On reading "The Upstairs Wife"

 22238381If I were to be an official-ish, published writer, I would be a nonfiction writer. I would hope to be the kind of writer who writes a book like this. Zakaria’s book illustrates a private, painful family story in parallel to the story of Pakistan as experienced by the swollen, violent, disturbed, distorted city that is Karachi.

Nothing is perfect—in true journalistic fashion, things are simply conveyed as they are, yet artfully so. Islamization campaigns in Pakistan are shown as no worse than the corruption and hypocrisy of secular leadership. (One exception: I couldn’t help but feel that there was a bit of sympathy on her part towards the Muhajjir Qaumi Movement—MQM, but that could be just me.)

This is also the story of how Zakaria’s paternal aunt’s husband ended up taking a second wife. This is not an Orientalist horrifying tale of how Islam allows polygamy and how it is terrible. It is an examination of the social realities of arranged marriages, women’s roles in society, love, and the tightrope a middle-class Pakistani family must walk to maintain its respectability. It is also the story of human nature, how easy it is to hate for the sake of hating, and how the most negative sentiments can become lifelong companions. It is the story of how vulnerable a woman is when her sole role is to serve her husband, when her life is built around him. This is not just Aunt Amina’s story: it is the story of millions of women, married and unmarried, whose worth is measured by their marital status, whether they are mothers, whether they work or are taught to have aspirations of their own. Aunt Amina is the chronically bereaved family member you will desperately want to avoid, to avoid all that negative energy, while fully understanding that she is the way she is because that is all she knows, and that is her reality.

On a different note: I kept wondering, as I read the book, what or who emboldened Zakaria to write so many details about her aunt’s life. No one would want their life put on display this way. In the Western context of publishing and the accountability of telling stories, “consent” wouldn’t come close to describing the kind of license the subject of a story would have to provide. Nothing is more powerful than a private, true story, but shouldering the responsibility of sharing this kind of a narrative has both serious legal and (I feel) spiritual implications.

Allah knows the author’s intentions best, and is the judge in all matters.


More on Writerly Courage: Malala Yousafzai

In her CNN interview, Malala was asked what she would say to a girl who’s doesn’t have the kind of courage she does, who is too frightened to speak up and wants to stay in her room.

Don’t stay in your room because God will ask you on the Day of Judgment: where were you when your people were asking you, when your school fellows were asking you, and when your school was asking you that I am being blown up? When your people need you, you should come up . . . and you should stand up for their rights.

I’ve met more than my fair share of educated Pakistanis who are so disgusted by groups like the Taliban that they fault religion as a whole, and as a result commit some terrible version of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

This beautiful, brave girl tells us that it is just not possible to condemn the Taliban while being a Muslim: it’s necessary. She is effectively reminding us of the following saying by the Prophet Muhammad:

Whomever among you sees an evil, then let him stop it with his hand. Whomever is not able, then with his tongue, and whomever is not able, then with his heart. And that is the weakest of faith.

Maybe this is another manifestation of faith in strange times: that we, ironically enough, find ourselves having to fight faith with faith.

May Allah grant Malala a complete recovery and a long, fruitful, and blessed life. May He keep our hearts from becoming heedless because of seeing those who commit atrocities in the name of religion.