Stranger to History: A Son's Journey Through Islamic Lands by Aatish Taseer


Aatish Taseer’s debut book is perhaps the most difficult to describe; to call it an autobiography would be an understatement as he bravely tackles Islam’s complex facets. One may call it a travelogue but his own life story – born to an Indian mother and an estranged Pakistani father – is such that it cannot be ignored.

Born to veteran Indian journalist Tavleen Singh and the Lahore based businessman-turned-politician Salman Taseer, Aatish shared a complicated relationship with his father. Aatish never met Taseer until he turned 21. He tried to establish contact with him through letters and phone calls but in vain; Taseer senior simply did not want to talk to him. And when he did, Salman Taseer wrote a stinging letter to his son criticising him for lacking ‘even the superficial knowledge of Pakistani ethos.’

In a bid to understand his father’s religion Aatish undertakes a journey through the Middle East: the genesis of Islam and intersperses it with his own life story. As Aatish travels through Syria, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan he encounters several worlds – and ‘world systems’ – sub-cultures and people in his effort to understand Islam. Fatih Carsamba in Turkey teems with Muslims who feel uncomfortable with the country’s secularism. Damascus erupts like a volcano after cartoons of Prophet Mohammed are published in a Danish newspaper. At Mecca, Aatish worries about the Lord Shiva tattoo on his shoulder and a kada, while in Iran, he’s surprised to find members of the Hare Krishna sect.

Attending political sermons in Syria and interrogations in Tehran, this poignantly written journey – using travel as its narrative – tool raises uncomfortable yet important questions. Can the State use religion as a weapon to probe into people’s lives? Can Islam co-exist with other ‘world systems’? Will it ever be able to understand the concept of freedom of speech? And, most importantly, will Muslims themselves – Wahhabis and Sufis – be able to accept each other’s identities?

And then, of course, is Aatish’s own life story.

Born at a time when both countries of his parentage were going through tumultuous times, Aatish discovers his Muslim identity at a tender age – thanks to his cousin. Urinating in his aunt’s lawn, the cousin screams Aatish ka susu nanga hai; referring to the missing foreskin. On another instance, Aatish, aged 17, tries to contact his father from boarding school. An argumentative discussion with his peer-counsellor – moving yet disturbing - precedes the phone call with Aatish debating whether to make the call or not. His trip to Pakistan – the first to meet his father – in 2002 starts on a cautious note. “Just remember, he may let you down” warned his mother before Aatish embarked on his journey. And that’s exactly what had happened. Upon reaching Pakistan, Aatish called his father requesting to meet him. Salman Taseer’s response was short and curt. So curt that during his second trip to the country, Aatish chose to land in Karachi, instead of Lahore; this time, he was not prepared to meet his father.

Like the father-son relationship, Stranger to History is a complicated and troubling novel. Yes, the writing is vivid and engaging but the subject is such that one may feel drained out after reading the first few chapters. Nevertheless, it is an important book; one that seeks to tackle the complexities of an often misunderstood religion and region. But if you’re one of those who enjoys reading juicy bits about a love affair, then I suggest you don’t buy this book as you’ll be highly disappointed. It is strictly meant for those who are seriously interested in an individual’s quest to understand his religion and his personal life story provides contextual reference.

Overall, this much-awaited release makes for a disturbing yet compelling read. A debut which will be remembered for a long time

(A shorter version of this review can be read in this week's BusinessWorld magazine)

In Conversation with Aatish Taseer


The author of Stranger To History: A Son's Journey Through Islamic Lands on his book, his travels, religion and identity.

Its tough categorizing your book as an autobiography or a travelogue since it’s a mix of travel, religion and your own personal journey. How would you like to describe Stranger to History?

Well it is part autobiography and there’s an element of travel in it. Also, things that seem religious, cultural or historical in the region I was traveling in, became part of the compass of the religion (Islam). So yes, there were these many strands. Obviously, I shy away from describing this book as one thing or the other and that’s because most of my writing – fiction or non-fiction – begins in a personal way. So it’s not a book which can be described easily.

When you were at this place, Fatih Carasamba, in Turkey you came across – what you describe – as a ‘sub-culture’. Did it remind you of any other ‘sub-culture’ which existed in any other city?

Funnily enough, I thought a little bit of punk cultures in Western cities. It had something of that quality because it was so enclosed and because there was an element of ‘fancy dress’. It may also be because of black cultures in American cities; because of the way they dress.

Even in terms of attitude? Because with aggression comes a certain amount defensiveness.

Yes, there was something. I think when people have taken on a new kind of dress or a new kind of identification there can often be some kind of aggression about that.

The book starts off in Mecca which is the mid-point of your journey. Why did you choose the middle of your journey as the start to your book?

