Category Archives: self-authored

mughal india: art, culture and empire at the british library

went to see “mughal india: art, culture and empire” at the british library today. it’s an excellent exhibit of art, some objects, and a lot of books – on astronomy, medicine, mathematics, literary classics like the poetry of hafiz and saadi, pages from the shahnama and akbarnama, stunning copies of the quran, a recipe book from shah jahan’s household (how to make the best samosas and pulao) beautiful calligraphy by emperor bahadur shah and much more. i was delighted to learn that akbar’s library (some 24,000 beautifully bound books) was equal in worth to his entire stash of weaponry. loved a letter written by ghalib and enjoyed the sometimes frosty, always hypocritical, correspondence between king william III and emperor aurangzeb. didn’t like the last part of the exhibit where india’s history is relegated to the orientalist interpretations of the east india company. the most harrowing, heartbreaking exhibit is the only known photograph of the last emperor of india, bahadur shah zafar. granted the mughals were conquerors themselves and not always the most human rights oriented rulers, but bahadur shah’s personal saga is profoundly tragic.

more here.

bahadur shah zafar, the last mughal emperor of india
bahadur shah zafar, the last mughal emperor of india

strindberg today, shakepeare tomorrow

saw strindberg’s “dance of death” today at trafalgar studios. small theater. i was sitting in the front row, almost inside the set, an unwitting part of the conjugal storm exploding on stage. modernized to accommodate a strong, equally devious woman, this prelude to “who’s afraid of virginia woolf” is a vicious battle of equals. brilliantly acted by kevin mcnally, indira varma and daniel lapaine. tomorrow morning off to stratford-upon-avon for the whole day, to see “merry wives of windsor” and “the orphan of zhao.”

strindberg's dance of death
strindberg’s dance of death

by the 4th day in london…

attended sunday mass at westminster abbey this morning. have seen the mind-blowing, multi-media “experience” that’s “the master and margarita” (based on the book by bulgakov), “the magistrate” (a victorian farce with john lithgow), “a chorus of disapproval” directed by the legendary trevor nunn and my first panto today, at the royal theatre (jack and the beanstalk). whoa.

westminster abbey
westminster abbey

Renaissance to Goya: prints and drawings made in Spain

went to see this exhibit at the british museum today. was amused by a print, by one of goya’s contemporaries. the time is early 1800s, during the french occupation of spain. the print shows a “spanish patriot” defecating (literally) on napoleon’s plans for the “regeneration” of spain. he’s using a portrait of napoleon’s brother joseph, as toilet paper. lol. sounds like occupation in the name of “democratization and human rights.” plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose! more about the exhibit here.


watched michael haneke’s “amour”: unflinching, unsparing, intelligent, deeply moving. it’s about marriage and debilitating old age – the dissolution of love and life and its reduction to unadorned pitiful survival. there was complete silence in the theater after the film ended. no one moved. too much to absorb, too much to feel. stunning performances by jean-louis trintignant and emmanuelle riva (the beautiful star of “hiroshima mon amour,” more than 50 yrs ago).


stop killing shiite muslims!

murderous attacks against shias all over pakistan during the month of muharram – more than 300 shias have been killed this year in sectarian violence inside pakistan, according to human rights groups. all the analysis i’ve read so far talks about the “schism between sunnis and shias [which] developed after the prophet muhammad died in 632”. ok, but what about what’s going on in pakistan right now? no mention of how wahhabi groups were armed and funded by the military dictator general zia ul haq in the 1980s, of how the ISI was tasked with monitoring shia organizations, of how the pakistani state/military became complicit in the massacre of shias and how things have only gotten worse over time? military dictators like zia ul haq and pervez musharraf have done more harm to pakistan than we will ever be able to compute. the war against the soviets, the war against al qaeda, and now the war against the taliban have changed (and will continue to change) pakistan’s internal dynamics, its v makeup.

protests against shia killings in pakistan
protests against shia killings in pakistan

november 16, 2012

my thoughts today: this is so scripted it isn’t even corny. escalating violence in order to provoke a reaction then exaggerating that reaction in order to simulate a state of war. one of the best equipped armies in the world funded by the only super power in the world vs a besieged civilian population on a minimum calorie diet for the last 6 yrs? u must be kidding me. hysterical israeli woman coddled by IDF soldier vs men squeezing the charred remains of their children against their bodies? seriously? i want to cry and puke at the same time. what a fucked up world we live in.

