The Man in the Mirror

Here’s a conundrum: is it possible to divorce art from it’s creator?

It is universally acknowledged that great art be it in music or literature or movies transports you to a higher realm. Personal though the experience may be (and subjective too), truly sublime art cannot fail to move the observer. Yet, at what point does the creator’s life, personality or debaucheries start to influence how you view their creation?

From Wagner’s anti-Semitism to Dickens’ neglect of his own brood to Hemingway’s fractured family to more lately, Woody Allen’s decidedly creepy personal life, Michael Jackson’s (unproven) abuse claims to Rolf Harris’ proven ones- all have been artists/artistes par excellence.

Is it possible then to delineate one from the other?

I, for one, cannot forget that shortly after the child abuse allegations had first surfaced against Michael Jackson, he performed the “Earth Song” with pre pubescent children, with him dressed as Christ, in a ludicrous attempt to varnish his rapidly cracking facade. Jarvis Cocker of Pulp fame, famously wrecked that performance by storming the stage. Rightly so. Yet, there is no denying the fact that Jackson produced and sang some amazing tracks that have withstood the test of time.

Similarly with Allen’s earlier films, and some of his later ones too, it’s impossible to dismiss his genius, his quirky Manhattan world view, his unconventional protagonists. Yet one’s loathing of the man colours any subsequent viewings of his movies.

And what of Roman Polanski? Can one ignore that he raped a 13 year old just because he made wonderful films like “The Pianist” or “Chinatown”?

There is no black and white here. Talent can reside in the humblest, the meanest, the most perverse, just as it can within the noblest, the purest, the most enlightened. As an audience to it, we must judge them separately from one another. I can love a piece of art by Picasso, while not necessarily caring for the man himself (a serial adulterer and psychological bully). I can be transported by “The Ride of the Valkyries” by Wagner, while denouncing his anti- Semitic views.

Nowhere in the mythical Artists handbook is there a mention of a code of conduct. Yes, I would love all my artists to be wonderful, warm, caring, altruistic, loyal human beings. How naive that would be. Just as our world is an imperfect one, so are we.

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The War

This morning another girl died in childbirth.I heard her howling in pain. I heard the hushed voices of those incompetent women who were tending to her. I heard her moans, low and guttural at times, high pitched and keening at others. It carried on all last night. I tried covering my ears, balling up my hijab on either side of my head. I tried shutting out the noise emanating from the room next door. Then there was silence. No mother. No baby. And two fresh graves would receive their broken bodies.

I am scared Ammi. So scared, that one day soon, it will be me.

Ammi, I have taken to keeping a diary. It’s an old notebook I found. Some child had scribbled in the first few pages, and then discarded it. I don’t know why I kept it. But somewhere inside me, I felt the need to write down what is happening. Like Anne Frank did. I guess it is some kind of survival instinct. A desire to leave something of myself behind. I can’t….

12th May 2014

I had to hide the notebook under the mattress. One of the women, Saba had come into the room just then. She looked at me suspiciously, but I kept a straight face. You cannot afford to show your emotions here.

You must wonder why I did what I did Ammi? Abba and you had always provided a happy home. Yes, there was discipline, but there was always a lot of love too. Why did I give it all up for this godforsaken place, for this miserable life?

It’s difficult to explain but I must try, in the hope that somehow this account will find its way to you.

Do you remember Nazir Chachu’s daughter, Rifat? I must have been around seven when she eloped with that white boy. What a scandal that was! How the whole community came together to excommunicate her. I’ll never forget the look in Chachu’s eyes. Complete desolation. His daughter had abandoned her faith, and her values to live like a western woman. That is when I insisted on wearing the hijab. You said it was too early. I could wait a few years, but I so wanted to be a good Muslim daughter to you and Abba.

23rd May 2014

I haven’t been able to write for a while. A new contingent of fighters have just arrived. They are young. Some as young as I! We have had to clean their living quarters, cook them meals, help them acclimatise. Of course, we must wear our burqas for they are not allowed to view us. Only the men chosen for us will be given the privilege.

You will laugh to hear that I am getting quite good at cooking. I know, I know. I hated cooking at home. You couldn’t lure me into the kitchen if you tried, unless it was to demolish your delicious biryani. All those cookery shows you made me watch, when all I wanted to watch was Eastenders. Amir was always more interested in cooking than I was. Why didn’t you let him, Ammi? He had a real talent! Sometimes I wish our gender roles were not so rigid. Or maybe, we were just born in the wrong bodies?

Did they give you a lot of trouble after I disappeared? The police, I mean. I guess I’ll never know. I hope they left you alone after a while. They must have been able to see that you were innocent of any wrongdoing. How could you have known what was going on inside my room? Inside my mind?

26th May 2014

There is one boy here who reminds me so much of Amir. He is so soft and sensitive. He has a poet’s soul. Yet he holds a gun in his hand. I find myself giving him larger portions of food, making his bed with extra care. Huma teases me that I fancy him. I do not. He just reminds me of Amir.

