Interview with Ishtiyaq Shukri on his new novel, “I See You”

Shukri: “Imagine a world in which the first question you would be asked is not ‘Where are you from?’ but ‘What have you read?’ Why should the borders of the nation state into which I was born forever dictate the boundaries of my being?”

In 2006, the first photographs of the systematic torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were leaked to news agencies. They provided a window into US-led enclaves of torture, in locations where no international law seemed to apply. It was also a time in which many first learned about CIA-organised abductions and torture of key civilians believed to have crucial information about terrorist organisations. Ishtiyaq Shukri’s first novel, The Silent Minaret, centring around the unexplained disappearance (we never learn the reasons why) of one young South African-born student, Issa Shamsuddin, in London, was published in that same year; it resonated with me in a way few books have. Shukri linked, through the use of a variety of narrative techniques, colonial era tactics used to subdue people and control their resources with similar strategies employed by both apartheid-era South Africa and the post 9/11 world. After reading The Silent Minaret, there’s no mistaking that the tactics used by 16th and 17th century empires – including the abduction, transport, and imprisonment of dissenters in distant island-gulags – are parallel to those that have been used by the empire-builders of the 21th century; we realise, as we follow Issa’s intellectual trajectory, that during the so-called Global War of Terror, the U.S. and its powerful allies have similarly confiscated vast swathes of land, displaced millions of people, and forcibly taken over access to this century’s most valued resource – petroleum.

Eight years later, Shukri’s second novel, I See You, has finally arrived. It also deals with a disappearance of a man, but this time, we know that he was definitively abducted. Through beautifully paced flashbacks – told in Tariq Hassan, and his wife, physician Leila Mashal’s points of view – we learn about the details of the day leading up to Tariq’s capture. What do we know about Tariq Hassan? That he is an accomplished photographer who has won international recognition for his photographs of people caught up in war. Specifically, he has become famous for one award-winning photograph that humanised the effects of a war in a fictional African nation, Kasalia: it depicts a young girl, battered and bloodied by sexual violence, leading her father by the hand towards a refugee camp. In the years after this iconic photograph won him fame, he begins to investigate the money trail: what are the origins of the billions necessary for financing this war, which is, ostensibly, being fought over access to an essential mineral (one used ubiquitously in cell-phones and computers) found in Kasalia? Through him, we begin to get glimpses of details that hardly ever make the news – details about trade networks and political relationships that make wars like Kasalia’s possible, particulars about linkages between arms conglomerates, weapons-dealers, well-trained South African mercenaries who are now farmed out to provide expertise in such under-handed wars, and the “new” South Africa’s elected officials who benefit from the lucrative war-mercenaries-arms-trade.

I read the last third of I See You on a full-moon night in Cape Town. The pacing of the sections, going between Leila’s and Tariq’s points of view, and sections of a war memoir—written by the young Kasalian girl in Tariq’s now-famous photograph—is so precisely paced that I could not put the book down. Outside, the moon was an enormous disc, and the rabbit on the moon—its outline etched so clearly on brilliant white—looked like it was leaping over Table Mountain. The next day, a thick fog had rolled in, and low grey clouds obscured the mountain. I finished the novel just as the sun was breaking over a patch of slate sea, exposing glittering silver ripples below. As with Shukri’s first novel, I See You inevitably drew my thoughts to other places in which imperial expansions are quietly—and not so quietly—erasing people, landscapes and waterways, orchards and daily practices built on bringing harvest to table. It was mid-July, 2014; during that month, only a person bent on hedonistic amnesia would have been able to ignore Israel’s systematic, violent attempts to erase Gaza. Again, as I read the final scenes of I See You, I thought of Abu Ghraib, and of the photographs that revealed what Americans then subsequently spent much of their energies pushing out of their lines of vision. In fact, many photographs taken in Abu Ghraib never made it into Americans’ consciousness or released to the public at all. After I put this novel down, I remembered one particular photograph that was released, but for complex reasons involving why we attach emotional investment to certain depictions of pain and suffering and not others, didn’t make the gruesome rounds on email. The photograph I’m thinking of is an aerial shot: we are looking down onto a concrete prison floor from high up above, from some window or balcony facing an enclosed courtyard-like space. But to use the word “courtyard” evokes too many beautiful images—trees, shade, a bench on which one might sit and take afternoon tea. This space has none of that inviting beauty. It is concrete, surrounded by bars. The image is grainy. But we see what’s down below well enough. Two men are standing. They are in uniform. We do not see enough detail to see faces. Between them is a prone, naked body, sprawled on the floor. His head is twisted to the side, and I can almost see his face. The limbs, too, are perverted into odd angles, but we see that this was once a beautiful body: built of long, lean muscle and graceful bones. Have you ever seen the wood stain that the Amish coax out of walnut shells? That is the colour of this man’s skin. I saw this photograph, and my thoughts went immediately to the bodies of my beautiful nephews—at eighteen, nineteen, growing up lithe and easy into the bodies of young men. I think of my partner, who has the same lovely bone structure, broad shoulders, and dark skin. Here, in this photograph, I see more than a trace of the bodies I love. This boy, surrounded by fluids leaking out of every orifice in his body—there’s a darker pool near his head, and a lighter pool by the lower part of his body—is still, beautiful.

