Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Update on my short story, A Cup Full of Jasmine Oil

UPDATE: The short story is included in a Queer Ink's anthology, titled Out: Stories from the New Queer India, of short fiction, edited by Minal Hazratwala and published this year and stocked in book shops across India.

A few years ago, I was approached to contribute to an anthology on LGBT fiction by Indian writers. I pointed out to the editor that my position was that of an ally and perhaps I was not the best person to contribute to the anthology. The reason for my hesitance is one that applies to much of my writing: the power to create narratives is immense and so those of us with the privilege to exercise this power must behave with responsibility. Marginalising voices, or erasing marginalised voices, is all too easy when wielding the pen and I have always been particularly careful about this issue of ethics.

However, after prolonged discussions, I was persuaded to contribute a short story, titled A Cup Full of Jasmine Oil. As an LGBT ally, I hoped that perhaps my story in the collection could contribute to the discussions around the issues facing LGBT community in India.  For this reason, I set the story in an unnamed small Indian town, in a domestic space. At the time, and alongside the story, I was working on an academic paper on LGBT representations in popular Indian culture and had noticed that unlike western narratives where non-heteronormative relationships were located 'somewhere far beyond the domestic realm' and 'out there,' Indian tradition placed homo-eroticism squarely at the centre of the home. This idea formed the core of my short story.

Sadly, the anthology never materialised and after a while, the short story went to publication in The Drawbridge.  It was in good company, with the issue carrying writing by Mario Vargas Llosa, Jose Saramago and Saadat Hasan Manto, amongst others.

Strangely, as has often happened with other pieces of my writing, the short story then took on a life of its own. I was invited to read it at a conference in Cologne, Germany in 2010.  The reading gave rise to much debate, not only on aspects of hetero-normativity and its discontents but also on cultural ideas, postcoloniality, and art. In a further twist of the tale, the Orientalia Suecana journal of the University of Uppsala, Sweden, put together an issue devoted to writings and discussions from the panel. The issue is now available online in pdf format for download. 

It contains a reprint of my short story, A Cup Full of Jasmine Oil

More interesting (for me at least), is the inclusion in the issue of an experimental academic paper by Thomas de Bruijn. The essay "juxtaposes a reading of the story from a more conventional western perspective with an interpretation from the point of the Indian system of aesthetics based on rasa. From this double perspective, it discusses various stylistic and thematic aspects of the story. Diverging interpretations are presented in the role of the characters, the functionality of their characterization, and the use of description and suggestion to evoke the semantic framework of the story."  The essay includes a discussion between Dr. De Bruijn and me on the two systems of interpretations and how they impact our understanding of literature. 

I am particularly happy about this essay as it begins to address one of my political issues about cultural production and its study. For far too long, too much of academic production has disguised its "West as theory, East as object" politics as 'universalist.'  By opening up literary discussion to non-Western theories, this essay begins to overturn this paradigm. In doing so, it also brings together my academic and creative writings.

While I have embedded the links to both the story and the essay in this post, am posting them here again: 

Short Story: A Cup Full of Jasmine Oil

Reading and Q & A with Sunny Singh on A Cup Full of Jasmine Oil by Thomas de Bruijn.

Enjoy the reading. And do comment.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Wait: Notes From Behind the Storyline

As some of you know, my short story, The Wait, carried last year by the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine is now available in Japanese in the Hawakaya's Mystery Magazine.

The story itself is deeply personal as it is inspired by the experiences of the families of Indian Prisoners of War who were never returned by Pakistan after the 1971 war ended. When we lived in Pakistan, in the early 1980s, a delegation of these Indian families came to Islamabad to visit the prisons, looking for their missing family members. I have never been able to forget the look of desperation mingled with hope that I saw in the eyes of those who were seeking any information whatsoever about their loved ones. Even a notification of death would have been welcomed.

