In Suhbet with Queer Companions: An Affectionate Book Review


From the book author’s pretend-reader series: Max Schnepf pretends reading Queer Companions (photo credits: Omar Kasmani, 2022)

by Max Schnepf _

 

Kasmani, Omar. 2022. Queer Companions: Religion, Public Intimacy, and Saintly Affect in Pakistan. Durham: Duke University Press.

The meaning of suhbet, we learn from Omar Kasmani’s recent ethnography, encompasses notions such as companionship, conversation, cohabitation, spiritual meeting and sex (p. 152). In the introduction to Queer Companions: Religion, Public Intimacy, and Saintly Affect in Pakistan, he presents the reader with this Urdu word to capture fakirs’ intimate bonds with Lal, a 13th century mystic. Lal’s shrine in the Pakistani pilgrimage town of Sehwan is the location from where Omar Kasmani paints a world full of fakirs’ spiritual longing and the queer(ing) effects that such longings entail. Queer Companions presents the reader with perceptive observations that illustrate how desire not only works, but worlds. How striving for saintly companionship puts certain futures within your reach, while this orientation alienates you from other normative ways of life.

Suhbet shall also serve as the motif of this review. Not unlike the fakirs’ way of orienting themselves towards an object, reading can constitute an intimate act with transformative potential. Reading Queer Companions unlocks worlds formerly unknown and changes one’s way of looking at things. In this spirit of reading as doing suhbet, this review calls itself affectionate. It does not lay claim to a distanced mode of evaluating a scholarly book but treats the intimacy of reading as a way of “knowing by feeling” (Kasmani 2019, 35). This review comes from a place of closeness, written by a “queer partner in anthropological crime”, a title bestowed on me in the book’s acknowledgements. It feeds on a Twitter thread as well as on voice messages, recorded after reading parts of Queer Companions and sent to Omar with my questions and observations.

Queer Companions tells the life stories of Baba, Amma, Zaheda, Murad and his former disciple Dost, as well as the rivals Jamal and Bibi – the fakir figures who guide the reader through the material and affective geography of Sehwan. In their company, we learn how forming intimate attachments with saints profoundly transforms worlds, as fakirs leave behind roles and positions ascribed to them by society. “Being in the fakir line” is an expression taken from female fakir Zaheda, who departed from a middle-class home with a husband and eight children. It conveys the idea that orienting oneself toward Sehwan and dedicating your life to a saint yields “unstraight affordances” – it makes other normative lives and futures unattainable. This notion of crossing and following lines with their worlding effects is a central concern of Queer Companions. How close can and should one come to Lal? When does one transgress this “critical interstice between being near a thing and being nearly that thing” (p. 22)? Beyond being an “inward genre,” this intimacy with saints has “outward skins,” as stated in the book’s very first sentence (p. 1). Fakir intimacies are public intimacies, as they draw in a plethora of actors and scales that go beyond the personal, the human, the here and now. Through his long-term ethnographic fieldwork Omar puts fakir lives in conversation with the state, society, history and the sacred. His poetic writing intimately links “the instability of individual lives to the trajectories of the collective” (Berlant 1998, 283). Thereby, each chapter uncovers another layer of the fakir line – the promises and “unstraight affordances” it entails.

Chapter 1 introduces Baba, an intersex fakir. Through Baba’s journey to Sehwan, we learn about the entanglement of fakir lives, religious sites and the Pakistani state. Omar places Baba’s calling within a period of the Pakistani state seizing more control over religious affairs, thus framing the fakir’s dreams as a site of saintly governance. Amma’s story in chapter 2 speaks to the obstacles female fakirs face in coming close to the saint. Her husband, local elites, and Amma herself negotiate her place as a woman and mother within the patrilineal architecture of the state-run shrine. In chapter 3, Zaheda’s tragic fate of losing the fakir line and enduring the ordinariness of crisis illustrates the fragility of spiritual authority. This authority is composed of a delicate interplay between corporeal demeanour, feeling close to the saint, and public approval of this bond. The scandal about fakir Murad leaving the shrine in pursuit of romantic love is the cornerstone of chapter 4. In conversation with Murad’s former companions, the chapter discusses the ideal of fakirs’ celibacy and the relationship of sexuality and sacrality. Murad’s story indicates that the pursuit of worldly objects might engender a going astray from the fakir line. The last ethnographic chapter is set at the graveyard and revolves around Jamal and Bibi’s controversy over this “site of heterotemporal feeling” (p. 134). It shows that “worlding with saints” is a mutual activity: Just as fakirs make sense of their place in the world by drawing on more-than-human histories, saints “find their bearings in the world” (p. 149) through fakir rituals.

