Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Truth About Peacock Blue by Rosanne Hawke

Aster Suleiman Masih is a Christian living in Pakistan with her father (Abba) who is a tailor and her mother (Ammi) who works in the house of Colonel Rafique and his wife (who are Muslims). She also had a brother Ijaz who suffered from asthma. They have family also living further south in Pakistan - her cousin Barakat and also in Australia; her Uncle Yusef, Aunty Noori and cousin Maryam live in Australia.  The novel opens with Ijaz's funeral. Aster's family from south Pakistan and Australia come to his funeral.

Aster realizes that her view of the world changed drastically when she was twelve years old. One morning, Aster goes out early to get water and encounters two boys attacking Hadassah in a wheat field. Her screams scare the boys off and she helps a bloodied Hadassah walk home to her mother Aunty Feebi. Hadassah was attacked by the landlord's sons. Her family keeps quiet about the attack because as Christians their village might be burned to the ground. Also the law in Pakistan will view Hadassah as the criminal, not the boys who attacked her. Three months later, Hadassah is sent to a village south of Lahore to study women's tailoring. Aster has no understanding at this point as to what has really happened to Hadassah.

The village teacher, Miss Saima, visits Aster's parents and encourages them to send her to high school in the Government Girls High School. Her father agrees and tells Aster that in April she will be sent to high school in place of Ijaz. Aster is welcomed at the school by the principal, Mrs Iqbal who tells her father that "she will be expected to take all the same subjects as the other girls, but she will be free to follow her Christian faith."  She is introduced to her class of Year Eights as Aster Suleiman Masih, which identifies her as a Christian and is seated by a girl named Rabia.

In school Aster is harassed and ridiculed by a Muslim girl named Sabeena. Mrs. Abdul who teaches Isamiyat and Arabic and who wears a burqa, takes an immediate dislike to Aster, slapping her and refusing to listen to her. Aster is afraid to return to school but her cousin Sammy, encourages her to reach out and make friends. At school her maths teacher, Miss Rehmat and the English teacher Miss Saed-Ulla encourage Aster. Rabia advises Aster to say the Kalimah, "There is no god but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God." because this will make life easier for her. However, Aster refuses because she is a committed Christian.

On Sunday at church, Dr. Amal who was a friend of Izja, comes to visit and give a talk. Aster decides to take over Ijaz's facebook page, removing his picture and personal information and putting up a profile picture of a peacock. She renames the profile Peacock Blue after her favourite colour and bird. Facebook allows Aster to connect with her cousins, Sammy Ibrahim in Pakistan and Maryam Yousef in Australia.

One day after school Aster visits Mrs. Rafique's home with her mother who does their laundry and cooking. Although the Rafiques are Muslims, they have helped Aster's family, paying for Izja's medicine and giving Aster and Izja gifts for Christmas and Eid. Aster wants to tell Mr. Rafique, who was a Colonel in the army about Mrs. Abdul but she feels he won't understand.

At school Rabia confides to Aster that her father converted to Islam by saying the Kalimah. He was offered land and money to convert; now her father has an office job and her brother attends university and Rabia has good marriage prospects. Rabia suggests that Aster help her with math and English and she will tutor her in Arabic and Islamiyat. With Rabia's help, Aster begins to improve in Arabic. Eventually Colonel Rafique learns about Aster's situation and tells her she will now be tutored by him.

Aster along with her family and the entire village prepare for Hadassah's wedding. Hadassah reveals to Aster how much she misses her baby son whom she named Shahbaz after the minister of minorities who was assassinated. Hadassah is married and goes off to live with Danyal Peter in his village near Rawalpindi.

When Aster returns to school to write her exams, a terrible thing happens. Her first exam is Islamiyat. No sooner has Aster handed in her exam then she is arrested by the police and accused of blasphemy by Mrs. Abdul. Not really understanding what is happening to her, Aster is dragged out the gates of the school, which are quickly surrounded by a mob and a dozen police officers. Not knowing what she has done, unable to contact her parents, Aster is taken to the police station, her hands handcuffed behind her back and thrown into a cell. Surely she will be home quickly once this mistake is sorted out. But Aster will soon learn that in Pakistan, it doesn't matter if you are a child or you unintentionally blasphemed. Under Sharia law your life is forfeit if you blaspheme.


