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Erling Kagge on silence

Erling Kagge, Photo: Lars Petter Pettersen

The Norwegian explorer Erling Kagge published his new book in 2017, Silence: In the Age of Noise, in which he explores the meaning of silence from psychological, philosophical and everyday perspectives.

The theme of the book can’t be more relevant to our current collective human crisis and suffering in the time of Corona. If one were to write a novel about the silence aspect of our crisis, Silence in the Time of Corona, after the Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez’s much celebrated novel Love in the Time of Cholera, would make for a great title.

I read Kagge’s book a year ago and benefited greatly from it. Sometimes, I wonder books, such as Silence: In the Age of Noise, appear on shelves in the Western book stores because of the busy nature of life here and people’s need for a break.

I certainly can’t speak for Norway, but in America, where I currently live, life is difficult for many. Gross socio-economic inequalities force many to take multiple minimum-wage jobs, helping them barely make ends meet.

And then there is the increasing needs and desires, thanks to capitalism. The Internet and smartphone have further taken people away from themselves. Thus everybody is always busy and seldom pauses to reflect on his or her life. Kagge’s book is a perfect reminder for this always-busy lot.

I wonder there may not be many readers interested in the book in my home country Pakistan where life was much more modest and people more laidback. I left Pakistan seven years ago and have not returned ever since, so sometimes I am under the illusion that things must be the way I left them one sunny afternoon years back.

Then there are times when I feel with the age of the Internet, things have changed rapidly in most of the world in the last decade, especially. Time, if there is such a thing, does not wait for anyone. Human behaviors and attitudes change with material changes and with the change in time.

Technology is one example. It has connected the world in unprecedented ways but it has also separated us in ways we never imagined. I believe with all the change occurring globally, the lives of people in most parts of the world are becoming more and more uniformed.

Perhaps life is not the same in the village where I grew up or in the city where my family lives now. Friends and relatives don’t visit each other as they used to because “everyone is busy,” as my siblings tell me over the phone. Young men and women watch shows on Netflix that was unimaginable years ago when I was there.

I wonder then that may be as our lives are becoming similar and our needs and desires uniformed in many ways, Silence: In the Age of Noise might resonate with everyone around the world. Or maybe, I am mistaken.

Maybe the reality is that we need time with ourselves regardless of our culture, place of living or religious belief. Perhaps, silence is an innate human need felt and experienced by all human beings.

The difference might be that people in collectivistic societies may be more engaged with their family, friends and people in general than in the more individualistic Western world where loneliness and isolation drive people to ponder over life and write such books and for people to feel the need to read.

Or it might simply depend on the nature of the individual regardless of who and where they are. For instance, it is in my nature to feel deeply about the inner world and reflect on it to connect better with the outwards. I am sure all humans feel it, but some like to explore more. I am of the latter category.

Anyways, I thought sharing my reflections on Kagge’s book might be of some interest to you, as most of us are quarantining at the moment. Kagge wrote the book in response to three questions asked by students at St. Andrew’s University in Scotland where he was invited to deliver a lecture: What is silence? Where is it? Why is it more important now than ever? 

The students asked questions about silence because Kagge had chosen to speak to them about the subject. He says, “I wanted the students to be interested in the subject I held so close to my heart.”

Kagge is the first person to have completed the Three Poles Challenge on foot (the North Pole, the South Pole and the Summit of Mount Everest) and has published six books on exploration, philosophy and art.

Who else can speak better on the subject of silence than a man who spent fifty days walking solo across Antarctica?

In the book, the author answers the three questions in thirty-three ways, drawing on the ideas of poets, artists, philosophers and other great men of wisdom such as Plato, Aristotle, Seneca, Heidegger, Pascal, Fosse and others.

The book is an impressive and deep reflection on the silence that surrounds us and that lies within us, the outward and inward. Kagge emphasizes that silence is a luxury, a luxury that only expands as we add more to it. The expansive luxury of silence is the opposite of the luxury of buying a Louis Vuitton purse for example: The purse can go out of fashion and there will always be people buying better purses than yours.

Silence is free and can be found in our room and anywhere we go. Kagge says that we don’t need to go anywhere to find silence. It is around us and within us. We carry it with us all the time and everywhere. He stresses that silence is essential to sanity and happiness, and we must create it if we don’t feel it.

Towards the end of the book, he humbly acknowledges that it is not possible to fully explain silence in words. Pascal, Fosse or Kagge. None can do it.

“The most important thing, however,” he says, “is not what I believe, but that we each discover our own way.” “Sva marga: follow your own path,” he says. Kagge also reminds us that silence is easier to find than most people think or believe. He concludes that “It feels good to wonder on your own. (And) fortunately, there is no magic spell.”

I have selected twenty-two quotes from the book below, which I found very thoughtful and hopefully worthy of your time. I am certainly unable to do justice to the content of the book in this short post, but I have chosen the most important parts for you. I hope you can enjoy it and benefit from it. And if you feel exploring an idea further, I would encourage you to get a copy of the book. 

Silence is more of an idea. A notion. The silence around us may contain a lot, but the most interesting kind of silence is the one that lies within. A silence which each of us must create. I no longer try to create absolute silence around me. The Silence that I am after is the silence within.

Wonder is the very engine of life.

Silence in itself is rich. It is exclusive and luxurious. A key to unlock new ways of thinking. I don’t regard it as a renunciation or something spiritual, but rather as a practical resource for living a richer life.

Silence can be boring. Everyone has experienced the ways in which silence can come across as exclusive, uncomfortable and at times even scary. At other times it is a sign of loneliness. Or sorrow. The silence that follows is heavy.

