/11, Trauma and Worsening Global Relations—Aslam’s Response
The 9/11 attacks were framed as a national trauma within the United States, as discussed above. The state, charged with the protection of the citizenry in return for authority, had failed in its duty. Lucy Bond describes the traumatic awakening to what Edkins terms the “illusion of security” as “a moment of national unhoming” (2015, 52). Alongside this “unhoming”, a simultaneously emergent understanding of the attacks as a collective wound meant that they could be harnessed to strengthen the bond between the citizenry and the state during the process of recovery (Bond 2015, 52). However, the more dangerous ideological shift in the wake of 9/11 came in the form of a rejuvenated interest in narratives of American exceptionalism. According to Bond, exceptionalism is the American nation’s “most fundamental, and indeed foundational mythology” (2015, 54); she draws on Donald Pease to define this exceptionalism as a “lasting belief in America as the fulfilment of the national idea to which other nations aspire” (Bond 2015, 54). In other words, America understands itself as a realised ideal—a nation that self-identifies within the international community as a singular beacon for liberty and democracy. As pointed out by Richard Hughes, notions of exceptionalism allow for a disregard for history, or a sense of immunity from its various accusations and demands (cited in Bond 2015, 54). For Hughes, America is a “peculiarly amnesiac nation” that views itself as “removed” from human history and therefore innocent of the failings and misdeeds that plague the history of other nations (cited in Bond 2015, 54).
National myths such as these aim to create a consensus into which all disruptions can be absorbed and neutralised. Foundational violence— whether the war of independence, slavery, or genocide of Native Americans—as well as the violence that sustains American dominance abroad in the present day is folded into a pre-existing understanding of the nation that pre-emptively disarms accusations of wrongdoing. Where the national myth can be seen to falter—in times of crisis when the nation is revealed as decidedly not exempt from global instability—the broader “fantasy” of exceptionalism steps in to cover the shortfall (Bond 2015, 55). Drawing again on Pease, Bond explains that “fantasies might [...] be seen as the interim ideological mechanism that facilitates the reassertion of state power in the aftermath of traumatic loss” (2015, 55). The fantasy of exceptionalism operates in moments of crisis, fear and rupture as “a transcendent national mythology able to reconnect the (horrific) present to the (heroic) past and reopen the prospect of a glorious future” (Bond 2015, 55). It is clear, then, how terrorist attacks like those seen on September 11, 2001, could do little to diminish America’s understanding of itself as an exceptional nation set transnational!}' against barbarous villains. Meanwhile, the realities of Afghan suffering during the Cold War period—at the hands of American power—were omitted from memory frames imposed after the attacks in an American context.
Aslam’s approach to this context in The Blind Man’s Garden is undoubtedly shaped by his own experience within such global power structures; Aslam was born in Pakistan in 1966 and emigrated to Britain with his family at age 14. According to Tahir Abbas, the 9/11 attacks as well as the London bombings of July 2005 increased the animosity felt toward the immigrant community in Britain, specifically those who emigrated from Muslim majority countries like Pakistan. Muslims became increasingly regarded as the “enemy-within”, Abbas notes, deploying Margaret Thatcher’s inflammatory phrase to indicate the extent of the cultural split (2007, 7).
For some of Aslam’s contemporaries, Khaled Hosseini (The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns, And the Mountains Echoed) for example, operating in a similar American context, a desire to appeal to a Western audience has resulted in what has been read as a smoothing-out of those non-Western cultures featured in their novels. Hosseini, as seen in Chapter 1, offers a depiction of Afghan society that places a considerable emphasis on secular characters, at times presenting their attitudes toward religion, gender, and minor considerations like alcohol as representative of the nation as a whole. The prioritisation of these characters and attitudes is effective in that it encourages recognition of the humanity of Afghan people; this comes, at times, at the expense of recognition of the humanity of those sections of the population that subscribe to beliefs not as familiar to a Western reader. Characters with extremist tendencies—or even moderate, though devout, religious leanings—are either absent or marginalised as outliers that should not factor in an understanding of the country’s demographics.
