‘I have no guarantee that we will win. But we can’t live in fear of defeat’

Writer Benyamin’s novel Jasmine Days, translated by Shahnaz Habib, is a gripping account of migrants caught in the midst of a rising revolution in the Middle East. An excerpt:

Virtual Revolutions
As is the body, so is the body politic: if you touch a reflex spot, the body politic will react.

The news that the protests were coming to our City spread like a sandstorm. At the canteen, all conversations were about the revolution. Ali and his friends started a Facebook group to share their thoughts and continue the conversations through constant status updates and discussions. The majority of the locals who posted there wanted to start protesting. But they argued about when, where and how. I found this funny, and puzzling. In any other city, it would have been justified if a young man spoke about revolution. The situation was bad in many places. But here, in this City, what did they lack? What would they protest? Were they starving? Were they unemployed? A bunch of dudes whose life circled around Facebook and eating burgers – what would they protest? What did these idiots even hope to achieve? And anyway, what was the point of a protest without politicians and parties?

One day in the canteen I teased Ali about his protests.

‘So you have abandoned City Villa and Social War for the revolution? Or is the revolution the latest Facebook game?’

‘Just you wait – you’ll soon find out what is a game and what is real.’

I laughed. ‘Yeah, yeah. You think you can create a virtual revolution, like how you build on City Villa without lifting a finger or win at Army Attack without spilling any blood. But don’t forget – the result of a virtual revolution will also be virtual.’

Ali remained confident. ‘Something’s going to happen in the City. One day I am going to run through the streets of this city just like Kadhim al-Jubouri ran through the streets of Iraq to destroy Saddam’s statue.’

‘But Ali, I still don’t understand. What can you possibly gain from this revolution? You and Muneer have good government jobs, the kind of salary that is unimaginable even in a democracy, great benefits... Do you want to risk losing all this?’

He smiled at me. There was a tinge of mockery in that smile. ‘Sameera, this is what small-minded people all over the world are asking – why should the man who has money want a revolution? But is a revolution for the sake of money? I don’t know how to explain all the circumstances to you. Let me just say one thing though. Money is not the issue here. You said that I have a government job. But do you know, many of us are not counted as citizens and do not have even basic fundamental rights because we are Shias? We are not allowed to leave the country. There are professions that are completely closed to us. There are defined limits to what a Shia can achieve in this country. However smart he is, he will not be allowed to go beyond those limits. Maschinas, who is a Cypriot, can become the director of a radio station such as ours. No problem. But a Shia who lives in this country could not even dream of that.

‘Why do you think your baba and uncles are here? Do you know any other country where the army is full of coolie soldiers from other countries? Which country is His Majesty defending himself from? His own country. The rented soldiers are here to defeat his own people. It doesn’t matter how well we behave, how much we express our patriotism, how much we declare our love for His Majesty – we could never join the army or the police. Because we are Shias. This is life as a second-class citizen. I am sure there are many countries where minorities experience discrimination at the hands of their governments. But is there any other country in the world where the majority is oppressed by a minority? Where a minority denies the majority basic rights? Shouldn’t we fight against this injustice?’

‘Don’t be annoyed at my questions. I am just asking about the things I have heard. But aren’t you Shias also immigrants like us? What right do you have to question the rulers?’

‘No, I am not annoyed. And indeed, there is an allegation that we came here from Iran. But in reality, we are not immigrants. It’s completely false, this belief that Shias originated in Iran and that all Shias must have come from there. In fact, the original rulers of Muslim Arabia, the Qarmatiya clan and the Uyunid clan, were Shia. The City used to be an important centre of Shia life. And the Usfurids and the Jarvanids, who were in power till the sixteenth century when the Portuguese came, were also Shias. So for eight centuries, from the beginning of Islam, it was the Shias who ruled this part of the world. To say that there were no Shias here and all the Shias must have come running here from Iran...only children who don’t know history would believe that.

Don’t forget that Hitler, Saddam, Hosni Mubarak and Gaddafi also came to power through elections. We know what happened to those democracies. I can hear you think: “But this is different. What’s so bad about the Sharia?” Nothing at all. That’s Allah’s law and I respect it. But the fanatics who are in charge of executing the law do not know what they are doing. If they come to power, don’t think that you can sit together like this and have a chat. You cannot even sing a song

‘The Portuguese ruled this city only for eight years. The Safavids of Iran scattered them and ruled the City for 115 years. It was only in 1717, when the Omani clan started taking over, that the Sunnis started dominating this country.

‘Do you see now that we are the original people of this land and that this city belongs to us? And now we are asking for it to be returned to us. It’s stupid to think of this as the arrogance of insurgents. Think about the paradox. We, who have lived here from time immemorial, have become second-class citizens while those who came after us have become the rulers. Why should we accept this?’

I asked Ali one more question. ‘Isn’t the real issue money? Isn’t the revolution actually fuelled by jealousy towards the wealthy?’

‘No, Sameera, it is not about money. You seem to think that a revolution is about squabbling for money. Poverty can destroy hope, depress, disappoint and breed envy. That is what is happening in some of our neighbouring countries. And that can turn into an internal conflict between the haves and the have-nots. But that is different from the confidence and sense of justice that emerges from a deep understanding of your selfhood. The knowledge that I have every right to be your equal – that is not the same as the have-nots feeling jealous of the haves. And that self-knowledge will lead to the real revolution. That is where we are now. And when you understand that, you will understand why we are protesting.’

I stared at him. ‘Do you have any hope that this revolution will succeed?’

‘No, I have no guarantee that we will win. But we can’t live in fear of defeat. What matters is not what we will eventually achieve, what matters is what we did. History should not think of us as those who missed the opportunity to act.’

