Monday, January 10, 2011

Generation gap

Older cousin to her daughter: We'd better head home now, it's Maghrib already.
Daughter's friend: Why aunty? Doesn't your car have headlights?

Aesay dastoor ko mayn naheen maanta, mayn naheen jaanta

Yes, Jalib was quoted ad-nauseum during the Lawyers' Movement. But that doesn't lessen the greatness and universal appeal of his poems like 'Dastoor' and 'Musheer'. Where is this kind of Pakistani liberal intellectual today? Not designer clad party-liberal, or born-in-privilege-NGO-working or English press-editing-liberal, or the one sitting-abroad-and-comfortably-advocating-change liberal. Just somebody who seems rooted in the majority of this country. Talks like them, dresses like them, comes from them and could lead an organic change, or could at least have some claim to speaking for the 'silent majority'.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Winds of Change?

The candelight vigil for Salman Taseer held outside the Governor House in Lahore can perhaps be deemed a success, depending on your perspective. Blogger Raza Rumi claims on Twitter that around 2000 people attended, that figure leaves me entirely surprised. I didn't do a head count but surely it seemed much less than 2000. The last protest i attended after the Swat flogging video was released had a far greater number of people participating and they also seemed to be from a wider cross-section. Today it was the usual suspects. LGS Principals, NGO aunties and other fashionable members of civil society who have now (understandably) diverted paths with the lawyers they stood up for a short while back. The biggest turnout you saw from the civil society was during the Lawyers movement, the vigil for Salman Taseer came nowhere near that.

I don't say NGO aunty or the 'fashionable' in a necessarily derisive way, it is just that a handful of these people, many of whom must have personally known the slain Governor aren't really representative of any fictionary 'silent majority'. The only scarf I saw was on the very left wing head of Daily Times op-ed Mehmal Sarfraz. The rest were all streaked. Don't mind the over simplification, but I just point out the obvious physical appearances to drive home a point. While 'Mulla gardee naheen chalay gi' on the top of my lungs helped me vent some of my pent up frustration at being a citizen of a state where my religion will always be the business of everyone else, it didn't really do anything to increase my hope in the prospect of a budding liberal Pakistan.

I know enough of the mindset of the majority to be certain that jeans clad, streaked, English spewing lads and ladies will be immediately dismissed as 'dehriyay' and 'laa-deen'. Once one is dismissed as that there is no further room for another nuanced analysis. It is a class thing, and today's vigil, though an extremely essential step, whether or not it has any far reaching implications, is ultimately just another exercise in Pakistani class differences. There were of course PPP workers as well, but where was the vast majority of the 'average' man. Half of those condemn the act of killing but would never be able to raise their voices to the chant 'Mazhab ke naam pe siyaasat band karo'. (Stop politics in the name of religion), while the other half is busy throwing flowers at a ruthless murderer.

I must add, though, that I WAS heartened at the number of women present.

I wish the vigil had been held at the Liberty Market roundabout, though, for at least that would have helped in creating greater nuisance value.

Perhaps a better assessment of the general public's views was to be had from two pedestrians who were marvelling at the 'be-hayaaee' of those participating in the vigil.

The biggest show of bravery I saw, interestingly, was not outside the Governor's House. I rushed from the vigil to pick my son up from a classfellow's birthday and on my way to Defence I saw this car. I am sure this person did not participate in the vigil, so it was nice to see that similar sentiments were being expressed elsewhere as well

But, the most heartening part of the day was neither of the above events, it was what I saw in the morning that truly delighted me. I saw two young girls riding a motorcycle bang in the middle of Gulberg, a little nervous, yes, but for the most part quite confident. They did not look like they were from the privileged set who can get away with most anything, but the one sitting behind was wearing a black coat and trousers while the one driving was in more traditional clothes. It was quite a sight to behold. Most men around them seemed too stunned to even try to harass them. As luck would have it, i was driving, so I was unable to get a clear picture. But perhaps it is just as well that you cannot see their faces and can just sense their joy. (I really hope, for the sake of my romantic imagination that they reached home looking just as happy).

