Monday, March 19, 2012
A Matter of Detail: The Masonry of Graffiti and Symbols
by Maniza Naqvi
The photographer, the journalist, and the novelist: set out to worship a city mapped in news and fiction, wrapped in each other’s facts, cloaked in another reality. A peacock sways across the tiled floor brushing its iridescent tail, upon black and white marble elongated squares. We slip off our shoes, the floor cool against our restless soles bare, an unguent. A devotee presses a rose petal on the forehead of a deity's image. The photographer refrains from taking a shot though the angle was good. Here, photographs are forbidden. But the novelist free to capture images, no matter what, imagines many more. For example, of the journalist, thinking a headline, of just facts "Three people in search of gods, in hiding, who whispered: seek us and we will appear." But knowing that facts don't make for good copy or sell papers, would spin a tale: A novelist, shot, by a bearded man, inside a mandir, on M.A. Jinnah Road."
Bear with me, I have a story to tell, something to sort through, a record to set straight and perhaps a score or two to settle too. So I'll begin somewhere in the middle and work to a beginning.
I was contacted by a journalist in March 2008 when I was visiting Karachi. She wanted to interview me for my novel, A Matter of Detail. When we met, I listened with growing guilt and self doubt as she lectured me for a good half hour on how my novel should be written then questioned my right to write such a novel since I no longer lived in Karachi. This done, she told me she was very interested in my novel's focus on the Bene Israel of Karachi. She told me that she had not known before she read my novel, that there had been a Jewish community in Karachi. My book was her first inclination and introduction to the Bene Israel community in Karachi. She explained that the interview was for the Friday Times as would be the photographs she wanted to take of me. I told her that, beyond the research that I had carried out, my book is wholly imagined. It is an imagined possibility. My efforts were to create a sensation of sweetness, an essential sweetness in a cultural milieu—symbolized perhaps by the sugar that Hajrabai stirs into Razzak’s ovaltine.
The journalist persuaded me to take her on a tour of Karachi to the locations where my book was set and she need a good shot of me for her review. She had also persuaded a renowned photographer to accompany us to take the photographs. I was reluctant and at first and had declined to do so because a novel is imagined and doesn’t need for an author to accompany the reader into reality. Nevertheless, my ego must have gotten in the way, what with the chance to be photographed by such a renowned and fine photographer. I agreed on a drive around the area where my novel was imagined as located.
On a Saturday morning we went to the location where I had imagined and located 43-G, the family house, in my book. I took them to the place where I had imagined 43-G, in the book, the main house, to be located. This was a house I had only seen many times from the outside. Now it had a large for sale sign on it and seemed abandoned. None of these were Jewish monuments or temples. Magone Shalom in my book is long gone. So there was no point in going to the shopping mall at the location where it had once stood. A large portion of the book’s drama takes place on the balcony of this house. I refused to take her to any Jewish sites which she was insisting upon, one in particular. I refused, mainly because I thought being photographed there would be disrespectful and would violate the privacy of the dead. Furthermore I was deeply aware of the heated political climate and was not willing to jeopardize anything.
And after taking a few pictures the journalist proposed that we just drive around taking pictures of beautiful buildings in old Karachi. Caught up in the moment I was happy to do that. Me in front of this place, click, click, me in front of that place, smile click. Me in front of Merewether Tower, me on the steps in a mosaic tiled stair well, me in front of a house. This was the first time I met Akhtar Soomro and was honored to be photographed by him. There were many pictures taken that day in March of me and of buildings on our route through the city. But the picture that the journalist wanted was one in particular, in which I am standing in front of a monument—Merewether Tower in Karachi.
The photographer suggested taking us to a beautiful Hindu temple in that part of town and I was thrilled. It was a beautiful place, serene, a peacock swayed across a tiled floor, a bell tinkled. . The caretaker, told him, not take any pictures so he didn’t. Instead, I memorized the moment. And a week later I wrote a small paragraph about that moment and sent it to the journalist and the photographer. I called it “A Journalist, a Photographer and a Poet”. Ironically, the gist of it was exactly what the journalists had done in writing their article— distorted and misrepresented a fact for a very specific purpose.
If you take it in, all at once, as it is today—a wide angle view—it’s hard to see it, but if you zero in on a detail that its entirely believable that Karachi was considered one of the most aesthetically pleasing cities of the world at the turn of the 20th century. It was considered beautiful, not only because of its temperate seaside climate, the gentleness of its residents, but also because of the graceful architecture of its buildings— whose limestone facades changed moods based on the arch of a gentle clear light reflecting of a shimmering sea.
