Muhammad Najm Akbar
The attack on Charlie Hebdo occurred on a gruesome January morning in 2015 and as usual, posed a series of questions to my diasporic life in multiple contexts. There was no justification for terrorism. There were no less horrible acts of terrorism, but I would not be able to avoid the classification of shock. I had different reactions to the names of the perpetrators. Fear would touch me differently in all these cases. So it did on the Charlie Hebdo morning. In the mounting cries of Je Suis Charlie, I wondered why criminal violence of that horrible magnitude happened. I had known and loved Charlie Hebdo my way. Charlie Hebdo journalists’ criminal assassination had hurt me like so many other similar frequently recurring incidents. I had seen enough of explosions, firing, bombing, shattered limbs, and broken buildings. Each time I would shudder with apprehension. Each bad news was horrendous but if the perpetrator shared a name that sounded or distantly resembled the phonetics of my name or the names of my children and family or extended family or distant reference group, I trembled more deeply and severely. My fears have a map that I begin to plot with the first few words of the terrorism news and then continue thousands of miles to a cultural area, a subregion, a country, a province, a hometown, and a village. If I watch the news on the TV, I pay greater attention to the physical features of the perpetrator and then slowly look at the photographs of my children and family. No matter how I relate to Charlie Hebdo, terrorism implicates me until I establish beyond doubt that the investigators use their time more meaningfully.
I had a deep interest in Gandhi and Gandhis. Nathoo Ram Godse assassinated Mahatma Gandhi years before my birth but each time I would see a movie reenacting the gory scene, it sends chills down my spine as much as a sigh of relief that Godse had a name way different than mine. I was part of an agency looking after foreign affairs when Indira Gandhi met her assassin at the premises of her official residence. I had been listening to the news for a regular update and heaved a sigh of relief when an international radio station identified the killer with a name way different than mine. The killers nonetheless shared physical features, ethnicity, and headgear with me. These characteristics cost them several lives then and in the aftermath of 9/11. Rajiv Gandhi faced a killer in the South of India. His murderer had a different name too. Four-day long Mumbai carnage of 2008 had my name written all over it as much as 9/11, 3/11, and 7/7. Names and physical features become exhibits of evidence.
Douce France had been my home in more than one way. It was my first experience with democracy. I had there the first-ever blessed opportunity to live, breathe, and enjoy a system of governance for the people, of the people, and by the people. I entered the first western educational institution there in the historic city of Vichy in Auvergne.
I had begun to know Charlie Hebdo’s world one cold morning in 1983 in Paris. I did not know the Charlie Hebdo team or their language at all until then. I did not know Paris either. I belonged then to a world where London was the center of the universe, the vilayat, which colonized my ancestral lands. The imperial power located a major source of power there. English was the official language of the former British colony which had sent me to learn a language. The people on the other side of the English Channel spoke it. Things were different there. The English Channel was La Manche separating France from the outre Manche, across the channel. London was Londres. England was Angleterre, the land of the Anglo-Saxons. There was no phone code entry under the United States of America. You had to look up for Les Etats Unis d ‘Ameriques. Monarchy had no hold on the imaginations here. If the French called their socialist President Mitterrand a “roi,” a king, it was just a loving way of making fun of him. Unlike any monarch or General Zia-ul-Haq of Pakistan, the French electorate had elected him through adult franchise for a renewable term of seven years. Unlike the divine and sacred Zia-ul-Haq, the French could poke fun at the royal, remote image of the President they re-elected in 1988. France had its colonies once, departments, and territories overseas, the DOM-TOM. Pakistan was not part of that list.
I developed a different relationship with this new world. I was there to learn a language in an immersive environment for the first time in my life. I had opted for it, although for an official need. Punjabi was my mother tongue but Pakistan’s national language, Urdu was the medium of instruction in my schools. These schools also began to teach me Pakistan’s official language, English in the sixth year of my education. I qualified for a federal job through a national competition because I knew Pakistan’s official language better than several of my classmates. I would soon figure out how many people around me in that limited, little, cloistered, elite circle of central superior services knew Pakistan’s official language far better than anyone else and that knowing Punjabi, my mother tongue, or Urdu, the national language of Pakistan, only marginally mattered.