Ali brimmed with confidence. Nothing I said could have changed his mind.

The Third One
A young man at a nearby table who had been listening to our conversation approached us. I had seen him watching us. We fell silent as he came up.

‘May I sit with you for a bit?’ he asked.

We did not object. He started talking to us. ‘I have been listening to your conversation. Not deliberately at first. But when I overheard you, I couldn’t help listening. This is one of my favourite topics. I am not here to advise you and I certainly don’t know who is right. That’s not what I am interested in. But I want you to hear my life story.

‘I am an Iraqi. I have been a refugee in this land for several years. I came here because I didn’t have any other option after suffering through the Iraq war and the internal violence that erupted after the war. I have two grouses against the Americans. First, they invaded my country and destroyed it. But what was worse, they made a hero out of Saddam. He died a dignified death. That’s not how he should have died. We wanted him to die on the streets. We wanted to beat him like a dog, tie him to a donkey cart, and put an iron rod up his ass before we killed him. We wanted to give him the same punishment the people had given Colonel Gaddafi. That’s how much he had tortured us. That’s how much we hated him. But you know what, Iraq without him is worse off than Iraq with him.

‘Of course it is important to rebel against dictators. Those rebellions must succeed. But if the people of a country divide themselves along sectarian lines, then the situation after the fall of the dictator will be a nightmare. Do you know how horrible it is to view your own neighbours with terror and suspicion? I am a Sunni who lived in a Shia-majority region. When the violence broke out and Sunnis started getting attacked, I took a Shia name and got a fake ID card. With heavy hearts, we raised black Shia flags above our house and put up pictures of Shia imams in our living rooms. Somehow, we managed to keep the Shias and their Mahdi army at bay. But our tragedy did not end there. The Sunni fundamentalists came to our streets. Their targets were not Shias, instead they were hunting down Sunnis who were leading fake lives. They considered us traitors to the religion, those who had strayed from the right path. They did not try to understand the circumstances under which we had to choose these fake lives.

‘We lived in a terrifying confusion. Was the man asking us for an ID on the street a policeman or a terrorist in police uniform? And if he was a terrorist, was he Sunni or Shia? If he was Shia and we showed our Sunni IDs, death was certain. And if he was Sunni and we showed our Shia IDs, then too it would be death. Sometimes I tossed a coin before showing my ID. You will not understand the pain and terror I experienced at such moments. Only those who have walked the same streets will understand.

‘And don’t think you can report such terrorists to the police. One day these terrorists wore police uniforms and visited every house in the village, distributing pamphlets that said if we saw or suspected terrorist activity, we should report it to the police. Then they tapped our phones to find out who was calling the police. Those who called the police were killed in the streets. My brother who went to the market one day never returned. I still don’t know whose gun killed him. How could we continue in such a land? We abandoned everything we had and took refuge here, hoping there would be peace for us here. And so my friends, that is my experience. If a country is going to be split along communal lines, it is far better to be under a dictator. You have only lost your freedom so far. But if the dictator falls, you will lose your peace and your life itself.

‘Never mind Iraq. That was our fate. Think of Tunisia and Egypt and Libya. Did you see how the Islamic extremists who were on the fringes till then completely hijacked the revolution when the people of those countries took to the streets against the dictators who had kept them in poverty and injustice? Have you noticed the developments in those places now that the dictators are gone? Do you know that they are trying to implement the Sharia in the name of democracy? Maybe you would argue now – what’s wrong with that if that’s what the people want, those are democratically elected governments. Don’t forget that Hitler, Saddam, Hosni Mubarak and Gaddafi also came to power through elections. We know what happened to those democracies. I can hear you think: “But this is different. What’s so bad about the Sharia?” Nothing at all. That’s Allah’s law and I respect it. But the fanatics who are in charge of executing the law do not know what they are doing. If they come to power, don’t think that you can sit together like this and have a chat. You cannot even sing a song. They will control your lives.

‘I don’t know if you would believe what I am about to say, but I will say it anyway. Recently, in my country, in Iraq, two young men selling vegetables were killed in front of their shop. It was not because they had committed an act of sedition. The accusation against them was that they had violated Islamic laws.

‘We might be able to comprehend why barbers are killed for cutting hair in un-Islamic ways. Why mobile phone shopkeepers are killed for selling phones with Western music for ringtones. Why the electronics shop owner is killed for selling a dish antenna. But vegetable vendors? Their crime was that they had displayed cucumbers and tomatoes side by side in their store. Tomatoes are like vaginas and cucumbers represent penises, so it is now a crime to set them next to each other. When I spoke to a friend recently, he told me the situation was even more pathetic. Bananas have to be sold in plastic covers now. Male goats have to wear underwear. And there’s a fatwa against ice. Because 1400 years ago, during the Prophet’s time, there was no ice, so we too, should not use ice. What do you think of this progress? Is this the kind of society you want to create through your revolution?

‘Either the permissive societies of the West or the extremism of Muslim fundamentalists – there are only two poles on the earth right now. There should be a middle way between these two. But till that middle path becomes possible, it’s better to let the dictators rule. Otherwise your life will become even more terrible. A person who can think for himself cannot as easily bid goodbye to the twenty-first century and go and live in the seventh century.

‘Friend, I heard you bring up our old hero Kadhim al-Jubouri at some point. Do you know what he says now? “I regret destroying Saddam’s statue. These sectarians are worse than the dictator. Each new day is more horrible than the previous one.” This is not just Kadhim’s lament, it is each and every Iraqi’s thought.’

That night I messaged Ali on Facebook. ‘It is easy to destroy a statue. Building a new one is hard work. Happy Valentine’s Day.’

(Published from Jasmine Days by Benyamin and translated by Shahnaz Habib, with permission from Juggernaut Books)

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