Friday, June 13, 2014

Liberal criminals

June 06, 2014


On Sunday, John Oliver, America’s newest late-night comedy sensation warned his viewers about the US’s march toward a two-tiered internet that could alter the face of the medium. Under this system, certain companies with deep pockets could buy their way to faster consumer access – a death knell to the intrinsically democratic nature of online communication. Such an internet would greatly diminish the possibility of new startups coming out of nowhere and establishing themselves as major internet players virtually overnight (so far a defining feature of the worldwide web), but even more importantly, this money-grabbing bid by America’s internet providers could lead to under-the-table control of content once cable companies and web applications that can afford to live in the fast lane cozy up to each other in a Faustian pact. John Oliver’s disclosure and his subsequent urging of ‘internet trolls’ to inundate the website of the Federal Communications Commission resulted in the website crashing within hours of the call; television driving internet traffic to serve the cause of free media. Whether something comes out of the signatures in hundreds of thousands on the FCC website remains to be seen but John Oliver has successfully catapulted into the limelight an insidious plot that could well have remained under the radar and become a part of the system without anyone noticing. This is impactful journalism being practiced by someone who has the power and the wherewithal to know how to wield that power for good.
But it is also the power of the first amendment of the American constitution that grants Oliver the right to continue to be as loud and as determined as the likes of rabid right wing rivals like Bill O’ Reilly.
The Pakistani constitution however, affords its citizens no such unqualified right. Nor does the constitution of any country in the world that deems itself ‘Islamic’. From the literal shutting up of liberal voices by making them the brunt of bullets to virtual censorship, Pakistan has run the complete gamut. Starting from the 2012 ban on YouTube and a short ban on Facebook in between, leading to a recent censoring of certain accounts in Pakistan by Twitter to the latest banning of progressive pages on Facebook, liberal ideas in Pakistan have never been as vociferously under attack post-Zia as the current onslaught. Yesterday, Laal, Roshni (for the 3rd time), and others including Taliban Are Zaliman, Bhensa, Zalaan, Saaen and Lashkar-e-Bhangvi’s Facebook pages were banned in Pakistan as reported by human rights activist Beena Sarwar. These pages were trying to do the job that our schools have failed at; making our young ones aware of a world beyond Pakistan’s physical and ideological boundaries. None of their content was either blasphemous or pornographic, two of the conditions specified on the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority’s website as reasons for a possible ban. When contacted, none of the page admins could give a reason as to why their pages had been blocked, since none had been provided to them. This is also in violation of the PTA’s own policies as laid out on their website:
“The persons affected by its decisions or determination are given a due notice thereof and provided with an opportunity of being heard.”
Roshni, whose page has now been banned a third time, has never been given any reason as to why they have constantly been meted out this treatment.
Now there are hushed expressions of fear by owners of cultural cafes in Karachi and Islamabad that strive to enrich the lives of their cities’ residents through different cultural and intellectual activities. Owners of some of these places are being harassed by ‘law enforcers’ demanding employee lists, contact numbers, and bank statements alongside questions like, ‘What country runs this place?’, the obvious insinuation here being that all liberals in Pakistan are foreign agents. These are classic tactics state agencies employ to harass the handful of liberals whose voices though muted, thanks to a paucity of numbers, are still too great a threat to allow to continue unchecked. Much more than God, it is liberals they fear. Much more than gun-toting terrorists it is the advocates of humanitarianism they feel the need to nab and shut down. Spaces (supposedly) funded by Germany or the US are suspect but madrassas run with Saudi money are halaal.
Putting all angry rhetoric aside, trust is, till such time as a great upheaval happens to shake the very foundations of our constitution and state, the right to liberal protest will, at best, remain hollow. Anyone crying freedom of speech in Pakistan is essentially deluding themselves into believing that first-world ideals of freedom can exist or be demanded in a country that finds the garlanding of murderers perfectly acceptable but a non-believer’s need to be at once Pakistani and irreligious an unpardonable crime.

