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The verse of freedom

7 February 2015

In a powerful exploration of resistance poetry in indigenous languages, I discovered marginalized poets challenging mainstream Pakistani identity in moving verse.

 PoetsFaiz Ahmad Faiz

Much has been said about the literary and artistic revolution of Pakistan. Undoubtedly Pakistani writers, artists and musicians are now recognised globally for their work which engages with the world and brings forth perspectives which alter the unidimensional image of the country. At home, the new wave of literary and creative output is celebrated each year at the Karachi and Lahore literature festivals which have emerged as major venues for conversation and showcasing of what is being produced in the mainstream.

Away from the spotlight of international media and TV channels, Pakistan’s regional poets and writers are waging a far more perilous battle by engaging with their subaltern, marginalised audiences in the local idiom, thereby putting themselves at risk. The days of Faiz and Jalib are not over as we often moan. Instead they have deepened and regionalised. Our region has had a rich, ongoing folk tradition and it continues in myriad forms and expressions now. In India, Bangladesh and Pakistan poets and artists continue to challenge power and injustice. More so in Pakistan where instability, extremism and uncertainty have impacted people in a profound manner for the past few decades.

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Militancy in Sindh: End of our plural culture?

3 February 2015

The recent carnage in Shikarpur has come as a shock for many Pakistanis. Rural Sindh, invisible from the view of Punjab and Karachi obsessed media rarely makes news unless there is a major political rally or the images of dying children that can enable some quick political point scoring.

For the past decade, the land of Sufis known for its tolerant and plural ways has been the latest laboratory of Pakistan’s sectarian jihadists. Along the major highways, the mushrooming of seminaries is evident and the recent build up of hate crimes testifies to the ideological grafting that is underway. The Punjab, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Karachi have since long succumbed to the madrassa-welfare complex that in part responds to state failure as well as fits into the security architecture. The largely secular Sindh and Balochistan provinces are now under attack to balance what is known in the official-speak as ‘inter-provincial harmony’.

Balochistan has seen the worst incidents of sectarian terror in the past few years. Hazara settlements being bombarded with explosives hidden in water tankers, youth spaces such as snooker clubs attacked and young women going to college targeted, are incidents all too well known. But forgotten as they happen away from the centres of power. The sectarian outfits nourished in the populous plains of Punjab have branched out in Balochistan for a variety of reasons. The foremost reason is to challenge the nationalist movement with sectarian-religious passions. Media reports have also indicated that the sectarian militants may have infiltrated the ranks of some separatists but all of this is speculative thus far. Reporting from and on Balochistan is as perilous as covering Syria or Iraq these days. According to Reporters Without Border, Khuzdar is one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists. You are bound to get on the wrong side of major players: the security agencies and the militants.

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The vicious cycle of hate and violence

1 February 2015

The recent issue to have riled up a good number of Pakistanis — including jihadi networks — is the alleged blasphemy against Islam committed by the French magazine Charlie Hebdo. The imagined gatekeepers of the Ummah and the country in possession of an ‘Islamic bomb’ must protest against the ‘degradation’ and ‘defamation’ of the ‘faith’. Nowhere in that discourse is mentioned how brutal murders by gunmen could be justified, let alone explained.

European societies must not be bailed out for their growing Islamophobia and the uneven integration of the ‘Muslim’ into secular societies. Nor can the double standards on free speech be condoned. Western Europe needs to introspect where it has gone wrong in breeding such alienation and discontent. But that is their problem.

For Pakistanis, and many Muslim societies to get outraged at the offensive material about their faith, is at best duplicitous.

In Pakistan, we grew up with Friday sermons and prayers that ended with calling for the defeat of Christians, Jews and Hindus. In some cases, there is an explicit invocation of divine help for their ‘destruction’. The grievances that such sermons manifest are political, often real, but largely imagined. Mahsaal, a Lahore-based NGO, has compiled a few sermons and one of them dated 2010 advocates thus: “O Muslims, get up and take in hand your arrows, pick up your Kalashnikovs, train yourselves in explosives and bombs, organise yourselves into armies, prepare nuclear attacks and destroy every part of the body of the enemy. The Holy Quran instructs us but since we have not followed it the Europeans have published the cartoons …”. This was perhaps said in the wake of the Danish cartoons saga where we only harmed ourselves by burning public buildings and getting innocent Pakistanis killed. (more…)

Journey to change

30 January 2015

In referencing N M Rashed, clay pots, paper boats, the river Ravi and the lost garment ‘Saddri’, Pakistani artist Sabah Husain creates a seamless whole out of seemingly disparate objects.

sabih hasanBoats made of drawings and paintings on paper. Inkjet prints

Sabah Husain, the accomplished artist of Pakistan, is a trendsetter. Currently affiliated with the School of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Sabah displayed her recent works in Washington DC where the Pakistani Embassy showcased her works for art lovers in town and also reiterated how important cultural diplomacy is for our missions abroad.

