Thursday, April 16, 2015

ODDFELLOWS by Nicholas Shakespeare

Terrorism, the single most distressing worldwide problem today makes this novel by Nicholas Shakespeare even more interesting

Terrorism, the single most distressing worldwide problem today makes this novel by Nicholas Shakespeare even more interesting.  The book, subtitled: ‘Picnic Day, Broken Hill, 1 January 1915. An Unexpected Enemy Attack,’ refers to a real attack on Australian citizens that took place at Broken Hill in New South Wales, Australia, during World War I. That attack was an Australian Pearl Harbour, the first ever (but not the last) ‘enemy attack’ on Australian soil.
In an attempt to open up the vast sandy desert in the middle of the continent, the British in Australia brought in camels along with their camel drivers from India, Afghanistan and Turkey. These men led strange lives in their new country (their lives are beautifully documented in ‘Tin Mosques and Ghantowns: A History of Afghan Camel drivers in Australia,’ by Christine Stevens, also referred to by Nicholas Shakespeare). Muslim or Hindu, they lived in their own segregated settlements, discriminated against for reasons of race and religion.
In November 1914 the Ottoman Empire entered the First World War on the side of Germany, Turkey, Bulgaria, Austria, Turkey and Hungary. The sympathies of the camel drivers in Australia lay with the Ottoman Empire which was in the war against Australia.
It is against this backdrop that the Broken Hill incident took place and this book is written. Shakespeare has taken the essential components of the incident and surrounding them with an entirely credible but fictitious story: there really was a ‘Molla’ Abdullah, and there really was a Gul, local imam and halal butcher, and ice cream vendor respectively.  These were the men who fired upon a group of picnickers, killing four of them at Broken Hill on New Year’s day.
book1Some aspects of the story are a warning, particularly for us in Pakistan, such as the fact that Abdullah and Gul suffered grave social injustice within the community. They were forced, because of various humiliations to identify with a past, and turn to an ignorant version of religion that they had in effect left behind but could not forget. In a gesture symbolic of his reversion, Abdullah put on a turban on the day of the attack, an item of dress he had abandoned ‘since the day some larrikins threw stones at me.’ Both men tailored Turkish uniforms for themselves, and stitched themselves a flag with a crescent and moon to resemble the Ottoman flag to wear on the day.
In his confession Gul wrote, ‘I must kill your people and give my life for my faith by order of the Sultan because your people are fighting his country.’ This referred to an appeal made by the Sultan of the Ottomans a few weeks earlier for all Muslims young or old to fight against the Entente Powers, ‘the mortal enemies of Islam’.
Interestingly, in the aftermath of the incident there were few repercussions against the Muslim community, when compared to those following the hostage incident in Sydney in December 2014 in which three hostages and the hostage taker were killed.  The Sydney incident though was also known for the hashtag #illridewithyou accompanied by sympathy for the greater Muslim community. Instead, in 1915, because the public was so focused on the Germans, it was believed that the men were acting under German orders, therefore the German club, was torched that night.  Also, far away in the Saxon town of Freiberg, a newspaper read: ‘We are pleased to report the success of our arms at Broken Hill in Australia.  A party of troops fired on Australian troops being transported to the front by rail.  The enemy lost 40 killed and 70 injured.  The total loss of Turks were two dead.’ That was Abdullah and Gul.
This is how it always is, the reasons, the repercussions, public perception and reaction, the way the matter is dealt with by the media, followed by its consequences. It is a well rounded picture.
Shakespeare has delved sensitively into minds on either side.  In the end the naked bodies of a victim and one of the shooters, Gul, lies side by side in the hospital, their knees and hands almost touching…both humans, both exactly what life made of them.
Born in England, Shakespeare grew up in the Far East and South America.  He has worked for the BBC, the Times, the Daily Telegraph and the Sunday Telegraph, written several books fiction and biography, and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.  He has received several awards, and in 2012 was confused with William Shakespeare by the then French presidential candidate Fran├žois Hollande when he said: “Let me quote Shakespeare, ‘they failed because they did not start with a dream’”
This book is published by Vintage, 2015.


Are consanguineous marriages responsible for diseases?