Ishtiaq Ahmed and the Lahore massacres

I have thought about it quite frequently since the attack on Ahmadi mosques in Lahore, but after the Daata Darbar massacre it has taken even more concrete shape in my mind. Ishtiaq Ahmed has a role to play in the mindset that perpetuates such killings.Who is Ishtiaq Ahmed? Maybe the handful of readers of this blog who (i presume) have mostly been raised on English and American influences will never have heard of him, but I am sure some of the slightly older readership will have come across his novels some time or the other. When I was a child of about 9 and 10 they were all the rage in circles that read even a little bit of Urdu. Our chief pleasure used to be the exchange of Ishtiaq Ahmed novels that appeared with the frequency of four a month but in our meagre pocket money, my friend and I could afford only one each between us. Devouring our own first we would immediately move on to the other’s.
Ishtiaq Ahmed novels were, loosely speaking, the equivalent of Hardy Boys. Adventurous and fast-paced, they were gripping enough to keep countless young pre-teen and teens enthralled. Over time though, they started moving from being subtle indoctrinations to full-blown hate-preaching. The pleasure that was once to be had in the kicks, punches, quirks and witty repartee of the characters was employed to brainwash youth into thinking about Ahmed’s Wahabist ideologies. India was perpetually demonized of course, his novel ‘Langra Inteqaam’ fully endorsing all the text-book versions of what happened in Bangladesh, and he constantly pushed the ideal of religion before country (the kind of thinking that Musharraf later tried to overturn with his ‘Sab se Pehlay Pakistan’ campaign).

Somewhere in the early 90s, Ahmed started a campaign in his prefaces. He claimed that in an upcoming novel he would shock all his readers into running to a specific corner of their houses. This was typical Ishtiaq Ahmed marketing, the creation of suspense to sell his books. It intrigued the young me greatly, who was a perpetual lagger when it came to solving anything before the last page. This ‘marketing gimmick’ turned out to be something far more sinister as it unfolded. Ahmed wrote an out-and-out novel against people who visit Sufi shrines, replete with ahaadees to back him up. Ahmedis and Sufi followers became the constant target of his poisonous pen that had previously only indulged in nodding passes to ‘muslamaanyat’ and barely veiled antagonism towards India. Now it turned inwards and sought to destroy any semblance of tolerance within the country itself.

Ahmedis, particularly, came under great fire. The idea that every dissenter is ‘vaajib-ul-qatal’ (liable to be killed) came to me the first time through the writings of Ishtiaq Ahmed. Make no mistake about it, his circle of influence wasn’t small. True, that none of the girls in my elitist-ish school were reading him but boys from equivalent schools certainly were, and we know those are the ones whom brainwashing affects directly (though it is not any less hazardous in women). My brother, i remember, once asked me to give him my collections of Ishtiaq Ahmed novels to take to America for a homesick friend of his. His influence ranged far and wide.

Already having read cartoon series version of Muhammad Bin Qasim, Tariq Bin Ziyaad and Mahmood Ghazni’s ‘heroic’ conquests in Taleem-o-Tarbiat I was fertile grounds for hatred against Ahmedis and any kind of non-wahaabi Muslims. Today I wonder, if someone like me could be affected thus, who was on the other hand taking in copious amounts of toyroom tea parties and English boarding schools in Enid Blyton, then where is the surprise in so many brainwashed suicide bombers that keep getting thrown up by the dozen. At that tender age of 12 or 13, being physically fearless by nature and not being a particular family favourite, I could easily have become a suicide bomber I am sure. Later on in life, teaching at Aitchison, I learned the same lesson--there is an immense amount of hardliners amongst the ‘creme de la creme’ (to repeat a phrase that an odious old teacher repeated ad nauseum) of the country. Madrassaas are not the only breeding ground for terrorists in Pakistan. ‘Elite’ schools with self serving Principals and text books that preach nothing but hatred and intolerance are just as bad. It is only at the all girls LGS that I currently teach at (kudos and a totally humble bow to its Principal Nasreen Shah) that there is a concerted effort to make the girls think in the right direction, in order to nullify the effects of some of their text book education as well as the insidious influences of ‘fashion’ and partying and other forms of empty headedness.

