Personal Political: Plays and books, not bombs

Pakistan's foremost sculptor Shahid Sajjad at the Retrospective exhibition at Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, Karachi, Feb 2010

My monthly column for Hardnews, India, also published in The News on Sunday, (March 7, 2010)

Feb 25, 2010

Beena Sarwar

“New Karachi literary festival hopes to turn page on bombs,” trumpeted a headline in the Independent, UK.

Inspired by Jaipur, the festival in March “may not turn the page on the bombs,” as Siraj Khan, a Boston-based Pakistani commented in an email, “but it is very inspiring. In my recent 7-month stint in Karachi, I saw and felt this breath of fresh air myself. This has not happened overnight and it’s not just the new crop of writers who are turning the tide.”

The event, sponsored by Oxford University Press and the British Council, will cater to readers of English. The First International Urdu Conference in Karachi, November 2008, showcased several Indian writers. Last November (2009), the inspiring five-day event included a music festival although ongoing tensions between Pakistan and India barred the Indian delegates from attending. Prominent scholar Dr Gopi Chand Narang addressed the gathering via telephone from New Delhi. ‘My heart is with the people of Pakistan in Karachi and I hope the condition in your country improves soon,’ he said, to rousing applause.

Siraj: “I do hope and pray that our youth get more engaged in reading books rather than blasting bombs.”

This bomb culture stems of course from attempts to convert Pakistan, from 1979 onwards into a centre of Islamic ‘jihad’, by the military dictator Gen. Zia acting at America’s behest to oust the Soviets from Afghanistan. The peculiar relations between Pakistan and India are part of that narrative: the pro-jihadi mindset is also virulently anti-India.

I recently had breakfast with an Indian journalist living in Karachi, married to a Pakistani. She must return to Delhi every three months to renew her visa. She can’t work in Pakistan because only two Indian journalists can work in Pakistan (and vice versa). The irritants include her Indian friends’ one-dimensional views about Pakistan. “They thought I would have no freedom, that there are no coffee shops or women wearing jeans. Ok, so we can do this only in this part of Karachi, but at least it’s there.”

Yes, there is violence and bomb blasts in Pakistan. But there is more to life than that. Visit the Danka website (started by a young Austrian who fell in love with Pakistan) to sample some events in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad — art exhibitions, book readings, seminars, plays, fashion shows, musical evenings, hip hop and salsa dance classes, yoga…

There’s the fortnightly Critical Mass cycling event in Karachi I’ve been meaning to join. There’s the annual All Pakistan Music Conference, held in Lahore for years and more recently, in Karachi too.

Adnan Sabzwari at the seminar 'Science and Youth' organised by Sindh Awami Sangat, at the Irtiqa Institute of Social Sciences, Karachi

Students at Sindh Awami Sangat's science seminar at Irtiqa.

Recently, I attended a talk on ‘youth and science’ organised by Sindh Awami Sangat, a socialist youth group from low-income localities. College students, including some girls, most in hijabs, crowded the seminar hall (made by breaking down the dividing walls in a flat) of the Irtiqa Institute of Social Sciences.

“Jihad,” said Adnan Sabzwari, the young scientist and educator who addressed them, “is not strapping yourself with a suicide vest and blowing up people, but making life better for the hungry and the poor.” He got a standing ovation.

Sindh Awami Sangat activists were active in a commemoration recently to honour the Democratic Students Federation, a movement that rocked the country in the early 1950s. The inspiring (as many termed it) event, featuring a documentary, speeches, music and song, drew students and old leftists, packing the 1000-seater auditorium.

Close up of vintage car at the exhibition in Karachi, Feb 14, 2010. Photos: Beena Sarwar

The three suspects, played by Rafeh Mahmud, Namrah Zafar and Faizan Ashraf Raza, haunt Agent Farooq (Hassaan Tariq). But who is really the criminal? Photo by Syed Shabbir Hussain Rizvi

The Classic and Vintage Car Show drew record crowds in its sixth year running. “We still plan to hold a joint rally with our Indian counterparts,” said an organiser, referring to a plan scuttled earlier due to tensions between the two countries.

For three weekends in February, stand up comedian Saad Haroon performed at sold-out shows (I couldn’t get tickets).

Last weekend, a friend’s 16-year old son and his friends produced a play in English that they wrote, directed, acted in, and marketed. The suspense thriller dramatic, funny, and slickly done, ran to full halls both nights, raising over a lakh of rupees for a welfare organisation run by students.

P.s. It was a query about the March literary festival from Mayank Austen Soofi, a Delhi-based journalist, that got me thinking about all this. Mayank runs the blog “Pakistan Paindabad

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