You remember Huma? She was in the same class as me. We weren’t the best of buddies. Not to begin with anyhow. But after what happened to us, and then to her, we turned to each other. I guess you were too wrapped up in grief to notice.

They keep us apart now. She sleeps in different quarters. They say it is to toughen us. So that we have no attachments, and our only duty is the service to Allah. Sometimes, we manage to sneak a few minutes together. That’s when she cries. Horrible racking sobs. I try my best to console her.

I don’t cry. I have no tears left. Yet I feel a dread inside me. A dread that maybe I have made an awful mistake.

2nd June 2014

They married Huma off yesterday. The Nikaah was quick. It was not like she had a choice. She looked so scared Ammi. I was as well- for her. Her bridegroom was no young, virile fighter. It was the old chieftain whose wife had died in childbirth. Saba looked at me and mouthed, “You’re next”. I felt sick.

It was Huma who had come to me with the idea. I was shocked to have been approached by her in school. She was always the popular girl. Pretty and gregarious, with lots of friends, till Chris had plastered that photo of hers all over Instagram.

“I nearly committed suicide”, she’d confided in me. “It took every bit of my willpower to report it to the Head.”

“What happened then?”, I’d asked, horrified, for I knew what it meant to be shamed like this in our community.

“He had to take it down. Luckily, my parents never found out. But Chris and that lot- they laugh at me as I walk past them. Call me names.”

We’d sat in silence, and then I’d taken her hand and given it a squeeze.

“It’s okay Resham. My day will come soon. I will have my revenge upon these kafir bastards…”

My blood had boiled alongside hers. Amir had been taken by these same people. They had never accepted us as one of them. We would always be the outsiders. The colour of our skin, the food we ate, the clothes we wore, would always always keep us separate from them. It was then that I had agreed to join her.

7th June 2014

I saw Huma today. She was fetching water. I looked over at her, trying to catch her eye, but she scurried away. How small and helpless she looked, devoid of all her former bravado.

It was she who had introduced me to this hidden world of freedom fighters. She had shown me how to follow their encrypted Twitter messages. How to pretend that I was not being groomed and brainwashed. Smiling and studying and playing sports and smiling, all the while plotting, plotting, plotting our escape.

What an exhilarating time it was! We felt like rebels. Like guerrilla fighters. We couldn’t wait to take our place amongst our brothers and sisters who had also given up their easy lives in the West, to fight shoulder to shoulder with them, to show them our resolve, our resilience, our steadfastness.

14th June 2014

It is no better than a brothel here Ammi. You are a wife for a week, then divorced and married off to another man. These men- these soldiers of Allah- are like camel traders. Only, they trade in flesh. Our flesh.

23rd July 2014

I watched a beheading today. My husband insisted. He likes to inflict pain. The other soldiers admire him. They call him ‘The Fearless’. Only I know that he enjoys it. He isn’t here for the cause. He’s here because what he does will be condoned. It will be celebrated.

It’s been a little over a month since we married. He has brutally raped me every night. He doesn’t divorce me because he thinks he will break me first, like he broke all those other girls. I refuse to buckle. I won’t give him the satisfaction. So he burns me with cigarette stubs, lashes me with his belt, and then urinates all over my wounds.

The propaganda videos I’d watched showed the barbarity that was inflicted on Muslims the world over. How our women and children were massacred, our lands stolen, our religion disrespected. They had exhorted us to join the cause of a pure state. A Utopian world where Islam would be given its rightful place, where men and women would co exist in peaceful harmony. How naive we were to believe that we would be the foot soldiers of this noble endeavour!

18th August 2014

My days are numbered Ammi. As my disillusionment has grown, so has my courage. I speak up now. I question, I argue. I get beaten for my efforts. But I have to try. I think of Amir, and how gentle he was. I think of the unfairness of his murder. I feel nothing but white hot anger against his assailants, but now I recognise that these public beheadings of innocents, these mass killings of tourists, this torture and murder of school children, will not bring him back!

I live with the regret that I will never see you again. I wonder whether you have already consigned me to death, or whether you mourn my loss, the way you did Amir’s. How did our little world implode in this way? We were decent, law abiding citizens, who had never wished any harm upon anyone. Why did Allah shower His wrath upon us?

22nd September 2014

My husband has taken another wife. She is but a child. I suppose I was one too, not that long ago. I feel like an old woman now, with a body that is bent double in agony, but a spirit that still refuses to relent. You had always said I was stubborn. That it would be the death of me. I suppose it will.

He has not divorced me. He cannot be bothered to. He has been unable to plant his seed in me either. So I am to be disposed off. I am not sure when or how it will happen. But I am certain it will be soon. I see it in the eyes of his young bride.

This notebook has no more pages left in it. I have written your address on the front, and at the back. I am wrapping it in polythene and burying it in the yard tonight. Someday, Ammi, I hope you get to read it.

I just have one more thing to say: I am so very sorry.

And I love you.