Tag Archives: Walter Dalrymple

X. doesn’t like my post on “The insufferable entitledness of bikers” — or lots of other things I’ve written

12 Nov

…or, how does one react to the tiring self-righteousness of certain left-dudes.


X. (I want to respect anonymity) is a journalist who I generally like personally, whose work I respect, and whose opinions and judgements about the Middle East I value and find extremely useful; he’s my go-to guy, especially about Lebanon, a country I find particularly fascinating.  But he’s called me a few times too many on what are supposedly my biases, which generally consist — sorry to be crude — of my not being “brown enough”, in a way I find not just a little offensive.

I call it “not-brown-enough” because though his criticisms seem to indicate that he believes I’m on the right side where the oppressed are concerned, he also seems to think that I’m not on the side of those he considers the really and truly oppressed.

For one, he’s patently impatient and irritated by my concern for Middle Eastern Christians — though that’s par for the course when dealing with post-Christian Western intellectuals who, at best, have only traumatic memories of growing up Catholic or Lutheran and see any defense of Christianity as a racist and irrelevant leftover piece of creepy reaction. So for X., someone worrying about the survival of Eastern Christianity seems to be tantamount to being Pat Robertson.  For my part, I don’t think that, being Greek Orthodox, I should have to apologize for caring about the losing battle that eastern Mediterranean Christians are fighting.  (I would take a guess and assume X.’s unspoken attitude basically consists of: “Oh, so many millions are truly suffering and displaced and dying and you’re worried about 60 old Greek ladies in Istanbul”; well, yeah, somebody has to worry about those old Greek ladies in Istanbul too, ok?  No apology).  Nor do I think that I should have to apologize for believing that that battle for survival is real — or apologize for believing that it’s an ancient battle that dates back to the glorious entry of Arabs and Islam into the Greco-Roman-Christian and Sasanian worlds — or apologize for believing that that “entry” was anything but an unalloyed good — or apologize for believing that sectarianism in the region has a long and bloody history way before any blood-letting was caused or provoked by Western colonial powers.  I should probably send him a copy of one of Walter Dalrymple’s early and brilliant books: From the Holy Mountain: A Journey among the Christians of the Middle East.

Holy Mountain

But in an exchange about this issue, he had the gall to refer once to what he calls “elite minority supremacism”.  Remember that phrase; it’ll come back to haunt us all.  This means that it’s racist, on some level, and politically incorrect of me, to care about the rights of minorities — Orthodox Christians, Maronites, Jews, Copts, Armenians, the Alawites of Syria, the Shiites of southern Lebanon and the Bekka — when it’s really the Sunni majority of the Levant and Iraq that are the true victims.

Sorry.  The Sunni Muslim majority of the region were the politically, socially and economically privileged majority group until the late nineteenth century and specifically 1918 — that tragic year when Turkey capitulated and the Ummah and Caliphate were humiliated by the boot of the kaffir West.  That tragic humiliation is what left us with the likes of Sayyid Qutb and Osama bin Laden and Mohamed Atta, all so enraged and humiliated and boiling over with rancid testosterone.

Granted, not much sympathy from me there.  And the fact that the non-Sunni or non-Muslim minorities of the region might have found that “humiliation” to have been a liberation of sorts, after centuries of discrimination by said Sunnis, seems perfectly natural to me.  There’s a reason Maronites and Syrian Christians turned to France in the mid-nineteenth century and especially after 1860.  There’s a reason Syrian Alawites became the French Mandate’s mercenary force.  There’s a reason Serbs looked — somewhat ambiguously, with their typical wariness and sense that they don’t really need or think they should trust anybody else’s help — to Austria, and that Bulgarians and Armenians looked to an Orthodox Russia for most of the last two centuries of Ottoman rule in the Balkans and Anatolia.  They took a route that they believed, rightly or not, would give them protection from the ethnic and religious groups that had systematically marginalized and persecuted them.  So the result is that the 20th century and modernity come around and Syrian Alawites become the dominant military and therefore political force in that country.  The 20th century and modernity come around and most Maronites and other Christians in Lebanon are generally better educated, more connected to the outside world and better-off economically than most Lebanese Muslims.  And there’s a whole set of reasons that the 20th century came around and Ottoman Greeks, Armenians and Jews were also generally better educated, more connected to the outside world and better-off economically than most Ottoman Muslims except for a small elite.  Is the colonizing West entirely to blame for that too?

What fantasy world do intellectuals and journalists like X. live in, where everyone in the Near East loved each other and lived in harmony until the evil West and its divide-and-conquer policies showed up?  I would love to believe that but it’s just not supported by the historical record.  It’s a common academic trope of intellectuals from the region because it jibes with leftist anti-colonial discourse and it absolves regional players of any responsibility.  (See Ussama Makdisi‘s Aeon article Cosmopolitan Ottomans: European colonisation put an abrupt end to political experiments towards a more equal, diverse and ecumenical Arab worldor Ottoman Cosmopolitanism and the Myth of the Sectarian Middle East, or any of his other work for classic examples of this fictional genre; it’s his forte; he’s made a career of the argument.)

Screen Shot 2019-11-12 at 7.35.58 AM“European colonisation put an abrupt end to political experiments towards a more equal, diverse and ecumenical Arab world”

And wait a minute; let’s backtrack: you discriminate against a minority group; you bar it from conventional access to power and wealth; you confine it to the interstices and margins of your society, and in those interstitial niches they develop the skills and the talent that enable them to survive, and not only to survive, but to come out on top once they’re emancipated — and then that only makes you hate them even more — I’m sorry, but is that not the fucking textbook definition of anti-semitism??!!  Call it “elite minority supremacism” if you like.  It’s the same thing.  And just as nasty, racist and toxic.

