It was 1960, and I was four years old in Peshawar Pakistan, where my father was a village researcher at the Academy for Rural Development. The Academy was a Ford Foundation funded project whose upper management were professors from Michigan State University. It was one of scores of development missions spread through Latin America, Africa, and Asia as a fence against communist influence and as a compass and gateway to a future foretold by Western social science. A few miles west of the academy is the Khyber Pass and nearby is Bareder Air Base from which Gary Powers flew his U-2 spy flights over the Soviet Union. Leaning on the crisp red brick wall that enclosed the small yards of the eight brand new tidy bungalows rented to the local profession staff, I listened to the older boys argue about the best cars in the world. I remember hearing the names "Lincoln Continental" and "Cadillac." Turning away from that dispute, I looked up to see a plane slowly drift away. It could easily have been Powers’ U-2.
Today the Academy still functions, and Baredar Air Base is no mere remnant of the past. From 1922 to 1940, Royal Air Force Station Peshawar provided support to British army units that included field regiments in the North West Frontier Province. When the British passed the torch of Empire to their Anglo brothers, the US utilized this base in the early years of the Cold War. More recently, after the massacre of September 11, 2001 in New York City, Bareder was one of five airfields considered by U.S. and Pakistani military representatives for staging U.S. vengeance against Al-Qaeda and Afghanistan. As far as I know the base wasn’t used. But in the dark of night my five year old nephew in Karachi pulled his pillow over his ears in a futile attempt to muffle the house-shaking rumble caused by the rows of U.S. planes on their way from Diego Garcia to Mazir-i-sharif, Kandahar, and countless other targets. When I think of him there, the past erupts – like magma, like lava – from the crushing pressure of political plate tectonics.
My father owned a black Volkswagen bug – at the time his proudest possession and a rare sight on the roads of Peshawar which contained all wonder of human and animal traffic but few cars. I could not imagine how a Lincoln Continental might be better than a VW. I supposed this talk of cars had something to do with the first films I ever saw — films of fire engines on the outdoor screens within the Academy compound, screens depicting courageous firefighters skillfully deploying ladders, hoses, pressured columns of solid water. I had never seen such man-machines. Where was this place with these amazing figures? I wondered. Somewhere far. The Academy itself was what was near – clean edged, cooled, cemented, with ice cold water fountains every few hundred feet. As I watch myself looking back I am torn. A part of me needs that life to seem incorruptible; I want to keep my faith in a steady climb towards the fixed and tangible summit of developmental progress And yet, hearing rumors that the Cold War is over, I have started to think that the banter about cars, those films, those fine brick walls, the fountains – all of that was the material of moraines, stones, boulders, and debris tossed incidentally by the glacial logic of political cycles.
It’s 1964. I am on an airplane for the first time wearing heavy flower garlands placed around my neck by countless relatives. I am sitting on the aisle seat side of the two-two configuration of the Dutch built Fokker Friendship. The man in the window seat next to me says in Urdu, "Where are you going?"
"Karachi," I say.
"All this for Karachi?" he says.
"Then to Amreeka," I answer.
He turns away, curiosity satisfied. My mother, who speaks no English and who herself has never been in a plane, serenely accepts the inconceivable job of getting the three of us – Noman is three, Sohail is six, I am eight—from Lahore to Karachi, to Heathrow, to JFK. With a Punjabi speaker’s help in Heathrow we just make it to the American Airlines flight. We are now sitting together in the three-three configuration of the Boeing 707. My brother and I are pleased by the wing tips pinned to our shirts and the coloring books provided by the smiling-smiling air hostesses. As the eldest my mother sometimes took me into her confidence. Over the Atlantic – an ocean whose breadth is as much temporal as spatial – she asks me casually in Urdu: "Is the hostess pretty?" I answer, "Yes." "Is she prettier than mother?" Western cultural domination had only gotten as far as cars, Elvis, and films of firefighters, so I don’t know how I determined so quickly, that yes, the hostess was prettier, especially looking back at my mother’s photos from that time. Perhaps it was the novelty of assorted hair colors and skin hues. I answered my mother’s question because she asked me. Her stiff slap across my face was a rare admission of anxiety in a life accomplished in worldly faith and unconditional love.
