By Uditha Devapriya –
I can’t remember how I met Hafeel Farisz. It must have been my writing. There was a time when I wrote on nearly everything and anything. I still do, but back then the brakes were missing; I just went on, unrestrained. One of the delights of writing nonstop is that it puts you in touch with people from nearly every shade of life. They send you their comments about the columns you’ve typed, encouraging you to continue and advising you on where to slow down and show restraint. Some remain for more than a message; most disappear into the void of the internet. A few hang on for much, much longer. But they are rare.
Hafeel belongs to Category Three. By the time I got to know him he had established himself as a journalist who not only read, but also wrote, between the lines. Modest to a fault, he kept coming back with tip after tip. I recall the discussions we had, though I can’t quite recall how they began and ended. We both had day jobs, yet somehow, somehow, found the time to talk. Eventually, to our pleasant surprise, we realised how much we thought alike.
I am, like Hafeel, an idealist, though on some matters only. We don’t share the same political stances, but we do agree on certain things. Hafeel is not a liberal, if by liberal you mean the coffee shop variety whom he has flayed so mercilessly in his columns. Neither am I. He likes, however, to see life without the veils we’ve thrown over everything we write. So do I. What makes us idealists there is not so much a desire to see things in a particular way as a desire to un-see them, to reveal the other side. Each of us believes, as strongly as the other, that there’s no point rejecting the past, if all you do is relegate it to the dustbin. History is formidable, yet as we have shown in our articles – him more than me – it is also complex. In that sense I suppose one can say we are more realist than idealist, and more idealist than liberal.
The trick, then, is not to repudiate or reject history, but to unveil those aspects of the past that have escaped the common readership. Hafeel has done that with Islamism, particularly in his defence of Sufi poets (whom he can conjure up in his mind and quote effortlessly, even over a telephone conversation) and his critique of extremist ideology. I am but a pale reflection of Hafeel; I’ve tried, without much success, to reveal the hidden history of what nationalists and social scientists term as Sinhala Buddhism. Regardless of my failings though, the two of us have come to realise one point: that religious ideology is never intrinsically exclusivist, that at its inception it carves a place for the outsider, the nonbeliever, the “heretic.”
A quarter-century ago, Qadri Ismail wrote that “identities are fluid, transient, always in flux.” By default an identity accommodates while it discriminates, embracing change and affirming transformation. This is what, long before Ismail, Martin Wickramasinghe wrote of Sinhala Buddhist identity: “Originality in cultural invention,” he once observed, “is nothing but the change, partial or complete, of a borrowed element in readaptation.” The late Siri Gunasinghe believed in this also; that formed the basis of his critique of Gunadasa Amarasekara. The Sufi mystics and early Islamic scholars made a similar case for change, particularly Al-Farabi and Avicenna. It is sad, if not regrettable, that Muslims today have forgotten these scholars, just as Sinhala Buddhists today have forgotten Wickramasinghe and Gunasinghe.
Of course they quote them and they celebrate them. But only selectively. What would Sinhala nationalists say, for instance, about Martin Wickramasinghe’s defence of the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact, which he saw as an attempt to accord “the rightful place to the Tamil language”? What would Muslim extremists say about Al-Farabi’s rejection of the immortality of the soul and Avicenna’s belief that the soul, once it left the body, returned to a universe of disembodied beings (a Buddhist equivalent being the realm of the pretayas?) These were not radicals in the conventional sense of that term; they believed in tradition, and anchored their critique of culture in tradition. Yet they dared to think, and think different.
Perhaps we’ve misunderstood what radicalism actually means. To be a radical is not to reject everything from the past. This is an illusion even I subscribed to in my adolescence. It was a consequence, I think, of a misreading of Marx, who I assumed rejected everything to do with tradition. Yet Marx and Engels did not by any means fail to appreciate culture: to give one example, they both considered communal organisation among the North American Iroquois as an antecedent of communism. The issue is that in Sri Lanka, as in the rest of the non-West, Marxism is deployed as a critique of all things traditional, and it continues to occupy the echo chamber of left-liberals. To limit it to such echo chambers is not what I intend by a critique of our understanding of the past, and it is not what Hafeel intends either.
What we intend to prove is this: cultures are always evolving, and they are never immune to change. Cultural purism is a fiction; it does not exist, and if it does, it does so in the passing moment. Yet that in itself does not mean one should repudiate the past and rubbish history, as radicals do, for to repudiate is to forget what radicalism really entails: not a rejection of, but a return to, one’s roots. In this the purists are as wrong as the “radicals”: the former believe in monopolising the cultural narrative, while the latter believe in doing away with it.
The true believer of tradition does not always go back to the past, just as the true radical does not go always back on it; they embrace it on the understanding that it is subject to “revolution and evolution.” This is what Martin Wickramasinghe believed in as well.
I owe much of my understanding of that to several people. Among them, Hafeel. I do not know whether what I believe in is what most of us believe in. I do know this, however: if one is to move forward, heal the wounds of our society, and stand up for each other, one has to do more than just critique tradition. One has to delve into it, and in doing so, realise the ebb and flow of change our past has been built on. Now that would be a truly radical thing to do. But where are the radicals to see this through? Missing, as of yet. 2020 sorely needed them, here especially. My guess is that 2021 will need them more than ever.
Hafeel taught me some important lessons there. A thank you would be empty and hollow, but right now, it’s the best I can do. So thank you Hafeel. Thank you very much.
*The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org