The courage of Maya Angelou

May 30, 2014


In the immediate aftermath of September 11th, 2001 as anger and patriotism washed over the US, its already jingoistic and sentimental tendencies were given free – and what seemed at that time – justified reign. In Pakistan, people of the ‘serves them right’ variety far outnumbered the reasonable, and picking fights with those whose gleeful schdenfreude at the death of so many innocents jarred my sense of human decency became a common occurence for me.
Being limited to your geographical context can both be a boon and a bane. Being up against those physically proximate affords greater understanding and better leveraging tools with which to work upon preconceived ideas and presumptions. At the very least it gives you greater moral authority to fight what you perceive to be the good fight. But often ‘moral’ fights turn out to be far from a simple battle between good and evil. Even as I vociferously debated anyone’s ‘right’ to rejoice the deaths of innocent bystanders because of the US’s perceived or real international transgressions, the American media and political establishment’s beating of the war drum reached fever pitch. Shouts of ‘with us or against us’ gave way to loud tearful queries of ‘Why do they hate us?’, followed by the predictably easy answers Americans seem so adept at generating: ‘They hate us for our freedoms.’
The internet was a relatively recent phenomenon back then but enough vibrant chat rooms existed for a Pakistani to be able to listen in on ordinary Americans’ voices and check the pulse of the nation. It was understandably full of rage and hate. On one of these chat rooms where people let out their frustration by advocating the carpet bombing of all Muslim nations, I suggested that other alternatives to war be considered, especially since so many people who dropped in there seemed so staunchly Christian, and wasn’t the idea of turning the other cheek a very beautiful, very Christian moral value? Unsurprisingly, this earned me a barrage of hate and eventual expulsion. By advocating nuance on both sides I was neither with ‘us’ nor ‘them’. Yet in Pakistan, I knew enough of a diversity of people to find solace in the similar-minded. However, American television and other sources of information emanating from the country felt like one giant sentimental, raging, weeping monolith, unable to think and see beyond its self-indulgent notions of being wronged for no reason at all.
Till one day I turned on the television and caught Maya Angelou on The Oprah Winfrey Show. For the first time since the twin towers came crashing down, a popular American had the courage to sit in front of a roomful of sentimental American women (who drive the business of the American morning show) and deliver compassionate and balanced views on the subject. The roomful of people, including Oprah, who had clearly come there expecting a fuzzy, feel-good and self-congratulatory speech on American greatness from one of their country’s greatest living icons got instead exactly what they ought to have expected from someone of Angelou’s stature: a mirror that America was and is still unable to look squarely in the eye.
Angelou’s courage was of a timbre I particularly admire: nothing in-your-face or deliberately provocative about it. It wasn’t designed for the shock value. It was just there, something intrinsic to the large woman with the sparkling eyes and the width of experience that poured itself so evocatively in both her poetry and speech. I can’t recall any longer if that day, nearly a month after 9/11, was my first acquaintance with her, but I do remember going out after that show and buying ‘I Know How the Caged Bird Sings’. But it is in her poetry that I, like many millions of people around the world, found the greatest resonance and solace. Her own celebration of the span of her hips and the flash of her smile, her dancing like she had diamonds at the meeting of her thighs, is perhaps the best way of capturing the elusive charm of Maya Angelou, a woman who embodied a quiet personal and political courage in a country too often liable to shouting or jumping about and having to talk real loud to impress its greatness upon the world.

On Mubasher Lucman

May 23, 2014


Mubashar Lucman is a former student of Aitchison College, Lahore; Pakistan’s premier boys school that posh parents around the city are currently flogging their sons to get into at all costs. While the prime purpose of education as an exercise in opening minds, lowering prejudices and creating rational citizens might sound like too lofty an ideal for most cash-strapped, rough-neighbourhood-serving schools around the world, those whose student body comprises largely of children of FWD-driving parents should be slightly more in tune with the demands of a modern education, which put in terms of the UN’s declaration of human rights is to be: “Directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups.”
This short but profound encapsulation of what an education entails should form the basis of the training of all teachers and students who enter an institution. Unfortunately, in the grand tradition of Pakistani pedagogy, what unites Matric and O’Levels schools, rich and poor institutions is the collective sense of persecution that plagues Pakistani society at every level and the unifying joys of bigotry and xenophobia that penetrate the system from top to bottom. Xenophobia as an abhorrent trait is a concept alien to a society that holds its sense of Muslim superiority so dear that every little perceived threat to its religious sentiments has to be responded to with a forceful clamping down on dissent.
Perhaps the most dispiriting aspect of this slide into obscurantism is that even the country’s elite institutions, sometimes with leaders who are sane and humanistic, are so tied by Pakistani laws and their implementation that they are more often than not cowered into silence. Mubashar Lucman’s gratuitous attack on Lahore Grammar School that was allegedly prompted by personal vendetta resulted in making ‘Comparative Religion’ an optional subject at the school. The administration became so terrified by this unprovoked attack and the power of the media blackmailer to incite violence that they refused to plead their case. Any journalistic attempt to hear and relay their side of the story was categorically refused for fear of further backlash. In the topsy turvy world that we live in, the teaching of tolerance via comparative religion is a crime while the continuous incitement of violence against others in the name of religion earns you a ten’o clock spot to freely peddle your hate on national television.
In Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene, a man in a monk’s dress who meets the knight and lady – the protagonists of the epic poem – is so introduced to us:

At length they chanced to meet
upon the way
An aged sire, in long black weeds clad,
His feet all bare, his beard all
hoarie gray
And by his belt his book he
hanging had;
Sober he seemed, and very sagely sad,
And to the ground his eyes
were lowly bent,
Simple in show, and void of malice bad,
And all the way he prayed, as he went,
And often knocked his breast,
as one that did repent.

This pious man as it turns out is Archimago – the villain garbed in religious dress – taking the age old Machiavellian shortcut to power. This, and Mir Taqi Mir’s scepticism, Ghalib’s irreverence, Iqbal’s ambivalence is the alternative narrative we need to teach as a counter to the religious dogma that has poisoned our generations.
What Mubashar Lucman does for commercial gain, many drawing room zealots aspire to for ‘love.’ Men with beards with some aspirations to upward mobility have shifted shop from mosque loudspeakers to television screens, with monetary rewards and a sense of self-importance increasing exponentially as a result. The most profitable business in the country today is religion, so much so that it has now become impossible for any institution or individual to stand apart from this all-consuming, ravenous beast. The only way to stop feeding it the flesh of our minorities, dissenters and thinkers is to allow for universal human values to flourish at least in private institutions. Instead, contrary to popular belief, elite private institutions in Pakistan are as much a hotbed of extremist hate and intolerance as any madrassah. Mubasher Lucman is only one loud and dangerous prodigy of this system.

