In the immediate aftermath of September 11th, 2001 as anger and patriotism washed over the US, its already jingoistic and sentimental tendencies were given free – and what seemed at that time – justified reign. In Pakistan, people of the ‘serves them right’ variety far outnumbered the reasonable, and picking fights with those whose gleeful schdenfreude at the death of so many innocents jarred my sense of human decency became a common occurence for me.
Being limited to your geographical context can both be a boon and a bane. Being up against those physically proximate affords greater understanding and better leveraging tools with which to work upon preconceived ideas and presumptions. At the very least it gives you greater moral authority to fight what you perceive to be the good fight. But often ‘moral’ fights turn out to be far from a simple battle between good and evil. Even as I vociferously debated anyone’s ‘right’ to rejoice the deaths of innocent bystanders because of the US’s perceived or real international transgressions, the American media and political establishment’s beating of the war drum reached fever pitch. Shouts of ‘with us or against us’ gave way to loud tearful queries of ‘Why do they hate us?’, followed by the predictably easy answers Americans seem so adept at generating: ‘They hate us for our freedoms.’
The internet was a relatively recent phenomenon back then but enough vibrant chat rooms existed for a Pakistani to be able to listen in on ordinary Americans’ voices and check the pulse of the nation. It was understandably full of rage and hate. On one of these chat rooms where people let out their frustration by advocating the carpet bombing of all Muslim nations, I suggested that other alternatives to war be considered, especially since so many people who dropped in there seemed so staunchly Christian, and wasn’t the idea of turning the other cheek a very beautiful, very Christian moral value? Unsurprisingly, this earned me a barrage of hate and eventual expulsion. By advocating nuance on both sides I was neither with ‘us’ nor ‘them’. Yet in Pakistan, I knew enough of a diversity of people to find solace in the similar-minded. However, American television and other sources of information emanating from the country felt like one giant sentimental, raging, weeping monolith, unable to think and see beyond its self-indulgent notions of being wronged for no reason at all.
Till one day I turned on the television and caught Maya Angelou on The Oprah Winfrey Show. For the first time since the twin towers came crashing down, a popular American had the courage to sit in front of a roomful of sentimental American women (who drive the business of the American morning show) and deliver compassionate and balanced views on the subject. The roomful of people, including Oprah, who had clearly come there expecting a fuzzy, feel-good and self-congratulatory speech on American greatness from one of their country’s greatest living icons got instead exactly what they ought to have expected from someone of Angelou’s stature: a mirror that America was and is still unable to look squarely in the eye.
Angelou’s courage was of a timbre I particularly admire: nothing in-your-face or deliberately provocative about it. It wasn’t designed for the shock value. It was just there, something intrinsic to the large woman with the sparkling eyes and the width of experience that poured itself so evocatively in both her poetry and speech. I can’t recall any longer if that day, nearly a month after 9/11, was my first acquaintance with her, but I do remember going out after that show and buying ‘I Know How the Caged Bird Sings’. But it is in her poetry that I, like many millions of people around the world, found the greatest resonance and solace. Her own celebration of the span of her hips and the flash of her smile, her dancing like she had diamonds at the meeting of her thighs, is perhaps the best way of capturing the elusive charm of Maya Angelou, a woman who embodied a quiet personal and political courage in a country too often liable to shouting or jumping about and having to talk real loud to impress its greatness upon the world.