Shutting out the world is not about turning your back on your surroundings, but rather the opposite: it is seeing the world a bit more clearly, staying a course and trying to love your life.

Kagge quotes the philosopher and boredom theorist Blaise Pascal: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Pascal wrote that “The present hurts. And our response is to look ceaselessly for fresh purposes that draw our attention outwards, away from ourselves.”

Pascal believed that our “constant flight from ourselves is a reality so brutal that we try to avoid thinking about it. We would rather think and feel anything else.”

Yes, we fear death to varying degrees, but the fear of not having lived is even stronger. That fear increases towards the end of life, when you understand that it will soon be too late.

The unfortunate thing is to have wasted such a large portion of the chance you had to live a richer life. That you avoided exploring your potential. Allowed yourself to be distracted. Never stopped, but were distracted by noise, expectations and images, instead of dwelling on what you were doing at this moment and what you might do differently. I don’t mean to say that any of this is easy, but it maybe worthwhile.

We exist, but few of us actually live, argued Seneca two thousand years ago. “Life is very short and anxious for those who forget the past, neglect the present, and fear the future. When they come to the end of it, the poor wretches realize too late that for all this time they have been preoccupied in doing nothing.”

We do have enough time. Life is long, if we listen to ourselves often enough.

If I were President, I would use my inaugural speech to challenge everyone to be thankful every time the sun rises and to show gratitude for all that it does for us.

The idea that boredom can be avoided by constantly pursuing something new, being available around the clock, sending messages and clicking further, watching something you haven’t yet seen, is naive.

Silence is a luxury for every living creature… The silence I have in mind may be found wherever you are if you pay attention; inside your mind, and is without cost. You don’t have to go to Sri Lanka: you can experience it in your bathtub.

“Everyone is the other, no one is themselves,” wrote Martin Heidegger.

Sure, we are part of the same continent, but the potential wealth of being an island for yourself is something you carry around with you all the time.

For thousands of years, individuals who lived in close quarters with no one but themselves around—monks on mountaintops, hermits, sailors, shepherds and explorers on their voyage home—have been convinced that the answer to life’s mysteries can be found in silence. That is the point. You sail out across the sea, but it’s when you make your return that you may discover what you have been seeking is in fact inside yourself.

The ancient philosophers Aristotle and Plato spoke of the knowledge of eternity, and with it truth, as Wordless. Plato called it arrheton, “the unspeakable,” and Aristotle aneu logou, which means “without speech” or “without words.” Where vocabulary ends, the two philosophers claimed, is an opening for the possibility of understanding great truths at once.

In knowing oneself you know others. When I read Sacks, I feel that he, like Nansen, by turning his gaze upwards, also turned it inwards, towards his inner silence and uncovered forgotten sides. Into that universe which to me is just as mysterious as the outer space that surrounds us. One universe stretches outwards, the other inwards. To me, the latter universe is of the greatest interest. For, as the poet Emily Dickinson rightly concluded, “The Brain—is wider than the Sky.”

“What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence” is the last sentence of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

According to Abramovic, the opposite of silence is brain at work. Thinking. If you wish to find peace, you must cease thinking. Do nothing. Silence is a tool helping us to escape the surrounding world. If you manage it, it becomes like “a waterfall in your brain,” she says. The electricity in the air changes when the world is shut out.

I don’t know. But I believe that absolute silence exists more as a dream than in reality.

Pashtuns, Darwish Durrani and my hyper brain

It is 5:50 a.m. I just got back into my chair after laying in bed for about an hour. I could not sleep. I kept thinking about my research, the books I have to read, learning the Turkish language, women, fear of death from Coronavirus, my family, and my career as a professor.

That is a lot for an exhausted brain after a long day and night. But these thoughts come and don’t stop, sometimes. They make me hyperactive. I read almost the entire day but it still did not feel enough. Such is the life of a grad student. While laying in bed, I kept thinking that I should read more.

Before retiring, I read the book by Darwish Durrani on the lifestyle of Pashtuns for about an hour. Durrani talks about myths in Pashtun and other cultures such as Indian and Greek. He says that myths are the creation of the human mind about things that they could not or can not understand.

Myths have been there for as long as humans have existed. But with passing time, Durrani argues, humans have developed logos and there seems to be less tendency to rely on mythos because man now can explain many things that occur in life and the reason(s) behind them.

It is true. I live close to New York City. Every time I go there, it reminds me of Durrani’s idea. New York City is the most magnificent creation of the human mind. Man does not need to rely on some mythical figure such as a god to explain the reason behind this wonderful invention. He knows he did it.

That is true almost about everything we see in the human world: airplanes, bridges or a novel piece of art. Man is the god of their creation. The word Logos comes from Greek philosophy and was referred to in the writing of Aristotle. For Aristotle, logos meant the use of logic or reason.

While writing these lines, I am also thinking it is such joy to read the history of human development toward civilization and the cultural history of the Pashtun society in Pashto. His book lies on the table by my bed and I have made it a ritual to read it every night before I fall asleep.

His knowledge has made me realize that Pashtuns have intellectuals and philosophers. Durrani has a very enlightened view of world history and religion. His perspective is progressive and offers a very balanced critique of Pashtun culture.

While reading him, I have also realized that we need more thinkers and philosophers like Durrani. Pashtuns won’t progress without education, science and philosophy. They need to renegotiate their identity with the modern world.

