cancel culture does not apply to genocide enablers and confronting our ancestral trauma

an open letter regarding Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Jr.

picture source: Londoni

Two days ago, I came across the platform of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Jr. and decided to raise my voice about this and publicly shared my pain with the world on Instagram. At first, I felt myself feeling delirious. I couldn’t stop myself from laughing at how ridiculous this all was to me. But moments after when my body had started to register everything, it all came crashing down and slapped me in the face. I began to tremble in rage and broke down.

Immediately after, my Instagram story had erupted and blown up across the entire South Asian community. Thousands of messages flooded my DMs and people stood in solidarity with me. It was something that I was definitely not prepared for. An overwhelming wave of undivided support came my way, including violent hatred from Pakistani nationalists.

As my message spread, people also started to raised concern and expressed that this inherently was supporting the vicious bandwagon of cancel culture and how we must all take the steps into collective healing. When I read the words “cancel culture”, I felt instantly taken aback.

Cancel culture is the modern phenomenon of ostracizing people, brands, and even shows and movies due to what some consider to be offensive or problematic remarks or ideologies. One example would be when an old video was exposed of a popular Youtuber found saying a homophobic slur from 10 years ago. While some might say that cancel culture is a reminder that such problematic behavior will no longer be tolerated.

However, this discussion is far beyond cancel culture. This is regarding the Bangladeshi genocide— a detailed masterplan of mass slaughters, kidnappings, and rape. The Bhutto family is part of never-ending ripples of systematic and institutional violence that will continue to haunt Bangladesh for eternity.

Zulfikar has publicly uplifted his fascist grandfather by writing poetry about him, a man who is responsible for the monstrous massacre that continues to haunt Bangladesh today. Zulfikar has not spoken up about the Bangladeshi genocide and fails to acknowledge it. Bhutto’s family is still highly beloved, respected, and respected in Pakistan as the community celebrates his grandfather. Bhutto Jr.’s silence regarding his family’s history of corruption is continuing to fuel the complicity and passive violence regarding the Bangladeshi genocide that is still very much alive, 50 years later.

Bhutto Jr. has achieved this frightening celebrity status by profiting from his family name to obtain opportunities and in result, has been allowed to infiltrate queer South Asian art + activist spaces while failing to recognize the systematic violence his family has executed. Zulfikar gets to represent queer South Asians in the art world while his grandfather knocked on our doors and executed Bangladeshi scholars and artists. 

Zulfikar should not be allowed to have a platform or be invited into spaces that were made for marginalized voices as he continues to fuel his platform, create artwork, be interviewed, perform, host exhibitions around the world as he takes FULL advantage of his nepotism and wealth (which is blood money from the slaughter of Bangladeshis), while also benefiting from imperialism.

Although Zulfikar is not responsible for the actions of his ancestors, he is however, accountable for the decisions of the future of his lineage. His complicity, silence, and oblivious behavior speaks loud and clear.

Last night, I reread the common phrases that I had seen in many of the messages I’ve received: “instead of relishing ourselves in the toxic cycle of cancel culture, let us all heal as a collective community”. When I read the words, I felt a sting zap through me. Was it anger that I was feeling? Annoyance that they weren’t understanding my pain? Or was it guilt because perhaps they were right? Overwhelmed with confusion of what I was truly feeling, I decided to call it a night, shut my phone, and go to sleep.

Hours later, I heard a familiar moan and cry coming from the other room. When I realized what it was, I rushed out of my bed. My father was laying on his bed, twisting and shaking back and forth. I ran over to him and removed the blanket from him. His entire body was drenched with sweat.

His eyes were shut, his lips trembling, gaspy wheezes escaping his mouth. He was moaning words I couldn’t understand. I brushed his hair back with my fingers, while my other hand used a notebook to blow wind at his sweat covered face and whispered,

“Abu, it is all a dream. You are not there, you are here. I am with you now.”