I See You is not a story of returns and happy reunions. Instead, we learn about the resolve that it takes to remain that still, despite the will of those who benefit from war, despite, in fact, the will of the torturer who stands in front of you. We learn about the demands made of us when we commit to principles, and of the fearlessness that such commitment requires. Here’s the interview:

Without giving away the plot of I See You, I want to ask about the final scenes, where you write a detailed description of torture. Well, let me qualify: it is detailed in some ways, but not necessarily clinical or simply observational; it’s experiential…you somehow write about the experience of being tortured, something I’ve rarely seen a writer do well. We see, or rather, we feel, the body of the beloved, before it is broken and left to spill its contents onto some anonymous concrete floor. We know that is the only realistic end. It takes a lot from a reader to sit with that level of reality. But the pacing ensures we don’t put the book down, especially when the material gets too hard to face. Can you speak about writing those scenes, the pacing you chose, alternating between points of view (Tariq’s, Leila’s, Monica Dimono—the Kasalian war memoirist’s points of view), and…why you end with this demand—asking the reader to live with it?

Let’s begin at the end. Why be linear in an interview about a novel that subverts beginnings? The theme of torture is hinted at from very early on in the novel, Tariq imagining through a distorted nursery rhyme the kind of grim circumstances that would lead to his toes being eliminated, for example, as well as the initial descriptions of the Kasalia image. So torture is alluded to early on, but the experience delayed, with hindsight, a mechanism to prepare the reader, I suppose

I struggled with how to depict torture almost to the point of avoiding it, but because torture has been such a prominent feature of the ‘war on terror’Abu Ghraib, for instanceI could not bury my head in the sand about it. That would have been disingenuous of me. To be sincere, I would have to confront it, starting with myself, by frequently imagining myself into the position of the tortured, by reading everything I could about it, by listening to the testimonies of victims of torture. And when the time came to write about it, I endeavoured to do so ethically, by attempting to portray and acknowledge it, without necessarily inflicting it on the reader or my characters. I did not want to write gratuitous torture scenes about the process of pulling nails for example, or elimination of toes. I had no interest in ‘being’ the torturer in that sensethe writer who tortures his characters. But more impactful than physical torture is the depiction of psychological torture through the prolonged isolation Tariq has to endure, and the effect it has on his beautiful mind. That is really the most sustained depiction of torture in the book because survivors often describe the psychological effects of torture as being worse than the physical ordeal itself. These scenes with Tariq were hard and very intense to write. They are really where most of the years of writing the novel were spent. Yet curiously, I have no clear recollection of writing them, which is unusual because I otherwise have very vivid associations of the writing process, with certain pieces of writing evoking particular places in the way smells and music do.

Having said that, Monica’s testimony is where writing started. That I remember clearly, because Tony Blair had just been elected to his second term despite having taken the UK into an illegal war in Iraq. And while Tariq endures mostly psychological torture, at least in the timeframe of the novel, hers is physical, a testimony of rape as a weapon of war, and the fact that women have become the primary victims of modern conflict. But it quickly became clear that the novel itself could not start there. It would simply have been too abrupt an entry. There was a huge backstory to be told first, a context to be set if the reader was going to identify with this young woman. While ISY seems to be a story about Tariq, another way of reading it would be as a story about Monica for whom Tariq is initially a conduit. Monica is the revelation, and Tariq’s photograph of her is really the novel’s first heartbeat, or perhaps one of its firstthis novel takes many first breaths. And like Leila, Monica too is a diamond that steps into the light, and perhaps with greater success. As the storyline’s pendulum oscillates, Monica’s story stands as the two end-points; her story is first told through Tariq’s photograph and later through her own testimony.

These three peopleMonica, Leila, and Tariqswing inseparably through the novel, their narratives being interdependent and intertwined. And so, in the novel’s final movement, their stories overlap with greater frequency and urgency, until their boundaries become blurred and they merge as one. Because really, for all of us, where do the parameters of my life end and yours begin? All our lives overlap in ways we aren’t even aware of, the only variable being to what extent.

Like you, many readers have described not being able to put the book down at this point. My question is ‘Why?’ when the book actually gives them very little to work with. To me, this compulsion to read on despite the text’s insistence on withholding is a testimony to their reading, not my writing. It speaks to the meaning readers bring to the text, because this is not a book that indulges the reader. This book is not about writing, which is often sparse and frequently filled with gaps, like a tapestry, which may once have been resplendent but is now moth eaten and threadbare, leaving the reader to have to work quite hard at filling the gaps and making the leaps to create meaning from fragments. In this final sequence, there’s no mentioning of names to delineate characters, for example. That’s evident throughout the book, but especially here. By this time, as the story passes from one unnamed narrator to another, the reader has to hold the story in place and identify who is speaking not by name but by voice and the events being described. So on the contrary, this is a book about reading. That the reader can do all that work and be totally engaged is a testimony to her reading, because really at this stage that is what the reader must be enjoyingher reading through inference, not my writing through withholding. And at this late stage in the novel, the reader can’t pick and choose, can’t skip and miss; she has to read it all because by now it’s one for all and all for one, so to speak. Of the three voices, it’s Monica’s that emerges for the first time here, when perhaps the reader was least expecting it, if at all. And with Monica comes so much of the pace and precision you describe in that final movement. Monica is incredibly precise and efficient. She carries that final movement, like a surprising high note rising above a familiar refrain, because by this time Leila is contemplative and Tariq has, as you say, made the most difficult resolution possible—to remain still.