Thirty-eight years later I am on flight from Chicago to JFK on American Airlines. The flight-attendants are smiling less and are freed from the need to hide their gray hair. Unionized, I conclude instantly. It’s possible, I think, that one of them may have been the very face that led to my slapping. At Heathrow I switch to Gulf Air bound for Abu Dhabi and then Karachi. The passengers are Indian, Malaysian, Chinese, Sri Lankan, only a sprinkling of Arabs. Now the flight attendants are young women from Poland, Romania, Turkey, Philippines, and Singapore – the only Arab attendant is a man, or inversely, the only male attendant is an Arab. The women are hired, I think, because they are young, attractive, and eager for opportunity. I am certain they are not unionized. To my left in the two-four-two configuration of the Airbus 300 sit two Arabs, one of whom is quite upset. The young Polish attendant arrives and then calls the young Turkish attendant. She tells him in English, "I am sorry sir, but I do not speak Arabic. I will call some one who does." Five minutes later a man appears and there is a long conversation but my attention shifts to my right where fifteen Pushto speakers (perhaps Afghans, perhaps Pakistanis from the North West Frontier Province) have lit up cigarettes. The young Chinese and Romanian flight attendants use pantomime, tone, and facial gestures to convey flying etiquette. If I could freeze frame this production and interview everyone, I would have an ethnography of…of what?
Having crossed the Atlantic with my mother, a friend of my father’s meets the four of us at JFK and helps us on to a plane for Indianapolis where our father is waiting. In a borrowed car we ride to Bloomington arriving at our destination—410 East 8th—a small house set in a student area. Television, vinyl floors, porch with a bench swing, four blocks from the grocery store in one direction and four blocks from McCalla Elementary School in the other. New, new, all new. At school, suddenly I am the exotic with the skin and the hair and the accent. The seductive attention lasts exactly two weeks. My novelty gives way to the need to place me in a hierarchy of value and the matrix of domination. Eric Worthington and Curtis—the General and Colonel – deem me too thin and small to merit their attention. But their indifference creates confusion in the lower ranks. Donny has been like a friend but this day he says with his usual smile, "I want to fight you."
I don’t say, "But why?" Some other force has me in its slip stream "Okay" I mutter.
"Meet me behind the candy store after school," he says.
I walk across 10th Street to the store, thinking, "What am I doing?" It’s not an admonishment or a lament, just a flat question. I buy candy. Am I looking for nourishment? Resolve? Courage? I go out to the back of the store. Donny’s smile is there, waiting. But a dozen of the other boys are also there. They make a circle as the fight starts. Because I do not know the rules and because Donny is even skinnier than me, it looks to be a draw. And then it happens. I feel apples, sticks, stones, feet kicking. The circle has closed on me. I am humiliated but without ever knowing the reason for my shame. I break out and run. Days later those boys would be kind enough, like Donny, who went back to being something like a friend.
At N elementary as early as third grade our then nine year old son, Kamal, was learning to differentiate the forms of physical and verbal aggression that seemed pulled to his presence. There was the overstepping of play on the soccer field that led to hard slide-tackles by exuberant athletes; the ridicule, threat, and elbows of the local real-estate magnate’s son who did not understand why he was not allowed deliver the same menacing tone to his classmates that his father meted out to the less wealthy; the frenetically driven energy of the boy who boasted of his skill with guns and whose ability to invite and absorb pain stumped everyone but the school social worker; and Mitch, the boy-giant whose experiments with his brawn resulted in Kamal absorbing many punches and a few body-slams.
In those quiet days immediately after the massacre of September 11 when the ear perceived the absence of droning airplanes, there was nevertheless a flight or two that sounded its engine in order to guard the sky – all of it. During recess, our son was playing alongside other boys when they all noticed a lone plane pass overhead. Suddenly, overcome with bravado, Mitch picked up a rock and charged towards the airplane using his momentum to propel his projectile high towards his target, all the while shouting, "You damned Afghanistanis. Go back to where you came from!" Unintentionally, of course, he stopped exactly in the trajectory of the rock’s decent. And, Boom! Collateral damage; blowback as certain, as persistent, and as subtle as gravity.