They can not advance unless they reform the ideology and practice of regressive religion. In this, the role of the cleric has been the most instrumental. The cleric has destroyed Pashtun culture. Pashtuns need to reclaim their lives from the cleric.

It is not going to be easy but the alternative is heading toward further ignorance and darkness. The proof of this kind of ignorance and darkness is the recent news coming out of Pakistan and Afghanistan, where many Pashtuns believe the coronavirus is God’s punishment and only he can and will cure it.

These people say that there is no need to fear this pandemic because life and death are in God’s hands. These same people also preach that God is the most merciful and loving, but he just sent a pandemic to punish the people he loves the most. Does that makes sense? No, it does not.

This is just one example of how flawed the thinking of our people has gone. It is time to realize that there is no space for this kind of medieval ideology in the modern world. This primitive thinking needs to change before it further harms the people now and the future generations.

Soul-searching with Aslam Kakar

I hope you had a chance to read my latest post, 10 questions I ask myself every day. These questions are introspective and have helped me live a meaningful life. I thought what better occasion for self-reflection could there be than self-quarantine in the ongoing crisis.

As we are coping in isolation with these strange circumstances, I believe most of us want to make the best out of this time. One thing I have been doing over the past week is self-reflection which is why I wrote my most recent post.

A good friend, who had read my post, said she answered all the questions and found the exercise very beneficial. After her comment, I thought why not create a medium where you, my readers, can answer these questions and benefit from it.

So, I created a quiz where you will give the answers to these ten questions. I hope you will find this activity worth your time and useful in knowing yourself a little more. Fill out the answers and forward the quiz to your family and friends. Stay safe and healthy!

Click on the text in the box below to take the quiz:

10 questions I ask myself every day

Albert Einstein said, “The important thing is not to stop questioning.” He also said, “A man should look for what is, and not for what he thinks should be.” This has inspired my thinking not only in my research but also in everyday life.

I ask myself some general questions almost every day. Iyanla Vanzant has compiled a list of some of these questions in her book Yesterday, I Cried: Celebrating the Lessons of Living and Loving.

Asking these questions help me discover my fears, their source(s), my failure and its reasons, my success and happiness, my future and what needs to be done to get there.

Here are the ten questions and my brief answers.

1. What is your most valued possession?

My books, my room and my cologne.

2. What is your greatest strength?

Resilience in the face of hardships. Coping with depression. Humility. Kindness.

3. What is your greatest weakness?

Exaggerating and jumping to conclusions that things will be worse. But I am learning how to use my frontal cortex (modern brain) more and calm the hindbrain and medulla (primal brain). If you don’t know, the former is responsible for reasoning while the latter for survival.

4. What is your greatest fear?

I am afraid of death. Aren’t we all sometimes? But more so than death, I fear the loss of life, the loss of opportunities to read and write and have fun.

5. What is your best skill?

I am a thinker. I show that in my oral communication and interaction with people and in my writing. I have also been told by friends and new people I meet.

6. What was your greatest mistake?

I have broken hearts. I should have known better.

7. What is your greatest accomplishment?

Fulbright scholarship and M.A. from the University of San Diego. My Ph.D. admission at Rutgers University.

8. If your life ended today, what is the one thing everyone who knows you would say about you?

He was a good listener.

9. What would you want them to say?

He was a man of good character.

10. Why wouldn’t or couldn’t they say what you would want them to say?

It is difficult to say but my best guess is that they don’t know me well enough then.

What type of questions do you ask yourself? Let me know in the comments.

Covid-19: Some reflections

Image by Ralf Kunze from Pixabay

I have missed being here. The past few months have been busy in my research and, frankly sometimes, in mindless distraction until Covid-19 isolated and confined me to my room and forced me to write this post. I am well so far and hope you are also coping well in these strange circumstances.

During this stay-home period for the past week, I have been out only a couple of times for walks on the town’s streets and one time in a nearby park. All I saw on mostly deserted streets were a few nervous-looking men and women (or maybe a projection of my anxiety onto their faces) with pets going about their usual business of defecating or distracting their owners from the path.

But these walks have nevertheless been refreshing and nice breaks from confinement. The rest of my time has been spent reading, gathering data for my research, binge-watching George Carlin and thinking about the fragility of life. As the Covid-19 pandemic has been unfolding rapidly in the West and globally over the past few weeks, I have had some reflections I wanted to share.

First is the reality of death and the fragility of life. Needless to say, death is not new knowledge, but under normal circumstances, it is uncertain and unpredictable, and in fact most of the time a fantasy. The lethality and scale of the pandemic have turned this uncertainty and fantasy into a bit of certainty and reality for the whole world.

Of course, most people are unlikely to die from it but it is nevertheless worrisome and needs to be taken very seriously. The first lesson for me is that besides staying healthy and safe amid this crisis, we need to cultivate more humility and compassion for others.

Life is very fragile and can be ended by something we can’t see, can’t contain and can’t fight easily despite being in possession of the mightiest militaries, the most superior technologies, advanced medicine and the greatest wealth human history has ever witnessed.

You might argue that if we were better equipped and prepared for this pandemic, we would have defeated it. Probably or probably not. But what is still surprising for most of the world barring scientists who study viruses is that something invisible to the human eye can eliminate their life and so suddenly.

Secondly, this pandemic has shown us that the human race is one family. It is a stark reminder that there are things common to all humans, although they may not share everything. There are global commons such as diseases without a passport that defy boundaries.

Therefore, the second lesson is that mental, national and physical frontiers are human constructions with powerful material consequences, but the objective reality and unity of the planet and this universe surpass these artificial human creations. Global problems such as pandemics and climate change can be addressed when we come together and think as a family of the world with a common joy and grief.