If we’re going to be sincere about the true meaning and consequences of torture on lives, then I think this is the only moral ending for this novel, requiring of the reader to live with it, hard as I know that must be because I struggle to read it myself, but in reality, that is what victims of torture have to dothey have to live with it. There are no pretty endings here. Those men in the Abu Ghraib images you describe, those who survived the ordeal, part of their being will always be suspended in those poses, as eternally as they are in those photographs.

In I See You, we return to something that you only alluded to obliquely in your first novel, The Silent Minaret: the ways in which Israel is systematically eradicating entire Palestinian villages by diverting flowing bodies of water into Jewish settler’s farms, whilst building a vast, snaking concrete wall across lands that once belonged to Palestinians. Here, I think, as you did in your first novel, you shift the reader’s line of thought from one war and contested location to another, creating layers that reveal the ways in which imperialism, conquest, and erasure works, rather than create easy parallels. Will you speak about the significance of Palestine to you, and these linkages you evoke between Palestine and South Africa? Why is it important—without being didactic—to illuminate those parallel sites of conquest and patterns adopted by imperial conquest?

Because Palestine is important to South Africans, as the recent march in Cape Town demonstrates, and support for Palestine was implicit throughout the anti-apartheid struggle. This is not a marginal issue to South Africans, because the parallel experiences of these two nations who have experienced imperial conquest speak directly to each other. We share the same stories. When I was growing up in the 70s and 80s, my grandparents used to drive us around neighbourhoods from which they had been evicted in the 50s after the implementation of the Group Areas Act. Palestinians tell those same stories of eviction and dispossession, but on a much more brutal scale and with more enduring consequences, like total exclusion and no right to return to ancestral lands in those parts of historical Palestine that are now called Israel. South Africans have District Six in Cape Town and Sophiatown in Johannesburg, for example—Palestinians have places like Deir Yassin, a village where Zionist militias massacred more than 100 Palestinians, mostly women, children and the elderly, in 1948. Sixty-six years later, Israel is still killing Palestinians with impunity, as its recent onslaught on Gaza demonstrates. That, and because since 1948, this is a situation that the world has stood by and watched escalate for nearly seventy years. Actually, ‘stood by and watched’ implies a kind of passive voyeurism, whereas in fact Israel’s aggressive actions of imperial conquest, domination, extermination and erasure of Palestinians actually happens with overt international support and approval, most notably from the US, the UK, and others. Apologists will of course deny the parallel between South Africa and Palestine, but you can’t dispossess people and deprive them of the language with which they choose to describe their dispossession. That’s an attempt at total erasure. People know their circumstances and will choose the language that fits. The thousands of South Africans who marched in Cape Town, they know apartheid and what it looks like. Are they all wrong? Clearly Obama thinks they are.

That brings me to your protagonists—be it Issa Shanmsuddin in The Silent Minaret, or Tariq Hassan in I See You—who begin their political journeys in South Africa as social, intellectual and political journeys as outsiders, as Others. For these characters, there’s never any other option—no angst about wanting to belong or be a part of a peer group. This otherness allows them to question easy nationalism, revealing the ways in which the privilege of belonging is made possible, most often, using violence and exclusion—they seem to take this as…an unquestioned must…a duty. You mention, in your interview with LitNet, that you are, in some ways, “homed” in many places, be it Palestine, Oman, London, or South Africa. In fact, you declare, very clearly, “I don’t believe in the nation state.” What does that ability to find belonging in multiplicity (or maybe, a sense of belonging in non-belonging), to multiple places, give you…and your fictional protagonists? What advantages, what drawbacks? Was there ever a longing for belonging, to align yourself to a particular nation as others do…as Edward Said himself mentions in his writing, particularly in his memoir, Out of Place?

I don’t think there ever was. Said’s memoir is a eulogy for a place into which he was bornPalestine, 1935but since it no longer exists, his sense of loss compounded by his impending mortality. Of course there are parallels that echo one’s own experience, but I was born into apartheid, into the era of ‘high apartheid’ as the period from 1961 to 1980 is called, and as a black South African my formative experiences of the state were not positive. Said’s nostalgia was perhaps more akin to that of my grandparents’ generation, although his was on a much greater scale. In the case my grandparents, they could at least take us on drives around the old neighbourhoods to see where they had lived and grown up. Without intending to diminish the trauma and injustice behind their displacement in any way, residents evicted from District Six for example, managed to hold on to their holy palaces—St Mark’s Church and Zeenatul Islam Masjid. By contrast, Palestinians were dealt total expulsion.

