Born and raised in Karachi, Pakistan, I did my PhD work in comparative literature at Columbia with Edward Said. I have been trained in two disciplines, literary studies and anthropology, as well as South Asian, Middle-Eastern, North African, and Jewish studies, and my scholarship reflects this range of disciplinary ways of thinking. Above all, I am a student of European colonialism, decolonization as a worldwide process, and the culture and politics of the postcolonial world. In this context, the bulk of my work has engaged with the legacies of the British Empire, especially in the Indian subcontinent, but I am also interested in French colonialism in North Africa and in its legacies for the immigration debates in France. How the figure of migrant impacts the project of European unification is one of my main preoccupations at the moment, in a book project called Strangers in Europa.
If colonial racism marks the external orientation of European modernity, antisemitism and the so-called Jewish Question mark its internal dimension. I am a scholar also of this history of post-Enlightenment European culture, from the debates about Jewish emancipation in the late eighteenth century to the rise of organized political antisemitism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As such, I am also concerned with the conflict over historical Palestine. I am interested in Palestine as historical experience in the post-1948 era—the experience of the missing homeland—and its significance for the critical humanities.
My writings have been a series of attempts to rethink some fundamental concepts and categories of the Western humanities—the secular, the minor, the cosmopolitan, the exilic, the border, migrant and refugee, the Anglophone, the world—from the perspective of colonized and postcolonial societies and populations. I am a long-time member of the editorial collective of the journal boundary2 and have edited several of its special collections.
My first book, Enlightenment in the Colony: the Jewish Question and the Crisis of Postcolonial Culture (Princeton, 2007), argued that the so-called Jewish Question of the long nineteenth century in Western Europe established the paradigm for minority experience in modernity, a paradigm disseminated to the colonial world through the establishment of nationalism and the nation-state as the normative political ideology and state-form of the modern world. The so-called Muslim Question in South Asia thus marks for me a colonial and postcolonial reworking of this metropolitan paradigm. And the history of the Jewish Question, I argued, still offers lessons for social and political debates in contemporary postcolonial societies. This work sought to demonstrate the significance of literature as archive—from Heinrich Heine to Faiz Ahmed Faiz—and as mode of reading for the examination of some of the broadest social and political questions of our times.
A second book, Forget English! Orientalisms and World Literatures (Harvard, 2016), argues that “world literature” as concept and as horizon of possibility is historically linked to the revolution in humanistic practice that Said called Orientalism and that its contemporary forms replicate some of those cultural logics and categories. Hiding inside world literature, I argue, is the dominance of globalized English, whose own history leads us back to the emergent Orientalism of the late eighteenth century and its role in reshaping the European humanities and world of letters more broadly. World literature is a discourse of mobility—of literary works, authors, genres, forms, styles, and so on. But in its existing forms this discourse has only become possible by suppressing the realities of enforced forms of immobility.
A recent publication is a special issue of the journal boundary 2, From Crisis to Catastrophe: Lineages of the Global New Right (2023).