Meeting those families was one of the experiences that turned me from a child to an adult. I remember my father - who was the Indian embassy liaison for these families - explaining to me that neither government had any real interest in finding these missing soldiers. It was believable that Pakistan would not want to acknowledge that they had not abided by international conventions on the treatment of prisoners of war, but more horrific was the realisation that for my own government, these soldiers were expendable, and worse still, an embarrassing reminder of the state's ineptitude and callousness. The experience went a long way in shaping the way I think of governments and my cynical view of states, regardless of any and all emotional ties I feel for my country.

In many ways, The Wait, is a story that I started writing at the age of fourteen, when I met that delegation looking for their loved ones. Yet some how the story would not form itself. I wrote and rewrote, put it aside, then picked it up again, trying to write it over and over again. Through the years, I tried to make it into a novel, a play, a short film. But nothing worked.

And then strangely enough, in the summer of 2002, as I packed my bags to move to Barcelona, and was enjoying a long lazy summer at my family house in Dehradun, the story decided to birth itself. Perhaps it was the proximity of the the Indian Military Academy and the bright-eyed gentlemen-cadets that stirred the creative embers; or perhaps it was the fact that army jeeps still pull up frequently at neighbours' houses to deliver bad news about their husbands, fathers, sons; or may be it was that I saw that same look of hope and desperation again, this time in the eyes of an aged neighbour, the mother of one of those men who never returned. For all of these reasons, or none of them, the story wrote itself, rapidly, fully formed, with near minimal need for editing.

Of course, it still took many years till it was finally picked up, and for that I have to thank my extremely persistent literary agent! But since 2010, the story has developed a life of its own. Readers have emailed me after reading it, and not just from India. It seems people in many parts of the world have suffered similar losses. I read it last year at an event in Spain and was approached by a distraught Spanish woman afterwards with her own story of loss. And now, of course, it has another avatar, in Japanese!

Perhaps it is the not knowing that makes the story so resonant. Death gives us closure, or at least an ending and a place for new beginnings. Losing someone we love to an unknown fate is infinitely worse, suspending all life in a strange viscous nightmare where all time stops. And it is this sense of suspension that the Hawakaya Mystery Magazine illustration catches for the Japanese translation. I can make no judgement about the translation. In fact it took me nearly fifteen minutes to even find my story in the magazine and could only do so because of a small copyright blurb. But the illustration gave me goosebumps!

It reminded me of the porches of the AWA residences in the mountains, often occupied by widows and orphans of army officers. The old fashioned rocking chair, the slatted wood flooring, the semi-urban path stretching beyond the small wicker gate, all are not only familiar but exactly as I imagined the protagonist's home in the story. It is as if an unknown Japanese illustrator some how peered into my mind just long enough to catch my imaginary snapshot of the place. I do not remember feeling such incredible kinship with another person's artistic process as I do with the unknown illustrator of the story. But part of the magic is the mystery of not knowing him/her name, of imagining that my words alone communicated my mind with sufficient clarity.

Perhaps it should suffice to say that this is yet another magical, mysterious, moment, and I am grateful for the experience. So if the Hawakaya illustrator is reading this, a very big thank you! .

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Those With Privilege Have the Greater Responsibility

For the past forty eight hours, I have been monitoring social media with growing concern and disgust. There are various aspects to this concern and I will in this post not go into the historical/political/ideological debates about the wrong and rights of Zionism and Israel but focus on the issues that have been raised in the past couple of days. Gilad Atzmon has been on a book tour for his book, The Wandering Who, in America.

Now I think a full disclosure is merited. I have some personal investment here as I was labelled as "anti-Semite, Holocaust denier and Nazi sympathizer" a few months ago, simply for reading the author I am about discuss here. As a brown woman, without an EU citizenship, and living in Europe, I find threats by the Zionist lobby to denounce me as anti-Semite (the holy cow of the western world) more than a little disturbing; these have potentially serious social, political and professional consequences, especially as I have little recourse or opportunity for self-defense.. My crime, or perhaps the better Biblical word is sin, some months ago, was (in case you are wondering) simply to keep an open mind while reading Gilad Atzmon's book (and reviewing it). Also, an aggravating factor may have been that I supported the principles of freedom of speech to be applied regarding the author and the book (In simpler words: disagree with it if you wish, but damn well read it first!)