Queer Companions encapsulates a tension around different takes on “queer” in the field of Queer Anthropology – “between a queer unmoored from gender/sexuality and one centering same-sex desire (and gender transgression)” (Weiss 2022, 15). It engages with marginalized figures – an intersex fakir expelled from their grove, two female fakirs defending their place at the shrine, a male fakir who abandons his path for love, and two fakirs fighting over spiritual authority at the outskirts of Sehwan. But the engagement with the marginalized is not (only) what makes this ethnography queer. Instead, Omar challenges the reader to “think more capaciously, a history of queerness per se, that makes space for, and is made up of, differently alternate ways of being in the world” (p. 154). This expresses a take on queer that does not hinge on non-normative genders or sexualities and their (often marginal) positions in society. Moreover, it is not Omar’s intention to simply uncover “queer stories in an unlikely place”. Instead, he approaches queer in affective terms – as a way of tarrying, as intimacy’s “unstraight affordance”. By gesturing beyond Queer Anthropology’s “proper object,” Omar joins other projects that allow us “to think an elsewhere/otherwise unfixed from US-centered categories” (Weiss 2022, 5). The protagonists of Queer Companions follow a line, but they also lose track of their path or grind to a halt in their pursuit. These are the stories that Omar tells in his book: of coming close and yet never arriving, of abandoning one life and finding another future, of getting lost on the way and returning eventually. Emerging from a place of desire and longing, these affective dis/positions insert the “queer” in Queer Companions.

The coda to the book addresses this non-identitarian approach to queer. It does so by bringing queerness and religion into a scholarly conversation. A forward slash in the title encapsulates this suhbet between queer and religion (“queer/religion”). This forward slash gestures at a relation that is neither a fusion (as in “queer-religion”), nor a peaceful coexistence (as in “queer|religion”). The forward slash presents queer and religion as “uneasy bedfellows” (p. 155). It performs a relation of besideness in which the often-disinclined objects reach out to one another. Importantly, the textual gesture of the forward slash joins queer and religion on/as equal terms, without minoritizing one for the sake of the other. Consequently, rediscovering queerness in Islamic traditions, a “queer-jacketing of religion” (p. 153), is not of primary interest to Omar. Instead, he offers to “read queer religiously” (p. 153) – to dedicate and attune oneself to queer affects in and of the everyday. In the light of this suggestion, fakir Murad’s advice to the eager ethnographer who asked too many questions might appear in a different, religiously queer, light: “Make it a habit to sit by the sea and it shall itself reveal the secrets unto you.” (p. 29). Queer Companions shows that Sehwan –an exemplary of Queer and Affect Studies’ intellectual and geographic elsewhere – doesn’t need recuperative readings to be queer(ed). On the fertile grounds of fakir intimacies, queer already blooms in all its affective shapes and colours.

References

Berlant, Lauren. 1998. Intimacy: A Special Issue. Critical Inquiry 24(2), 281-88. https://www.jstor.org/stable/1344169.

Kasmani, Omar. 2019. Thin Attachments: Writing Berlin in Scenes of Daily Loves. Capacious: Journal for Emerging Affect Inquiry 1(4), 34-53. https://doi.org/10.22387/CAP2019.25 .

Weiss, Margot. 2022. Queer Theory from Elsewhere and the Im/Proper Objects of Queer Anthropology. Feminist Anthropology (online first). https://doi.org/10.1002/fea2.12084 .

About the author

Max Schnepf (he/him) is a PhD candidate and Research Associate at the Institute for Social and Cultural Anthropology (Freie Universität Berlin), interested in the entanglements of biomedical technologies and configurations of gender and sexualities. As part of the research project “PrEPped Intimacies in Berlin”, he ethnographically investigates the pharmaceutical HIV-prophylaxis PrEP and its transformative effects on bodies, subjectivities and intimacies within Berlin’s gay/queer community. Since 2019, Max is co-speaker of the Working Group “Gender & Sexualities | Queer Anthropology” within the German Anthropological Association. Twitter: @MXschnepf


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