Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Hanifa Deen: On the Trail of Taslima

Hanifa Deen’s quest to unravel the story of Bangladeshi dissident Taslima Nasreen (Nasrin) has been a glorious obsession for nearly twenty years. The publication of On the Trail of Taslima has finally put that fixation behind her.

Since Taslima hit the headlines in the western media in 1994, Hanifa has sought out the key players around the globe to document their firsthand accounts. She first met Taslima in 1997 in Sweden, her country of refuge.

This book is an update of her 2006 The Crescent and the Pen: the strange journey of Taslima Nasreen. Hanifa describes her story as:
"A behind the scenes account of what really took place during the 'save Taslima Nasreen’ campaign that captivated the world in the 1990s, brings to light a complex narrative filled with larger-than-life personalities with their own agendas and shifting loyalties. Nothing is what it seems."
The central theme: Why was Taslima so readily embraced by the international community of human rights advocates, freedom of speech organisations, humanists and liberal media? Hanifa dubs them the dragon slayers.

When she went into hiding in 1994 and sought asylum outside her homeland, Taslima was accepted by many as the new Salman Rushdie. In fact Rushdie was one of the first to be recruited in her support. Moreover, the excessive zeal of many of her early supporters resulted in unfair comparisons of Bangladesh with Iran.

We meet a host of potential heroes/villains. Among her first champions was journalist Gabi Gleichmann who was head of Swedish PEN (Poets, Essayists and Novelists). The international organisation’s motto is ‘Promoting Literature, Defending Freedom of Expression’. It is the world’s oldest human rights NGO. It is not surprising that they had the ear of the Swedish government who offered the exile a home.

As a poet and essayist, Taslima’s prosecution in Bangladesh for blasphemy made a natural fit. Hanifa presents Gabi as a key mythmaker and dragon slayer who became disillusioned with the fictional aspects of her media profile that he had helped to create. Taslima is a larger-than-life character but not the one that many, including Gabi, were expecting when she ‘escaped’ to Europe.

Other key players in this saga include feminist Meredith Tax, Taslima’s publisher Christianne Besse, and New Yorker Warren Allan Smith. Early support also came from Reporters Sans Frontières (Reporters Without Borders), Amnesty International and numerous humanist and rationalist groups. Taslima’s vocal atheism attracted many who thought of her as a natural ally.

Hanifa Deeen has tracked down most of the important dragon slayers over the years. Her face to face interviews are remarkable, not just for the candour she haselicited from them, but also for the human portraits she has penned of these fascinating individuals.

The Bangladeshi end of the Trail has dimensions that readers can tease out for themselves: the still pending court case; her early writing career and notoriety; her family and three husbands, the complex web of religious, cultural and political life in South Asia. The author has made numerous trips to Bangladesh and found important ‘local’ voices in other parts of the world.

Her final word on Taslima the ‘victim’ comes from Eugene Schoulgin, Norwegian writer, PEN activist who has extensive connections with the Islamic world:
‘She is a victim of everyone’s expectations, the political manoeuvres of the West and a victim of her own pride’.

Anyone who is involved with human rights advocacy or freedom of speech campaigning should put this book on their must-see list. Its 260 pages encompass a detailed, thoughtful and passionate exploration of this remarkable writer. The ‘carousel’ that just keeps revolving as a visit to Taslima's website well attests.

"HANIFA DEEN is an award-winning Australian author who writes narrative nonfiction and lives in Melbourne. She now works full-time as a writer, which she sees as the perfect medium for a woman with an irreverent tongue, a maverick Muslim perspective on life, and a passion to subvert stereotypes wherever they lurk."

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