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     Volume 8 Issue 55 | January 30, 2009 |

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A Roman Column

Musings at Midnight

Neeman Sobhan

It's actually way past midnight, a nameless and dark hour. It's appropriate that it is in the hour when it is darkest that my thoughts should drift to the children of Gaza for whom there will be no morning.

With the ceasefire, the world can now turn the page. But I ask myself, what about the mothers who lost their beloved little bundles of flesh, and the children who clung to dead mothers for hours or lost their entire families in front of their eyes? What do they do when they wake up in the dark? With the ceasefire, will there be a cessation of memory, a ceasing of the internal hemorrhaging of grief, too?

When men playing with toys of death declare a momentary discontinuation of their war-games, do the bodies of loved ones also take time-out, get up and brush themselves off like actors playing at being corpses on a stage? Does a cease fire make things okay again? When a fellow Arab prince does nothing to help stop mass murder in the first place, then in the brutal aftermath signs away a sum of money to start rebuilding the bloodied land, does he think that his money will reconstruct dead lives and resurrect slaughtered sons and daughters also?

With the ceasefire, will there be a cessation of memory, a ceasing of the internal hemorrhaging of grief.

For the last few weeks, while in a godforsaken strip of land, men desecrated babies and children and the world watched, what did I do? I watched too! I sat and watched the news and ranted and raved, but could I do anything to stop the mayhem? But what if those children had been mine and I still could do nothing? What if that was my life, my home, my land, my family, my babies on the screen being blasted into oblivion, into rubble, and I could do nothing but watch and weep, and no one came to my help even as I cried out?

As I asked myself these questions, I went from anger to helplessness and back to rage. But I had the luxury of emotions for I live in a safe and normal environment. What sort of emotions did the women of Gaza and their innocent children have facing the senseless, man-made horrors for days on end, while world changed the channel.

I speak only of women and children, because I'm tired of the belligerent ways of men and the world they have created out of war-mongering. In the name of land, revenge, honour, nationalism, righteousness, desire for aggrandizement, security, glory, or fear, or for whatever other reason, men can obviously continue to fight one another for centuries, live in the trenches and drag entire generations into them, rather than work together calmly, quietly, intelligently for peace.

What the aggressors have done is beyond comment, but I am more than a little disgusted with the disunity in the Arab engagement regarding the critical events in their brother's backyard. If my brothers and sisters were in dire straits, I would commit myself to helping them at any cost. I expected the much vaunted Muslim brotherhood to look after its kind. People of the faith! Ye of so little faith and loyalty?

To distract myself I get up and switch on the TV from one of the Bangla channels I surf, suddenly a newscaster appears on the screen: a woman with a headscarf wrapped tight around her head. I check to see if I am not watching some Arab channel, till the hijab-wearing woman starts to speak in Bangla.

I feel a wave of annoyance. It took our grandmothers years to get rid of the pernicious purdah and, while continuing to be demurely clad, our Muslim mothers educated themselves and helped create a progressive society freed of the shackles of conservatism. Now suddenly modern young girls with an identity crisis had willingly regressed into the folds of religious sanctimony and instead of using their culture to establish a healthy image of being moderate yet modest Muslims, had instead adopted an alien mode of dress from an alien culture!

When did we Bangalis get invaded by Arab culture? Is there something intrinsically superior about the Arab world than our local Bangali one? Are we somehow deficient that we have to borrow codes of dressing from another part of the globe? That Bangali girl wearing a head scarf and looking like a nun, was she trying to be holier than thou, holier than her pious grandmother and mother who never needed head-scarves to prove their modesty? Did she think that the women of the Middle-east have a higher sense of morality than our sari wearing women, and that the 'anchol' or the dupatta was inadequate to cover the head when necessary? If the hijab was to be adopted by Bangali ladies as some universal Islamic uniform, then, maybe the men, starting from the rikshawallahs to the Ministers, might also wear the Arab male head-dress and flowing robes? Next, we might find that our rice and fish diet is being replaced by a Middle-eastern one of hummus and falafel as the correct food for believers. Perhaps Arabic can displace Bangla as mother tongue, too. We might then be closer to heaven!

Too many of these born again Bangali muslims seem to forget that we have always had our own brand of religion and spirituality which existed long before the new enthusiasts discovered Arab culture as the portal to Paradise. They should be reminded that Islam in the subcontinent, especially in Muslim Bengal, is quite a few centuries old, and we have had a few hundred years of practicing it within our own cultural context rather than an alien one. It is embarrassing that some Bangalis should abandon their own way of life and style of dressing as if disowning their own culture for its lacking. We never accepted the supremacy of Urdu; why are we quietly accepting all this Arabicising without protest? Isn't it a lack of conviction in our cultural worth? We are Muslim, not Arab.

The thing that galls me most is that these new brand of Muslims, for religious and moral leadership, are looking up to a culture that has revealed its own moral bankruptcy, most recently in the way it has dealt with its brothers in Palestine. Shamefully, we in a centuries-old, spiritually-rich culture of Bengal suck up to these half-baked, parvenu Arabs, who in turn curry favour with the Western world at the cost of their own fraternity. And for all our flirtation with the hijab and changing of 'Khuda hafez' to 'Allah Hafez' (as if the Persian way changed the message of the phrase) and trying to become Arabs, do we think the Bangali will be considered anything more than a trivial 'miskeen' to them? What do we hope to gain by becoming imitation Arabs? Will we be closer to heaven? Or, are we under the illusion that in time of our need, an Arab or Muslim sense of solidarity will come to our aid?

Do we really need further lessons from Gaza? And what about us Bangalis in 1971? Have we forgotten that in those dark hours of our history, with a genocide going on, our Muslim brothers from the sandy plains kept quiet and looked on?

No, I'm not a fan of the modern day Arabs for their moral attitudes. They may have exported the Hijab to our country, but our women have known the concept of modesty before this. The vocabulary of 'lojjia,' 'shorom,' 'haya,' has always existed in my land, because every nation comes with its concept of morality and decency. No culture can claim monopoly on it. And hijab should not necessarily concern just women but a general moral rectitude that I do not think contemporary Arabic culture can teach us. At least, not Saudi Arabia or Egypt! If Gaza was in my backyard, and I had been unable to protect my own brothers, their women and children, I wouldn't show my face. I think those strutting oil chiefs should go put a veil and cover their face in shame.

In a while it will be morning, and time for prayer, for the children of Gaza: those who are lost and those we must never allow to be lost. As a Jewish man wrote recently in 'A Jew's prayer for the Children of Gaza':

"If there has ever been a time for prayers, this is the time. /If there has ever been a place forsaken, Gaza is that place. /Lord who is the creator of all children, hear our prayer this accursed day. /Almighty who makes exceptions, which we call miracles, make an exception of the children of Gaza./ Shield them from us and from their own. /Spare them. Heal them. Let them stand in safety. Deliver them from hunger and horror and fury and grief. / Deliver them from us and from their own. /Restore to them their stolen childhoods, their birthright, which is a taste of heaven. /Allah, whose name we call Elohim, who gives life, who knows the value and the fragility of every life, send these children your angels. /In this day, when the trepidation and rage and mourning that is called war, seizes our hearts and patches them in scars, we call to you, the Lord whose name is Peace: Bless these children, and keep them from harm."

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