Unmixing : Sadia Abbas

Rachel Sussman / Sidewalk Kintsukuroi
Rachel Sussman / Sidewalk Kintsukuroi

Unmixing : Sadia Abbas


I would like to consider what it would mean to enter the term “unmixing” into the political lexicon. It is neither keyword nor political concept yet but should certainly be the former, even if it cannot be considered the latter. I will begin this essay by laying out a historical narrative, then follow with a reading of some South Asian, Urdu, and English texts, and conclude with a few thoughts on the conceptual use of the term.

In histories and ethnographies of the formalized Greek-Turkish population transfer, following the Lausanne Convention of 1923, the term is attributed to Lord Curzon as a “quip.”1 Michael Marrus suggests that Curzon used “unmixing of peoples” to describe population transfers. He does not, however, cite a source. Renée Hirschon gives it further purchase in her chapter in Crossing the Aegean: An Appraisal of the 1923 Compulsory Population Exchange Between Greece and Turkey.2 However, in the English version of the proceedings of the Conference at Lausanne “ummix” is attributed to Fritzhof Nansen, who is reported to have said, “the Great Powers are in favor of this proposal because they believe that to unmix tlie (sic) populations of the Near East will tend to secure the true pacification of the Near East.”3 If the attribution to Curzon is indeed apocryphal, the term is no less useful—is perhaps even more so—as it reveals the embeddedness of the discursive structures and histories that underlay and shaped the population transfers.4

Unmixing is an oddly nondescript word, seeming to lack metaphysical and moral heft, workmanlike in its blandness. Capable of being syntactically invisible and thus surreptitious in its operations, it acquires (remarkably it seems to me) a certain usefulness.

Of course, variants that combine “un-” and “mix” occur elsewhere in quite significant political-theoretical contexts. In the chapter “Race-Thinking before Racism” in Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt writes that it was only after 1814, in the German context, that the common origins desired by German nationalists were described frequently in terms of “blood relationships,” in “terms of family ties, of tribal unity, of unmixed origin.”5 Later in the same paragraph she writes that it was “a frustrated nationalism that led to Arndt’s statement that Germans . . . had the luck to be of unmixed stock.”

Yet, “unmixed,” however useful it is in laying bare some of the racial thinking and taxonomizing impulses that power “unmixing,” lacks the potential for addressing processes that follow and power the national emergence available in the present participle. And perhaps more of that process can be visible in the following rather long paragraph from one of the subsequent chapters, “Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Rights of Man,” which refers to the Minorities Treaties and the subsequent “unforeseen” population transfers that followed. Picking up on Oscar Janowsky’s 1945 Nationalities and National Minorities, which she also reviewed, Arendt writes:

The framers of the Minority Treaties did not foresee the possibility of wholesale population transfers or the problem of people who had become “undeportable” because there was no country on earth in which they enjoyed the right to residence. The minorities could still be regarded as an exceptional phenomenon, peculiar to certain territories that deviated from the norm. This argument was always tempting because it left the system itself untouched; it has in a way survived the Second World War whose peacemakers, convinced of the impracticality of minority treaties, began to “repatriate” nationalities as much as possible in an effort to unscramble “the belt of mixed populations.”
And this attempted large scale repatriation was not the direct result of the catastrophic experiences following in the wake of the Minorities Treaties; rather, it was hoped that such a step would finally solve a problem which, in the preceding decades, had assumed ever larger proportions and for which an internationally recognized and accepted procedure simply did not exist—the problem of the stateless people.6

That the concern with transfer of populations extended far beyond discussions about Europe is perhaps most surprisingly evident in B.R. Ambedkar’s invocation of the Greek-Turkish and Greek-Bulgarian population transfers in Pakistan or the Partition of India, his 1940s meditation on the two-nation theory (the idea that Hindus and Muslims were two separate “nations” and thus needed separate states and homelands). The Dalit who had converted to Buddhism and was an architect of the Indian constitution wrote:

Those, who scoff at the idea of transfer of population, will do well to study the history of the minority problem, as it arose between Turkey, Greece, and Bulgaria. If they do, they will find these countries found that the only way of solving the minorities problem lay in exchange of population. The task undertaken by the three countries was by no means a minor operation. It involved the transfer of some 20 million people from one habitat to another. But undaunted, the three shouldered the task and carried it to a successful end because they felt the considerations of communal peace must outweigh every consideration. That the transfer of minorities is the only lasting remedy for communal peace is beyond doubt.7

