Essays — May 10, 2016 14:45 — 1 Comment

The Alchemy of Haris Durrani’s Spiritual Sci-Fi – Ahsan Butt

A time-traveling conquistador, who is the devil, h(a)unts the eccentric uncle of a half-Dominican, half-Pakistani, American Muslim kid, “Joe”—real name, Jihad—who is left wondering what’s real and what’s halal in a cynical, post-9/11 New York. This hints at only some of what Haris A. Durrani is up to in his 116 page debut, Technologies of the Self.

The story is structured around Uncle Tomas’ fragmented accounts of his confrontations with the devil—Santiago. As family members take turns sounding off about the credibility of the crass and incorrigible—old and lonely—Tomas, Joe’s own reality and memories begin to hum to Tomas’ frequency. Perhaps this—whatever it is, delusion, cosmic grudge—is hereditary?

Technologies has an impressive density considering it’s a single-sitting, two-latte read. The text is filled with charged symbols and references to other works, each a potential wormhole into another world of discourse. That the devil, at least one of its incarnations, is the real-world legend, Santiago de los Callaberos, a colonizing conquistador, is a not-so-subtle signal of the story’s political dimensions:

“So Santiago the Devil was Santiago the Saint?”…

I know that Santiago has many names. In Spain, he was Santiago Matamoros and Santiago Matajudios, Saint James the Moor-Slayer and Saint James the Jew-Slayer. After Ferdinand and Isabella succeeded in their Reconquista and sent Columbus to the New World, he became Santiago Mataindios, Saint James the Indian-Slayer. Almost every Latin American country has named a city after him. 

As Tomas recalls, miniatures of Santiago occupy space next to crosses in homes and churches across Latin America. He had seen Santiago all his life, but “thought nothing of it.” In interviews, Durrani mentions his interest in the paradoxical subtlety of hegemonic power—its pervasiveness in framing epistemologies and fashioning selves without it being noticed. This invisibility of power is the subject of the essay from which the novella’s epigraph is lifted. In it, anthropologist Talal Asad argues that Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses was rarely, if at all, examined in its proper political and post-colonial context by western commentators. After centuries of brutal, asymmetric colonial relations, in a climate boiling with anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment, Rushdie’s work was somehow treated as apolitical and benign. Instead the furious reactions of the Iranian state and some British Muslims were depicted as occurring in a vacuum, rising from ideology rather than history. Part of the project of Technologies is the attempt, through symbol and speculative science, to reframe assumptions of neutrality and make visible the systems of power, as Durrani sees them. The devil, literally a “knight in shining armor”, buzzes in the shared space between his world and ours, manipulating histories, perpetuating genocides, and colonizing souls—imperceptible, until Tomas or Joe develop the inner sight to see him.

In the most vivid of Tomas’ memories, he is flicked through a wormhole into Santiago’s “primordial lair”—that is, hell, perhaps one of many. There, an ever-growing fire feeds on a forest that sprouts only in the light produced by the fire. While based on a real species of tree, the trembling aspen, this perpetual growth under a torched sky makes for an apt metaphor for capitalism. This symbol, and its indictment, is taken further by Technologies’ references to Wael Hallaq’s The Impossible State—whose juxtaposition of Foucault’s and medieval theologian Al-Ghazali’s ideas of the technologies of the self is the inspiration for Durrani’s title. Hallaq argues that the destruction wrought by capitalism and nation-states is a natural consequence of their amoral and materialistic foundations. Modernity is rooted in empiricism, the promise and intent of which has always been, according to Hallaq, the complete knowledge and domination of nature. Technologies’ epigraph elaborates on this ethos in which nothing is sacred and everything is disposable:

In such a morality, there is no reason to suppose there can ever be an end to the cycle of destruction, self-forgiveness, and the creation of new identities. When there are no obligations to the past, every destruction is only a new beginning, and new beginnings are all we can ever have.

This is Durrani’s hellfire. And every concept in the universe he’s created is similarly thick with intention. Each detail has a trail and each reference leads to another world of theory, whether it’s Hallaq and Asad’s polemics or John Wheeler’s quantum foam or Ted Chiang’s model of time-travel.

Audacious as this debut is, it not surprisingly has its faults. Filled with references, some are introduced less organically than others, and sometimes the ideas come at the cost of characterization. Joe’s white girlfriend Glory, for instance, is intriguing as an exploration of the desirability of whiteness, but she lacks interiority beyond being a temptation.

Undoubtedly, Technologies’ strength is its ability to collapse fascinating discursive layers into charged symbols. As the story progresses and its universe develops, Joe and Tomas’ struggle with Santiago takes on more meaning and broader dimensions. What Durrani is up to begins to come into focus, as science fiction becomes the body for spiritual speculation.


Ahsan Butt is a Canadian of Pakistani heritage. He's a regular contributor to The Monarch Review and an improv actor with impeccable timing.

One Comment

  1. Rob Thompson says:

    Thanks for the review. I’m interested.

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The answer isn't poetry, but rather language

- Richard Kenney