Last weekend’s edition of The Hindu’s Sunday Magazine features an interview with me about the process of editing Alchemy, The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Stories 2, followed by an interview with M. Svarini, the author of the sci-fi erotica short story Mouth, one of the most inventive and sexiest stories in Alchemy.
A big thank you for everyone who attended the event for Alchemy: The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Stories 2 at Aicon Gallery on March 27th! We had a kind introduction from the ever-delightful Ken Chen of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop (our co-sponsor for the evening), five awesome readers (Abeer Hoque, Amitava Kumar, Mohan Sikka, Ranbir Sidhu and yours truly), a ‘Sex for Samosas’ quiz which demonstrated Amitava Kumar’s second calling as a quizmaster extraordinaire, and 65 of the best audience members anyone could ask for. It was also a family affair, my lovely cousin behind the book table, my dapper brother-in-law serving refreshments, my husband taking the photos (he also wrote the quiz. For all of you trivia mavens, the questions are at the bottom of this post). There was a wonderful (dare I say alchemical?) synergy between the readers and the audience; a few people told me it was the best reading they’d ever been to, and these are people who’ve been to a hell of a lot of readings. I’ll take that as a compliment.
Alchemy is now available as an e-book on Amazon! Download it here: http://www.amazon.com/Alchemy-Tranquebar-Erotic-Stories-ebook/dp/B00BG5J4J6
Some photos from the event:
The quiz questions (they all had visuals to go along with the answers, but I’ll leave that to your imagination)
1. What’s common to the splitting of a bamboo, the fixing a nail, the jumping of a tiger and the rubbing of a boar?
2. She achieved notoriety when she posed topless with the initials of the ISI (the Pakistani intelligence agency), printed on her arm. Also famous for her takedown of a Mullah on questions of morality on prime time TV, shortly after she participated in an Indian version of Big Brother. Who’s this sexy lady?
3. This disease was first diagnosed in the mid eighteenth century by a
French physician, MDT Bienville. According to Bienville, the warning symptoms of this disease were dwelling on impure thoughts, “secret pollutions” (i.e. masturbation), reading novels, and eating too much chocolate. What was the disease?
4. The leaf is a yoni, the piece of nut placed atop it the lingam, the white caustic lime paste made from crushed shells is semen, the blood red catechu paste is menstrual blood. What are we talking about?
5. S’adat Yar Khan “Rangin” (1755-1835), true to his takhallus or nom-de-plume, was a “Colorful” character; “A mercenary, a horse trader, and a poet.” He lived and worked and traveled extensively in late-Mughal India. In the days of his youth he used to spend a lot of time with khangis [married women from respectable households who surreptitiously practiced prostitution], and he used to “pay close attention to every eloquent speech in that community.” He named and was one of the first writers of a new genre of poetry, written by men in women’s voices, which purports to be ethnographic documentation of women’s speech, rituals, beliefs, emotions and sexual practices. This genre of poetry is known for its frank portrayals of female homoerotic desire and lesbian sex. What is this genre of poetry known as?
6. Over the course of ten days in his Honolulu penthouse, he put a check mark in his Daytimer every time he slept with a girl. After those 10 days there were 23 checks in the book, which would be rate of 2.3 women per day. He divided that number in half, to be conservative and correcting for degrees of variation. He then multiplied that number by the number of days he had been alive at the time minus 15 years. What infamous number resulted?
- They are all sex positions in the Kama Sutra.
- Veena Malik
- Paan. The act of eating paan is loaded with Tantric sexual imagery—coded as the consumption of sexual discharge
- Rekhti poetry
- Wilt Chamberlain’s claim to have slept with 20,000 women
Please join us for an evening of literary erotica, sex trivia and other surprises! For your listening (and other) pleasures, Abeer Hoque, Amitava Kumar, Mohan Sikka, Ranbir Sidhu and Sheba Karim will be reading from their stories in Alchemy: The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Stories 2.
Edited by Sheba Karim, Alchemy: The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Stories 2 features thirteen vivid, well-crafted stories that take the reader on an intimate journey through the alchemies of sex, desire and love, moving across genres, orientations, genders and continents, from Bolivia to Jharkhand to Kathmandu to the future. Some of these stories will make you hunger. Some will make you laugh. And one or two may even break your heart.
When: Wednesday, March 27th at 7 p.m.
Where: Aicon Gallery, 35 Great Jones Street, NY, NY.