Then there was a persnickety exchange about minorities — again — in Turkey this time.  X. disagreed with an eccentric but actually quite informed and smart Byzantinist Brit on Twitter, because he tweeted that “the state of minorities in Turkey is not a good advertisement for dhimmitude”.  “Dhimmi” in Arabic, or “Zimmi” in Turkish and Farsi pronunciation, is a term that specifically — and very specifically — means the non-Muslim subjects of an Islamic state.  X. thought that it was “epistemologically sloppy” of him to refer to the now practically vanished Christian and Jewish minorities of Turkey and ignore the intra-Muslim (for lack of a better word) minorities, like Kurds, Alevis, Zaza-speakers, or the Arabs of the south-east and Antakya (X. calls it Hatay, but I refuse to use the place-names of Turkish science-fiction nationalism).  Again, the Byzantinist Brit was supposedly being biased because he lamented the fate of Turkey’s non-Muslims and ignored its persecuted and more deserving of pity Muslim “minorities”.  But that’s his right to do and feel — and mine.  And, in fact, there was absolutely nothing “epistemologically sloppy” about his analysis.  By simple virtue of the fact that he used the word “dhimmi”, he made it unequivocally clear that he’s talking about Turkey’s non-Muslim minorities; he’s not using a “dog-whistle to mean Christians,” as X accused him of in one tweet.  He’s stating it very loud and clear that that’s what he’s concerned with.  But for X. that makes him biased and probably an Islamophobe, while all that he — and I — were doing was simply pointing out the fact that there was/is a qualitative and taxonomical difference between the status of non-Muslims in Turkey and sub-groups within the Muslim majority in Turkey.  And proof of that qualitative difference is born out precisely by the fact that the Christian and Jewish groups have practically vanished; “elite minority supremacism” apparently didn’t save them.  Tell me what X.’s objection was, because I can’t make heads or tails of it — talking about “epistemologically sloppy”.

Then we go to New York.  I post this piece: The insufferable entitledness of bikers :

“The National Transportation Safety Board has recommended that helmets be required for all bicyclists in the U.S., but some advocacy groups say putting the recommendation into law can have unintended consequences.”
[Me]: How ’bout we let them crack their heads open, and then maybe they’ll think about how biking — in a city like New York at least, not Copenhagen — is a deeply ANTI-URBAN, elitist, yuppy phenomenon that makes our cities’ centers more and more inaccessible to borough dwellers who can’t afford to live there, to street vendors, to truckers, to commercial traffic, to theater-goers and to everything that makes New York New York and not Bruges, all dressed up in the pedantic Uber-Green self-righteousness of a bunch of rich vegan kids from Michigan?
Walt Whitman would be turning in his grave.
Blows me away that more people don’t see that.
I immediately get a response from X., because he’s one of those people who always has a pre-printed ravasaki in his breastpocket with an analysis and a supporting, supposedly proof/text for almost any political issue.  You’re concerned with Christians in Syria?  X. is right there on the barricades to call you an elite minority supremacist.  You suggest there seems to have been a shortage in the Arab world of leaders able to successfully create a solid civil society and functioning democracy, X. immediately has a long list of names for you, even if that list includes more than a few murderous dictators.  You wonder what suddenly caused Syrian Sunnis to stand up to the despicable Assad regime, X. tells you part of the issue is agriculture and water supply.  You accept the fact that environmental conditions might have been what literally and figuratively sparked the civil war, and then X. tells you water and drought have nothing to do with it.  You articulate an opinion on the mating habits of homosexual penguins in Antarctica and…well, you get the point.
Hey, maybe that’s what makes a good journalist, but it also leads to dizzying instant analyses and superficial opinions, without a single “well…” or “maybe…” or “Shit…I never thought of that” or any even remotely multi-facetted take on things.  Sorry to be channeling Sarah Palin — never thought it would come to this — but so many exchanges with X. immediately degenerate into “gotcha” discourse.
So, he responds, with lightning speed:
Actually most bicyclists are low-income immigrants. Which is why upscale white people love to shit on them.
Not everyone can afford first-world privileges like taking taxis. Even riding public transportation is too expensive for a lot of folks.
With an informative link attached:
Except, I don’t know any upscale white people who shit on bikers.  As far as New York is concerned, I don’t have statistics, but my visual gut observation is not that there are multitudes of immigrants riding bikes around, but almost exclusively young white guys — the “upscale white people” who supposedly shit on bikers.  ?
And here I think it’s important to point out that it’s a bit disingenuous of X. — if not just a total misrepresentation of facts — or maybe even a teeny-weeny bit of what we used to call lying — to send this particular article because it refers almost exclusively to Houston and totally exclusively to Sun-belt cities and southern California: all cities that are of radically lower density than New York, which is the city the discussion was about, and that, incidentally, have kinder weather.  Bikes there may not cause a problem or may be mostly for lower-income city-dwellers.  But in New York they’re a nuisance.  And I see and know very few poor people using them.
I wrote back:
“Very possibly low-income immigrants, ok, but do we have and how exactly do we get statistics about that?  [As it turns out we don’t; we only have statistics from Houston]  But even if that’s true, they don’t demand that a modern, industrial city, built and designed to be a modern, industrial city, change itself and cater to a mode of transportation that such a high-density city [like New York and unlike Houston] is not designed to accommodate.
“And as for taking taxis, or even the subway, I am and have always been a borough-boy, who couldn’t and can’t afford to take a taxi to get into Manhattan, nor could I tolerate a commute to and from a two-fare zone, which is what we used to call neighborhoods where you had to ride the subway line to the end and then pay a second fare to take a bus, like Whitestone, where I spent my teens and twenties.  I used to drive into Manhattan (20 minutes instead of 2 hours on public transport) and parking was easy to find even on a Saturday night in the East Village.  And while we’re on the subject of poor immigrants, have you asked a Sikh cab-driver how he feels about the pedestrianization of Times or Herald or Madison or Union Squares?  Or — while we’re weeping for the working class — have you asked a truck driver who has to negotiate backing his truck up into Macy’s loading platform with Herald Square blocked off and 35th street narrowed by a biking lane how he feels about that?
A superfluous number of pedestrianized zones, biking lanes, Citibank bike stops, farmers’ markets, happy piazzas for office workers to eat their $15 prosciutto sandwiches from Eataly, Bloomberg’s unsuccessful plan to put tolls on East River bridges — a flagrant fucking attempt to keep the non-rich out of Manhattan — because his constituency wanted less traffic and less noise in their neighborhoods, have all contributed to making Manhattan less accessible for me, because I, like your immigrants, can’t afford to live there.
“And even if there are more Mexicans delivering Chinese food on their bikes than there are entitled pricks from Indiana using bicycles, the Mexicans don’t give me attitude about how I’m not respecting their hobby.  They’re too busy working.  Plus it’s hard for me to imagine that taking care, storing, maintaining and protecting your bike from theft or vandalism in New York is cheaper than taking the train.
“You know that long passage between the E train at 42nd Street that connects to the 7 train?  Would you, at rush hour, let a toddler free there?  Obviously not.  Because you wouldn’t let a being of radically different size and speed go free in a space where he’s more likely than not to get trampled.
“Nor could you possibly ask NYers rushing to work to watch out for that toddler.”
Again, I’m progressive but not quite progressive enough for X.  Poor, brown immigrants should be entitled to ride their bikes anywhere at any time, though that’s a sociological type that barely exists in New York.  But a white, working-class, ethnic-American kid from outer Queens like me can go fuck himself (the implication that I was ever rich enough to take a cab into the city on a regular basis is infuriating) and I can be denied access to the pleasures and resources of Manhattan, even as Manhattan becomes a sterile playground for the rich on one end and and hip enough to let hipsters and X.’s poor immigrants ride their bikes supposedly on the other end.  No room for me, who falls in the middle of that spectrum.
Density, up-close, claustrophobic even; maddening; density is the essence of a city like New York.  If you’re from there you know that; if you’re not, it might make you a little nuts and you might long for parks and greenery and bike-lanes.  And it’s almost always non-New-Yorkers who are clamoring for these pleasantries that will remind them of Madison, WI.  Density; it means cars and street traffic too — and noise — things that give access to the maximum amount of people, cities you can get to easily and that let you in.  Not obnoxious, exclusive enclaves like Georgetown or Cambridge, MA, where you need to prove you’re a resident to even park on one of its streets.  Look at what pedestrianization has done to Istanbul, where Erdoğan has transformed Taksim, Tâlimhane and the upper Cumhurriyet into a concrete wasteland with all the charm of a Soviet plaza in a city like, let’s say, Perm’. 
A city needs to breathe, even in its crowded chaos.  That’s why I posted the Whitman poem in my response to X.:

