April issue 2019

By | Literature | Published 4 months ago

Celebrating Voices of Dissent

No stranger to the country, Dr Anita Weiss, a professor of International Studies at the University of Oregon, has been a regular visitor to Pakistan for over 40 years. As an author, she has covered themes of social development, political Islam and gender in her recent books, Development Challenges Confronting Pakistan and Interpreting Islam, Modernity and Women’s Rights in Pakistan. In her session at the 10th Karachi Literature Festival, moderated by Salman Tarik Kureshi, Weiss spoke on the subject of her upcoming book, Countering Violent Extremism in Pakistan: Local Actions, Local Voices. 

In the book, Weiss examines the different forms of resistance to extremism – from poetry to art, society and religious institutions. This particular session focused on the poetry of resistance. 

Interestingly, it was the Army Public School attack in Peshawar, on December 16, 2014, in which gunmen killed 149 persons – 132 of them children – that inspired Weiss to write the book. Watching the then prime minister, Nawaz Sharif’s reaction to the incident incensed Weiss. “To me, it was not sufficient for the prime minister of my country to say he was just sad,” she said. Throughout her lecture, Weiss spoke in terms of “we,” “ours” and “us,” saying she regards both the US and Pakistan as her home. 

Weiss, whose book examines the ways in which people view violent extremism in Pakistan, explained that several individuals and groups in the country were already engaged in activities that rejected extremism and were making efforts to recapture their cultural values and identity. She cited as an example, Sheema Kirmani and members of the Women’s Action Forum Hyderabad, among others, who, in the aftermath of the suicide bombing at the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalander in 2017, travelled to Sehwan to perform the dhamal at the shrine – an act that she views as a powerful demonstration of resistance.  

The first chapter of Weiss’s book examines what people across the country were doing to stop terrorism and wrest back their lives and culture. And how, through music, performances and art, they were trying to reclaim their identity. A large part of this chapter is about ‘Rang Dey Karachi,’ an initiative of Munawar Ali Syed and his students from the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, who went out in the middle of the night to whitewash hate graffiti written all over the city’s walls and paint over them messages of peace. 

In her book, Weiss also explores how the community, through education and social actions, created cultural spaces and public forums like the T2F. In her chapter on poetry, Weiss says formidable expressions countering violent extremism can be found in the written word throughout Pakistan. This is particularly visible in the Sufi tradition, where it manifests itself in the Pashto poetry of Rahman Baba in the Pakhtoon areas and in the poetry of Sachal Sarmast and Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai in Sindh. She delves into the Pashto and Sindhi traditions in particular, which gave a powerful voice to those standing against established power.   

Weiss learnt how Muslims and Hindus were buried alongside each other at the dargah of Sachal Sarmast in Khairpur. She also attended the Lahooti Melo in Hyderabad in 2018 and described it as a truly remarkable event which drew people from all walks of life. While attending poetry recitals throughout the country, she discovered that a mushaira could have an extraordinary impact in the long term – more so than guns, prison sentences and other forms of punishment. 

Weiss also spoke of how religious figures were standing up to religious extremism. She referred to Imam Abdul Qadir Azad in Lahore, who formed a group with key ulema leaders of Barelvi Islam and the Ahle Hadith, Shia as well as Deobandi groups, and Catholic and Protestant leaders. They all meet once or twice a month to talk about how they can get their constituencies to co-exist. Anytime there is a crisis, they come together and collectively try to calm things down. She spoke of a similar group called Faith Friends in Peshawar and another in Multan, who collaborate on similar lines.

Last year, Weiss had been invited to a Christmas cake-cutting ceremony by the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII). Its Chairperson, Dr Qibla Ayaz had also invited assorted religious leaders from the greater Islamabad and Rawalpindi areas, including Hindu pundits, Sikh leaders, Church of Pakistan Protestants and Catholics and Muslims of all denominations. Each one of them spoke of why it had become necessary to build an understanding between their respective constituencies. While they spoke, Ayaz told Weiss, “By the way, you are the chief guest.” The event was a historic one, especially since it was the first of its kind held in the building of the CII .

– Deneb Sumbul

Is Today’s Media Informing Society or Dumbing it Down?

 

On March 3, 2019, the Karachi Literature Festival hosted a panel discussion titled, ‘Is today’s media informing society or dumbing it down?’ The panelists included senior journalist Ghazi Salahuddin, academic and Professor of International Relations at IBA, Dr Huma Baqai, ARY’s Lahore Bureau Chief, Ghazanfar Hashmi and pioneer TV journalist Shaheen Salahuddin. The discussion was moderated by Wusatullah Khan, a journalist at BBC Urdu.

Wusatullah observed that the question was particularly relevant in light of the standoff between India and Pakistan that began on February 14, after the suicide attack in Pulwama, in Indian-administered Kashmir. Shaheen lamented that well-established Indian anchors and channels were not providing balanced reports or analyses and airing anti-Pakistan propaganda instead. 

