Everything has a story. Words too. History can be forgotten, misinterpreted, mutilated, or even deleted, but it cannot be erased. The story runs through the phonic, orthographic and semantic veins of words. Attempts have been made to kill the story, but it resuscitates as someone practices the art of breaking the silence that permeates the semantic veins of words.
A clear fact: history, in itself, reaches people through words. A complex fact: a story that reaches people in the words of their language is not necessarily theirs.
As all words are constructed in a conventional manner – or through shared cultural processes – the appropriate adjective for their history would be none other than “cultural.” But some words have two kinds of history: cultural and political. Unlike the cultural, the political is conscious, well thought out, intentional, intrusive and positional.
The cultural evolution of languages implies more shared experiences, shared values and, possibly, a common worldview. But the political progression of a language or a particular set of words involves a convoluted process of interference, manipulation, influence, execution of power and, subsequently, institutionalization. All words imbued with any sort of politically intentional act are institutionalized, sooner or later. They can also serve as identity markers for a community or a nation.
A quick look at binary words like “East-West”, “enlightened-decadent”, “modern-traditional”, “white-black”, “religion-science”, “male-female”, “civilized-brutes” and so on will confirm the point in question.
Words have a cultural and political history. And the latter often involves manipulations and assertions of power
These thoughts occurred to me as I contemplated the changing meaning of “wahshi,” a word Nauman Naqvi used in his translation of the title of the recently released documentary series by Raoul Peck, Exterminate All Brutes. The word wahshi has two kinds of stories.
Naqvi, Associate Professor at Habib University in Karachi, rendered the Urdu title Tamaam Wahshion Ko Neest-o-Nabood Kar Do. Peck borrowed his title from the famous book by famous Swedish author Sven Lindqvist Exterminate all the Brutes. Interestingly, Lindqvist himself was not original; he glanced into Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to choose the phrase.
Mr. Kurtz, a character in Heart of Darkness, while sparking hatred against blacks, utters this infamous phrase: “exterminate all bullies.” How can a single sentence from a novel written at the end of the 19th century jump out to intellectuals of various countries and eras and come to acquire an existence and, of course, such an imperishable meaning?
His answer lies in part in the novel itself. By revealing that Mr. Kurtz’s father was half English and his mother half French, it was inferred that “All of Europe contributed to the creation of Kurtz”. So Mr. Kurtz’s words – and his actions as well – display not only his own idiosyncrasies, but those of Europe.
As noted above, the word wahshi has both a cultural and a political history. In classical Urdu ghazal, one expression – dil-i-wahshi – appears frequently, being used by a cohort of poets in almost the same context. For example, Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib says:
Main aur aik aafat ka tukrra woh dil-i-wahshi ke hai Aafiyat ka dushman aur awaargi ka aashna[My frenzied heart is the enemy of peace and fond of waywardness]However, Altaf Hussain Hali’s sher on dil-i-wahshi is much more delicious:
Kaun-o-makaan se hai dil-i-wahshi kinara-geer Is khanmaan kharaab ne dhoonda hai ghar kahaan[My frenzied heart is averse to the whole universe
No one knows which place this displaced one has chosen to reside]
The eminent poet and humorist Ibn-i-Insha chose the title Dil-i-Wahshi for his collection of poetry. In most Urdu dictionaries, wahshi means “a wild animal that runs away when meeting humans; and metaphorically a person whose states of mind and heart keep changing, and ultimately unsociable. It should be noted that none of the Urdu dictionaries from the late classical periods and early modern times included such terms as “barbarian”, “brutal”, etc. under the wahshi entry.
Here we can grasp the full range of meanings contained in the dil-i-wahshi phrase. It’s an aashiq heart [lover] it becomes wahshi – tumultuous, frenzied, mad, subjugated by a kind of madness. Finding no solace anywhere, he avoids meeting and conversing with people, prefers to be alone or wander off in deserts while tearing his clothes, following in the footsteps of the legendary aashiq Majnoon. Dil-i-wahshi was a symbol of eternal love, rejecting all kinds of material comforts, immersed in an endless frenzy and limitless wandering of the imagination.
