REVIEW | MOHSIN HAMID (@mohsin_hamid) AND RIZ AHMED (@rizmc) : MIGRATION AND MAGIC AT THE SOUTHBANK CENTRE LITERATURE FESTIVAL (@southbankcentre)

Mohsin-Hamid-and-Riz-Ahmed-BY-INDIA-ROPER-EVANS46lead-590x393On the 26th of Octo­ber 1947, the Maha­ra­ja of Kash­mir signed an Instru­ment of Acces­sion to the Domin­ion of India. On the 27th of Octo­ber 1947, the con­flict of Kash­mir was born. On this day in Octo­ber, Indi­an troops landed in the val­leys at the behest of the last Maha­ra­ja of Kash­mir, just two months after the birth of the state of Pakistan and the com­mence­ment of mod­ern day India. The land and its people became bit­terly divided, only to achieve the largest land migra­tion in human his­tory, a cur­rent and ongo­ing dis­pute between two sib­ling nations, and three major wars over the land known as Kash­mir.

In 1947, the rulers of Kash­mir were given a choice to join India, join Pakistan or remain inde­pend­ent. Though ini­tially main­tain­ing inde­pend­ence, the Muslim-major­ity state was see­ing that the Maha­ra­ja was lean­ing towards join­ing India with no regard for the peoples’ choice, as was com­mon for the day. With this, Pash­tun Tribes­men from Pakistan invaded Kash­mir and defeated its gov­ern­ment forces. The Maha­ra­ja appealed to India for help, which res­ul­ted in the acces­sion of Kash­mir to India so they could send their troops and take the land. The dis­pute is ongo­ing.

I’ve spoken spe­cific­ally about Kash­mir because with­in the 5.5% South Asi­an pop­u­la­tion of England, 2% of that is Pakistani and around 70% of that com­munity is from the Dady­al-Mir­pur area of Kash­mir. Over 280 vil­lages were dis­placed and sub­merged under water in the build­ing of the Mangla Dam. A large por­tion of today’s Brit­ish Pakistani pop­u­la­tion hails from this land and more import­antly from this area of trau­ma, not to men­tion the wider trau­ma exper­i­enced by the viol­ent par­ti­tion of India and Pakistan.

Fast for­ward to July 1971, and a child is born who today we know as Mohsin Ham­id. A writer and nov­el­ist born in Lahore, Pakistan, Ham­id is known for his books, “Moth Smoke”, “The Reluct­ant Fun­da­ment­al­ist” and most recently “Exit West”, which brings a human face to immig­ra­tion and the life of seek­ing refuge. Ham­id spends a large amount of time trav­el­ling.

Fast for­ward to Decem­ber 1982, another child is born who today is known as Rizwan Ahmed. An act­or, rap­per and flag-stretch­er; Wemb­ley-nat­ive Riz is known for his rep­res­ent­a­tion of South Asi­ans and Muslims with­in the enter­tain­ment industry and in his own words is work­ing towards “stretch­ing the flag so it’s big enough to embrace all of us.” And for those of us who’ve been watch­ing his moves… its work­ing.

All of these events are what occurred in his­tory for all of us today to be sit­ting togeth­er on Octo­ber 28th 2018, over 70 years after the divi­sion of India, listen­ing to a con­ver­sa­tion about migra­tion and iden­tity, at the Queen Eliza­beth Hall of the South­bank Centre in Lon­don. It is not every day that I get to shed light on the story of India, Pakistan and Kash­mir. But sat among­st a major­ity Desi crowd on this day allowed me to be able to exper­i­ence see­ing people who looked like me doing what I want to be doing now and in the future; cre­at­ing a dia­logue. Rep­res­ent­a­tion is a highly blessed respons­ib­il­ity we have to each oth­er; and though it can be viol­ently pain­ful at times to be the only one of your kind in a cer­tain envir­on­ment, it is still down to us to break all bar­ri­ers and bor­ders that threaten to hold us in the box labelled “Oth­er”.

So what is home? The talk opened with the most sim­ple yet com­plex of ques­tions from host and journ­al­ist Keir­an Yates. For Mohsin, “Home is every­where”, as it would be for a well-trav­elled man who sees the world in poet­ic con­cepts. He went on to say that home is not what it once was; the con­cept has evolved some­what with time and with human exper­i­ence. “Home is a story you tell your­self.” Rizwan’s descrip­tion felt akin to the immig­rant exper­i­ence; find­ing no space to actu­ally “fit in” and so being torn between spaces where code-switch­ing becomes second nature- to the point where we can become unsure as to what the true story is.

