Beyond Our Degrees of Separation: Washington Monsoons and Islamabad Blues
Judith Ravin & Muhammad Hassan MirajInkwater Press, 2017
Cross-cultural writing can be illuminating as well as problematic. But what if instead of your standard trading-places kind of narrative, we were given a travelogue where two writers bleed almost seemingly into one author exploring what exactly it means to be home and away, to be elsewhere in the world at once intimately a part of it as well as decidedly apart? Judith Ravin and Muhammad Hassan Miraj have crafted an essay collection whose tone is one of effulgent celebration of not just place but one’s body moving through space and being of and with others.
“The life of a diplomat is itinerant, with the wish to stay endlessly coupled with the imperative to depart. Everywhere there is strength and beauty, struggle and challenge. It is up to the individual to stake out turf along that continuum.”
Ravin and Miraj take turns writing chapters but soon it becomes near impossible to separate the two as their authorial voices bleed into one making the book uniquely its own, a weave proving “travel and fate obey their own logic.” Beyond Our Degrees of Separation is a truly wonderful synthesis of the two writers, a creation that is of them but goes beyond each. Readers witness a maturation that’s worldly and so very far from world weary.
It would seem the essays are tasked with showing just how something perceived to be natural becomes strange or how “English had become a language of all accents.” Or, as — puts it in the chapter — being “geographically disturbed.” Flashing primarily between the United States and environs throughout Pakistan each traveler finds themselves elsewhere making sense of themselves in new spaces. It is difficult to express the precise purpose of Ravin and Miraj’s book. A deeper understanding of Pakistan, of the United States, of community and otherness, surely but there is something deeply unsatisfying in describing the book like this as though so much is being cut out. Perhaps that is the point of these explorative essays, each at once lyrical and personal.
It is an absolute truth the personal is political but, unfortunately, each of the key terms in this conclusion are ambiguously defined. So when we read Ravin and Miraj, we realize that it is their social existence that is politics but to a degree where partisanship is none existent. In much the same way that time or place become abstractions due to the authors’ willful displacement, there is an undercurrent of social engagement, of being with the other.
I may not have truly captured or understood the stories of Beyond Our Degrees of Separation, but I will be returning to them letting them ruminate inside my mind where the nonfiction stories can churn and metaphor be pulled from them. This is only a small reason why the collection of woven anecdotes are make the book worthwhile, more absorbing than merely intriguing. The intimacy Ravin and Miraj have achieved is no small accomplishment and it enlivens a world that all too many of us have no conception of because of our willfully narrow view of time and place.
“To be on this side of history, reliving moments of my own personal evolution over time in words destined for someone else’s eyes is a gift of mirrors and morality…”
Beyond Our Degrees of Separation doesn’t bring us closer to what is foreign, rather it unsettles us challenging what we suppose we know about our role in what is immediately before us and going on thousand of miles away.
Judith Ravin began her diplomatic career in 2003 after many years of living abroad as an editor, translator, and journalist. She is a graduate of Brandeis University and has a MA from Harvard.
Muhammad Hassan Miraj is an author with 15 years in Federal Government. He contributed to the development in Pakistan of the first-ever counter-terrorism narrative and campaign for the State.
♦◊◊◊◊–1 Star: Poorly conceived and written, not worth anyone’s time
♦♦◊◊◊–2 Stars: Limited audience, mediocre writing
♦♦♦◊◊–3 Stars: Solid writing, decent ideas and execution, genre appropriate
♦♦♦♦◊–4 Stars: Good writing, engaging ideas and execution
♦♦♦♦♦–5 Stars: Superb writing, excellent ideas and execution, appealing to all audiences