Many of these buildings have been torn down, replaced by ugly, ill thought, actually grotesque commercial structures which have been as though in a panic to lay claim to land not legally their own have hastily and opportunistically been constructed by developers. Those older buildings, also constructed by those laying claim to a land not legally theirs, now appear as though details in a vast and sprawling city: a city whose current landscape only people as besotted it as I am can possibly find beautiful. The walls of the city’s newer construction appear at worst an assault on every sensibility and at best an opportunity for every political party and miscreant to use as a billboard for their political vitriolic, venom of and as a large public urinal.
Show me a graffiti free wall open to public access in Karachi and I will show you a place which is not Karachi or one that is heavily guarded and under constant surveillance. Most of these walls are covered in equal opportunity death sentences and death threats: Death to Shi’as, death to Qaidanis, death to Altaf Hussain, death to Zardari, death to murderers, death to all lying dogs, death to America, death to Soni Sweets, long live Imran Khan, death to Imran Khan, death to the Karachi Municipal Corporation, death to the Karachi Electric Corporation and so forth. There are however, two walls that come to mind which are almost completely graffiti-free. First there are the concrete barriers and walls of the new US Consulate on Mai Kulachi Road. And then a mile from these is the other one which I have dubbed the Gaza strip due to the concrete block high wall, under the guise of security, that has gone up to swallow up an entire portion of a main boulevard entirely taken or rather land grabbed and appropriated as part of Mr. Zaradari’s personal house. Apart from the obvious, astonishing aspect of this wall is that this huge expanse of concrete opportunity for expression remains remarkably and almost amusingly graffiti free, except for one rather neatly stenciled Islamic group’s slogan. I sometimes fantasize that this road is full of good intentions, and all the suspicions and anger of the citizens will be swept away when soon the wall will come down and, a gift and surprise will be unveiled for them: all this time the road was being transformed into a public promenade and park for them and the house will be a museum commemorating a great lady who had once lived there briefly. I also fantasize that upon this wall one day, I will take paint to concrete and brush upon it a Karachi street scene--Something like this:
Amongst the beautiful details from another century in the city of Karachi, and behind the cacophony of graffiti scrawled across them is a monument called Merewether Tower, which most Karachites refer to simply as Tower and which to most of them signifies a bus-stop or as they are called in Karachi a “Point.”
Tower! Tower! Tower! “….bus conductors screaming destinations, “Korangi, Korangi! Chaneusser Goth! Theran Number! Guru Mandir! Nomaish! Pehli Chorangi! Lal Kothi! Landhi! Malir! Karimabad! Garden! Teen Hati!” A cacophony of transit options. Tired faces surrendered their features to the grime of the exhaust fumes; tired bodies in dusty and seat-patched shalwar kameezes crisscrossed the city at dusk. A woman’s figure, draped in a while lab coat, head veiled in a pink diaphanous dupatta, caught his eye then disappeared into the churning crowd. A child’s face peeked out at him from the back of a rickshaw. This was Mansfield Street in Saddar, the center of the city, where at dusk the city converged only to disperse to various points at the farthest corners of the landscape. Where to be able to get into a bus was a feat enough, perhaps an accomplishment, in itself a destination, causing the means to become the end in themselves, so that “points” here referred to buses. Points were changed here, points stopped here and initiated here. Vicious bus conductors thumping and slapping the roofs of cars that blocked the pathway of their business, bullying harassed drivers to inch forward into the criss-crossing crowd. And everyone in a hurry to move, the driver and conductor in a hurry to get ahead, to beat the competition for the next pick up point. Everyone racing for a point.” Mass Transit, by Maniza Naqvi (Oxford University Press, 1998) A video here, and here.
The Tower stands at a busy intersection in the heart of the city’s financial and business district or at the confluence of the latter day McLeod Road and Bandar Road—today’s I.I Chundrigar Road and M.A. Jinnah Road. The Tower like many buildings of that period was constructed in a beautiful warm clay colored stone quarried nearby, called Gizri. Akhtar Soomro, a gifted photographer, who has lived all his life in Lyari and whose father was a mason himself told me that the yellowy sandstone used in many of the buildings of this period was brought from Jaisalmer, Rajistan and at that time there were a number of stone cutters who crafted and transported these stones to Karachi. Most of these craftsmen belonged to the Katchi-Memon Salawat community and can still be found in the Ranchore lines area.