I have forgotten many things about the McCalla School, but here is one memory that lingers, like chloroform. In fifth grade the other children were asked to memorize one stanza, I was instructed to memorize all three stanzas of the "Star Spangled Banner." I cannot remember how this was done, what the teacher said, how she explained the extra work, or how I showed my acceptance/resentment of my task. I remember only the utterly pure but carefully hidden anger.
Today, some thirty eight years later, I am still learning those stanzas via my children and Mrs. B—the musical director at N elementary. As early as the morning of September 12, 2001, when the rest of us were still absorbing the dread and the awe, she laminated her door from top to bottom with these words, "September 11: We Will Never Forget!" As I listen to my children and their friends sing patriotic song after song on the school stage, I am pushed to my limits. I sit on my hands, command my jaws to relax, and keep my eyes down. My wife tries to lean into me worrying that I will stand up and walk out dramatically, or worse, shout something between songs. She fears, that in my rage, I will scream out something like this: "Inculcating children with patriotic songs is not music, its propaganda; propaganda, which if it works will produce mindlessness, and if it doesn’t will rob children of something as sublime as the very desire to sing. Is this not how I lost my voice?" Or perhaps in a more lecturing mode, "you treat music as an antidote to the strangeness of others. I see why you do it—as you assimilate a stranger into a given musical order, the order is sustained and the strangeness of the other becomes a lessened threat, a removed thorn. But this smoothing has a cost, the social order gains nothing from the resources of the stranger. Nor does the stranger come to believe in the viability of any order except that which is given – even as that very order burdens him/her for an accident of birth." This is some of what I am not shouting in my silent performance.
Any child who brings an external musical repertoire and is then exposed to musical learning in the USA is forced to face this problem of musical and cosmological order. To this problem, there are two polar responses: internalize the order given by "The Star Spangled Banner," "America the Beautiful," "God Bless America," and "Stand Up for the Red, White, and Blue" and thereby jettison a part of your musical heritage, or, stand up and dance with suspect musical cosmologies: like Pharoah Sanders’s and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s joyous screams imploring the Gods to descend to the earthly, like Sun Ra’s and Betty Carter’s precise anarchic slurring of anticipated order, like Ajoy Chakrabarti’s and Abida Perveen’s plumbing of irretrievable pathos, like Linton Kwesi Johnson’s and Bob Marley’s ripping healing lyricism, and like Sunny Ade’s and Chucho Valdes’ crushing tapestries of thick bliss. Music is an overwhelming weapon, isn’t it? As the soundtrack to war, it evokes and realizes the meaning of action. This conviction, at least, Mrs. B and I share, even if she cannot see me struggle as she faces the stage and directs the children.
After finishing his doctorate my father accepted a six month position with the United Nations Development Program in New York City – a decision that routed us to Flushing, Queens instead of back to Pakistan. In the middle of a dozen or so 20 story apartment buildings was a playing area where the boys’ hierarchy was acted out. At the top was Donald, the son of an airline pilot, whose hero was General George Armstrong Custer. Surprisingly, I was not at the bottom, at least not immediately. That position was occupied by A, who, while being many inches taller and many pounds heavier than me, had been branded a coward prior to my arrival on Kessena Boulevard. The rest of the boys – Polish, Czech, Italian – mocked A for suffering his position below me. When one day the older boys outside our group realized this disorder in rank, they placed A in an impossible situation. Either he would have to fight me or endure their beating. I seemed to have no say in this, carried as I was by flows that seemed to me as incomprehensible as they were inevitable. As I struggled inside another circle, the fight itself was again inconclusive. Then A stepped back five feet and spit in my direction bellowing, "Anyway, you are nothing but a filthy Pakistani." My symmetrical response required no thought whatsoever, "Oh yeah, and you are nothing but a filthy American." And then came what I have come to see as a kind of Mobius twist. With rising posture he gloated, "Damn right I am an American, and proud of it." Laughter and snickering from the boys, silence from me. I stood there, befuddled. I had fought to a draw, the circle had not closed in on me, and still I had lost. Badly. Decades later I still want to account for his effortless comeback and for my frozen speechlessness.
