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The tyranny of vowels

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By Syed Nomanul Haq

Urdu script — which is, in fact, an augmented version of Arabo-Persian script — does not by default indicate short vowels, as is the case with its primogenitors. The doubling of a letter, such as the ‘r’ in the popular name Khurram, is not normally indicated either, the diacritic indicator being familiarly called tashdeed.

Likewise, those letters in a word that are not followed by a vowel — quiescent letters, that is — these, too, are left unmarked in normal writings. An example of this last case is the word amn [peace] in which there is no vowel after ‘m’ and so it is quiescent; but then, almost universally this word is becoming aman: yes, if the script has no vowels, it allows for such possibilities.

 

Note that all Semitic scripts, Hebrew and Syriac among them, share such peculiarities — they are all consonantal and they all move from right to left, and yet there is one exception, a telltale exception. This is the case of our common numerals, what are known as Arabic numerals, based as they are on a place-value system shared by the Latin/Roman script, moving from left to right. The appellation ‘Arabic’ numerals is a kind of misnomer, for these are Indian numerals, but since they reached the modern world through the Arabic writings of the 8th/9th century mathematician Al Khwarizmi, they were named so.

Now there are some intriguing consequences of all this. For example, a word in the Urdu script can be read in numerous ways, given that the three unspecified short vowels, zaer (the ‘i’ vowel), zabar (the ‘a’ vowel), and paesh (the ‘u’ vowel), can occur in different combinations; then, there can be that unmarked doubling of a letter as well as quiescent letters in it, too. It so happens that, quite often, many different readings of the same word in an expression all make equal lexical sense at once, leading to what one may call a semantic anarchy. So how does one cope with this anarchy?

It is very important to recognise that there are at least two ways of determining the correct reading. The first has to do with the context, the semantic environment is which the word occurs. One reads a word such that it makes plausible sense (qareena) in the general thrust of the expression. For example, the words aa‘lam [the created world] and aa‘lim [learned] are orthographically identical — but quite naturally one would opt for the latter vocalisation in a sentence such as ‘Zaid is erudite and informed; he is a great aa‘lim.’ But here two fascinating issues ought to be noted: one, that the moment of reading a text is also a moment of the interpretation of the text. So there is, in today’s parlance, an interactive relationship between the text and the reader. This is a mode of improvisation which we see in South Asian classical music too, where the moment of execution is also the moment of creation.

The other fascinating issue is that this interpretation can always be, in principle, challenged because this is a human judgemental act. Indeed, multiple readings of the same text have a whole history in the intellectual life of Arabic, Persian and Urdu. It is for this reason that the text of the Holy Quran is fully vocalised, with all diacritics given and all vowels specified, so that it is read in one and only one way; no other text has this privilege. The command of vowels in the script is so effective that the change of one single vowel can reverse the meaning. Thus, the word muntazir means ‘the one(s) who await(s)’; whereas muntazar reverses it, meaning ‘the awaited one(s).’ The first is an active participle, the second a passive one. Remember the well-known saying, literally, ‘my world became zaer and zabar’ — that is, ‘my world turned upside down, became messed up.’ Here is a pronouncement on the tyranny of vowels.

The second means of determining the correct reading of the text is recourse to poetry. Let’s pause here and carve it on our cultural consciousness that poetry — especially Urdu, Persian and Arabic poetry — is essential to learning a language, its sounds and its semantic range. Now we know that Urdu poetry is overwhelmingly, though not exclusively, built until this day around certain fundamental metres articulated for Arabic prosody by the mathematician Khalil ibn Ahmad as early as the 8th century. Khalil’s system has ramified into numerous modified metres that poets use as their ground, even when they play with them or subvert them, as is the case with modernist poets such as Noon Meem Rashid and Faiz Ahmed Faiz.

The historic point is that no poet who is considered a poet-proper would use a word destroying its standard vowels. If the reader omits a vowel when there is one, or adds a vowel when there is none, or does not double a sound when doubling is standard — this reader will destroy the metre of the poem. What does this mean? It means that the rhythm of a poem serves as the bridle to control the reading. How fascinating.

But there is one illegality that poetry does not control — placing a vowel when needed, but placing the wrong vowel. This is the offence often committed to Allama Muhammad Iqbal’s famous verse:

[O awaited Reality, manifest yourself in the cloak of metaphor!]