But it was European lexicographers who added new meanings to wahshi in their daily use and dictionaries. For example, in A Dictionary of Urdu, Classical Hindi And English by John T. Platts, we find the following definition: “wahsh (rel. N. Fr. Wahsh), adj. Wild, untamed; timid; unsociable; – uneducated; uncivilized, barbarian; Savage; intractable; fierce, fierce; brutal; cruel; – sm A wild beast; A brute; a savage: – nm-wahsh, adj. Half tame; half-civilized, half-barbarian, etc.
Therefore, the political history of the word wahshi came into being. It is true that in pre-colonial Urdu, wahshi would mean “a wild animal”, but they were not characterized by the brutality and savagery that endanger human lives. I wonder if this description of wild animal was made as opposed to domesticated animals. It was a difference between tame and indomitable animals. Obviously, wahshi did not connote an uncivilized, beast-like person. Absolutely, this connotation was a purely colonial invention.
Syed Ahmad Dehlvi’s Farhang-i-Aasifiya dictionary went with the meanings employed by classical Urdu poets. But dictionaries compiled at the end of colonial or postcolonial periods, such as Noorul Lughat and Urdu Lughat Tareekhi Usool Par, recorded the modified meanings of the word wahshi, adding words such as ghair muhhazzib [uncivilised] and ghair mutmaddin [uncultured].
Writing in a letter from London to the secretary of the Aligarh Scientific Society, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan called all Indians wahshi in relation to highly educated and cultivated English. Pursuing the idea of wahshi, famous Urdu critic Kalimuddin Ahmad declared Urdu ghazal a neem [half] kind wahshi.
The word “brute” has the same story. Its etymological trajectory indicates that it came into use at the beginning of the 15th century, meaning “of or belonging to animals and non-humans” – a meaning close to that of wahshi. Reaching out to English through old brut French (coarse, brutal, brut, brut) and brutus Latin (heavy, dull, stupid, insensitive, unreasonable), he acquired the sense of “lacking in reason, blunt or dull. of feeling, unintelligent “.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines brute as: “involving only physical strength and not thought or intelligence”. Undoubtedly, only non-Europeans lack thought and intelligence. In the eyes of European modernity, lack of thought and intelligence is an abominable crime. Rationality breeds rationality and physical strength invites bio-power.
Therefore, it seems quite logical to exterminate all bullies using brute force.
The extermination seems to have taken root in the epistemology of imperialism. In Peck’s words, “imperialism is a biologically necessary process which, according to the law of nature, leads to the inevitable destruction of the lower races.” He went to say sarcastically, “I’m afraid; therefore, I exist. The more I’m afraid, the more I exist.
None of the politically defined words are innocent. It does not simply express a specific meaning; it provokes, incites, pushes people to act, to materialize what was semantically wanted. To speak is to act.
‘Cannibal’ has the same story. According to comparative literature scholar Susan Bassnett and postcolonial and translation studies scholar Harish Trivedi, “the very term cannibal referred to a Caribbean group in the West Indies, it entered the English language in the OED from 1796. meaning ‘an eater of human flesh’ and subsequently transmitted into other European languages. The name of a tribe and the name given to the wild peoples who fed on human flesh merged into one term.
How the name of a tribe was permanently associated with the horrific act of eating human flesh unravel the colonial politics of identity. Colonial identities were not just a denomination, but an intentional, intrusive, and positional denomination. Wahshi, brutes and cannibals were all identities formed by the colonizers to separate, marginalize and stigmatize the colonized in the name of naming. Stigmatized identities – of individuals, groups, communities or countries – are a form of semantic violence and a first step in removing any pretension to live humanely.
How can the colonized get rid of these identities? Identity formation at the most basic level seems to equate to confinement and imprisonment. Real and metaphorical confinements go hand in hand. For example, Native Americans were confined to forts, boarding schools, orphanages and on reservations, writes Luana Ross, author of Inventing the Savage: The Social Construction of Native American Criminality. “Today they are not free; it is a colonized people who are trying to decolonize themselves, ”she says.
Perpetually entangled in decolonization is also a form of colonial confinement; you do not go forward on your own. Your pace, direction, and the nature of your movement are administered by the historical nature and epistemological formation of colonization.
However, the colonized have no choice but to break the silence imposed on them, their cultures and their literatures, by deconstructing the whole process and history involved in the formation of identity, and saying truth in power.
The writer is a critic, short story writer and professor of Urdu at the University of the Punjab, Lahore. His book Jadeediat Aur Naubadiyat was recently published by Oxford University Press.
He tweets @ NasirAbbas65
Posted in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 29, 2021