Provocative, piquant and very politically incorrect
In his book, The Moslems Are Coming: Encounters With A Desktop Terrorist, Azad Essa satires everything under the sun � Islamophobia, why terrorists are not as moronic as airport authorities would like to think and why India's 'modernity' is really very confusing, finds Kareena N Gianani
How did the term ‘desktop terrorist’ come about? What terrors have you committed in the book to earn you the tag?
I can’t remember where it came from, but I think it fits well. The book is about, amongst other things, a take on Muslim identity across the world and how it has been abused. It is a subversive assault on these abuses — from a desktop. Just as a terrorist wouldn’t use ordinary methods to fight — he employs vigilantism and guerilla warfare to attack — the book, too, uses humour and satire to bring forth my take on what’s happening around me.
The Moslems Are Coming was first released in South Africa last year as Zuma’s Bastard. How did that happen, and how did the Indian edition come about?
It all started in 2005, when I was sitting in my ivory tower (read working as a researcher and part-time lecturer in the labour studies department) at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. I wrote reports on trade unions and economic policies that nobody read. That’s when I started noticing a disconnect between what was going on around me and how the media were telling the story. Meanwhile, at the university, academic texts seemed really boring and equally removed from reality. I wanted to cut through the rhetoric, bridge the gap between all the academic jargon and the reductionist methods of the media and tell the story. I’d like to think that humour and all the straightforward talk - also referred to as desktop terrorism — would mobilise people into rethinking their world. That’s how my blog came about, which received the award for South Africa’s Best Political Blog in 2009.
The writing gathered attention because of the style and approach was supposedly very different to what people have come to expect from literature written by South African Indians. Our writing tends to be more on fluffy and colourful side which comes from the general guard not to rock the boat.
I see that changing now. Whereas apartheid humiliated people of colour and pushed self-hate, South African Indians can be what we want to be now. Apartheid has ended, and with the rise of India — the popularity of Indian cinema, the IPL, India is very much a darling of the West, with its the economy, and its participation in BRICS and UN Security Council — changed the way South African Indians see themselves now and where they come from.
But, of course, they want to be South Africans as much as they want to be ‘Indian’ — they don’t want to ghettoise themselves — as such.
Zuma’s Bastard was written within this context. I wanted to write about South Africa from my perspective, as a young South African Indian Muslim with no allegiance to any party or tribe. As the free generation, we can call it as we see it. And since it also discusses India and the Muslim identity at length, I was sure it would find audience in India, and in South Asia and this is how it ended up here.
The book is politically incorrect, provocative and offers ample scope for criticism. What have you been most criticised for?
I haven’t received as much criticism as you would expect. But I have received some flak by South African Muslims for being too cheeky about the manner in which I tackled Indian Muslims and their penchant to be racist. Some felt I had been too blasé about the way I wrote about my childhood in a madrassah. Many also thought that the opening chapter, which is about a Turkish-American telling me how “blacks have fucked up South Africa after taking it over”, was made up. Most recently I received a very scathing review from Kashmir asking me to seek God for my bad behaviour.
Do you agree with the criticism?
Not all of it. Though I should probably seek God on a more regular basis. There was this one particular conversation I had — however — with a gentleman known for his extreme black conscious views — which got me thinking. He told me that by criticising Zuma for his womanising ways (our president has five wives and around 21 children) I was effectively playing into the hands of those who had imperial ideas of Africa. He said it is very easy to pick on the ‘oversexualised black’ man based on these character flaws when there are leaders elsewhere, in the ‘west’ as well, who behave very similarly — but aren’t judged by their behaviour in the bedroom. I did question the anatomy of my humour. Humour should make people laugh but should be dangerous enough to challenge the status quo. It shouldn’t feed stereotypes. And since my writing is about challenging the status quo it hit home
And that, you think, will not come in the way of the way you write your books? The Moslems Are Coming, for instance, is quite irreverent.
(Laughs) Well, you don’t always have to believe in what you say, and you don’t always have to write what you believe. But what ever you write — you should always be able to back it up!
In all seriousness, the point, always, is not to be pedantic. The satire is a means to an end, which, in my case, is to provoke the reader about topics they would usually flip over.
Even in the book, I make fun of the burqa-chicks, as I call them. But at the end of the chapter, I do contextualise this very serious issue (in the essay’s postscript, Essa admits that, to him, though it seems foolish to defend a symbol that so obviously places women behind men, it would be naïve to believe that conservative European governments can be trusted with the ‘emancipation of the Muslim woman’) and ensure that the humour is just the candy on the top. The irreverence is just strategy to get people to drop their guard…
You’ve dedicated quite a few chapters to the issues in Kashmir and the ‘modern’ India. What is your relationship with the country at this point?
I studied Sociology at the Jawaharlal National University for seven months in 2004 and have never given up a single opportunity to travel in the country. As a kid, I supported the Indian cricket team, and still imagine Sachin Tendulkar as a type of God. India is such a majestic idea; a giant, complicated creature with so much depth - and she fascinates me to no end.
I still regard India as some part of ‘home’, and like everyone, I am comfortable enough to be critical of my home. So don’t expect me to walk around Bombay practicing my namaste pose because I am not a tourist here.
For instance, I can’t help but question — despite all the gains — where India’s project of ‘modernity’ is headed. There’s this immense wealth, but I can’t close my eyes to the fact hunger, human development, gender rights have taken a back seat to project to creating temples for the rich. Take the recent Guwahati incident where the girl was sexually harassed on the streets. If the country didn’t have private media, it would be in big trouble with the way it polices itself. But over all, the project of ‘modernity’ is not raising standards of living for the largest possible number of people and it grates me that poorest and most hungry number more than those in the poorest sub-saharan countries combined. This India, and food security was one of the basic anecdotes of freedom! But seemingly, the system as feudal as before, only the rules of the games have changed: Kings and Queens are multi-nationals and a select group of winners. Meanwhile, drugs like Bollywood, pop music, popular activism are given out like candy so people believe that someone is listening to them. It’s the kind of regulated, release-valve democracy, which gives you the ability to shout, and scream and then everyone’s goes home and nothing changes - very much like my other home - South Africa.