Behind the scene

Behind the scene

Behind the scene

Asia Bibi with Anne Isabelle
Virago Press
2012, pp 137

Can a hot exchange of words near a well between two women lead to one of them getting into the death row?

Apparently, this is possible if the land is Pakistan, and one of the two is Christian. Asia Noreen of Ittanwali village had been picking the tiny falsa berries  as she needed the wages to feed her family. Getting tired in the hot sun, she drew water from a well and drank it. A Muslim woman among the fruit-pickers set up a howl that the Christian had contaminated the well used by Muslims and also accused Asia of uttering blasphemy against the Prophet. The Christian was imprisoned and condemned to death.

They say truth is stranger than fiction. Blasphemy  proves the adage right. For four years, Asia Bibi has been languishing in a Pakistan jail. International opinion has been alerted, but this mother of five is still in solitary confinement. Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab, was assassinated in January 2011 for speaking in her defence.

Two months later, it was the turn of Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s Minority Affairs Minister, to be gunned down in Islamabad. Meanwhile, Asia Bibi’s husband Ashiq, and their children, are in hiding.  The factual  background is eerie,  to say the least.

This autobiographical narrative had been conveyed to Anne-Isabelle Tollet, a French journalist who spent three years (2008-11) in Pakistan. When she heard of  the unlikely story and then found out that it was all true, Tollet was stunned and did reports for television programmes. What upset her even more was that this case, which shocked the world for a while, was forgotten in no time. So she decided to write a book.

She has never been able to meet Asia Bibi, but has received all the needed information from her through Ashiq. The manuscript has been read to Asia in secret by her lawyer, and passed. “Today, Asia Bibi no longer has a lawyer; no one dares represent her for fear of being killed.”

The narrative takes us to what it is to live as a member of a minority community in a country in the grip of fundamentalists, the joys and sorrows of family life, the settling of scores by using the blasphemy law, the presence of khusras (transgenders), childhood and girlhood with a loving grandmother around, reminiscences of Asia’s wedding with Ashiq, handsome in his military uniform, the dark cell in the prison strangulated by cries from other condemned neighbours, a brief visit from children which is so heavenly, a fleeting pride that Pope Paul Benedict XVI has spoken about Asia in Rome, the terror of Salmaan Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti getting assassinated, and watching a tiny spider in the stinking cell. There is even a moment which reminds us of Jesus himself: Eloi, eloi lama Sabacthani! (My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?) But Asia’s faith keeps her alive. “I long for my prosecutors’ eyes to be opened, for the situation in my country to change.”

A simple narrative by a committed journalist, there are no frills in Blasphemy. Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims came to join the mourning and showered petals on Bhatti’s coffin in his natal village, Khushpur. Let us welcome this tiny ray of hope to change this terrorised world.