Co-sponsored by the Asian American Writers’ Workshop.
Abeer Hoque is a Nigerian born Bangladeshi American writer and photographer. See more at www.olivewitch.com.
Amitava Kumar is the author of several works of non-fiction and a novel. His latest book, A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm A Tiny Bomb, was described by the New York Times as a “perceptive and soulful … meditation on the global war on terror and its cultural and human repercussions.” It was also judged the ‘Best Non-Fiction Book of the Year’ at the Page Turner Literary Award. His debut novel, Home Products, was published by Picador-India and short-listed for the Vodafone Crossword Book Award. Kumar is Professor of English on the Helen D. Lockwood Chair at Vassar College. Find out more at www.amitavakumar.com.
Mohan Sikka’s story “Uncle Musto Takes a Mistress” was selected for a PEN/O. Henry Prize. His fiction and non-fiction has appeared in the journal One Story, the Toronto South Asian Review, Trikone Magazine, National Geographic Traveller (India) and in other magazines and anthologies in several countries. Mohan’s story “The Railway Aunty” was published in Delhi Noir, part of the award-winning urban noir series from Akashic Books, and subsequently by HarperCollins India. It has been into an award-winning feature film, entitled “B.A. Pass,” to be released later this year. Find out more at http://www.mohansikka.com.
Ranbir Sidhu’s collection of stories, Good Indian Girls (HarperCollins India), will be published in the US this fall. His first novel, Deep Singh Blue, will appear in India this summer. He is a winner of the Pushcart Prize in fiction and a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, among other awards. Find out more at www.ranbirsidhu.com.
Sheba Karim is the editor of Alchemy: The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Stories 2. Her young adult novel, Skunk Girl, was published in the Denmark, India, Italy, Sweden and the United States. Her fiction has appeared in 580 Split, Asia Literary Review, Barn Owl Review, Kartika Review, Shenandoah, South Asian Review, Time Out Delhi and in several published and forthcoming anthologies in the United States and India. She was a 2009-2010 Fulbright-Nehru Scholar scholar and is currently working on a historical fiction novel set in 13th century India and a young adult novel set in 21st century New Jersey.
Anyone who has a blog knows that one of the most interesting aspects of blogging is seeing what google searches have led people (often inexplicably) to your blog. For example, someone got to my blog by searching how to injure yourself on a woodshop planer. I’m afraid I can’t help you there — I don’t even know what a woodshop planer is, though I did take woodshop in 7th grade and was always a little nervous using the circular saw.
There are searches for a particular type of woman, most of which don’t really apply to me, like pakistani girl with biceps (well, I am trying to work out more) and desi girl lovely breast (who? Me?) and some that might, like sheba karim poser (I like to think I’m not, but I’m open to discussion). There are also a few searches relating to South Asian diaspora angst and identity, such as desi parents are the worst and difference between pakistani girls and pakistani-american girls.
And, since I’ve just edited the lit erotica anthology Alchemy, the Tranquebar Book of Erotic Stories 2 (check it out on Infibeam here or Flipkart here), for the Indian publisher Tranquebar, a lot of the searches that lead to my blog are now related to erotica.
Some are simple, like asian erotica and erotic books from India, and some more imaginative. Someone searched for sensible erotic indian story, which begs the question, what is a sensible erotica story? Perhaps one in which the sex is within marriage, and the wife, having made her husband fresh chapatis and a vegetarian meal low on oils and fats but high on taste, artfully unwraps her sari in a dimly lit room so she may engage in pleasurable but non-kinky intercourse with said husband?
There was a search for pakistani high society rape sex erotic stories in urdu. I’m not even sure what to say about that. And a search for erotic stories about muslims kidnapping white girls which I imagine would involve a harem, and maybe opium. There was even a search for erotic literature involving women and household pets (sorry, Muffy).
There are depressing ones, such as show the hindi rape scene when the man is tight the hands and legs and remove all the clothes and the raped on girl /women.com and women who wear tight clothing only have themselves to blame–disturbing, and also sadly pertinent to the current conversation about rape that is happening in India, which, at times, can hardly be called a conversation.
And there was a search that made me smile. It was will sukhmani meet himanshu again by sheba karim.
Last winter, Femina, a popular women’s magazine in India, contacted me to see if I would write a story for them. But there were strict requirements – “The story has to be about 2000 words, and will be published in three episodes about 600 words each, in three issues of Femina. Each episode has to end in suspense, which will keep the reader interested and curious about the next installment.”