Early in the school year, my son had left his glasses in his third grade class and we went back to the school to retrieve them. In the hallway I saw flags drawn on single pages stacked upon each other and pinned to a bulletin board: flags from Britain, South Korea, China, India, Japan, American flags and three representing Pakistan.
"What’s all this?" I asked, amused.
"They’re teaching us about bar graphs. Each flag is one kid in third grade," he said.
"And each of you has to draw your own flag?"
As we walked passed them, I pointed to the three Pakistani flags and said, "Which of these did you draw?"
"None of them," he responded eyes downcast.
"Ah," I said, "You went with your U.S. nationality."
"I wanted to draw a Pakistani flag but Mrs. C wouldn’t let me. I even asked her if I could draw a half-and-half flag." We walked into the empty classroom and I asked him to explain it all to me. He had asked his teacher if he could use a Pakistani flag. She asked where he was born. He replied that he was born in Syracuse, New York, but that he considers himself also a Pakistani. She would think about it, talk to a few of the other teachers, and let him know in the morning, she said. The decision: one whole flag, that of the USA.
I had already asked for a meeting with Mrs. C. on Mitch’s treatment of my son in the playground. After we circled around that issue, I turned to the flags. I started to recount to her some of my experiences at the McCalla school. I paused every few minutes to assess if she wished to enter the conversation. She did not. I continued:
"My wife and I have some hopes that our Pakistani and European background, will combine with the children’s American upbringing…"
"to create a kind of…well…a palate of customs from which the children can select."
"We were hoping they will become multi-lingual, multi-cultural, multi-national."
Mrs. C’s silence was hard to read, but I sensed that I was wrong to suppose that I would receive a favorable hearing. Undaunted, I continued:
"My wife and I moved to this neighborhood because of N elementary and because we believe N to be the most international and cosmopolitan school in Ithaca."
[still pausing and looking for signs of her entry]
"I am wondering whether the decision on how to select a flag for a student and to allow only one flag per student… is that a long standing tradition of some type or did you and the other teachers talk about this?"
She finally entered, "Now," she said with resolve, "you are intruding into my beliefs."
She sprang up from the too low third grade chairs. I copied the gesture. The ending was not unpleasant or strained, it was merely the ending. I understood what her silent witnessing and single sentence had meant. She had listened politely, as was required of a teacher. But she also efficiently conveyed her position on the issue of cultural encounter. Our interests conflicted: my job was to raise children aware of multiple orders; hers to teach them the right order. If her sensibility struck me as undemocratic, no doubt my desires must have struck her as a chaotic relativism bordering on the seditious. We waged this battle at a distance for the rest of the year – each limiting ourselves to our arena.
In the concrete playgrounds of Flushing Queens, Donald, the devotee of Custer, was the one who refused to go along with the change. Obstinately he continued to call my brothers and I by our original names long after everyone else had renamed us David, Larry, and Jimmy. That alteration was as thorough as it was sudden. "What’s your name?! No. No, that’s too hard. Hmmm, lets see…You are now "David, Larry, Jimmy." I can’t remember the genius who formulated this idea but it could have been anyone. We prized it, as did our parents who laughed along with this development. It was only 1967 and they, along with much of the world, had yet to find the reasons for resisting the embrace of U.S. cultural power. It wouldn’t be long though before my father would meet Latin American colleagues familiar with the neo-Marxism of Dependency Theory, and my mother would find that modernization had not only significantly corrupted her sons but had, in her view, made a schizophrenic of her youngest – Jimmy/Noman.
