Friday, January 7, 2011

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.

No comments:

Post a Comment