Mecca was more than a mid-point – it was a turning point. And that’s because it was the point in the journey when I could separate what part of the traveling had to do with faith, in the sense of what was articles of faith – the kind that I had known to make that journey. But it was also a moment when I understood that, for me to understand my father better or to understand what had happened between us better and to understand the division of India-Pakistan better, I wouldn’t need faith in the book sense of the word. I would need it in what was part of the larger compass of the faith. Therefore, I wanted to drop the reader in Mecca because he would need to remember it later; to know what had come before and to see what was the change in the direction

In your quest to understand your father’s religion better, did you ever feel that your identity as a Sikh was being lost or overshadowed?

No I didn’t and that’s because the Sikh identity – as a religious identity – has never been an active part. What I did find - in Pakistan - was that the larger Indian identity, cultural and civilisational, which was very close to me, was a pressure to step away from. It wasn’t something that Pakistanis could deal with easily. So it wasn’t a very religious thing. It was more to do with Pakistan’s troubles with India and with the fact that, in India, to include a kind of Pakistani identity is no problem. India has always had these kinds of hybrid identities. It was more of a problem in Pakistan where India was a country to be feared.

Did you ever try to dispel these notions from the minds of the Pakistanis?

Well it was never done in a conscious manner. It was done in subtler ways. For instance, when my brother is making fun of how ugly people in India are, or, there might be a joke in the family about how Hindus are cowardly or small. Or they might make fun of the Sanskritic influence on the language. So often, it was in the context of a joke

There’s a point in your book where you write about your name being neither Hindu nor Muslim. Did you ever try to find out what your name meant?

I did. I knew what Aatish meant from a very early age. And Taseer was my grandfather’s takhhallus - his pen name which I discovered as I grew older. So yes I always knew what it was.

In your book, Abdullah talks about this whole ‘world system’ and its clash with Islam. While you were in London after 9/11, did you come across any person or place which echoed Abdullah’s sentiments?

I had already left London when I was traveling in Turkey and I never traveled in England in that way. But, by the time I had met Abdullah, I was familiar with that reaction. What was interesting to me was that somebody like Abdullah, even in a Turkish context, was not in any way part of Turkey’s traditional Islam. He was as new as those people in Beeston were. And his faith was not very different from theirs. There was a rediscovery of faith in a streamlined, literal manner that made him much closer to somebody in Beeston. There were people like him cropping up in the Muslim world, except maybe for Iran, everywhere. Their outlook was similar and their reaction to this ‘world system’ was similar and their Islam was very radical, very new. It hadn’t grown out of the traditional Islam of a country but was an import. It followed a kind of a Saudi Islam but it was brought in in the last 20 or 30 years.

Your book highlights Syria and Turkey as juxtaposed with one another since the former is an Arab-nationalist country and the latter a very secular one. Was it difficult to adjust to both these countries during your travel?

Syria required adjustments since it was a policed State so it was a very different kind of country. What I was trying to show was that Abdullah is by no means representative of all of Turkey and that is clear in the book. He is a representative of a particular experience with religion at a certain time in the last century and of almost what a conspicuous absence it was. Turkey’s secularism was not secularism the way any of us would understand; it doesn’t mean that there is a separation between the Church and the State. It means that the State has co-opted the Mosque; they write Friday sermons and appoint the mullahs. So, in a sense, secularism has itself been a religion for Turkey.

So in a sense Turkey is also a policed State..

No it’s not a policed State. But it’s very aggressive in this secularism and the reason why it’s interesting is because Ataturk obviously perceived a threat from the Islamic identity and he dealt with it in a very strong way. So when you look at Turkey, it’s experience with religion has not been benign – it has been explosive in its own way. But in Syria religion was clamped down and has become an instrument in the hands of the regime – a way to excite people’s deepest affiliations. So what I was trying to show that the problem of the modern State and Islam in all of these countries, though in different incarnations, has been a real 20th century problem and no one has been able to bypass it entirely.

You were in Syria when the Prophet Mohammad cartoon controversy broke out and there were protests outside the Danish embassy turned ugly. Do you think this controversy provided people an excuse to vent their anger?

I think it was a form of release and probably a State-orchestrated form of release where this population - stamped down, given very little outlet – and then you have something like this. It becomes almost like a festival. Its encouraged by the State to redirect peoples’ passion and frustration. And to use something as harmless as cartoons to enflame them and target a faceless edifice like an embassy till the next thing comes along.

The one noticeable aspect about your book is that, although it is a travelogue, it’s a very dark account which, at times, can depress the reader. Were you going through any tough times during your travels which reflect in Stranger To History?

Yes, there hard moments. I think Syria was hard partly because to live under that kind of repression for many months can be difficult. And Iran was very painful. Very painful to see people who you though were full of possibilities but were beaten down by the regime. And Pakistan filled me with despair because I felt they’d fallen into a trap where religion was concerned and I couldn’t see how they’d get out of it. Also the commonality (with Pakistanis) is difficult for them to accept because it negates the idea of Pakistan. So every time this comes up, they can, at best, grudgingly accept it but they can hardly celebrate it.