Ambedkar was not unaware of the violence of that history and those transfers—he mentions Smyrna/Izmir and he also likens the leadership of the Muslim League to the German state protecting the Germans of the Sudetenland, and one wonders what “peace” designates here. M.A. Jinnah, the “founder” of Pakistan had, of course, himself used the analogy between Indian Muslims and the Germans of the Sudetenland:

Just as the Sudeten Germans were not defenseless and survived the oppression and persecution for two decades so also the Mussalmans are not defenseless and cannot give you their national entity [sic?] and aspirations in this great continent.8

It is not clear who was meant to protect the Muslims in 1938 but, after the 1940 resolution recognizing Pakistan as a political goal, one imagines the analogy was between the imminent nation and Germany, with those Muslims left behind in India imagined as the Sudeten Germans. This is indeed how Ambedkar seems to use it.

That the population transfers that followed the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman Empires had a historical afterlife that spread far beyond East and Central Europe (the usual focus of studies on population transfers), that they were indeed part of the discursive milieu and rhetoric that enabled Partition, is, of course, evident from these examples. However, this potentially apocryphal “quip” also antecedently connects this history to India, if we trace Curzon’s career backward from the conference at Lausanne at which he presided. For Curzon was viceroy of Bengal at the time of the soon reversed Partition of Bengal in 1905. The reasons given for that partition were mostly those of administrative convenience, but the government was also motivated by colonial techniques of population management and habits of divide and rule, in this case, intended to weaken the power of Bengali nationalists by separating Muslims and Hindus into separate areas of majority.9 Curzon’s political motives came wrapped in a language of violence and dismemberment:

The Bengalis who like to think themselves a nation, and who dream of a future when the English will have been turned out, and a Bengali babu will be installed in Government house, Calcutta, of course bitterly resent any disruption that will be likely to interfere with the realisation of this dream. If we are weak enough to yield to their clamour now, we shall not be able to dismember or reduce Bengal again; and you will be cementing and solidifying on the eastern flank of India, a force already formidable, and certain to be a source of increasing trouble in the future.10

He did not forget, as Partha Chatterjee points out, the “other part of the colonial strategy: partition,” which was meant, in Curzon’s words, to “invest the Muhammadans in Eastern Bengal with a unity which they have not enjoyed since the days of the old Mussulman viceroys and kings.”11 Perhaps most interesting here is the explicit connection between territorial division, fantasized as dismemberment, and the separation of peoples—as if the violence of “unmixing” is displaced upon the land itself, enabling the imagining of a more bodily sundering.

This double sundering of peoples and territory was central to colonialism and late imperial expansion. Yet, in some ways, what is most useful about the term is its paradoxical capacity to restore a vision of the connectivity of empire in late capitalism to an event such as Lausanne, asking postcolonialists and others to think about the connections between the discourses and practices of governance of Europe in its colonies to Europe’s practices within Europe, and to consider the question of imperial dissolution more broadly, to stretch some of the geopolitical boundaries of postcolonial studies, to think expansively about the “intimacies of four continents,” to borrow Lisa Lowe’s resonant phrase.12 That is, to think about the relation between decolonization and the dissolution of Empires such as the Ottoman, Russian and Austro-Hungarian—relations not usually taken up by postcolonialists. Gayatri Spivak’s Other Asias, which begins to take up these questions, may be the exception that proves the rule.

It is perhaps worth remembering that the Haitians were the first to recognize Greek national aspirations. In 1822, the President of Haiti, Jean-Pierre Boyer, sent a letter to Greek Revolutionaries in France in which he wrote:

With Great enthusiasm we learned that Hellas was finally forced to take up arms in order to gain her freedom and the position that she once held among the nations of the world.

Such a beautiful and just case and, most importantly, the first successes which have accompanied it, cannot leave Haitians indifferent, for we like the Hellenes were for a long time subjected to a dishonorable slavery and finally, with our own chains, broke the head of tyranny.13

I bring up this identification here precisely because, in postcolonial circles, Greece seems like an unlikely candidate for such identification by the Haitians, so heavily and unproblematically is it identified with the West, despite work such as that by Stathis Gourgouris, Artemis Leontis, Yannis Hamilakis, and Vangelis Calotychos. Gourgouris’ point, that Greece’s adoption by the West represents the colonization of an ideal, seems lost in that identification, as does the similarity and connection of that operation to what Bernard Cohn has described as the imagining of India as a “living museum of the European past.”14

Although soon reversed, the Partition of Bengal would presage the Partition of India in 1947 and then again the division of East and West Pakistan into Pakistan and Bangladesh in 1971. At the same time, as we have seen, the population transfers in Europe, clearly influenced to some extent by colonial structures of typology, separation, and management were, in turn, to be invoked as a justification for Partition. This imbrication is extraordinarily important for postcolonial studies but has yet to receive the attention it deserves.