Our neighbors from Nigeria could not have predicted that after the massacre of September 11, the care they gave to the rich meaning of their son’s name would turn on this – that to the reluctant American ear it sounded too much like "Osama." So in a shiny yellow school bus a five year old would burst into tears unable to determine why he was tied to the Twin Towers. Meanwhile the "foreigners" on the bus, who usually avoided their commonality, sensed an amorphous yet immediately tangible dread that forced them to rely on each other. The following summer in soccer camp, without access to this small sub-community of bus riders, our nine year old would fail to insist that his name, Kamal, be correctly pronounced. Before long, he began to respond to "Camel," in part, because it was coined by the best player on the field, his coach. The athletic director assured us that there was no maliciousness in this disparagement. I reminded myself then that the designations "David, Larry, Jimmy" would have eliminated such problems—if only we had just submitted to the imperative of the melting pot.
From Flushing, Queens we moved to Geneva, Switzerland where the Genevois had long ago hardened their hearts against the thousands of foreigners and their families who staffed the U.N., ILO, WHO, and hundreds of other international organizations. Waiting for me was a shiny new blue four-speed bike, a small, private school run by the British, and the overwhelming natural beauty of lakes and mountains. Our teachers had the time and the need to treat us as emerging humans and they were ready to uncover our skills. They found I could run, jump, and play.
I am running my first race, it’s a 3K—open to all thirteen year old boys in Geneva. I am the only representative from my school. Not knowing any better I wear my soccer cleats and skip breakfast. After two kilometers, I am – unbelievably – leading seventy boys. With just two hundred meters to go my energy is depleted. Coach Longden implores me, "The field is gaining. " I do not respond. I am passed, twice. I stumble to the finish line. Alcohol-laced sugar cubes revive me enough for the awards ceremony. Finishing third garners me a six inch solid pewter cup. I am surprised and, for a moment, floating. But as I receive my cup, the seventy-strong Genevois boys boo me. I do and don’t know why. My internal body crumbles. I do not even try to apprehend the circumstances of that occasion.
The U.S. announces the second invasion of Iraq. There is a student rally protesting this war. Two hundred students and dozen faculty congregate. A surprise: a dozen students stage a counter-protest carrying signs saying "Support the Troops." One of them is my advisee – a student in the Department of Politics. I amble up to him and to them and say, "Everyone supports the troops. Why don’t you say what you mean, that you support the war." Some of the counter-protests take this as a needed clarification, others as a challenge. They begin to change their signs. Out of nowhere, I hear the bugle-call of the cavalry. I am confronted by the face of a colleague who has me in her crosshairs: Why am I hassling these students? Do I not realize that I have power over them and should I not therefore consider that such power comes with responsibility. As a professor was I acting responsibly towards these counter-protesters? Was I being true to the spirit of democracy? (Another Mobius strip irony?) Sometimes there is no point in defending, arguing, or clarifying. As I tried to move away, I knew what I had come up against– self-enclosed vacuum-packed policing righteousness. The ploy was tried and true—the counter-protesters had to be saved from the thin pretense of the recently civilized. What interests me most here is the confidence, the monolithic solidity of predetermined assurance. As if one is protecting a "paradise" that is not allegorical nor ideal but actual—a misplaced concreteness, an illusion for which one is all the more willing to wield a massive preempting shield.
Following a possible shift in philosophy and an argument with his boss, my father quit his U.N. job to return to Pakistan and start up the International Relations program at what was then Islamabad University. That was in 1971 – the year of the birth of Bangladesh. Through a series of pin-ball like accidental hits within the global political economy, my brothers and I ended up at the U.S.-funded International School of Islamabad. We were on "scholarship," meaning that since my father’s gross annual income might pay for two months of my tuition, we were dependent on the largesse of school. A few miles from the school, at the Islamabad Club, the mostly non-Pakistani teenage boys occasionally enjoyed a game of "rock the pool." It consisted of six to ten of us going off the three meter springboard one at a time in a steady rhythm designed to create a sonic spectacle. The life guard was a Pakistani woman who, given the overlap between patriarchy and racism, could not move the mostly white teenage boys. Stopping us took Mr. Wallace, who had no official authority but whose projecting voice alone scurried us all out of the pool.