Merewether Tower’s foundation stone was laid in 184 by Sir James Fergusson, the Governor of Bombay and Sindh. It was designed by the amazing engineer James Strachan, an Englishman at the Karachi municipality who designed many buildings in Karachi including the Empress, (as in Victoria) Market, Denso Hall, Jehangir Kothari Parade, Sind Madrassa not to mention the water supply, sewage and tramway system for the city. The Merewether Tower was built in the style of monuments referred to as Eleanor Crosses, monuments which were built in the middle ages in England in memory of Eleanor of Castile the wife of Edward the first at the points where her funeral stopped overnight on its way to London for burial . The Merewether Tower was completed eight years later and inaugurated in 1892 by the Commissioner of Karachi Sir James Evans. The Tower, was a memorial to Sir William L. Merewether Commissioner of Sindh 1867-1877, who had earlier served in Aden present day Yemen and Abyssinia present day Ethiopia. Most of the buildings in Saddar including the Free Mason club building were built during this time. Bet you money that James Strachan, Sir William Merewether and Sir James Evans were all Free Masons. The Free Mason lodge in Karachi which was destroyed in 1852 during the Monsoon and was rebuilt and finally re-opened in 1914 has a logo on it façade---of a compass and a square that looks like two inverted “Vs” intersecting. Now the location of the Sind Wildlife Office. Judging by the large number of names on the various foundation stones—for the old and new Temple, it would appear that the British Empire’s implementers were frequently prone to being Free Masons. The original foundation plaque reads “this Masonic Temple was erected by subscription of the following brethren. The Foundation stone was laid by Sir C.J. Napier, GCP Governor of & Conqueror of Scind on the 6th of September A.D. 1813 in the 8th year of the Reign of Queen Victoria.” The famous Charles Napier who famously sent a message on his conquest to Queen Victoria: Madame I have Scind. Napier Road today is the red-light district of Karachi. But I digress, though towards a point.
Till recently all the stories in my novels have been located in Karachi. My novels have been published in Pakistan by Oxford University Press and more recently by a small press called SAMA and in India. The small press in Pakistan doesn’t have any marketing clout which means that I hardly ever get any international coverage. So it was really great when a Pakistani journalist who had reviewed my book in March 2008 contacted me, told me how she had gone to Los Angeles last summer on a Daniel Pearl Foundation grant for an internship and had recently written articles for the Jewish Journal. One article was just about to be published for which she needed a photograph of me, because in the article she told me she had mentioned my book A Matter of Detail. The photograph was one of many that she had directed the photographer, Akhtar Soomro, to take of me while I was in Karachi that March when with her I drove around the old city in those areas in which my book is located. I was thrilled when I learned that my book would be written up in glowing terms in the Jewish Journal. My novel A Matter of Detail revolves around the imagined family of Hajrabai and Haji Razzak Rueewalla. Hajrabai belongs to the tiny Bene Israel community that once flourish lived in Karachi. However, what I didn’t realize immediately was that I and my book would be used to piece together a specific narrative on Pakistan while I would be held forward as a small but growing minority of enlightened people. And that a specific image was required in the photograph to support the narrative.
The article, the journalist said was about anti-Semitism in Pakistan. She said that it refuted that notion. I was not convinced. The journalist said in her email that she wanted the picture of me to go along with the article. Upon seeing the photograph and knowing the subject of her article I realized what it was that she was really after. It wasn’t a photo of me or the Tower that she wanted it was very specifically the graffiti behind me that no longer exists there long wiped off, that she wanted to make a very specific point on anti Semitism to fit the narrative of the article. The title of the article in the December 10, 2008 issue was Anti-Semitism in Pakistan: Hate on a Sliding Scale.” The graffiti was not anti-Semitic but rather a denunciation of Israel. The graffiti denounced Israel. But ah! How much more potent if that graffiti could be coupled with a symbol of a religion? On seeing the email I immediately refused permission for the usage of the photograph. The photographer, Akhtar Soomro whose photographs I have used for articles about Lyari (Imagining Lyari Through Akhtar Soomro and The Boxer and have used for this piece as as well had been asked first for his permission by the journalist, but he had said that my permission was needed to use the photograph because it was a photograph of me.
