Anatol Lieven famously described Pakistan as “a hard country.” This seems particularly apt now, in mid-2021, when the country is once again reeling from the blowback of the renewed civil war in Afghanistan, is struggling its way out of an economic crisis, and continues to host a fractious political climate.
There have been several books published over the last two decades which have focused on Pakistan’s political fault lines; its vulnerable security situation; and the continuing instability of its economy. But there is relatively little commentary on how culture and the arts have fared in the tensions of the last few decades. How have the series of crises that the country has continued to face affected literature, painting, music, and film?
On the one hand, it appears that entertainment and the arts are flourishing, with a proliferation of TV channels, several excellent local film releases and literary festivals taking place in every major city as least once a year. As observed in many other countries, particularly Latin America, it seems that the state of instability has spawned creative expression as never before. But at what cost has this been achieved, and does the output live up to the hype? Some of these questions are addressed in a recently released collection of essays, edited by Harris Khalique, a well-known poet, writer and columnist; and Irfan Ahmed Khan, a researcher and development practitioner. Titled Pakistan: Here and Now, the book includes seven essays on a range of topics, from film, to language, to music; but also, the state of the education system and the role of religion in the evolution of the state. It is a fairly eclectic mix, but all the essays are concerned with how Pakistani society is grappling with culture and identity in the 21st century. Some are musings on culture and history, while others are more specifically focused on a particular theme.
The volume begins with Hasan Zaidi’s thoughts on Pakistan’s cultural confusions, which he, rather ingeniously, ties in with the seemingly random process of naming streets and boulevards in one of the newer residential areas of Karachi. To Zaidi, a long-term resident of the city and a well-known journalist and commentator, the mish mash of names, ranging from that of the poet and musician Amir Khusro, to the 7th century Muslim general Tariq bin Ziyad, is telling in that not one of these persons was indigenous to Sindh or indeed areas now constituting Pakistan; and there is not a single woman in the mix. Instead, the naming reflects the Pakistani elite’s nostalgia for, and wish to connect with a glorious Muslim past, which can be claimed as their own. Zaidi goes on to ask how Pakistani culture should be defined, if it is defined at all, and reaches that this is potentially a subject for many “internal conversations” which go above the “imposed binaries” of religious versus. secular, or liberal versus conservative. Incidentally, an anecdote he quotes which describes a radio show host’s question on Pakistan’s achievements, and the caller’s answers, is comedy gold.
After this relatively lighthearted beginning, we move on to Salman Asif’s essay on the representation of minorities in Pakistani cinema; and Navid Shehzad’s essay on language and resistance poetry. Salman sahib is an old-world intellectual with encyclopedic knowledge of language and the arts in the sub-continent, and his essay runs the gamut of sub-continental cinema from the earliest days to present day Pakistan. It is heartening to see that he holds out hope for more positive representations of diversity in modern Pakistani cinema. Navid Shehzad’s essay is probably the most academic of the lot. She ruminates on the language of exile, comparing the leftwing Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet, with his Pakistani contemporary Faiz Ahmed Faiz. It is a fascinating account of the hopes, fears and yearning that is evident in their poetry, and how those universal sentiments of exile transcend nationality. The last essay in this series which is more closely focused on the arts, is by Fatimah Ihsan and is an unusual (for this reviewer at least) analysis of sub-continental classical music as well as Sufi kalam, which traces how music mirrors the rhythm of life in this region, and in the latter case, allows for inclusion of a kind that has only recently come into vogue in western society, but was very much part of the fabric of life in these parts.
The remaining essays in the book are more concerned with socio-political issues. Dr Naazir Mahmood, who writes a regular newspaper column, talks about exclusion in the education system, something that he and others have commented on extensively in the media, but which bears repeating. Zahida Hina traces how religion came to attain an increasingly prominent role in state policy. The volume wraps up with Harris Khalique’s thoughts on what the diaspora wants for Pakistan – as in Hasan Zaidi’s essay, he peppers his writing with personal experiences and anecdotes which amuse and perplex one at the same time.
Overall, this is a fun read, if one may use such a casual term, while also provoking one to think of some of the key questions raised. It is highly recommended for young readers in particular, who are not conversant with how culture and the arts have evolved in Pakistan, and what factors have influenced them.