Though none of Aslam’s novels could be accused of similar levels of deference to an assumed Western perspective, The Blind Man’s Garden departs still further from this mould, a fact which we might attribute to its emergence into a particularly fraught cultural context. In Chapter 2 I explained, following Frawley, the ways in which Aslam can be regarded as a global novelist “whose work not only goes beyond the boundaries of their ‘home’ nation, but who is also concerned with global processes of war and migration, and with globalisation generally” (2013, 442). Asked in an interview about the impetus behind the novel, Aslam stated that he was inspired by the extraordinary decade “beginning with 9/11 and ending with the Arab Spring” (Aslam 2013b). This decade has, of course, seen an intensification of global violence beyond anything that could have been anticipated in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, or indeed that which Aslam himself could have predicted in 2008 upon finishing The Wasted Vigil.
For Aslam, the decade has been marked by a clash “between an incomplete understanding of the East and an incomplete understanding of the West” (Aslam 2013b). In this sense, Aslam’s effort in this novel to record the silenced perspectives of those victimised by the “war on terror” is significantly broader in focus than in The Wasted Vigil. Moving between Afghanistan and Pakistan, Aslam does not extensively excavate the colonial history of one particular space, pulling threads that connect such pasts to present-day conflict—though such histories are acknowledged. Instead, I argue, Aslam targets the ways in which the violence of the “war on terror” manifests against communities and individuals beyond the confines of territories subjected to official invasion. Though Aslam casts both parties in this East/West divide as ignorant, this novel is largely preoccupied with the dearth of understanding, or indeed empathy, apparent in the West regarding suffering in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan. Specifically, Aslam points to the language used to obfuscate the scale of violence inflicted upon these regions as part of the “war on terror”. He remarks on “strategic strikes” that killed dozens and the reality that for every “one militant” eliminated by the CIA and drones, a further “forty-nine innocent people” are being murdered in Pakistan (Aslam 2013b).
Journalist Patrick Cockburn concurs with Aslam’s assessment of the disproportionate impact of American military power upon non-Western spaces in this era. In Age of Jihad, Cockburn refers to the 9/11 attacks as the “starting pistol for a series of calamitous events that destroyed the old status quo” (2016, 2); further, the events of September 11, 2001, precipitated “US military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, actions which transformed the political, sectarian and ethnic landscape of the region and released forces, the power of which went beyond anything imagined at the time” (Cockburn 2016, 2). As such, with The Blind Man’s Garden, Aslam addresses a climate of increasing instability wherein non-Western, and in particular Muslim, communities bear the brunt of global violence. It is a more combative text than even The Wasted Vigil, dealing with the insidious nature of present-day international relations rather than the grand historical narratives that mainly preoccupied its predecessor. Though set in 2008, the year of its publication, The Wasted Vigil traced the ways in which the international community had routinely interfered in and then abandoned Afghanistan for over a century. However, while The Wasted Vigil marked a departure from the type of post-9/11 literature aimed at endearing Afghanistan to Western readers, it nonetheless dealt with Afghan suffering primarily as it related to Western political discourse on the “war on terror” with a focus on the responsibility of colonial powers for ongoing suffering.
Inevitably, the focus in The Wasted Vigil on the West and Russia as perpetrators, though effective in destabilising post-9/11 rhetoric, diminishes the space given to marginalised stories. Aslam redresses this shortcoming in The Blind Man’s Garden, a novel that places experiences underrepresented in Western discourse front and centre. Importantly, it sustains the effort made in The Wasted Vigil to depict the region as a space historically acted upon by international powers, but with a view to representing a group of non-Western characters as the main agents of the text. Aslam’s earlier novel contained a mere four Afghan characters of significance; two of these were murdered by Soviet and American forces—itself an important comment on international interference in the region—while the two living Afghan characters were largely present to comment upon present-day occupation of the region. Casa, the young Afghan man with extremist leanings, and Dunia, a moderate schoolteacher, fulfil their function within the narrative; they embody the diversity of thought in Afghanistan on religious and political matters. However, insight into their inner lives is limited to their perspectives on Islam and terrorism; at times it seems as though they are present only to act as foils to their American and Russian counterparts and fill in the gaps left by cultural memory frames promoted in the West.