Yes, I recall a teenage admiration for the way in which British athletes embraced the Union Flag, but that was short-lived as consciousness of my doubly colonised African-Indian lineage came into play. Clearly, I had inherited ‘baggage’ and South Africa, India, Britain and the Netherlands were conspiring entities to overcome. But not having been brought up to indulge the role of victim, I had to take a stand. My most definitive decision was to jettison the nation, because what is colonialism, what are apartheid and empire if not the perverse constructs of nations? And what are nations but the constructs of powerful men, Rhodesia being perhaps the most perverse example? Who drew those straight lines on the map of Africa? But even with liberation and democracy and equal opportunities for women and rights for the disabled, nations are exclusivist, defining themselves as much by whom they exclude as include. South Africa’s rainbow clearly does not cast its glow on migrantsthat word ‘migrant’ having become code for poor, black and African because let us be honest, while we object to them, we continue to brown tongue rich white Europeans. This is true around the world. The borders we guard so fiercely, they are there to keep out the poor while the rich are free to pass. Nations demand total loyalty and allegiance while actively distinguishing between and discriminating against their citizens. Which nation, democratic or otherwise, does not privilege its rich over its poor, its men over its women? That has everything to do with the nation as avatar for the corporation. And how do nations treat indigenous people, India’s treatment of the Adivasis, for example, who in post-colonial India continue to be deprived, marginalised and dispossessed? How has Indian independence benefited them? The same can be asked of Native Americans. Nations are violent exactly because their borders undermine our human family by dividing the world into ‘here’ and ‘there’, into ‘us’ and ‘them’, of which sending drones to bomb ‘them over there’ is the most recent manifestation. The worst kind of outrageous can be committed and condoned in the name of the nation—Margaret Thatcher’s 1982 Falkland’s War for instance, and Germany’s heinous experiment with the Third Reich, in which Palestinians, let it be noted, played no part, but for which they are now paying the price. The state of Israel, the convoluted product of German audacity, is another outrageous example. Its ‘right to exist’, however tenuous its claim, is all that matters. But of course, and here we come perhaps to the crux of the matter, nations were ordained by God—‘IN GOD WE TRUST’—so that, for example, Palestinian title deeds to property, keys to houses, family photographs, historical records, the living memories and testimony of living witnesses passed on to their direct decedents about what happened in 1948, international law… all of these things amount to nothing next to a claim based on religious texts from 3,000 years ago. In a world intent on states, why should Palestinians be deprived one?

And what do nations and borders mean anyway when migrations resulting from conflict, war and climate change are tugging at national boundaries and identities like never before? African and Asian borders are fast becoming irrelevant. The border between Bangladesh and India is one case in point. Despite Bangladesh’s independence in 1971, millions of Bangladeshis have migrated to India, most to West Bengal. In recent times, they have been displaced by rising sea levels resulting from climate change. As has been said, they should be allowed to migrate to the rich countries that emit the greenhouse gases forcing their displacement—to the US, for example. But they move to India, where back in 2007 the Indian government estimated there to be 20 million ‘illegal’ Bangladeshi migrants in India. This adjective ‘illegal’ is an appalling construction of the fortified nation state used universally to describe humanity’s most vulnerable people and to undermine their plight. In the case of India and Bangladesh, its use is particularly pernicious when we remember that Bangladesh used to be India before it became East Pakistan and finally Bangladesh, a convoluted process of nationalist invention and reinvention through a brutal war of liberation with what was then West Pakistan—now Pakistan—a war that claimed the lives of millions. Yet, in ethnic terms, these are the same people. Bangladeshis speak the same language—Bengali—as Indians on the other side of the border in the state of West Bengal, yet the notion of nation has driven a wedge into that shared linguistic heritage. And for what? In the case of Bangladesh, it remains one of the poorest countries in the world and the 3rd poorest in the region. What’s more, the geography of Bangladesh means there’s little prospect of this ever changing. Why build a country on a swamp? Geography also limits economic potential for countries like Chad, one of about fifteen landlocked states in Africa, which together comprise one-third of the continent’s landmass with some of the lowest Human Development Index scores in the world, effectively mitigating against the possibility of people achieving their full potential. Why are they still countries when they trap people in poverty? By contrast, consider the map of Western Europe with about five landlocked countries, which includes the Vatican. Consider also the correlation between European national borders and language and how Africa has been deprived of such calibration. Clearly the time has come to reconsider Africa’s ridiculous and ineffective borders. Yet who has seized this initiative? In East Africa, the jihadist group Al Shabab is defying the borders of South Sudan, Uganda and Kenya. In West Africa, Boko Haram is doing the same in Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger and Chad. In the Middle East, the borders of Syria and Iraq are collapsing under Islamic State as we speak. While nation states remain lumbering and intransigent, jihadist movements have been innovative and flexible—they neither see nor respect national borders. Where do Islamic State fighters come from? Who was James Foley’s executioner? Jihadists are embarking on a new cartography. So long as nation states insist on old paradigms, they will always be one step behind. And with only eleven countries in the world free from conflict, there are now 51 million refugees and displaced people in the world—the highest since WWII. Viewed together as a country, they would form the world’s 25th most populous state, roughly the size of South Africa. How has the nation benefitted them? To them, nation states are like plush suburbs from which they are excluded.

