Nonfiction from Bassam Sidiki
Author’s note: The following personal essay is an example of the Indo-Persian mode of oral storytelling called dāstān or qiṣṣah. The essay adopts a very specific subgenre of this mode, the t̤irāz. According to Urdu scholar Pasha M. Khan, the t̤irāz was grouped into four chapters called “ḳhabars,” plus a conclusion (ḳhātimah), and the names of the khabars signaled the situations in which they were to be recited: razm, bazm, ḥusn o ‘ishq, and ‘ayyārī—battle, courtly gatherings, beauty and love, and trickery. The essay, in its homage to this oral tradition, takes the “telling” in “storytelling” seriously, defying that hackneyed commonplace of writing workshops in the West today: “show, don’t tell.”
Esteemed listeners, invited, uninvited—or, if you were invited but worldly matters got in the way of your attendance at this mehfil, and you have only these pages to read from—let me preface this dāstān with a little glimpse into what you can expect. This is not a “content or trigger warning” of today’s literary circles, but it can be if you so wish. Accordingly, in this dāstān you shall find magic, sickness, demons, healing, empire, family ties, and even a little poetry. Join me.
Bazm: Courtly Gathering
My mother said that Saeen must have been about 110 years old when he died last year. I grew up in Karachi, but my family frequently visited my aunt when she lived in Hyderabad, the second-largest city in the Pakistani province of Sindh and the place where my parents were married (and not to be confused with its namesake town in southern India). Saeen lived there and he was an omnipresent, if not omnipotent, figure in our lives: my mother zealously believed in his mystical powers. As a child I sometimes accompanied my mother and aunts to the little shack Saeen called home on Sarfraz Road. I don’t recall what he looked like beyond the silvery shock of hair and the wrinkles on his face. Most of all, I recall that he was a woman.
Saeen did not have much in his living room by way of furniture except a charpoy on which he held court, always smiling, silently mumbling Quranic remembrances and tying black woolen strings which he blessed. He gave these strings out to those who wanted them, like my mother, who had me and my siblings tie them around our necks and tuck them away discreetly beneath our clothes. I remember that these Kabbalah-like stringy necklaces were often a source of embarrassment for me in school when they treacherously emerged from the collar of my uniform to the horror of my more orthodox Muslim peers: you visit the shrines of saints! That’s kufr! I ignored them.
Saeen’s reverent disciples and visitors who came to him from all over Hyderabad sat on the floor, some massaging his feet, others begging him to intercede with Allah on their behalf. They wanted questions answered: is my husband unfaithful? Will my son get that promotion? Should my daughter marry into that family? And it seemed like Saeen’s answers were always correct, because these women kept returning. Saeen never asked for compensation, only voluntary donations which his followers surreptitiously slipped under his pillow on the four-poster canopy bed, adorned extravagantly by his disciples with roses and jasmine.
Most of all, his followers wanted to prevent or heal all manner of afflictions. In fact, my mother and aunts were first introduced to him when they were desperate to seek a cure for my grandmother’s cancer. But when they got to Saeen, he told them that they were too late; Nani died a few days after. As it happened, Saeen’s own story began with a successful cure.
What had always perplexed me was that Saeen, despite being a woman, was addressed as a man and with masculine pronouns. I dismissed this as a symptom of my culture’s indigenous patriarchy; a mighty and powerful woman must, of course, be a man. But as I found out later, the reality was more complex. Saeen wasn’t always Saeen. In Sindh and lower Punjab, “Saeen” (pronounced sah-een) is a title of respect, mostly reserved for elders. God is addressed as Allah saeen, an elder brother might be addressed ada saeen. In fact, my parents called each other saeen as well—perhaps it was their conversations with each other and this term of endearment spoken so often in our house which made Saeen the mystic an even more ubiquitous force in our lives. I don’t think my mother or any of Saeen’s other disciples knew his real name. In her version of Saeen’s story before he was Saeen, Mom spoke of a woman called Bibi.
Bibi was never Saeen, even though we called her that. Saeen was a Sufi personage named Saeen Mustafa Shah, a powerful mystic with a supremely intimate connection with God. A long time ago Bibi visited him because she could not conceive. Lo and behold, fifteen days after her visit to him, she did, and gave birth to a healthy baby boy. Her faith in Mustafa Shah grew so much that she became his murid, or student. Mustafa Shah had no children of his own, and on his deathbed he appointed Bibi not only as his successor but as his medium. He told his followers that after his passing he would speak to them through her. Bibi became a vessel. Bibi became Saeen, two spirits in one body.
