May Issue 2010
Interview: Samina Quraeshi
“My book is a personal act of resistance”
– Samina Quraeshi
Samina Quraeshi is the author of Sacred Spaces: A Journey with the Sufis of the Indus. Her earlier books include Legacy of the Indus, Lahore: The City Within and Legends of the Indus. She is also an artist and educator.
Q: Your book is accompanied by an exhibition of mixed media works at Harvard. Do you consider yourself an artist or a writer?
A: I consider myself both because my artwork is related to my study. I have been trained as an artist, and in the field of design I pursued photography because it was very important for my books. The people who know me through my books consider me a photographer and a visual artist. But my work, which is currently on exhibit at the Peabody Museum, and of which the book is a centrepiece, is actually a collection of mixed media montages which encompass several elements from photographs to calligraphy. This is the first time that a Pakistani artist has exclusively been given exhibition space here and the show has been extremely well received. In fact, it has been extended.
Q: Are you primarily addressing a western audience with your work or do you feel that it is for Pakistanis who have forgotten their pluralistic heritage?
A: I am speaking to both. I consider myself an interpreter; I am trying to build bridges. For me, there are two Pakistans – the one where I grew up, and the one that I see now. Since the ’70s, I have been watching the seismic shifts that have occurred – the toll of the Zia years, our multicultural heritage has been choked.
This is not our soul. We, Pakistanis, cannot be put in a box. We have a depth and an ancient memory that doesn’t translate into easy categories either for a western audience or for those who want us to believe that there is no South Asian Islam, it is all from Saudi Arabia. So I am trying to awaken the consciousness of the people to tell them that they must resist what is happening. For me, this book is a personal act of resistance. It is a flawed work, but it is only a beginning. I am not an Islamic scholar, nor is the book about every shrine. It is about our tradition.
Q: If you are addressing a local audience, don’t you think you perhaps need to go a little deeper into the subject than the book does?
A: Keep my mission in mind, for a more intensive critique you need a different kind of book. The next work will be more like that.
Q: Did the need to address these issues become greater in the post-9/11 world?
A: No. You must realise that I have been working on these projects for a long time. For Legends of the Indus, I collaborated with Anne Marie Schimmel and I was also working on a book about Sindh. It was Anne Marie Schimmel who first opened my eyes to the fact that the stories that abounded in literature and songs around us were in fact Sufi parables. When I finished Legends of the Indus, she said to me, “This is book two. Now you must write a book about the Sufi tradition.” I told her that this was not my subject, it was hers, to which she replied that her work was academic and esoteric, but I could appeal to the people. I told her she was placing a very heavy responsibility on my shoulders but she selected me for this project.
Q: Unusually so for most books on such a subject, you have also touched upon the undesirable aspects of the shrine culture.
A: I never want to portray a one-sided picture; everything is not perfect and we cannot pretend otherwise. There is a commercial element and I have mentioned it. In fact, I have chosen to exclude certain shrines where there is intense commercialism. It’s like bargaining for blessings, it has become a franchise. But I have focused more on this aspect in my lectures and discourses.
Q: You also have a chance to tell the West that all the guidelines for tolerance and harmonious blending of cultures are actually part of our traditions in the subcontinent. How has that information been received?
A: I have received a wonderful response. At the same time I am very wary of the current western fascination with Sufism, what I call “Rumi light” and that whole commercial bandwagon. The book also includes certain shrines in India because I wanted to show that there is a spiritual network which surpasses physical boundaries. Anyway, on a pilgrimage, political boundaries are irrelevant.
I would like to bring the exhibition to Pakistan. Mine is actually a multi-layered project that should be seen in totality, the books are a part of it. My work shows that pluralism was always present in this part of the world, before Pakistan became a political entity. And I firmly believe that if the country is to survive, we must embrace this heritage.
Please read the review of Sacred Spaces: A Journey with the Sufis of the Indus.
Zahra Chughtai has worked and written for Pakistan's leading publications. She is currently Newsline's website editor.