Professor Sajjad Sheikh

At a time when Matric/FSc. students mattered I remember reading interviews of top achievers splashed prominently in newspapers following the announcement of results. A common refrain in these interviews was that Pakistani syllabi are outdated, needing urgent attention to bring them up to speed with the rest of the world. These opinions were largely expressed by students who had topped the ‘science group’. I am not quite sure what those topping the ‘arts group’ said, I guess they were just thrilled to be mentioned in the same breath as the science students. As one studying the humanities myself I recall reflecting upon my own feelings for the courses I was taught, and finding to my surprise that I rather enjoyed them.
The year I did my BA a new syllabus was introduced for compulsory English Language. This syllabus was perceived to be so difficult and beyond the pale of the average student across the province that there were actual protests against it. Many students I knew trembled at the prospect of the English Language exam, and it was possible to understand why, even if you didn’t share their trepidation. This new course spanned four books, one each of essays, short stories and poetry, as well as Hemingway’s ‘Old Man and the Sea’. The book of essays I found to be particularly riveting, and in the sixteen intervening years since I was first introduced to it I have shared some of its essays countless times with people who did not go through the local BA system. A masterfully handpicked anthology of essays that spanned not just different eras and genres but a vast variety of moods and aspects of human endeavour and thought, it started with Liaquat Ali Khan’s speech at the University of Kansas immediately after the creation of Pakistan, the very picture of an articulate statesman shaping the newly born country’s first ideas on foreign policy. It is a marvellous insight into Pakistan’s beginnings and the thought processes behind the early policies of our founding fathers which could lead to an excellent debate in the classroom if led by an intelligent and inquisitive teacher. The D.H Lawrence essay on death and resurrection, depression and the inevitable bouncing back of the human spirit should be compulsory reading for everyone. It is something I have gone back to again and again over the years when life has seemed just a little too overwhelming. There is a harrowing, personal account of the Nagasaki holocaust, enough to turn any human being into a pacifist and an essay by the last man on the moon, a tale of endurance and courage that is sure to make any human spirit soar. It has also been a great source of trumping moon-landing conspiracy theorists, most of whom don’t know that there were six successful manned expeditions to the moon before NASA decided to terminate that particular branch of scientific endeavour. There are great essays by Virginia Woolf, Stephen Leacock, Alduous Huxley and W.B Yeats, addressing many areas of superstition, behaviour and lack of knowledge that all also make sense in the Pakistani context. Just consider some of the titles: ‘The Beauty Industry’ (Huxley’s damning indictment of the cosmetic industry), ‘Are Doctors Men of Science?’ (G.B Shaw’s tongue-in-cheek takedown of the sense of scientific superiority many doctors exude) and the bittersweet tale of Leacock’s tailor representing our odd relationship with those in the services industry.
As I sit back now and rifle through that book once again, I am overwhelmed by the depth of reading that its author must have undertaken in his lifetime to have come up with this small gem. The author is one Professor Sajjad Shaikh who passed away two months ago largely unnoticed, it seems, by the vast majority of Pakistanis. The news of his death did not appear in any of the local English language dailies; however, a couple of newspapers did carry a report on a memorial session held for him a month later.
I had never met Professor Shaikh (although my father, himself a professor, knew him somewhat), but his sensitive choice of essays for Pakistani students so impressed me as a young student that I felt something personal in the news of his death. The picture my father painted of him – that of the studious professor equally well-versed in both Urdu and English holed up in his study seriously pursuing reading and writing – seems to be fast fading into the archival memory of our nation.
I realized the value of Prof Sajjad’s book when I started teaching O’Levels students several years ago. In many well-regarded private schools where English Literature is not a compulsory subject beyond class 8, students will probably never even have heard of William Wordsworth, which might not sound like such a catastrophe when placed against the active hatred and intolerance embedded in subjects like Urdu and Islamyat, but in the larger scheme of things does effect the overall thinking and feeling capacities of a nation. Even those who take up Literature as an elective subject at the O’Levels do not get exposed to as vast an array of writers as those who take the FA and BA route, thanks to Pakistani scholars like Professor Sajjad Shaikh. If only we would produce a few more of his ilk with greater regularity.