Saeen’s strings and prayers were just one aspect of the mysticism, Sufi and otherwise, which enveloped our lives in Sindh (and when we relocated to America—the oceans are no impediment to the spirits). Nazar, or the evil eye, was and remains a potent etiology for ill health and rotten luck. It is a notion so pervasive in our community and in many other Muslim ones, so that even a secular, non-practicing Muslim like me cannot rest easy without saying MashAllah or Alhamdulilah when blessed with good fortune. But the treatments for evil eye, or “taking off nazar” were even more intriguing to me because they were so heretical. Sometimes my mother would have us three siblings sit together, take a chicken’s egg in her hand, and circulate it over our heads, seven times clockwise and seven counter-clockwise, after which the egg was smashed by throwing it at a wall. Another remedy consisted of a mixture of red chillies, hermal, and alum which, after a similar circumambulation around the head, was set on fire. I remember this mixture was set ablaze once and the ensuing chemical reaction (or destruction of nazar) produced slimy, mauve tentacles which solidified in the shape of a heart when they cooled. My mother says that the fire usually leaves visible the face of the person who cast the nazar, but sometimes it might even reveal the instrument through which a dark spell was cast: like a goat’s heart. In any event, the unwelcome face or heart or liver must be left at a four-way intersection to be destroyed by oncoming traffic.
“Superstition is rife throughout Sindh; scepticism rare.”
— Richard Francis Burton, Sindh and the Races That Inhabit the Valley of the Indus (1851)
Many would find it a paradox of the highest order that Sindh, like the rest of Pakistan and its diaspora, abounds with professionals trained in Western biomedicine, and yet folk remedies, spiritual healing, and magic prevail to such an extent in the present day. Others assume that a monolithic and “scientific” colonial medicine entirely displaced indigenous practices. But as medical historians and anthropologists have shown, these indigenous systems were very resilient against outside influence, with the result that a kind of syncretism emerged which would allow, for instance, my mother to expect her children to go to medical school while holding on to her traditional healing practices. Dua and dawa, she says, reveling in the rhyme. “Prayer and medicine.”
Most British colonists actively dismissed these practices as superstition. Thomas Babington Macaulay in his infamous “Minute on Indian Education” (1833) called them “medical doctrines which would disgrace an English farrier.” The Orientalist and traveler Richard Francis Burton, who lived in Sindh for five years a little after the East India Company’s annexation of the province in 1843, meticulously recorded and belittled the Sindhis’ views of the world as irrational, if not entirely insane. For instance, he describes the cures doled out by Sufi saints at shrines as follows:
Curing all kinds of diseases and complaints, structural, organic, and whatnot? The modus medendi is generally, the administering of drop of water to the patient—hydropathy in embryo you observe; on passing the hand over the part affected—a rude form of animal magnetism. The maladies are of the class upon which the hydropathist and the mesmerist love to exercise their natural magic, such as deafness, dumbness, blindness, hysteria and nervous affections; but failures are common, and success must, I fear, be pronounced rare and unsatisfactory.
But we South Asians weren’t the only mesmerists, as anyone with a cursory knowledge of Victorian England would know. “Animal magnetism” or “mesmerism” was developed by the German doctor Franz Mesmer who believed that a natural, invisible life force pervaded all matter, and if successfully manipulated, could bring about physical effects such as healing. Mesmerism was all the rage in Europe in the nineteenth century, especially toward its end. In fact, British mesmerists tried to proselytize their art in the far reaches of the Empire, including in India. The most famous of these was a contemporary of Burton, the Scottish surgeon James Esdaile, who served the East India Company for two decades. He arrived in Calcutta in 1831 and was appointed to numerous posts in Bengal’s medical administration, such as Civil Surgeon of the Hooghly Imambara Hospital and the doctor in charge of the Hooghly Jail. He began his mesmeric experiments on the convicts of the jail in 1845, with the first procedure successfully inducing analgesia in a convict who was to undergo surgery for an inflamed scrotum. This was the era before chloroform-induced analgesia became routine for surgery, so Esdaile’s mesmeric methods became quite popular in India for a while, mostly among native patients. Even a “mesmeric hospital” was built in Calcutta in 1848 at the public’s expense, until it closed eighteen months later and Esdaile left India for good.
Historians of science and magic in the British colonies such as Waltraud Ernst argue that Esdaile’s case gives the lie to any stark dichotomy between Western, “objective,” colonial medicine on the one hand and the more superstitious traditions of the natives on the other. Esdaile himself, in his 1846 book Mesmerism in India, and its Practical Application in Surgery and Medicine, writes that “if the Mumbo Jumbo men of Africa, the medicine men of America, and the charmers of this country, ever succeed in relieving their patients (and here they do), I am disposed to think that it is generally in cases curable by Mesmerism… and that Mesmerism is actually practiced in this country, and has probably been so [since] time immemorial.”
To this day my mother continues to insist that what happened to me wasn’t depression. It was asr, or “influence,” a euphemism for demonic possession.
