A Rebel’s Homecoming

Iconic left-wing thinker Tariq Ali was in Lahore recently. Raza Naeem shares snippets of what he talked about

A Rebel’s Homecoming
On a rainy day in Lahore on January 27 last week, a day half taken hostage by the lashing rain and the other by the eventually-aborted final cricket T20 match between the visiting Sri Lankan team and the home side, one made their way to the National College of Arts (NCA) to hear one of the opening keynote lectures at the ongoing Lahore Biennale 2020 – tastefully themed as ‘Between the Sun and the Moon’ – by the celebrated British-Pakistani writer and activist Tariq Ali, one of Lahore’s favourite prodigal sons.

Given how famous Ali is, both in Pakistan and abroad, one had hoped – and feared – that the talk would be overflowing when I made my way there even half an hour 2 pm, the scheduled time of the talk. Not to be. Even 30 minutes before the talk, the organizers had little idea where exactly the talk was supposed to be held, and upon finally making one’s way to the venue, one could not find even the first two rows of the hall full. Perhaps that was the reason why even after Ali himself promptly appeared in the hall at 2 pm, the talk began half an hour late.

There was idle speculation prior to the talk among the audience that perhaps given the theme of the Biennale and also that it overarchingly focuses on art and literature rather than politics per se, Ali might also talk about art and literature. However he very soon dissipated the enthusiasm of the audience by saying at the outset that the topic he was given by the organizers was ‘Decolonization Processes and Solidarity’. What follows below is a summary of his talk.

Ali began by noting that just as he was arriving at the NCA to deliver his talk, he passed by the Lahore High Court and he reminisced that “many awful things had taken place there, especially student solidarity marches following the assassination of Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba. A public meeting of students was called; there were demonstrations and speeches were delivered. Lahore has historically been an internationalist city, it had a student population which was interested in the world. I know many people who I meet in many parts of the world and who would tell me. ‘Ah! So you were at that Lumumba demonstration in Lahore?’ Never mind even if they were not there physically, or could not expose themselves because they were civil servants or worse. How the world has changed since then?”
In this world, to depend on state power when states acted in their own self-interests was delusional, in Ali’s view. There were very few states like Cuba who act in the interests of international solidarity.

This world is a world of transition and morbid symptoms on every continent. These symptoms destroy hope and encourage despair. Students came out in Chile and demonstrated continuously for several months; students in Iraq came out and started demonstrating against corruption. One felt hope because lots of demonstrations in Baghdad and Basra were both Sunni and Shia; and this deliberate attempt to sectarianize the Muslim world was challenged by Iraqi students.

Ali also mentioned the big movement in neighbouring India, which he said was very important for Pakistan. These demonstrations had roots in two decisions made by the semi-fascist government of India: one, the assault on Kashmir and second, the Citizenship Amendment Act. All contact with Kashmir had been cut off and people who were mostly targeted were young men. The event was not well-reported and did not have a lot of solidarity. To talk about Kashmir is to be accused of threatening Indian security by linking it to Pakistan. Ali then wondered aloud that if the Indian people do not defend the rights of Kashmir, what will they do when they come for the former? He was referring to an open-letter he had signed along with many others addressed to Bollywood’s Muslim stars regarding their silence over the situation in India. They don’t know what the future holds.

Ali said that the movement in India is united, primarily the students. There was a huge march in Hyderabad which had a placard with the following slogan inscribed on it: ‘Thank you Modi for uniting Hindus and Muslims.’ These kinds of movements are important because they produce not only solidarity with the oppressed but also activity.

In Lebanon and Iraq, the new generations will not take things lying down. However the great difference between the 20th century and the present one is that we have one big dominant nation today i.e. the United States. Trump is quite open about what he wants to do; and the gangster talk emanating from the White House was usually covered up. The big challenge facing US imperialism was how to maintain American hegemony in a world not divided by ideology or a countervailing ideology. The CIA has a list from the highest possible response to the lowest possible response regarding which state or non-state functionaries they want to assassinate globally. According to Ali, General Qassem Soleimani’s name was put on their list; it was the worst they could do. The Americans proclaimed, ‘We took him out’, meaning the state is a terrorist; the state decides to take him out, and they do.

For Ali, if states carry out such an action, then they have no right to tell non-state actors not to behave in the same manner. Ali called the killing of Soleimani a ‘public execution’ and then went on to address the US trade war with China. He said that the US has started a trade war with China and it was fanciful talk to suggest that the US is finished as a world power. He said that although the trade war with China was huge, the latter had capitulated to the US and that China was not a counter-balance to the US; though economically it could pose a challenge to the US.

Talking about the Middle East since 9/11, Ali said that the systematic destruction of a continent would not have happened without the US doing it. Iran is too powerful a regional player for the US to attack it. This happened when the US invaded Iraq in 2003, an action which Iran backed; the resulting situation left Shia parties in charge of Iraq, which strengthened Iran. Ali went on to say that Iran acts largely in its own self-interest; there was no over-arching solidarity.

Tariq Ali speaking in Lahore

Another enemy Iran had was the Taliban in Afghanistan, so the Iranians backed the US invasion of that country. The US did not want to do a deal with Iran. Ali wondered aloud about what the US wanted in the Middle East apart from helping Israel. It had conducted three wars against Iraq; cut Libya up in three bits; created a nightmare in Syria. Its aim was to create little bantustans in that region, in his view.