The Truth About Peacock Blue is a story about the rigid enforcement of Pakistan's strict blasphemy laws. The story (the fictional) Aster Suleiman parallels that of Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five who has been on death row for blasphemy in Pakistan for the past seven years. Asia's only crime was drinking water from the same cup as her Muslim neighbours. Petitions calling for the release of Asia whose only crime is that of being a Christian have had little effect. Salman Taseer the governor of Punjab and Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti both supported freeing Asia, and both were assassinated. Asia currently lives in a squalid jail while she awaits a hearing before Pakistan's Supreme Court.

Similarly in The Truth About Peacock Blue, fourteen year old Aster is accused of blasphemy on an exam, jailed and ultimately sentenced to death. Her lawyer is subsequently assassinated. Aster's cousin Maryam begins a petition to free Peacock Blue, the name Aster uses on facebook. The novel ends with Aster, now sixteen years old,  in solitary confinement for her own protection awaiting an appeal. The story is told from Aster's point of view interspersed with posts by her cousin Maryam titled Free Peacock Blue.

Rosanne Hawke provides a balanced perspective of Pakistan's blasphemy law as she shows the persecution of Christians and Muslims alike. However, the novel's main theme is the brutal persecution of Christians in predominantly Muslim Pakistan, ironically a country formed out of the partition of India so Muslims could freely practice their own faith.Although their constitution allows for the freedom of religion, in reality, such freedom does not exist in many parts of Pakistan.

Under Pakistan's blasphemy law anyone who defiles the name of Mohammed either by the use of derogatory remarks, spoken or written, directly or indirectly is to be sentenced to death. There have been a marked increase in blasphemy charges since 1986 when the law was amended and as the country has become more radicalized. At least half of the charges have been against Christians who comprised less than three percent of the population. A charge of blasphemy in Pakistan often leads to death threats against the accused, their families, entire villages as well as lawyers and judges. The accused are often immediately jailed, sometimes placed in solitary confinement for their own safety. The blasphemy law in Pakistan is often used to persecute religious minorities or to settle personal disputes as in the case of Asia Bibi.

Hawke ably demonstrates the injustice of both Pakistan's blasphemy law as well as Sharia law through the experiences the female characters.  In jail Aster is never really safe, often beaten, sexually harassed and almost raped. She is thrown into a cell with older women all of whom are victims of Sharia Law.  Hawke uses these scenes to show how precarious life is for women under Sharia law. In cases of rape it is the victim who is punished and not the perpetrator.  Kamilah Muhammad was raped and became pregnant. When the baby began to show she was accused of zina, reported by her own father and thrown in jail. Narjis was married off to a cruel warlord to pay off a debt. Durrah killed her husband because he and his mother abused her. Hafsah, a Muslim woman was also accused of blasphemy when a quilt she was carrying knocked the Holy Qur'an off a shelf and into the fire, causing a corner of the sacred book to be burned. It was her mother-in-law's revenge for Hafsah giving birth to four girls, ignorant of the fact that  her son determines the sex of their babies. Her husband loved her and refused to marry another so her mother-in-law used the blasphemy law to remove her from the house. Muneerah, a Muslim, was secretly married to a boy she loved. When she became pregnant her father had her arrested for zina, her uncle killed her husband and when she gave birth to the baby in jail, he was taken away. Each woman has experienced the brutal effects of Sharia law.

Hawke provides a detailed account of how a blasphemy case works its way through Pakistan's corrupt justice system. Aster's trial takes place before a judge and a panel of "bearded clerics in dark shalwar qameezes" where Sharia Law rules. Therefore, many of the features of Western law which is based on Roman and Christian canon law do not apply. For example, no consideration is given to Aster's age nor the fact that she is a Christian girl who would likely know little about Islam and Muhammad. The Muslim witnesses who appear on Aster's behalf are badgered and discounted. Evidence crucial to the case is destroyed and there are no corroborating witnesses.