Seeking the perfect word

The third space is a term used in the concept of community building to refer to social surroundings separate from the two usual social environments of home and the workplace.”
They are meant to be spaces where members of a community can come together to discuss, share, collaborate and build ties. Libraries are the best example of this third space. One basic characteristic of this space is that it is a non-commercial zone where people can congregate freely without any emphasis on their social status. There are no prerequisites or requirements that can prevent acceptance or participation.
Third places, then, are anchors of community life and facilitate and foster broader, more creative interaction. The place needs to be highly accessible, preferably located at walking distance.
Never do I feel the poverty of my third-world existence as acutely as when I reflect on the lack of a third space around me. Lahore, purportedly the cultural capital of the country, has an appalling lack of libraries, especially functional ones. A functional library being one which welcomes new patrons with open arms, where new books readily exchange hands, which provides a corner for story-telling activities, a public-access computer area and an environment conducive to growth. The idea of a library may itself be on the way out all over the world – a casualty of spending cuts and the digital age – but in countries like Pakistan, it can still serve a useful purpose.
In the Lahore Cantonment where I live, there is just a single library I know of. This is housed within a club for army men that I and my family, as civilians living in Cantt, are not allowed to access. Other posh localities whose community libraries I have heard of are DHA and Model Town, neither of whom are welcoming to those who reside outside of these areas. As for DHA residents, I don’t know of a single one who actually frequents the community library, a failure on the part of residents, but also on the part of those maintaining the space. If my experience of other libraries in the city is anything to go by, these libraries are dark dungeons of despair no one without a suicidal urge would wish to visit voluntarily.
To put my various hypotheses to the test I decided to go to one of Lahore’s biggest public libraries, the Quaid-e-Azam Library, a week ago. You cannot become a member of this august institution if you aren’t a degree holder – a circular, self-defeating pre-requisite for the membership of a space that is built to confer knowledge. Not only do you need to produce a document verifying that you are worthy of entering the library’s premises, you have to then get its membership form signed by ‘a gazetted officer’, an archaic term coined to impede all manner of smooth progress in Pakistan.
This time I managed to go inside the library under the pretext of asking for procedural details for membership. Inside its magnificent, crumbling old premises, I found a surprising number of people sitting around reading. On closer inspection, most of them turned out to be CSS-hopefuls cramming badly printed books or going through titles like ‘How to Learn English in 40 Days’. Nothing particularly wrong with either endeavour. Just that the notion of visiting a library in Pakistan seems to have been reduced to this alone.
“Could you guide me to the children’s section?” I asked a woman behind a desk. She looked bewilderingly at her assistant and after some contemplation told me:
“We don’t have one. You can find children’s books at the Children’s Library.”
“Where’s that?”
“Gaaf Road”
I have never quite been able to understand the insistence on pronouncing Golf Road that way, but I thanked her anyway, and went looking for the children’s library.
As it turns out, I was quite familiar with that place. When it had first opened up I’d been a frequent visitor to the gleaming, pillared structure that had housed not just the library but karate lessons, painting and computer classes. Now getting off at the deserted gate to the Children’s Library Complex I couldn’t help but notice the creeping sense of decay that had overtaken what by now is a nearly thirty-year old building. The gatekeeper asked me why I wanted to go in.
“Why does anyone go to a library?”
“There are many facilities here. I want to know which one in particular you are going to. Anyway, sign this register here. Put down your name, ID card number, time of entry and exit.”
The receptionist inside confirmed my vague recollection that the Children’s Complex Library is for children aged 4-14, presumably an age bar devised to keep ‘nefarious’ teenage activity away from its premises. I wondered where teens who want to read go. The Quaid-e-Azam Library doesn’t allow membership to anyone who cannot produce a graduate degree and an ID card. The children’s library throws out anyone beyond 14. Which essentially means that anyone from 14 to 20 (or thereabouts) has no unfettered access to public space reserved for books in the great city of Lahore.
What this criminal negligence does to libraries that do exist, is reserved for the deep reaches of another column.

The curious case of Punjabi

Recently, a well-written column appeared in a local newspaper advocating the teaching of Punjabi in schools across the province. This was followed by a news item stating that the provincial higher education department has sought comments from Principals of all colleges in the province regarding the promotion of Punjabi amongst students. ‘Mother-tongue’ advocates have been trying to restore some dignity to the language that in urban Punjab is widely regarded as the communication tool of and for the uneducated. These are all admirable goals but they beggar the question: why does Punjabi need so many contingency measures and ‘advocates’ to stay alive in its own homeland?
The case of Punjabi in Pakistan is a curious one. Few people can tell exactly why it fell from favour amongst the educated Punjabis on the Pakistani side of the border except for the assertion that Urdu was the language the British favoured, and the ever-opportunistic Punjabi took it up for reasons of upward mobility. However, like most historic occurrences, the process of the educated Punjabi embracing Urdu is gradual, murky and not so easily pinned down.
Apart from the obvious financial advantages of adopting Urdu, there is enough evidence to support the fact that Urdu and Punjabi are essentially the same language with the same root and structure, and much of the same vocabulary, hence Punjabi speakers have little difficulty in making Urdu their own. Just the fact that urban Punjab has taken to Urdu as naturally as it has is testament to the similarity between the two.
Baba Farid, widely recognized as the first Punjabi poet, wrote in an idiom very different from the Punjabi that is spoken today. Often words and phrases from his poetry echo what we understand to be Urdu today. Recent evidence shows that ancient Punjabi poets like Bulleh Shah and Waris Shah, apart from writing in the popular Punjabi idiom, also wrote poetry in a language much like modern-day Urdu. This is symptomatic of the ease with which speakers of both languages can interact and engage.
Names of many Punjabi towns and villages end in the Urdu ‘ki’ or ‘ka’: Pattoki, Sadoki, Maddoki, Kamoki, Faazilka, unlike the ‘di’ and ‘da’ that are used in today’s Punjabi, suggestive of a closer embrace between Urdu and Punjabi than is given credit today.
But thanks to the patronage of the British, the Urdu script managed to develop at a pace that left Punjabi behind, especially amongst its Muslim speakers who, unlike Sikh Punjabis had no religious affinity with the language. With the mass exodus of Sikhs after 1947, Punjabi on the Pakistani side was left completely adrift with no standardized Persian script and certain sounds like the hard ‘n’ and ‘r’ unprovided for in the Urdu-Persian universe. When Urdu, despite the patronage it received, struggled to develop a body of prose massive and varied enough to rival the world’s bigger languages, Punjabi stood no chance.
Punjabi revivalists talk of reinvigorating a language that has never been able to become a written language over its long history, certainly not in the script that is understood on this side of the Punjab today. In so far as Punjabi is used as a medium of instruction in primary schools, it can go a long way in making young children from rural Punjab feel comfortable with the education system. However, continuing written instruction in Punjabi beyond that requires resources and a body of literary work that is non-existent. Young Punjabi children, once familiar with school, can easily transition to Urdu. In the light of this reality pumping resources into Punjabi, when its script still remains contentious and clunky, seems redundant.
Concluding that Punjabi children have little difficulty in picking up Urdu, the demand for Punjabi in schools is less about the difficulties that Punjabi children face in their early education and more about certain educated Punjabis’ awareness of the sense of shame the hard sounds and earthen texture their indigenous tongue excites in them, and the need to redress this.
Teaching Punjabi in schools is not the answer to getting over this inferiority complex, the same complex that urban Sindhis have about Urdu. A posh private school in Lahore teaches Punjabi to its students in grades 7 and 8. This makes its students want to speak in Punjabi as much as a Karachi kid on the right side of the divide wants to speak Urdu just because it is taught in school. Languages, and why they spread, is a function of power. For a language to be desirable it needs to be lucrative and it needs to capture the imagination of the young through its popular culture. Currently most of Pakistan’s upcoming music and literature produced by and for the young is in English. Vital Signs’ Urdu and Abrar-ul-Haq’s Punjabi are relics of the past. No literature or popular television show for children or young adults exists in either Urdu or Punjabi. The last time any Pakistani child cared about a show in a local language was when ‘Ainak Waala Jinn’ was aired back in 1993. If the government or activist individuals are serious about reviving Punjabi (or saving Urdu) they need to invest their money in adventurous creatives who can bring a freshness to these languages’ idioms and create cultural icons that the young can follow and mimic. That is what Punjabi and Urdu advocates need to look into. Merely barking up the textbook tree will only yield limited and mostly ineffective results.