As far as the Kurds were concerned, Ali said that he had told his Kurdish friends that they will not get an independent Kurdish state; and now they were coming round to it. He said that they also forget that a minority of Kurds live in the mountains; half of Istanbul is a Kurdish city. There were intermarriages in big Iraqi cities like Baghdad.

In this world, to depend on state power when states acted in their own self-interests was delusional, in Ali’s view. There were very few states like Cuba who act in the interests of international solidarity.

Ali said further that it was very interesting that in parts of the Arab world and India, poetry is having a huge revival. At the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, students took to a platform and sang Faiz’s Hum Dekhenge; the same happened in the Jamia Millia university. Poetry brings with it an internationalism, whether that poetry was sung by great stars or not. The day the US started bombing Iraq, Ali was with Saadi Youssef, the great Iraqi poet, who had written a new poem the week before. Youssef, who was in Baghdad had corresponded with fellow Iraqi poet-in-exile in Damascus Mudhaffar Al-Nawab addressing him in the poem, ‘What are we going to do, O Mudhaffar Al-Nawab?’ The poem was titled The Jackals’ Wedding. In Iraqi tradition, a jackal’s wedding has a different – and an unpleasant – connotation to the one it has in South Asian culture. A meeting of Iraqi collaborators later in London too was referred to as a jackals’ wedding. The poem went viral through email among the cafes of Baghdad and Basra.

Talking about the impact of the worldwide web, Ali said that it was invented on the West Coast of the United States, and both grassroots communication and solidarity have been made easier because of it in a world where organizing people is not easy. At the top of the pyramid were the people, while at its bottom lay the United States. However, one unpredictable thing is nature, not just climate change, from the Chernobyl explosion to the Australian bushfires and the ravaging and looting of the Amazon. The UK group Extinction Rebellion are very courageous in Ali’s view: they want governments to listen to what is happening in the environment. Planning has to be done on a global level in a way advocated by the Canadian activist Naomi Klein in her work; that is the way to change course. System-wide shock is a possibility. Ecological catastrophes of planetary scope have failed to bring states together. Capitalism is united against labour, but is divided against nature. Ali said he was undecided whether automation was reactionary or utopian but technological changes cannot end labour. He quipped that robots can become politicians; this was something difficult to do in Pakistan because our politicians are too original. However it would be difficult for a robot to play Trump! Ali continued saying that if a robotic future happens without planning, there would be misery. We need visionary politicians, but we seriously lack them, in his view. We see movements rising and falling in this vacuum. It’s not a question of being pessimistic, but realistic, notes Ali.

At the end of the day, for Tariq Ali, if the quality of leadership on a global scale shifts, or this happens in 7 to 8 key countries, there is hope.

Ali wondered aloud about what effect people living under wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan will be feeling, including psychological effects. He said that we have to carry on; struggles will happen. In the 1950s and 1960s, there was the idea of a unified Arab Republic, but who discussed it now? Palestine has been wiped out from the world agenda; there was very little in terms of solidarity, though there was indeed solidarity. Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) has been illegalized; violence is impermissible; non-violence is impermissible too. If the Palestinians are pushed in the direction of individual actions, they will not always work. Ali dedicated his talk to Iraqi, Lebanese, Palestinian as well as Sudanese women and said that the most enlightened thing the Palestinian leadership could do was to join BDS, adding that the South African government is one of the few governments in the world to support BDS.

In answer to a question, Ali remarked that for the last 10 to 20 years, the US is very unlikely to attack Iran or press for regime change. As far as opposition to the Iranian regime is concerned, he said that the Iranian opposition tend to come out on the streets when they feel there is less pressure on the Iranian regime. Countries having nuclear weapons are hardly attacked. There is always a current in Iran which says why should they do a deal with the US? The US will keep upping the pressure on Iran at the behest of the Israelis. Iran still remains a sovereign state, it is not linked to any power bloc. In response to another question about the rise of the student movement worldwide, Ali said that there were differences in the demands of the student movement: in India, they were calling for the rights of minorities; in Pakistan they were asking for the right of forming student unions; while in Chile they were demanding a new constitution for the country and for repealing the Pinochet-era laws. In response to a rather bizarre question advocating the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Ali denounced the infamous text as a forgery and remarked that the Saudi king Ibn Saud used to gift a specially-bound copy of the text to his guests.

Tariq Ali’s homecoming to the city of his birth may have warmed a lot of hearts, certainly those who are his contemporaries, but surprisingly it offered little that was new or which one could not glean from his many writings or lecture videos online. Also one was disappointed not to find any mention of Pakistan in his talk, even the resistance of the Aurat March and the Student Solidarity Movement and the criminalization it has incurred from both state and society, which has actually introduced young Pakistanis on the worldwide stage as a progressive and rebellious lot. Perhaps Ali would have better-off sticking to the theme of the Biennale itself, ensconced as it was between the sun and the moon?

Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader currently based in Lahore, where he is also the President of the Progressive Writers Association. He can be reached at: razanaeem@hotmail.com

Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore, where he is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association. He can be reached via email: razanaeem@hotmail.com and on Twitter: @raza_naeem1979