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Cosmopolitanism in “A Nostalgists Map of America”

Human institutions have long operated within defined boundaries, but the last few decades have seen the dramatic fading of borders. Banking, military, research; all have grown into large global institutions. Cosmopolitanism has permeated into everyday life and identity, but it has consequences. Some scholars argue that cosmopolitanism is the only effective way to combat global issues while others push back against inevitable cultural erasure. In A Nostalgist’s Map of America, author Agha Shahid Ali investigates his identity as a Kashmiri-American poet in a global context, and he reconciles the ideas of cultural erasure with cosmopolitanism. Ali’s use of mythos spanning cultures and implicit comparisons between indigenous American and Kashmiri cultures create a new cartography of America which allows for the concurrent embrace of identity within a global culture.

The increasing connectivity of the world gives ways to economic, ecological, and ethical problems, “that need to be dealt with on a near-global scale if they are to be dealt with satisfactorily” (Smith). Problems like global climate change and water scarcity span across the globe. Smith’s assertions of tangible problems around the world are paralleled by Ali’s observations of cultural loss in Beyond the Ash Rains. The deserts of Tucson and Kashmir interconnected when they “refused my history” and “refused to acknowledge that I had lived” (Ali 23). The overlapping cultures face the same problems despite being thousands of miles away from each other. Smith’s observations may have been in the context of physical challenges, but Ali’s cartography speaks to emotional oppression. “The northern canyons” may beckon one into the red rocks of the Grand Canyon or the valleys of the Himalayas. The human condition is by definition universal, but analysis of problems is often centered nationally. “The comparative analyses of societies, international relations, political theory, and a significant part of history and law all essentially function on the basis of methodological nationalism” (Beck and Sznaider). This nationalistic approach to issues is challenged indirectly by Ali. The experience of loss is represented in “the streets of an emptied world, vulnerable to our suddenly bare history” rather than in an individualistic sense (Ali 24). The process of contextualizing human experience globally is conducted through Ali’s poetic cartography. Poetry lends itself to this cartography as it necessitates for multiple meanings to arise from the same arrangement of words. Smith, Beck, and Sznaider’s analysis of cosmopolitanism reaches farther than the physical realm by permeating into the crevices of human experience; however, the unification of the human experience presents a compelling critique of cosmopolitan scholarship.

The critiques of the global order are rooted in the imperialist and capitalist intentions of large hegemonic powers. Economic globalization has led to powerful countries wanting smaller ones to break down trade barriers, all while maintaining some protectionism over their own (Baroud). Domination of one country over another has taken many forms throughout history including European colonization. Colonial exploitation of a country primarily started for economic gain but concluded in cultural erasure, genocide, and mass cultural trauma that has left scars to this day. In the same vein there is cultural globalization, “the unbridgeable disadvantage of poorer countries, who lack the means to withstand the unmitigated takeover of their traditional ways of life by the dazzling, well-packaged and branded ‘culture’ imparted upon them around the clock” (Baroud). Coca-Cola, pizza, and jeans have become the common culture of the first global generation. English may have started out as the shared language of business but has culturally transformed into a global lingua franca. Domination by one is intrinsic to suppression of others, “even optimistic estimates suggest that as many as 90 percent of the world’s languages will disappear in the next century” (Ramzy). Ali is a poet who writes in English, lives in America, and despite it, reconciles his intersectionality with the neocolonial nature of cosmopolitanism. The two mechanisms by which Ali does this involve cartography and mythology all while speaking through a common human experience.

Classical western and traditional eastern mythology parallel symbolism in Eurydice and From Another Desert. Both stories revolve around love, but also have a revolutionary element to them represented through the water. In Eurydice the story of Orpheus ends with hopelessness as “he is pushed into the van. His gaze runs through my tears, stringing them into a necklace that chokes me” (Ali 17). Orpheus fails in his revolution and the hope of the one who “could dissolve bombs” fades in a “tunnel of mustard twilight” (Ali 18). Majnoon stands in direct contradiction to Orpheus as the ideal revolutionary who gives everything despite the end result. Tears in Eurydice are paralleled by blood in From Another Desert. Majnoon stands “ready to face doom” as he dedicates himself to the revolution at hand (Ali 72). The ideal becomes illuminated and invigorated in Majnoon’s sacrifice when “his blood his fire” (Ali 72). The similarities between Orpheus and Majnoon are part of how Ali uses multiple mythologies to weave together a common sea; the difference becomes part of how different cultures sail the same sea. Blood and tears subvert their traditional meanings, Eurydice’s tears, the harbingers of death: Majnoon’s blood, “the world’s sorrow” (Ali 72). Mythology is a part of the common sea that is critical to Ali’s cartography of America and Kashmir.

The Atlantic Ocean was the fabric that facilitated the Columbian exchange, another example of the duality of globalization. The unprecedented cultural exposure changed the way the world was governed forever. The unprecedented genocide of Indigenous Americans and the middle passage echo into our institutions to this day. Once again Ali forms a new cartography of the sea that speaks to its duality in Notes on the Sea’s Existence. He finds calm and peace, “with a soft wave, which offered love” (Ali). The sea’s embrace marks a warm end once again subverting the traditional meanings found in water. Ali gazes into the sea and “it pulls [him] to itself, the reflection” (Ali). Instead of seeing himself in the reflection, the memory of the world pulls him deeper and deeper turning the myth of narcissus on its head. The common ocean of the world is critical to his cartography as he comes to peace with the loss. The cultures, languages, and echoes of loss fade. “I hold the world as I drown” (Ali).

Cultural individuality and globalism are at odds by their very definitions. Instead of standing in the middle of no man’s land, Ali draws his own map of the world. In Search of Evanescence leads him to finds that “India always exists off the turnpikes of America” (Ali 41). The Ganges flows through India and Ohio. Calcutta resides off of “route 80 in Ohio” (Ali 41). This placement of symbols and rivers is Ali’s cartography, and his answer to the question; are you Indian or American. The human experience of loss is found in the Ganges even when “The signs to route 80 all have disappeared” (Ali 43). The ashes of the forgotten will always exist in the river. “The cars are urns carrying ashes to sea” (Ali 43). Ali’s poetry is an example of maintaining a cultural identity even as global forces meltdown our borders.

Citations and Further Reading

Akande, Wole. “The Drawbacks of Cultural Globalization.” The Drawbacks of Cultural Globalization, Global Policy Forum, 10 Nov. 2002,

Baroud, Ramzy. “Globalization: a Culture Killer.” The Japan Times Opinion, The Japan Times, 21 Nov. 2009.

Beck, Ulrich, and Natan Sznaider. “Unpacking Cosmopolitanism for the Social Sciences: a Research Agenda.” The British Journal of Sociology, vol. 57, no. 1, Mar. 2006, pp. 1–23., doi:10.1111/j.1468–4446.2006.00091.x.

“Beyond the Ash Rains.” A Nostalgist’s Map of America, by Agha Shahid Ali, W.W. Norton, 1991, p. 23.

“Stories of Peoplehood: the Politics and Morals of Political Membership.” Stories of Peoplehood: the Politics and Morals of Political Membership, by Rogers M. Smith, Cambridge University Press, 2003, pp. 166–169.