I watched his eyes flutter back in forth, slowly coming back to reality. His heavy puffs and heaving chest turn into slow breaths, his body finally returning to his normal state. After he realized that he had another one of his nightmares, he looked at me. We stared at each other, and for a moment wondered if I should ask him what he dreamt of this time.

I had remembered a few occasions where he had told me what his nightmares were about. He dreamt that he was back to the age of 10 in Bangladesh, and was running through a jungle. He was running away from something but wasn’t clear what it was, except that it was dangerous. He felt his heart pumping as loud as the gunshots exploded in the background. Moments later, he heard a scream that sounded familiar. It was his mother. He would hear one final gunshot, and instantly right after, he would wake up in the same moment every time.

He said that in each dream, the setting and his age was different. But one thing always remained the same— his mother’s cry and the gunshots. But before I could ask him more questions, he’d shush me away and turn on the morning news.

We stared at each other in complete silence, my father laying in his soaked bed, while I sat on the floor next to him. The moon still sleeping, not a single sound in the entire apartment building. But I felt his thoughts screaming excruciatingly in pain, filling the room with banging echoes. Was he trying to find the words of what to say but couldn’t find them?

Exhaustion swept over my eyes as it was already 4am. I would have to wake up in a couple of hours for a Zoom meeting.

I held him in my arms and waited until he fell asleep, which usually never happens after another one of his nightmares. I asked myself if I was embracing him to coax his panic, or was my father clutching on to me to comfort his only daughter— a daughter who had witnessed the dying spirit of their abu.

This occurs almost every night. I can’t remember the last time my family had a full night of sleep. 50 years later after the liberation war, and the memories still follows my father today, even while living in a country thousands of kilometers away from where it all happened.

I went back to my bed and scrolled through the messages, the word “healing” repeating in my head.

When I woke up this morning to make myself a cup of coffee, a trail of fat cockroaches scattered at the corner of our kitchen. My apartment building has had a nasty case of roach infestation. My mother has been complaining that no matter how she kneels over, despite her back pain, and scours each wall, table, and floor, they still show up. As I finished my coffee and started to wash my cup, I hear a faint crack. I look up and notice a large split on my ceiling. Immediately, large chunks of paint crumble and hit my head, covering my hair with dust and old paint chipping. I fume with anger and I rush to wash the gunk off my hair, muttering in annoyance at how old my family’s two-bedroom apartment is.

As I rinsed out the dirt tangled in my hair, I am once again reminded of Zulfikar Jr.’s family and the messages I received earlier about cancel culture until a pang of realization hit me. Cancel culture will never truly affect Bhutto Jr. and his siblings. They will still be celebrated by their native country and government. They will continue to have all the wealth, respect, and prestige in the world as I, a product of a genocide their family created, will live in a house too small and too old.

The word “healing” continued to stick with me throughout the morning. I filled my mother’s weekly pill case with 5 pills in each box labeled “morning” and “night”. As I loaded them with her medication, I think back to the pain my family had to deal with the past few years. Each year, my mother’s sibling had died consecutively. Two years ago, her middle brother passed away. Two months later as we entered the new year, her 3rd brother died shortly after. Earlier this year, the eldest sibling on her side passed away.

My mother has not seen her brothers who had died in over a decade as plane tickets are far too expensive for a family of 4. She has not been the same ever since. Her skin is no longer golden, but frail and ghost-like. I watch her sometimes as she chugs her medication and stares outside the window.

I remember when the deaths happened, my mother started seeking therapy for the first time in her life. I learned while sitting outside as she spoke to her therapist about the vivid recollection of watching her deceased brother get kidnapped by Pakistani soldiers, but luckily survived. This memory, like my father, will forever be entrenched in her soul. However, she stopped going after a few sessions after realizing they were too expensive.

“Amu”, I moaned. “This is important. It’s okay to spend money on yourself.”

Amar ma”, she croaked. “Then with what money will I use to fill our stomachs and pay rent? It’s okay. Time will heal me. Besides, you know now is not the time to spend money.”