I had immediately, when first contacted, written back to the journalist and to the editor saying clearly that I did not and would not give my permission for the photograph to be used in any manner. And yet it was used anyway.
The Journal seemed to have decided to simply ignore my specific request and use the photograph anyway even after its Editor gave me her written assurance that the photograph would not be used according to my wishes. The photograph was cropped to take my image out of it and that part of the photograph with the graffiti denouncing Israel, which was important to the story, was published. It was clear from this action as to why there was such a need for this particular photograph. It was a powerful image because it fit the narrative being forwarded in the article. Furthermore there was a need for this photograph in particular because the graffiti no longer existed and had been wiped out like thousands of other pieces of graffiti from Karachi’s walls every day.
In their own defense, when I protested, furious, that the photograph had been used against my wishes, they said that they thought my objection was only to the use of my image in the photograph. Since my words didn’t hold sway, I decided to use the language that would be understood. I got a lawyer to call them. My lawyer made it clear to them and reminded them that his client had in writing in an email sent to them that she did not give permission to the “use of the photograph” and they had responded in writing in an email that they would not “use the photograph”. Within an hour of my lawyer making this clear by putting in a call to them, the photograph was taken of the online page of the article. But the article remained (here).
But that’s not the whole story—it wasn’t just the graffiti or the photograph, which was a problem. Clearly, the editor at the Journal had relied on what should have been the better judgment and research on the part of the journalists in Pakistan. Beyond the dishonesty and appropriation of this photograph there is the matter of the symbol as a crucial detail in the narrative that this article presents. A reputable and serious journal should have at the very least conducted fact checking before rushing ahead with an article which has very little of merit in it.
The article uses one particular detail, as central to it: a hexagram, a six point star decorating a building, and represents it in a way which is not a fact. This misrepresented detail, is presented in the very first sentence in such an explosive manner at a time of heightened political tensions on the subcontinent. The journal has its facts egregiously wrong. Do a search on contemporary literature or articles on Pakistan or Islam. And observe the negative tags, the violence laden string of words, the vitriolic labels under which the words Pakistan or Muslim or Islam come up.
The article, a building, a symbol and I were appropriated circumstantially to put together collaboratively, a very specific and dominant narrative of hate. There is beyond this also the matter of two major and interconnected religions. I would go so far as to say that two religions have been appropriated as well. The faiths of the Jews and the Muslims have been appropriated in the narrative that is adhered to in this article.
My book A Matter of Detail is the very opposite of what this article sets out to do. My book amplifies multiculturalism and love. This article insists on locating and amplifying hate. It in fact contributes to manufacturing it. My book presents a people and their beliefs and faiths as ordinary while the article seeks to make these extraordinary and unacceptable. My book was based on the idea that love is a powerful antidote to fear. The book amplifies love and the multi-cultural aspects of Karachi. The article does the opposite. Why? The article mentions me, it uses my novel and myself to in fact tarnish Pakistan and to misrepresent me, as though my way of thinking is due to my being an “educated Muslim” and that I am a minority. The article misrepresents me—and it quotes a blurb for the jacket for my book as though it were a comment made to the journalists in the course of their writing for the article. It was not. It is a commentary on my book by Sara Suleri Goodyear.
My work A Matter of Detail imagines possibilities: the possibilities of social trust and pluralism. The book re-introduced the Bene Israel community of Karachi into the conscious narrative and creates a loving possibility. In every book reading that I had in Karachi in March of 2008—the passages I read where treated with affection by audiences across the city. This article with its erroneous and distorted vision narrows the lens and endangers that possibility. In my novel, Hajrabai, a Pakistani woman, a Karachite, of the Bene Israel community is married to Razzak Rueewalla, a Shi’a. Who after marrying Hajra in a love marriage also marries Zarinabai, a cousin to whom he was engaged to at birth. The family muddles its way through their lives, chaotically, anxiously, fearlessly, fearfully, humorously but always on that basis of love. And the story as all stories are is about much more. Love I believe is a powerful antidote to fear. Ironically, the last few pages of, A Matter of Detail, a satire, hint at how a photograph will be used to promote a capricious, self serving purpose. That purpose in my novel was benign. This however, at a time of heightened tensions on the subcontinent is not.