The hate mail and threats I received from the Zionist lobby for simply reading Atzmon's book were hateful and threatening enough for me to perhaps naively assume that, in contrast, those who actually support Atzmon would perhaps have a comparatively humanist attitude towards the Palestinians.

Sadly I am beginning to think that I was wrong.

As Atzmon has been on a book tour in US, the public Zionist opposition to him has grown. He has been accused of the same sins that I listed above: anti-Semite, Nazi sympathizer (or outright Nazi) and Holocaust denier. These are the same three labels that used and abused in most of western Europe and north America to shut down debate about Israel and any critique of its policies. I do believe that these labels and intimidating tactics need to be unbundled, critiqued and questioned so that they are not abused and misused.  This is especially the case for those who choose to take an anti-Zionist stance as they are most vulnerable to the subtle but devastating forms of censorship that 'the enlightened West' chooses to practice. Moreover, this same censorship takes on an overt and explicitly threatening form when those critiquing Israel are often framed as 'the enemy' based on the fallacious reasoning and attribution of race, ethnicity, and religion.

This final category is also often composed people with precarious situations who choose for moral or ideological reasons to take a stance that is unacceptable and very risky. They choose to go against western political orthodoxy on Israel despite explicit and clear personal risks.

Here I use myself as an example: as a brown woman who is not a citizen of any western nation, my position is precarious at best in the western world.  Regardless of the hyperbole put out by western governments, I am here at the indulgence of the countries where I choose to live: regardless of my professional independence, my economic status, educational achievements, I am susceptible to legal and social forces. So for example, the risk that the my host state can choose to expel me (or worse) is ever present. In recent times, and given the European Union's lack of willingness to abide agreements made with large corporations (far more powerful than I shall ever be), or indeed apply its own avowed principles of human and civil rights as well as criminal laws in any equal fashion, merely adds to my vulnerability.

Add to this, the false smear by extremely powerful (economically and politically) Zionist lobbyists who label me "anti-Semite, Holocaust-denier, and Nazi/Nazi-sympathizer for simply reading a book, and suddenly the price I have to pay for expressing my opinions and stances is a LOT higher than the average European (or indeed an Israeli such Atzmon) anti-Zionist. Very simply, everything from my visa to live Europe, my ability of hold my job, my (already meagre) ability to publish and basic civic freedoms, are threatened. Let us be very honest, a society that can keep Atzmon's voice out of the mainstream simply because of the accusation of anti-Semitic is not likely to be tolerant of a brown woman like me who is smeared - regardless of truth - of the same.  My point is simple: it is a higher risk for any non-western, non-white, and non-Judeo-Christian person to be pronouncing ANY opinion on Zionism or Israel!!!!

And perhaps this is what bothers me about the way reactions to Gilad Atzmon's book have been framed by his supporters. Yes, the Electronic Intifada has distanced themselves from the book and the author. We can debate the right and wrong of that...and don't get me wrong, I believe that there is a much needed debate to be had there.  However, what is unacceptable is the labelling of Electronic Intifada as somehow Zionist apologists or sympathizers by Atzmon's supporters, especially when those same supporters are well ensconced in positions of relative power in western countries (thus with relatively greater narrative/economic/political power than those they are critiquing and labelling).

The recent revelation of New York Police Department's records of spying on the city's Muslim communities shows the risks and pressures of taking ideological or political stances that oppose the mainstream US political agendas even by those of American citizenship and descent.  And let us make no mistake, even a less than overtly effusive support of Israel is seen as treason and terrorism in the much of western popular narrative. And yet these aspects have been overlooked by Atzmon's increasingly strident supporters. This makes their gratuitous accusations of collusion and/or collaboration aimed at Palestinian-Americans and Arab-Americans particularly sickening: they never need to pay the price of dissent as they enjoy every privilege conferred by race, ethnicity and religion.