A story that would appeal to Femina readers with strict word limits and every episode ending in suspense – a fun writing exercise, I thought. All right, we’re on.
Will Sukhmani meet Himanshu again? I leave that up to you. But I thought I’d repost the story here (the installments were published in the June 28, July 12 and July 26, 2012 issues of Femina).
A Little Time for Yourself
For Himanshu, I dressed in miracles: a miracle bra, which transformed my small cleavage into deceptively more than a handful, a pair of miracle stockings, the kind designed to make all your post-baby belly fat magically disappear, miracle black heels that were two inches above my comfort zone but made my legs long and thin, an understated black dress, three silver bangles, expensive jasmine attar that wafted subtly from my pulse points.
Arun wrapped one arm around me, drew me close. He was as strong as he was when we first started dating, his exercise regimen of running and weight training unabated after all these years. “Biwi ho to aisi,” he said, kissing my hair.
My husband was intelligent, attractive, disciplined, and reliable. We had a lovely, good-natured daughter named Maya and a well-appointed flat in Defence Colony. Arun was a management consultant, on track to make partner at his firm, and I worked at a literacy NGO. We were a good balance of earning money and bettering the world. I loved him. Why, then, had I just spent two hours dressing for another man?
Not that there was anything to feel guilty about. It was normal to want to look good for an old flame, and Himsanshu wasn’t even that. He wasn’t anything, really, not even my friend. I’d only met him twice. The first time was at a party in Hauz Khas village. The friend who’d invited me hadn’t arrived yet, and nearly everyone was speaking French, so I’d gone out onto the terrace, which was empty except for a guy smoking a joint. He had the purposefully unkempt look of an artist, khadi kurta, sandals, jeans, beaded necklace, a thick leather bracelet on his incredibly sexy, dark, lean forearms.
“Want some?” Himanshu asked, holding up the joint.
We finished it and kept on talking. He was a photographer, but needed to make more money. One of his ex-girlfriends had also been named Sukhmani. “That woman made love like a storm,” he told me. “It wouldn’t be over until she’d completely destroyed you.” And, soon after, I found myself telling him how I’d been spending a lot of my time recently caring for my mother who was undergoing chemotherapy, how I felt guilty that sometimes I resented her for being sick.
He touched my shoulder, and just the weight of his hand made me delirious, weak-kneed. Was this what people meant when they spoke of instant chemistry?
“It’s not selfish,” he said, “to crave a little time for yourself.”
And, without thinking, I leaned in to kiss his smooth, thick lips, but my friend showed up and said we had to leave for another party, her mother’s driver was waiting to take us downstairs. I said goodbye, hoping he’d ask for my number. He didn’t.
I saw him again five months later, at an art opening in a gallery in Neeti Bagh, talking to a blonde, lithe woman who would never have a need for miracle bras or panty hose. A few minutes later, after I’d downed a glass of cheap red wine, I felt a tap on my shoulder. “I was hoping I’d see you again,” Himanshu said, and I could tell he meant it. “I wanted to ask for your number, but I had a girlfriend then.”
“And now I’m yours.”
We refilled our wine glasses and went toward a shadowy corner of the garden. We talked again, the conversation flowing easily, like old friends.
“Can I tell you something?” he said. “I’ve never wanted to kiss anyone as badly as I wanted to kiss you that night on the terrace.”
And, without thinking, I leaned in, and so did he, and then we were kissing, his arms around my back, his finger in my hair. I felt that kiss everywhere, small, joyous vibrations in my heart, the small of my back, even the tips of my toes. Then my phone went off inside my purse, and I knew without looking who it was.
“I have to go,” I told him. “My boyfriend’s here.”
I left Himanshu in the garden and went inside the gallery to find my boyfriend. Arun and I have been dating only three months, but we were already making half-jokes about our future, how many children we’d have, where we’d live. When I found him, in front of a black and white photograph of two boys flying kites on an old Delhi rooftop, my knees were still trembling, and, worried he’d notice, I kissed him right away, with such intensity that Arun said, “Let’s go home.” And we did go home, and I’d never doubted I made the right choice; I had sweet, responsible Arun. I couldn’t have given that up for some dark, mysterious photographer.
