Review: Hell! No Saints in Paradise

AK Asif’s debut novel mixes dystopian science fiction, sufism, politics, humor and Salafist Islam to create a stunning and unexpected joy-ride through post-apocalyptic Pakistan in 2050. Of course it is no longer called Pakistan (there being no P in Arabic), it is now called Al-Bakistan, and it is ruled by a Khalifa who established law and order after the proletariat rose in revolt and decapitated the ruling elite in a paroxysm of rioting and holy war a few years earlier.

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The Mujahid Revolt in Arakan in 1952 (and a SOAS report on the Rohingyas)

The following is a report prepared by the British Foreign office about the “Mujahid Revolt” in Arakan around the time of Burmese independence. It provides good background on the Rohingya issue and is worth a read..

Below that is a report prepared by a researcher at SOAS in 2005, which gives some more background..

“This document is a transcript of an original British Foreign Office document held at the National Archives in Kew, Richmond, Surrey under File Reference FO 371/101002 – FB 1015/63”

FB 1015/63
The Mujahid Revolt in Arakan


1. The Akyab district of Arakan, the northern parts of which are now the scene of a Muslim rebellion, is even less well provided with communications than are most parts of Burma, and its inaccessibility and its remoteness from the centre of government are principal factors in making the rising possible. The district is separated from Burma proper by the hills of the Arakan Yoma, and west of this range a series of rivers, running roughly from north to south and divided from one another by parallel ranges of higher ground, split the district into several parts between which, as between the district as a whole and the rest of Burma, communication is difficult. On the west, the Naf river flows south to the sea, and in its lower reaches forms the frontier between Burma and East Pakistan.
2. The northern part of the Akyab district comprises two administrative areas, known as townships, namely, the Buthidaung township consisting of the upper part of the Mayu river valley and the adjacent hills, and the Maungdaw township consisting of the lower Naf valley with the coastal strip running south from its estuary. The two townships, now the scene of so much disorder, are separated by hills known as the Mayu range. Though most of the Buthidaung township consists of hills, the Maungdaw townships contains the flat, intensively cultivated land along the lower Naf, and this is one of the most fertile and densely populated parts of Burma. In both townships, the people depend on agriculture for their livelihood, and apart from minor village handicrafts, there is no industry.
3. Owing to the nature of the country, the easiest means of communication both within it and between it and other parts of Arakan is water-transport, either by coastal craft plying to the Naf estuary or by inland-water transport along the Naf and Mayu rivers. Roads are few and poor; railways do not exist. Formerly a light railway ran from the town of Maungdaw on the Naf to the town of Buthidaung on the Mayu, passing through two tunnels on the way; it was constructed by the Arakan Flotilla Company to link their services on the Naf with those on the Mayu and to provide an inland route by which the rice of Maungdaw might reach the rice-mills at Akyab, but it was later abandoned and developed into a metalled roadway. In general, land movement in Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships must be effected by bullock-cart track or by jungle-path. Thus the north of the Akyab district is essentially isolated.
Continue reading “The Mujahid Revolt in Arakan in 1952 (and a SOAS report on the Rohingyas)”

Review: Jaya by Devdutt Pattanaik



Dr Pattanaik (a medical doctor who became a pharmaceutical executive and then a writer on mythology and an amateur Indologist) has written ”Jaya”, a modern (and highly condensed) “retelling” of the ancient Indian epic, the Mahabharata.  The Mahabharata, in its canonical Sanskrit version (which was likely finalized sometimes in the first 500 years CE) consists of 18 parts of varying length, and is by far the longest epic poem in the world (a 100,000 verses, ten times longer than the Iliad and Odyssey combined). The poem itself states that this is an expanded version of an earlier, much shorter epic, so there is no question about the fact that it has multiple authors who have added and subtracted (mostly added) material over hundreds or even thousands of years to what was probably a much more compact original. A complete English translation (complete as far as possible at that time) was carried out by Krishan Mohan Ganguly and published in 1896 and is available online at Sacred Texts.  It is, of course, extremely long and is written in somewhat archaic and ornate English (for example the word “puissant” is used every time one of the characters is described as powerful; which, as you can imagine, happens a lot in an epic about powerful people), but it has a certain old-fashioned charm and I can attest that dipping into it to look up a particular episode, or just at random, can be an addictive exercise. Scholars, meanwhile, have continued to refine the canonical text,  and new, presumably more authoritative, collections and translations continue to be published. Not being a scholar of either Indic literature or the Mahabharata, I will say no more on that topic, so on to Jaya. Continue reading “Review: Jaya by Devdutt Pattanaik”