The fourth word here is muntazar, but, ah, it is often read as muntazir. And as I wrote in my last column, the same havoc is meted out to Faiz’s ahl-i-hikam — an expression almost ubiquitously misvocalised by readers. Poetry and therefore language is more than orthography.


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Opinion

Chekhovian Tragedy

The Kashmir Monitor

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By Amir Sultan

In his book In the Land of Israel novelist and writer Amos Oz classifies a tragedy into two types; one being the Shakespearean and the other Chekhovian. He writes,


“…there is a Shakespearean resolution and there is the Chekhovian one. At the end of a Shakespearean tragedy, the stage is strewn with dead bodies and maybe there is some justice hovering high above. A Chekhov tragedy, on the other hand, ends with everybody disillusioned, embittered, heartbroken, disappointed, absolutely shattered but still alive.”

 

William Shakespeare and Anton Chekhov (read as Chie-Kof) were both playwrights and dramatists. Both of them in their works have tried to shed light on various aspects of human nature. However, Anton Chekhov as seen by the renowned novelist Amos Oz gives us a better understanding of the tragedies happening with us. His portrayal of tragedy is what most of us go through. As the quote states that the Shakespearean tragedy ends with death as a solution to all problems and issues that a man faces. Demise of a person(s) like in Romeo and Juliet is what defines a tragedy. In comparison to it, Chekhovian tragedy is epitomized with life, life worth not living.

One of the aspects of modern life that typifies a Chekhovian tragedy in our time is substance abuse. Substance abuse is one of the huge problems that our generation is facing. Globally, according to World Drug Report (2017) there are 29.5 million people who are substance abusers. The number that is almost equal to the population of states like Nepal, Sri Lanka, Czech Republic, United Arab Emirates and many other countries.

It’s self-evident that all people are sober. Living life in light, joy and to its full, but suddenly some of them get introduced to a kind of psychoactive substance say marijuana, heroin or LSD that starts to bring a perpetual change in their life. First the body resists it by producing aversive reactions and this is the time when a person can refrain. But if s/he persists to take the substance the body of a person starts to crave for it. Moreover, the withdrawals and the incentive of pleasure produced by it hinder the process of contemplating and positive thinking resulting in sustaining of act willingly or unwillingly.

All this time the physiological, psychological and social aspects of human life are in a continuous shattering flux. Physiologically, the body weight gets reduced, sleep cycle is disturbed, changes in appetite patterns appear, functioning of vital organs like heart, liver and kidneys gets disturbed, and at times patient gets infected with viruses like HCV and HIV. Anxiety, restlessness, irritability, mood disorders, hallucinations and delusions and last but not the least a chronic psychosis is the harm caused to our psychological aspect by drug abuse.

There are innumerable changes seen in the social life of a substance abuser. From disturbed family relations, abuse with children, mistreatment with parents or a spouse, to disturbed financial status marked with a reckless spending and gambling. Besides, continuous drug seeking behaviour which leads to inefficacy in terms of occupation, school, vocation or sometimes complete sacking from a job, making the person’s life and the life of people around him wrenchingly miserable.

During this saga of self-deterioration, the person tries to look at his lived life through the glasses of past, present and future and founds himself disillusioned as he learns that substance abuse is not fun, embittered as he feels the bitterness of the act, heartbroken at the thoughts of mistreatment to himself and to the near ones and dear ones, disappointed because of not fulfilling the dreams he had seen and absolutely shattered but still alive, in other words, going through a Chekhovian tragedy.

(The writer is a Psychology Postgraduate from University of Kashmir and presently working as a Mental Health Counsellor at Drug De-addiction and Rehabilitation Center PCR Batamaloo. He ca be reached at: [email protected])

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Opinion

ICJ ruling and Into-Pak relations

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By Marvi Sirmed

Just as Abdulqawi Ahmed Yusuf, president of International Court of Justice (ICJ), started reading out the much-awaited verdict in the Kalbhushan Jadhav case, both Indian and Pakistani media, quite predictably, started pronouncing high-pitched victory of their respective countries.

Pakistan had claimed that its security forces had arrested Kulbhushan Jadhav, the 49-year-old retired Navy officer, from Pakistan’s Balochistan province on March 3, 2016 after he entered Pakistan via its border with Iran. Jadhav was subsequently sentenced to death by the Pakistani military court on charges of “espionage and terrorism” after a closed trial in April 2017, just over a year after his arrest. India, however, claimed that Jadhav was kidnapped from Iran where he had business interests after his retirement from the Indian Navy.