But I never gave Himanshu up completely. Arun and I had good sex, though less of it as the years wore on, but there had been more than a few times when I’d lain beside him and fantasized about what would have happened if I stayed with Himanshu that night at the gallery. Most of my fantasies involved us having sex. Sometimes he undressed me right there, in that garden, while people got drunk inside, oblivious to our moonlit passion. I kept tabs on him through google and facebook. I knew he’d done well for himself, that he’d started designing screen-printed t-shirts on the side that now sold at fancy boutiques in Europe for 50 euros. I knew what his old cat looked like, and his old girlfriends, and I’d stared at some of the photos he posted from his prolific travels, bustling Bangkok streets, stark Ladakh landscapes, the rich green textures of a Panamanian rain forest.
And then his status update mentioned coming to Delhi and without thinking I sent a message inviting him to our party. He replied saying he’d stop by and all of sudden, it became real. I was going to see Himanshu again.
The guests started to arrive. Every time the doorbell rang my stomach did a backflip, but it was my college friends, or Arun’s, or friends from work, or Arun’s junior consultant colleagues, who always drank too much and stayed too late, or my cousin Rashmi who’d returned from art school in New York with a lip piercing and a girlfriend. I told myself to stop listening for the bell, that he probably wouldn’t even show up. Why would he come to a party where he didn’t even know anyone?
I was two glasses of champagne in when Rashmi said, “Who’s that guy?”
I turned around and there he was, dark-eyed, lean, scruffy beard, wooden, tribal bracelets on his sinewy, strong forearms. He came toward us. He still moved with the same easy, sensuous grace I remembered, and had often wondered would be like in bed.
“Sukhmani,” Himanshu said. “My god.”
Arun’s deep, rumbling laughter rose from across in the room. Someone started playing Ek do teen on the stereo. Glasses clinked. I was frozen, the words trapped in my throat.
Rashmi stuck her hand out. “I’m Rashmi.”
Say something. Stop acting like you’re fourteen again. Himanshu watched me for a few moments, then said gently, “How are you?”
“Shall I show you the bar?” Rashmi inserted, and, finally, I woke up.
“That’s okay—I’ll show Himanshu the bar,” I said. Stepping past her, I gestured for Himanshu to follow me out of the room, and we made our way through the crowd of people dancing and singing to the music. Tera karoon din gin gin ke intezaar, aaja piya aaye bahaar.
I led Himanshu to our expansive, elegantly manicured garden. He let out a soft whistle. “Lovely home you have. And lovely daughter—I saw a photo of her on the shelf.”
“Thanks. She’s with Arun’s mother tonight. Should we sit?”
We settled into the jhula’s plump cushions. Himanshu picked a pink blossom from the kachnar tree and presented it to me. “You should wear it,” he said, and I stuck it behind my ear.
“Stunning,” Himanshu declared. Was he talking about me, or the flower? I watched as he emptied his pocket and began to roll a joint with his long fingers. How many times had I imagined those fingers on my own skin?
“You’re quite the success with your t-shirts,” I said. “French Vogue!”
“It pays the bills, allows me to pursue my two loves, photography and travel.”
“What about women?”
Himanshu brought the joint to his lips, licked the paper, all the time looking at me. And it was just like it was before, electric, as if you’d get shocked if you touched the air between us. It was only a matter of time before someone came out to the garden. But I didn’t dare move. Besides, we were doing nothing wrong.
“And you?” he said. “Still saving the world?”
“You really do look stunning.”
“That’s because I’m wearing more than one item of clothing that has the word ‘miracle’ on the label,” I confessed, and once again I marveled at how easy it was to be with Himanshu, to open up to him, as if we’d been close friends in a past life. Himanshu lit the joint. We smoked, listening to the crickets, painfully aware of the distance between us. If I just moved my hand a few inches, it would touch his thigh. But who was I kidding? I would never do it. Would I?
Emboldened by the hash, I broke the silence. “Himanshu, do you ever think about—“
I didn’t respond. Himanshu turned to me, and said, casually, “About making love to you?”
I sucked in my breath. “Yes. Us—about us.”