The fact still remains that Palestinians and their non-white (and non-Judeo-Christian) supporters, walk a very fine line in western popular (and often the ever-shifting legal) spaces. They must prove their 'non-terrorist attitudes' (even if they are second and third generation citizens) even as many self-righteous western anti-Zionists insist that they take as radical and explicit (and as I have stated earlier, an oddly non-nuanced) stance as Gilad Atzmon. These are communities and people already suffering,  afraid and with good reasons, based on their characterisation as somehow anti-west and 'Islamist' simply for holding non-Zionist views. They already walk a very fine line in an rabidly pro-Israel environment that attempts, and mostly with great success, to smear and destroy any voice to contrary, while further running the risk of Islamophobic accusations. Yet I have watched, in the past few days, the sickening imperialist-tinged spectacle of the privileged western white Judeo-Christians men (and yes, on social media, these seem to primarily men) who support Atzmon insisting that these marginalised communities prove their anti-Zionism. Even more troubling is that the standard for anti-Zionism that is 'acceptable' to those demanding such evidence has been set not by the communities or people with personal stake in Palestine but by those who are collectively and historically aligned to the oppressive powers.  It is as if southern white Christian communities were to set  the standards of 'blackness' for African-Americans!

To be perfectly clear how the above is applied in the current situation: these strident Atzmon supporters insist that Palestinians/Arabs/Muslim/brown people live up to mythical ideological standards that they set for them. A sickening aspect here: Atzmon is seen as the prophetic voice who some how speaks for and about the Israel/Palestine situation. And yet his supporters replicate older colonialist ideals where the white man speaks for the native regardless of the native voice.

Furthermore, these avid Atzmon's supporters seem to ignore that the Palestinians (including Electronic Intifada and those who signed its letter) occupy a far more precarious space than most of those who insist they take certain stances. For Atzmon supporters who have secure privilege and safety in the West and risk very little (by dint of religion, race and ethnicity)  to insist that more at-risk communities match up to the standards they set is sick at the worst, and neo-imperialist at best.

Third, let us be clear about one thing: Palestine's liberation is NOT about the West's' guilt or ability or will. In the past five hundred years, western nations have inflicted enough damage around the world not only with various colonial enterprises but because of the very well-intentioned 'white man's burden.'  Whatever the result of the Palestinian struggle, let us be clear about one thing: the "west" shall have no or little say in the process or results.  The global balance of power has already begun shifting and the new wave of postcolonialist change has already hit much of the former excolonies; western military and politico-economic might is fading, and fast.  This means that 'allies' for the Palestinians need to know their place - our space is to support the ideas of freedom and equality till the best of our ability and extent of our ideology. We neither set the agenda for Palestinian freedom (that would be supremely paternalist!) nor do we set the standards for Palestinians to determine their means and ways of dissent!

Finally, it is NOT acceptable for an Israeli (former Zionist or not) OR indeed his European Palestine sympathizers to decide who is acceptably pro-Palestinian.  So by all means critique how Jewish anti-Zionists act (which Atzmon does) or how various western liberals behave, but it is not up to the former and current colonizers or those aligned institutionally as enablers (however personally dissenting) to determine the scope and range of Palestinian dissent, either in the territories or abroad.

Here I want to be clear: Atzmon writes about the Zionist project, its sympathizers and its proponents. His opinion adds to the debate, regardless of the stance one takes. However, when his supporters start to run down Palestinians/Arabs/Muslims or other historic stakeholders for their apparent Zionist sympathies, they cross an ideological/narratological/political line. I draw a parallel to another anti-colonial movement, the one in India: white Europeans were welcome to support our struggle; however at no time were they the leaders of our struggle and they did not decide the steps or goals of the movement.  Regardless of their participation, the independence struggle was ours alone! The same rule stands for Palestine: there may be allies all over the globe (including in other parts of Middle East and North Africa) but these are not the same as the actual stakeholders.

Here it is also worth reminding many of Atzmon supporters who have been taking an increasingly colonialist attitude even as they profess otherwise: an ally - especially when a dissident member of the oppressor - is NOT one of the oppressed. Regardless of the passion and intensity they may feel for the colonized, they speak from a position of privilege unavailable to the oppressed. This also means they have no right or space to stand in judgement to the many varieties of dissidence regarding Palestine amongst the stakeholders. Just as an Englishman had no right to determine who the Indian 'nationalists' were during the Independence struggle, no European 'pro-Palestinian' has the right to speak for Palestine.