Stay safe and healthy!


Identity and mobility


Identity is a vastly debated topic in our everyday conversations with family and friends. It often comes up in academic and non-academic discussions on politics, gender, class and race. What is identity? What makes it so important and what happens to it when individuals move across borders is the theme of discussion of this essay. The British sociologist Kath Woodward defines identity as something that “is always related to the world we live in” (Woodward, 2017). Identity is what makes one the same. Woodward argues that for this sameness to exist, there needs to be an other or different. Identity is also contextual, as an individual brings aspect(s) of themselves to the fore that a specific context demands. In this sense, identity is as much as what is being expressed as what is left unsaid or kept inside, which Woodward calls personality. She argues that “Identity requires some awareness on our part. Personality describes qualities individuals may have, such as being outgoing or shy, internal characterisitcs, but identity requires some element of choice” (Woodward, 2000, 16). Building on Woodward’s definition, I argue that identity is a sum of one’s ideas, experiences and view of themselves in relation to others. I attempt to defend the assertion that identity is a co-construction of the individual and society in which they live.

Moreover, contrary to conventional wisdom, identity, Woodward claims, does not remain static but it is fluid, as it may change with mobility and changing times and circumstances. However, there are core aspects of one’s identity that do not or may not change. This essay proceeds in four steps. First, it attempts to define identity and mobility, and the personal and relational aspects of identity. Then it expounds the relation between mobility and identity, by reflecting on some of my own experiences as an immigrant in the United States. The role of agency and structure is crucial to the debate on identity. The essay explains the extent and ways in which an individual’s agency and social structure shape their identity. Finally, what is culture, and how it relates to identity? I draw on the ideas and theories of Kath Woodward, Jan Blommaert, Anthony Giddens, Owen Sichone, Robert Thornton and other scholars for presenting my argument.

The notion of identity is not easy to pin down. One may define a particular political or religious identity relatively well and easily, but a general definition of identity is rather difficult because of its vast and varied contours. One way to define identity is that it is the performance of a social script. This script changes with the change in place, with where one finds themselves in the world. Woodward argues that identity is always related to the society individuals live in, and “it is always about what’s inside and what’s outside. It’s always a connection between the I and the ME” (Woodward, 2017). Developed by George Mead, the “I” and “Me” theory explains the interaction between individuals and society. In this theory, “Me” is the socialized self or the object self, in other words, the self we are aware of. “Me,” one can also argue, is the passive self that is molded by interactions with others in the community. By contrast, the “I” is a response to the attitude of the community. Additionally, “I” is a subject and not an object of experience. The “I” phase refers to the part of the self which can be identified with impulse, freedom, and creativity; everything which is unique, idiosyncratic, and uncertain” (Link, 2009). This distinction between the “Me” and “I” can also be looked at as the relational and personal aspects of identity.

Identity, Woodward contends, changes with mobility. Mobility is the movement of individuals within and across borders. This movement is not new, as people have for ages migrated from one place to another in search of safety and a better life. In recent years, political conflicts and environmental changes such as floods and droughts have further expedited migration. For instance, the unending wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have displaced millions as refugees and asylum seekers to the West, where they have been experiencing the rise in right-wing populist and xenophobic politics. The example of this type of xenophobia was President Trump’s “Muslim Ban,” which barred the citizens of seven Muslim countries from entering the United States. The ban was inspired among other factors by xenophobia, “an irrational and debilitating anxiety induced by fear of strangers, foreign things and places” (Sichone, 2008, 255). This fear of strangers and foreign things and people is in a way linked to identity.

Besides the experience of xenophobia, with mobility, the individual comes to occupy a new social situation, which includes other groups with different ideologies, skills, laws, norms and ways of life that shapes his or her identity or perception of themselves in a myriad of ways. Here they have to perform a different social script because they come to grips with the fact that some aspects of their identity no longer carry any or the same value that they did in their place of origin. That is because the meanings of one’s particular cultural resources, such as language, for instance, shift as one moves across borders (Blommaert, 2005, 2). Blommaert examines a letter in English sent to him by a 16-year old Tanzanian girl, Victoria, in which she makes grammatical and linguistic errors. He says that to an average Tanzanian, Victoria’s proficiency in English carries the meanings of intelligence and eliteness, but to an English speaking European it does not indicate such values and is even perceived as inadequate. In the new place, the individual formation of identity also comes to depend on the choices and opportunities he or she can avail of. Access to quality education, public services, employment opportunities, religious and social clubs and other resources has the potential, for instance, to change an individual’s identity in the economic and social sense, as it enables them to move up the social ladder. Passport is an example, as the people of some nations, for instance, American citizens, can roam the world for work, education and fun without a visa, but others, for instance, the people of my home country Pakistan, are restricted. My family applied for a visa to the U.S. two or three times to come to see me, but their application was rejected each time.