Educate the nation

Rarely does one come across a person who doesn’t wholeheartedly endorse the cause of education in the country. Apart from, it seems, the lunatic Taliban fringe who shoot at girls and blow up schools to further their agenda, almost anyone you meet, with or without much insight into the affairs of the state, will impress upon you the need to double Pakistan’s education and health budgets as a panacea for its ills. Despite that, teaching as a profession, particularly school-teaching is considered to be at the bottom of the pile of careers most educated young people aspire to, particularly young men. Teacher absentee-ism is often lamented in published statistics and studies as well as a lack of physical infrastructure in government schools, like no electricity, running water, non-existent boundary walls and assorted equipment, but rarely is the mental and physical state of teachers, particularly in the 61, 793 private schools (Pakistan Education Statistics 2010-11) across Pakistan discussed in the national mainstream. To most, the idea of the government school teacher is epitomized by the image of the crooked professional who draws a salary without ever showing up for work. The private school teacher, on the other hand, is viewed as a perpetual under-achiever plodding on in a field no bright person would actively choose, unless they have a set of domestic duties that necessitates working in a ‘less demanding’ field.
The teacher is non-existent in the public’s psyche as anything but the lucky duck who comes home before the afternoon is out and enjoys long summer holidays lounging around the house. Yet nobody seems to be queuing up to become a teacher. What may be the reason for that? Besides money, one of the reasons people choose to continue in a field is job satisfaction, i.e the feeling of well-being associated with your work. This well-being that springs primarily from financial prosperity can also be bolstered by other factors. Doctors in Pakistan who have protested long and hard for better salaries may not get the financial rewards they need and deserve but ‘Doctor sahib’ exerts a powerful force-field of respect wherever he goes, different from even the most successful of teachers who even with private tuitions that can take their earnings to heights as great as a reasonably successful doctor’s are condescended to for benefitting from a broken education system.
There are several reasons behind this failure to build prestige for the practitioners of a profession as essential as teaching. Getting hired by a private school in Pakistan requires no teaching qualification. Pretty much anyone with a BA or an MA degree can walk in and be let loose on hundreds of unsuspecting young minds without ever having received any prior training. As a result even well-meaning teachers flounder and try to feel their way through the job on sheer instinct. Most private schools, money-making enterprises run like the worst of corporates, provide no benefits to teachers and there is little visible incremental ascent in the profession. Those who enter a private school under the title ‘teacher’ leave as teachers, even if grey-haired and bent, unlike their counterparts in government schools who at least have increasing designations, grades, salaries and benefits to look forward to throughout their professional lives.
Private schools all over Pakistan are completely unregulated with no Private School Teachers of Pakistan Association that could lobby for teachers’ rights, which means schools can be completely arbitrary in their hiring and firing processes and no one can take them to task for it. Major private schools with branches all over the country and owners rolling in the billions pay a pittance to teachers despite earnings as high as any corporate firm’s, resulting in most teachers’ brains shrinking to incorporate the four walls of their institutions. Such individuals, with so little exposure to the outside world cannot implement curriculum reforms, even if textbooks are updated and exorcised of their bigoted, xenophobic demons. Yet no school in the private sector is willing to expand their teachers’ horizons by sending them on educational trips abroad, an idea that almost seems absurd despite the fact that most big private school chains can afford it.
There is no inspectionary body for private schools in Pakistan either, something equivalent to the UK’s Ofsted, the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills, an independent and impartial organization that regulates services which care for children and young people and reports directly to the British Parliament. Every week, they carry out hundreds of inspections and regulatory visits throughout England, and publish the results on their website.
Lack of such infrastructure makes for a slipshod system that is bound to have a hard time attracting and keeping motivated people in the field and continues to keep teaching at the bottom-most rung for any young person considering a career.