How does this translate to the social media kerkuffle? Well here is a note to Atzmon's supporters (and others who profess to be anti-Zionists or pro-Palestinians): By all means support anti-Zionists and be anti-Zionism, but not at the cost of demeaning Arabs, Muslims, and Palestinians in the 'west' who risk a hell of a lot more for a simple act of dissent than you - with your historic privileges - can ever imagine. Most importantly, recognise that you are in no position to impose your 'standards' of dissent on Palestinians, either at home or abroad (this means it is not your call how political groups even those made up of second and third generation Arab or Palestinians in the 'west' choose to follow their struggle).

If Atzmon supporters can't manage this tiny and basic act of anti-imperialist solidarity, I am afraid he would have failed in his apparent mission that he so passionately argued in his book. 

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

In the Jaipur Tamasha, India Lost

I began 2012 with a personal resolution that I would try to not write about India for the next few weeks. The reason is simple: my relationship with my country is a dysfunctional, obsessive one. Like an addict, I try to wean myself off it but with the first whiff, I am back neck-deep, flailing, drowning, furiously and hopelessly in love, clinging to it even while it continues to humiliate, abuse and batter me. Yes, India is my first, only and forever abusive lover! No surprises then, the Jaipur Literature Festival tamasha managed to blow my new year's resolution to smithereens even before the first month is out.

Any way, here goes....

There are many aspects to the complete tamasha that has unfolded in Jaipur, and I do mean apply the word with all its colourful, gloriously populist, condescendingly elite connotations.  Like Waiting for Godot, the catalyst for the tamasha has remained off-stage, and for those of us who believe in creative freedom and the rule of law, or love words and stories, Salman Rushdie's absence is a tragedy.

The tamasha  was manufactured primarily by Rajasthan's state government (led by that ever shining bastion of liberal thought, the Congress party), ably abetted by the party machinery and embedded corporate media, and benignly watched over by Her Highness Lady Sphinx and her two heir-lings. Between them, they  manufactured reports of a threat to Rushdie's life: apparently, as the now-discredited story goes, Mumbai underworld had taken out a supari on the writer's life and three gunmen were on their way. Rushdie was thus convinced to cancel his visit.  A point to note here is crucial: at this point, the state government had actually not raised the legal issue of his presence at the festival but merely used security as a barely credible cover for its decision.  The state also managed to compound its idiocy by finally disallowing even a video-conference with the writer, again on 'security' grounds although, in all fairness, they could have kept all those policewallas who had been called to provide security to Oprah around.

Of course, various other parties including the BJP, with eyes on the UP assembly elections prize, jumped on the bandwagon. Not surprisingly, today, with much ipso facto courage, Sheila Dixit, Arun Jaitley and various others are inviting Rushdie to various other parts of India, especially Delhi, presumably to offend cosmopolitan Dilliwalas in ways those rustic Rajasthanis couldn't bear or have tea with HH Lady Sphinx who shall say more nothing!

On to the second act: the festival started and four writers showed the courage of their convictions and read out from The Satanic Verses, only to find themselves muzzled not by the state government but cowardly organisers. And yes, it is necessary to point out that the organisers of the festival could have taken a far stronger stance which would be backed by Indian law: there is nothing as far as I can find, and although I am no lawyer, I have checked with colleagues in the profession, that bars anyone from reading out excerpts from the work, or indeed the entire novel in entirety. The same organisers then expanded their role by issuing a stern press release and making utterly ridiculous statements about how the four writers had read the excerpts without the permission or knowledge of the organisers. Really? Now writers must clear the content of their presentations a priori with literary festivals? So much for freedom of speech then!

On the sidelines, or perhaps it ought to be the chorus line, of the tamasha of course, there has been much hand-wringing by various Indian literati in various media.  The usual faces and names have written blog posts and editorials, done rounds of television studios, and made grandiose statements that can only be distinguished by the degrees of hypocrisy and feigned passion. However, in the clamour, a basic point has been lost: freedom of speech is a cherished quality for any civilised society and even more crucial for a democracy but it is threatened as much by a cowardly state, and an unthinking mob, as it is by the hypocrisy of its apparently loyal defenders. 