The ‘pe dar pe hamlay’on Lahore, as Ishtiaq Ahmed himself would put it, made me think incessantly of the man and whether any of the attackers (or those who control them) could ever have read him at some point, and derived moral justification for their convictions from his evil simplification of things. It isn’t too great a stretch.

Daily Times 09/04/2010

Book review: In tune with history —by Sabahat Zakariya
Rock & Roll Jihad: A Muslim Rock Star’s Revolution
By Salman Ahmad Free Press; Pp 226

Salman Ahmad’s Rock & Roll Jihad takes off from the time when he returns to Pakistan as a gawky American teenager who gets beaten up one evening while trying to make his doctor classmates rock to his music. As his hard-bought Les Paul is smashed across the marble floor, Ahmad — in a manner that should resonate with Pakistani students from government universities — watches impotently, rapidly establishing the book’s themes of music, cultural conflict and the desire for reconciliation. It marks the beginning of a personal narrative that is inextricably tied to the collective history of the country of his birth, and lends the book its essential readability.

The grand sweep of Pakistani history — immortalised in the story of Paki-Pop — is captured here by someone who has actually helped shape that history. From the hushed, underground music scene of the Zia era to the heady and hopeful days of democracy, culminating in hormone-marred pop concerts, Ahmad brings Pakistan’s fascinatingly critical cultural evolution to life with a deeply personal recounting. As Ahmad transitions from Vital Signs to Junoon, the country moves from dictatorship to democracy. He captures the romance of Benazir’s return to Pakistan, but is equally brutal in recording the failures of her terms in office. But it is Nawaz Sharif who bears the brunt of Ahmad’s most scathing criticism. Ahmad retells the story of a first class match in which he was the then chief minister’s partner at the crease. Mian sahib’s princely antics on the cricket field are a part of urban Lahori legend, and Ahmad adds to the cannon with relish. Rather irksome, though, is his blind eulogising of the almost-militant Imran Khan. It is as if Ahmad refuses to take off the rose-tinted glasses from his childhood through which he has always chosen to see Imran Khan, his hero. He readily forgives all Imran Khan’s sins purely because he once raised a shiny trophy on a cricket field. His rather cursory yet flattering mention of Musharraf also comes across as intellectually dishonest, particularly in view of his personal views on the man, witnessed in his heated (albeit private) epistolary exchange with the General’s son. His glossing over of Musharraf’s many failures, then, seems more a way of appeasing his friend Bilal Musharraf than an honest assessment of his views on the ‘benevolent dictator’.

Little anecdotes about Salman’s encounters with well-known South Asian and international figures enliven the book and alleviate the preaching that occasionally threatens to defeat the narrative. Waheed Murad giving him passes to his film as a young child, Imran Khan’s scepticism about the young guitarist’s love life, Madam Noor Jehan lunging angrily at a guest on the day of his wedding, and touring Sri Lanka with Wasim Akram and other superstars of the Pakistani cricket team make the book an enjoyably brisk read.

The gem among the anecdotes is about Salman Ahmad taking Mick Jagger on a visit to Lahore’s Red Light area. A series of hilarious events unfold as a 16-year-old courtesan smirks at the very idea of the geriatric-looking Jagger being a famous entertainer in the Western world. This irks Jagger so much he decides to show her what his artistic talents are made of. Dancing together to the beat of live tablas and harmoniums, the two set the night on fire in a little squalid corner of Lahore. The lesson of cultural harmony derived from this incident is the most poignant in the book, far more so than some of the contrived ones about Ahmad’s own work with the UN.

But undoubtedly the grand star of the book is his wife. The stark white page in the beginning relieved by only two words, ‘For Samina’, seems to be a visual representation of the role his spouse has played in his life. Salman and Samina’s story is written as a breathtaking testimony to the power of love. There is love at first glimpse, dramatic twists and turns and difficulties in the path-to-forever punctuated with laugh-out-loud humour — all of which makes one fervently hope there was no ghostwriter involved in the process.

Despite the book’s other merits, the accusation that Ahmad is writing primarily with a Western audience in mind does have validity. This mild irritant could have been disregarded had he not decided to sprinkle the text with tedious translations of each local term, which, apart from breaking up the flow, serves to remind Pakistani readers that they are not the book’s intended audience. A glossary in the end would have been more practical — and less insulting.

