March Issue 2016

By | People | Q & A | Published 2 years ago

In her highly compact office, Dr. Ghazala Rahman Rafiq, Director of The Sindh Abhyas Academy (SAA), seems to disappear into the shelves, laden with books, looming large behind her. The petite, soft-spoken professor initiated the SAA and introduced the much needed, specialised subject of Sindh Studies in SZABIST in 2012.  

Dr. Rahman Rafiq is a cosmopolitan person with deep roots in the province. Her father, Hassanally Abdurahman, was a renowned barrister and twice vice-chancellor of the Sindh University. She herself is one of the founder members of the Women’s Action Forum, a women’s rights organisation that she began in the early 1980s with other like-minded women activists. The SAA has built up an enviable reputation among other universities in Sindh. In an interview with Newsline, Dr. Rafiq narrates the academy’s out-of-the-box  approach.

Why did you feel the need to set up the Sindh Abhyas Academy?

Growing up I thought it strange that we had a British Council for all things English, a Goethe Institut for the German language, arts and culture, and an Alliance Française de Karachi for any thing French. But there was no venue in Karachi for the Sindhi language, culture, history and its wealth of knowledge. Had it not been for my father, who was also the founding principal of Sindh Muslim Law College among other things, the culture for me would have faded. My father used to hold a `Sindhi Shaam’ or cultural evening and invite   various singers and musicians of Sindh to perform at the college.

When I returned from the US after completing my Ph.D., I noticed that there was still no such venue in Karachi. Whereas abroad universities have subjects like Middle Eastern Studies, Oriental studies, South Asian studies, even Islamic studies, I always wondered what it would be like to teach Sindh Studies.

Fortunately the chancellor of SZABIST had the same idea and I was invited to establish the institute. I designed a semester’s worth of an undergraduate course that encompasses a wide range of subjects, including Sindh’s geography, its history, culture, economics, commerce, philosophy, anthropology etc. This course has the potential to be built into a four-year B.Sc. as well as a Masters and Ph.D. programme.

Doesn’t the Karachi University (KU) have a similar department?

The KU’s Sindhi department is focused on teaching Sindhi literature. An endowed Shah Latif Chair works on publications and cultural events in collaboration with the Ministry of Culture. What the SAA does is it exposes students to Sindh Studies widely, beyond only literature and culture. Seminars and cultural events are necessary in Karachi, Sindh’s capital, to keep the young and old in touch with the strengths as well as the problems of Sindh.

Besides it’s not just about events; we encourage research and teach students about contemporary and ancient Sindh. I look at it as more than just a province or a geographical space. For example, the seed of the Egyptian cotton, which became world famous, actually came from the Indus Valley. In the distant past, according to some scholars, Sindh traded with Mesopotamia and Egypt so the seeds must have travelled on ships, and with caravan merchants. When such facts grab a student’s mind, they are encouraged to dig deeper into the nearly 4,000-year history of the Indus civilisation for instance.

What did you do differently that made the academy popular? 

We teach in a regional and topical context. For the Sindh Studies mid-term exam for example, I ask students to imagine that they are all district commissioners in Sindh. Their assignment (literally out of a hat which contains slips with the names of Sindh’s districts) is to research and draw up a district profile, and as commissioners they have to identify the problems and then prioritise them, based on the urgency and need of their citizenry. The recommendations to improve infrastructure, education, health, etc., within their limited budgets, are also part of the students’ assignment.

The students are expected to explore other aspects of life in Sindh as well, such as law and order, water supply or availability of electricity, etc. A student who picks the slip for District Tando Mohammad Khan will find a different set of problems than the one who picks District Korangi. They learn from each other’s research as they present their findings in rich presentations that begin with “I am the district commissioner of …”

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So your students must be submitting interesting reports from all over Sindh? 

I’ve noticed intriguing patterns from the hundreds of students’ book reports I have lying here. If four years of studies of one district are put together, the primary problem most students describe are not of law and order, dacoits, closed schools, unscheduled outages, lack of healthcare; although these are definitely significant issues.

Too many students’ reports show drainage issues in Sindh’s villages and small towns as the most disturbing factor of civic life. Clogged because of trapped sewage water due to the lack of infrastructure, the streets of Sindh stink and are unnavigable. Even in Sukkur, the drinking water is polluted because it has intermingled with gutter water. A student from there researched river pollution as one of the possible causes of blindness among the Indus dolphins.

A student became interested in Makli after he got Thatta as his district and found that people displaced by the 2010 floods were still camped there. He also learned of a severe gutka addiction among them. Since he had studied Sindh’s anthropology in a previous class he presented his findings on the gutka addiction and the displacement by floods through an anthropological lens. In the following year when another student got Thatta, she studied the gender health perspective of gutka addiction in Makli.

