Dead in My Tracks

My husband and I were strolling through the streets of the French Quarter of New Orleans on New Year’s eve, with crowds of young and old, men, women and everyone in between, including some spectacular drag queens thronging the streets, “kick ass” beers and kamikazes (not the suicidal pilots, but the alcoholic beverages that knock one out as a kamikaze crashing into you might have intended, except one generally lives to see the next day )– being downed at alarming rates amidst an atmosphere of festive revelry. I was marveling at the display of bodies in various degrees of un-concealment when what do I see, but a man with a beard and face which was to remind me a few days later of Mumtaz Qadri, the killer of Salmaan Taseer, the latter a former friend and erstwhile Governor of Pakistani Punjab. I stopped dead in my tracks, and as if pulled by a magnet, entered the large store at the corner of Bourbon Street where this man was selling his wares, to try and engage him in a conversation that might satisfy my curiosity.

After greeting him with the appropriate AOA, I immediately launched into what can only be termed a pretty aggressive interrogation, mitigated, perhaps, by a sly flirtatiousness: Where was he from? What was he doing here, in this den of pleasurable iniquity? Was his Muslim-ness not outraged at the orgiastic lifestyles of the people around him in this deliciously hedonistic city? To the onslaught of my irreverent questions, he mostly smiled in a beatific manner, serving up platitudes concerning “going wherever God ordains” one to do, explaining that it is only the spiritually strong who can withstand and conquer the temptations of the flesh in a place such as this; he was diplomatic enough, however, not to ask me how I was faring in this test of spiritual endurance. It turned out, not too surprisingly, that he was from Islamabad, and happy to tell me that he had quite a successful business in machine tools there. Yet, despite his bearded success “back home”, he clearly felt the need to strike out for distant shores, and expand into the market for feathered masks, girls shorts (with “Princess” written on their behinds) and other assorted paraphernalia being sold in his shop.

“That is not the way of Islam,” he replied quietly when I asked what he thought of the rash of suicide bombings in Pakistan in the past few years (hoping he couldn’t smell the kamikazes on my breath), the onslaught of intolerant zeal against “kafirs” by those who had appointed themselves the guardians of Islam in his native country. “Our religion seeks to convert others to the Righteous path by way of example, sister,” he smiled. “Is that what you are hoping to do here, brother?” I shot back. He paused. “I can tell you that many folk come to me when they see me in this shop; I suppose they are curious at first….I must seem such an oddity,” I squirmed a little at this obvious reference, but feigned an innocent air. He continued, lowering his voice as if letting me in on a secret, his eyes now lighting up with some inner conviction. “You cannot imagine how desperate some of these people are, so sad their lives. They feel abandoned by their near and dear ones….they come to me, seeking some comfort, a way out of their messed-up, lonely, drunken lives,  especially the women…and I always gently tell them to join us in our mosque here, just to come and listen and join in our community.” Ofcourse. The women are the ones always needing the most help, comfort, salvation…and who better than the Mullah of Bourbon street to dispense such spiritual succor?

While he sent me on my way with spiritual advice for my stomach by pointing me in the direction of a Pakistani Halal restaurant selling naan kebabs in the French Quarter, Salmaan Taseer, the pugnacious bon vivant of a politician on the other end of the world, was tweeting his followers a message that implicated the Bearded Ones in our motherland in what turned out to be a Chronicle of a Death Foretold. A few days later, in a photograph taken in Islamabad, the grinning face of Salmaan’s killer stared out at me from the New York Times, reminding me uncannily of a similarly smiling face spouting a  mustache-less beard of the gentle, rational-sounding man I had met in New Orleans a few days earlier. I couldn’t help recalling Freud’s essay on “The Uncanny,” first published in 1919, wherein he argues that the unnerving feeling of the uncanny arises in us when what is “Heimlich”?or familiar?suddenly becomes “Unheimlich, ” or unfamiliar, strange, unrecognizable. But what is really interesting here, is that Freud, in digging through the dictionary definitions of these two words, points out how the latter word/meaning is  always already contained within the former in the meaning ascribed to “Heimlich” by Daniel Sanders’ German Dictionary of 1860. I quote from Freud:

In general we are reminded that the word ‘heimlich’ is not unambiguous, but belongs to two sets of ideas, which, without being contradictory, are yet very different: on the one hand it means what is familiar and agreeable, and on the other, what is concealed and kept out of sight.

‘Unheimlich’ is customarily used, we are told, as the contrary only of the first signification of ’heimlich,’ and not of the second. Sanders tells us nothing concerning a possible genetic connection between these two meanings of heimlich. On the other hand, we notice that Schelling says something which throws quite a new light on the concept of the Unheimlich, for which we were certainly not prepared. According to him, everything is unheimlich that ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light.?