Turkish Turbulence – Shock Therapy for Turkish Armed Forces


From our regular contributor, Dr Hamid Hussain

“A tree won’t fall with a single blow”. Turkish proverb

A failed coup attempt by some members of Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) in July 2016 made international headlines for few days. The news quickly faded away and firm clamp down and a purge inside Turkey prevented any detailed information about the dramatic changes in Turkish Armed Forces in the last two decades.

Events of July 2016 were the final phase of the demise of the first republic established by the country’s founder Kamal Ataturk and emergence of second republic. Turkish Armed Forces assigned themselves the role of guardian of the republic and were a dominant force for almost a century. TAF directly intervened several times while at other times removed civilian governments by orchestrating events behind the scene if they perceived any deviation from the Kamalist secular vision. Turkish Armed Forces have finally met their tragic end and moved out of the power center. Continue reading “Turkish Turbulence – Shock Therapy for Turkish Armed Forces”

Inter Services Public Relations; ISPR (Pakistan)

From Dr Hamid Hussain

Some questions came my way about ISPR and following was the response. Every officer posted to ISPR should read Brig. R Siddiqi’s book. It is out of print but I’ll be happy to lend them my own copy.


Battle of Narrative – Public Relations of Pakistan Army
Hamid Hussain


“The expansion of its image gradually cuts the military establishment adrift from its professionalism, and it succumbs to a kind of narcissism, loving its media-contrived image too well to brook any rival image”. Brigadier ® A. R. Siddiqi; Former Director General of Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR).

Army is the dominant and most powerful institution of Pakistan. Every conflict between army and civilian institutions results in a competing narrative from each party. Armed forces manage its narrative through Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR). There are few officers from air force and navy but ISPR is mainly manned by army officers. During direct military rule, army chief is also President and information ministry is used for communication. ISPR is the main channel for communication when army is not directly controlling the levers of power. Public opinion in Pakistan is very positive about armed forces and any criticism on professional grounds is usually very limited. Unfortunately, any criticism is viewed by armed forces as challenging its authority and equated with anti-state activity.

ISPR has evolved over seventy years into a huge media machine with a large bureaucracy. It was a small entity headed by a Lieutenant Colonel rank officer and today headed by a Major General rank officer. Previous Director General (DG) ISPR was a Lieutenant General rank officer. It was backwater for officers not destined for further promotion. This changed in the last two decades. The importance of a stint as DGISPR can be gauged from the fact that DGISPRs have been posted to important combat formations. One DGISPR became Chief of General Staff. In the past, a brief statement was given to DGISPR to pass it on to the press. Now, DGISPR sits in important high level meetings and travels with army chief on foreign travels. The horizon has also expanded from brief press statements to frequent press conferences and extensive use of print, electronic, digital and social media as well as big budget productions. Continue reading “Inter Services Public Relations; ISPR (Pakistan)”

Review: The Hajj, by FE Peters

Francis Edward Peters (F.E. Peters) is Professor Emeritus of History, Religion and Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University (NYU) and he has written a great review of the Haj through the ages, from its pre-Islamic beginnings to the way it was in 1926. He ends the book in 1926, so the current hugely enlarged, incredibly safer, more convenient, and in may ways, totally transformed Haj is not covered in this book.
The most intetesting part of the book for me was the first; the discussion of what pre-Islamic Haj looked like and how its rituals were modified (and combined with another pre-Islamic pilgrimage, the Umrah) to creat the current Islamic Haj. This is also the most frustrating section of the book, but that is not FE Peter’s fault. We just do not have a lot information about what happened before Islam. Pagan Arabia was completely converted to Islam within one generation, and the attitude of the new religion towards the past was generally negative and dismissive. A mostly illiterate culture, it has left us with almost nothing except a few poems (preserved, ironically, because the later interpreters of the Quran felt that their language could help unlock the meaning of words and phrases in the Quran that these later generations had difficulty understanding) and whatever (generally negative and dismissive) references survive in Islamist historiography. Of course, we can learn some things from the Quran itself, but these frequently tend to be in the form of “answers without a question”, which must have been completely transparent to the first generation, but whose meaning required some explanation and interpretation by later generations. Most of this is supplied by the exegetical and historical works written in the next 2-400 years, but it can be impossible to separate fact from posthoc mythmaking. Anyway, this is what we have, and FE Peters makes a heroic effort to sift through it to find what can still be found. Continue reading “Review: The Hajj, by FE Peters”

