Thinking about yet another mass murder of innocents and a frightened, hate-filled man who proudly dons the mantle of ‘heroic defender of white people’. In his effort to protect the white race Brenton Tarrant has stupidly only succeeded in further darkening the growing stain of shame that increasingly covers so much of the pale skinned fraternity.
I am a white person. I am a male. Together these two accidents of birth have placed me at the very bullseye of privilege. As someone recently said, ‘98% of everything that has ever been invented is aimed at me.’ Why then, do white men like Tarrant feel so afraid and victimised? Why do people like Carlson Tucker, the smug, chubby Fox News commentator, take such enspittled pleasure in categorising Iraqis as ‘primitive, semi-literate monkeys’? Why does President Trump describe the majority of the earth as a shit hole crawling with rapists? Psychologists and sociologists are having a field day explaining it to us: poor education; demagogy; brutal fathers; sexual repression. But to me there is one obvious explanation, travel. Or more accurately, lack of it.
When I consider my own experience of this world and why, as a white ‘Christian’ male my response to a mosque is not to pick up a rifle and take aim, the most obvious difference between me and Tarrant, Tucker and Trump is that I’ve actually spent some time in a mosque. Be it meditating in the quiet shadows of Mahabat Khan’s in Peshawar or gobsmacked by the colours and visual stimulation of Wazir Khan’s in Lahore, masjids are some of the most sublime spaces on earth. But that is hard to appreciate if you never leave the suburbs.
I’ve lived in 8 countries and visited another 30+ as part of my profession as an aid worker. I went to a liberal arts school in a politically liberal state in the USA. Most of my American friends lean left of center. I have offered free accommodation and even help with air tickets to friends to come visit me in all 8 countries and not one has taken me up on the offer. To my knowledge none has left American shores in over thirty years. 64% of Americans do not possess a passport. 33% rank Disneyland as their ultimate dream holiday. How appropriate that these days Mickey Mouse trumps Machu Picchu.
Being able to speak Urdu and Hindi and have conversations with people who are actually Muslims and Hindus and fanatics and sentimentalists and con men and big souled spirits, Pakistanis and Indians and people who want to welcome me into their homes and people who think I’m a CIA spy and want me arrested, has allowed me to appreciate the contradiction and nuance of every human, including myself.
Spending hours walking slowly through the bazaars of Delhi, Allahabad, Dushanbe and Pindi. Observing and being observed. Tasting the food and hearing the jokes. Shaking hands, embracing, bumping shoulders, pushing and shoving for the window seat. Watching bad Punjabi movies and excellent Tajik films. Reading local newspapers and watching PTV and Doordarshan. Being asked to defend American war mongering as well as listening to praise for America’s leadership. Understanding that for most people in the world, Jesus is just another prophet or avatar of Vishnu and being embraced as a person of the Book. Being called a red monkey and worse. Being chased through the desert by a mob of angry Pakistanis. Being given half of a poor Muslim man’s roti when I have no money of my own to buy breakfast.
You do these things more than once in your life and you can’t help but feel a part of something bigger. At first you feel smaller. But stronger. The world that seemed so easy to hide in the palm of your trembling hand now is marvellous beyond comprehension. The world is there with you. You are a part of it. Not the best or strongest or greatest part. Just one part. There exists only the world. There is no ‘them’. Only ‘us’. Or, perhaps we are all ‘them’.
Mirza Ghalib who lived in Delhi in the 19th century is regarded as the greatest of all Urdu poets. He lived during a period of huge and rapid change that saw his beloved sharif (noble) Muslim culture, collapse all across north India. Often in the face of great violence. He had to make sense not merely of a new group of ‘immigrants’—white people from Britain—but well-armed, motivated invaders. As a brown male Muslim male his historical position of privilege was undermined in the wink of an eye by an invading horde of ‘Christians’ whose habits, clothing and religion were as different to his as night is from day. But unlike the Muslims praying in the New Zealand mosque, the white arrivistes to mid 19th century Delhi were intent on seizing power as well as imposing their ‘civilisation’ and ‘faith’ on the local population.
Some of his countrymen eventually rebelled and did take up arms to try to restore lost Mughal pride. It didn’t work. Just as Tarrant’s killing spree will not succeed in protecting a whiteness that is supposedly under attack. As a writer Ghalib had only words to make sense of the changes that were truly engulfing him and his society.
Here are a couple of his lines that seem especially apropos to this day and recent events.
بھٹک کر ہی سہی
گمراہ تو وو ہیں
جو گھر سے نکلے ہی نہیں
Bhatak kar hi sahi
Gumrah to wo hain
Jo ghar se nikle hi nahin
You’ll lose your way for sure
But you will reach your destination eventually.
The one who is truly lost
Is he who never leaves his house.