In a complex tale of interrelationships, Malika’s marriage to her first cousin Latif was settled before she was born.  When the parents formalised the agreement the groom to be was too young to enunciate his first word. There is nothing unusual about this. Malika’s brother was betrothed to Latif’s sister when they were both toddlers and her mother Saniya was betrothed to her cousin Arif when she, Saniya was seven and Arif one year old.  Although Arif was so much younger it had to be him because there was no other suitable boy within the family.
society3When Arif died a year later Saniya was labelled as cursed. Luckily for her, the parents of a cousin on the other side were willing to have Saniya for a daughter in law and these two were married when both were eighteen. Another marriage within the safe confines of The Family, never mind that several persons in that family were diagnosed with diabetes and repeated intermarriages appeared to be reinforcing the responsible gene.
Malika’s son too was diagnosed with diabetes at the age of three.  He died at the age of five due to complications associated with the disease. The entire family mourned for a month. At the end of that period Malika’s younger sister was married to another of their cousins related to her by way of both parents. When asked (in some exasperation) why they did not marry outside the family Malika replied: ‘Because this is how we always do it.’ And that response suffices. Malika’s family is one of countless others who only ever marry their cousins if they can help it.
So the question is: Are cousin or consanguineous marriages responsible for diseases that are genetically transmitted?
Consanguineous marriage, in which two related persons such as first or second cousins marry each other, is very common among several cultures, including the cultures of Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and some middle-eastern and African countries. People belonging to these cultures together constitute perhaps a fifth of the world’s population.  In a consanguineous marriage, chances of both parents carrying the same recessive gene and therefore of their children inheriting the disease carried by that gene are greatly increased. The closer the relationship between the parents the greater the chance of both parents carrying the same recessive gene. Sickle cell disease for example, a condition that causes damage to muscles and organs occurs if an individual inherits two copies of the sickle cell allele, one from each parent. Persons with just one copy of the allele do not get this disease.
In England, research was conducted among a number of Pakistan families when it was found that a high number of children with hearing disabilities came from families where the parents were related to each other in complex ways.  “They have about twice the risk of having a child with problems which may be due to a recessive gene if they marry within the family,”  said Professor Bob Mueller of the hospital involved in this research.
Genetics however cannot be solely blamed. With diabetes for example, genes and ethnicity are risk factors, but they alone do not determine who gets the disease or its severity. Environment plays a role, as does lifestyle. Staying active, maintaining a healthy weight and eating a balanced diet can help postpone or prevent type 2 diabetes.
So why do people intermarry despite these findings? Why for example in the example cited above is intermarriage almost the only kind of marriage in Malika’s family?
It is probably a case of better the devil you know than the devil you don’t. Marriage within the family allows persons to stay within their comfort zone amongst people they know, often, for women, within close proximity to the family left behind. It means a pre-existing affection amongst in-laws, and closer relationships overall. There is also the not unimportant question of keeping property/finances within the family when marrying within it. In many families however, intermarriage is a question of lack of information and understanding of the risks involving genetic disease. Malika’s son may have survived, who knows, if his parents had taken him to a hospital … always presuming there was a hospital within reach, rather than to a pir who prescribed holy water and a talisman around the child’s neck.
Amongst immigrants from such cultures, consanguineous marriage is often viewed as a means of survival. In an alien environment surrounded by conflicting views and values, marriage within the family is seen as the best way of preserving and perpetuating an identity in imminent danger of being overwhelmed by the adoptive environment.
In the west consanguineous marriage is now considered almost synonymous with incest and marrying a blood relative is banned in some countries, but this was not always so. History and literature are replete with examples of marriages among cousins. If one must cite the example of a towering intellect, Einstein himself was married to a first cousin. None of which makes it right. One can almost see some quarters bristling at that last sentence, since several religious figures, even Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) were married within the family. But there was no genetic science in those days, and there is now, and religion advises us to think. Also, let’s not forget that the risk of disease increases with several other factors too. Older women have risky pregnancies.  Consuming alcohol during pregnancy is dangerous.
A US National Institute of Health resource says that there is significant literature on infant mortality, congenital anomalies, disabilities and many clinical conditions, often drawing attention to ethnic variations and an increased disease prevalence among Pakistani children in the UK. The situation at home has to be much worse.  Something must be done to mitigate the damage.
A tradition of consanguineous marriage points towards an insecure, insular state of mind.  Literacy, better education and public awareness campaigns can help broaden horizons. Carrier detection and genetic counselling programs have been successful in reducing the prevalence of inherited disorders in Iran. Community programmes for premarital screening are also useful. According to the Journal of Community Genetics, results from a screening program for sickle cell disease and ╬▓-thalassemia indicated that about 90% of couples in Saudi Arabia at risk of having affected children decided to marry regardless because they feared social stigmatisation and/or because wedding plans could not be cancelled at that stage. Therefore premarital screening should take place well in advance of marriage, perhaps in schools. Perhaps also the next generation, a healthier one, will learn to say, ‘This is how we always did it, but not any more.’