 

India followed this by moving the ICJ on May 8, 2017 for the “egregious violation” of the provisions of the Vienna Convention by Pakistan. Islamabad repeatedly rejected New Delhi’s plea for consular access to Jadhav, claiming that India was merely interested in getting at the information gathered by its “spy”. India also sought to suspend the death sentence of Jadhav and ordered his release from Pakistan’s custody. Pakistan had challenged the admissibility of India’s petition on three grounds: alleged abuse of process; alleged abuse of rights; and India’s alleged unlawful conduct. All three grounds were rejected by the court.

India’s plea to suspend the death sentence and order the release was also rejected. But Pakistan was asked to give immediate consular access to Jadhav as well as ensure his right to free trial under the domestic judicial mechanism of Pakistan. This gives both the countries enough ground to celebrate their respective victories.

The question now is how the verdict will impact the already strained relations of the two countries? While the verdict gives the opportunity to both the governments to maintain aggressive posturing, it has no practical bearing which way Pakistan may eventually choose to decide.

While the verdict of ICJ is not binding upon either party in the strictest of legal sense, it certainly sets a favourable stage for India to continue to portray Pakistan in a negative light internationally, in case the latter does not comply with the verdict. Pakistan, on the other hand, might comply in the end, but not before getting something in return.

The retired army officers in Pakistan, who are usually referred to as ’defence analysts’ when they come to TV studios and spell out what is considered to be the “thinking” of Pakistan’s powerful military establishment, continue their usual antics while aggressively emphasising that Pakistan is not bound to comply with the ICJ verdict. But if recent history is to be at all taken into account, to take their word is akin to falling right into their trap.

In the backdrop of recent economic troubles and political instability Pakistan has been facing for the last one year, it is beyond any basic sense of logical play to expect the nation to allow the aggression to linger, by not granting India’s most basic ask in this case – the proverbial lowest hanging fruit, ie, consular access to Jadhav.

It might not come, however, without a price. At the exact moment when Yousaf was reading out the verdict, American President Donald Trump celebrated the “finding” and the arrest of Hafiz Saeed on Twitter, who he describes as “mastermind” of Mumbai terror attacks. Saeed, however, has been living in plain sight all this while. He was never absconding in the first place. In fact, shortly before his (re)arrest, he was released on bail from his previous arrest. By playing this up, it betrays the mutual advantage it serves to USA and Pakistan.

When Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan meets Trump next week, he would arrive having already earned some brownie points. The so-called arrest of Hafiz Saeed might ease some tensions at FATF. USA will be in a position to claim winning yet another milestone in its war on terror. If Pakistan offers to graciously comply with the ICJ verdict, it might raise its ask too. The stick raising mood in White House has already changed to a carrot granting one. Bringing India to the table of comprehensive dialogue, after managing to elbow it out from Afghan peace process, doesn’t look like abad bargain.

But if Jadhav gets consular access, India would have the golden opportunity to demolish Pakistan’s claims of the “terror confession” by Jadhav. He would now most definitely claim confession under duress.

At the moment, the key decision makers in Pakistan do not want to disobey the court verdict. Their compliance of earlier Indian plea to delay the sentence bears witness to it. In any case, a dead Jadhav doesn’t benefit anyone. Except may be, Jadhav’s handlers, if he is indeed a spy.

(The author is a journalist with Daily Times and member of the executive council of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan)

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America & Pakistan: Back to a cosy future

The Kashmir Monitor

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By Indranil Banerjie

Geopolitical gears appear to be shifting once again in South Asia with Washington being the primary driver. The question is whether this portends a return to the cosy relationship between the United States and Pakistan as in the past?

For, if Washington is once again planning to use Islamabad as a pivot for its South and West Asia policy, then New Delhi has reason to be concerned even though the imperative for such a development is neither hostile nor anti-India.

 

The hard fact of the matter is that a re-engagement or revival of the strategic inter-dependencies between those two countries has a direct bearing on India. While Washington’s view is global and multi-dimensional, Islamabad’s is not — it has always been India-centric and continues to be so.

New Delhi’s greatest concern traditionally has been the transfer of military systems and technology to Islamabad. It is difficult to forget that the Pakistan Air Force dared to attack Indian targets after Balakot simply because it had American-made F-16 fighter aircraft fitted with AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAM).

