BOOK REVIEW Healing invisible wounds Noor by Sorayya Khan

BOOK REVIEW Healing invisible wounds Noor by Sorayya Khan

Reviewed by Tahir Rauf

“The people who say – those who go away will return – tell lies.”
Waris Shah (Sufi Poet)

Noor is a beautifully crafted political novel by Pakistani-Dutch writer Sorayya Khan. Khan paints the pictures of the horrors of 1971 civil war between East and West Pakistan, in which about three million people died. As a result of that war, Bangladesh was created, with the Indian army acting as a scalpel. In Bangladesh, almost everyone has a relative or friend who was consumed by the war. Thousands of Pakistani Bengalis were victims of the atrocities of the West Pakistani army, which included rape and horrific killings.

The reasons for the Bengali conflicts with West Pakistan were convoluted. Initially, West Pakistan treated East Pakistan as a colony and never granted it its deserved status as the second half of the Pakistan body. In addition, cultural tensions, language rights and economic and political disparities widened the mistrust. Eventually, momentum took hold of Sheikh Mujib’s political Bengali separatist movement, which provoked the Pakistani army to retaliate.

War is always ugly. Khan’s novel addresses a peculiar dimension of the war, depicting the moral strain that has invaded the minds of returning soldiers. Their family members, wives and children did not see what their loved ones saw or what they did during the war. There is an inner sorrow that implicates everyone. Khan feels that these sounds of silence are a “threat to the family” and West Pakistani soldiers should be reconciled with society as war victims. Khan wants to break that eccentric silence in a positive way, as a part of the personal healing process.

Khan broke society’s silence by interviewing many victims in the capital Dhaka, formerly spelled Dacca, as well as perpetrators of atrocities in the Pakistan army, in Islamabad. Noor is a piece of art; its purpose is to express thoughts, feelings and emotions. Good dialogue advances the story and fleshes out its characters while providing substance to its descriptions.

Khan skillfully brings back the past through a child character, Noor, who emerges as central to the story. War veteran Ali returns home to his mother (Nanijaan) with an orphan, Sajida, who becomes his adopted daughter. Sajida marries Hussein and untraditionally lives in his father’s house. Sajida and Hussein have three children. Their daughter Noor, who was born with developmental disabilities, possesses a mysterious artistic ability.

Noor’s drawings of her grandfather in military uniform bring back fragmented memories and bridge emotional distances. They enable her mother Sajida and grandfather Ali to confront the past hidden in their memories of East Pakistan, acknowledging that a person who returns from war is different from the person who left for it.

Within weeks of the fall of Dacca in December 1971, president Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (ZAB) formed a commission headed by the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Hamoodur Rehman, to ascertain the facts of the 1971 debacle. The report was never made public; all copies were destroyed except for ZAB’s copy, which remained a classified document of the Pakistan government.

The inquiry was re-opened in 1974 and the commission submitted its supplement report, which was made public by General Pervez Musharraf’s government in 2002. The report revealed that though a large number of West Pakistani and Biharis escaped the awful killings by Awami League militants, Bengalis butchered many family members of West Pakistan officers serving in East Bengal units. When the tale of the slaughter reached West Pakistani soldiers in other units, they reacted violently.

The Hamoodur Rahman Commission report recorded allegations against the military that included the rape of large numbers of East Pakistani women by the officers and men of the Pakistan army as a deliberate act of revenge, retaliation and torture. It accused the Pakistan army of carrying out the nonsensical killing of intellectuals, professionals, businessmen, industrialists, Bengali officers and soldiers. The Pakistani army suppressed Bengali unrest with extraordinary brutality.

In 2002 Musharraf, during a visit to Bangladesh, expressed regret over the events of 1971, including the extreme actions committed by the army on the civilian population of the eastern wing of Pakistan. Bangladesh wanted to set up a tribunal for war criminals. Pakistani representatives urged Dhaka to let “bygones be bygones”.

So what lessons are being learned from this history? None. Bangladesh, Pakistan and India continue to carry out organized killings in the name of religion, region and nationalism. Conflicts continue, as do the rape of innocent girls and women.

Noor by Sorayya Khan. The Publishing Laboratory, University of North Carolina Wilmington. ISBN-10: 0971930872. Price US$16.99, 252 pages.

Dr Tahir Rauf works in the University of Rochester, New York. E-mail:

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