City of the sea! city of hurried and glittering tides!

City whose gleeful tides continually rush or recede,
whirling in and out, with eddies and foam!

City of wharves and stores! city of tall façades of mar-
ble and iron!

Proud and passionate city! mettlesome, mad, extrava-
gant city!

“Mettlesome, mad, extravagant…” 

More later — maybe.  This gets exhausting.

4a08193u.jpgMulberry street, c. 1900 — “Density, up-close, claustrophobic even; maddening; density is the essence of a city like New York.”

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

The Destruction of Delhi — Dalrymple (final)

3 Jul

Bahadur Shah Zafar enthroned

Bahadur Shah Zafar ended up being the last of the Mughal emperors.  Already along in years when the Uprising began, he became, due to the enormous symbolic power the Mughal Shahenshah still commanded, the reluctant leader of a revolution that, for even a younger and seasoned warrior – of whom he was neither – would have been a daunting force to control, command and direct.  The original rebelling Hindu and Muslim sipahis (sepoys) had gravitated towards Delhi as the symbolic center of northern India.  They were soon joined by random teams of jihadis, groups of what Dalrymple calls “Wahabbis,” though always in quotes so I don’t know quite know who he means, and the usual motley crew of Pashtuns down from Afghanistan that never miss a good fight if word of one reaches them.  This alienated many Hindu factions in no good time and, bent as many of these groups were on plunder as much as Holy War, they ended up being as great a curse on the poor, long-suffering Delhiwallahs as any of the other players involved.

Zafar lived to see most of his family murdered.  Of his, I believe, thirty-one sons – who participated in the uprising from roles of active leadership to not at all – only two survived: three teenagers were shot in the heart at point blank range; two of the more ’implicated’ sons of similar age were put before a firing squad ordered to fire low in the guts for maximum pain; the rest hanged – along with all the other male notables of his court, including Hindus.  Certain amuck British officers seem to have spent days running around the ruins of the city, shooting anyone that looked even remotely “mirza”-like, or even Muslim, or just once rich.  The hangings seem to have lasted for weeks, with a cessating intervention finally coming from London itself.  Zafar was exiled first to the Andaman Islands and then to Burma, where he died in 1862.

It was the effective end of the Mughal aristocracy and the complete wiping out of an historic dynasty; a twentieth-century style liquidation of a social class; given the comparative dimensions of the societies involved, it was surely a purge of Bolshevik proportions and equally paranoid and crazy.  Dalrymple artfully carries the consequences of these events into modernity for us.


Zafar (below)


But while Zafar was certainly never cut out to be a heroic or revolutionary leader, he remains, like his ancestor the Emperor Akbar, an attractive symbol of Islamic civilization at its most tolerant and pluralistic.  He himself was a notable poet and calligrapher; his court contained some of the most talented artistic and literary figures in modern South Asian history; and the Delhi he presided over was undergoing one of its great periods of learning, self-confidence, communal amity and prosperity.  He is certainly a strikingly liberal and likeable figure when compared to the Victorian Evangelicals whose insensitivity, arrogance and blindness did much to bring the Uprising of 1857 down upon both their own heads and those of the people and court of Delhi, engulfing all of northern India in a religious war of terrible violence.