This missile was supplied to the Pakistanis by the US as recently as 2011. India protested against the sales and for good reason too. It was well known that the missiles supplied would be a game changer in the South Asian context given that this particular variant, the 120C, with its range of over 100km, would out-distance any missile currently in the IAF’s arsenal.

Right enough, when it came to the crunch in the post-Balakot skirmish, there was nothing the IAF could do but throw an aircraft at the intruding enemy and get close enough for a shot. The downing of the MiG-21 piloted by Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman proved how much of a disadvantage India was at because of US military transfers to Pakistan.

In recent years, arms transfers by Washington to Pakistan have virtually ceased due to the deteriorating strategic ties since 2016. US President Donald Trump had suspended security and other assistance to Pakistan, accusing Islamabad of repaying US generosity with only “lies and deceit”. The main problem between the two arose from differences over Afghanistan. But now with Islamabad and Washington drawing close to a deal on Afghanistan which would allow an orderly US military withdrawal, the equations once again have changed.

The Taliban, which is controlled by Pakistan’s Army headquarters, seem to have agreed to hold intra-Afghan talks and could be amenable to some sort of power sharing. Perhaps, they might even allow a small US military presence to remain in Afghanistan. However, it is clear that Washington, in its quest to quit the unending Afghan war, is prepared to cede effective control in that country to Islamabad. China could also play a role as guarantor.

President Trump has, however, made it a point to reassure New Delhi that he intends to look after its interests. This is perhaps why he took personal credit for the arrest of arch-terrorist Hafiz Saeed, the mastermind behind the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, in Pakistan on Wednesday. This might suggest that New Delhi may not be left out completely in the cold in these shifting times.

But the story of change doesn’t end here. The Trump administration could be preparing to cosy up to Pakistan not because it hates or dislikes India but because it feels it might need the help of Pakistan’s jihadist generals to further its many and often complex aims in West Asia, where things are in a ferment today.

A hint of what might be in the offing was offered by the US Gen. Mark A. Milley, who was nominated by President Trump as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In his response to questions for his confirmation hearing at the Senate Armed Services Committee, the general stated: “From East Asia to the Middle East to Eastern Europe, authoritarian actors are testing the limits of the international system and seeking regional dominance while challenging international norms and undermining US interests… Our goal should be to sustain great power peace that has existed since World War II, and deal firmly with all those who might challenge us.”

He pointedly mentioned Pakistan as “a key partner in achieving US interests in South Asia, including developing a political settlement in Afghanistan; defeating Al Qaeda and ISIS-Khorasan; providing logistical access for US forces; and enhancing regional stability”.

Significantly, he called for a strengthening of military-to-military ties with Pakistan, adding: “While we have suspended security assistance and paused major defence dialogues, we need to maintain strong military-to- military ties based on our shared interests.” So now it’s back to the good old days of shared interests!

The first-ever summit-level meeting between Pakistan PM Imran Khan and President Trump is due next week (July 22) at the White House. Pakistan foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, who will be there, declared that this invitation constituted an “acknowledgement of the inherent importance” of bilateral ties. He was also quick to add that Pakistan was “mindful” of US priorities in war-torn Afghanistan. The times are indeed changing once again!

Perhaps Islamabad’s strategic importance, as an ultimate guarantor of “peace” in West Asia, has assumed more relevance given the rapid breakdown of Washington’s relations with Turkey, a Nato ally, over the purchase of Russian S-400 missile systems and other major disagreements. President Trump had warned Turkey not to go ahead with the S-400 deal, but Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan responded by declaring the S-400 deal to be “the most important agreement in [Turkish] modern history.” Deliveries of the missile system commenced from July 12.

This constitutes a huge snub to the United States. But things could get worse as some reports suggest that Turkey may be planning to assault parts of northern Syria controlled by Kurdish forces supported by the United States.

Things are also not going well for the Saudis in their war against the tenacious Houthis of Yemen, who are Shias supported by the ayatollahs in Tehran. Other Arab nations are quietly leaving the Saudi war. The regime change effort in Syria too has failed.

All this is reason for Washington to be worried. Hence the move to mend fences with estranged allies. New Delhi, on the other hand, which has big plans for boosting its relations with Washington, must heed the changes that could threaten to prick its ballooning ambitions.

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