The “minority” problems that the Partition of 1947 and the creation of Pakistan were ostensibly meant to resolve, and of which Partition was more accurately a symptom, are evident in the continued rupture of sociality that constitutes one of the inaugural problems of the nation-states in South Asia, and continues to present significant limits to the way in which citizenship and statehood continue to be imagined and limited. This rupture has been addressed in literary work by South Asian writers who have often hauntingly given voice to the tear in the social that attended Indian independence and Partition in 1947, and then the terrible break of the 1971 civil war in Pakistan that led to the creation of Bangladesh. One of the striking things about a number of these writers from the Subcontinent who take on Partition, often explicitly as a face of the failures and disappointment of decolonization, is the representation of friendship and the dispersal of friends to figure the social unraveling that followed Partition—a figuration that seems to give the term unmixing further descriptive purchase.

I will focus largely (and somewhat schematically) on two novels by the great twentieth-century Urdu novelist Qurutulain Hyder. I begin with Aakhir-i-shab ke humsafar, available in a translation undertaken by Hyder herself as Fireflies in the Mist.15 In this novel, the disruption of social life in the Indian Subcontinent over the course of decolonization and Partition is imagined as the dispersal of friends over a lifetime and across the planet. Aamir Mufti has argued persuasively that Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the great communist Pakistani poet uses the tropes of love in his poems to give voice to the rupture in the collective self that attended Partition.16 Faiz also figures postcolonial failure as the disappointment of friends waiting without end to arrive at a shore or destination that symbolizes transformation. Hyder picks up those tropes and turns them into a sustained meditation on friendships as a symbol of sociality and their end, precipitated by historical forces outside the protagonists’ control, as a marker of social unraveling.

The Urdu title of the novel, which one may translate literally as “The Fellow Travelers of the End of the Night,” is taken from the concluding couplet of a Faiz poem—“Shaam-e-firaaq ab na pooch”:

aakhir-e-shab ke humsafar, Faiz na jaane kya huey
reh gayi kis jagah sabaa, subah kidhar nikal gayi

What happened, Faiz, to the fellow-travelers at the end-of-the-night?
Where did the breeze get left behind? And when did dawn disappear?17

The disappointment for the lost promise of decolonization, symbolized by Partition figured above, is voiced perhaps most famously in the poem “Subh-e-Azaadi”—“Freedom’s Dawn” (August 1947):

This stain-covered daybreak, this night-bitten dawn,
This is not the dawn of which there was expectation;
This is not that dawn with longing for which
The friends set out, (convinced) that somewhere there would be met with,
In the desert of the sky, the final destination of the stars
Somewhere there would the shore of the sluggish wave of night.18

Hyder’s haunting novel presents friends from the same town in East Bengal, student revolutionaries at the outset of the novel, Hindu, Muslim and Christian, gripped by the headiness of the anti-colonial fight, willing to risk it all, filled with the buoyancy of an uncompromising and energetically youthful idealism, debating Marx and discussing structures of a waning feudalism and the ascendancy of rising bourgeoisies, gradually separated by the national borders that keep multiplying under them, slowly making each one of them alien to the land where once they all belonged. Three of the most radical young revolutionaries are Rehan Ahmed, a scion of a Muslim Nawab’s family, Deepali Sarkar, the daughter of a Hindu zamindar (landowner) fallen on hard times, and Rosie Bannerjee, the daughter of a rice-Christian (a lower-caste convert to Christianity), and a converted, prematurely widowed, Hindu woman. Both Rehan and Rosie slowly betray their ideals, and Deepali becomes slowly disillusioned. The end of her love for Rehan, engineered by another revolutionary, Uma Chakravarti, is merely one face of that disillusionment. The larger heartbreak in the novel is the slow leeching of energy and ideals from this group of friends as Dacca, without moving, goes from part of India to East Pakistan to Bangladesh. And Hindu Deepali moves to India and eventually becomes part of the expatriate community in Trinidad. Rehan becomes a collusive figure within the establishment. As loves and friendship attempt to maintain themselves across borders, people who love one another break social bonds that have existed for generations and friendships become subject to new cartographies. It is a slow, elaborate, and very detailed account of social unraveling.