This brings me to shed light on some of my personal experiences in the identity-mobility context as an immigrant in the United States. Born and raised in a humble and conservative religious family in rural Pakistan, coming to the United States was a dramatic change in my life in many ways. On arrival, my cultural resource pack, such as brown skin color, foreign accent and the less obvious cultural ethos such as respect for elders and patriarchal and homophobic views were juxtaposed with the views and experiences of American classmates. Collectively, my resource pack, at the beginning particularly (and in some ways to this day), created psychological and psychosocial barriers for me with Americans. For instance, I am usually fine with everyday one-on-one individual conversation but I feel lost in group discussions. This is because a lot of times I am unable to follow them and do not get the jokes and references made to American pop culture, society and sometimes history unfamiliar to me. Sometimes I feel exactly what the Dutch Journalist Frederike Geerdink wrote about her experience in Turkey, “I feel reduced to a quiet, insecure woman (man in my case) who sits there with nothing to say; one thing I am definitely not” (Geerdink, 2015, 78-79). At the beginning of my stay, everything seemed strange: the names of people, streets, food, dogs, cats, and the smell of beer. I was surprised that young Americans had no issue in disagreeing with or questioning their elders. Students had no problem in being blunt with their professors in the classroom. Besides this, my classmates were surprised, although they were very polite, about my views toward homosexuals. In 2011, a friend from Spain at the University of Nebraska asked me what would I do if my son turned out to be gay. I do not believe what I said to her: “I will shoot him.” She said that I could not say such things, which I learned over the years that she was right. From years of socialization and reading, I have realized that in the new place one needs to renegotiate their resource backpack with their newly emerging identity. For instance, regarding my homophobic views, I have realized that as Yuval Hariri in his book 21 Lessons for 21st Century says, my sense of justice may have been out of date (Hariri, 2018), and that it needs to change.

It is not hard to know the reason behind these differences and boundaries, as we come from different social situations with different expectations of normalcy and appropriateness of behaviour. Furthermore, we all classify and categorize based on certain characteristics, from more obvious traits such as color and language to the less obvious like political and religious views, no matter where in the world we are. The categories themselves are not problematic but it is the meanings ascribed to these categories because in that one pursues a hierarchy of values. And sometimes these values provide some groups with the justifications for violence against others, for instance in the case of Nazi Germany against Jews. However these boundaries, according to some, are imagined (Thornton, 1987, 6). One can counter-argue that these boundaries may be imagined but their consequences are real. And even if one supposes that these boundaries are imagined and therefore can be changed by unlearning them, the question remains: Who does the policing of imagined boundaries or how are they come into being? Some say it is a co-construction of both insiders and outsiders of social groups. Boundaries become real when a group of people agrees that they are different from others, who also, in turn, see themselves differently to them. This agreement about certain essential characteristics of insiders alienates the outsiders, who have a commonly perceived attribute of their own that estranges those they consider as outsiders.

Therefore, this co-construction of the ‘other’ perpetuates exclusion and generates the ostensibly “real” boundaries. But, if it is true as Thornton claims that these boundaries are imagined, then they can be unlearned and reconstructed in ways that serve the common interest of all. This unlearning is, however, not easy given the vast socioeconomic inequalities among groups. In many ways, these inequalities create both mental and physical frontiers between groups. Unlearning mental barriers would mean ending socioeconomic injustice and ensuring equality for all regardless of who and where they are in the world. These boundaries and conceptions of sameness and difference are also in a way the implication of how we understand the term “culture.” Thornton argues that there is one culture, not “cultures,” and that culture, just like air and water, can be used as a resource (Thornton, 1987, 5-7). Examples of cultural resources are language, food, religion and much more that all individuals should have equal access to, but whether they do in reality is debatable. In most societies across the world, there are deep social and economic fissures because people do not have equal access to resources.

Another crucial point is the role of agency and structure in the formation of identity. In sociology, there are three theories about the structure and agency debate. First, the objectivists argue that the behavior of individuals is largely formed by their socialization in particular powerful and stable structures such as religious, educational and political institutions. These social structures operate at the macro-level (such as through distinct social classes), meso-level (such as religious or familial structures) and micro-level (such as communal and professional norms and rules) (Gibbs). The social structures at these varying levels, the objectivists argue, constrain agency. Second, the proponents of the agency theory or the subjectivists contend that individuals have the free will to make their own choices and shape social structures. The third view is that neither the objectivist (aka structuralist) nor the subjectivist theory explains the social truth wholly. One of the proponents of this theory is the British sociologist Anthony Giddens, who gave the idea of “structuration.” Giddens “argues that just as an individual’s autonomy is influenced by structure, structures are maintained and adapted through the exercise of agency. The interface at which an actor meets a structure is termed “structuration” (Gibbs). This reminds me of the election of Sadiq Khan, the son of British Pakistani bus driver, as the mayor of London. If it were left to the role of social structure, Mr. Khan might never have been the mayor of the capital of a former empire that had once subjugated the land of his ancestors. Besides Giddens, other scholars have also contributed to the structure and agency debate. Mead argues that individuals have autonomy in imagining themselves but the have to use existing language and symbols for imagination; Goffman argues that individual can interpret the parts they play but “the parts or scripts have already been written for the role we play,” and  Freud said that individuals can shape their own identities by understanding their childhood experience and that identities are never fixed, but he also believed that “social forces can operate through the unconscious, which shapes our identities” (Woodward, 2000, 18).