One particular day at the club, I guess I had had enough. As usual, some lingered, but one by one everyone got out of the pool, except for me. Mr. Wallace might have expected this from the known smart asses, but I was a mere brooder who was unlikely to take a wild stance. I was not trying to call his bluff nor did I have any other intention that I can articulate. For reasons still mostly unknown to me, I just wasn’t going to get out. Word, though, got out quick enough. The next day, Mrs. Steiger, my self-assigned mentor, counseled me to apologize. "Do you know that Mr. Wallace sits on the school board?" she forewarned. I walked the mile from my house towards Margalla Hills and the Wallace residence, stared at his wall for fifteen minutes, got as close as twenty feet from the gate and there I stopped, waiting. Waiting to acknowledge that I did not have that apology in me. As I ambled home some part of me knew I was going to walk the fault line.
In 1999, I needed to update my website. I was looking to pay a student, as I had done twice before but my usual "tekkies" were unavailable. I went to the Information Technology office and was directed to two young men, one of the two was a recent graduate of the College. Over a fifteen minute conversation, they let me know, in so many words, how much money they were making, how much more they could be making off-campus, how belittling it was to be asked to manage a website by professors, and most important, how irresponsible they found my request. Frankly, they insisted, I needed to learn how to operate my own website by signing up for one of their workshops. I laughed at the thought of it, while appreciating their inversion of the usual hierarchy, their willingness to engage me, and their execution of a kind of "co-presence"—that sense of unpredictable and intense interaction that could and just might lead anywhere.
This was exactly what I aspired for in my classrooms. I felt in my element. So, I countered that I was not asking them to manage my website but for the name of someone to whom the amount I was willing to pay might mean something. And, I tried to explain, that while I needed my car to run, I did not feel the need to take up auto mechanics. Shortly, I realized that the arguments, mine and theirs, really were beside the point, something else was at stake. I finally grasp it; we were caught in an ideological struggle. They were saying to me, look, if you want to use this important tool, take it seriously. I was saying that what I wanted to be serious about was the prime purpose of the College, namely, learning and teaching, a directive to which computer technology and the web were only tangentially related.
While I harbor a respect for certain traditions, I am also enamored by some technologies. At that moment, however, I felt the need to convey something about technology’s secondary role of in life. Pushing further, I spun a technological dystopia, suggesting that while at the moment there was a fad for the internet and the world wide web, there might come a day when those who resist technological dominance might try to sabotage it by placing a well aimed sabot or a well timed bomb in the right place. If then their preferred technology came to a grinding halt, teaching and learning would still continue, as always. "Can you see that?" I asked them, lost in the moment. They become quiet. I walked away shaking my head and thinking, "These guys think they run the place." I thought I had left them to sort out our ideological differences.
Less than twenty minutes later, I received a call from the head of IT demanding I come to his office immediately. I had not yet put two and two together but my ear had caught the principal-has-called-you-in tone in his voice. In his office, he admonished me for terrorizing two of his employees who were so upset by my comments that they had turned to him to report their fear and confusion. I laughed and smiled a broad smile. It was one of those moments where time slows to a near stop, when one becomes hyper-conscious of the present. I looked at the palm of my hands and asked myself: Am I living through this moment now? Regaining my composure, I demanded to know to whom he reported within the College, suggesting that I might need to speak to his supervisor about his intervention. Knight takes pawn. He was all too eager to respond to my gambit. The flaw in my attitude was that I did not yet understand the size of the avalanche I seemed to have set in motion. He reported to the President’s office – an office he had already alerted about my threat. Bishop takes queen, check. He had also called my Dean. And then his final blow, he had alerted campus security. Mate. Apparently, I was a bona fide suspect as a potential unabomber. Or, at the very least, I had acquired the status of a credible threat having crossed that thin fault line between Assistant Professor and Public Menace. As I retreated to my office, shaking, I thought that no matter how much we may think otherwise, we are never secure. Our very presence next to others can easily bring them to tug on and then pull invisible triggers.
