The Ahmeds in America, Part Three
Crazy forms of illogic were being debated in this case against Husna and Jalal to justify why their three young kids were abducted from them and could be permanently removed. They didn’t take their kids to the hospital right away, they preferred home treatment which means that the mother must have intentionally burnt her child, they keep their children cooped up at home, they don’t know how to discipline their children, they don’t even know the kids’ birth-dates, they don’t know English well, they are angry and anxious, the kids are wild and love to climb walls and isn’t that abnormal – utterly ridiculous non-arguments. I wondered if these would ever be discussed if the couple was not Muslim and brown.
Jalal, who was being portrayed as an illiterate, angry Pakistani-Muslim in this case, understood the situation perfectly well. He summed it up to me in that direct way that usually escapes “expert” analysis, the way of South-Asian practical wisdom:
(Actually, the crux of the matter is that the System itself is rotten. And these people think that there is no world other than their own).Asal main baat yeh hai kay yeh System hi kharab hai. Aur yeh log samajhtay hain kay in ki duniya kay ilawa aur koi duniya hai hi nahin.
While Jalal grasped well the Systemic rottenness and the Western-Self-as-the-Only-Way-to-Be arrogance which had resulted in the abduction of his children, he also had other explanations regarding his tragic situation.
Megan: “You will not believe what Jalal thinks. He thinks that one of their acquaintances has done some magic on them, which is why their kids were taken away. That it is the work of some evil spirits!”
The Evil Spirits of the Modern State, I thought.
Jalal later explained to me how an acquaintance had brought halwa - a Pakistani dessert – to their house, how she had a lot of negative energy around her, and how after eating the dessert, his body had immediately felt sick and abnormal. Soon after, Chotu had the accident and the kids were abducted by the State. While they would do all that is needed to get their children back, the couple told the lawyers, only Allah’s Will can help them in this mad-strange situation. Healers had been contacted in Pakistan to send amulets, and to undo the spell that had been cast. Husna’s family in Pakistan had been sending food to people and places – Sufi shrines and Shia households – because serving other communities helps to multiply one’s blessings. Husna mentioned that she even fed a Mormon missionary who used to come to her house, and whom she had never really lift-ofied before.
How do people across the world make sense of life and its vicissitudes, I wondered. While the meanings and forms of practice differ, a shared philosophy of living seems to define the majority of the indigenous, spirited communities on Earth. Life and the universe are often conceived in terms of Divine Mysteries, in which we have little control over what happens to us. This is a universe of both known patterns and secret truths, magical powers and mystical encounters, manifestations of the divine, dreams, and spiritual ecstasies. This is a universe of rituals, recitations, and amulets that help to bring the good and counter the bad. Where curses and demons afflict the soul, and divine spirits, saints, healers, and ancestors relieve it. Where in fact everything may be seen through a religious lens, leading sometimes to incredibly violent actions. And at many other times, to beautiful philosophies that are immersed in wonder, compassion, and service. Witness the common word for the physical environment and nature in many parts of South Asia - qudrat, that is, Divine Creation and Blessing. Where animals, plants, humans, all may be considered as sacred beings which are tied together in a relation of interdependence and coexistence. In essence, there is no such thing as standalone, despritualized nature such that we might talk about “nature-society” relations – a very modern way of approaching the universe which came to us when capitalist accumulation alienated us from the land. As opposed to this, qudrat is the Miracle of Existence and to maintain it and show gratitude for it, we must give to the land what we take from it. Because after all, we belong to the Land, and not the other way round.
But Husna and Jalal are living in a radically different context, where the cosmos of Metaphysical Spirituality has been replaced by the market of Materialistic Exploitation.
When I came to the U.S. for graduate school, I had to attend a week-long International Students workshop on serving as a Teaching Assistant, and one of the workshop sessions was on American culture – we needed to be coached in this topic in order to successfully teach American students, and integrate into our new surroundings.
“The first thing that you will need to know about America is that Americans are individualistic” said the instructor in a serious tone. We listened, with bemused smiles emerging in some of our eyes. “The second thing, is that Americans are materialistic.” Now the surprise escaped to our faces, and some necks centimetered forward. We were fresh off the plane – Pakistani, Greek, Russian, Japanese, and Indian, amongst others. We barely knew each other, and were coming from very different upbringings, yet through our glances and later conversations we realized that we shared a fundamental ethic – materialism was a decidedly negative attribute in our cultures and would never be used as a descriptor for oneself, let alone as a matter-of-fact anthropological truth to be taught to foreigners.