In conclusion, when individuals move across borders, their agency is constrained by the existence of new social structures at varying levels. For example, when refugees or asylum seekers migrate to a new country where they can not communicate or write in their language, their agency is severely restricted. Even if they learn the language, they will still not be on a level playing field with the born citizens of that country in terms of educational and job success. Moreover, in the new social situation, derogatory perceptions of the locals further dog their advancement, such as the popular claim, “immigrants take away all our jobs,” in the West goes. There is also a widespread and overblown misperception about the success of immigrants because of their inherent hardworking nature. In South Africa, for instance, refugees from other African countries work hard because their circumstances demand of them to pay rent and telephone bills so that they can keep in touch with family and friends there and abroad, not because they are better workers (Sichone, 2005). By implication, most of these poor migrant workers are exploited by the locals by paying them cash under the table and threatening them to expose their identity if they demand their rights

The same applies to migrants in the West, where most of them work for minimum wages and under extremely dire circumstances. Many take two or even three jobs to barely make ends meet. However, mobility may also empower the agency and provide opportunities to many such as women and progressive people who come to enjoy greater freedom and safety in most countries in the West. Further, as an outsider in a new place one also becomes more conscious of wearing a certain type of clothes, communicating in a certain way and paying attention to the more subtle details such as how to approach a woman and etcetera. There is of course room for exercising one’s agency in most of these things, but there are also some agreed-upon social norms for behaving in a certain way. In short, identity changes when individuals move across borders. People also change with time and age from someone with a set of ideas about the world to someone with different views. It is also true that many hold on to some core aspects of their identity such as faith and language, but even these change in unexpected ways with time. Woodward says, “Identity is… beset by troubles because we can’t always secure our identity and things change. So, it’s always about some resolution between the ‘I’ and the ‘ME’ as Mead says” (Woodward, 2017).

Reference list

  1. Blommaert, J. 2005. Language and Equality. In Discourse. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  2. Geerdink, F. 2015. The Boys are Dead: The Roboski Massacre and the Kurdish Question in Turkey. London: Gomidas Institute.
  3. Gibbs, B. J. Structuration Theory. In Encyclopedia Britannica.
  4. Hariri, Y. 2018. 21 Lessons for 21st Century. New York: Spiegel and Grau.
  5. Sichone, O. 2005. Xenophobia and xenophilia – local lessons in globalization. Available:
  6. Sichone, O. Xenophobia. In New South African Keywords. N. Shepherd & S. Robins, Eds. Johannesberg: Jacana Press. 255-263. Sharon, L. 2009. George Mead’s “I” & “Me.” In Great Neck Publishing.
  7. Thornton, R. 1987. Culture: A contemporary definition. In Academia. Available:
  8. Woodward, K. 2017. Woodward on identity: I, me and the world, (Video 1). In Writing your World. Available:
  9. Woodward, K. 2017. Woodward on identity: Roots and routes, (Video 2). In Writing your World. Available:
  10. Woodward, K. 2000. Questioning Identity: Gender, class, nation. London: Routledge.  

Reflections on first two years of my Ph.D. studies


Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

Last week, I got the great news of passing my comprehensive exam for the Ph.D., which is required after completing coursework and before defense proposal and the dissertation writing phase. That is the case at least in the U.S. universities. It was a moment of great joy and pride.

I do not usually show pride in my accomplishments, perhaps because of my upbringing in a culture that celebrates humility over personal pride. But, as George Carlin said, “Pride should be reserved for something you achieve or obtain on your own, not something that happens by accident.” I am certain nothing in my case was by accident.

As a full-time Ph.D. student, the firs two years were testing because of the course-load, lack of funding, working multiple jobs and a general certainty of uncertainty in my life due to my immigration status. There were moments of existential crisis.

There were times when I did not have money to pay my rent; skipped the meal of the day or thought ten times before buying a cup of coffee. These moments were not only hurtful but scary as well. There is no wonder why many Ph.D. students go through severe mental health issues and some, sadly, even take their own lives.

Many graduate students in similar situations can surely relate to my experiences. This then must serve as a grim reminder for leaders and policy makers in the United States and in countries where the costs of living and basic needs such as education, health and affordable housing are rising, and where the gap between the rich and the poor widening and income inequalities raging more than ever before.

Anyway, despite these challenges, I recognized early on that I had to keep a positive attitude to survive the journey. I promised myself that I will get Ph.D. no matter what— of course not just for the sake of it but that is what I really wanted to do. I saw the purpose of my life in research and teaching.

My friends tell me I am good at keeping an optimistic attitude, which may be true but frankly it was not easy and it will not be. I have had my fair share of fear and panic in these two years. Just the thought of going through four to half a dozen years years, even under ideal circumstances, for getting Ph.D. is scary, let alone bearing economic hardships and associated worries along the way.

I believe my gratitude came from my past and my childhood experiences. I grew up in a small village on Pakistan’s periphery; a place where children were left to find ways to occupy themselves. We didn’t have TV, internet or video games. Some of my friends were shocked when I told them I had no idea of Tom and Jerry. We played outside, got creative, got dirty, explored our surroundings and worked really hard for everything we had.

As a teenager, I had a list of chores, such as herding, fetching water or wood forging, I needed to get done. There was no choice in performing these duties in my mother’s rulebook for the family. She was the family head after the sad demise of my father in a truck accident when I was two.

These times created ambitious, adventurous, creative and resilient children. I attended my elementary education in a makeshift school in the village and graduated from high school from there as well. I had a work ethic and an aspiration to think big and to succeed. It wasn’t my goal to leave behind the world that created me, but to reap the benefits it provided to me.

Coming to America for higher education was not even in my wildest imagination. At home, no one expected me to go to a large university and succeed, because none in the family had been to one before due to their own inauspicious life beginnings. I did it. I graduated with a master’s degree in Peace and Justice Studies from the University of San Diego in 2015 on Fulbright scholarship.

Where I came from and how I was raised translates to the person I am today. During these two years, I knew that there was no going back for me even though some moments seemed insurmountable. But I had to move on. As Rumi said, “As you start to walk on the way, the way appears.” The way did appear.