Why are we unprepared for this definition or understanding of the meaning of the word/concept of “unheimlich”? Because that which is familiar, agreeable, and made so to us by centuries of culture, tradition, belief, practice?is not supposed to be anything but that. But what if that which is so agreeable and familiar and reassuring?such as in the case at hand, the religious faith and cultural traditions of Islam?also connotes that which “is concealed and kept out of sight”? As long as this “secret” is kept hidden, all is well with our world. We can maintain our faith in the familiar. However, when what ought to have remained secret and hidden comes to light, then we are in the presence of the unheimlich, and all hell breaks loose. Here are the definitions of Heimlich which itself contains the seeds of the dreaded Unheimlich, as quoted from Sanders by Freud in his essay, “The Uncanny”:

“Heimlich, adj., ? I. [B]elonging to the house, not strange, familiar, tame, intimate, friendly, etc. ? (b) Of animals: tame, companionable to man. ? (c) Intimate, friendly comfortable; the enjoyment of quiet content, etc., arousing a sense of agreeable restfulness and security as in one within the four walls of his house. Is it still heimlich to you in your country where strangers are felling your woods?’ ‘She did not feel too heimlich with him.’ ? II. Concealed, kept from sight, so that others do not get to know of or about it, withheld from others. To do something heimlich, i.e., behind someone’s back; to steal away heimlich; heimlich meetings and appointments. ? The heimlich art’ (magic). ‘Where public ventilation has to stop, there heimlich conspirators and the loud battle-cry of professed revolutionaries.’ ‘A holy, heimlich effect.’ ? ‘learned in strange Heimlichkeiten’ (magic arts).

? Note especially the negative ‘un-’: eerie, weird, arousing gruesome fear: ‘Seeming quite unheimlich and ghostly to him.’ ‘The unheimlich, fearful hours of night.’ ‘I had already long since felt an unheimich,’ even gruesome feeling.’ ‘Now I am beginning to have an unheimlich feeling.’ ? ‘Feels an unheimlich horror.’ ‘Unheimlich and motionless like a stone image.’ ‘The unheimlich mist called hill-fog.’ ‘These pale youths are unheimlich and are brewing heaven knows what mischief.’ ‘Unheimlich is the name for everything that ought to have remained … secret and hidden but has come to light’ (Schelling).? ‘To veil the divine, to surround it with a certain Unheimlichkeit.’ ?”

What is especially appropriate for my purposes here is the understanding, a la Freud, that the Divine is “Heimlich” only as long as it wears the face of familiarity, which in turn, paradoxically, can be comforting or familiar only as long as the divine is surrounded by a certain “Unheimlichkeit”; that is, the Divine is Divine only as long as it retains it secrecy, its hidden nature. To think one has understood the Divine Message in all of its dimensions, to expose it through the intolerance of certainty, to claim as Salmaan’s killer does (as do the killer’s  supporters and backers) that they have access to the Divine Truth which Salmaan and other “blasphemers” like him don’t and hence,  must be killed?well, then, that is to expose the beauty of what should have remained hidden and veiled, the dark mystery of the divine?to the ugly, horror-filled banality of a blinding, and blind, light. Indeed, one can argue that what Pakistan is witnessing today is the instantiation of the Uncanny, when the Heimlich becomes its opposite or more accurately,  more itself , a hollow holiness, or a holy hollowness–an effect “learned in strange Heimlichkeiten” or “magic arts.”  Religion now turned into Witchcraft, where perceived heretics must be burned at the stake, by those claiming most familiarity with the country’s religious bedrock.

Salmaan Taseer was the victim of a modern-day witch-hunt. He put his finger on the unsavory heimlich of current-day religiopolitics of Pakistan, he asked of his countrymen and women, the question Freud uses as an example to illustrate the buried “other,” the “strange” residing within the familiar and the reassuring: “Is it still heimlich to you in your country where strangers are felling your woods?” To call out the Islamists and those who would protect them, in whose presence the majority remains silent for fear of unleashing the Uncanny, Taseer exposed the un/heimlich underbelly of the strange yet familiar beast in our midst. For facing this fear of the Un/Heimlich Islamism head-on, for speaking up where the majority of his kinsmen stayed silent, he was killed by the forces, which we would do well to remember, lie within us all, buried in our collective Unconscious, where we mistakenly think we are safe from having to confront that which is unheimlich in ourselves, and which we therefore (cowards that we are)–choose to think of, instead, as heimlich.

‘Where public ventilation has to stop, there heimlich conspirators and the loud battle-cry of professed revolutionaries.’

The Pakistani Public must start breathing again; surely a self-questioning, secular, psychoanalytic model of thinking through Life’s heimlich mysteries is an uncanny pedagogy we might be better off embracing, rather than following blindly the unreasonable certainties of an un/heimlich Faith.

FAWZIA AFZAL-KHAN is a Professor and University Distinguished Scholar in the Department of English and Director of Women and Gender Studies at Montclair State University NJ. She is author, most recently, of the controversial memoir, Lahore With Love: Growing up with Girlfriends Pakistani Style (Syracuse University Press 2010; InsanityInk Publications 2011. She can be reached a: khanf@mail.montclair.edu


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Fawzia Afzal-Khan holds a Phd in English from Tufts University, is University Distinguished Scholar at Montclair State University in NJ, and currently a Visiting Professor of the Arts at New York University in Abu Dhabi. She can be reached at:  fak0912@yahoo.com

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