Above all, Zafar always put huge emphasis on his role as a protector of Hindus and the moderator of Muslim demands.  He never forgot the central importance of preserving the bond between his Hindu and Muslim subjects, which he always recognized was the central stitching that held his city together.  Throughout the Uprising, his refusal to alienate his Hindu subjects by subscribing to the demands of the jihadis was probably his single most consistent policy.

There was nothing inevitable about the demise and extinction of the Mughals, as the sepoys’ dramatic surge towards the court of Delhi showed.  But in the years to come, as Muslim prestige and learning sank, and Hindu confidence, wealth, education and power increased, Hindus and Muslims would increasingly grow apart, as British policies of divide and rule found willing collaborationists among the chauvinists of both faiths.  The rip in the closely woven fabric of Delhi’s composite culture, slowly widened into a great gash, and at Partition in 1947 finally broke in two.  As the Indian Muslim elite emigrated en masse to Pakistan, the time would soon come when it would be almost impossible to imagine that Hindu sepoys could ever have rallied to the Red Fort and the standard of a Muslim emperor, joining with their Muslim brothers in an attempt to revive the Mughal Empire.

Following the crushing of the Uprising, and the uprooting and slaughter of the Delhi court, the Indian Muslims themselves also divided into two opposing paths: one, championed by the great Anglophile Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan, looked to West, and believed that Indian Muslims could revive their fortunes only by embracing Western learning.  With this in mind, Sir Sayyid founded his Aligarh Mohamedan Anglo-Oriental College (later Aligarh Muslim University) and tied to recreate Oxbridge in the plains of Hndustan.

The other approach, taken by survivors of the old Madrasa i-Rahimiyya, was to reject the West in toto and to attempt to return to what they regarded as pure Islamic roots.  For this reason, disillusioned pupils of the school of Shah Waliullah, such as Maulana Muhammad Qasim Nanautawi – who in 1857 had briefly established an independent Islamic state north of Meerut at Shamli, in the Doab – founded an influential but depressingly narrow-minded Wahhabi-like madrasa at Deoband, one-hundred miles north of the former Mughal capital.  With their backs to the wall, they reacted against what the founders saw as the degenerate and rotten ways of the old Mughal elite.  The Deoband madrasa therefore went back to Koranic basics and rigorously stripped out anything Hindu or European from the curriculum.*

*(It was by no means a total divide: religious education at Aligarh, for example, was in the hands of the Deobandis.)

One hundred and forty years later, it was out of Deobandi madrasas in Pakistan and Afghanistan that the Taliban emerged to create the most retrograde Islamic regime in modern history, a regime that in turn provided the crucible from which emerged al-Qaeda, and the most radical and powerful fundamentalist Islamic counter-attack the modern West has yet encountered.

Today, West and East again face each other uneasily across a divide that many see as religious war.  Jihadis again fight what they regard as a defensive action against their Christian enemies, and again innocent women, children and civilians are slaughtered.  As before, Western Evangelical politicians are apt to cast their opponents and enemies as the role of “incarnate fiends” and conflate armed resistance to invasion and occupation with “pure evil.”  Again, Western countries, blind to the effect their foreign policies have on the wilder world, feel aggrieved to be attacked – as they interpret it – by mindless fanatics.

Against this bleak dualism, there is much to value in Zafar’s peaceful and tolerant attitude to life; and there is also much to regret in the way that the British swept away and rooted out the late Mughal’s pluralistic and philosophically composite civilization.

As we have seen in our own time, nothing threatens the liberal and moderate aspect of Islam so much as aggressive Western intrusion and interference in the East, just as nothing so radicalizes the ordinary Muslim and feeds the power of the extremists: the histories of Islamic fundamentalism and Western imperialism have, after all, often been closely, and dangerously, intertwined.  There are clear lessons here.  For, in the celebrated words of Edmund Burke, himself a fierce critic of Western aggression in India, those who fail to learn from history are always destined to repeat it.

Zafar’s two surviving sons, who shared his Burmese exile with him.


Agha Shahid Ali: “After Seeing Kozintsev’s King Lear in Delhi”

Lear cries out “You are men of stones”

as Cordelia hangs from a broken wall.


I step into Chandni Chowk, a street once

strewn with jasmine flowers

for the Empress and the royal women

who bought perfumes from Isfahan,

fabrics from Dacca, essence from Kabul,

glass bangles from Agra.


Beggars now live here in tombs

of unknown nobles and forgotten saints

while hawkers sell combs and mirrors

outside a Sikh temple.  Across the street,

a theater is showing a Bombay spectacular.


I think of Zafar, poet and Emperor,

being led through this street

by British soldiers, his feet in chains,

to watch his sons hanged.


In exile he wrote:

“Unfortunate Zafar

spent half his life in hope,

the other half waiting.

He begs for two yards of Delhi for burial.”


He was exiled to Burma, buried in Rangoon.  


Last known photograph of Bahadur Shah Zafar


I’d like to heartily and gratefully thank Mr. Dalrymple (below) for his permission to reproduce such an extensive piece of his work.  Usually permission is hard to obtain or you get no answer at all.  When I wrote Mr. Dalrymple, however, he shot an email back at me within minutes saying nothing but: “Go for it.”  Shukriya, kheyli moteshakeram, teshekur, and thanks again.

 “After Seeing Kozintsev’s King Lear in Delhi” reprinted from The Veiled Suite: The Collected Poems by Agha Shahid Ali. English translation copyright © 2009 by Daniel Hall. With the permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Watercolor of the Jama Masjid and old Delhi from 1852


The Destruction of Delhi — Dalrymple (ctd.)