Just a few months ago I asked my father why he never took Marx seriously. I wasn’t really asking, I was chiding. Because, you see, I know the answer to that question. As a graduate student in agricultural economics at Michigan State University (my father sent me to his professors), I went against the wishes of my advisor to take a course on Dependency Theory with Ruth Hamilton in Sociology. My advisor called me in. "How can you convey a sense of professionalism when you haven’t mastered econometrics?" What he meant was, how would I be able to make a case for going on to the Ph.D. if I insisted on taking courses with radical black professors in soft departments? It wasn’t until my second graduate school that I began to internalize the professional voice of the first. I wrote a dissertation with chapters on Adam Smith, Karl Marx, and Emmanuel Wallerstein. At my job interviews, though, I presented Smith, the theorist least likely to be seen as a radical. It’s best to hide your intentions and contain your criticism, that is, if you value your chances. If he had happened to live in India, instead of Pakistan – only a matter of a well-timed twitch in an aging British bureaucrat’s wrist while drawing random lines through the empire – my father might have taken Marx more to heart and we may have ended up at Jawaharlal Nehru University or maybe the University of Moscow. Instead he and my mother found themselves on the Pakistan side of twitched lines. The U.S. enticed the newly formed Pakistan and then claimed it as a partisan Cold War "ally"—with Pakistanis often delighting in the seeming embrace. The water fountains, the firefighting films, and the new bungalows, had I forgotten why they were there? The talk of Cadillacs, Bareder Air Base, Gary Powers, and the Khyber Pass, have I not yet grasped that these were not incidental or accidental props in my upbringing?
I thought about ending with these lines: "Born into a cold war zone, raised in hot belligerence, I continue living a life under which the subsonic grinding of tectonic plates creates everyday tremors. The plates grind and pulverize and heave up and shove aside and subsume -- calling for us to make something of their wreckage. Opening myself to the stories of strangers, colleagues, friends, and students, I gather that we have diverse props, are the stones and boulders of varied moraines, the magma and lava of different explosions. As we map our plates and fault lines, I wonder where our experience overlaps and if circulating our stories guides us or settles us some." But I find this ending less satisfying when I bear in mind that the process of writing points me to something beyond my original aspiration.
In their research scholars often look for relatives – a detail not so much denied as overlooked. Recently, I found my great uncle, Francisco de Vitoria (1485-1546), who was a Spanish scholar, theologian, activist against the slaughter of Amerindians, defender of Indian rights, but also the inventor of development. Like all important family members, he gives me his best, his worst, and he leaves me lingering at the limits beyond which he could not go. When I finally found Vitoria, I sighed in bottomless relief, because he gave me the keys to my life. Through his desire to defend the plight of Amerindians and as a by-product of his critique of Aristotle’s theories of slavery and just war, it was Vitoria who invented the modern conception of development. (If you are disappointed that at the end of this essay I have resorted to a an academic form, a form perhaps less satisfying than the personal, I request your patience for just a few lines more.) Here is the direction this writing moves towards, what Uncle Vitoria brings home to me: I want to say that the most dangerous thing in life is not a daisy cutter, firebombing cities, or torpedoing skyscrapers. No. The most dangerous element in life is the "co-presence" of an alien. This is all the more true when that alien is no more than the presence of one’s own doubt. Co-presence requires a consequential conversation with another, a potential dialogue that offers critique, brings pain and partial death, but also portends the birth of something vital and necessary. This ominous danger requires quelling. I am aware of three responses to it. The danger of co-presence can be minimized by placing self and other in different spaces: I am an American in America, you are Indian in India. This separation makes it seem safe for both of parties to live out lives without the dangerous mix that co-presence can generate. Increasingly, though, this strategy is becoming obsolete because globalization, better known as capitalism, forces us to occupy the same relative territory thereby reviving co-presence’s menacing possibilities.
