In January 1972, a passionate young writer penned these lines, which were published in The Sun, Karachi. The article was titled “Is the Rural the Real?”.
“The real Pakistan is not just the plains of the Punjab, the sands of Sind, the aridity of Baluchistan, Frontier hills… Not just these. Something more. A cut of the cloth, a glimmer in the eye, dark huts filled with disease, a taut, tough muscle, skin shining with sweat. I can’t put my finger on it. Even on the colourful map, the real Pakistan remains elusive, difficult to pin down… The idea is to try and come close, grandly and self-consciously, to our roots, to the well-spring of our genius, to the fountain of our life-force.”
Forty-three years later, on a different soil, his optimism undimmed, Javed Jabbar stands in a room full of eager Canadian-Pakistanis who have gathered to hear him speak about his book Pakistan: Unique Origins, Unique Destiny? Munir Pervaiz, director of the Progressive Writers Association of Canada, quotes a few apt lines from Akhtar Sheerani’s poem before Jabbar addresses the audience:
Kia pehle si masoom abhee
Woh madrasseh ki shadaab fiza
Kuch bhooley huay din guzrey hain
Jis mein woh masl’e khawab fiza
Woh khel woh hum sun o maidaan
Woh khawab gah e mehtaab fiza
O des se aanay wale bata.
As Jabbar begins to speak about his book and the current situation in Pakistan, I am reminded of the sentiments he worded years ago. They echo and resonate; time seems to melt away in this small room at the Living Arts Centre in Mississauga. Later, we meet for an interview at Najma Shamsi’s residence; she heads The Citizen’s Foundation Canada chapter.
Jabbar’s father, the late Ahmed Abdul Jabbar, was imprisoned by the Indian army while serving as an official of the government in the border district of Hyderabad Deccan, then an autonomous princely state. When India invaded the kingdom within hours of Jinnah’s death in 1948, his father’s office and family house were the first to be targeted because they lived in the bordering district of Bir and Aurangabad.
A new chapter opened. Uprooted from a settled existence following his father’s imprisonment and dismissal and their migration to Pakistan, the young boy found himself in the midst of tumultuous change. His parents’ relationship came under immense strain and they sought a divorce. “I give credit to my mother [the late Zain Mahal Khursheed] for turning me to the direction of creative expression. My mother had a passionate interest in the arts, literature and writing (she was a sitar player before she became a Sufi). She really helped me express myself. I was nine years old when she asked me to sit down and start writing. Lo and behold, my first poem was published in a magazine called Sunshine, from Poona, India, and the sheer thrill of seeing my name in print set me into writing in a way that it has become my first love. And my father had a keen interest in promoting reading and it became an essential function of daily life,” remembers Jabbar fondly.
At nine, the sheer thrill of seeing his name in print let writing become Jabbar’s “first love”
A voracious appetite for reading and writing eventually became the foundation of his interest in advertising and communications. “I chose advertising consciously over journalism,” he tells me, “because I felt that the latter would not enable me to achieve economic self-sufficiency to the extent advertising could. During my university days, I had started writing advertising copy as a freelancer.”
In 1972, MNJ Communications became the first firm in Pakistan’s history to expand its scope to communications – that too, at a time when communications was associated with ports, shipping, telecommunication and highways. Jabbar remembers there was some initial scepticism and even laughter, but soon after, virtually every such firm was styling itself as a “communication company”. He cites Marshall McLuhan, who said that the media was an extension of the human nervous system. “Explorations of cinema writing and radio are, in my view, natural extensions of my writing,” he says. Jabbar wrote and produced Ramchand Pakistani (directed by his daughter Mehreen Jabbar) as well as Beyond the Last Mountain, a feature film that was, stylistically, ahead of its time in terms of casting relatively unknown actors and using natural settings.
Jabbar’s voluntary development work during the late 1970s and his association with visionary banker Jameel Nishtar proved to be a revelation. He tells me that Nishtar then headed the National Bank of Pakistan and introduced the novel scheme of mobile credit: bankers were equipped with motorbikes and sent off to meet small farmers to offer them credit. The problem, explains Jabbar, was that small and landless farmers were intimidated by the sight of bank branches, which in any case were were not as widespread as they are today.
“One day, he [Nishtar] said, come and handle our advertising and communications work. I had already started making documentaries like Moenjadro: The City That Must Not Die [the first documentary made for PTV that won the national award]. I was beginning to see realities outside advertising and the more I interacted with people at the grassroots, I felt that the political process was pivotal to making changes. And while communications was imperative, policy and structural changes were equally important,” says Jabbar.