Indian History Wars..

Razib has an excellent post about the genetic history of China up on gnxp.nofe. Worth a read.

Of course, unlike India, China is dominated by one ethnic group with clear genetic and cultural identity and has a long history of political unity (even though interspersed with recurrent civil wars and invasions), so there is relatively little fear of population genetics and its findings.. let the chips fall where they may, we know who is boss.. (I admit that I may not be aware of lower level Chinese debates about ancestry, where some people may indeed get hot and bothered about genetic results, but the point is that it is still not a hot-potato in the way population genetics is in India).

For background on the Indian debates, see Razib’s article here and my own (less genetics, more politics) article here.

By the way, the comments and answers on Razib’s article are very sane and add value. Please do read.

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Royal Rumble – Dynamics of Saudi Royal Family

From Dr Hamid Hussain

‘In a western democracy, you lose touch with your people, you lose elections; in a monarchy, you lose your head’. Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, Former Saudi ambassador to Washington.

In the last two years, Saudi Arabia has gone through many changes. Absolute monarchies are not easy to decipher. There are many opacities and it is very difficult for any outside observer to have a real sense of events. Two main factors are very limited expression by Saudis in their own country and opaque decision making process in the form of decrees with flavor of palace intrigue. A Saudi will not express his honest view in the presence of another Saudi due to fear factor. In view of these limitations, the perspective of an outsider has severe limitations.

Current system of governance of the country is based on accession to throne of one of the sons of the founder of the country Abdul Aziz bin Abdur Rahman al-Saud (d. 1953). He works with other family members especially senior princes, Council of Ministers (most of whom are also royal family members) and Council of Senior Clerics in running day to day affairs of the country. There is a fair amount of competition among all these groups about various issues and King carefully balances his act to avoid open conflict.

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Partition stories; a pair of beds in Jehlum

I happened to see a tweet about a museum of objects related to partition

and it reminded me of a story I heard about a particular pair of objects, two old-style massive beds (palang) in a house in Jehlum. Since I doubt that this story has been published anywhere, I thought of putting it down here for posterity:

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The Man on Mao’s Right..

The Man on Mao’s Right” is the memoir of Ji Chaozhu, a Chinese diplomat who worked as an interpreter for several decades before being promoted to more substantive positions, ending his career as China’s ambassador to Great Britain and a stint as undersecretary general of the UN. His personal story in intertwined with many important events in modern Chinese history, from the Japanese invasion and a peripheral role in the communist’s rise to power (his older brother was a confidant of Zhu Enlai and more or less a Chinese communist agent in the United States), to the Korean war, the early decades of Chinese communism, the Great Leap Forward, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, the fall of the Gang of Four and the rise of post-Maoist China under Deng Xiaoping.

Ji went to school in Manhattan and was a scholarship student at Harvard before most of the family moved back to China to help Chairman Mao build the new China. He is a Chinese patriot and a thoroughgoing Confucian Mandarin at heart, who managed to retain these ideals through decades of purges and ideological twists and turns in China, so he is not inclined to kick up controversy and cross the party’s red lines even in his old age. The memoir seems honest and frank enough when it comes to his personal life, but the politics and political commentary are filtered through a lifetime of extreme care and awareness of what words can mean and what limits are to be kept in mind. He may have exactly these beliefs and attitudes, or he may think these are the beliefs and attitudes he considers safe to share. Either way, opinions that the CCP now considers safe are freely shared, those that could upset the CCP apparently never entered Ji’s head. That’s just how it is in this book.

Continue reading “The Man on Mao’s Right..”