The journalists who wrote the piece and the journal which published it took a photograph an image and misused it. One of the Pakistani journalists for the article pleaded with me to let her use the photograph for the purpose of this article. She tried to make the case by saying that four “brave” journalists had risked their lives to write this article! Risked their lives? Why? What exactly was their bravery?
This story of collaboration is interesting and in a way typifies the work of many journalists in the first decade of this benighted century. This story went beyond the article to the narrative and opportunities being created by the journalists for themselves. I do not know the journalists track records of writings beyond one of them and her glowing book reviews of my books. My novel on a tortured and interrogated missing person was lamented by her for not getting enough exposure. I don’t know whether she indulged in courageous journalism say for the Shi’as that have been killed in Pakistan and the graffiti and hate mongering towards them that goes on by a powerful few? Or what is done to Christians? Or, the innocent people, being killed, by drones in Bajaur and elsewhere in Pakistan. But I digress.
The article takes a photograph of a building and misuses it—much like the graffiti of hate. And it takes a symbol, a hexagram, common to Hindus, Muslims, Christian and Jews and tries to narrow it to fit a specific narrative. I fear that the Jewish Journal and its journalists have jeopardized Meriwether Tower. They may have made themselves instigators of creating a future event by giving some body an opportunity to test their extremism. The journal I fear may have done exactly this and set up something to occur that will be completely unnecessary and ugly.
The painful thing beyond the need to amplify the acts of an individual who sprayed on the graffiti on the monument —are the similar malicious and malevolent acts passing for journalism which rewards the journalists by getting them international coverage through tarnishing and besmirching the attitudes and characters of whole peoples. No need for fact checking—just yellow dangerous journalism for the purpose of being able to keep one hate filled idea alive and kicking. This is the appropriation of religion for “Secular” politicking and creation of news. This is the masonry of hate, the erroneous use of context and symbols.
A symbol of a compass and a square—like two inverted Vs—with a line drawn across the points of the two Vs so it is a star. A hexagram, six point star—adorning a building—. Great if it looks like the Star of David. But not so great if it is claimed as the Star of David for the sake of making a very specific one point about hate---this symbol coupled with the graffiti becomes the Star of David. My novel of a love story and the love shared by a family for each other—becomes an instrument for this type of journalism. And particularly when a fire is burning so fiercely on the subcontinent right now what is the point of pouring oil on that fire with this lie—what was the point of it? Hexagrams adorn Basilicas, Hindu and Buddhist temples, churches and mogul architecture and much more.
Meriwether Tower is central to the article and a large picture of the Tower in the article seems to appropriate it as a Jewish monument unbeknownst to Pakistanis. There is so much wrong with this at so many levels. All this, because in a desperate attempt to reach fame and glory by an impatient and ambitious group of journalists, to make their careers by launching themselves, on the international stage? Could they have taken a pause to think a bit more carefully?
For instance, could the journalists have thought of other possibilities or were they so overwhelmed by the imperatives of the current context? They never once it seemed paused to ask themselves the history and context of the monument. If they had they might have asked themselves whether James Strachan, an architect have been a Free Mason whose traditions are inspired by the Knights of the Templar?
Was this point researched before reaching the conclusion on the symbol which adorns Merewether Tower, the monument that he had designed? Could he have put in this symbol of the Free Masons, a compass and a square, both architect’s tools—as a conceit –to decorate the Merewether Tower—a Memorial for a fellow Free Mason and a follower perhaps of the Knights of Templar tradition? Karachi had a Free Mason Hall (photograph above) after all constructed by those who had constructed the beautiful structures of Karachi in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
Was that at all a possibility in the age of Empire or was that just too far beyond imagination of the journalists who had already found their angle in the angles? Do designs and symbols that look like hexagrams adorn Free Mason Temples? Was this researched at all? Or was this just too boring or too much work and too non-newsworthy to pursue?
So the existing symbol on the Tower, the graffiti, the photograph, the Star of David, two faiths and I have all been pressed into a narrative, circumstantially: Pressed into service, for a narrative, which is quite the opposite of my novel, A Matter of Detail and this has been done on the basis of a potent detail being misused. Meriwether Tower and the symbol that adorns it are not news. Perhaps the journalists thought otherwise and were trying to create an issue, create an event and manufacture news.
Hajrabai of my imagination and my book, I know is devastated.
(photographs by Akhtar Soomro)
Other Writings by Maniza Naqvi:
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