Among the believers
If the measure of a life is survival, then Maulana Abdul Aziz seems to be a very lucky man. His loved ones have fallen – his father shot before his eyes, his son lost in the siege of the Laal Masjid in 2007 while Aziz was in jail – but he himself has survived possible death by bullet, knife, bomb. He has even survived death by burqa.
While security forces and his well-armed students fought it out in 2007, he was caught sneaking out of his besieged fortress in women’s clothing and subsequently paraded on PTV, still wearing the burqa. When asked how he justified his own escape while those given to his care were left behind, the Maulana said it was Jaaiz to use disguise to save your life during a war. Perhaps the Maulana is not a survivor through sheer luck after all. Perhaps the Maulana is a survivor because he is canny enough to know most Pakistanis are ignorant enough of their faith to avoid discussions on the finer points of it?
The details of the son watching his father die, the humiliation on state-owned TV, are in the documentary Among The Believers, co-directed by Indian filmmaker Hemal Trivedi and Pakistani filmmaker Mohammed Naqvi. The film has recently been in the news after the Central Board of Film Censors in Islamabad refused to grant it a screening certificate for a film festival, on the grounds that it “contain dialogues which projects the negative image of Pakistan in the ongoing fighting against extremism and terrorism”. The attempt at censorship made many want to watch the film, which is a good thing because it is excellent. The best film I have seen about the state of our nation since the rest of the world turned a baleful glance on us and asked, ‘What is wrong with you, Pakistan?’
The documentary’s excellence lies partly in the fact that that is not the question it chooses to ask. There is nothing of the native informant about it. The question it asks, instead, is, ‘How do you break a child’s spirit?’
Enter Maulana Abdul Aziz, totemic figure of unregulated madrassa education.
Early in the film, he introduces us to a six-year-old boy. He tells us the boy and his mother both came to the Laal Masjid – the mother is at Jamia Hafza – after his father left them. He tells us this in front of the boy, because the boy’s feelings are of no consequence, a reality the boy grasps because his body speaks submission and servility as he crouches before the Maulana. Then Aziz has the boy stand and deliver, in a sudden staccato burst, a speech about jihad and what the believers will do should the unbelievers threaten them. At the end of the speech he hands the boy a hundred rupee note. There are a lot of currency notes in the film. The big ones go directly into the Maulana’s pocket.
Early in the film, we meet the Laal Masjid’s ‘Dean of Admissions’. He tells a man who has brought a boy for enrolment that, if he finishes memorizing the Quran, not only will the boy go to heaven he will also take with him ten relatives who would otherwise go directly to hell. He says it with a completely straight face. A little later in the film, he tells us the early years are the best time to mould children. If you set them on a path young, they can never really deviate from it, you see. He doesn’t just say it. He believes it too. Which Maulana must he have been given to, when he was a child?
Given to Abdul Aziz, and darting in and out of the film lighting up the screen with their fragile, damaged, beauty, are the girl child Zarina and the boy child Talha. Zarina’s folks have nine children and cannot feed them so she was given to the Laal Masjid outpost in her village before running away. Talha’s folks…we never know why Talha was given to others to raise. But in the brief interaction between Talha and his father we feel the weight of unspeakable things. Things that eat poverty and ignorance. Towards the end of the film, Talha is asked if, after years of rising at five and sleeping at nine, and all the swaying and chanting, he understands the meaning of the Quran. That will come later, he tells us, daring us to suggest otherwise. The Dean of Admissions should be proud. As for Zarina, I can’t tell you about Zarina. We should all be proud, for letting the unspeakable things eat our children. Children like Abdul Aziz, whose assassinated father was once a favoured instrument of state policy.
The film does not project a ‘ negative image of Pakistan’; it offers us borrowed grace, in the form of the constant presence of Pakistanis who have been fighting from the beginning of our descent to lift us up again. Not the soldiers we are constantly told are our only saviours, but the ordinary people who have been in the ideological trenches for decades now, fighting for love, light, knowledge, joy. Some of the names we are familiar with. Some of them we will never know. Some of them we will know only after they have been shot dead. And we will marvel again at the luck of Maulana Abdul Aziz, ultimate survivor. It’s blind, un-Islamic luck, right? It couldn’t be some powerful guardian angels? It couldn’t be some friends at the very top?
Incidentally, Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey was the title of a book by V S Naipaul, published in 1981, charting his six-month travel through countries full of the ‘recently converted’, such as Iran, Pakistan, Indonesia and Malaysia. I haven’t read it. I wonder if it is in the Laal Masjid library along with all the other books we do not understand.