Pakistan

Through the looking glass

21 February 2015

After a decade of epistolary exchanges, I finally met Shahzia Sikander, Pakistan’s most celebrated global icon of the arts, ironically unsung at home.

SikanderShahzia Sikander Selects, 2009, Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum, New York

“Not to be boxed in, to be able to transcend boundaries: for an artist, it’s essential.”

It is a pity that I got to discover Shahzia Sikander’s work only when I left Pakistan. After her initial successes in the 1990s, with her migration to the United States, she slowly disappeared from the local art scene and the narratives within her country of birth, almost rendered invisible, like the mythical characters one reads in the folklore. In a different country, she would be celebrated for being a global icon, intensely original and gifted. Not in her country of birth where talent is subjugated to the cliques that define ‘excellence’ and where history has to be doctored to make the present legible and comfortable.

sikander2The Scroll, 1989-91

Sikander graduated from the National College of Arts in 1991. Her innovative work struck everyone since she had done something remarkable with the miniature form. Reinterpreting the format of a traditional Indo-Persian miniature, she crafted a personal relationship and in a way liberated it from the clutches of ‘tradition’. Prior to her work, the late Zahoor ul-Akhlaq inducted postmodern ideas during the 1970s and 1980s and suggested how miniature remained a relevant form for ‘contemporary’ artists. In his own work he borrowed elements of the miniature form and merged them with the abstract style he practiced. Sikander went beyond and using miniature as the foundation for her work created something new. Her teacher Ustad Bashir Ahmed encouraged her and thus began the great revival. Later, Imran Qureshi, Aisha Khalid, Ambreen Butt, Saira Wasim and many others took this movement forward and they are all globally celebrated artists in their own right.

Counter Terrorism by Urdu Literature

15 February 2015

I partiicpated in a VOA show with Ayesha Siddiqa and Wusatullah Khan hosted by Tabinda Naeem on language, literature and current trends.


Raza Rumi on countring terrorism by Urdu… by razarumi1

Manto’s women

13 February 2015

Manto stands more or less alone in the position he takes on women, contends Raza Rumi, in an exploration of Manto’s relationship with his female protagonists

 

Manto2Saadat Hasan Manto

Perhaps the most well-known and also controversial Urdu writer of the twentieth century happens to be Saadat Hasan Manto. He left us with a stupendous literary output, which continues to remain relevant decades after his death. Manto, not unlike other ‘greats’ died young and lived through the greatest upheaval in the Indian subcontinent i.e. the Partition. As a sensitive writer, he was influenced and traumatized by political turmoil during 1947 and beyond. His stories reflect his repeated attempts to come to terms with this cataclysmic event especially for millions in North India. For Manto, partition remained a mystery but he did not keep himself in a state of denial about it. He always used the word ‘batwara’, never partition.i Manto felt that it was the ripping apart of one whole and would lead to greater divisions among the people of the subcontinent. This coming to terms with the ‘batwara’, is experienced in his works by unusual characters driven by plain ambitions, mixed emotions and above all sheer humanity.

Like Nazeer AkabarAbadi, Manto’s characters are universal and often it is difficult to condemn or dislike them since their humanity remains overarching. Manto raised the slogan of humanism at a time when the subcontinent presented the picture of a boiling cauldron of religious riots and protests, of acts of misogyny committed in the name of communal honour and ‘nationalism’. For example, in the story Sahai, Manto writes, “Don’t say that one lakh Hindus and one lakh Muslims have died. Say that two lakh human beings have perished.” Manto uses his characters as metaphors to highlight the prevalent abuse of humanity in those times.

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Pakistan’s future — fraught with perilous possibilities

12 February 2015

Nearly two months after the Peshawar attack, it is unclear if Pakistan’s direction has changed. The unprecedented grief and anger over the tragedy has now given way to business as usual. Bureaucrats undertaking the routine round-up exercises, platitudes by the politicians and the ‘firm’ image by the military leadership. Sections of civil society that defied the taboos of entering Islamabad’s no-go area i.e., Lal Masjid, ignited some hope that there was going to be a mass-scale mobilisation of Pakistanis against extremism and its violent manifestations. But the last rounds of activism attracted lesser numbers and apathy – a cornerstone of Pakistan’s mainstream culture.

What could be the greatest example of this syndrome than the muted response of the state and society over the massacre of 61 worshippers in Shikarpur. The National Action Plan is under implementation and apparently, thousands have been rounded up without a plan in place as to how they will be prosecuted in a court of law. The end result will not be different from the past record. Courts will bail them out sooner than later. Military courts are being operationalised and many Pakistanis view them as a panacea for the long-term failures of the judicial system. But there are many stages before they will become effective and deliver the kind of results that are needed to combat terrorism.

The prime minister had announced that all violent militias would be banned and proceeded against. But there are many which are free to mobilise. One day, the Jamatud Dawa is banned, the other day it is not. The ASWJ rallied in Karachi and the seminaries that are the backbone of these organisations remain fully functional. Admittedly, it is not possible to tackle them immediately but is there a strategy to handle three decades of mess that is growing messier? The answer to this question is in the negative.

When the Senate questioned the Punjab Police about foreign funding to seminaries, the initial response was denial-as-usual. Senator Tahir Mashhadi reportedly said that substantive evidence confirmed the “involvement of foreign-funded seminaries which were involved in promoting militancy in Pakistan”. The Saudi Embassy clearly said that whatever support was extended to welfare seminaries, mosques and charity organisations materialised with the express consent of the government. This has exposed the hollowness of the government’s commitments to address this key issue. Pakistan simply cannot be a playground for imported ideologies and allow sectarian battles to further bleed society. (more…)

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…)

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