What such a rupture asks us to imagine and revisit is that great moment of revolution less than a century ago, in the Indian Subcontinent, a moment that led both to the expulsion of the British but also to terrible bloodletting and an internecine violence that ended up disrupting the very freedom the desire and struggle for which had unleashed the violence in the first place. Partition, then, was one of the first moments of the slow attrition of Third Worldism and the cannibalization that would follow, in one decolonized nation after another, of the revolutionary forces that had fought to expel the colonizers. But the novel suggests that the inaugural problem lay in a failure to anticipate and prepare for a future united not just by opposition to the British, but a future in which a commitment to collectivity would produce a mode of governance that could imagine a polity that did not need unmixing, and that could prepare for the Muslim in Hindu-majority India, the caste-Christian in Pakistan, the Dalit everywhere. And, ultimately, the novel suggests that the problem lay in the inability to think past a national solution to a religious divide, that is, to think past a solution that ended up simply exfoliating new nations.

Khushwant Singh’s anglophone Train to Pakistan, set in the less glamorous milieu of a Sikh and Muslim village in East Punjab, too figures Partition as the sundering of lovers as well as friends and neighbors and the unraveling of the carefully depicted life of a village, where, at the end, villagers are rushed into trucks that will rescue them to take them to their new homeland, run helter-skelter trying to gather belongings, rush goodbyes to neighbors and life-long friends, and ask bewilderedly why they can’t take their bullocks along as promised. The representation combines heartache with absurdity cast as the lack of necessity of this unmixing. A similar sense of bewilderment, pervaded by the metaphysical incomprehensibility of the event, is to be found in the representation of the transfer at the beginning of Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel about the Greek Civil War, The Fratricides (I Aderfofades).

Hyder also takes up some of the challenges posed by Partition in the novel River of Fire, her own very liberal translation from and rewriting of her Urdu novel Ag ka Darya—often referred to as the greatest Urdu novel of the twentieth century—which she called a “transcreation.” The Urdu version was published in the early 1950s and followed Hyder’s stint in Pakistan right after Partition in which she concluded that she couldn’t live there and had to move back to India. The substantially rewritten English version was published almost 40 years later.

The novel(s) span(s) several millennia, structured around stories set in different historical periods: the first , set in the period of the expansion of the Mauryan empire in the fourth century B.C.E, and the last around 1947, dramatizing the period that led to Indian Independence and tracing the social unraveling that followed as a result of Partition. Between these are stories placed in the historical periods of the end of the Lodi dynasty and the beginning of the Mughal Empire, followed by the late eighteenth-century moment of the East India Company leading into the consolidation of the British Empire by the 1870s, post Indian Rebellion, or Mutiny, in 1857.

In River of Fire, the condition of “unmixing” is present in the rigidly taxonomized world of colonial rule. In a section set in the British colonial period a character called Cyril Ashley stands and shouts at a ferryman, “Hello! Abdul. Listen,” and the narrator goes on to say: “All lower grade Mussalmans were called Abdul by the firangis (foreigners). This was one of their arrogant habits after they became victorious.”19 So ingrained does this colonial structure of naming and typing, where every Muslim and Christian and Hindu is the same as every other of his perceived kind, become that a hundred years later in an upper class household:

Gulfishan’s cook was called Hussaini—most cooks were called that. Washermen were known as Nathu; all bearers answered to the name of Abdul. Syces were usually Gunga Din. Night club violinists were known as Tony, fathers had such names as Syed Taqi Reza Bahadur or Aftab Chand Raizada.20

Hyder’s multi-millennial span is a challenge to colonial ethno-racial constructions and hierarchies and to the nationalist and identitarian bloodletting of Partition that are themselves predicated on those stabilized taxonomic structures. So stabilized, “unmixing” does indeed seem possible.

In both River of Fire and Fireflies in the Mist, friendships end and people leave to cross borders, unsure whether they are the betrayers or the betrayed. At the same time, in the English River of Fire, Hyder seems quite interested in the complexities of the Greek situation. In the nineteenth century, Indian Muslims identified with the Ottoman imperial structure and longed to preserve the empire in a pan-Islamist identification that culminated in the Khilafat movement, the movement to restore the Ottoman caliphate, which had roots in the Ottoman Emperor Abdul Hamid II’s attempts to mobilize Indian Muslims to shore up his power. The Khilafat movement, which joined up with Indian Non-cooperation, including in Bengal, ran from about 1919–1924, which saw the height of concerns about the Greek invasion of Izmir, the Minorities Treaties, the fall of Izmir/Smyrna and Greek-Turkish population transfers.