This is when Uncle Vitoria’s genius comes into play. He thought of Amerindians as fellow humans and fellow Christians, but was baffled by their idolatry, cannibalism, human sacrifice, and especially how these activities violated what he thought of as the immutable laws of nature. His resolution was to insist that we are all one, in the same space, members of the in the same family, but living in different developmental sequences of human and cultural development. Same space, different time. The flaw, said Vitoria, was not in the Indians’ nature, but rather in the poor education that life provided them. The
diagnosis, as always, contains the cure. Those at the apex of the developmental sequence have a duty to teach all those below them—it was up to the Spaniards to provide the Indians a proper education. Teaching though, and this is the key, need not entail co-presence – it can be done from a distance. Indeed, teaching as we usually understand it, almost always presupposes developmental separation. Co-presence, on the other hand, moves towards its twin, co-learning. Double danger.
With visionary clarity, Uncle Vitoria solved the problem of how to defuse the threat of co-presence within a shared space. If, against Aristotle, we are no longer able to treat others as absolute aliens, as removable objects, we can, nevertheless, phase them into a different time. Slaves and peasants become children; masters and lords become teachers. Vitoria’s temporal displacement of others, however, is not a mere replication of Aristotle’s spatial separation. It signals a significant and real shift expressed in the lives that my parents, my siblings, and my children are not living – we are no longer peasants destined to give one third of our produce to the landlord and emperor. Thank you, Uncle Vitoria. And yet…
And yet, one can yearn for more—a release from temporal displacement into co-presence. In the anecdotes comparing my childhood with that of my children, perhaps it is Uncle Vitoria’s innovations that guide and delimit the encounters. While Mrs. B may or may not fear the co-presence of suspect music, she probably does regard it as her duty to elevate foreigners to a more advanced music and culture; maybe A’s lucidity and my speechlessness after our fight in Flushing both stem from our acceptance of his invisible but tangible developmental rank over me; Mrs. C’s quiet dismissal of my probing into flags, bar-graphs, and nationalities, could be the natural posture of someone who assumes from the first that she lives in a superior developmental time and therefore has nothing to say that has not already been spelled out by our different temporal stations; and re-naming is a responsibility that belongs to the parent, the teacher, the discoverer whereas those that need naming are children. The unspoken confidence of one party matches the speechless lack of the other, both results of temporal placement. It is easy to internalize and accept this temporal structure, especially if one is unaware of it. Nevertheless at the same time, in the same unconscious manner, one can struggle against it. My fault walking – the rejection of Mr. Wallace’s authority, the failed confrontation with Mrs. C, and the spinning of technological dystopia with "tekkies" from Information Technology – can be seen as clumsy efforts to wrestle out of temporal displacement and fall into co-presence.
That parts of my narratives don’t fit so neatly into this analysis doesn’t worry me so much because I am not trying to be exhaustive. I am merely saying that as I read them now, those stories point me in particular direction. No doubt I will find other meanings. Nevertheless, for the moment, this is where I am. I need encounters that negotiate the powerful resources of "co-presence" while still navigating its considerable dangers—fault walking. I also know that I ache for such encounters, in part, because I need to narrate them. I am compelled to tell tales about temporal displacement and fault walking so that we might move beyond Uncle Vitoria’s important but limiting legacy. And not only for the sake of my children. Can we not start speculating that the combatants in current global wars struggle less against each other and more with Uncle Vitoria’s legacy; one side needing acknowledgement and tribute for having shouldered the heavy and noble burden of teaching and the other side insisting on co-presence at all costs.
Naeem Inayatullah is an Associate Professor at Ithaca College. His interests include the history of the thought of political theory, political economy, and international relations. He has also started working in the overlap between and international political economy and aspects of popular culture such as film, literature, memoir, and music. With David Blaney, he is the co-author of International Relations and the Problem of Difference (Routledge, 2004). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
My thanks to Lisa Loomis, Robin Riley, Christine Sylvester, and Sorayya Khan for their insightful comments. I want to register a special note of gratitude for Laura McNeal, who has shown me that the trick to effective criticism is not only to see through to the core of the problem but also to deliver the criticism so that it becomes one with the desire of the writer.
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