“Close your eyes,” he told me, and, without thinking, I did. “You’re at an art opening, and you see this woman who’s been on your mind about since you met at a party months ago. She has the same warm, smart smile as your 6th class teacher you had such a crush on, and eyes you could drown in. You go up to her, and the two of you go outside and talk, and then you kiss. Her boyfriend calls, but she stays with you, and you keep kissing, and it’s fireworks, Diwali in your heart, and you take her in your arms and take her home and make love to her all night, make her come again and again. You start seeing each other, and she breaks up with her boyfriend for you. The problem is that you’re very good at the beginnings of relationships but terrible at middles and ends. You don’t like to stay in one place to long, you’re frightened of commitment, there’s too much to see, to explore, to photograph. And she finds out the sad truth about you, that you’re a passionate lover but a terrible partner. Even though you tell yourself you probably won’t find a girl as smart or sexy or charming as her, but you still end up hurting her, because that’s who you were, in your 20s, and it’s only recently that you’ve started to change.”
He stopped. I opened my eyes, and he grinned at my expression. “Buzz kill?” he joked. I smiled, uncertain if I was happy or sad.
“Arun’s a lucky guy,” he continued. “This is what happens to boys who turn into men too late—they miss a lot of the good ones.”
My eyes were suddenly damp. It’s amazing, how tears can surprise you. “And whoever you end up with will be lucky, too.”
“Let’s hope.” Himanshu stood up. “I better go. I have two more parties tonight. This city is a social time suck. It was good seeing you.” He took the flower that had fallen out of my ear and set it on my lap. “Goodbye, beautiful.”
Arun would come looking for me soon, but I stayed for a while anyway, rocking back and forth, thinking it was better that life worked out like this, that the things that might have been were also the ones that were never meant to be. Then I heard Arun’s happy, hearty laughter calling out to me from the kitchen, flicked the joint butt into the grass, and, wiping my eyes, headed back to the house to rejoin the party.
Good Indian Girls is a short story collection by the wonderful writer Ranbir Sidhu, one of the 13 authors featured in the anthology I recently edited, Alchemy: The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Stories. Good Indian Girls has just been published by Harper Collins India and is available in Indian bookstores and online. Check out the trailer on the book’s tumblr site.
Info on Good Indian Girls by Ranbir Sidhu from the Harper Collins website:
The first-person narrator of “The Good Poet of Africa” despises poetry, repays compassion with insult, and enjoys lying to children. But, by story’s end, the moral universe will be turned on its head, and the reader will empathize with Ranbir Singh Sidhu’s loathsome protagonist. This is writing of uncommon assurance and skill.’ –Jeet Thayil
‘Ranbir Singh Sidhu is imaginative, with a dry, sly wit, very intelligent, and owns a wicked sensibility, all of which makes his fiction smart, daring, sensitive to human perversity, and keen in its observations.’ –Lynne Tillman
A low-level, drunkard Indian diplomat in Africa finds himself mysteriously transferred to the consulate in San Francisco, where everyone believes he is a great and undiscovered Urdu poet. An anthropological expedition searching for early human fossils in Ethiopia goes disastrously wrong as the leader begins to search madly for the very first sounds ever made by humans. When the wife of a retiring consul discovers that her pet python is dead, she decides to pay tribute to him in the way she knows best: by serving him to her dinner guests. A strange skull discovered outside an orphanage in northern India leads to the creation of a cult around one of the charismatic young residents and to acts of sudden violence. A wife knows the one thing her workaholic husband wants for his birthday: handcuffs, whips, sex toys of all sorts. He buys the drugs. These and other stories are brought vividly to life in Ranbir Singh Sidhu’s startling and disturbing debut collection, Good Indian Girls.
I’m very proud to announce that Alchemy: The Tranquebar Anthology of Erotic Short Stories 2, the second anthology in Tranquebar’s acclaimed lit erotica series, has just been released! India residents can buy it online here (Landmark) or here (Flipkart) or at a bookstore near you. It was an honor for me to work with a group of such talented authors, and I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed editing it.
In Alchemy, Tranquebar’s second anthology of erotic short stories, editor Sheba Karim has brought together thirteen diverse works about the pleasures and pains of sex – an unapologetic account of a post-modern man’s attraction to his maid, a futuristic tale of a four gendered orgy, a poignant narrative of a boy’s sexual awakening in a cinema bathroom, a lyrical meditation on a mysterious woman’s carnal lessons to an imprisoned monk. The anthology’s stories are vivid and well-crafted, moving across genres, orientations, continents and genders, taking the reader on a intimate journey through the complexities of sex, lust, and desire as the characters search for a cure for the alchemy of love.