As soon as Sindh Studies was introduced in 2012 for undergraduate social science students, it became popular among Media Science students as well who were interested in documenting their knowledge in their short films.

Which other aspects of Sindh Studies interested the students?

My students find the historical aspects of Sindh very intriguing. The old maps show that Sindh once stretched from Karachi to Kashmir. The Arabs, and later the Europeans, who travelled to these parts, called all those lands where the Indus River flowed as Sindh – and the country beyond they termed Hind.

Recent studies show that Karachi was not a just a fishing village before the advent of the British. There were forts built here for defence from the sea. Yes, the British were the first to make it the capital of Sindh. There is so much in Sindhi about the history of Karachi and only a fraction of it is in Urdu and English.

Students enjoy the fact that some of our Sindhi scholars claim that Alexander, (whom Sindhis don’t call “the Great” because of the murder and mayhem he is associated with) and his army may have been right here in Karachi. Some research suggests that Gizri is an area mentioned by Alexander’s people as ‘Gisri,’ or in Sindhi, Giskari, meaning slope or slide – and the present-day Gizri area is still a land sloping towards the sea. Over time the pronunciation changed. This sort of observation is ascribed to the study of linguistics.

What is certain though is that Alexander entered through the Khyber Pass and his flotilla came down the Indus. When Alexander left for Persia, his army passed through the Sonmiani and Gadani – previously called Gadiani – coasts. The villagers along the coast believe that there are signs that his soldiers are buried along that route like at this one graveyard in Hawke’s Bay. Scholarship sometimes means sifting facts from legends.

We invited an agricultural specialist from the Tando Jam Agricultural University, who opened our eyes to a whole new world. He gave a lecture on the issue of food security and poverty alleviation in Sindh. The students changed the title to ‘Food Independence’ because he showed them that Sindh produced enough for its needs and more. He was an expert in many other aspects such as its agricultural history, the British contribution in the preservation of Sindh’s ancient agricultural practices and produce (through seeds), etc. So, new doors keep opening in research and teaching, with every visiting faculty and guest lecturer.

Any interesting spin-offs or discoveries in this work?

My favourite spin-off was when we took our first batch of students to Bhambore, where they learnt about the ‘star-crossed’ romance of Sassi-Punnu (originally called Sassui-Punhu). Legend says Sassui – the daughter of a king, who was brought up by a dhobi – walked from Bhambore to Kech Makran (about 500 miles) in search of Punnu. On the day of their wedding, Punnu was tricked and carried back to Balochistan by his family. The story was immortalised by Shah Abdul Latif some 300 years ago, but according to Sindhi folklorists, it has been part of our folklore for over a thousand years.

Our students probed whether this tragic love story actually happened or did it really epitomise man’s search for God? The eternal lover in search of the ultimate beloved is a recurring theme because mysticism runs deep in Sindh’s collective psyche.

I became somewhat curious about the legend myself and started investigating after the first International Conference on Bhambore in March 2012, where I met two wonderful scholars, Saeen Gul Hassan Kalamati and Dr. Rukhman Gul Palari of the Karachi University. We discussed the path the legendary Sassui may have taken, as mentioned in the Risalo Jo Latif. They are among those who believe that Sassui did exist and I suggested that we research possible signposts of Sassui’s path. Some day I hope to publish their findings.

How do you see your Academy growing?

The largest amount of reading material about this land is in its own language, and a great resource because of its over 5,000-year history. What is available in English is variable and comes through a troublesome colonial lens. Primarily, our knowledge comes from the Sindhi scholars who deliver lectures at the Sindh Abhyas Academy. In the first year, we invited at least 50 Sindhi scholars. Foreign scholars also lecture here. An Italian professor from the Sacred Heart University of Milano, who is working at an excavation site in Bhambore, is a regular; her discoveries and theories about Marco Polo in Sindh fascinated our students.

We also grow because of the students themselves – the ones who revisit a topic they are smitten with. The whole idea is to expose the students to a range of possibilities, which may develop into serious projects in the future. The conferences, seminars and course series that we hold, lead to building up the capacity of the Masters and PhD programme. Annually, we hold an average of 25 public events on various topics, besides cultural seminars and Sindhi music evenings, which are kind of “town and gown” things with students and a happily, civilized society. This is how we grow.

This interview was originally published in Newsline’s March 2016 issue.

The writer is a documentary filmmaker and activist. She is working with the Newsline as editorial assistant.