For decades, India's liberal elite has tried to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds (yes, had to throw in a hunting analogy, just for my UK readers).  They have selectively chosen their causes and battles on the issue of freedom of speech, rallying behind their own social peers and off-springs and always from the comfort of their plush homes, while silencing those they feel are beneath them.  After all, it was Khushwant Singh who advised Penguin India against publishing Rushdie's novel in the first instance. It was a Congress government, backed by all the diamond-dripping and khadi-wearing socialites who banned the import of the novel into the country. And it is the same elite that has stifled any reasoned, nuanced debate about freedom of speech in the country, choosing to turn even this basic precept into a tool for gaining political advantage!

Much of our media and intelligentsia are so closely tied to the country's political establishment that they have forsaken any ability to take a stance that may be intellectually rigorous and ethically sound (here, the organisers of the festival are a good example: to maintain their position as embedded cultural elite in Delhi, they must bow to their political patrons).

And yes, let me be very clear,  it is critical that we in India discuss freedom of speech in an open and nuanced manner. Since the mainstream media has forsaken its role in the process or at least given up any ambitions of making a complex case, it is up to the citizens ourselves.

Even the most absolutist supporters of freedom of speech realise that there are reasonable limits. There are some clear cut instances that are self-evident: shouting fire in a crowded theatre is one such example. We may even argue that reporting on army's gun positions during a war (as happened during Kargil) is another case for  limiting freedom of speech, although this already takes us towards the slippery slope and national interest alone, and especially determined by the state, cannot be the sole determinant of the issue. Here we go more into the area of ethics and personal responsibility that are matter for another post, although sadly, in current times, much is said of rights and very little of responsibilities.

However, the situation gets very muddy when it comes to art. A point made consistently by various sides has been that Rushdie's novel "offends sentiments" of a particular religious community. Similar cases have been made about Tasleema Nasreen (although I found the quality of writing more offensive than the content in that case!), Rohinton Mistry who apparently offended all of Mumbai, A.K Ramanujam who offended Hindus by studying the many versions of Ramayana and lauding the ancient Indic tradition of multiplicity.  Then of course there is the case of the much lauded MF Hussain who apparently offended Hindus with his paintings to become a martyr of free speech, and yet wilted at the sign of first Muslim protests to cravenly withdraw his film Meenaxi from theatres.  And lest we forget, Bollywood songs have managed to offend shoemakers and paan-sellers as well!

As the cases above demonstrate, there is no dearth of people willing to take offence, and only logical way forward is for the state to first take a clear and principle stand on freedom of speech.  The state must not begin to determine - either in practice or theory - which of the many offended groups must take precedence, although this arbitrary policy has yielded a great deal of political capital all around in the past 60+ years.

However, beyond the state, the onus for taking a clear and principled stand also falls on the nation's intelligentsia, artists and opinionmakers.  This means established writers, artists, critics and scholars need to speak out for the right to free expression for all, based on a principled stance, and not only when they find a convenient situation or in favour of those they agree with.  Unfortunately, at the moment, they function more as collaborators and enablers of the state in stifling freedom of expression!

And finally, there is the citizenry. In general, the discussions and blogs have been frank, intelligent, innovative. Discussions both on and off line have demonstrated that political parties in the country may be in for a big surprise as increasing numbers of citizens are stepping away from the politics of offence.  Again, I have noticed the difference in opinion between the self-avowed representative and leaders of Indian Muslims and Muslim citizenry itself: many leaders are in for a total shock in not too distant future!

At the same time, I must say I have been deeply disappointed by some of the discussions on this topic on-line, even though I am the first to admit that using on-line engagement is a flawed form of sampling a population. There is a mirror reflection of Islamist fringe to be found amongst the fringes of the self-professed Hindutva supporters. I found their ignorance of their own traditions and texts disappointing, but was horrified by their brash refusal to actually bother learning anything about their heritage. If their hubristic "right to remain ignorant" is any indication of those who take offence, then I sincerely hope this post offends them deeply.