But The Truth About Peacock Blue is more than just a story about the evils of Sharia Law. It is a story of Christian persecution and the blossoming of a deeper faith that results. Hawke's portrayal of Aster's growing faith and trust in Khuda (God) during her imprisonment is moving. How many would keep the faith under such circumstances?  When Aster attends the government school she meets Rabia whose father converted to Islam so that his family would be better off. Rabia encourages Aster to say the Kalimah, telling her, "You should convert...It's a Muslim country, everything is easier if you're the same." but Aster refuses. When she questions Rabia about what she believes her friend is undecided but leans towards Islam. Aster states she cannot say the Kalimah just because it is expected. She must be true to what she believes and she realizes that for Rabia her faith is a cultural thing and doesn't mean much to her.

When Aster is first arrested  she struggles at first, "As I lay there thinking, I realized something horrifying: I couldn't feel God. Was my faith only something I believed in my happy life in the village? Then I heard Abba in my head: Khuda is always with us whether we feel He is or not, just believe." In the jail, Aster is told by Muneerah that her blasphemy is unforgivable and that she will never get to heaven. Aster wonders, "It astounded me how we could worship one god and have such a different understanding of him."

 Instead of focusing on Mrs. Abdul, Aster chooses to focus on Yusef (Joseph) who was sold into slavery by his brothers. "He did his best to honour Khuda even under the threat of death and became respected by the prison guards...Yusef had a special talent for interpreting dreams."  Aster begins to have dreams while in prison, most of them are frightening to her. Such as dreaming about Yusef who does not hear her pleas for help.Gradually her dreams change. "I dreamed I was in a boat. At first the waves were gentle. Fish jumped over the waves...Then the waves rose higher until the boat was as high as a mountain and I knew it would crash. I screamed and suddenly someone appeared in the boat with me. He used a pole and the boat didn't capsize as we rode down the wave with white curling foam circling us. I saw his face before the next wave came. He was enjoying the exhilaration of the ride. It was Yesu Masih. I was not alone."

After Aster is condemned as Yesu was, on the feast of little Eid or Easter she is comforted by a special dream. "That night I dreamed I was in a courtyard. A light shone and grew closer and there was Yesu Masih, holding out his hand. He wore a long cream robe and a shawl that was so bright it made the whole land  shine with colour. He looked as strong as if He could overthrow a court or a whole government if he wished it, but it was me He wanted. His dark eyes brimmed with compassion. 
'Beloved Aster.' His voice reverberated in the sky and His love settled around me like a blanket made of peacock feathers."

Aster is supported by her Christian community who pray for her and exhort her to be strong. She is visited often by Dr. Amal who tells her, "There are many people praying for you, Aster, even outside of Pakistan." Aster "prays for strength like hers (Malala) to endure the waiting."  Her father when he finally is able to visit her, tells Aster, "What makes our life different wherever we are, even in a prison, is the presence of Khuda and his love. He is in control whether we feel it or not. Just trust him  and he will help you persevere. Then hope will come." But Aster wonders, "We all knew prayers weren't always answered the way we think they will be. What if Khuda allowed me to stay in here like Job, who had to go through his suffering?"

Hawke uses metaphors throughout her novel. One such is example involves mice. Early in the novel Aster remembers how she cooked rice without noticing that there were mice droppings (mice dirt) in the bag. The mice droppings ruined the rice. This led to her getting her eyes checked and getting glasses. When she meets Zaib, the journalist who wants her to write down her story, Zaib tells her that she is Muslim but that "We have mice in the cupboards. You know about that I suspect." Zaib is comparing extremist Muslims who ruin the beauty of the Muslim faith to the mice who get into the cupboard ruining the good rice. She asks Aster not to "tar every Muslim with this same brush."

My only criticism of this novel is the cover. Aster is supposed to be dark-skinned, yet the model on the front cover is decidedly white and doesn't represent the character in the story. But overall, The Truth About Peacock Blue is well crafted, searing novel about the reality of extremism that seems to overtaking the Muslim faith in many countries.

Book Details:

The Truth About Peacock Blue by Rosanne Hawke
Crows Nest, Australia:  Allen & Unwin                          2015
253 pp.

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