2 Jul

Another selection from Walter Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi, 1857, this one dealing more specifically with the Uprising’s effect on Delhi’s Muslims and Urdu-language culture, told mostly through the accounts of the Urdu poet Ghalib who, though born in Agra, was a consummate Delhiwallah and lived through all the events of the Uprising and its aftermath in the city itself.  Ghalib or Mirza Ghalib or Mirza Asadullah Beg Khan (Ghalib was his pen name), is, I think it’s safe to say and by common consensus, the greatest classical poet of Urdu literature, the Dante or Pushkin of Muslim India, the poet every literate Indian or Pakistani can quote, the way Iranians do Hafez or Russians Pushkin.  If it’s odd that such a crucial figure in Urdu culture came so late in the history of Indian Islam, we need to remember that India was later to throw off the weight of Persian as a literary language than the Ottomans were (Ghalib and even the much later Iqbal still wrote in Persian as well), through a continued influx of Iranian literati until very late, attracted to the still healthy patronage possibilities available in the various Muslim courts of India, not just Delhi. 

Begum is a lady of the court, the female form of “beg,” or “bey;” like “hanim” in Turkish, or “khanum” in Farsi, or “hatun” in several languages, is the female form of “khan;” all (along with “aga”) of Turkic origin, which gives you a really good idea of the division of labor in the Turko-Iranian world.  (Only “mirza” is a contraction of the Arabic “‘amr,” commander, and the Farsi lineage-son-of suffix “-zade.”)  It was impossible to be part of the north Indian Muslim aristocracy without a claim to some Turkic or Mongol lineage, (and I guess in Iran too, from the Seljuks on?) however bogus I imagine some of those might have been.

A late photo of Mirza Ghalib



While all this was going on, throughout 1858, Hindus were slowly being readmitted to the city, but Muslims remained almost entirely banned from within the walls.  As Ghalib wrote in Dastanbuy [his journal of the events, though I don’t know if the word itself means “journal.”]

“In the entire city of Delhi it is impossible to find one thousand Muslims; and I am one of these.  Some have gone so far from the city it seems as if they were never residents of Delhi.  Many very important men are living outside the city, on ridges and under thatched roofs, in ditches and mud huts.  Among those people living in the wilderness are many who are anxious to return to Delhi, relatives of the imprisoned, and those living on alms.”

A passing traveller in 1860 was horrified by “the old withered Musulmanis and gypsy-like Mughals [still] camping out at the qutb.”  Even the imperious Matilda Saunders was aware that “numbers of people are daily dying of starvation and want of shelter.”

In December of 1859 the Muslims of Delhi petitioned the government to be allowed to return to their houses.  They wrote to Queen Victoria praying (according to the translation commissioned by Charles Saunders)

“that they may be permitted to return to their houses in the city of Delhi.  They are in the greatest distress, excluded rigorously from the town, they can obtain neither shelter nor means of subsistence.  The cold weather is now at hand and they beg that they may not be exposed to its severity in their present state of destitution and misery.  They trust that Her Majesty following the example of other magnanimous sovereigns, would pardon their misdeeds and permit them to reinhabit their old houses – otherwise they see nothing but beggary before them.”

Even when their plea was granted and they began to be given permission to return in 1860, many Muslims who could not prove their loyalty found that their houses had been confiscated.  Things got so bad that even some of the British papers in India began to feel sympathy with the Delhi Muslims: “When will agitation of European nerves subside?” asked the Mofussilite in June 1860.  “There is no reason for it…”

“The people are abject because they are starved out, banished and plundered.  Thousands of Muslims are wandering houseless and homeless; the Hindus, pluming themselves on their loyalty, strut about the streets giving themselves airs.  Let not the public think that Delhi has not been punished.  Wend through the empty grass-grown streets, mark the uprooted houses, and shot-riddled palaces.”

Most of the confiscated Muslim properties put up for auction by the British were bought en masse by the Hindu khatri (clerical castes) and Jain bankers of the city, such as Chhunna Mal and Ramji Das.  They were the only Delhiwallahs who still had access to liquid cash, their man centre of Nil ka Katra having bought immunity from the depredations of the Prize Agents on the payment of a large sum soon after the fall of the city.  Hindu traders and bankers even bought up two of the city’s most famous mosques: Chhunna Mal bought up the Fatehpuri Masjid, while a Hindu baker bought the Zinat ul-Masjid, one of the main jihadi centers throughout the Uprising.*

All this exacerbated the sudden shift of power from the Muslim elite, who had dominated the city before the Uprising, to the Hindu bankers, who were its most wealthy citizens afterwards.  “The capital is in the hands of one or two men like Chhunna Mal and Mahesh Das,” wrote Edward Campbell in 1858.  What remained of the court circle and the Mughal aristocracy were by and large left penniless.  A few survived on a pittance as schoolteachers and tutors.  For many, such as Maulvi Zaka’ullah, the shock of the utter devastation of their world was “beyond all bearing,” and Zaka’ullah later admitted that for a time he had succumbed to “a melancholy that bordered on blank despair.”

“Alas my dear boy,” wrote Ghalib to a friend in January 1862.  “This is not the Delhi in which you were born, not the Delhi in which you got your schooling, not the Delhi in which you used to come to your lessons with me, not the Delhi in which I have passed fifty-one years of my life.”

“It is a camp.  The only Muslims here are artisans and servants of the British authorities.  All the rest are Hindus.  The male descendants of the deposed King – such as survived the sword – draw allowances of five rupees a month.  The female descendants, if old, are bawds; if young, are prostitutes…”

What Ghalib did not say was that many of the Delhi begums were set on the path to prostitution by the mass rapes that followed the fall of the city.  Believing that the British women in Delhi had been sexually assaulted at the outbreak – a rumour that subsequently proved quite false, as a full inquiry by Saunders later proved – British officers did little to stop their men from raping the women of Delhi.  At the same time as Saunders’ inquiry completely exonerated the rebels of any single instance of rape, another inquiry found that perhaps as many as three hundred begums of the royal house – not including former concubines in the Palace – had been “taken away by our troops after the fall of Delhi,” and that many of those who had not been abducted were now making their living as courtesans.  The fate of the women of the royal family was clearly something that deeply shocked Ghalib, and he returns to it again and again in his letters.  “Had you been here,” he told his friend Mirza Tafta, “you would have seen the ladies of the Fort moving about the city, their faces as fair as the moon and their clothes dirty, their paijama legs torn, and their slippers falling to pieces.  This is no exaggeration…”

With the loss of the Mughal court went much of the city’s reputation as a centre of culture and learning.  Its libraries had been looted, its precious manuscripts lost.  The madrasas were almost all closed, and their buildings were again mostly bought up – and in time demolished – by Hindu moneylenders.  The most prestigious of all, the Madrasa i-Rahimiyya, was auctioned off to one of the leading baniyas, Ramji Das, who used it as a store.