So why would I want to subscribe to such a defunct notion as nation when clearly it is no longer fit for purpose? Going beyond the boundaries of nation has provided the multiplicity you describe, and has defined my creative path. For example, my first serious attempt at writing fiction was in Cairo in 1996. That’s where the manuscript that would become TSM began. The process prompted me to walk the city from Shubra in the north to Masr Al Qadima in the south, from the Citadel in the east to Mohandiseen in the westoften, by day and by night. It made me sad that I can’t walk Johannesburg, the city of my birth, in the same way. And although Cairo doesn’t feature in TSM, it does in ISY in Leila’s walk with Yahya during her visit. I submitted to Cairo, steered clear of the tourist enclave, lived in the local neighbourhood of Rod Al Farag, and made it my home. It was my first lived experience outside the familiarity of the English-speaking world. None of this was easy, not by any means, but it was a right of passage for what was to come: Bombay, Ramallah and London-beyond-the-postcard, all seemed ‘effortless’ after Cairo. Cairo was my breaking and my remaking, as was London. Little of what I had been taught and assumed to be universally true held in Cairo—or for that matter, in London—starting with English. Unless you’re intent on five star hotels and expatriate circles, English will not take you very far in Cairo. That was hard, setting aside English for Arabic, and at first the effort and sheer strain was simply exhausting. So Sinatra’s line—‘If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere’—is as true for Cairo and London as it is for New York. Drawbacks? None worth mentioning. One learns to read cities likes books. During those early days in Cairo, everywhere looked the same. Now, I’ll never be lost in Cairo, or anywhere else. It’s about survival skills outside the rut, about learning to operate effectively beyond the comfort zone of the national clique. Advantages? Frances, Issa, Katinka, Kagiso, Tariq, Ma Gloria, Yahya, Monica, Leila. They’re all exiles from orthodoxy and received identities, all find (some kind of) belonging in multiplicity, or belonging in non-belonging as you say. The most obvious of these are Issa and Tariq. For Tariq, not belonging, travelling off the beaten track as he does, is clearly much of the driving force behind the novel. But they are the obvious ones. Frances, Yahya, Ma Gloria and Kagiso, they are quieter, more contemplative—the ‘helpers’—yet also profoundly defined by their non-belonging. But all these characters are bigger than the states that try to curtail them, and all are out of place. They’re good company, although Issa haunts me still. So my allegiance is to them. My allegiance is to the creative process they demand

In that same interview in Lit Net, you detail why a passport does not make a person, nor give a person an identity or belonging…especially something that becomes apparent when you realised that your passport “belongs to the South African government, and […] can be withdrawn at any time”. A lot of what I read in both of your novels is a challenge to such easy, go-to sorts of identity locators. Why do you think it is so easy for people who only know of the world as it exists post-construction of the nation-state to refer to nation as the primary locus around which their identity is built?

I think it’s because nation states present themselves as absolute. The idea of nation is ingrained from very early on, by family, and definitely in school, so that it becomes taken for granted as the only way to be in the world. In countries with a history of colonialism, the nation state also embodies liberation, even though once in place, many have embarked on new forms of oppression and tyranny, as is the case in Zimbabwe, for example. And some of the world’s most repressive laws pertain to acts of treason. The UK for example has a lot of legislation around treason dating back to 1351. The Treason Felony Act of 1848, for instance—which makes advocating for the abolition of the monarchy, or even to imagine doing so, a criminal offence punishable by life in prison—is still technically in force. I think all this nationalist programming makes it almost taboo to question the nation and its representatives. The result is that it’s hard to imagine an identity not prefixed on the nation. There isn’t even the language to talk about it. And where words exist they have extremely negative connotation. For example, what is the opposite of a patriot? A traitor? And while somebody who doesn’t believe in God is an atheist, what’s the word for somebody who doesn’t believe in the nation? I suppose that’s too unconscionable to even have a name. So it’s easier to surrender one’s identity to the nation than to stand outside it. Ruth Fisher from the TV series Six Feet Under makes a very astute observation in a conversation with her second husband, George Sibley, a geologist. She says, ‘To me the state of California has always been here, but for you I guess it’s just passing through.’

Here’s a related question: Do you hope readers will question the threads on which their patriotism is hung as they read your fiction? Why might patriotism—and questioning patriotism—be a complicated thing for South Africans, seeing as one wants to “be proud” and assert belonging to a place that actively ejected one from this location, and, at the same time, be critical of nation-building rhetoric, be alert to the danger of that nationalism? I mean, South Africans have to do all that whilst being careful not to fall into the ranks of the dystopian “Afro-pessimism” pundits!

