An Afro-Pakistani Poet

Via 3 Quarks Daily, I read a profile of Noon Meem Danish, an Urdu-speaking poet from Karachi who is of African descent. The author of the piece, Asif Farrukhi, makes reference initially to some places I hadn't heard of:

Whether you think of Lyari as Karachi’s Harlem or Harlem as a Lyari in New York, for Noon Meem Danish places provide a context but not a definition. ‘I am what I am’; he explains his signature with a characteristic mixture of pride and humility. Off-beat and defiant, he was a familiar figure in the literary landscape of the ’70s and ’80s. His poems expressing solidarity with the Negritude and the plight of blacks all over the world were referred to in Dr Firoze Ahmed’s social topography of the African-descent inhabitants of Pakistan. Karachi’s poet Noon Meem Danish now makes his home in the New York state of mind, and feels that he is very much in his element there. (link)

Lyari, one learns, is a town in/near Karachi where many of Karachi's Africans (an estimated 500,000 of them) live. Their ancestors came to Balochistan as slaves via Arab traders (Noon Meem Danish defines himself ethnically as "Baloch," which was confusing to me until I made the connection).

The Afro-Pakistani community, perhaps not surprisingly, hasn't been treated particularly well, according to this essay in SAMAR magazine (skip down towards the end for some disturbing references to the extra-judicial killing of African youths). It's not surprising that Noon Meem Danish, given his penchant for poetry, would consider leaving.

Danish is pretty forthright about the difference in how he is perceived in Karachi vs. New York:

More than home, Karachi was for him the city of the torment of recognition. ‘I was black and in Karachi it was always a shocking experience when people would ask me where I came from. They would ask how come you are speaking saaf Urdu. I had to explain myself each time.’

Karachi University wouldn't hire him, but NYU did, and now he teaches at the University of Maryland (where he teaches in the foreign language department -- Urdu, I presume). It's interesting to think of someone of African descent emigrating to the U.S. because it's less racist than the place where he grew up, but there you have it.

You can see Noon Meem Danish reciting at a Mushaira on YouTube (he's at 2:30).


Anonymous said...

I think South Asians are prejudiced, in general. I recall innumerable times that people in Pakistan or India asking me if the city where I live has a lot of "kalay" in it and whether it has less crime because there are so few of them there. I've had people tell me they find "kalay" threatening and that they try to avoid them if at all possible.

Remember the movie "Mississippi Masala" and the reaction of the family to the daughter dating Denzel Washington?

Perhaps the younger South Asians growing up in the US are more open to others, but in the home country racism against blacks is quite alive, even today.

Anonymous said...

I don't remember seeing a single black person in my 24 years in India -- the influx of African students did not start till the sixties. While in college I did have a classmate with the surname Wadehra. He was Indian, a Punjabi Muslim, with Saudi looks and very kinky brown hair which he always kept short. An ominous looking fellow but a sweetheart. Some of the Hindi speakers in our class took to calling him "habshi" (slave). Perhaps these people knew of the African connection and were not just being hurtful? Had I an ounce of curiosity then, I might have asked him. Do you know of the non-derogatory use of the term "habshi" among Indians or Arabs?

Ruchira Paul said...

Two Indians of African descent that I was familiar with in childhood (although I only realized that fact when I was a bit older) was Siddhi (that's what he was commonly known as) and Prakash. Siddhi was my father's favorite fishmonger who came to our home early every morning during the first ten years of my life bearing the "best catch of the day" for my father. He belonged to the Siddhi community of coastal Gujarat whose members trace their ancestry to Africa. Siddhi was dark skinned but looked no different from any other Indian. Prakash, my uncle's motorcycle mechanic who too came to our home to do the repairs on the Royal Enfield, was a true blue African. A Kenyan by birth, he had been adopted in his infancy by a Punjabi couple in Nairobi who later moved to India when Prakash was a toddler. Well over 6' 3", he was an extremely handsome, gentle giant who spoke fluent Hindia and Punjabi. Given Prakash's size and build, I doubt that anyone called him a Habshi .... at least surely not to his face.

Habshi doesn't mean "slave" technically. It is derived from the word Abyssinian but does have a derogatory connotation in India and Pakistan. In my native language Bengali, I don't recall an equivalent word. But among my Hindi and Punjabi speaking friends, the word was common parlance. Some of my Punjabi friends' mothers would gently chide their fair complected daughters to stay out of the sun lest they start looking like "Habshis." And that extremely kinky hair that Narayan refers to, I have seen that trait mostly among dark complexioned Keralites and fair skinned Punjabis.

Narayan, by the time I was in college, (late sixties - early seventies) there were quite a few students from Africa in Delhi university. The way some students behaved with them was deplorable. They also found more difficulty in renting rooms around the university campus than other foreign students did. But then most foreign students (Thai, Arab, Indonesian, European) faced insulting conduct frequently. Even diasporic Indians from Fiji, east Africa, Mauritius etc. and genuine Indians from the northeast (Assam, Nagaland, Manipur), as also Tibetan and Sikkimese students faced rude behavior at the hands of the local toughs. Most groups swallowed the insults and went about their business, sharing their discomfort with their more sympathetic Indian friends. Except the well built and fleet of foot, soccer & hockey playing Tibetan boys. I witnessed some truly blood curdling retributive justice meted out to those who made the mistake of calling them "Chinks."

The question of race is muddled and external appearances misleading but we just can't let go of it. South Asians are as obsessed with it as anyone else. My husband's elderly Punjabi aunt could not until her dying day, forget to mention at the end of every conversation I had with her that for a Bengali, my Hindi was surprisingly flawless. Race is such an inexact thing that it is best not to make too much of it as James Watson has probably realized now.

Amardeep, please forgive me for two rapid links to self promotion. We have discussed the race / IQ / genetic trait controversy extensively at our blog. Please see what my co-blogger Anna wrote regarding something else Malcom Gladwell has said about IQ, this time Jewish IQ specifically.