By 1859 Ghalib was complaining that he could not even find a single bookseller, binder, or calligrapher in this once most bookish of cities.  Still less were there any poets: “Where is Mamnun?  Where is Zauq?  And where is Momin Khan?  Two poets survive.  One, Azurda – and he is silent: the other Ghalib, and he is lost in himself, in a stupor.  None to write poetry, and none to judge its worth.”  To make matters worse for Ghalib, much of his own verse – his life’s great achievement – had been lost: he had never kept copies of his ghazals and the two private libraries in which his friends had stored his poetry had both been sacked and destroyed by the British.  “A few days ago a faqir who has a good voice and sings well discovered a ghazal of mine somewhere and got it written down,” he wrote in one letter.  “When he showed it to me, I tell you truly, tears came to my eyes.”

“This whole city has become a desert,” wrote a melancholy Ghalib to a friend in 1861.  “Delhi people still pride themselves on Delhi language!  What pathetic faith!  My dear man, when the Urdu Bazaar is no more, where is Urdu?  By God, Delhi is no more a city, but a camp, a cantonment.  No Fort, no bazaars, no watercourses…”  “Four things kept Delhi alive,” he wrote to another friend who enquired what Delhi was like these days.  “The Fort, the daily crowds at the Jama Masjid, the weekly walk to the Yamuna Bridge, and the yearly fair of the flower-men.  None of these survives, so how could Delhi survive?  Yes, there once was a city of that name in the realm of India.”

In such a situation Ghalib often wondered what the point of carrying on was when everything he had lived for was finished.  “A man cannot quench his thirst with tears,” he wrote.  “You know that when despair reaches its lowest depths, there is nothing left but to resign oneself to God’s will.  What lower depths can there be than this: that it is the hope of death that keeps me alive.”  “My soul,” he wrote in June 1862, “dwells in my body these days as restless as a bird in a cage.”

Without the Delhi College and the great madrasas, without the printing presses and the Urdu newspapers, and without the Mughal court – whose immense cultural prestige always compensated for the monetary constrictions on its actual power of patronage – and most of all without the Emperor there to act as a focus and, to some extent, catalyst, the driving force behind Delhi’s renaissance and artistic flourishing was gone.  The beating heat of Indo-Islamic civilization had been ripped out and could not be replaced.  As Ghalib wrote as he neared death: “All these things lasted only so long as the King reigned.”

*Neither was returned to the Delhi Muslims until many years later — the Fatehpuri Masjid in 1875 and the Zinat ul-Masajid by Lord Curzon in the early years of the twentieth century.  Sikh troops remained occupying the Jama Masjid until it was returned in 1862.  See S. M. Ikram, Muslim Rule in India and Pakistan, Lahore, 1966, p. 462

Below: “Oval Portraits of Mughal Ladies,” 1860-1870 in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London


The Destruction of Delhi — Dalrymple

29 Jun

The following is reproduced by permission and with the generosity of the author from William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi, 1857.  I’ve mentioned this brilliant book in a previous post: Favorite Blogs: The Delhi Wallah.  These are from the gripping few pages where Dalrymple describes the irrational and totally vengeful destruction of much of Delhi by the British after the Uprising of 1857 had been suppressed.

The entrance to the Jama Masjid


Canning had already given orders to destroy the Delhi walls and defences, but Lawrence managed to get the orders rescinded, arguing that there was insufficient gunpowder in Delhi to blow up several miles of walls.  By the end of 1859, Canning had agreed to his plan only to demolish what was needed to make the fort and city more defensible.  By 1863, the planned demolition of the eastern half of Chandni Chowk down to the Dariba had also been stopped.  Even so, great swathes of the city – especially around the Red Fort – were still cleared away, as Ghalib recorded in a series of sad letters to his correspondents across Hindustan: “The area between Raj Ghat [on the city’s eastern edge, facing the Yamuna] and the Jama Masjid is without exaggeration a great mound of bricks.”

“The Raj Ghat Gate has been filled in.  Only the niched battlements of the walls is apparent.  The rest has been filled up with debris.  For the preparation of the metalled road, a wide open ground has been made between Calcutta Gate and the Kabul Gate.  Punjabi Katra, Dhobiwara, Ramji Ganj, Sadat Khan ka Katra, the Haveli [palace, mansion, konak] of Mubarak Begum [Ochterlony’s widow], the Haveli of Sahib Ram and his garden – all have been destroyed beyond recognition.”

What had been the neighborhood around the Jama Masjid (above).  The Kashmiri Gate (below).

Other letters of Ghalib’s mourned the destruction of some of the city’s finest mosques, such as the Akbarabadi Masjid and the great Masjid Kashmiri Katra [I haven’t been able to find any photos of these, but the Akbarabadi Masjid was considered a sort of twin to the Jama Masjid — my comment]; great Sufi shrines such as that of Sheikh Kalimullah Jahanabadi;* the imambara+ built by Maulvi Muhannad Baqar; and the establishment of a cleared open space 70 yards wide around the Jama Masjid.  Four of Delhi’s most magnificent palaces were also completely destroyed; the havelis of the recently hanged nawabs of Jhajjar, Bahadurgarh and Farrucknagar, as well as that of the Raja of Ballabargh.  The great caravanserai of Shah Jahan’s daughter Jahanara was demolished and replaced by a new town hall.  Shalimar Bagh, where Aurangzeb had been crowned, was sold off for agricultural use.  Even where old Mughal structures were allowed to continue, they were often renamed: Begum Bagh, for example, became the Queen’s Gardens.