I can’t speak for my readers or anticipate what they will take away from reading. They will have their own notions of identity and sources of pride. But I hope my fiction complicates official narratives of boil-in-the-bag recipes for ready-to-eat patriotism. Imagine a world in which the first question you would be asked is not ‘Where are you from?’ but ‘What have you read?’ And before we dismiss the prospect as being bourgeois or elitist, consider the first word of Islam, the first word of the Qur’an revealed to the Prophet, the first commandment, before prayer, before pilgrimage, before fasting, before charity, even before the word ‘Allah’ itself. Where we are born is to me an accident of birth. Why should the borders of the nation state into which I was born forever dictate the boundaries of my being? We are all born with limitless potential, until the nation imposes its restrictions. The creative process, if it is to have any independent integrity, has to operate beyond such limitations. What I have read—despite the apartheid state’s overt attempts to deprive me of reading—has had a far greater and far more enduring influence on who I am. I read to overcome the world. Without reading, I would never have been able to fulfil the only ambition I have ever really had, which is to write. I take pride in my work. I am what I do, not where I was born. I celebrate the achievements of my friends, family and colleagues. I stand in awe of the creative achievements of other artists, past and present, and endeavour to live by the codes of decency and the demands of the creative life. I live quietly and cultivate an inner life. I would have to be very empty inside, very unfulfilled to seek validation in national pride. Let’s take South Africa. This is a state that actively discriminated against the majority of its citizens. Then, in 1994, it underwent what with hindsight seems to have been a very stage-managed reinvention. Since then, moments of great national pride have for example been the Rugby World Cup in 1995 and the 2010 FIFA World Cup. But for me, the mark of a nation is not how it behaves when it is in the spotlight; a more revealing feature is its everyday conduct, when the party is over. I don’t judge South Africa’s achievements by how successfully it courts the rich, but by how appallingly it treats the poor. Viewed that way, from ‘below’, so to speak, Marikana becomes post-apartheid South Africa’s defining moment, telling a completely different story. And if that weren’t bad enough, the treatment of the Marikana widows since the massacre has been totally shameful. I refuse to take pride in that, in a state that can’t be trusted, in an institution that will pay lip service to “workers’ rights” one day but mow down miners—the archetypal image of labour in South Africa—the next. Marikana was South Africa’s moment of truth, not just a slap in the face of our political struggle for a better world, but also an affront to our literary tradition. One of the first books about life as a black man during apartheid was Peter Abraham’s 1946 novel, Mine Boy. Marikana will cast a dark shadow for a long time to come, a shadow that won’t recede, not until its victims find justice and their survivors restitution. I am beholden to humanity first, that is my tribe, not governments or artificially constructed nations.

Let me return to the novel. Tariq Hassan, though he seems like the most unbelievably admirable character, is not above the annoying behaviours that many in the “left” are prone to—posing at solidarity with the oppressed, attempting symbolic deeds that will only create…well, symbolic results and possibly discomfort for the people who have to live with oppression every day. I’m referring to the short section where he is upset that he didn’t get to wait in the long line of cars at the Israeli checkpoint, and is upset with his Palestinian friend, Yaya, for getting them through fast. Why did you include that section? Why was it important to show that anger (Yaya’s) towards those who playact at feeling oppression, and think that that’s “solidarity” (pp. 75-78)?

Absolutely. I was once in a taxi with Palestinian colleagues when a European passenger confronted an Israeli soldier at a checkpoint where a long line of Palestinian vehicles had been stopped, all of which were biding their time. Our European friend went up to the soldiers at the checkpoint and started yelling at them. I suppose she took this as a gesture of bravado, but my Palestinian companions all rolled their eyes. Of course, our vehicle was singled out and made to pull over even further, all our Palestinian passengers made to disembark to have their paperwork examined, and we were all processed last. Immediate, tangible result: an even more severely delayed journey for everybody.

Tariq’s question in the radio interview is pertinent. When there is a crisis, what skills can you bring to the situation? How altruistic and sincere are your motives? Does your intervention change anything in any way? Does your presence make things better or worse for locals? Have you compromised the safety or livelihoods of local people in any way? Are your actions about you, or them? When you leave, what legacy have you created during your stay that will endure in any meaningful way after you have gone? And when you’re back home, how do you continue to engage with the people you have left behind—if at all?

I suppose that I wanted to create a more nuanced depiction of the fraught experience of the checkpoint, itself illegal, and the locus for so many of the discriminatory dynamics of military occupation. Less about ‘security’, checkpoints are designed to subjugate, humiliate and stifle the freedom of movement of Palestinians while also hampering the economic growth of the Occupied Palestinian Territories. But more than this, it’s the psychological impact of checkpoints that is especially insidious, prompting internal anxiety about how long the journey might take, calling ahead to establish whether there are any impromptu ‘flying checkpoints’ on the way, thinking twice about whether I actually even need to make this journey at all, especially when times are hard and I can’t afford to spend money on a wasted journey—all of this, is, in fact, carefully designed with the aim of keeping Palestinians in their place. And when you eventually arrive at the checkpoint is when the wrangling starts. How long will I be here? Will I be allowed through? Might I be detained, humiliated or harassed? Will I be searched, and to what extent? Will I be strip-searched and be made to drop my trousers in full and public view? If I, travelling on an international passport, have felt these anxieties, how much more anxious must a Palestinian be traveling on local papers?

And then there’s the segregation of the checkpoint—women separated from men, younger men from older men, internationals from locals, prompting the further concerns about whether my whole family or all my companions will be allowed through. Groups are often broken up, with some members allowed to continue while others have to return home. I have, for example, been pulled out of queues along with other internationals at pedestrian checkpoints of the kind that surround Nablus by Israeli soldiers to be processed first. And on several occasions, when Palestinians in the queue have spotted my foreign passport, they would graciously usher me to the front, reminding me that I did not have to queue with them. Why should I, an international, have the freedom to pass while they are kept waiting in the country of their birth? Of course, the privilege given to yellow Israeli plates and denied to green Palestinians ones is another manifestation of Israeli discrimination having mutated into far more extreme and extensive forms than South African apartheid. This I have not only witnessed but also experienced first hand, having on occasion myself been transported around the West Bank in hired cars with Israeli plates when that was simply the most efficient way of getting around—even into refugee camps by sending a message ahead to inform of one’s arrival in an Israeli car.