We were then handed a hand-out called “What is a U.S. American?”, published by the International Students & Scholars Office. One of the descriptions it listed on the first page was titled “Moralistic Orientation”:
Americans tend to want to win other people over to their way of thinking and are likely to judge other societies in terms of the U.S. Americans often think that other countries should follow their example and adopt their way of doing things; they tend to think that their way is the best, despite the many serious social and environmental problems in the U.S. Other cultures are often evaluated as better or worse than this one, rather than simply different.
One has to admire the honesty of this exposition. If this is the dominating moralistic orientation in America, then cases such as the Story of the Ahmeds seem likely to happen even without the political context of Islamophobia. It is also clear to me, of course, that what we were being taught were not ancient cultural traits of Americans, but rather the traits of Capitalism which had come to pervade America. The result of this equation has been catastrophic for American society – from food systems to educational institutions, from local state structures to democratic processes. Witness the devastation of American agriculture and health that has resulted from monocultures, factory farms, and corn-syrupped foods, and witness the judicial sanctioning of corporate corruption in election campaigns. Witness the lethal effects of Capitalism on People who have been made into Individuals – self-obsessed, consumption-oriented, and miserable – such that psychologists have started talking about a Narcissism Epidemic in the new generation of Americans who have been raised in an era of Materialism and Entitlement. These studies problematize the media, the education system, and especially American styles of parenting and family dynamics. But of course, these self-interrogative facts would never be brought up in foster cases like those of Husna where it’s assumed that We are Superior and the Standard, while Other parents are Despicable and Deviant.
As Husna dealt with her trials – literally and metaphorically – her utmost concern remained reserved for her mother’s health. On phone and in person, she told me that her mother had become heartbroken and physically ill due to the children’s abduction. This despite the fact that her mother was very strong, Husna said. When Husna’s father was away in Saudi Arabia earning a living, some village land of theirs had been illegally occupied by a powerful landlord. Husna’s mother filed a case in court, travelled alone to attend the hearings, and fought for her rights for years. The case was eventually decided in her favor, and everyone in the village said with pride: “Look, what a brave woman. She did what a man couldn’t have done.” But now, her mother constantly cried over the phone, and sometimes to hide her tears, she handed the phone to Husna’s brother.
(Sister, please pray that my mother is able to stay strong. She gave us everything, she gave us so much, she just didn’t teach us how to read or write)Husna: “Behan, bus dua karain kay Ammi ko sabar ajaiy. Ammi nay humain sub kuch diya, itna kuch diya, bus parhaya likhaya nahin”
But she taught you so much more, I told her – values that perhaps Schooling-Development-Progress would have taken away. Even in the midst of a such a terrifying tragedy, Husna was more concerned for her mother than for her children. If we all cared and cried as instinctively for our mothers as we do for our children, the world would be a much gentler and better place, I thought. This would in turn have a positive effect on all other social relations and political realities. And who would we turn to, to learn this? To the oral, spirited people of the Earth like Husna, who Remember. Who Remember those Divine principles of Empathy, Solidarity, and most of all, Reciprocity.
To my utter shock, far from discussing matters of cross-cultural understanding, Husna’s trial ended up focusing on the mechanics of the injury that Chotu had suffered. “Mechanics is the branch of science concerned with the behavior of physical bodies when subjected to forces or displacements, and the subsequent effects of the bodies on their environment” (Wikipedia). Based on their assessment of Chotu’s hand, could the doctors determine whether the burn was intentional or accidental? If a child harms his hand by reaching into a hot stove pot, is it likely that the back of his palm would get burned but some fingers could remain unharmed? The case was trapped in an aura of Science and Technicality, such that the reality of racialized, Islamophobic abduction that the Ahmeds were facing was totally erased through a Farce of Medicalization. As Husna’s lawyer had related to me, Chotu’s case was the most expensive family law case that she had seen in 20 years, and this was because expensive doctors were being called in by both sides to deliberate on the Nature of the Burn. The court had also sent several investigators to the Ahmeds’ house to spatially examine Husna’s retelling of the accident – to chart the minute by minute account of how Chotu had climbed the counter, from which angle he put the hand in – as if the accident was an LBW in a cricket match and could be replayed in slow-motion.