Tragically the Red Fort was another area where Lawrence intervened too late to stop the wholesale destruction.  He managed to save both the Jama Masjid and the Palace walls, but 80 per cent of the rest of the Fort was leveled.  Harriet Tyler, who was living in an apartment above the Diwan i-Am at this time, was horrified by the decision and decided to paint a panorama of the city before it disappeared.  It confirmed her in her disgust of the way the British had behaved in Delhi since the assault began on 14 September.  “Delhi was now truly a city of the dead,” she wrote in her memoirs.  “The death-like silence of that Delhi was appalling.  All you could see were empty houses… The utter stillness…[was] indescribably sad.  It seemed as if something had gone out of our lives.”

[These are some drawings I’ve been able to find of the palace and palace grounds but, though beautiful, they don’t give you much of a sense of what was destroyed — my comment]:

(the above appears in Dalrymple’s book)

The demolitions started at the Queen’s Baths in November 1857, and continued through most of the Palace, destroying an area “twice the area of the Escorial,” as the horrified historian James Ferguson pointed out twenty years later.  “The whole of the area between the central range of the buildings south and eastwards from the bazaar, measuring about 1000 feet each way, was occupied by the harem apartments – twice the area of any Palace in Europe.”

“According to the native plan I possess, which I see no reason for distrusting, it contained three garden courts, and some thirteen or fourteen other courts, arranged some for state, some for convenience; but what they were like we have no means of knowing.  Not one vestige of them now remains…  The whole of the harem courts of the palace were swept off the face of the earth to make way for a hideous British barrack, without those who carried out this fearful piece of vandalism, thinking it even worthwhile to make a plan of what they were destroying or preserving any record of the most splendid palace in the world.”

As late as March 1859 George Wagentrieber was please to record in the Delhi Gazette that “a good deal of blowing up” was still going on in the Palace.  Some of the finest buildings were the first to go, such as the Chhota Rang Mahal.  Even the Fort’s glorious gardens – notably Hayat Bakhsh Bagh and Mehtab Bagh – were swept away.  All that was left by the end of the year was about one-fifth of the original fabric – principally a few scattered, isolated marble buildings strung out along the Yamuna waterfront.  These were saved owing largely to the fact that they were in use as offices and messes by the British occupation troops, but their architectural logic was completely lost once they were shorn of the courtyards of which they were originally a part.

(click on this photo)

All the gilded domes and most of the detachable marble fittings were stripped and sold off by the Prize agents.  As Fergusson noted,

“when we took possession of the palace, everyone seems to have looted after the most independent fashion.  Among others, a Captain (afterwards Sir) John Jones [who had blown in the Lahore Gate during the capture of the Fort] tore up a great part, but had the happy idea to get his loot in marble as table tops.  Two of these he brought home and sold to the Government for 500 pounds, and were placed in the India Museum.”

These fragments included the rightly celebrated “Orpheus panel” of pietra dura inlay which Shah Jahan had placed behind his Peacock Throne.

Meanwhile, what remained of the Mughal’s Red Fort became a grey British barracks.  The Naqqar Khana, where drums and trumpets had once announced the arrival of ambassadors from Isfahan and Constantinople, became the quarters of a British staff sergeant.  The Diwan i-Am became a became a lounge for officers, the Emperor’s private entrance a canteen, and the Rang Mahal was turned into a military prison.  The magnificent Lahore Darwaza was renamed the Victoria Gate and became “a bazaar for the benefit of the Fort’s European soldiers.”  Zafar’s contribution to the Palace architecture – the Zafar Mahal, a delicate floating pavilion in a large red sandstone tank – became the centerpiece of a swimming pool for officers, while the surviving pavilions of Hayat Bakhsh Bagh were turned into urinals.

* A modest tomb of the saint is, however, still extant in the Pigeon-seller’s Bazaar in Old Delhi

+ Shia religious hall used to hold mourning ceremonies during Muharram


Below, I’m just posting whatever photos I can find of what’s left of the palace, without specific naming of each building, but hoping that readers constantly keep in mind that all this gorgeousness — and seen here damaged and stripped of its jewelled furnishings, gold, carpets, silken hangings, “Dacca gauzes,” running waters and the exquisitely dressed men and women of the court — is only the twenty percent of the original that survived Some photos may be clickable:

The famous Persian couplet by Amir Khosrow: “Agar Firdaus bar-ruhe-e-zamin ast, haminast o haminast o hamin ast.”  “If there is a heaven on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here.”

Favorite Blogs: The Delhi Wallah

10 May

The Delhi Wallah: Your gateway to alternate Delhi, the city of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya and Arundhati Roy is one of my favorite sub-continental blogs and even has the endorsement of the great historian and travel writer Walter Dalrymple: “The Delhi Walla is Delhi’s most idiosyncratic and eccentric website, and reflects a real love of this great but under-loved and underrated city.”  The work of the assumedly pseudonymed Mayank Austen Soofi, the blog really is written with the true tenderness that only a great city fallen on slightly hard times can inspire.  One thinks of Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul, written about his youth in that city before it became the ISTANBUL! it’s become since the 1990’s.

Delhi’s Jama Masjid in the 1890’s

Anyone who knows me, and some who don’t but might have already picked it out from this blog, know that I’m interested in all of India and even engage in certain Hindu practices and rites but that my true fascination is the Mughal culture of the northern Doab heartland.  This comes from — just among myriad things — the composite, deeply syncretic and super-elegant aesthetic of that culture and, more personally, from a deep affinity for lost worlds and for the dignity maintained in the face of the most tragic circumstances under which Indian Islam, much like the Byzantines, not only laboured but continued to flourish for so long.