Related to that: why make Tariq, as a photographer—a war photographer—so ethically sound, so conscious of others’ dignity, their right to their narratives, their right to privacy? So many photographers who work in such situations are…well, not so concerned with getting to know the persons they photograph—relying on what they know will shock/hook their own public, rather than being committed to conveying a narrative of resilience and dignity. There’s still the danger of getting people to trust one, as Tariq does, and…then risk, possibly, exploiting their suffering in the name of educating the global public in order to mobilise action. How did you deal with those concerns (I’m thinking of the answers Tariq gives during his radio interview (pp. 51-71).

To write Tariq I did a lot of reading and research about war photographers, and as you say, many are only concerned with their subjects in so far as they make for a good shot. That seems to me to lead to a telling of ‘their’ story, not ‘our’ story. Tariq acknowledges this in the interview you reference. But during my research I kept finding myself coming back to the work and practice of one photographer—James Nachtwey, who says: “I have been a witness, and these pictures are my testimony”. He is a very compassionate photographer, and his work displays total empathy for his subjects. I suppose that’s why I kept returning to his images during my writing, and why I wrote Tariq in the way I did, out of respect for Nachtwey. They both seem to pass through the lens and into the lives of their subjects. The men they are, their compassion is as evident in their work as the people they photograph. Their photographs also appear to be inadvertent self-portraits of their integrity and compassion, at least to me, anyway.

About that tin of sardines on the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), to which Tariq refers(71; 81; 113): in many ways, that list conveys deprivation in a way that a dozen photographs could not. But his photograph conveys what that list cannot: it is the “luxury item” in the food relief rations for three people for four months. It is the thing that “does not belong with the others” (as the Sesame Street song goes). What made you hone in on that incongruity?

Because when I saw that list of UNRWA rations, I was shocked. The list is quite basic, and the tin of sardines thrown in at the end just underlines the deprivation of the list. Why have it there at all? It’s the injury to the insult of the list. To me that tin of sardines came to symbolise the humiliation of Palestinian refugees, your country for a tin of sardines—and a refugee camp, of course. But it was also the timing. I became aware of that list in 2006, after the US and EU led sanctions against the Palestinian National Authority following the election of Hamas in January of that year. What was striking was that at the time there was a popular consensus amongst non-refugee Palestinians that the refugee population of the West Bank and Gaza were cared for by UNRWA and were therefore somehow unaffected by or cushioned from the worst effects of the sanctions. This clearly was not the case, and still isn’t.

“In the beginning there was compromise” (129), notes the voice of Tariq, after going to see an opera in London. Then there’s a short section, an excerpt from Radio ANA, where there is a discussion about whether Tutu’s mandate for “forgiveness” was really a “mandate for political expediency” (according to Biko’s family). I was looking through some of George Hallett’s photographs of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s proceedings as I read your novel, and couldn’t help but be diverted by the layers and layers of complications to which you allude. Can you expand on some of those unsaid things here? Why leave this as it is in the novel—as a radio soundbite, sort of lost among other headlines?

Because the TRC was a big theme in TSM, so I didn’t want to go there again, not this time, at least. More importantly, that soundbite serves to set the scene for Landau to whom the reader is introduced the subsequent chapter. It’s really about tuning the reader in to him, because once we meet Landau, the pace and the tone of the novel begin to change. He is, as it were, the last of the main characters to be introduced, the malcontent, the dark cloud that looms on the horizon. Initially the question is ‘Why?’ given how his late appearance more than halfway into the novel seems at first to take the action backwards, until we come to realise his dark intentions. Landau, the beneficiary of TRC amnesties. Landau, the only character in the book without a family name, Landau, the namesake of Israel’s 1987 Landau Commission, which contained guidelines for acceptable methods of interrogation because ‘the exertion of a moderate degree of physical pressure cannot be avoided’. The obvious question remains, how would a man like Landau define a word like ‘moderate’?

The opera scene of course explores the ultimate taboo—that 1994 was faked. But how does one depict such a seemingly preposterous proposition in any credible way? I wrote and rewrote that scene several times using different narrative styles—a documentary script, an opinion piece, a revisionist historical article—but none worked. Yet, these factual styles could not contain an idea, which on the surface seems too outlandish to be entertained as fact. So I had to pause to consider how other writers have portrayed the thing that can’t be stated. That was when I remembered one of the most remarkable novels of my reading—The White Hotel, in which DM Thomas explores the taboos of violent sexual fantasy and female sexual hysteria by famously writing parts of the novel in the score of Mozart’s opera, Don Giovanni. Of course, I coated my own taboo even further by relegating the opera to the recollections of Tariq’s by now unravelling mind. In the face of the kind of overwhelming state rhetoric we’ve seen in South Africa, it was only in this extreme fictionalisation of a fiction inside a fiction, each nesting in the other like of set of Russian Matryoshka dolls, that I found the space to suggest that 1994 was faked. And this is perhaps fiction’s greatest virtue, and also its greatest responsibility—to say that unsayable, to imagine the unimaginable.