“We live in the post-truth era,” said Ghazanfar. “The picture created today is a confused and fragmented one, through the bombardment of information.” The consumers, meanwhile, don’t know any better, he added. “Instead of informing readers, the media encourages readers to sift through the information provided and choose to believe what they want.” Referring to the heightening tensions between the two neighbours in recent times, he said that the Pakistani media had played a relatively responsible role compared to the Indian media, which had only spread confusion and “hidden the truth.” 

“Why do we always feel the need to compete with India, when we are busy fighting our own wars on our own turf?” asked Ghazi. The role and capacity of Pakistan’s media, he said, must be viewed in the context of the circumstances surrounding it. There is little regard for the rule of law, or fundamental human rights and freedoms, let alone press freedom, while the quality of education is not what it should be, he continued. “We must take all these limitations into account before determining the role of our media,” he said.

According to Huma, the phrase “dumbing down” was first used in 1933 as “slang” in the film industry. It was believed that few people would be able to grasp content that was highly intellectualised and therefore it had to be simplified and made easy for mass consumption. “The dumbing down of the media has not only become an industry, but a mafia,” she said, adding that examples of this were not restricted to India or Pakistan, but existed across the globe. She said that producers of local talkshows ask her not to make any points that are too in-depth or sophisticated as this would lower the “ratings” of their shows.

Ghazi added that while television caters to mass audiences, including the illiterate, it is the print media that caters to the country’s intelligentsia. He cited the commendable role played by America’s print media, The New York Times in particular, during Trump’s presidency. “The New York Times is an example of a print publication that has taken an honest, critical and in-depth approach, which has resulted in an increase in its circulation,” he said, adding, “research has shown that in America, newspaper editorials shape public opinion.” He said that in Pakistan too, English language journalism – opinion pieces in particular –  are of high quality, but the readership is not that large. Huma, however, complained that the word limits of opinion pieces were getting lower and lower with time.

Wusatullah highlighted the fact that half of the analysts in Pakistan are either retired generals or bureaucrats, while teachers and professors were unable to effectively provide brief summaries of various topics for the media as this is not part of their training. As a result, the media grows increasingly reliant on those individuals who are able to provide short answers in a “capsule” format. Huma added that this was due to the nature of the media and its emphasis on “punchlines.” However, she pointed out that TV channels only invite “tried and tested” analysts on their talkshows and are “very afraid” to give air time to any new faces.

Responding to a question by Wusatullah on whether investigative journalism has been killed in Pakistan, Huma said that unfortunately it is popular journalism that sells and not investigative journalism. Ghazi added that since “investigative journalism speaks truth to power,” efforts are made in Pakistan to curb it. Wusatullah said that carrying out an investigation meant meeting people and going places, but journalists were unable to do so as they were working on meagre salaries, let alone not receiving travel expenses. Ghazi continued that civil society needed to be a pillar of support for the local media, but that this was not the case.

– Ali Bhutto

Judicial Activism vs. Judicial Restraint 

What was first planned as a conversation between Chairman, K-Electric and security expert, Ikram Sehgal, academic Huma Baqai and Justice (R) Chaudhry Saqib Nisar, played out differently after the latter could not arrive in Karachi due to airspace closure following rising tensions between India and Pakistan. Instead, Justice (R) Mujeebullah Siddiqui and CPLC founder Jameel Yusuf, were roped in for the session titled, ‘Judicial Activism vs. Judicial Restraint,’ which attracted a huge crowd in Beach Luxury Hotel’s main garden on a pleasantly windy Karachi afternoon. 

Baqai opened the talk with a small history lesson, detailing how the term judicial restraint and, consequently, judicial activism, became part of the English vernacular. Former Chief Justices Saqib Nisar and Iftikhar Chaudhry, she explained, had each taken 70 and a little over 400 suo-moto notices respectively, during their terms. Taking the conversation forward, Baqai asked Justice Siddiqui to comment on the judiciary’s role in social reform. Evidently critical of Nisar’s conduct during his term, Siddiqui maintained that the judiciary should always remain apolitical. Referencing instances of exemplary justice in the state of Medina, he also shared a letter he had written to Nisar, expressing that his unchecked judicial activism had opened the judiciary to widespread criticism.  

Sehgal and Yusuf, however, were of a different opinion. Commenting on the role of the army operating outside the ambit of law, Sehgal said, “the Rangers rid us of the menace of terrorism that existed in this city and they are still working on it. And it is not one type of terror [that we faced], there was ethnic terror, religious terror, criminal terror, all sorts of terror.”

Adding to Sehgal’s comment, Yusuf maintained that judicial activism had in fact in may ways helped get rid of the ills that have plagued Pakistan for far too long, but also added that currently, judicial activism has taken a strange turn, focusing on individuals as opposed to the restructuring of institutions. On the much-talked-about issue of encroachments, Yusuf questioned why it had taken so long for the judiciary to take action. “Nobody inquired as to who allowed the illegal encroachments in the first place,” he said.   

