The other day my son, a class five student in one of the most sought-after schools in Karachi, came to me for help in a school project. Having read on several parenting websites that I should be participating in my son’s scholastic life, I eagerly agreed. The project was on famous explorers, and given that I’m my nuclear family’s resident amateur historian, my interest was piqued. He obediently rattled off the list of the explorers he had to pick from: Marco Polo, Vasco da Gama, Magellan and so on. “What about Ibn-e-Batuta?” I asked “Who?” he replied. “Ibn-e-Batuta,” I pressed on. “You know, the guy who actually covered more ground than Marco polo? That Ibn-e-Batuta. He also happened to be a Berber and a Muslim.”
“Oh”, he said, probably ruing the moment he asked for my help, ‘no, he’s not on the list.’
Since then, I related this story to a few people, and the most common response was: Ibn-e-Batuta? Isn’t that the mall in Dubai? A couple of my more Bollywood inclined friends remembered his name as the title for a song in the Naseeruddin Shah movie Ishqiya.
Ironically, if you Googled anything at all a few weeks back, you’d have seen that even Google, that infamous tool of Zionist oppression, celebrated his 707th birthday with a doodle commemorating his travels. And why not? After all, this is a man who went all the way from Morocco in the West to China in the East. He travelled to the Byzantine Empire, Spain and the steppes of the golden horde in the north to Somalia in the south. He even got to Sindh, where he famously encountered a rhino before getting as far as Chittagong. That effectively means that he covered more ground than anyone else until the invention of the steam engine, some 450 years later. Sadly, if you went to one of Pakistan’s elite schools, chances are you’ve never even heard of him. Worse, you may have grown up thinking that everything of value in human history came from Europe. Except for paper of course; that’s Chinese.
I don’t blame my son, or any of the similarly schooled people I spoke to. I went to the same school and, by the time I finished my O-levels, I could have told you how many wives Henry VIII had, and what Marie Antoinette’s famous (almost) last words were, but I couldn’t have told you who Timurlane was (is that the next street over from Park Lane?), and I certainly couldn’t tell a Khwarezm-shah from a Shahenshah (you know, the Amitabh movie where he has his arm wrapped in chain mail). I knew Machiavelli and Napoleon, but not Kautiliya and Sun Tzu.
I don’t even blame the schools. The only usable and attractive textbooks are understandably Anglo-centric. The East appears on the periphery, and when it does, it is always through the eyes of the discoverers. All of whom are, of course, dead white males. Our poor little subcontinent appears as a footnote in the conquests of Alexander, or as the land the search for which inadvertently lead to the decimation of the Native Americans.
It wasn’t until the advent of Pakistan Studies that this part of the world made a poorly-written, and even more poorly-edited, appearance. We met the whitewashed and utterly neutered versions of Muhammad Bin Qasim (who, by the way, was absolutely not tortured to death by the Caliph) and Mahmud of Ghazni (who was absolutely not in it for the loot).
So am I asking for our current textbooks to be dumped and replaced with texts that only focus on ‘our’ versions of history? No. I’m not asking for the glorification of some mythical golden age, but just the realisation that history does not end where Russia begins. I don’t expect writers to suddenly churn out attractive textbooks in which ‘we’ get whole chapters and not single paragraphs, and I don’t expect already overburdened teachers to take it upon themselves to write their own course material. Instead, how about we take it on ourselves? How about we actually take the time to research and learn about the ‘rest’ of the world and maybe even teach it to our kids? Trust me, they’ll thank us for it. Eventually.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 29th, 2012.