The meek shan’t inherit the earth


If you stand at one corner of Lahore’s M M Alam Road and squint a little it is possible to delude yourself into thinking you live in a normal country. This high-end road in a city that has remained largely untouched by militant activity since 2010, thanks to an alleged Faustian pact between the Sharifs and the Taliban, wears a capitalist gloss that has come to be my only understanding of the Petula Clark song, Downtown: ‘Just listen to the music of the traffic in the city / Linger on the sidewalk where the neon signs are pretty’ advises Clark as an antidote to everyday travails; and while a woman lingering on the sidewalks of M M Alam is more likely to find harassment than liberation, in a sufficiently air conditioned car that allows you to get off on the street just long enough to hand the valet your car keys and go up the elevator to the cineplex, it is almost possible to feel a part of that universal downtown whose capitalist attractions can momentarily cushion the blows of everyday living.
Of late I have even occasionally chanced upon that Holy Grail of Pakistani existence: an unaccompanied woman watching a movie all on her own. It might be a tiny drop in the giant ocean of misogyny and regression I have always lived in, but amateur anthropological observation tells me there are far more women driving on the streets of Gulberg and Defence than I ever saw as a child. Unlike trips to Ichra and Anarkali weasled under the pretext of shopping for household items, these are activities sought for pure entertainment alone. This empty excess might not be a praiseworthy or even remarkable fact in most places, but here in Lahore, finding increasing visual evidence of women inhabiting public spaces and spending money many of them earn themselves is a small victory I feel a special part of, especially in a darkened cinema hall full of mostly women.
And it is in one such cinema hall last week as women around me munched on caramel popcorn and chuckled at the scenes unfolding before them, that I was struck by how little this increasing swathe of economically empowered women is represented in Pakistani popular culture. The neglect is so gross, in fact, that the only option is to look towards a rapidly evolving Bollywood for any positive representation of the desi ‘liberated woman’, an idea that on Pakistani television is still associated with images of great domestic negligence and deeply selfish impulses. Indian cinema that had long defined its women through the dichotomies of sexually promiscuous vamp and virginal heroine has undergone a slow transformation of what constitutes as desirable in a woman. Watching two Indian films back to back, Queen and Bewakoofiyaan, with leading ladies fully in charge of their lives, embracing their sexual selves without resorting to titillation primarily aimed at male audiences, I was left pondering the reasons for a lack of similarly packaged women in the Pakistani media. Queen’s triumph lies in portraying the self-obsessed fiance as repulsive without easy resort to physical abuse to elicit quick and cheap negative emotion from the audience. Not a slap or even a threat is forthcoming from the man who nonetheless manages to earn the ire of everyone watching the film.
Compare this to Pakistani plays where women are treated as a mass of abuse and submission, hanging dearly on to men for their lives, and the reasons for such consistently regressive representation seem difficult to fathom.
The simple answer is that Pakistan’s never-ending security problems and religious obsessions are a far cry from India’s expanding middle class and the 'shining India' rhetoric that Bollywood has not just bought into but helped construct, piece by piece. Still, this answer fails to engage with Pakistan’s reality where women are at the helm of many of the channels that constantly churn out anti-feminist content. The women who act in these productions have lifestyles that are a far cry from the bechaaris they depict on screen and none of the people involved seem to have any qualms about this apparent hypocrisy. Perhaps the only women true to themselves are the ones writing the scripts for they often belong to smaller cities with different realities. Yet, the earnings of an Umera Ahmed provide her with a creative and economic imperative that she extends to none of her heroines.
More than what the masses want to see, the endemic regression of Pakistani drama seems to be entrenched in a lack of creative vision and a herd-following mentality that imagines ratings to be a function of feeding audiences with content that is barely distinguishable from each other. The phenomenal commercial success of Queen, a film that consciously takes a stance while remaining within a prescribed commercial framework, is the result of Bollywood’s and a nation’s increasing faith in itself. Pakistani plays, on the other hand, are a portrayal of a downward spiral in confidence that has revealed itself in clinging to a formula no-one has the artistic integrity or the self-belief to break.

Misinterpreting the problem

Last week a video went viral in which Shahid Afridi suggested (with churlish seriousness) that Pakistani women ought to cook instead of playing sports. Another young Pakistani man related to cricket only in so far as being Imran Khan’s nephew, hurled the term ‘faggot’ at Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. A holistic health and yoga centre, ‘The Art of Living’, was attacked and destroyed by unknown men possibly incited by a television program that equated the practice of yoga with being a RAW agent. An Ahmadi acquaintance on my Facebook revealed his office no longer allows him to drink water from the same glass as the rest of his colleagues. A 16-year-old ex-student of mine got married. I was still trying to process this information when the Council for Islamic Ideology declared there ought to be no minimum age of marriage in Pakistan, nor should men be legally prevailed upon to seek their wives’ permission to marry another time.
This smorgasbord of regressive social behavior has its roots in a lack of discourse in the Pakistani mainstream on universally accepted norms of social justice. In my experience as a former school teacher there is criminal neglect surrounding the teaching of new (and not so new) concepts widely accepted in the world today as fairly centrist. Misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, racism and even underage marriage cannot necessarily be done away with strict laws. What needs to change is the conversation around these ideas, but for that to happen there needs to be a conversation to begin with.
At a boys school that I taught at for two years – famous for its grand buildings, lush grounds and colonial history – few students and even fewer teachers were familiar with terms like sexism or xenophobia. To pass any value judgment on these concepts is a later stage of mental evolution, the first is a familiarity with the lexicon that can allow the building of more complex thought. You cannot go on to grasp crucial scientific concepts without first learning basic definitions, and while all children get to learn what a cell looks like, the ways in which we digest food and the first law of motion, none are ever taught why calling someone a faggot is bad form and could be detrimental to their long term goals in a world where political correctness (or just simply not being a jerk) might turn out to be crucial.
I believe Imran Khan’s nephew Hassan Niazi when he says, ‘I would never say anything to hurt someone’ even as proof of his intentionally trying to hurt someone is published in a Guardian article; for to him casually throwing about the word faggot is not his idea of hurting anyone, since the school he comes from the less macho kids invariably have to grin and bear the jokes of the macho (or pretending to be macho) majority. What is most telling in his statement is: “I am not used to these terms”. I think what he means to say is he is not used to these terms being deemed offensive or leading to any social ostracizing.
Then there is Arshed Sharif who not only egregiously baited the odious Ansar Abbasi/Orea Maqbool Jan duo (to the latter’s credit he at least had the decency to look somewhat embarrassed with Sharif’s vulgar inquisition of the gentlemanly Naeem Zamindar, Pakistan director of The Art of Living) but in his ‘defence’ later on retweeted the following tweet addressed to writer Nadeem Farooq Paracha:
“Parachay! Arshad theek kr ra hay na aur kia wo teri trah kaalay amreeki obaamay ko “hqeeqi baap” bna lay?”
I am assuming Arshed Sharif also went to a private school and considers himself educated.
The way things stand our education emergency, the desire to educate more and more Pakistanis will push the country further into delusions of grandeur and a sense of inflated greatness. If even our best education fails to humanize or at least equip our youth with the tools to sound civilized, expecting anything sensible from Shahid Afridi is to close our eyes to the basics. 

