It’s tempting to sleep in another half hour. I’d slept at 1.00am the previous night, thinking and writing, longhand, about Day 1. But I’d committed to a morning walk during a wifi window earlier that evening, and sans connectivity now, at 7.15am, there wasn’t a way of reneging. I bargained with myself in that peculiar early morning combination of lucidity and stupor. I yielded. Twenty more minutes. Enough time, it turned out, to make it for the walk with Tara and Yasmeen at 8.15am returning for a quick coffee and a couple of slices of toast before getting down to the business of discussing the readings for Day 2.
We started with ‘Sand and Foam’ by Kahlil Gibran, with him ‘Seven times…despis[ing his] soul’. Even as it evoked for many of us the seven deadly sins, there is much about keeping up appearances here, about pretense, pride, and making excuses. All of us have. Many times. Personally and professionally. Is remembering and then revealing the truth an honest act? And is it meant to be redemptive? Or are such insights calculated moments of vulnerability, strategic and expiatory?
Much discussion follows about Gibran’s life, and the extent to which authorship and positionality affect (or should or should not affect) the content. It was almost inevitable segueing to the present time by invoking the life and music of Michael Jackson. Wagner would have been another fascinating, historical, example, but we didn’t get there.
The second reading, ‘Fifteen Lashes’ by Anwar Iqbal is a distressing read for several of us. A ‘big public flogging show’ in a maidan between Rawalpindi and Islamabad arranged by General Zia ul-Haqq, it is ‘a form of punishment which in Pakistan owes as much to an inherited British colonial tradition as to the penal code of Islam.’ What is the function of such detail, such gory observation? Does it make it real? Does it validate a report? Is it perhaps a proxy for authority? And why, despite its particularity did it remind some of us of the violence of drug cartels in Columbia or of lynchings in the American south? Maybe it’s because the most powerful, universally relatable stories are those expressed through the details of a particular context. They are true (one might say authentic) to their roots, growing as well, flourishing even, when transplanted afar, as in their native soil.
Some of this Geertz-like ‘thick description’ was evident in Day 1’s ‘Shooting an Elephant’. But there are other, filmic, congruences of such graphic narratives – any Tarantino film, The Stoning of Soraya M, which I still cannot bring myself to watch, or Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ, which come every Easter, I feel an inexplicable need to watch again. The latter, of course, is a retelling of a considerably older and grander, founding narrative. Despite the controversy around the film, watching it is likely not accompanied by the kind of ‘sorrowful, angry disgust — with myself and the country I lived in’ that Iqbal discovers about himself. Is this because this particular spectacle from 2000 years ago is sublimated to act of bearing witness to an event of teleological significance rather than mere entertainment? Also, does truth (or being authentic) have to be uncomfortable? Can it just be good and still be powerful and moving?
The beginnings of an answer may be found in the third and final reading of the day, ‘Nuremberg or National Amnesia’, Chapter 2 from No Future Without Forgiveness by Desmond Tutu. Whereas this was a dry, unrelatable piece for some of us, it was for others a powerful, creative reminder of a solution for an exceedingly complex problem — how do you heal the trauma of a society long-suffering and held hostage to legal and institutionalized violence and mistrust? South Africa’s leaders sought another path in the transition from apartheid to democracy, a ‘“third way”, a compromise between the extreme of Nuremberg trials and blanket amnesty or national amnesia.’
Crucially, this was not the kind of compromise whose efficacy, perversely, is measured by the fact that everyone involved is unhappy about the outcome. Its genius lay, rather, in the way the Truth and Reconciliation Hearings ‘rehabilitate[d] and affirm[ed] the dignity and personhood’ of those who suffered and had been silenced, providing justice and a path forward. It also invoked the notion of Ubuntu, a sense of one’s ‘humanity…caught up, … inextricably bound up’ in another’s. Like the Persian adam, to be uniquely, particularly human, it is an intricate web of values — of kindness, of generosity, harmony, friendliness. Indeed, a ‘person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are.’