Hyder’s father, whom she admired greatly and who died young, was a Turcophile and enmeshed in the Indian Muslim milieu in which the fate of the Ottomans and then of the Turkish nation-state were of considerable interest and concern. Into the English version she created out of the Urdu one she had written forty years earlier, she wove a meditation on the paradoxes of the Greek situation seen from the perspective of an Indian Muslim, which included an awareness of the ironies of both the Indian Muslim defense of the Ottoman Empire, and subsequently of the Turkish state, and of the English Romantic identification with the struggle for Greek independence.

The forty years between the Urdu and English versions were years in which Hindu nationalism had come to gain a great deal of power. In the English version of the novel, Hyder proleptically identifies the Greek (Bactrian and Buddhist) presence in India in the earliest part, set circa 323 BCE, with the Muslim presence to come, by playing with the Sanskrit word Yavana. Yavana was a back formation from yona, derived from Ionian used to describe Greeks and others from West Asia since the first millennium B.C.E., and was later applied to Muslims (also seen as invaders from the West).21

In this section, Hyder includes an episode that sets up a major theme in this quietly powerful text about the terrible violence, social ruptures, and historical erasures unleashed by Partition. A Hindu prince, who has converted to Buddhism, momentarily passes as a Greek traveler who has a conversation with a Hindu named Gautam, which is, of course, also the name of the Buddha:

The stranger smiled impishly. “Yes, I am Harius Sancarius at your service.” He bowed from the waist in an outlandish manner. Gautam was mystified. Then he said, “Oh, a Yavana!” He had never seen a mleccha [a dirty foreigner] before.

“I hail from Ionia and I am in shipping,” the Greek informed him breezily. Gautam looked blank feeling like a country bumpkin.”22

The Prince goes on to say:

I have a little Cargo boat I brought from the Gulf to the River Indus. There I left it in charge of my Phoenician crew and decided to explore the land mass to the east. So I bought a horse from a Scythian and . . . may I sit down? First went up to Taxila . . .23

This goes on with the names of peoples and places proliferating. When discovered to be not Greek, the Prince tells the story of his conversion and of what he learned in his “brick-like cell” in Taxila, where he had been sent for his education by his father. There, he recounts, he learned of theories of power that led him to confront a moral quandary that anticipates the Buddhist King Ashoka’s turning from imperial war-mongering to the advocacy of peace: “I faced a dilemma. If I remained in the world of power hungry kings and warlords and politicians, I’d have to kill human beings, whereas now I don’t even want to kill animals.”24 He relates that in his subsequent travels he sat around bonfires, heard caravan leaders recount the epics of what he calls Turanian heroes, like Sohrab and Rustom, and heard of the centuries-long Greco-Persian wars and the conquests of Irani emperors. He goes on to say that he encountered people from Soghdia, Cappadoccio, and Thessaly.

The invocation of Taxila and the reference to Gandhara locate the novel’s world in immediate relation to one of the most important archaeological sites in present day Pakistan, and marks River of Fire as an attempt to undo the violently narrow identity of the Pakistani nation and the Muslimness that is taken to necessitate it. It is, perhaps, significant that Taxila and Gandhara are now used, by critics of Muslim nationalism, to suggest histories that are erased by the nation in the service of distinguishing itself from India.25 At the same time, Hyder appears to be offering a critique of the rise of Hindu nationalism in the decades that had intervened since the publication of the Urdu text: for Hari Shankar does not appear as a Greek traveler in the Urdu version.

In the Urdu text, Hari Shankar appears wearing the saffron robes of the Buddhist monk, and the color is referred to often. The arbitrariness and irrelevance of origin, so central to Hyder’s critique of nationalism and Partition, are invoked using different geographical coordinates:

“We all have to be born somewhere or other. I could have been born in Memphis and you could have been born in Yawadeep [yavadwipa-ancient Java],” Hari Shankar said with a smile.

“You are from this very place and now you are wondering around as a Buddhist holy man, acting like a stranger.”