Defeated mindsets

At my school the identical writing we were all taught was a matter of deadly seriousness. The nuns could compromise on anything (though they didn’t on most things), but handwriting was a non-negotiable. As a result I spent whole summers neatly copying out page after page of idioms with perfectly loopy Ls and impeccably crossed out Ts to arrive at a handwriting indistinguishable from the rest of my peers’. Such diligent practice means I have never since been able to unlearn the clichés that are stored in my mental hard drive. A rolling stone gathers no moss, a bird in hand is worth two in the bush, empty vessels make the most noise. This last one I always had a particularly uneasy relationship with. It’s moral like a personal admonition of my high-strung, chatty disposition. Over time though, I have begun to find out, ‘empty vessels make the most noise’ is less a rebuke to the gregarious and more a warning to the conceited.
And it never feels more relevant than during crucial Pakistani matches. In a powerless country with little to celebrate, cricket is the last bastion of Pakistani pride. A win assures us we aren’t the failed state the rest of the world is determined to make us out to be. For after all, here we are competing against India, taking them on blow for blow. On the cricket field. Apparently a lot of people are still sold on the idea that winning in cricket has a deeper significance than just a win in a sport. And while in 1986 it may have roused a feeling of patriotic fervour in me, today Afridi’s heroics seem nothing more than what they are, an exciting innings in a match on a given day. Pleasant enough but nothing that will change the fundamental state of my existence. My twitter timeline begs to differ. Apparently people’s entire weeks, even lifetimes have been impacted by this ‘historic’ win. The morning after the victory a bomb blast took 10 lives in Islamabad. Some hungover from the cricket still went on celebrating in a parallel universe, their wild merriment barely managing to mask the desperation in their desire to see something positive coming out of the state of Pakistan. And who but the worst curmudgeon could begrudge such a blighted people their small happinesses.
And nobody would if these celebrations didn’t all too quickly devolve into the kind of delusion and xenophobia that say much more about our defeated mindsets than a loss against India ever could. It isn’t the victory of the confident who can afford to be gracious once assured the upper hand, it is the win of the bully with insecurities writ large all over his desire to annihilate others. Not the happiness of your own win but a perverse pleasure in somebody else’s loss. How else can one describe the need to pass around and laugh over pictures of wailing women, or crowing over the protruding teeth of a young child supporting his team? In using rape and war analogies that reveal your nationalistic chauvinism rather than your patriotism? In no other way but in the emptiness (and the utter sense of defeat in the larger arena) of the vessels making all this noise.