my new collage series “this heirloom” on show at the little cafe, starting nov 10th

this is the first collage in the new series inspired by my filmwork on the partition of india and by the idea of bearing witness as a dynamic act. that’s my maternal grandfather in the foreground. he went to aligarh university (in uttar pradesh, india). he spoke fluent urdu, english and sanskrit. he was a lawyer, an excellent tennis player and a soccer referee. altho he and his family survived partition, he died soon after moving to pakistan. maybe he couldn’t recover from the trauma and dislocation. i never knew him. i’ve seated him in front of delhi gate in lahore, which is one of the doorways to the walled city. it’s 1946. my grandfather is my connection to the turbulent history of the indian subcontinent. what he witnessed binds us together. agha shahid ali talks about this inextricable bond in his poem “snowmen.” his ancestors came from the himalayas.

“This heirloom,
his skeleton under my skin, passed
from son to grandson,
generations of snowmen on my back.
They tap every year on my window,
their voices hushed to ice.”

new collage series "this heirloom" by mara ahmed
new collage series “this heirloom” by mara ahmed

another screening of the muslims i know

just came back from a screening of “the muslims i know” at an OASIS community class called “the descendants of abraham.” the class is taught by jewish, christian and muslim instructors. extremely excited that they’ve been using my film in their introductory class for the last 3 yrs. a lady asked me a question that bothered me. i tried to stay calm but i might have seemed a bit cold. she said that the muslims portrayed in the film are well-to-do professionals. they r not the ones she’s worried about. she’s worried about the less well-off muslims who might send their kids to madrassas and teach them to hate others. ok. so my answer: first of all, the film is called the muslims i know. i refuse to stand up and pretend to speak for all muslims. the media do that. i don’t want to fall into that trap. i will not generalize. second, it’s interesting how people are uncomfortable with a certain “face” of islam. muslim doctors, lawyers and academics do exist. get over it. third, this connection between socio-economic class and violence is v disturbing. not only is that connection made with reference to muslims but also our own local communities, where poor inner-city neighborhoods are presumed to be violent as if, for some reason, they don’t share our civilized “values”. fourth, as one of the instructors added, violence is not just about shooting people, it’s also about enticing someone to take out a mortgage they can’t afford, foreclose their home and kick their family out on the street. pray, which socio-economic class perpetrates that kind of violence, which destroys the lives of many more people? finally, on the teaching of hate: how would u describe going to war with the second poorest country in the world, where most kids die of malnutrition, not extremism? who’s being taught to hate whom?

melancholia by lars von trier

melancholia: sadness, lugubriousness, moroseness, wistfulness.

“an oppressive sorrow, which, to wit, so weighs upon man’s mind, that he wants to do nothing.” (thomas aquinas)

“the height of joy, the moment when the world can improve no further, is both the end of joy and the beginning of melancholy.” (christopher john murray)

“profoundly painful dejection, cessation of interest in the outside world, loss of the capacity to love, and inhibition of all activity” (sigmund freud)

watched lars von trier’s “melancholia” and liked it. what a stunning idea to depict melancholia as an actual planet, hidden behind the sun, which is about to crash into earth and annihilate all life. the film is suffused with cosmic imagery and the music of wagner. moonlit landscapes are bathed in blue light. startled birds take flight in a flurry of feathers and precipitate snow flakes. even family scenes emit the heightened, almost grotesque, drama of myths. as the end of the world nears, melancholia seems to make much more sense – perhaps it’s the longer view of life and our role in the universe. masterful performance by kirsten dunst.