I’m writing this post in the wake of several attacks on US embassies in Egypt, Libya and Yemen over an anti-Islam film called the Innocence of Muslims. The actors recently released a statement disavowing it and saying that they “were grossly misled about its intent and purpose.” Having watched it, I’d imagine they’d also want to disavow it because it’s really, really dumb. (Though it strikes me as odd that filmmaker Sam Bacile aka Nakoula Basseley Nakoula had to hoodwink the actors, when I’m sure he could have found plenty of Islamophobes to willingly participate.)
As a writer, I believe free speech is one of the most important cornerstones of a fair and engaged society. To limit speech means limiting art, for the point of art is often to challenge the status quo, notions of orthodoxy, to make people uncomfortable, reflect upon matters they’d prefer to ignore. As Picasso said, “Art is never chaste. It ought to be forbidden to ignorant innocents, never allowed into contact with those not sufficiently prepared. Yes, art is dangerous. Where it is chaste, it is not art.” (Interestingly, this was quoted by Justice Kaul of the Delhi High Court in the judgment quashing ‘hurt sentiments’ cases against M.F. Husain, but India remains a country where a theater company cancels a musical about the first Mughal emperor Babur returning as a ghost to confront his jihadi descendants, because they’re nervous about hurting sentiments).
So people have the right to say hateful things, but it does sadden me that we are living in a new culture of hate in America. The number of hate groups in the United States is as at an all-time high. A recent count by the Southern Poverty Law Center recorded 1,018 of them. But it’s not only limited to Muslims (and people who look like they might be). Patriot groups, ‘conspiracy-minded groups that see the federal government as their primary enemy,’ came in at an all-time 1,274, gaining new momentum after the election of the nation’s first black president (surprise, surprise). There’s also been an increase in ‘native supremacist groups,’ whose goal is to harass people they suspect of being undocumented immigrants.
But while no minority is safe, Muslims have a special place in this new culture of hate. The FBI reported a 50% increase in hate crimes against Muslims in 2010. It’s commonplace to hear Muslims vilified by the talking heads on Fox and other networks, and by politicians themselves. And in world where money=power, or at the very least media presence, seven charitable foundations have donated $42.6 million dollars to Islamaphobia think tanks. From the report Fear, Inc: The Roots of the Islamphobia Network in America - “A small group of foundations and wealthy donors are the lifeblood of the Islamophobia network in America, providing critical funding to a clutch of right-wing think tanks that peddle hate and fear of Muslims and Islam—in the form of books, reports, websites, blogs, and carefully crafted talking points that anti-Islam grassroots organizations and some right-wing religious groups use as propaganda for their constituency.”
I recently watched a documentary called Inside Islam: What a Billion Muslims Really Think, in which Muslims around the world were polled about their views toward America, terrorism, democracy, etc. For me, the results were no-brainers. Muslims cherish democracy (nobody wants to live under authoritarian regimes – no surprise there). Muslims do not condone the killing of innocent civilians (Muslims are people, not monsters – nothing new there, either). Muslims appreciate American values, but are disapproving of America’s foreign policy.
As I said, none of this stuff was surprising to me. Spend some time in a Muslim country and you’d figure out the same. What was interesting about What a Billion Muslims Really Think was not the movie itself but the comment feed. Many of these commenters were shocked and offended by the film. They could not believe that Muslims were regular people who want a say in their government and don’t want innocent people to die.
Here’s an example of one comment: “What a Billion Muslims Really Think?” Simple…”How do we bullshit to the infidels to convince them that we are really peaceful when we know we’re really a murderous death cult commanded to kill all infidels?”
And another one I found particularly frightening: “Sorry, but all Muslims, every last one of them are collectively guilty for the atrocities of the terrorists and extremists.”
There were literally hundreds more in this vein.
There was one woman, Melisa H., who I single out because her comments are frequent and vitriolic, and she is utterly convinced of the accuracy and righteousness of her opinions, even if factually erroneous.
For example, she says, “there is no such thing as “non-Orthodox” Islam. None. Nowhere. There is only one Islam.” But there are Sunnis, numerous sects of Shias, Sufis, Wahabis, Ahmadis, etc. A trip through the Muslim world would illustrate right away that there is most definitely not one Islam, and non-orthodox Islam does indeed exist. Just visit a Sufi dargah.
Some more from Melisa H: “Muslim-dominated lands and areas are cesspools of stagnancy and violent oppressive hellholes because they hold values that are utterly foreign to most of us.”