But more than anything else, I am terribly saddened that in the tamashaa that unfolded in Jaipur, there was only one loser: India. I hope in these times of competitive offence taking, somebody other than me takes offence at that!

Full disclosure: perhaps some of my critique of the hypocrisy of India's liberal cultural elite may appear harsh but I have had first hand experience of them over the years. My favourite moment however involves a top editor who wrote me an email breaking the publication contract for a novel which she deemed too controversial. Many of the same names who regularly and hysterically defend free speech told me' off the record' - when the book did come out - that they could not review it for the same reasons. To all of them, don't worry, the book has done very well in India and abroad, in spite of you and despite zero controversy.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Self-Immolation Protests in Arab Spring: Why and Why Now?

This post is meant to raise questions about an aspect of the Arab Spring that has confused me since the very beginning. I must state right at the beginning that I do not have the answers, or even the inklings of an answer. I am hoping to get a discussion started so I can begin to understand this phenomenon, so apologies in advance if you are disappointed!

As is well-known now, the uprising in Tunisia began with a young street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, setting himself on fire in protest against the humiliations and hardships he faced daily.  The act triggered off mass protests, leading to the removal of the country's long time dictator, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, which in turn ignited mass protests across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, bringing down two more dictators in 2011 and rattling the regimes of pretty much every other despot.

During the same period, a strange and disturbing pattern has emerged in the region: protest by self-immolations.

In Tunisia, there were 107 incidents in the first six months of 2011. Algeria reported multiple incidents as well through 2011, with at least four deaths.  In the immediate aftermath of the Tunisian uprising, there were similar incidents reported in Egypt as well, although these seemed to dwindle once Mubarak stepped down. A scan of these incidents in Egypt seems to place them in the days soon after the Tunisian revolution with a marked decline once the January 25th movement kicked off (perhaps closest to copycat acts as discussed later).  In the first three weeks of 2012 alone, there have been the cases of a man in Jordan and a depressed mother of a prisoner in Bahrain, both of whom died, as well as five protesters in Morocco, two  of whom remain in serious condition in the hospital.  In 2011, there were cases of self-immolation reported in Saudi Arabia, Mauritania, Ethiopia and Syria, so covering a rather large range of geography and conditions.

One aspect of these incidents are that many of these involve people protesting quite small yet significant acts of injustice: trouble in claiming pensions, electricity being cut off, protesting the right to food or shelter, or simple dignity as in case of Bouazizi.  Much of the press both in the region, as well overseas, has attributed self-immolation protests to the despair felt by the people and their anger at quotidian humiliations. No doubt, both of these play a significant part in these acts, although they are by no means sufficient as explanation.

However, what escapes understanding is the emergence of this specific act of protest in a region where there is no tradition of self-immolation for any reason.  First of all, suicide is unacceptable under Islam, which is one reason that suicide attacks have been so heatedly debated in the region and have only a grudging acceptance by most mainstream Islamic scholars (this is not to say that there are not ample supporters of the tactic in both religious and political circles). The point is that even suicide attacks can be justified only thinly on theological grounds and by specific schools of Islamist thought; most groups - including (in)famously the Palestinians ones - use the practice for a range of strategic and tactical purposes, especially political/societal survival, retaliation and competition.  More importantly, suicide attacks build on earlier historical memories and ideals, and are often explained as the latest manifestations of militant heroic martyrdom, and thus within - albeit on the margins - of older martial traditions of jihad. It is precisely this final reasoning that is employed by contemporary theologians to make sense of this tactic.

However, the case of self-immolation is quite different. It clearly violates the Islamic principle of not violating the body and/or corpse, especially one's own. It cannot be fit into any militant heroic martyrdom tradition as it is an act of protest turned entirely upon oneself.

