Change Will Come Through the WomenAnd with the Help of Shaheen Chishti’s The Granddaughter Project
A Book Review
With my new website I am returning to blogging. It gives me great pleasure to launch it with my review of Syed Shaheen Chishti’s The Granddaughter Project – an outstanding novel and a project of critical importance: the empowerment of women. One might think that it has nothing to do with political terrorism but indeed it is the elephant in the room. It is the most overlooked and misunderstood problem that I think of. The lack of empowerment of women has lethal ramifications facilitating things like suicide bombing and all other sundry bloody violent terrorist attacks. The dirty little secret is that the abuse of the female underpins and holds together these violent jihadis who come from highly patriarchal clan, tribe, mafia like settings. Terrorist groups are hyper shame-honor subcultures. The entire political enterprise of terrorism is predicated on keeping the female down, not empowering her.
While the female suicide bomber may be touted as the ultimate icon of female liberation for a terrorist group, it speaks to the twisted perversion of this toxic masculinity arising out of an equally twisted and perverse patriarchy. I call it the world in reverse. Unconsciously, the female suicide bomber is a prime embodiment of an abused woman who has unconsciously internalized male rage of the female as self-hatred. The Granddaughter Project offers a unique antidote to such oppressive violent tragic death-seeking behavior.
It would be a huge mistake to assume that The Granddaughter Project, Shaheen Chishti’s debut novel, is only a novel for it is so much more than that. Emphasis must be placed on the last word of the title first -- “Project” and then shift back to the first noun -- “Granddaughter” because the reader of The Granddaughter Project is invited to not only engage with the plot and characters but is urged and propelled to reach outside the narrative frame which he has skillfully created. Shaheen Chishti seeks the empowerment of women as a peace activist. He comes by this honestly through his deep Sufi roots and heritage which can be traced back to the Sufi Saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti and the Ajmer Sharif Dargah (shrine). The Sufis have a long-standing tradition of nurtured the spiritual within in order to influence others and to spread peace. Shaheen Chishti wants peace of mind for women along with her security and advancement. At the heart of his brilliant Project which focuses on communicating with those whom we do not know and who are not necessarily like ourselves at all. Or to put it another way around Shaheen Chishti pushes the envelope and rightfully so, to get us out of our coitidian comfort zone by having created three different elderly women from seemingly different cultures but here I am getting ahead of the story…
Shaheen Chishti is perhaps known to some within the British Jewish community due to an interview conducted by The Jewish News concerning his efforts to educate Urdu speaking Muslims about the Shoah, the Jewish genocide of 6 million unarmed men, women and children during the Second World War and Israel, our ancient modern homeland.
It is estimated by a Pew Survey that 74% of Urdu speakers adhere to anti-Semitic views. Those who live in Pakistan have even less of a chance to know Jews and to learn about the Shoah though fortunately with his good efforts and a growing number of others, attitudes are being challenged and changed.
Full disclosure: The interview prompted me to contact Shaheen Chishti because I have been working informally on normalization of relations between Israel and Pakistan. I was the first Israeli to be live streamed from Islamabad in August 2020. It was humbling and quite an honor. Subsequently, I had discovered that diaspora Jewry and Israel have not done much hasbara, i.e. Hebr. educating, especially concerning both the State of Israel and the devastating Shoah geared to the average Urdu speaker on the street – the taxi cab drivers, etc. I had already started to explore what materials existed in Urdu on the Shoah. Sadly very little. I had even begun to dabble in Urdu myself as a lover of languages and peoples. I found dribbles. A few articles here and a few there; some can be founded at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Urdu. Fortunately Stephen Spielberg’s master piece, Schindler’s List, had been subtitled in Urdu but will it be broadcast in Pakistan and other South Asian nations? There are over 650 million Urdu speakers, this is a diverse community in and of itself about which we should deeply care. Truly Shaheen Chishti foresaw this and intuitively knew that something needed to be done. He took up the challenge on his own and set up two websites in English and Urdu to educate both about the Shoah as well as Israel. Then he came up with another brilliant idea – a modern day epistolary endeavor in order to spread peace and understanding through his debut novel – The Granddaughter Project.
Shaheen Chishti has composed a well-crafted novel based on the lives of three highly traumatized grandmothers who have all lived through hell. The three women while different share in common the horrendous experience of violence at the hands of patriarchy and war. Three events loom in the background of the three grandmothers: Lynette’s the violent race riots of Notting Hill of 1958, Kamla’s sufferings during the Bengali famine of 1943 in which 3 million people died and Helga who survived Auschwitz to only learn that all of her family had been wiped out. These three grandmothers meet each other and they write letters which must be delivered to their granddaughters; they create a special “social” network propelled by rare emotion and intellect.
Empathically skillful Shaheen Chishti gives voice to this special trio. Helga, our Holocaust survivor, left with no family, manages to move forward in life, all be it, at great pains for the shadow of Auschwitz has disrupted familial relations with her daughter and granddaughter. Intergenerational transmission of trauma and its knowledge are something that Holocaust research has bestowed to psychology’s trauma studies. Second and third generation children of Holocaust parents and grandparents continue to search for meaning in life so heavily shaped by this devastation. So too are the paralleling cases of Lynette and Kamla who survived respectively the Notting Hill race riots and the Bengali Famine for here too there has been trauma spread across the generations to the granddaughters.
Whenever I get a chance to give a talk, I always emphasize that we are all more alike than we are different; violence is violence it doesn’t care how we humans label it; and its impact on the victims manifest in many similar devastating ways and everybody has a mother. While the mother or primary care giver is the first cultural interpreter for the baby, providing the crucial initial stability for the child’s later life, the grandmother also plays a significant role. To wit in English she is called “Grand” – mother. She is the one who picks up the slack, who can build bridges where there are ruptures in relationships. She serves a reparative role in life, offering unconditional love. From this strong and special bond Shaheen Chishti has forged a page turning novel of raw emotion which becomes a clarion call to dedicate our lives to the empowerment of women.
In all honestly perhaps it was easy for me to fall in love with “the novel as project” because I could imagine writing to my own granddaughters, letters to be delivered by each one of them to others across cultures, languages, religions, races and creeds, whereby together a web of good deeds and peace are spun. Yet this honest web would include the contours, obstacles, admitted failures, passions and attempted deeds of one’s own life with a dose of grandmotherly advice, which would hopefully be that of wisdom.
As I stated at the start The Granddaughter Project is so much more than a novel for it leaves us with this sense that we must rally and move forward to effect change. Shaheen Chishti’s personal motto is “Malice towards none; love to all.” My mantra has always been: “Change will come through the women.” I now revise it that change will not only come through women, but it will also come about because of Shaheen Chishti’s genuine endeavor. This is an inspiring Project that must be fully embraced. The abuse of women and girls must end and when this happens we will surely have peace. This is not rocket science. As the famous Egyptian sociologist Halim Barakat has noted, the family is a microcosm of society. If there is violence in the family, you will have a violent society. Happy well-adjusted children do not become suicide bombers. It really is that simple. Syed Shaheen Chishti has it right – the empowerment of women is key.
Shaheen Chishti. The Granddaughter Project. James Hemingway (imprint of Shreem Info Media), 2021.