Wednesday, April 15, 2015


April 15, 2015

Muslim worshippers pray in the Gallipoli Mosque in a suburb of Sydney. PHOTO: REUTERS

The children’s author, Beverly Cleary, worked as a librarian for the US Army during the Second World War. In her autobiography, ‘My Own Two Feet,’ she wrote of an incident which made an impression on her during that time period:
“An army chaplain requested a book on flower arranging, a subject I had not expected to interest the army. I bought the most beautiful book I could find, and when I handed it to him, he remarked, ‘We teach little children to worship in beauty and then send them to Sunday school in church basements’.”
Aside from agreeing with the chaplain, the incident resonated with me.
In the 90s, we lived in the capital of Western Australia, Perth, which had a small Muslim population, enough to warrant a few mosques. Like all immigrants, we tried to keep the children in the cultural loop and went the extra mile to enable this. We kept in touch with the community from our part of the world, in addition to our Australian friends.
In that respect, we were unlike the better part of the Pakistani community, out of which one of them once told me proudly and a bit accusingly,
“Allah ke fazal se humaray ghar aaj tak na koi kafir aya hai na hum kisi kafir kay ghar gayay hain,”
(Thank God that till date, no unbeliever has ever come to our house and neither have we ever visited the house of an unbeliever.)
Words that are a subject for a blog in itself.
On Eid, we used to go to the mosque as a family, something that women rarely do in Pakistan, but then, immigrants are always more Catholic than the Pope. You can find the Muslim equivalent of that one yourself.
The Perth mosque was built in the early years of the 20th century by Fateh Muhammad Deen, who migrated to Australia from Punjab. Not having been to Perth in over a decade, I am not aware of what the Perth mosque is like now, but at that time, it was housed in a small building in the town’s centre, bang across the street from a building with an interesting neon rooftop sign which read,
“Girls! Girls! Girls”
When we first visited the Perth mosque, its walls were being raised to shut out the sign, creating a little microcosm of a courtyard, and an L-shaped building consisting of a prayer room, with the Imam’s quarters in the basement.
On Eid – clothed in our best attire, shepherding a pair of unwilling children – we would arrive at the mosque where we would split up; dad to the main prayer hall, mum and the kids to the imam’s quarters in the basement. There, safely segregated from the men, the women prayed, kept an eye on the children, and tried to catch the khutba (sermon), trying to reconcile its content with their surroundings.
It was a small room at that time, full but not overflowing. A charpoy (bed) leant against the wall with the imam’s clothes draped over it as well as on a couple of chairs that stood in the corner. Not having seen the main prayer hall I cannot say how it was compared to our prayer room, but I was told the hall was ‘okay,’ which this room was definitely not.
In a culture obsessed with gender and sexual innuendo, I think it is rather inappropriate to be expected to concentrate on prayer with the imam’s shalwar’s colourful nara hanging discreetly in the background, what do you think? Surely a lock of woman’s hair is no more provocative than that flamboyant item of clothing?
It was a hot day, and in the absence of air conditioning, the slight breeze from a little window in the wall beside me was extremely welcomed. Yet, on more than one occasion, a lady from the congregation, shrouded in an abaya and hijab, walked over from across the room to shut it. Compelled into defiance by the heat, I reached out each time to re-open it. Glaring at each other as we left, I vowed to find another mosque the following Eid, and we did – the Turkish mosque.
Not as centrally located as the Perth Mosque, the Turkish mosque was more pleasant, with two large prayer rooms, the one in the front for the men and a smaller one at the back for women, divided from the men’s room by folding doors. This room would have been pleasant enough if it were not for the pungent odour from the toilets just outside its door. Naturally, since it was the women who kept the children with them, the toilets must never be far away.
The chaplain’s words come back to me as equally applicable to the Muslim world as we witnessed in Perth at the time, and almost everywhere else since. There is a dichotomy between teachings and practice in our lives. The Quran contains some breathtakingly beautiful verses and yet we concentrate so utterly on its forbidding aspect and teach only about zina (adultery) and kufr (faithlessness), and its related punishments.
Why can we not teach our children by hands-on methods illustrated by these verses, about the miracle of the honey bee and the honey it makes, the clouds and the rain, and the way the night follows day in a spherical and not flat world (Surah Az- Zumar, verse 5)?
Islam is a beautiful religion, and its scripture contains some of the most sublime passages. But although we are told repeatedly what a beautiful religion Islam is, where is this beauty reflected in our surroundings or in the words of Islamic teachers today?