Indeed, it may only vaguely fit Durkheim's concept of 'altruistic suicide', despite the attempts by the media to fit these acts into a 'martyrdom' narrative. Much of the media and activist narrative around self-immolations is that some how they were acts of protest, motivated by defiance or a Durkheim-ian 'over-integration into the society' and therefore a sense of responsibility towards the larger collective. Instead, if anything, these acts, at least on a closer look seem to be closer to Durkheim's definition of the 'fatalistic suicide,' one that he had even in 1897 dismissed as of little consequence to modern societies (how premature that was!!).  However, it is fatalistic suicide that Durkheim had associated most with 'over-regulation' or moral or physical despotic excess, noting that it occurred amongst populations who felt their futures were blocked and their natural passions oppressed.

However, self-immolation is not simply an act of fatalistic suicide. It is a particularly public way to self-destruct, holding within the act itself incredible expressive, symbolic potential, which is the primary reason for its longevity in certain societies. As an act of protest, and perhaps more closely linked to Durkheim's notion of altruistic suicide, it is deeply rooted within the Indic traditions as well amongst various Buddhist societies of Asia. After all, it was the monks of South Vietnam immolating themselves in protest in 1963 that brought the term into common usage in western media.  Again in India, it has been used in protests, with the Mandal protests seeing some of the most prominent incidents.  In the past few years, Tibetan monks have continued the practice as a form of protest against Chinese occupation.

Yet none of this makes sense why this act has emerged in the MENA region, in cultures as diverse as Tunisia, Bahrain and Egypt? Or indeed why it has emerged in the region at this particular time. There is little by way of influence or motivation or trajectories that I can find for self-immolations as a form of protest in these countries. Moreover, the region, as far as I can see, does not have any historical tradition of self-immolation, not only for protest but for any reason at all.  Even if we took a misplaced essentialist stance that the region is tied by Islam as a binding factor (a fallacy in itself), we would be left wondering why then a significant amount of the population would choose to defy the religion's crucial precepts.

Again, if we attempt to write these off as fatalistic suicides, we are left wondering why the people across an extraordinary range of backgrounds, cultures, genders, and ages would choose the same method?  If these are to be considered copy-cat acts, and we may well agree that the immolations in Egypt in January 2011 could well count as such, we are left wondering at the gaps of time or indeed the complications in the cluster contagion that create reasoning anomalies (I could be wrong here so expert dissent is very welcome).  How would we explain Bouazizi self-immolation in Tunisia in December 2010 as a point of contagion for Badriya Ali's act in Bahrain in January 2012. The copy cat explanation begins to seem a little too pat to hold water, at least for me.

Furthermore, there is the aspect of media narrative and attention. It is true that Bouazizi's act was immediately declared an act of martyrdom by political activists, but there is little evidence that he had acted out of political principles. Moreover, if we consider the acts following his as copycats, then what triggered his own choice of self-immolation as the method of self-destructive protest?

Self-immolation is a particularly horrific and public act of suicide, but it is also primarily an act of expressive violence. It has few instrumental goals that can be served, beyond the self-destruction of the individual. In contrast to the Buddhist monks of Vietnam or Tibet, whose social and moral status imbues them with greater symbolic potency, or the students in India where a long tradition of self-immolation provides a moral legitimacy to the act, in MENA region, these are in some ways lone acts, excised from the theology of the dominant religion and alien to the cultural ethos of the societies of the actors.  As far as I have been able to research, there have been no fatwas or other theological support from Islamic clerics or schools for these acts (not a surprise!).  The declarations of martyrdom have been generated primarily from the activists, who in many countries listed above are still battling for not only political space but also legitimacy, so their impact can be queried.

The question of why self-immolation and why now remains thus unanswered.  The press may call it a result of daily humiliations, or attribute it it lack of jobs; political activists may declare these political acts of martyrdom,  but these are justifications not explanations of the phenomenon. I can only hope we don't need many more of these for that explanation to emerge.

Full disclosure: I explored the concepts of heroic martyrdom, self-immolation and altruistic suicide in my last novel so this is a topic that I have long attempted to understand.

Final note: I asked on twitter about the topic and want to thank the following for their insights and thoughts: @FouadMD, @princeofthenile @Thabet_UAE for their generosity in discussing the topic with me.