Fascism is an education. Or should I say that education is fascist for educationalists who don’t teach us what to think, they teach us how to think. In this way all social institutions are pedagogical processes whereby our masters are responsible for closing the gap between knowledge and ignorance, between human and animal. What the master owns then is the ‘knowledge of our ignorance’ and in order to reduce this gap, they have to reinstate it ceaselessly. They are the only ones who know exactly what remains unknown to us and they know how to make it knowable; at what time and what place, according to what protocol as we are fed one piece of knowledge after another piece, one word after another word, one rule after another rule at the right place and at the right time. This is the original lesson that they transmit to us, namely the knowledge that we have to be explained in order for us to understand and that knowledge cannot be understood by our own merits. This is the arrangement of our incapacity, an endless process of progressive instruction towards endless verification. This is how they maintain two forms of intelligence - this is how they maintain inequality. In such regimes we are left with a paradox namely that emancipation can only be given to us by those who are already free, yet those free only provide us further emasculation. We are left with an impossible solution; freedom can only come from those who are themselves held in bondage.
This is the premise that makes up Shamim Sarif’s universe. Whether her novels/films are set in the Islamic confines of the Middle East, the paranoia of Stalin Russia or the ruin of South Africa under apartheid, the pedagogical stage is set between a determined hysterical character questioning their existence and a determined regime of knowledge that constitutes them. Her narratives play out the metaphor of the radical break between two intelligences. In The World Unseen and I can’t think straight we see our female protagonists caught in the totalitarian function that systematically resolves the fundamental hysterical question “What is woman?” with the progressive method of social knowledge. An education which dismisses all groping, all chance occurrences and all natural awakenings as it pushes our protagonists along their social destinations. It is into this mix where the undetermined happens, our protagonist meets another woman equal in her subordination yet from which they spark a relationship that will alter their very destinies.
This is the originality of Sarif’s work. It is not a simple plot of one character teaching the other the ways of their own freedoms; rather it is about characters that teach the ignorant that which they themselves are ignorant about. If the “hysteric” knows only one thing by heart, be it as simple as when Amina gives driving lessons to Miriam in The world Unseen or Tala inspiring Leyla to become a writer in I can’t think straight then such characters can compare this knowledge with something that they are still ignorant about. From it we can learn, sign after sign, the resemblance of what one ignores with what one knows. Sarif’s characters know a lot of things, they learn on their own, by looking and listening around them, by figuring out the meaning of what they have seen and heard, repeating what they have come to know by chance, comparing what they discover with what they already knew and so on. There is an equality of intelligence between these lovers. Just like the invention of sign language that took place between deaf people with no means of communication, the human animal learns everything as they have learnt their mother tongue, as they have learnt to venture through the world of signs which surrounds them in order to take their place among their fellow humans. So Sarif’s characters do grow! Here then there is no impossible gap between ignorance and knowledge to keep us captivated, no fixed trajectory in which the social transmits its instructions to us, to evaluate us, to keep us at a distance; there is only autodidactic emancipation done through experimentation.
In this way Sarif’s narratives shatter the original pedagogical process and by doing so she has in her possession a war machine that seeks to undermine the very foundations of social hierarchy. Sitting in ‘The Chelsea Teapot’ on Kings Road sipping supercharged espressos it becomes clear to me as I listen to just how far Sarif has taken this conviction. Hollywood has a simple formula; lesbian films must end with their demise. In a fateful twist that parallels her narratives, we see Shamim Sarif and wife Hanan Kattan resist the control ridden world of cinema as they write, direct, produce and distribute their films. They rub off on each other like the lovers in their films forging ever new connections in their ways of figuring out what crucial tools they can discover and teach each other. Their films offer us no catharsis, and that is the point, they are not wish fulfilments, they are lessons to be learnt and with the predominant Islamic city of Lahore now being their second largest fan base, I am left to confirm that lesson which is now most poignant to us; love shall set you free if you’re willing to change how you think.
Text IMRAN JAVAID BUTT
Photographer NORIKO MATSUBARA