August 17, 2011

Patriotic citizens gave our country something to be proud of for its 64th birthday: the Guinness world record for the largest number of people singing a national anthem at one time in one place. Over 5,850 people from across socio-economic, age and geographical boundaries gathered in Karachi’s Defence Stadium in Khadda Market Saturday night to sing ‘Pak Sar Zameen‘ and earn (unofficially) our nation the award previously held by the Philippines. (The record remains unofficial because, contrary to reports, officials for Guinness World Records were not present for the singing and still need to confirm the results.)

The chief organisers of the event were young professionals Abid Beli and Waqas Pai of the group ‘I Own Pakistan.’ Founded in 2008 and known for its efforts to counter negative perceptions of Pakistan, an issue close to the heart of many youths, ‘I Own Pakistan’ built a reputation via projects like a Facebook movement that managed to convince over 25,000 people to add a Pakistan flag to their profile pictures. Showcasing national pride goes hand in hand with the second key part of their patriotic refrain: urging people to set aside ethnic differences and define themselves first and foremost as Pakistanis.

For this event, ‘I Own Pakistan’ brought together what some estimates place at around 6,000 individuals (the organisers stopped counting soon after they broke the record), using solely social media.

The event was at risk of being cancelled just as people arrived on the night of the 13th, as torrential rains swept away large parts of the prepared stage area in the Defence Stadium. But using quick thinking and action, Beli and Pai managed to go through with their plans despite the inclement conditions.

Szabist student Syed Ali Abbas, one of the attendees, states that he was motivated by a desire “to put aside the labels of Mohajir, Pathan and Pujabi [and] prove the importance of being part of a united Pakistan.” With ethnic animosities and provincialism rising up in every corner, particularly violence-filled Karachi, one can only hope that this importance can be made clear to the public at large soon.

Newsline spoke to Abid Beli, the young advertising consultant who founded ‘I Own Pakistan,’ about the experience of organising a united effort to break a record for his country and the amount of spontaneous innovation it took to make his dream come true.

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What was the significance of this event and what did you hope to achieve?

We see videos, images and news reports constantly presenting the negative aspects of Pakistan. We do not deny that these exist. But we think it is equally important to bring together the best of Pakistan, and showcase that to the world. Breaking this Guinness world record is part of that effort.

When did you first decide to break this record and why?

My partner Waqas Pai came up with the original idea of getting a record number of people to sing our national anthem. When we checked with Guinness, we discovered that the previous record was held by India, where over 100,000 had gathered to sing ‘Vande Mataram.’

Accordingly, we started organizing an effort to bring together a larger number to sing ‘Pak Sar Zameen.’ But no venues in Karachi were willing to hold this number for security reasons. Meanwhile, I had done some research and realised that ‘Vande Mataram’ is not actually India’s national anthem. When I pointed this out to Guinness officials, they took note and moved the Indian record to a different category – the largest sing-along, but not the largest group singing a national anthem.

That happened in late July. Suddenly, our competitors were the Philippines, and our target was lower and more achievable: over 5,300.

What was your next move once you had the target of beating 5,300 in mind?

We started to put things together rapidly. The DHA kindly agreed to let us use Khadda Market’s Defence Stadium for free, and Dawn News helped out as our media partner. We used our personal funds to set up stages, 16 tiers of speakers and appropriate lighting. Come 10pm on 13th August, the time we had put on the complimentary tickets distributed online, everything was set.

We hear a crisis situation ensued. Tell us about how you dealt with it.

At 10:25pm, it started to rain heavily. The thunderstorm ruined all our preparations. The 800 people who had already arrived started telling others not to come, and began to leave themselves. A decision was necessary and, after seconds of thought, I decided that the event should go on.

We asked those who had arrived to stay and start contacting their friends via text, phone-calls or wireless internet, ensuring that those interested in attending knew that we had not cancelled the event. Meanwhile, 5 prominent TV channels sent reporters, including Express TV and GEO, agreed to broadcast information that our plans were continuing according to schedule.

Within half an hour, people started coming again. We set up a makeshift mic system and managed to get 2 speakers working. Tickets, which people could either download online or receive at the gate (for free), were being counted.

By 1 am, we had achieved our target. And so we sang.

And what about publicity? 

Guinness requires that one pay a licensing fee costing thousands of pounds for the right to advertise one’s effort to break a record. Since Waqas and I were paying out of our pockets, we didn’t have that kind of money. So all we used was the new media wave and word of mouth.

How and when will Guinness confirm that you have achieved your goal and broken the world record?

We sent them our ticket database, video clips and photographs on the evening of the 16th. In addition, television personality Faisal Qureshi and politician Marvi Memon, who were present at the event, have agreed to write letters of attestation for our accomplishment, which will also be forwarded to Guinness. We hope to have a confirmation within four weeks.

[You can watch a video of the incredible event here.]

Professor Akbar Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, American University, Washington, DC and author of The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror became a Global War on Tribal Islam.