Time keeps rolling on. But I keep my narratives in the present tense, as the past keeps spreading  like fire throughout my entire present...


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Time keeps rolling on. But I keep my narratives
in the present tense, as the past keeps spreading 
like fire throughout my entire present.
—Miguel Tarango

There are no tyrants where there are no slaves.
—Jose Risal

1995. Harvard University. It is a pleasantly sunny morning. In the course of a conversation surrounding topics such as the relationship between class and color, the relationship between capitalism and colonialism, an American graduate student—at the time doing his doctorate in English and American literature at Harvard—tells me, curling his lips into shreds of measured smile: "Your English is excellent, Mr. Hussain." I reply, "So is yours." And I don't forget to add: "So fucking what?"

2003. At a time when I am writing an essay on race and racism with a deadline breathing down my neck, a deadline colder than Siberia's winters, and at a time when I am simultaneously thinking of how to face the Department of Homeland Security that has summoned me for a profile, some of my colleagues cross the US national borders to celebrate their academic success and to go on their vacation in Europe—in Paris in particular. But they wish me well, giving me an aesthetically and visually attractive card prior to their celebration and vacation in Europe. Border crossing? But who celebrates the idea of crossing borders in the era of so-called globalization? Of course, isn't it brutally clear that there are some who can cross borders, while there are many who cannot? But, surely, imperialism and racism do, as does capital itself.  

1999. A humanities class at WSU. I guest-lecture on medieval Sufi poetry. Soon after I am done with my lecture, a well-meaning student approaches me, spreading a broad smile over his face and fully revealing his teeth and saying: "Thank you for the lecture, Mr. Hussain. But I'm wondering if you're by any chance related to Saddam Hussain." Overcoming a brief but highly audible pause, I reply: "Yeah, he's my big brother." Both the pause and the sentence together face moments of silence standing like a nervous middleman between the curious student and me. 

2002. Some progressives—hell-bent on proving the supremacy of their radicalism and holding with great zeal that their activism is as glamorous as the color of their skin—try to give me lessons in oppression and resistance. I listen, while wondering if those folks know what it means to remain hungry for days, what it means to get beaten by the police in the streets of an infernal city, what it means to be bullied into an interrogation at an airport because your skin-color ain't white and because your last name is Hussain, what it means to encounter routinely fierce competitions between desperate children and howling stray dogs over the crumbs of rotten food getting further rotten in the city's garbage cans, what it means to live in the shadows of bayonets and bullets and bombs, what it means to live in ghettos and barrios and on reservations, what it means to live on plantations and in slums, what it means to eat leaves and grass and plants and creepers instead of the normally edible, what it means to survive the smell of putrid pus and a heap of the yellow blobs of shit right in front of you, what it means to shiver all over with cold in the depth of a hostile Bangladeshi winter, what it means to beg for food and money, and so on. I open my mouth. The charge against me is one of "vulgar empiricism." I reply, "Experiences are not absolutes or axioms, nor are they everything. But experiences matter. Experiences might be instructive. Don't dismiss the experiential in the name of empiricism." Again: "Vulgar empiricism!" I'm reminded of what a poet has already screamed in his lecture: "Damn your vulgar this, vulgar that. Don't you see that oppression itself is the most vulgar thing in our world, as is the accumulated wealth of the rich."

2004-05. Yoga: the flexing of first-world muscles and the spell of meditation and relaxation—perhaps 'Buddha'-style. Fitness: a brand of metropolitan neo-Darwinism—smug and smiling—is re-invented and rehearsed on apparently radical and new-millennial registers. Thinking of fitness, some men and women might want to think of skinny Haitian and Ethiopian and Bangladeshi children. But someone says, "I wan't to be skinny all right, but when I look at the pictures of those third-world children, I cry." Ah, tears!

1999. A graduate seminar at an American university. Discourses surrounding Michel Foucault and Judith Butler keep freewheeling. There are intellectual sparkles in the eyes of students all around. A Sri Lankan woman opens her mouth: "Racist feminism," to use Audre Lorde's term; or "rich people's feminism," and so on. The peace of breezy theoreticism—often celebrated as classroom "activism"—is disturbed. The charge is framed thus: a Sri Lankan woman dominates the metropolitan classroom discussion!