Pop goes the Festival

Just as faithfully as Westerners rely on the weather as a conversational crutch, for most urban Punjabi families a good bashing of the PPP is the go-to conversation filler during family dinners, assuring that everyone will be animated and on the same page for the next hour or so. The eruption of the Mohenjodaro controversy during the Sindh Festival was thus a God-sent – a grave-sounding reason to denounce the festival as a Nero-like exercise in flute-playing while Rome burnt in the background. Those with greater intellectual pretensions went further by decrying the wastage of taxpayers’ money on something essentially frivolous, an idea that is hard to contest in a country with issues as numerous as ours. Terrorism, hospitals, education, even malnutrition were cited, in front of which the shallow celebration of ‘culture’ does indeed seem like a puny and facile aim.
The line between bomb blasts and the receding space for culture may seem tenuous but it is hard to deny that Pakistan’s slide into extremism is being ratified by the silent majority. Song, dance and the arts are allowed to go on in the background as one of the many sins that we have not yet got rid of as ‘imperfect Muslims’ but the guilty feeling that none of that arts stuff is really Islamic, really Pakistani, is what has allowed us as a nation to keep ceding intellectual and cultural space to extremist mindsets. In the ideological zone that the ‘Pakistani identity’ has been framed thus far (despite valiant attempts by academics like Ayesha Jalal et al) the zenith of being a Pakistani is to be a true Muslim, and that trueness can only be realized in defining ourselves as non-Hindu and non-Indian – divorced from the Indian soil we live on, constantly pulled instead toward our ideological epicenter in Mecca.
The most crucial thing the Sindh Festival has achieved by putting the spotlight on Sindh is to shift the focus of the Pakistani identity away from religion and back on to our ancestral land. This distancing from Pakistan’s central narrative of forced unity – one dependent on Urdu and Islam as the defining forces of Pakistaniyat – is essential to moving forward with a new definition of what it means to be Pakistani, something shaped out of its own 65 years of political history and with a clear-headed acceptance of its diversity, a diversity as great as India, contained within a geography half its size. What a nation imagines itself to be is crucial, for that is what decides what it chooses to fight and what it accepts as its own, and the arts and pop culture play a great role in creating and cementing this self-image.
Academic work theorizing that Pakistan was created as an independent economic and political entity, not a religious one, is important, but holds little meaning unless it becomes a popular concept amongst the masses, something only popular culture can help achieve. To that end, thousands of images of the dramatically lit Mohenjodaro as backdrop to a celebratory concert beamed all over Pakistan, is a good start. Bakhtawar Bhutto Zardari singing a rap song a cultural subversion the likes of which it is hard to find a parallel; an art exhibition of international standard at the Frere Hall a worthwhile pursuit; holding a Basant festival on the beach a (nearly amusing) snub to the PML-N.
But if the money spent were personal, like Bilawal Bhutto Zardari claimed in the beginning, the spending of it on whatever he chose would be no-one’s business. However, as it turns out, seed money has been borrowed from the Sindh government which the festival claims it will return fully – a claim tad tough to swallow in light of the PPP’s image and track record. While the beaming of a concert at Mohenjodaro sounds like a good idea in the face of the shariah being demanded by the Taliban, 800 VIP guests and cultural satirists like Ali Gul Pir and Ali Aftab Saeed reduced to mere cheerleaders of a man who has essentially bought their goodwill doesn’t do a great deal to inspire confidence in this spectacle of culture. Add to this a fashion show spearheaded by the Taseers who have become uncriticizable since the tragic assassination of Salmaan Taseer, but who need to be roundly taken to task for not paying writers and employees at a newspaper they continue to run yet purporting to be the flag bearers of culture elsewhere. For these reasons and more the Sindh Festival has to do a lot of soul searching if it wants to avoid being seen as yet another party thrown by and for the country’s out of touch elite.

Culture of Confusion

The singular thread that runs through every genre of creativity in today’s Pakistan is derivation. Coke Studio and Nescafe Basement are the epitome of this culture of derivative creativity. Repackage an old song with a saxophone solo here, a taan there – and voila, you have something ‘new’! This is the well-worn formula for all forms of mainstream art in Pakistan. Our drama is an unceasing parade of social melodrama so similar in form and content that cutting whole scenes from one play and pasting onto the other would leave its anesthetized audiences none the wiser. Even our theatrical productions are lifted straight from Broadway and planted in Karachi without so much as a cosmetic attempt at adapting for local sensibilities.
It might be argued that a country clawing for its very survival does not have the luxury to produce art, let alone original one. Confronted with a 24/7 cycle of bomb blasts and target killings just the fact that artists still exist here is an achievement of sorts. In a social setup where arguments can still be had on whether music is haram or halaal, perhaps expectations of originality aren’t just fanciful, they’re unfair.
Under such circumstances Amir Liaquat Husain’s rise to the mantle of Pakistan’s biggest star is not a coincidence but an inevitability. Liaquat is as much a deliberate construct, put together piece by piece for maximum effect and impact, as say, Lady Gaga. Designing herself with equal parts shock value and infectious pop hooks, Gaga upped the ante on her lukewarm career with an algorithm for super stardom pieced together with nudity, raw meat dresses and plumage that would dazzle a male peacock into submission. If that is the blueprint for breakaway success in the West, then a mixed-plate of quranic recitations, Raakhi ka Swayamwar; religious stories of dubious origin, Masterchef, Kaun Banega Crorepati and The Crystal Maze with a thick topping of Neelam Ghar shot through with sleaze borrowed from 80s Hindi cinema is the baara masala formula for success in Pakistan. Amir Liaquat has cracked the code, and judging by the wild applause and the cash rolling in, Pakistan is lapping it up.
Tariq Aziz’s wide repertoire of couplets, Naeem Bukhari’s spontaneity and Moin Akhtar’s sense of humour seem archaic in the face of the one quality more Pakistani than Nihari – the projection of piety.
Starting off as an impassioned host of a religious call-in show, Husain first cornered the religious market in the country through a groundbreaking attempt at putting a Shia and a Sunni aalim together on stage. When that became too passé, he soon flexed his muscles through passing fatwas on Ahmedis, a sect so hapless and beleaguered, only the suicidal would choose to defend its followers in public. When his repertoire of colourful abuses was leaked online, the resourceful Amir decided to leverage this notoriety to break out of his ishq-e-rasool mould, switching seamlessly between his faux-sincere Ramzan transmission face, flirtatious frolickings with women and a thick layer of Jazakallahs, to finally emerge as the host of Pakistan’s most watched game show-cum-iftaari langar, Aman Ramzan, the apotheosis of which was handing over a new born as a jackpot prize. Islam, babies, hijabs and cooking; could there be a mix more Pakistani? During Ramzan, maybe, but the rest of the year the awaam is amenable to added dozes of sexual titillation, children’s birthdays and wedding celebrations as well as the replacement of bearded clerics with celebrities. Enter Inaam Ghar! Whatever else you may say about it, you cannot fault the honesty of its title that doesn’t even make an attempt at originality.
If popular culture is the most honest representation of a society’s desires and aspirations, then there is nothing more reflective of the mass confusion in Pakistan – as witnessed in overt religious posturings and its status as the leading consumer of porn in the world – than Inaam Ghar and Amir Liaqat Husain.