Understanding the context of the Pakistani-Muslim family who were being Abused was not a priority for the Court, perhaps because it would lay bare the Humanity of the Other and the Cruelty of the Self/System. I was eventually asked to submit my testimony in writing instead of appearing in court. The testimony highlighted the norms of parenting and healthcare in Pakistan, along with the specific dynamics of the Ahmed family that I had learnt, making it clear that Husna and Jalal were normal, loving, innocent parents who were nevertheless struggling to manage life in the US. It recommended that the children be returned to the joint custody of their parents. But Husna’s Right to Motherhoodultimately depended on the opinion of a Plastic Surgeon who had been flown in from L.A. Ya Khuda. The surgeon luckily testified that the burn did not show evidence of intentional harm. Why in the first place was it assumed that Husna had intentionally burnt her child, no one was going to question.
In her final pronouncement, the judge said that she believed Husna was innocent, but that Jalal was the Culprit and like a typical Muslim woman, Husna was covering up his crime! What an utterly racist flight of fancy, in a case that had already been so racist and ridiculous. The lawyers, the Ahmeds, everyone involved was speechless – there was no evidence for the judge to assume that Jalal was even present when the accident had happened. But who needs evidence when dealing with Muslims? We all know how these Muslim men are – they beat their wives, so they must burn their children too. They are Guilty simply because they are Muslim.
Megan, Jalal’s lawyer, was especially furious. She had concluded that the treatment meted out to the Ahmeds “was the result of extreme bias and prejudice from every part of the judicial, social services, and medical systems.” In order to address a problem though, we must first struggle to find the right language to express it. Bias and Prejudice are palatable, sanitized terms for what the Ahmeds really experienced – the effects of deep-seated Narcisissism, Racism, and Islamophobia.
One day, Husna called, and told me that the judge had ordered the return of the children so the children had come back. So overjoyed was she, she spoke entirely in Potohari.
It was May 1st, and I had gone to Oakland for the International Labor Day festivities and Occupy events.
There, I ran into Amira, the worker at the Council for American-Islamic Relations who had sent out the initial appeal for help on behalf of the Ahmeds. To my warm surprise, it turned out that Amira was from the Jewish community, and was actively working against anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bigotry in the US. Apart from standing against Islamophobia, her group – the Jewish Voice for Peace – supports the divestment campaign against companies that profit from the Israeli Occupation. Another stellar group, the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network, goes a step further and endorses the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel (BDS) Movement. Both groups perceive the profound connections between rising Islamophobia in the US, Zionist practices of racist exclusion, and the shared imperialist agendas of the US and Israeli military regimes.
There, I also learnt that more than hundred people were protesting against the Child Protective Services (CPS) for “hurting minority communities in disproportionate numbers.” In speeches, Foster Homes were being compared to Prisons, underlining the Militaristic Aggression and Discrimination that was common to both State institutions. The legal abduction of children was thus not just an issue of Islamophobia that impacted Muslims – amongst others, it affected African-Americans, Latinos, Middle Eastern people as well as South Asian communities living in the US.
Husna’s situation concretizes this intimate militarism of the U.S. state. And it is also symptomatic of what Militarism is doing to the world at large. If my mother asks, like she sometimes does:
Yeh Balochistan main akhir ho kia raha hai?(What exactly is ultimately happening in Balochistan?)
I will say, children in their thousands have been abducted and punished, Ma, like Husna’s kids. The Bygwaahin - forcibly disappeared people — are students, journalists, activists, who have been tortured and murdered by the Brutal Military-State of Pakistan through a systematic “kill and dump” policy.
Ma: Yeh Kashmir main akhir ho kia raha hai?(What exactly is ultimately happening in Kashmir?)
Pudina: Children in their thousands have been abducted, tortured, and killed by the Brutal Military-State of India, Ma, leaving countless mothers in tears. Mass graves testify.
Ma: Yaar yeh America ko akhir ho kia gaya hai?(Beloved, what exactly has the U.S. ultimately turned into?)
Pudina: U.S. policy has destroyed children’s lives in too many countries to count, Ma. Just as a result of one campaign of terror in the Iraqi city of Fallujah, birth deformities amongst newborns have become so widespread that women are terrified of having kids altogether.
Militarism is against Maternity - said a woman at the 8th Meeting of the International Women’s Network Against Militarism.
How profound. How true.