As someone who has followed Sabah’s work for some time, I have always been intrigued by her fusion of Pakistan’s rich literary and cultural traditions into her oeuvre of printmaking and paperworks. The exhibition entitled ‘Mapping Waters’ (January 22-27, 2015) presented a range of paintings, prints and photography.

sabih hasan2Sabah Husain at XVA Gallery in Bastakiya Art Fair

Four distinct, yet interwoven, sensibilities were curated at the exhibition: first, Sabah’s enduring conversation with Urdu’s best known modern poet Noon Meem Rashid and his epic poem ‘Hassan Koozagar Ke Naam’; the second layer invoked her interpretations of the once popular but now in virtual disuse ‘saddri’ (men’s waistcoat with Central Asian origins); the paper boat; and Lahore’s dying River Ravi. At the outset these layers may appear to be incompatible but essentially they represent non-linear, complex journeys of an artistic vision.

In his celebrated poem, Rashed identifies himself with Hassan the koozagar (the potter). In material terms most ancient civilizations display pottery as both a daily convenience as well as an expression of the collective creative spirit. At a metaphysical level, clay symbolizes the material for creation shaped by the “creator”. Thus all three are one in the Sufi parlance of Wahdut ul Wajud (Unity of Being) and best represented by the famous line from Jalaluddin Rumi:

“Khud Kooza O, Khud Kooza Gar O, Khud Gil-e-Kooz; Khud Rind O Subu Kush; Khud Bar Sar-e-Aan Kooza Kharidaar; Bar Amad Ba Shikast O Ravaan Shu.”

He the vessel, its creator and also its clay;

He is the reveller drinking from it…

And is the one who buys it and breaks the vessel having drunk from it

The mythical Hassan from Rashed’s poem was a resident of Baghdad and invoked during his long soliloquy, the banks of River Tigris, the boat and the powers of his creativity, poverty and longing. The poem also reminds us of the cycles of personal and civilizational growth and decay. Sabah interprets the poem and its metaphors – the river and the boat – and locates them in contemporary settings. This is where it all comes together: the poet and the artist both identify with Hassan who on the banks of a River muses on Time and its various manifestations. One such manifestation for Hassan’s successor, Sabah Husain, is the forlorn piece of garment Saddri (Sabah in a conversation told me that she owns and wears them too).

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The Art of U.S.-Pakistan Relations

26 January 2015

A Pakistani theater group uses satire to question the national anti-American narrative.

PakUS

e U.S.-Pakistan relationship remains an enigmatic story of converging and competing interests, and above all, magnificent delusions that the former Pakistani Ambassador Haqqani elaborated in his recent book, Pakistan, the United States, and an Epic History of Misunderstanding, about the mismatched expectations of both countries. The primary focus of this relationship remains security-focused for both sides — from the Cold War to the recent U.S. withdrawal in Afghanistan. The large security apparatuses of the two states define how to view the other at any given moment — more so in Pakistan where anti-Americanism is an article of policy for populist politics.

However, there is also a people’s story that accompanies this relationship. There are nearly 1 million Americans of Pakistani descent, and many more Pakistanis who wish to study, work, or migrate to the United States. Things are not the same after 9/11, many complain, and the Pakistani government’s complex, almost schizophrenic, perspective on the United States continues to delineate the Pakistani public’s imagination. (more…)

Islam and its more dangerous variants: interview with Raza Rumi, a survivor of religious extremism

22 January 2015

By Daniele Grassi

Following the recent events in Paris, Europe has had to face its own fear and vulnerability. Europe’s own identity has been called into question, more importantly, so has its commitment to shaping an open and tolerant society. Above all, the attacks are putting a strain on relations with Islam, a religion that is becoming increasingly associated with terrorism and other forms of extremism.

“Is Islam compatible with democratic values?”. “To what extent is terrorism affecting Islam’s evolution?”
These are some of the issues debated with Raza Ahmad Rumi, a leading voice in Pakistan against extremism and human rights violations. In March 2014, he survived an assassination attempt in which his driver lost his life. Within weeks, he left Pakistan and has since been working with the New America Foundation and the United States Institute of Peace.

Raza Rumi10
The attacks carried out in Paris have reinforced, amongst large sectors of the Western population, the idea that Islam is incompatible with the traditional values of democracy. What’s your view on this?
“In recent times the gap between those practicing the Islamic faith and liberal Europe has never been as wide as it is currently. Muslims feel alienated within the value system of Europe, but they also want to reap the benefits and the opportunities provided by the European democracies and economies. Europeans, while welcoming Muslims into their homeland, always expected them to follow their laws while practicing the Muslim faith. However, the recent attacks in Paris have jolted the Europeans and have triggered a new debate about the nature and future of relations between Muslims and Liberal Europe. There is a need for open dialogue between Muslims and liberal Europe in order to determine the future shape of Western society and Muslims’ roles within it. However, more importantly the Muslims need to take an introspective look at themselves and take responsibility for allowing hardliners to preach radical messages, from minority schools of thought such as the Salafi and Hanbali, which justify violence”. (more…)

Blank Canvas

21 January 2015

I am not a task
To be accomplished
In a timely fashion.
Nor a note
To be played
For the melody.
I’d rather be
A blank canvas
With no lines;
Than a tale
Of Un-lived moments

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