I hung my head low, worried about what was going to happen to her. I knew what she meant. Shortly after my father’s mother died over 20 years ago, the nightmares began. He would burst into incoherent ramblings and couldn’t get out of bed. Still new to the country, my amu nervously decided to seek emergency mental health counseling in our local hospital as she realized that something was morbidly wrong. My mother is still currently paying back the debt as medical bills piled on and on. In result, My father works less over the years and my mother was forced to take more on as she took care of her children, and now her husband that she could no longer rely on.

My family and I have desperately sought out to heal. But instead, healing has emptied and broke us even more. How can we make room for healing when we are trying so hard to survive?

My mind ponders back to my people in Bangladesh, especially freedom fighters. They had fought in the liberation war while their stomachs were empty after not eating for months, using their famished bodies with their skeleton sticking out of their skin as their only weapon. They had watched their family removed from their homes and executed in a straight singlar line by Pakistani soldiers. I wonder about birangonas that are still alive today, women that were kidnapped, tortured, and raped— a plan that was strategized by Bhutto’s family.

The freedom fighters and Bangladeshi victims of sexual violence are still alive today and have not received any financial compensation or apology from Pakistan. Most of them are now currently living in extreme poverty.

Tell me, how can they find space to heal when, they too, are busy trying to desperately survive?

In the journey of healing, the concept is deflected on victims of abuse. We are told that we must move on and find peace within ourselves. However, the discussion of the important and necessary role that abusers play in our healing is often left out.

To those that are poor and have been directly impacted by violence and war, healing is a luxury that many cannot afford. However, in an alternate universe, I wonder how many of us would be able to find solitude if our abuser, Pakistan, had simply expressed a mere apology, and paid reparations, which would be a small cost of their economy, to us? Would my father be able to sleep at night? Would the medical bills piling up never even exist? Would rape victims and freedom fighters be able to have a home and a meal?

Most of all, what does healing look like under the guise of capitalism and imperialism, both of which are well-calculated systems supported by Bhutto’s family and so many other fascist regimes?

These questions are all what if’s as they are just a figment of my imagination— a fairy tale dream where a world with no pain and violence does not exist.

The reason why I believe this discussion erupted the way it did is not because of the “call for canceling Bhutto Jr.” but because it has shaken the community to its core and forced us to sit in our discomfort of what ancestral trauma really means beyond our surfaced-level conversations and buzzwords. Pakistanis were forced to look within their past while Bangladeshis joined together to demand that we no longer be dismissed as our history has been repeatedly ignored.

Bhutto Jr. and his family are the future of their fascist ancestors and have a vital role in our collective healing. They have every power to stand against them and take charge of the conversation in moving forward. However, instead, they choose to remain complicit and silent. They have made their decision to use their identity politics to milk profits from art, mark themselves in Muslim victimhood, and manipulate communities to gain pity from neoliberals, all while using the money made off my dead ancestors.

And until then, I will remain to be plunged with deep sadness and anger as I watch my broken family trying to hold themselves together while we, and so many others, live in poverty and violence — the aftermath of the waves the Bhutto family has erupted.

I leave this on my final note. I ask Pakistanis to come forward and acknowledge the minorities your ancestors impacted. I encourage the Bhutto family to grow, and hopefully, take the steps into collective healing by donating money to those impacted by the Bangladeshi genocide and hold their lineage accountable.

This is beyond cancel culture. This is about confronting our painful past.

To those impacted by the genocide, I know this all so painful for us. But remember, that we are still alive and very much present. Our ancestors had fought to their death so we can stand today and speak our truth and language. Let their spirit move us as a community. I encourage you to ask your family about the liberation war and even call your relatives in Bangladesh. Educate yourselves. Remember us. Remember them.

Here is a compiled list of resources curated by Syeda Mahbub about the history of Bangladesh.

Writing this was incredibly triggering, and so has the past 48 hours. I would greatly appreciate any form of donation or compensation for my labor.

Venmo: FablihaAnbar

Paypal: fablihanbar@gmail.com

Thank you.