / No comments

Explorations of the Self

How has your shifting identity correlated with the shifting identity of Pakistan?

Two years ago I was a public broadcaster and an editor, and managing think tanks in Pakistan. Now I am being referred to as a persecuted writer. We mustn’t take anything for granted, or must not conclude and close in on who we are because we have so much more than these ascribed identities. My identity has undergone change: I made it happen and events made it happen.

When I joined the civil service of Pakistan, it was my first career and I was only 24 years old. I had so much authority and position of power and influence. People would say, you will always be an outcast, you’ll always be the other. When I left Asian Development Bank and came back to Pakistan to become a writer and a journalist, and I started expressing my opinions, I got branded as a liberal. Liberals are “others” in the mainstream conservative Pakistan. They are not too different from America, except we have a tiny number. Liberals in Pakistan always have to defend our views, always had to defend the idea that we believe in equality, we believe in human rights, we believe in human rights without any qualification, we don’t believe in the blasphemy law, that the blasphemy law should be repealed. I had to face all these attacks, all these on social media and on live TV debates. One day I was on TV, I remember and I went into a couple of seconds of reverie, because somebody said, “Liberals like you shouldn’t be in Pakistan. Go to a western country.” And I just sat there and said, my god, now I’m a ‘liberal’. Limiting ourselves or others to labels is such a dangerous, and such a crazy game.

I think, in the context of India and Pakistan, and in the context of many other places as well — not just Rwanda and Burundi– religious identity was used as a political instrument by the British when they colonized India. In the late 19th century, they started a census in India by which they asked people to identify themselves according to their religion. So there’s the first time that people who were heterodox, were identifying themselves as Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, and so on. This process became irreversible, and led to the assertion of religious identity of Muslims creating Pakistan in the name of their separate Muslim mess.

Pakistan has grappled with that identity complex, issue, even now. If you ask a young Pakistani, he or she is confused: is he or she a Muslim first, because Pakistan was made in the name of religion, or is he a Pakistani first? What about a non-Muslim Pakistani? What would be his or her identity? When I went to India, I went on a Visa, with my own passport, my own history, my own prejudices, and my textbook nationalism I was seen as a Pakistani. I said look, we are the same color, we have the same DNA, the same language, by and large, at least for a lot of India, we have the same kind of food, the same music, and the same bloody monuments. And if you met an Indian Muslim, the same Sufi shrines to revere. Where does that line of identity come from? It is from the nationalistic project.

Now that I am working on my memoir, this identity business really afflicts me. I’d always wanted to shed that narrow identity in my own regional context. I’ve been in the United States for two years now almost, and I do feel that the question of identity is very prevalent here. Then there’s the race thing. I’m brown. I’m an alien. I’m a Muslim. I’m a Pakistani from a dangerous country that is on the global headlines. And I do reflect.

I’ve been very comfortable here and most Americans I meet are warm, hospitable and concerned, but I do wonder, what would be my relationship, or what is my relationship to this society in terms of my identity?

Memory, as a kind of existential, fleeting moment, is totally in your control: it belongs to you.

How did you reconcile your secularism with your attraction to poets and works of great minds that address the divine?

Urdu poetry follows the Persian style, metaphors, and ambiance that poets create. They deal with parallel indulgences or parallel forms of love. There’s human love: the poet addresses the beloved in all sorts of glorious ways with the beloved having lips like rose petals. Through seeking worldly or love for the flesh, the poet is also transcending and transcending beyond the human being and seeking divine grace or love.

Most of these poets were secularists in their own way. For example, in Islam, in most Islamic jurisprudence alcohol is not liked, but in Persian poetry and in Urdu poetry you have countless references to poets drinking wine or being intoxicated on wine. Now, is it real wine? Is wine a metaphor for being high on love or high on enchantment?

These poems are explorations of the self. I treat these poets and these indulgences like that because I find the language they weave and the kind of similes and metaphors and moods they construct very exciting.

Much of it is inspired by the concept of love as written, practiced, and documented by the Sufis. The Islamic poetic tradition has a long history, centuries old, embedded within Islam itself. It’s not really focused on because war, jihad, violence, conquering territories, and subjugating people makes for good, worldly success. In reality the core of Islamic tradition has this important idea of loving God through his creation. If you love human beings, if you love plants, if you love animals, if you love nature, you’re actually loving God. If you pay tribute to a human being, you’re actually paying tribute to not just that human being but also his or her creator. I find it beautiful. I am always inspired by such aesthetics.

How does Punjabi identity influence your work?

I’m a Punjabi, belonging to that particular part of Pakistan that was once India before 1947. Obviously, we have a very strong tradition of everyday proverbs and language being inspired by the Sufi poets. Several famous Sufi poets are from Lahore, where I am from. Shah Hussain, one of the finest Sufi poets, is buried there. He’s not buried alone, but with Madho, who was a Hindu by faith, but he was so inspired by Shah Hussain’s poetry that he became his disciple. And after Shah Hussain died, he wanted to be buried next to him. There is also attribution that they perhaps were lovers at some point as well.

Now see, Islamic Sufi tradition, forbidden love — all of these things indicate that our past and our earlier and literary ancestors were far more inclusive, far more pluralistic and humanistic than we have become. And part of my work, not just in books but also in my journalistic writing and what I was doing in broadcast, was also to invoke this again and again. To say look, we were not like that. We have become something else, which is totally artificial and not linked to our ethos. Of course it’s a separate debate whether we should go back to that original imagined self or not; was it real or not? But the reality is that the Sufi poets of the Punjab give us a glimpse of a very tolerant and a very pluralistic society, and a very feeling form of a human being compared to what is now known as a Punjabi identity.

Much of your work concerns temporality and memory. What is the function of memory in understanding your experience?

Memory has always been a very important impetus for writing, and other things. I’ve dabbled in amateurish artwork, so there again I invoke memory. This summer I plan to do a bit of things with my old photographs as an installation, and memory is at the core. And I think it comes from the fact that memory, as a kind of existential, fleeting moment, is totally in your control: it belongs to you.

You receive ideas from here or there: you’ve read Marx and you’ve read Hegel and you’ve read Adam Smith. But memory is your own territory. And I feel that those little territories, when they combine and turn into collective memories, or when they’re doctored or engineered by states, or by the powerful interests, they take another shape. Often states rewrite memories.

For example, now that I’m learning about the US, I see the collective memory on slavery is being reshaped through the Black Lives Matter movement. There are individual memories collecting and aggregating, because the collective space is reclaiming that from what the American state has imagined itself to be, or the white savior liberation theory of creating a great country.

Memory is also something that you can play with. It is both tangible and intangible, it’s moldable, and it can mold you as well in that interactive process.

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