And is this attitude prevalent only within a section of Pakistani society?

No, it runs throughout. But, obviously, people who are more educated are able to have more nuanced reactions. But the reactions are the same.

How was Pakistan similar to or different from Syria, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran?

If you look at all these countries – as a result of a certain experience with the modern State – they have dealt with religion in particular ways. In that sense, Pakistan’s position has been the most final. That impulse to find a secular State for Indian Muslims was also part of what was happening in the 20th century with Islam across the world. However, Pakistan’s break in a sense was more extreme because Iran, for instance, would’ve still remained Iran even if the Iranian revolution were to end. But for Pakistan, if this bad idea were to end, it would be difficult to imagine a way forward.

Considering the nature of your parentage and the media hype surrounding this book, most people may buy it in the hope of reading some controversial gossip. Was that the reason why you chose travel as the narrative tool for Stranger To History?

No. The book has been many years in the making. I was trying to deal with the personal bits of it through fiction and parts of it have been almost four or five years old. But I came to the understanding that I couldn’t look at my father in a completely personal way. That the context of Pakistan’s relationship with Islam and what had happened to Pakistan in all these was also important to my understanding. And especially since it came up very directly between my father and I. There was this article which had brought us to this kind of impasse affecting the personal relationship. Once all these things came into my mind, I decided not to look at it in a personal way.

But that doesn’t mean that it can’t be looked at it in a personal way. Take, for instance, Madam Bovary, and her greed for personal issues or you can look at it as a description of France in a particular time in history. So once I realized that the book had to have other contexts, the personal was always a means to enter a bigger situation. And also, I wouldn’t have held back on the personal because I think that is also part of the life of the book.

Your father described himself as a “cultural Muslim”. How many cultural Muslims have you encountered in your travels or otherwise?

The term is deceptive because it gives a sense of feeling for festivals and religion in a very passive way. What I found with my father - and I find more and more with moderate Muslims with very few exceptions – is that this word includes historical and political attitudes with a religious quality. Some of their anger on political issues has almost the force of faith. And while I was growing up in Delhi I’ve known many cultural Muslims. But in the post 9/11-era this has become more noticeable. Muslims have felt a need to speak for their identity and its brought up a lot of confusion regarding where the religious identity stops and the political takes over.

But inside the Islamic world, how comfortable are Muslims – moderate and extreme – with their identity?

There seems to be a grinding down of the old Muslim world and due to this there is a kind of a reaction – a retreat – in the face of a feeling of attack. A feeling that your being robbed of your past…a sense of grievance. But walking alongside that is the fact that most people are drawn in by the appeal of a bigger world and its possibilities; in terms of government, the kind of laws you live under and economic possibilities. So, inside the Muslim world, they are aware of this phenomenon and that they have to make their peace with this situation.

And do you any similarities or differences between Indian Muslims and the people in the Muslim world?

I think that there’s a previous situation in which there were varied forms of Islam. The Islam that evolved in India was a world apart from the Islam of Arabia. It was a hybrid and I think these hybrids happened at different points when the Muslim world came into contact with different cultures. But this new Islam is more an attack on local forms of Islam than it is even on the West. That local kind of religion is failing everywhere in Pakistan or in India and the people that its throwing up are part of a global Muslim experience. There are attitude that do link them. So of course the Islamic world is not monolithic but the problem or this reaction has been happening in different ways.

Lastly, what are you working on next? Will you be tackling another complex theme?

Well I haven’t started speaking about it yet. But it’s a novel set in Delhi and its part comedy which will be out next year. And I’ll write it in a manner which seems closer to non-fiction than fiction.

(A shorter version of this interview can be read here)

(Image courtesy: Aatish Taseer)

Coming Soon


Sorry for the disappearance act people, but I've been quite busy over the past fortnight. Balancing between work and planning further studies isn't as simple as it may seem. But, in between, I've been doing some work for this blog as well.

Got in touch with Patrick French and will be doing an interview with him about his book, Liberty or Death. This will be a blog exclusive so you won't find it anywhere else but here. However, it won't be posted before the end of this month/early next month because I still have to start reading the book.

Reviewed Aatish Taseer's much-awaited debut Stranger To History: A Son's Journey Through Islamic Lands. An engaging, insightful read about the Islamic world. Also had the opportunity to interview the young man, and we hit it off quite well (the dude has an enviable study!). These will be put up very shortly; as soon as I receive the go-ahead from the BW peeps.

Will also be posting the review of Mukul Deva's Salim Must Die. A short interview with him can be read here.

For now, all I can say is regular blogging will suffer since I'm planning further studies and trying to balance work alongside. Still, I'll try and post as often as I can. Watch this space for more!