His detractors may decry Ahmad’s pomposity, but that is not necessarily a disability here. Ahmad’s sense of his own importance in the world drives the story, making it, for the most part, a lyrical and poignant read. It is certainly difficult to escape Ahmad’s mildly overweening sense of his own importance, which permeates all corners of his narrative as he talks about being the ambassador of peace from the subcontinent who took the UN General Assembly and the Nobel Prize ceremony by storm. But autobiography, by its very nature, is a self-indulgent genre. To expect the author to write with self-effacing humbleness — particularly about pop, which is driven by precisely the opposite forces — is to ask for a dull book. Yet it is in places where Ahmad fades into the background and allows his music to take centre stage — the portions that explain the local change wrought by Paki-Pop — that the book is at its best.

Sabahat Zakariya is a staff member at Daily Times.

The News 25/10/2009

Gearing up for a bicycle ride

Women cannot cycle on the streets of Lahore. It's considered indecent. But can this mindset be changed?
By Sabahat Zakariya

Picture the scene: A handful of men and women plying the Lahore roads on a leisurely Sunday. Nothing all that unusual about it you would say, until you were told that those men and women are on bicycles. Men of a certain background in society are almost as rare a phenomenon on city streets as are women, and Critical Mass, Lahore tries to break these taboos every single lazy Lahori Sunday.

Like many girls my age I had enthusiastically bicycled around my small colony as a young child but as I grew to two digits, hushed tones and glances made me retreat into non-cycling mode for the rest of my life. It was simply not considered decent for girls to do anything that would detract from single-mindedly following the path to domestic felicity, and since cycling did not in any way seem to contribute to that directly, it had to be chucked away.

Ironically though, women from an older generation faced less social stereotypes in this regard. We have all heard stories of mums and aunts who cycled down the Mall Road and made their way to Kinnaird College on a bicycle. But somehow, somewhere things changed. Women slowly disappeared from the public space and seeing them out and about on city streets became a rare phenomenon. 

When asked about this, my mother told me that she used to bicycle every day from her village to main Sialkot city to attend her Bachelors classes at her college during the '60s and never faced harassment or even raised eyebrows.

Critical Mass, therefore, is a God sent in a social environment where defying norms is always best done with a pinch of prudence. So having heard of Critical Mass from a friend, one fine Sunday morning I stashed my borrowed bicycle in the trunk of my car and set off towards Zakir Tikka, the starting point for the Critical Mass rides. It was a relief to see that some other brave women had also showed up with their bicycles and were willing to be a part of the phenomenon. That first ride proved that there was far less cause for apprehension than I had first imagined.

There was surprisingly little harassment on the roads and though people certainly did look up and stare, none of the women felt threatened. It may be because in this case the class divide overwhelmed the gender divide. Upper middle class looking women on bicycles, surrounded by men, inspire enough shock and awe to stun onlookers into silence. Unsurprisingly, my most conservative comments have come from men of an upper social strata who have expressed distaste at the idea of 'respectable' women making a spectacle of themselves around town, frowning upon their courage to revel in feeling lose-limbed and free.

If bicycling comes back into vogue it can prove to be a great boon for women of poorer backgrounds. Once the streets are made safe for them by ensuring that both male and female police do their duty in curbing harassment, cleaning ladies can save a great deal of money while commuting from one house to another in order to earn their meagre wages. It might also help dissuade the culturally accepted but unsafe and dangerous practice of women sitting side-saddle on motorbikes.

Cycling, for me, has led to all sorts of adventures. From a gruelling six-hour trek to Jallo Park and back to shouting down the PM's motorcade in protest for blocking city roads for hours. It has also helped forge many new friendships, since cycling is not just conducive to interacting with one's environment but also with other people in a refreshing new way.

Lahore is the ideal city for bicycling, what with its wide, tree-lined boulevards and a history of cultural leadership. Imagine it being flooded with men and women of all types riding on bicycles, lessening the city's smog and giving its roads a refreshing sense of civility and fair play. 

Women, let's ride the wave and change the cityscape.