freud’s last session at geva theatre

went to see “freud’s last session” yesterday. written by mark st germain, the play is based on an imaginary meeting between freud and c.s. lewis. lewis is a young professor at oxford. freud is in his 80s and dying of cancer. england is about to launch into the second world war. they talk about the existence of god with intellectual vigor and enthusiasm (freud is a committed atheist while lewis has just converted to christianity), they parse reason as opposed to emotion, they psychoanalyze each other, they surprise each other by broaching the subject of sex at the tail end of their meeting. they realize the importance of humor in helping us overcome horror and they use it often in their successive verbal jousts. the play is witty and engaging. it was brilliantly acted by kenneth tigar (sigmund freud) and ron menzel (c.s. lewis), and directed by skip greer.

freud's last session, geva theatre, 2012
freud’s last session, geva theatre, 2012

malala yousafzai

the attack on 14 year old malala yousafzai by a criminal gang in swat is repulsive. it’s even more repulsive that the pakistani govt will be incapable of apprehending the perpetrators and bringing them to justice. there is no accountability or justice at any level of society, anyway. do we know the names of 14 year old girls (or the names of their mothers or fathers or baby brothers) who are incinerated by drones – “carbonized bodies, burned so fully they could be identified by legs and hands alone, the bystanders sent flying like dolls through the air to break, with shattered bones and sometimes fatal brain injuries, upon walls and stone” (in kathy kelly’s words). all dead children are not equal. it makes my blood boil when people use malala’s horrific ordeal to justify america’s drone warfare. if the “militants” (that mysterious designation reserved for the exclusive use of president obama and his henchmen) are worth going after, at the cost of other lives, then let that sacrifice be yours and your family’s, not that of the people of waziristan.

Women Hurting Women

another misguided, “topsy-turvy” piece from kristof. micro-finance is NOT what it’s made out to be in western media. have u read about india’s micro-finance suicide epidemic? get real dude.

typical nyt reporting – we know what’s best for u and by god, we’ll shove it down ur throat. he doesn’t even mention how micro-finance, for the most part, has enslaved women into a never-ending cycle of debt, not liberated them.

he uses words like “scorched-earth offensive” to describe hasina’s “persecution” of yunus. the cia backed a scorched earth campaign in guatemala in which more than 400 villages were destroyed, 150,000 people killed and one million displaced. women were raped as a deliberate policy – in order to decimate guatemalan society. this horrible legacy still haunts guatemala, where the murder and rape of women remains incredibly well-entrenched. extremely offensive for kristof to make such a comparison, esp since he’s a self-appointed defender of women’s rights all over the world.

his explanation of why hasina might be going after yunus: “One theory is that she is paranoid and sees Yunus as a threat, especially since he made an abortive effort to enter politics in 2007. Another theory is that she is envious of his Nobel Peace Prize and resentful of his global renown.” lol. yeah, she’s also emotionally unstable and suffers from frequent bouts of hysteria. and she keeps her smelling salts handy in case she’s overwhelmed by fainting spells. seriously.

kristof’s article here and more about india’s micro-finance suicide epidemic here.

for sabiha phuppo

i will miss sabiha phuppo – her wit, her elegance, her wonderful kindness. only a woman of her confidence and independent mind could have raised daughters like asma jahangir and hina jilani. i gravitated towards her lively, intelligent presence as soon as i married into the family and things didn’t change over the next 20 years. rest in peace dear phuppo. it feels like the end of an era. i know many many will miss u here, and in ur beautiful city of lahore.

with the beautiful sabiha jilani, lahore, 2001
with the beautiful sabiha jilani, lahore, 2001

Juan Cole: Muslims are no Different, or Why Bill Maher’s Blood Libel is Bigotry

“The touchiness of Muslims about assaults on the Prophet Muhammad is in part rooted in centuries of Western colonialism and neo-colonialism during which their religion was routinely denounced as barbaric by the people ruling and lording it over them.” — this is not just history but also v relevant today. qurans have been burned by u.s. soldiers and flushed down toilets by u.s. interrogators in the present war on terror. also, it would be interesting to flip this story. what if muslim americans went around town burning the bible publicly and calling jesus names? what if palestinians made a film about moses in which he was having some non-kosher sex? how would evangelical christians react to that? or jewish settlers? after all they r part of the “civilized” free-speech-loving west. of course, i’m not advocating the making of hateful films. i’m proposing a theoretical argument where we switch the religions of the people involved and imagine how things would roll. not so smoothly i predict. more here.