“We are all eternally strangers to each other.”26

There is no Greek traveler at this moment, no Ionian garb. The spatial reach is focused on East Asia and North Africa. In her English rewriting of those coordinates, and in her extension of the spatial reach Westward, Hyder takes on directly the question of conquest, foreignness, and the historical formation of culture. Hindutva’s claiming of Buddhism as an indigenous religion that could be made to fit into Hindu nationalist conceptions of indigeneity appears to have made Hyder reach for the Hellenic association in order to perform in intensified manner the very arbitrariness of origin she had suggested in the Urdu text, but which now needed to more explicitly engage with the question of the Muslim presence in India.27

Perhaps most significant in the exchange from the transcreated version quoted above is the use of the term Yavana to refer to the Prince who is passing as Greek. According to Romila Thapar, “Muslim” does not occur in Indian records of early contact with the new arrivals: “The term used was either Turuska, referring to the Turks, or geographical, Yavana, or cultural, mleccha. The term Yavana referred to the Hellenistic dynasties that were in control of large swathes of Afghanistan and Northwestern India in the second century B.C.E.”28

That a word that was used to refer to the Greeks of Asia Minor could later be applied to the Muslims is perhaps most significant for Hyder in this episode. Greek could thus function as a precursor of Muslim (as West Asian, Turkic etc.—speaking also to the Hellenic presence in Asia minor). The word brings Muslims into this meditation on the impossibility of historical purity and the problem of Indian authenticity right at the inception of the novel.

Hyder was thus complicating and revising Hindutva’s framing of Buddhism as acceptable because indigenous as opposed to the unacceptably foreign Islam. This revision of both history and novel, as I have written at some length elsewhere, was meant to address the issue of conquest and foreignness as it applied to the Muslims, who are still considered invaders by the Hindu right. At the same time, the subplot works against this taxonomic violence. That Gautam, the Hindu, has the same name as the Buddha suggests both a fluidity of identity and a commonality of origin for Hindus and Buddhists, and the interchangeability of names/epithets for Bactrians, Indo-Greeks, and Muslims. The exchange between Hari Shankar and Gautam thus carries both critique and possibility. For the suggestion is that the religious and national divisions of the postcolonial period were not inevitable.

In a later part of the novel, set in the 19th century, post the 1857 Rebellion, Hyder has a Muslim character muse:

Lord Byron could sing of the Isles of Greece, stir the West and fight the Terrible Turk. The Greeks were admired for their War of Independence but 1857 was condemned as the native rebels’ mutiny.29

Thus the novel’s double move is to interrogate the Greekness of European teleology and press a different temporo-spatial notion of Greekness into service against religious nationalism. At stake is an understanding of the ways in which colonially stabilized conceptions of what constitutes a Hindu or a Muslim led to the partition of the Subcontinent, and also the claims of religious identitarianism upon the identities of both postcolonial Pakistan and India. Hyder seems to suggest that anticolonial emancipation required not merely thinking past ethno- or religio-nationalism but also confronting the problematic of earlier empires—that is, she signals the danger of being stuck in resurrectionary or revivalist nostalgia for imperial pasts in the bid to define emancipated future polities. Her simultaneous identification and dis-identification with the Greek case suggests that she was grappling with the unintelligibility of modern Greece that underlay not only the European conscription of Greece as origin but also the Indian Muslim acceptance of the identification of Greece and Europe, indeed of Greece and European colonialism. The ethno-national positing of origins in which an entire segment of history becomes unreadable except as contamination and emancipation requires decontamination is a postcolonial impasse signaled by the dance between the terms ‘hybridity’ and ‘authenticity’ in which literary postcolonial studies, in particular, can sometimes appear to be caught. For Hyder, such a grappling seems to have been enabled by this complex mirroring of the Greek and Indian Muslim cases.

I am aware of the paradox of advocating consideration of the word ‘unmixing’ at the very moment I weave together histories and a set of identifications not often considered together—although, of course, their invisibility is precisely an effect of the success of the unmixing. I am aware, moreover, that unmixing exists in a tense and angled relation to the sense of ‘hybridity’ at play in the following passage from Homi Bhabha’s introduction to Nation and Narration:

The locality of national culture is neither unified nor unitary in relation to itself, nor must it be seen simply as ‘other’ to what is outside or beyond it. The boundary is Janus-faced and the problem of outside/inside must always itself be a process of hybridity, incorporating “new” people in relation to the body politic, generating other sites of meaning, and, inevitably, in the political process, producing unmanned sites of political antagonism and unpredictable forces for political representation.30