I found part-time jobs at the university –Rutgers University– where I go for my Ph.D. in Global affairs. I have taught as a Teaching Assistant and a Part-time Lecturer in the Political Science and English Departments for the last three years. Teaching has been incredibly rewarding

I have always had a drive and expectation from myself to grow intellectually and contribute to knowledge production. These past two years in the Ph.D. program have helped me getting nearer to the realization of this goal. Completing my courses in the program and spending time with excellent professors have broadened my vision and have provided me with new knowledge and tools to contribute to scholarship.

It has made me realize the need for more reading in topics as diverse as philosophy, psychology, sociology, anthropology, political science and more because most aspects of the social and political worlds overlap. I believe a narrow focus on a single subject does not provide one with the necessary insights for understanding an issue.

What I have also realized over the past two years is that humility in scholarship is much more important than I understood before. I have learned to distance myself from making assumptions and unsubstantiated assertions about the world. The world and the phenomenon that are the focus of our study and research are much more complicated than meet the eye.

I have learned that accepting the fact that you do not know a certain thing than making up unfounded claims is the greatest virtue. I have learned, as Yuval Hariri in his book 21 Lessons for 21st Century says, “You know less than you think.” In the years left, I plan to read more, learn a little more, get a little more curious and try to become an excellent researcher.


Voice of America profiles my work: Here is the English translation of the interview in Pashto

I write on (human rights and social justice) issues in Pakistan, especially in Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas or FATA. I also write about terrorist violence in these regions. For example, in one terrorist attack in Balochistan’s capital Quetta, 75 people, among whom 55 were lawyers, were killed (in August 2016). The slain lawyers, who had faced hardships of poverty, lack of access to education and other challenges, but had at last succeeded in their careers, were the asset of the province. When I see these issues, I want to write about them.

DSC_2873 (1)

At the Fulbright Pre-Departure Orientation at Serena Hotel, Islamabad, Pakistan (2013).

The problem is that the youth in these regions don’t have access to education. They lack the knowledge and skills to write. Those who can write face problems from the powerful State institutions. Because of this pressure, some choose to remain silent and put down their pens. When I look at the situation and the problems, such as fear, intimidation and threats of violence, that Pashtun intellectuals, poets and writers face, I feel a responsibility to give voice to their grievances through my writing. I live in a country which has provided me the knowledge, tools and freedom to precisely do such work.

I have passion for my work and spend most of my time researching and writing. My goal is to highlight these issues and let the world know that what is happening to the oppressed groups in Pakistan is unethical and condemnable. My colleagues and students at Rutgers University (where I go for my Ph.D. and teach as well) ask me questions about Pakistan. Being a Pakistani, I try to answer their questions, but unfortunately, in my country, there are many problems caused by the State’s (disastrous) policies. Sometimes, I can’t convince them that there is no problem in Pakistan, especially on questions related to democracy, human rights, the rights of minorities and press freedom.


Presenting on Pakistan’s Counter-Terrorism Framing and Its Implications on Pashtuns at the South Asian Media and Cultural Studies Conference at the Florida State University (Jan/Feb, 2019)

Writing is my passion but I think it is necessary too. There is ban on the media and freedom of expression. Journalists and civil society activists have been receiving threats. They are detained and kidnapped. Through my writings, I want to show the world how some institutions in Pakistan are treating its intelligentsia. I want to be the voice for those who can’t be for themselves because of these constraints. I focus on human rights abuses such as disappearances, extra-judicial killings and the rise of social movements and the reaction of the State to these movements. I also write about issues related to religious freedom and the problem of minorities.


At the Pashtun Tahafuz (Protection) Movement’s protest in front of the United Nations in New York against the Pakistani military’s war crimes against Pashtuns (2018).

I also maintain this blog, where in my free time, I write about topics as diverse as philosophy, psychology, power and many other themes. Many people appreciate my work and some do not like it because of my criticisms of the State’s abusive and discriminatory policies and practices against minorities. But I will continue to stand with the oppressed and keep writing on issues close to my heart, regardless of where I am. I hope that my work inspires the youth of my region and effects a change for the better.


P.S. I take responsibility and apologize if there are any gaps in translation from Pashto into English. I have tried to be accurate.

Pashtun lawmakers and PTM leaders released after months in prison for a crime they had not committed



On the left side of the above image we see Ali Wazir, and Mohsin Dawar on the right.

Ali Wazir and Mohsin Dawar, the elected representatives of ethnic Pashtuns from Pakistan’s tribal areas and two of the central leaders of the rights-based Pashtun Tahafuz Movement or PTM, were released after four months from Haripur Prison on bail yesterday. The charges of terrorism against the two lawmakers were unsubstantiated and could not be proven in the court.  

During the four months in prison, the lawmakers were treated like terrorists. In a tweet, Mr. Dawar said, “From May to Sep we were kept first at Peshawar jail & then at Haripur. During this transition the State decided to further increase its pressure as in Haripur we were kept in cells marked for terrorists. There was no mobility in jail, we had no access to news & other facilities.”

Mr. Dawar also said, “The most hurtful in all of this was the allegation of violence against us preachers of non-violence. But all of this will not deter us from our goal, which is to win peace & equal rights for our ppl & it will also not deter us from our path, which is the path of non-violence.”

In late May 2019, the State’s security forces arrested Ali Wazir, along with eight other PTM supporters for “assaulting” soldiers at a security checkpoint. Mohsin Dawar surrendered himself to the authorities after he was hounded in the area. Mr. Dawar, in a video message, said that he will surrender because he did not want to put the lives of those who protected him, in danger. 