During the fall term of my seventh grade my family and I traveled five hours north from Karachi to Wazirabad, a village on the outskirts of Shikarpur, my paternal family’s ancestral town. We were attending the wedding of the youngest daughter of one of my paternal aunts, who was married to a wealthy landowner and politician. As my father drove through the dilapidated shanties and lean-tos of Wazirabad, there emerged amongst the squalor the family mansion. It was unlike anything that surrounded the poverty-stricken village, complete with two gargantuan verandahs, a swimming pool under construction, and somewhere about ten bedrooms (although I think the number could be much higher). Servants and nannies, hired from the local village community, ran frantically after my aunt’s numerous grandchildren, the would-be heirs of this veritable monarchy in a presumably democratic nation.
Despite my mixed feelings about the excessive display of wealth, my brief time in Wazirabad was the first time that I felt I belonged. I appreciated the deep camaraderie and friendship that developed between the many cousins while staying together in the house. I was famously a loner in school, with no one to befriend me but my books, and until that point I never felt the need for deeper human connection.
The wedding festivities lasted a week. The last night before our departure we had a large bonfire celebration under the somewhat ominous date palms lining the edge of the property. By the next morning on our return journey home my mood began to darken. A few days after our return to Karachi, as I sat at my desk trying to solve a math problem, I broke down completely.
That is how the asr started, with an inability to concentrate and an unwillingness to do my schoolwork. Along with those symptoms, an unmitigated, uncontrollable, and violent sobbing as if the world were ending. Prior to the wedding I was a carefree child who studied hard to do well in school. The deep despair that I experienced has dulled over time, perhaps for the best. For my mother the incident was a phase. But I am convinced that it was a malady that was here to stay.
There are no words that can accurately represent the harrowing sensations of asr: the bottomless pit like an anvil in the center of my chest which would pull me deeper and deeper into the mattress; the excruciating loneliness and sense of mundanity and notions of ephemerality which overtook me if I listened to a sad song or even looked at a solitary object like a potted plant.
More frustrating than the asr’s symptoms was my inability to name the etiology: why was I crying? My parents and siblings and teachers and classmates kept asking me that question, but all I could tell them was I don’t know. Over the years I have tried to answer that question for myself: was it just puberty? Was I lonely? Was it because I missed the community I had found with my cousins in the village? Was it because I envied the riches of my aunt’s family? Or was it because I was evincing an unconscious guilt or outrage about the impoverished villagers I saw in their slums right next to the big house? The only thing we could be entirely convinced of, though, was that the asr had started after our visit to the village in the north.
We had no school counselors. I was not taken to a therapist or psychiatrist. My mother was at the end of her tether. She consulted Saeen and another medium she knew from Hyderabad named Baby Apa. They both warned my mother that this was no ordinary affliction. According to Baby Apa, the asr must have caught me on the night of the bonfire when I was beneath the trees; it is widely believed in rural communities that trees are the homes of diabolical spirits and the jinn. They suggested that I be taken to a spiritual healer in Karachi.
He was a tall and skinny man with a beard, dressed in salwar kameez and sporting a skullcap on his head. I do not remember his name, so I will call him Ahmad. The blue walls on the inside of his house reminded me much of Saeen’s. It was about 2 miles away from my family’s apartment, near the railway tracks where other mystical practitioners lived such as the “Peeliya Baba” who diagnosed jaundice by rubbing a chalk-like substance on your hands and washing it away; if the water turned yellow, you were positive. The healer and his family—a wife and a young daughter—looked at me with pity and confusion as I sat in the wicker chair in their living room, staring at the floor as the tears flowed unstoppably and I crumpled tissue paper in my anxious hands. Thus began my therapy with the healer which lasted about four months, and consisted chiefly of us sitting together, him gently holding my hand, reading Quranic verses from memory and blowing them on me, a kind of spiritual mesmerism. He also had me drink water blessed with the same verses. I got better, but I cannot say for certain if it was the healer’s therapy or the mere passage of time.
Unfortunately, like most cases of childhood or adolescent depression, the asr returned the next year as I was about to begin eighth grade, albeit with a much-reduced magnitude. I think the healer had died by this time (there were rumors about his being the target of black magic), so Baby Apa took charge of my treatment. She had my mother write out Quranic verses in black ink on scraps of camel skin and regular paper. The former were set ablaze and kept on my stomach. The latter were put in bottles of water which I imbibed daily, the sodden paper disintegrating into tiny fragments which waded in the liquid like a snow globe’s white flitter. I imagined the heat from the smoldering paper and the water transmitting invisible energies through my skin and my stomach into the heart of the asr, where the deadly anvil weighed so heavily. I imagined it breaking up, melting, being washed away like molten sludge.