2004. A funny, bearded, bespectacled professor of rhetoric is lecturing on race and racism.  Stories and histories and theories and anecdotes and jokes are all orchestrated with energy and verve and brio. I keep laughing out loud. Some white folks beside and around me feel compelled to laugh, given the pressure and tone of the humorous situation. At one point, hearing their rounds of laughter—punctuated and cracked as they are—I end up blurring all distinctions between the idea of constipation and that of laughter. And I imagine one day I'd write a really short short-story, the title of which will be "Constipated Laughter and First-world Noise."

2005. A local student conference at an American university. An Asian woman presents a paper. Following the presentation, I talk of a sixteen-year-old Bangladeshi girl and a sixteen-year-old Caribbean girl who have been arrested and detained without charge because they are taken as "suicide-bombers." There follows a brief conversation between the two Asians. And simultaneously there are white noises in the back—noises that make their own points about their supreme presence at a conference which is of course likely to be whiter than otherwise in a white supremacist country.

2005. "So, you see, students of color and their white counterparts do not work under similar conditions and constraints," so says a female grad student of color during the course of a conversation surrounding white privilege. "The autobiographical matters," she continues, "and my mother said that we gotta work at least ten times harder than those white folks who usually get what they need."   Her white classmate—in an attempt to show off some critical awareness of the US order of things—responds: "But, see, you're falling into the trap of a hegemonic work ethic." 

Someone of color wonders, "Hegemonic? What the hell have you yourself actually done to combat the hegemonic except advancing your damn career in the name of critical awareness off the back of folks of color? How many radical changes—you privileged white folks—have you so far brought about on this planet? Learn at least how to count."

Edward Said's _Orientalism_ has this as one of its epigraphs: "The East is a career." One might also say: Race is a career.

2005. A cloudy Pullman morning. A near-professor's office. He loves his chair. He doesn't usually come to my office but I go to him—always. Understandably. Lesser as I'm than him in the university hierarchy, I return to him. I approach him. But he loves his chair; he loves to sink his ass gently and slowly into the cushion offered to him by the university. He loves to coordinate. The more I think of this near-professor who loves to use words like "race" and "raced" and "racialized" (he uses "racism" less frequently), the more I think of certain phobias except "cathisophobia" (fear of sitting). He has particularly a "halophobia"—fear of speaking—as he himself has conveniently fashioned an aesthetic and a politic of silence geared towards saving his time and energy for doing things "better" than otherwise. But does he write? In silence—probably—he does. Yet I detect in him some traces of "graphophobia" or "scriptophobia"—fear of writing.

This near-professor issues a statement on the question of risk-taking: "We all take risks, students." And I wonder, "We all? And do we all take risks in the same way?" His pluralist statement bespeaking a certain amount of near-professorial gravity might enable President Bush to say, "See, I take risks, too, according to your near-professor." Ah, risks! The brown man waxing pluralist and postmodernist doesn't see how he has been white-washed over the years, his so-called critical pedagogy notwithstanding, growing up as he did in the very belly of the beast that indeed screws us in all sorts of different ways. The white-washed brown man advises a fascist, and sporadically complains that the fascist in question doesn't always listen to him. And his "anti-fascist" position comes out only when that fascist does not listen to him.

2004. A predominantly white classroom. In the middle of a lecture, I quote the Latin American writer Eduardo Galeano at some length: "If contradiction is the lung of history, it seems to me that paradox must be the mirror that history uses to pull our leg. Not even God's own son saved himself from paradox. He chose to be born in a subtropical desert where it has never snowed, yet snow has become the universal symbol of Nativity ever since the Europe decided Jesus was a European. And to add insult to INRI, the birth of Jesus is nowadays the business that brings the most money to the money-changers Jesus expelled from the temple. Napoleon Bonaparte, the most French of Frenchmen, was not French. Joseph Stalin, the most Russian of Russians, was not Russian, and the most German of Germans, Adolf Hitler, was born in Austria. Margarita Sarfatti, the woman most loved by the anti-Semite Mussolini, was Jewish."

I pause. And there are again white noises in the back.


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