The truth according to PTM leaders was that on May 26, 2019, during an attempt to provoke PTM on violence in the Kharqamar area of North Waziristan, the soldiers opened fire on unarmed PTM protestors, leaving 13 dead and many injured. The incident came to be known as the Kharqamar Massacre.

Ali and Mohsin are the two outspoken critics of Pakistani military establishment’s deadly policies in the Pashtun populated tribal areas, which have destroyed the region’s peace. In an essay, Why Pashtuns in Pakistan are Rising Upin April this year in The Washington Post, Mr. Dawar wrote:

“The residents of North Waziristan, whom I have represented in Parliament since July 2018, are perhaps the worst victims of the games that our military plays. But the more than 200 million Pakistani citizens stand helplessly by as our democracy, Parliament, judiciary and media outlets are manipulated by a powerful security establishment.”

He further said that the security establishment’s “policy of supporting militants and conducting proxy wars over the past four decades has resulted in death, destruction and economic disaster for Pakistan.”

Ali Wazir in an article, What Does the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement Want?, in The Diplomat wrote, “Amid the volcano of violence, thousands of civilians have disappeared, and thousands have fallen victim to extrajudicial killings. We are profiled as suspected terrorists across the country, face humiliation at security check posts, and our innocent civilians face violence during security sweeps and operations. As the world’s largest tribal society, the Pashtuns are known for their hospitality, commitment, and valor, yet we were falsely reduced to terrorist sympathizers despite the fact that we are their worst victims.”

In the same article, Ali wrote, “I am aware that since the beginning of the PTM’s campaign, our criticism is blunt and direct. We name names and are not shy to address powers that the rest of society, the media, and politicians are too scared to identify, let alone criticize.”

Afraid of the two leaders’ ability to speak truth to power and their capacity to mobilize their people, the State concocted a conspiracy to put them behind bars, to slow down the movement’s activity and eventually quell it. Pakistan’s powerful security establishment, including its notorious secret service, has used fear, intimidation, kidnapping and arbitrary arrests to discourage Pashtun rights activists from supporting PTM. 

Although the State’s oppression has made it difficult for PTM to mobilize and speak freely, it has certainly not altered the spirit of its leadership. After release, both Ali and Mohsin have said that their struggle for the equal rights of Pashtuns will continue undeterred.

In a tweet, the lawmaker Mr. Dawar said, “Salam, we are back with same zeal and enthusiasm, the tragedy of #KharQamarMassacre will be known in history as an example of a State’s brutal response to peaceful protest. In its aftermath, this State piled up even more violations of human rights & decency in its treatment of Ali & myself.”

He also said, “We are willing to lay our lives for our people, jails are a very small price…”



On the absurdity of being


Image by Elias Sch. from Pixabay

One moment, there is excitement. One feels elated and on top of the world. Full of passion, energy and hope. But then a single text message or a call about the death or tragedy of close someone changes everything. It blows up one’s hope and elation and creates fear and despair in the mind, at least for a while.

In such moments, one wonders why is life so absurd and fickle. Why can’t one refuse to suffer? Why is it that one can’t be in grief on their terms? Where is free will or one’s agency to erect a wall of safety against things that hurt us emotionally? One can understand that there are biological, physiological or psychological reasons for emotional dread but these explanations don’t justify its very existence.

The questions that haunt the mind the most in moments of extreme distress is why is suffering necessary. Why is it an essential condition for one’s inner peace and happiness, as most claim it to be? They give the examples of the opposites of day and night, hot and cold and so on, to show that just as these pairs of opposites are necessary for each other’s existence, so are happiness or peace and suffering.

I am not a scientist and hence ignorant about the natural makeup and processes of the phenomena of day and night and other pairs of opposites as to why one can not exist without the other. But that still does not prevent one from questioning the teleological logic of suffering. In other words, what purpose does it serve?

Sages across the millennia have pondered on this existential dread and have offered thoughts, but pain or suffering’s teleology remains a mystery. However, a deeper reflection on suffering has brought to the surface ideas that relieve many from its imperiousness. Epicurus (341-270 BC), the Greek philosopher, said, “Pain is neither unbearable nor unending, as long as you keep in mind its limits and don’t magnify them in your imagination.”

Marcus Aurelius (121-80), the Roman emperor and philosopher, said, “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”

No one is an exception to the experience of pain and grief. For the psychologically normal being, it may be less severe than for the one who is oversensitive/over-empathetic about their own and the pains of others. The nature of being is essentially such that each one of us, like Sisyphus in Greek mythology, have a boulder of grief and pain to roll up a hill. Some have to, sadly, do it more frequently than others. This inherent lack of justice and inequality is itself absurd.

However, lucky is the one who has a lighter boulder. But, given the absurdity of being, lucky is also the one who gets a heavier boulder to roll up, for if they succeed in doing so, rolling the lighter ones becomes a routine. In the end, life, in moments of distress, is really about how well one trains their mind to deal with suffering, as it is intrinsic to the unreasonable nature of being.

There is no escape from experiencing grief and pain, no matter how much one wishes. Philosophers and psychologists advise one possible escape is in accepting it and becoming one with it. In other words, letting the grief and pain be. Fighting it, they guide, only makes it worse. Pain comes and goes on its time, and while it does all one can do in such a moment is hope and trust that they will be ok.

Unlike suffering, hope is reasonable, because it is the hope of a better tomorrow that we survive a difficult today. As the French philosopher Gabriel Marcel in Homo Viator said, “I am inclined to believe that hope is for the soul what breathing is for the living organism.”


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