I say “angled” because I don’t necessarily disagree with Bhabha here, but where Bhabha appears to have conceded the emerged nation and national culture as that which engages in the process of hybridity, conceded, that is, the incorporation of “newness” as the condition (albeit erased) of the nation. The expulsion and evisceration of the old, made new elsewhere in that very process, is insufficiently addressed in the quick turn to hybridity. I don’t mean to repeat postcolonial canards opposing authenticity to hybridity, but instead to say that to jump ahead to the hybrid, to the redemptively mixed, to jump, that is, to the necessary failure of the nation’s (or national culture’s) attempt to be unitary and unified is also to ignore the terrible success of the nation’s attempt to achieve such unification. I shift the terms from “unitary” and “unified” to “unification” precisely to bring to the fore the violence in action of attempts at achieving centralized states that attend and follow the emergence of nations.

Not only is “unmixing” hard to naturalize, but indeed what seems most useful about the term is its amorality. It seems difficult to invest it with moral glamour, even the glamour of opprobrium one might find (say) in ethnic cleansing. It seems, moreover, to resist a mystical telos. The objects it takes: “peoples” or, alternately, “populations,” seem to disrupt or merely disobligingly interrupt, a historical teleology simply by requiring, or perhaps appearing to require, the question, “to what end?” The inevitability of the outcome (minority protection, stabilized and strengthened nations, peace) is less obvious when the question is posed as such, and, of course, as Renee Hirschon has suggested, population transfers seem to lead to more bellicosity not guarantee peace.31 Unmixing is, moreover, a linguistic sign of colonial and imperial management (a precursor, perhaps, to managerialism) and bureaucracy, a reminder of managerialism and bureaucratic tampering as engines of profound ongoing violence, and, as Arendt pointed out in Origins of Totalitarianism, of bureaucracy and race as entwined weapons of imperialism.32

Another advantage of the term appears to be its quite dramatically in medias res quality. Like, say, “wrath” as the word that introduces us into the midst of things in the epic, the word requires the reconstruction of the story and its underlying rationale. Unmixing seems constitutively in the middle of things (its present participleness is obliging in that way), and when that task of narrative construction is undertaken with “unmixing,” a certain absurdity rises to the fore: what?, to what end?, why? And, because we are charged with providing narrative, we are suddenly reminded of peasants in the Punjab being told to evacuate their homes within hours or days, an absurdity foregrounded by the left-behind goat in Anatolia, the bullock in East Punjab, more hauntingly, of the unnecessary rupture of friendships and loves, the removal of neighbors, the abandoned home and church in Cunda, Turkey, the beheaded minaret in Molivos, Greece, the corrupted promise of (home) land ostensibly held in reserve for exchange somewhere one is supposed to belong (unless—say—one is Armenian,) and the rebuilding of lives by fiat of centralizing states, including the emergent Turkish one that seems to have merged racialization with the religious political differentiations of the Ottoman millat system, and Great powers elsewhere.

Unmixing doesn’t get to the terrible pain or rupture, to the deep affect I gesture at in the preceding paragraph and therein lies its strength, precisely because it suggests the question, “all that and for what?” resisting the redemptive, mysticizing narrative of historical transformation promised by the nation while asking us simultaneously to think more comparatively and capaciously, more critically and without nostalgia, of empires and their dissolution. Attending to its possibilities might allow us to grapple more effectively with a challenge Gary Wilder recently named in a letter to the London Review of Books: “Given the inability of state sovereignty to ground popular democracy in the world today, it is imperative to invent new forms of self-determination and internationalism that can avoid the pitfalls of parochial nationalism and neoliberal imperialism.”33 Such a challenge can only be addressed by taking on squarely the racialized taxonomies underpinning the modern nation-state without falling prey to revivalisms that share the tendencies to unmix—resistant as modern revivalisms are to extant populations and their histories—as they draw upon post-reformation histories of positing or imagining purified origins and initiating programs of unmixing to achieve the assumed telos of such origins.



Sadia Abbas is an Associate Professor of English at Rutgers University-Newark.


Published on May 24, 2019

1. Michael Marrus, The Unwanted: European Refugees in the Twentieth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 41; cited in Crossing the Aegean: An Appraisal of the 1923 Compulsory Exchange between Greece and Turkey, ed. Renée Hirschon (New York: Berghahn Books, 2003), p. 4. The first chapter, authored by Hirschon, also uses it in the Title: “‘Unmixing Peoples’ in the Aegean Region.”