The local characters depicted in The Blind Man’s Garden are not restricted in this way. Instead, we are presented with a range of characters from across Pakistani society, representing a spectrum of religious devotion, age, political affiliation, and attitudes toward extremism. The narrative is anchored in Heer, a fictional Pakistani village, by Rohan—a former teacher, devout Muslim, and widower—and his extended family that includes Mikal and Jeo. Other featured characters include a local extremist sect now run out of Ardent Spirit, the school founded years before by Rohan. Afghan characters, as we will see, are pointedly absent from the narrative in a manner that foregrounds, rather than obscures, their marginalisation on the world stage. Westerners, specified frequently as white, populate prison staffs and army convoys, existing as strange and foreign creatures with penchants for brutality, demonstrating few redeeming characteristics. Aslam’s narrative focus here is in making space for those marginalised communities that continue to suffer under the “war on terror”. Thus Western characters have no particular use as protagonists and are excluded.
In fact, in this fourth novel Aslam goes further than simply refusing to court the Western reader—he actively seeks their alienation. Aslam’s previous novels addressing the post-9/11 context and issues around immigration—The Wasted Vigil and Maps for Lost Lovers, respectively—have been written in English, and though translated as needed for other markets, the narrative is assumed to proceed largely in that language, unless specified otherwise, due to the presence of British and American characters or settings in predominantly English-speaking Western countries. The absence of such characters and settings from The Blind Man’s Garden means that this assumption no longer holds; the narrative was produced by its author in English, but the characters communicate with one another in various languages including Pashto and Urdu.
This translation emerges as a jarring reminder of difference at key points. One instance finds Mikal attempting to communicate with an American soldier whom he is holding captive. Mikal, searching for a lost friend, summons his limited knowledge of English to demand information. He shouts, “Vere iz ze gurl?” at the soldier, growing increasingly frustrated at his limited ability to effectively interrogate his captive (Aslam 2013a, 349). In this instance, we realise that, of course, Mikal has not actually been speaking English up to this point. The presumption of the pre-eminence of Western European languages is revoked as Aslam leaves a Western reader in the rather uncomfortable position of identifying with the soldier, an antagonistic presence. Similar language barriers are erected during other portions of the novel, most notably at an American prison camp where the officers scream and threaten violence in an English that, passed through the filter of a frightened prisoner, is made to read as the language of a strange and threatening Other. This use of language emphasises the cultural divide at play and ensures that a Western reader is alienated at critical points from the protagonist. In The Blind Man’s Garden, we find a text, and an author, whose inclination to cater to the West is diminished by the persistent intensification of global violence and the ongoing dominance of Western media frames, to the exclusion of all other voices and perspectives.
The novel is thus an act of disobedience depicting a community marginalised post-9/11, placing the emphasis on their victimhood over the question of Western responsibility for suffering experienced in these regions.
As noted in Chapter 2, Aslam is a critical success, shortlisted for numerous literary awards and named a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. However, in a recent interview, Aslam expressed that he likes “to be on the margins” because he believes “the job of a writer is to be a voice that is not the majority voice” (Zakaria 2017). In The Blind Man’s Garden, Aslam maintains this dedication to the subordinated perspective; he produces a record of suffering that runs counter to those cultural memory frames surrounding the “war on terror” that are oblivious—preoccupied with the maintenance of American mythologies—to the perspectives and stories of those designated Other.