‘The tenets of Islam have nothing to do with peace. The only peace of which even Muslim scholars speak is the “peace” that comes from being in control of subjugated populations and the rest of people being Muslim and living according to the shari’ah only and not manmade law.’
‘The ones I know are Westernized, and to a point, will go along to get along, adopting Western values, or at least putting them on like a hat when dealing with the Western public amonst whom they live. The ones who truly believe it, who live Western, are rejected, condemned and killed by their fellow Muslims, who accuse them of shirk. They are putting Western values above Islam which is haram.’
There are common threads through nearly all of the anti-Muslim comments, which, not surprisingly, reflect the themes put forth by Islamophobic writers and media:
1) Muslims are violent and Islam is a violent religion
2) Even if they are not violent, they are to be blamed for not stopping the ones who are
3) Muslims want to kill us, impose Sharia law on us, and Islamic values are incompatible and at odds with Western values
4) Muslims wants to kill all non-Muslim babies in the halal fashion, grind them up and make “kafir hummus” which dutiful, burqa-clad wives will then serve to their husbands when they get home from their daily pillaging activities.
I’m obviously kidding about the last one, but the scary thing is, if I posted it on the Internet, I bet you a lot of people would believe me.
So the question is, how does one respond to statements that all Muslims are violent, or that the tenets of Islam have nothing to do with peace? You could quote passages in the Quran, you could discuss mystical Islam, or Islam’s message of equality. You could point out that by selectively taking passages from any major religious text, you can support all kinds of violent and non-violent actions. You could cite statistic after statistic. You could name all of the huggable, friendly Muslim people you know.
What I realized from reading these comments is that none of the above will work. I used to think that the most powerful tool in countering these kinds of claims is facts. But studies show that conservatives are more likely to make up facts that support their opinion, that the more educated conservatives are, the more likely they are to dismiss facts that go against their beliefs, and that only 35% of conservatives have a great deal of trust in that fact-based discipline called science.
A lot of us tend to think that certain conservative beliefs are due to a lack of education, but in one fascinating study, 1,500 random people were asked their views on global warming, as well as questions that assessed their understanding of math and science. One would assume that, the more you know about math and science, the more likely it is that you believe in climate change. However, as Chris Mooney points out, the study shows that “If you were already part of a cultural group predisposed to distrust climate science—e.g., a political conservative or “hierarchical-individualist”—then more science knowledge and more skill in mathematical reasoning tended to make you even more dismissive. Precisely the opposite happened with the other group—“egalitarian-communitarians” or liberals—who tended to worry more as they knew more science and math.”
What this study indicates is that, to someone who is disposed to believe that all Muslims are terrorists out to get them, reciting facts and statistics to the contrary isn’t going to get them to change their mind. This was borne out by what I saw in the back and forth in the comment feed. You could say anything to these people, but they weren’t going to change or even soften their stance one bit.
So if facts don’t work, how can you convince people that Muslims are human too, that there is beauty and spiritual wisdom to be found in Islam, just as there is in all religions? How can we respond to Islamaphobia?
And that brings me back to art. Because, while people may not listen to facts, they may listen to narrative. And humor. The Innocence of Muslims film is offensive, yes, and terrible, so terrible it’s almost funny (although what the film is trying to accomplish is not), though ultimately painful to watch, and boring to boot. Ken White suggests in his article Hollywood of Hate, the best response would be a new episode of “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” and, after viewing the movie, it is indeed perfect fodder for being completely and effectively eviscerated by humor. In the face of so much vitriol and drone attacks, I’m sure it’s difficult for people in Yemen, for example, to find any humor in the situation. But, because we are now living in a culture where depicting Muslims as ‘normal’ has become controversial, because there are people in this country who think that every Muslim is responsible for terrorism, it’s increasingly important that American Muslims, particularly us writers, artists, musicians, comedians and journalists, use our creativity to foster dialogue and understanding of Islam, or even to be critical of Islam from a place that doesn’t stem from hate and bigotry. Films, books, ‘Axis of Evil’ comedy tours are more vital than ever. People may not listen to facts, but everyone can appreciate a good joke, a story well-told. Did A Separation change foreign policy towards Iran, or alter the stance of the Iranian regime? No. But it did show viewers around the world that Iranians love their children, too.
Can a novel really make a difference? Can fiction succeed where facts fail? Maybe not. But in this new culture of hate, it might be one of our best hopes.