2. Hirschon, “‘Unmixing of Peoples’ in the Aegean Region,” in Crossing the Aegean, pp. 3–12.

3. Lausanne Conference on Near Eastern Affairs (1922-1923): Records of Proceedings and Draft Terms of Peace. Presented to Parliament by Command of His Majesty (London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1923), p. 114.

4. It is significant that, since this essay was first given as a talk in April 2018, two books have used and discussed the term. See Asli Igsiz, Humanism in Ruins: Entangled Legacies of the Greek-Turkish Population Exchange (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018) and Leonard V. Smith, Sovereignty at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 (London: Oxford University Press, 2018).

5. Hannah Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1968), p. 166.

6. Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism, p. 276.

7. B.R. Ambedkar, Pakistan or the Partition of India (Bombay: Thackers Publishers, 1944), facsimile of third edition, loc. 1816 of 6104.

8. Presidential address in Sindh Muslim League, Karachi, Oct 8, 1938 excerpts; Faisal Devji, Muslim Zion: Pakistan as a Political Idea (London: Hurst & Co., 2013), pp. 36–8.

9. See Sumit Sarkar, The Swadeshi Movement in Bengal 1903­­–1908 (Hyderabad: Permanent Black, 1973) and Partha Chatterjee, “On Religious and Linguistic Nationalisms: The Second Partition of Bengal,” Nation and Religion: Perspectives on Europe and Asia, ed. Peter van der Veer and Hartmut Lehmann (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999).

10. As quoted in Sarkar, The Swadeshi Movement in Bengal 1903-1908, loc 564 of 11729, kindle edition.

11. Chatterjee, “On Religious and Linguistic Nationalisms: The Second Partition of Bengal,” p. 113.

12. Lisa Lowe, The Intimacies of Four Continents (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015).

13. E. G. Sideris and A. A. Konsta, “A Letter from Jean-Pierre Boyer to Greek Revolutionaries,” Journal of Haitian Studies 11: 1 (Spring 2005), pp. 167-171, 168.

14. Bernard Cohn, Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), p. 78.

15. Qurratulain Hyder, Aakhir-i-shab ke humsafar (Lahore: Sang-e-Meel Publicatons, 2005 [1979]). The English translation appears as Fireflies in the Mist (New York: New Directions Books, 2008 [1994]).

16. Aamir Mufti, “Towards a Lyric History of India,” Enlightenment in the Colony: The Jewish Question and the Crisis of Postcolonial Culture (Princeton University Press, 2007), pp. 210–43.

17. Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Nuskha hai-i-wafa (Lahore; Caravan publishers, 2001), p. 241; my translation.

18. “Freedom’s Dawn (August 1947),” Poems by Faiz. Translated by Victor Kiernan (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1971), pp. 123, 125; literal translation.

19. Hyder, River of Fire (New York: New Directions Press, 1998), pp. 103–4.

20. Hyder, River of Fire, p. 197.

21. Romila Thapar, “Imagined Religious Communities? Ancient History and the Modern Search for a Hindu Identity.” Modern Asian Studies 23, no. 2 (1989), p. 223

22. Hyder, River of Fire, p. 8.

23. Hyder, River of Fire, p. 9.

24. Hyder, River of Fire, pp. 10–1.

25. See, for example, Shazia Rafi, “A Case for Gandhara,” Dawn, Feb. 19, 2015.

26. Hyder, Ag ka Darya, p. 13; my translation.

27. See also Sangari on the “abridgement” of this section in translation, which she attributes to the shifting valence of Vedic India in post-Partition “aggrandizing” Hindu discourse. “The Configural Mode,” in Qurrutulain Hyder and the River of Fire: The Meaning, Scope and Significance of her Legacy, ed. Rakhshanda Jalil (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 197–231, 228.

28. Cynthia Talbot, “Inscribing the Other, Inscribing the Self: Hindu-Muslim Identities in Precolonial India,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 37, no. 4, pp. 692–722, 698.

29. Hyder, River of Fire, pp. 167–8.

30. Homi Bhabha, introduction to Nation and Narration, ed. Homi Bhabha (New York, Routledge, 1990), p. 4.

31. Hirschon, Crossing the Aegean, p. 11.

32. See “Race and Bureaucracy,” in Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism, pp. 185–222.

33. Gary Wilder, “Against Independence,” Letter to the Editor, London Review of Books, 39: 17 (November 7, 2017).