I ask him about his interest in politics. It seems a unique transition for a writer and advertising executive. He smiles and quips, “Behind every great woman is a man, and so it was a woman who showed me the way into the political process.” Jabbar credits his wife Shabnam for this turn, which proved successful for him. “In 1985, at the zenith of our professional success – while I was doing voluntary work – my wife and friends decided that I should run for election to the technocratic seat in the Senate. That’s how it all began. I was elected to the Senate without needing to spend more than 7,000 rupees to print my bio-data. Seasoned politicians said that, unless you spend 5 million rupees to bribe MPAs, you have no chance of being elected,” he remembers drily. But Jabbar ultimately won the highest number of votes for the technocratic seat without any trace of such skulduggery.
The conversation turns to the dichotomous situation in which Pakistani society currently finds itself: on one hand, we have resilient citizens, striving to survive despite the odds; on the other, we have suicide bombers bent on spreading chaos. Where is the middle ground, I ask Jabbar, and how did it disappear?
He thinks for a moment. “I would not equate the two. The first Pakistan you mentioned represents the overwhelming majority of Pakistanis: reasonable, focused on their survival, mostly peaceful, some of them plagued by bad habits or the lack of education and role models,” he muses, “but the overwhelming bulk is a disproportionate force to a small number of brainwashed barbarians who have this mad notion of destroying others and themselves to reach Paradise. I don’t equate the two because it’s not a comparison – it’s a stark and vivid contrast, but we must get the scales right. This is the process by which Pakistani society and the state are working out the challenges of being a nation-state founded on the basis of religion, without having an extreme narrow view of religion. This is a contradiction in terms. Other nations and other societies have sorted it out. We are a very new nation and we don’t have the historical continuity and maturity to deal with this fundamental core issue,” he points out.
This brings us to his book, Pakistan: Unique Origins, Unique Destiny?, first published in 2012. Jabbar talks about the reasons that make Pakistan’s origins unique – some of which have not necessarily proved to be an advantage. There are six categories of nation-states, he says, within which different nations have been founded. I ask him to tell me more about what he sees as being Pakistan’s “unique destiny” and what he means by the term.
“We are allowing the contradictions of our society to overwhelm the democratic process”
“You will notice the question mark at the end of the title,” he says. “I have no idea what our destiny is going to be, whether for better or worse. In order to shape destiny, I have mentioned different factors. Our ability to retain democracy while continuously refining democracy is one of them. Instead of simply being content with Westminster-style parliamentary democracy, which we have inherited and assumed that this is it and we can’t deviate from it, we are allowing the contradictions of our society to overwhelm the democratic process. Representation of the totality of a country is essential. We have to learn to conduct ijtihad extensively,” he explains. The doors of ijtihad closed some 800 years ago, adds Jabbar, but this is why it is essential to invigorate the concept across the board to develop ijtihadi madrassas instead of the present-day narrow-minded version. He believes that “Ijtihad will challenge every young Muslim to think and question. Change will come: it will take one or two generation to see any difference.”
For Jabbar, Pakistan is associated with numerous misconceptions, one of them being that the country is religion-obsessed. He sees Pakistani society as being “showy” when it comes to religiosity, but intrinsically very relaxed about religious matters. “All you have to do is travel through the country: you see women working in fields, moving about visibly. You see a very Sufi approach to Islam, which is pluralistic, inclusive, tolerant, respectful,” he says firmly.
Jabbar is currently associated with a number of conflict resolution and cooperation initiatives between Pakistan and India, and has also been a member of the Pakistan–India Track II process (the Neemrana dialogue) since 1992. He feels there is a great vacuum in the Indian intellectual and political domain, and that India needs to study Pakistan more deeply. “There needs to be greater reciprocity from India,” he says, “to create greater understanding without making relations conditional upon the cessation of support for terrorism, especially when Pakistan has clearly stated it doesn’t support terrorism at all.”
There is yet more to the man. He is also the founder of Baanh Beli, an initiative that promotes cooperation for progress between rural citizens and urban specialists. Baanh Beli has been providing services in education and women’s empowerment in remote Tharparkar for over 25 years. The woes of demarcation have not distracted him from adding value to society. The question mark at the end of his book title, I realise, makes us responsible for creating a progressive, unique identity for Pakistan. The question is, if not now, when?
The author is a freelance journalist based in Toronto