Riz spoke about grow­ing up and ideal­ising Pakistan with­in his peer group, but when reach­ing Pakistan as a young man, he real­ised that we don’t belong there either. He went on to talk about how that leaves us on a middle ground where this sense of nomad allows us to share a dif­fer­ent per­spect­ive. The immig­rant exper­i­ence, speak­ing strictly from my own exper­i­ence, is a golden lens. Not only can I see both sides of a story and relate/empathise with people from dif­fer­ent walks of life, but I get to immerse myself in the depth of what it is to be human; emo­tion­al exchange, energy exchange and the will­ing­ness to nurse a broken heart, even if it’s not my own.

Mohsin talked about how the basis of what it is to be human is ever-chan­ging and evolving, as a res­ult of this, the world is also an ever-chan­ging entity. How­ever, he went on to say, this is threat­en­ing to the myth of per­man­ence which is used so tact­fully to entice people in to an idea that their very exist­ence is under threat by those known as the “Oth­er”. Mohsin went on to point out that we use the “Oth­er” to fig­ure out who we are. It’s import­ant to men­tion that being oth­er­ised can hap­pen to any com­munity. It happened to Afric­ans in Asia and Amer­ica as it con­tin­ues to hap­pen, it happened to Jews in Europe and it’s hap­pen­ing to Muslims right now.

The pan­el went on to dis­cuss that what we’re essen­tially facing is a battle of stor­ies. People are effect­ively stor­ies and we all fight each oth­er on a daily basis, wheth­er it’s an argu­ment with a loved one or a bloody war on the oth­er side of the world, the story is what is fight­ing. The story is what made him pick up that gun, what made her join the mil­it­ary, what made them murder those people. At the end of the day, the stor­ies we tell each oth­er and ourselves are the very things that either build us up to be phe­nom­en­al or break us down into dev­il-dust.

Riz went on to make a highly val­id point, and I only wish that more people would under­stand this of our com­munity and wider soci­ety. The people who are com­mit­ting viol­ent acts of ter­ror i.e. shoot­ings and bomb­ings (loc­ally and glob­ally) are people who are very clear products of our soci­ety. No mat­ter what their story is or what their story is deemed to be, they are still what we as a col­lect­ive have fostered from our efforts. The minute we oth­er­ise people, we dilute the respons­ib­il­ity we hold to each oth­er as a com­munity. And if you’re won­der­ing what that is, it’s every­one from the home­less to the imprisoned, to the so-called ter­ror­ist, up to and includ­ing all those people you believe you have no kin­ship to. Make no mis­take that we have cre­ated the world we live in and everything you don’t like about it was cre­ated by our accept­ance of bad beha­vi­our and our ulti­mate rejec­tion of our inher­ent nature.

In clos­ing, the pan­el went on to dis­cuss the power of names. Mohsin chooses care­fully when to give names in his writ­ing, this allows people to play with their per­cep­tion of what they’re read­ing as opposed to box­ing their ima­gin­a­tion in with a “label” and it’s two chil­dren; con­nota­tion and stig­ma. Riz spoke about how his name car­ried dif­fer­ent ver­sions of itself; how his name is per­ceived cur­rently and then how it stands with so much more con­fid­ence when pro­nounced in full as Rizwan. Riz is the Pakistani lad who is cheeky and non-threat­en­ing where­as Rizwan is Heaven’s Gate­keep­er, accord­ing to the Islam­ic defin­i­tion.

It all comes down to what Riz explained as our need to edit ourselves and our ideas of ourselves; it allows us to move between worlds and in some ways wear our names as armour. Exper­i­en­cing the life of a nomad; one who truly doesn’t fit any­where, everything we see, hear, exper­i­ence, and name becomes the tribe we walk among­st. We no longer place expect­a­tion on oth­er people; instead we endeav­our to ful­fil our higher pur­pose as chal­lengers of the norm, and storytellers of the spir­it.

Mohsin Ham­id and Riz Ahmed: Migra­tion and Magic was part of South­bank Centre’s 12th Lon­don Lit­er­at­ure Fest­ival (18–28 Oct)’.

Pho­to Cred­it: ©India Rop­er-Evans (South­bank Centre Media)

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Aisha Afifah

Aisha Afifah

Aisha Afi­fah is a Writer and Research­er based in Lon­don. She has spent over a dec­ade in the enter­tain­ment industry. She has dealt with enough bull­shit to feel like she can give an opin­ion. She Thanks you for read­ing.

About Aisha Afifah

Aisha Afifah
Aisha Afifah is a Writer and Researcher based in London. She has spent over a decade in the entertainment industry. She has dealt with enough bullshit to feel like she can give an opinion. She Thanks you for reading.