The asr did not return for a long time. I began to reach beyond my secluded world of books and family. I developed a personality around humor, attention, outspokenness, controversy, fights, prestige, popularity, creativity—big things outside myself but which still shamelessly enlarged my ego and asserted my right to belong to a community. Anything that took me out of that oppressive interiority which could at any moment condense into the asr. Anything that did not make me feel the solitude and banality of a lone potted plant.
I did not encounter “modern” psychiatry until after my migration to the United States when I was seventeen, a traumatic event which caused the asr to rear its head once more. The gloomy winters of my new town, Kalamazoo, did not help, neither did the fact that high school here was so different from what I was used to back home. I missed my friends and yearned nostalgically for the familiar cadences of Urdu and Sindhi. I would excuse myself from my Organic Chemistry class in the math and science magnet school where I was enrolled, lock myself in a cubicle and weep. My schoolwork suffered. What shocked me was that the response of the teachers here did not differ much from that of those back home. I of course did not know that I had the option to see a professional, given my lack of exposure to any notion of psychiatric care. But I was not recommended for treatment here either, even though the teachers saw that I was struggling. The Organic Chemistry instructor, a white lady with auburn hair who wore tie-dyed lab coats and trained service puppies, once humiliated me in front of the entire class by asking me rather callously: “Are you going to cry?”
I never forgave her, even though she visited me in the hospital when I was diagnosed with leukemia the next term. And that was the first time my mental illness was ever considered in the context of Western biomedicine—and only inadvertently, because what they were really treating was cancer-associated depression which was an entirely separate thing. In fact, it came nowhere close to the misery of asr. The first psychiatrist to treat me was a curly-haired Pakistani woman from the community who visited me in the hospital because I could not sleep. I told her that I resisted the urge to sleep because if I closed my eyes I might die.
Husn o ‘ishq: Beauty and love
I first received sustained psychotherapy and medication in college. Dr. Jones was tall and bald with elvish ears and, as a specialist in psycho-oncology, worked for the cancer clinic. He wore purple shirts and ties, biked to the hospital, and donned a belt holster with a pager which beeped when it was time for him to take his insulin. Dr. Jones’s practice was deeply influenced by Eastern traditions. He trained me in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), a practice derived from Indian yoga traditions and which involved actively noticing the feelings of anger and guilt and sadness in the body, to locate where they were present, and to disarticulate them from the Self; to acknowledge the coexistence of competing and conflicting emotions without judgment. When Dr. Jones found out about my history of interactions with Sufi healing and my interest in Sufi literature, he recommended that I read Rumi’s “The Guest House.” It begins:
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
Some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
I do not know to what extent my MBSR, a practice of welcoming this uninvited guest and which would have delighted Sufis like Rumi or Saeen or Mustafa Shah helped me. But I do know that the medication has. Who would I have been as a person if I was not made to wait eight years for the asr to be biomedically treated? Should I, as Rumi says toward the end of the poem, “be grateful for whatever comes / because each has been sent / as a guide from beyond”? Can one be grateful for, and even love, one’s demons?
I am often overcome by indignation at not being shown to a psychiatrist sooner. I swear by my Zoloft. I find myself rolling my eyes sometimes when my mother touts the clairvoyance of Saeen or Baby Apa. I doubt the effectiveness of strings, blessed water, verses written on camel skin. I was mildly annoyed when, as I was recovering from leukemia, my mother made me sit and listen to recordings of Surah Rahman, a chapter of the Quran which she said would aid the chemotherapy, the refrain of the classical Arabic poetry still ringing in my ears: Fabi ala irabbikuma tukazziban—so which of the favors of your Lord will you deny?
But I am equally aware that historical representations of these indigenous practices were instrumental to the subjugation of my ancestors by white people—aliens like the uninvited guests of Rumi’s poem. We did welcome them with open arms, as Rumi had suggested, and look where that got us. The British disparagement of native culture, including healing practices, engendered its own psychopathology in the colonized. Frantz Fanon noted this when he described the inferiority complex of colonized Black people in relation to the whites. As he wrote in Black Skin, White Masks (1952), a “normal Negro child, having grown up within a normal family, will become abnormal on the slightest contact with the white world.” The same could apply to the postcolonial Asian who, though never having met a white person in his life, speaks and writes in their language due to historical circumstance. This engenders a new form of asr: alienation, deculturation, unbelonging.
My mind is host to conflicting histories, to guests both invited and otherwise. They are always engaged in some kind of altercation, not unlike the guests at a wedding in some obscure village of northern Sindh. And maybe Rumi was right: there are no neat resolutions to the contradictions of history. For now, I sit silently and notice them.
Bassam Sidiki is a Pakistani-American writer, scholar, and critic. He is the Nonfiction Editor at Asymptote Journal and a PhD Candidate in English at the University of Michigan. Read his writing at bassamsidiki.com.
An earlier version of this essay was part of a submission that won a 2021 Hopwood Graduate Nonfiction Award from the University of Michigan.