When her photographer-husband, Tariq Hassan, is abducted, Leila Mashal enters the arena of politics reluctantly. As a physician, she is a person who finds comfort in mapping the body, in locating sites of disease (that is, where the body is attacked, or does not function well) and finding ways to heal those sites of ill-function. She knows this landscape, and has an easy entry into these spaces. The political is something with which she engages only because she is violently forced to confront the impact of the political. Why is this an important lesson for us to learn, especially as South Africans are enmeshed in the rhetoric of economic empowerment as the panacea/solution for all its problems brought about by a history of racial inequality and violent dispossession? Access to and an education in technical arenas, competence or even brilliance at problem-solving—all that does not mean that one actually gains access to one’s own body and the set of rights it should have?

Yes, when Tariq is abducted Leila pursues the political process, to what end is for the reader to discover. For now, let’s just say she encounters resistance from an unexpected source. Who really has access? Do the Marikana widows? Because when Tariq is abducted, Leila becomes a single woman, and despite her medical training and expertise and financial means, how politically empowered is she really? Under what circumstances would South Africa elect a female leader? What has been the real trajectory of female politicians in South Africa? What is the gender composition of the cabinet? Who is South Africa’s most successful female politician today, and why? What space is there for women in the political process, not as male agents or abhorrent Thatcherite ‘iron ladies’, but as women? Let’s start with Winnie.

In a way, I thought, Leila is an “us”—an “us” who is bereft, grieving, and directionless after an ethical figure central to our lives has left us or has been taken from us. Now, we have to step up and become that ethical figure, rather than leave that job to some mythical patriarch. Yet, as you noted, South Africans (and the general world’s population) live between “privilege and privation”; those who are privileged are often reluctant to politically engage, entrapped by “the fetish of security”—fearful of losing physical, financial, social security (LitNet). Fear, and desire for security seems to have such powerful implications for how people make day-to-day choices. Despite all this, Leila Mashal’s political platform is “freedom” (33). Can such a mandate still have resonance? Can that reminder—one’s responsibility for freedom—rouse a populace into taking responsibility for their agency, despite fear?

‘Rousing a populace’. That’s an enormous charge to place at the door of a literary novel. And what is the tipping point at which whole swathes of a population unite? Clearly it’s not going to be around ISY, or any other single text for that matter. The last time a single text ‘roused a populace’ was The Satanic Verses, and even then, most of ‘the populace’ had not actually read the book.

But what was important for me in 2014, twenty years after 1994, was to present a novel that invites readers to think again about the rhetoric of the past twenty years. I think that’s what good literature should attempt to do. And yes, to my mind freedom is still a cause because poverty is still an issue. Freedom is still a cause because inequality is still an issue—the issue, given how South Africa is now the most unequal country in the world, more unequal now than in 1994. These are the issues that will ‘rouse a populace’. It’s inevitable, unless these burning concerns are addressed swiftly and sincerely. Liberal homage to how ‘wonderful’ and how ‘forgiving’ and how ‘free of hatred and anger’ Mandela was means absolutely nothing when absolutely nothing has changed. It’s really only hollow speak intended to show that I’m not racist, to camouflage the perpetuation of my privilege while disavowing you of your disaffection. I don’t trust such language at all, and neither am I fooled by it. Insipid praise for Mandela is often the only positive comment about black Africa such speakers are able to make, he having been the only good black man in Africa—beyond that there is only derision for Africa and Africans. This hallow-fication of Mandela is exactly the kind of Uncle Tom-ism that is supposed to be a sign of us having achieved a post-apartheid era of racial equality but which in reality is the very attitude that has for twenty years stifled any real conversation about race in this country, laden as it is with the unflinching assumptions that we all want to live in the suburbs, that we all want to have dinner parties at which we eat haute cuisine with knives and forks, that we should all aspire to white liberal middle class waspish values because after all, they are the real hallmarks of true civilization and culture. It’s the kind of comment I put up there with ‘Cape coloureds have such a wonderful and colourful sense of humour’. Well, bully for you. But would you let your son or daughter marry one? And perhaps more to the point—would a ‘Cape coloured’ even want to marry you? I’ll have the cabbage bredie—and a spoon, please.

Because what if Mandela had been angry and unforgiving, would I have blamed him? Might his anger have forced me into being more sincere, and into a more honest reconsideration of the reasons for my privilege? Because might part of the explanation for his conciliatory disposition have had something to do with his economic comfort and wellbeing? Is the implication that the poor are wrong to be angry? That they should follow Mandela’s example instead, even though they have none of the access or comforts or financial prospects the Mandelas or the rest of this country’s political elite are privy to? These are the issues that will ‘rouse a populace’ because how free are the poor? How free are the marginalized? In fact, how free are the rich, fearfully guarding their supremacy behind high walls and electric fences and private security? And under what circumstances will all those private guns we hire turn against us, or against the state for that matter? I would especially like to remind the rich of that quote by Goethe that Leila uses in her email to Yahya: ‘None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free’. This increased militarization of safety and security to cushion ourselves from the effects of rampant inequality, this is not a wise or sustainable or an egalitarian landscape to be investing in. It will be our undoing. And when that populace is roused, don’t say you have not been warned, or worse, that you ‘didn’t know’.

Further Reading