A talk with Raza Naeem – Social Activist and Writer

Pakistani Social Activist and Writer, Raza Naeem, in Delhi for the second edition of the Delhi Lit Fest, was kind enough to talk to Storizen.

Thank you for talking to us Raza, tell our readers a bit about you?

I’m Raza Naeem, Pakistani Activist, Writer, Critique and Social Scientist. I’ve studied Political economy from University of Leeds.

How and when did you begin writing?

Well, the compulsion was that there is a lot of injustice in the world. I don’t have any illusions about myself or my role, I’m a member of my society and as a privileged person who has been educated in the best possible manner I believe I owe it to the people. The intention is to inform not entertain, to analyze and ask difficult questions. Writing came to me as a means to express myself about those unspoken injustices.

Literature does not bring revolution unless it is linked to a movement, unless it is linked to the people and the land, but people don’t talk of revolution anymore because it’s going out of fashion. The ultimate objective is to alter the obscurantist mindset. Religion is not a problem, but extremism is, and in my country we have a small section of extremists that have held the whole society hostage. What I and my peers (at Communist Mazdoror Kisaan Party) are trying to achieve is to prepare the younger generation for an intellectual revolution which could then pave the way for a political revolution.

Raza Naeem - Pakistani Social Activist and Writer

Shed some light on your literary influences.

I have been a reader of classic literature since sixth or seventh standard. I began reading Shakespeare’s plays, and then moved on to Tolstoy, Victor Hugo, Alexander Dumas and lapped them all up.  My tryst with Urdu literature started in the nineties during my graduation where I had it as an elective subject. I read Saadat Hasan Manto’s stories; I loved the work of Ghulam Abbas, Sahir Ludhianvi, Majaz-the poet of revolution, Krishna Chandra, and Tariq Ali, to name a few. We don’t have writers like these any more that is why we keep going back to these writers and their works.

How do you set your writing schedules?

I’m disorganized as far as my writing is concerned. At any point of time I have many plans for articles but only 20% of them come down on paper. I don’t have much of a writing ethic; I try to meld literature, politics and history in my articles which is a creative process, sometimes I can complete a piece in one sitting while at other times it can take weeks to reach a logical conclusion.

Tell us about your works in progress?

In ‘The contradictions of bourgeois democracy in Pakistan’ I’m trying to talk about why Pakistan is caught in a perpetual cycle of democracy, dictatorship and elections and back again. The argument is that in Pakistan, unlike India, the middle class is very weak, and unless we can repeal that, it’ll be difficult to break out of this cycle.

I’m also translating ‘Saadat Hasan Manto’s Letters to Uncle Sam and other post colonial essays’ from the Urdu. The general perception about Manto is that he was a great writer of sex and of partition. But it is through his essays that he reveals his political acumen. In the 1950s he predicted with astonishing accuracy, how religious fundamentalism would come to shape this region, how our dealings with United States would end up shaping the sub-continent, and how the opportunism of our political leaders would go on to haunt us for years to come.  The purpose of these translations is to bring these to the general public.

You’ve lived in and written extensively about Egypt and Yemen, how did that come about?

9/11 happened a few days before I started my Masters Program at Leeds and it was a very formative period for me. People used to say to me that there is something genetically wrong with the Arab people; and the desire to challenge the media stereotypes about the Arab countries propelled me forward. I found that Arabs are not exceptional people; they desire democracy, liberty, equality, and human rights like people from any other country in the world. People get their information from compromised sources; the mainstream media says that since Osama bin laden was born in Yemen- the country has to be a terrorist state. I realized after a point of time that someone had to challenge these perceptions.

I can’t resist from asking this, who are your favourite Indian writers?

I like to read Arundhati Roy’s work. Aijaz Ahmad is a renowned Marxist critique and I follow his work very religiously. Mahashweta Devi, a progressive writer, is another one of my favourites.

Another clichéd question coming up, how does it feel to be in India?

To be honest, I am a very recent traveller to India. I feel I’m very lucky to be here and be a part of two great lit events, the Lucknow Literature festival and the Delhi Literature Festival. I have collected a lot appreciation and love from people and it honestly feels as if I’ve lost my way back to Lahore.