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Famous smokes: Allahakbarries

  • Published at 05:25 pm September 8th, 2018
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But I like to remain an Akbar, even though, I hasten to add, any and all illusions of grandeur were dismissed early on

Last weekend, in an attempt to escape the mad rush of the city, I took myself to one of those bucolic retreats England is so good at providing. At the check-in desk, however, it was not smooth sailing, as I had to assist a confused receptionist who couldn’t locate my booking. Actually, to be accurate, she was totally flummoxed by the spelling of my surname. Considering the fact that it’s only two syllables long and considered rather cute (even if I say so myself) in multicultural, curried Britain today, I found it to be culturally dumb. And drawing up to my considerable South Asian height, I wanted to exercise my brown person’s right to be righteously offended.

I’ve found the English do like to spruce up my name by adding the letter “h”; and in the case above, it not being Akhbar (as if Akbar isn’t grand mogul enough) was the root cause of the system malfunction. Which made me, out of desperation, resort to a quick-fix solution: it’s Akbar, like Allahu Akbar! In return what I got was shock and horror! Not only did the lass freeze and send out a Bambi look of pleading for dear life, but also looked like she was going to press the under the counter button for security. Yes, I know, my bad, since I had uttered the two most feared words in the West today. It should really have been Vladimir Putin or Donald Trump but of course it’s “Allahu Akbar,” thanks to continuing activity of the jihadi brigade, which in turn keeps Islamophobia alive. Here it is imprinted in the popular imagination that the jihadists, as if to remind Allah of their visa stamp for entry into paradise, like to shout the two words just before they initiate their suicide mission. And to Westerners, the meaning of the phrase has veered far from the original to panic time, run.

Back to the issue of my surname. This was not the first time, nor will it be the last; the problem is certainly exacerbated in the post 9/11 period. It was not long after 9/11 when I landed at Chicago O’Hare Airport to find the immigration officer calling me Mr Allah Akbar! It was his natural reflex on seeing Akbar on top of the page. That time it was my own good self that froze with a Bambi stare until the man behind the glass-fronted desk apologized and corrected his mistake. My friends found this incident hilarious, prompting one to suggest that I change my name to Ackber; it would apparently be more favorable in the publishing-industry. 

But I like to remain an Akbar, even though, I hasten to add, any and all illusions of grandeur were dismissed early on. Unlike my zamindar friends, the family name bears no heraldic past of landed gentry, nor ownership of great ancestral lands in Bengal or elsewhere, nor the long lineage—something I would have loved—of poets and writers (those beloved babus of creative decadence!). Back when I was an irritatingly ambitious seven-year-old, I persisted in thinking that we could—just on the off chance—be distantly related to that Mughal emperor. That year I was given a kids book on Akbar the Great as a birthday present, with my father laconically noting, calmly demolishing a child’s fantasy bubble, that we probably, at best, had a forefather who was no more than a footman at the Delhi court. Apparently, no one told my father it was possible to be ambitious without causing harm, even if it meant certain flights of fancy. And so, I asked myself, was such flighty ambition possibly behind the formation of Allahakbarries?

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The wonderful creator of Peter Pan, JM Barrie, started a cricket team over a hundred years ago in his lifelong pursuit of willow on leather. Barrie called on fellow writers of similar spirit to join him in whites. Knowing their lack of skills on the field, and most notably his own, he named the team “Allahakbarries”. Yes, he had named it after himself but he was also thinking Allahu Akbar meant “heaven help us”. It was a mistake no one corrected and they needed all the help they could get via divine interventions.

The amateur team coasted along playing matches against the good and the great, including the batting maestro WG Grace. WG found himself getting bowled out to a delivery by Arthur Conan Doyle, who was one of the few competent players in Allahakbarries. Perhaps Conan Doyle’s superior Holmesian sense was put to use as he could assert the quality of a player by the amount of mud on the shoes. The others, though all successful with the pen, were less effective with the bat and ball; team members such as Rudyard Kipling, PG Wodehouse, AA Milne, HG Wells, GK Chesterton, Jerome K Jerome, and so on. But it was the spirit of the game that was to be cherished and Barrie put together a slim book in celebration. He called it Allahakbarries CC. Book collectors can look up in second-hand bookstores and online for a copy of this rare hardback, though beware of imitations.

Many moons later, the London based literary agent Charlie Campbell together with novelist Nicholas Hogg revived Allahakbarries, but termed it something less bombastic this time. Authors XI is a team for writers whose passion for cricket is undeniable and it proudly lists many celebrated authors such as Sebastian Faulks, Tom Holland, Alex Preston, Richard Beard, Anthony McGowan, Peter Frankopan, and others. They like to tour as a team and combine literary festivals with a game or two of cricket. If you were there at the 2016 edition of Dhaka Lit Fest, you’d have enjoyed a lively and lovely discussion with four members of the team; the session chaired by our very own Khademul Islam, and it is available for streaming on the festival’s YouTube channel (search for Of Googlies and Chinaman). 

**

My friend Charlie and his team might have displayed good sense in calling it Authors XI, as I wonder how far they would have gone if the original name had been retained, in today’s climate of cultural sensitivities. There’s of course the issue of the jihadi brigade, hyper alert for excuses to blow themselves up, and notably lacking in a sense of proportion, might have zeroed in on a cricket team whose point they are unlikely to get. Then there’s the so-called liberal brigade, notably lacking a sense of humor. Given this combo, we have to be careful when using puns, and there are subjects best avoided, by either exercising self-censorship or by skirting around it in case one stumbles into the cultural appropriation trap.

Groucho Marx once said that cricket was a wonderful cure for insomnia. At the country retreat, it was exhilarating to watch Moeen Ali spin his way through the Indian batting order. Cricket may not have been to Groucho’s taste, but he didn’t live long enough to see the debate around cultural appropriation. It’s not only soporific; it is a dangerous phenomenon, much like the jihadists.


Ahsan Akbar is Director of Dhaka Lit Fest. [email protected]