Bahadur Shah, the last reigning member of the Mughal dynasty

When I read Dalrymple’s masterpiece, The Last Mughal, The Fall of A Dynasty 1857 I was left shell-shocked, not just by the sheer scale of the Indian Rebellion’s violence, but by the mindless, post-conflict destruction of the vindictive and obviously terrified Brits, determined to teach Indian Muslims a lesson for their “mutiny.”  Even the outer walls of the Red Fort and the Jama Masjid itself were saved at the eleventh hour by the orders of more intelligent superiors.  It makes my head spin to think that had the cooler heads that the British so pride themselves on prevailed, Delhi today would still be a showcase of Muslim art and architecture on a par with Isfahan and Cairo or even Istanbul.

The Red Fort in Delhi, once the largest palace complex in the world, eighty per cent of which was dynamited by the British after the Indian rebellion was crushed. (click)

One can read about how upper-class Muslim life in north India proudly soldiered on into the twentieth century in books like Ahmed Ali’s beautiful Twilight in Delhi or made it through the trauma of Partition and modernity in films like Garm Hawa and Sardari Begum.  (For a fairly insightful look — but one that doesn’t really tackle the most radical questions — at Indian Muslim life in the cinema seeIslamicate Cultures of Bombay Cinema by Ira Bhaskar and Richard Allen but all these can’t help but strike a certain elegiac tone.

But…what I love about the Delhi Wallah is what detailled coverage he brings you of how alive and well Muslim life and culture in Delhi still are: mushairas, qawwali gatherings, celebrations at sufi tombs — and not just Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya’s — old ruins and mausoleums he’s constantly digging up among the chaos of the modern city — and the glorious food.  He has a four-volume guidebook to the city and he’s recently done a beautiful four-part photo op and piece of his trip to Kashmir.  Don’t miss this blog!


Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Turkey and religious freedom: Wooing Christians — “We are ready to face the past, to make amends.”

23 Apr

From the Economist:

“IT IS well known that Kurdish tribes took part in the mass slaughter by the Ottomans of around 1m Armenians in 1915. “Collaborating Kurdish clerics pledged that anyone who killed an infidel would be rewarded in heaven with 700 mansions containing 700 rooms, and that in each of these rooms there would be 700 houris to give them pleasure,” says Mala Hadi, an Islamic sheikh in Diyarbakir.

The sheikh is among a handful of local leaders seeking reconciliation with the Kurdish region’s once thriving Christians. “We are ready to face the past, to make amends,” promises Abdullah Demirbas, mayor of Diyarbakir’s ancient Sur district. To atone, Mr Demirbas has been providing money and materials to restore Christian monuments in Sur. These include the sprawling Surp Giragos Armenian Orthodox church where, until recently, drug dealers plied their trade amid piles of rubbish. It is now squeaky clean and even boasts a new roof.”

Here’s a website with some beautiful pictures of the church: http://www.futurereligiousheritage.eu/february-2012-restoration-of-dyarbakir-surp-giragos-armenian-church-dr-f-meral-halifeoglu/ 

This is a story that made me cry — I wish I could say I don’t cry easily.

Read the whole story from the Economist here: http://www.economist.com/node/17632939  The story then goes on to talk about relations with the Syrian Christian community in southeastern Turkey, especially the conflict surrounding the Syrian monastery of Mor Gabriel, since the Armenian community that the Kurdish sheikh would like to make amends to has been practically non-existent outside Istanbul for a good century now.  Some photos of Mor Gabriel:

I keep looking for a story — because there’s definitely one there — about Syrian Christians among the refugees flowing into Turkey from Syria.  But there may not be that many, since for the most part they’ve been pretty passive in the whole conflict, nervously afraid of change as all minorities are, and maybe passively siding with the Alawite regime for fear the Sunni resistance will turn religious in ways uncomfortable for them.  And yet Homs and Hama, two of the Assad regime’s most brutalized targets, are among the largest and most ancient Christian communities in the country.  In William Dalrymple’s From the Holy Mountain: A Journey Among the Christians of the Middle East: http://www.amazon.com/From-Holy-Mountain-Journey-Christians/dp/0805061770/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1335220105&sr=8-1 he describes the Christians of Syria as the most happy, confident, open, and optimistic about their future of any of the Christian communities of the region, even those that constitute a larger percentage of their country’s population, like those of Lebanon or Egypt (on Lebanon, he has a kind of sensationalist chapter on Maronite “savagery,” which reminds me of a lot of Western journalism about Serbs, or older travel accounts of Albania, and pretty much tows the standard line that if they, Maronites, are on their way out demographically and politically, it’s their own fault.)  That optimism on Syrian Christians’ part must certainly have changed.  And if they were going to flee, it would be to their pretty numerous co-religionists in Turkey, wouldn’t it?

I always wanted to know what percentage of Arabs in southeastern Turkey were Christian and could never find any definitive information on it.  But if there were that many, they probably wouldn’t have to be fighting such an outnumbered battle to protect the property of one of their main religious centers.

Anyway, kudos to the sheikh, Demirbas, and I guess guarded kudos to AK leaders too; I think their concern for issues like this might actually be genuine; I mean Hillary talked about the Chalke seminary when she was in Turkey last and they didn’t freak out.

I have a few acquaintances who would roll their eyes at this post, irritated, along the lines of: “So many people being killed and you’re only concerned about Christians…”  No, I’m not just concerned about Christians.  But — shout out to the MESA thought police — I’m not going to waste any more time arguing my basic non-sectarian ethics either.

As a final note: the great villain here is not Assad, but his prime backer, Vladimir Putin, the last twentieth-century totalitarian dictator of the twenty-first century and a Chekist murderer and Stalinist criminal on all levels.  Be afraid of him — very afraid.  Recent NYRB article about him: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2012/apr/26/vladimirs-tale/


Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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