– Zoha Liaquat

280 Characters, Please

‘Can Literature Survive the #Hashtag?’ was the title of a session held on March 3, the third and last day of the KLF, focusing on the future of literature in a landscape of ever-changing technology which begets the rapid consumption of literature. The session featured a panel of journalists, writers and editors, including Sanam Maher, Sajeer Sheikh, Jahanzaib Haque and Hamna Zubair, with Taha Kehar as moderator.

The session – in which the panelists provided their own interpretations of the topic of discussion – repeatedly deviated from the question and failed to effectively address the subject of whether literature can survive the hashtag. 

The earlier part of the session focused on the relevance of long-form writing and its ability to withstand the increasing consumption of simple, colloquially structured pieces that serve to provide instant gratification.

While most of the panelists are in the media industry, their experience remains specific to revenue-based writing, where a return on investment seems to be the end goal. Sanam Maher, a writer who deviates from short, easier-to-consume writing, said there is value in respecting and appreciating long-form journalism, as it still holds relevance to those who wish to read more in-depth work. “The attention is there,” she said, adding that “it has been split among the many different platforms.”

Jahanzaib Haque analysed social media-related writing, as more and more people are keen in sharing their own opinions rather than reading those of others – hence the growing number of Facebook status updates after any and every event. “We shouldn’t be quick to judge the Facebook status updates,” said Haque. “The connection you have to that person writing the status is what prompts you to read it, beyond the content of what is in the status.”

The discussion also examined the emergence of Instagram poetry as a valid form of literature. With contemporary poets Nayyirah Waheed, Najwa Zebian and Rupi Kaur on the rise, it is the presentation of literature that ultimately decides what people want to read. The panel made a case for literature not just being a medium of expression for the elite, but for any and everyone with access to the Internet.  

– Mahnoor Farooqui

Of Wartime and Chance Encounters 

Authors Deborah Baker and Anita Weiss sat down to discuss two of Baker’s books, The Last Englishmen and The Convert. 

While discussing her book, The Last Englishmen – the story of a Himalayan exploration set against the backdrop of the Second World War – Baker explained that “In the ’30s there was a whole quest to get to the top of the Everest. England had this magical belief that if it were able to reach the summit of Everest, that would quiet India down… that India would be so impressed it would stop giving them trouble about independence. But, of course, on the flip side, every time they tried and failed, England kept looking weaker and weaker.”  

Baker detailed the difference in the British and the Indian experience of the Second World War. “The western world’s narrative of WWII is of us being the heroes and we don’t often understand that the people who fought in the war were not fighting Hitler; they were trying to get away from the British Empire,” said the author who spent a little over a decade researching wartime experiences in India and Britain. 

She highlighted the fact that the great world wars are rarely represented through the lens of the then colonised: “They were fighting because they needed the money to support their families back home… this research helped understand the impact the militarisation had on the subcontinent till Independence rolled around.”

Baker also revealed how she discovered Maryam Jameela – the protagonist of her book, The Convert. It was during a visit to the New York Public Library that she came across Maryam’s letters and was immediately struck with curiosity: “It was a Muslim name in a sea of Jewish names, and I wondered how that name ended up in the NY Public Library.”

Upon more research, Baker learned that Maryam was Jewish by birth and had later converted to Islam, and written extensively about it. Feeling alone and out of place in New York after she embraced a new religion, she was called to Pakistan by Maulana Maududi – the late Pakistani philosopher jurist, journalist and imam. It was much later in her research that Baker found out that Maryam was, in fact, alive and residing in Lahore, which was when she decided to write to her. 

“It’s easier to write about people who are dead because you can own them, you don’t have to worry about their feelings, etc. But when she responded to my letters I was like I will have to go to Lahore and speak with her,” she said. Baker detailed how reading Maryam’s story intrigued her, and “awakened many questions about Islam.” 

“She became my vehicle to explore all of this. I found her critique of the West deeply engaging,” said the author.

– Zoha Liaquat

Learning the Smart Way

 A session on the evolution of education, titled ‘Rethinking Education in Fast Changing Times,’ was held on March 2, the second day of the Karachi Literature Festival. The panel of experts on the subject included educational trainer, Azra Naseem; the International Commissioner for Financing Global Education Opportunity, Baela Raza Jamil; the Executive Director of IBA, Dr Farrukh Iqbal, and Dr Shahzad Ahmed Memon, a Professor at the Institute of Information and Communication Technology. 

The session, moderated by Dr Anjum Halai, was attended mostly by young education professionals who absorbed the panel’s insights on research and education in Pakistan. Halai initially discussed the role education plays in preparing the youth in navigating an uncertain world, and training the newer generations beyond the parameters of a theoretical emphasis on numeracy and literacy. The session was geared specifically towards holistic education, which integrated the STEM (science, technology,  engineering and mathematics) curriculum with civic responsibility, ethics and culture, and the need to rethink education through technology. 

Iqbal tackled the concept of production technology in a classroom, and how a teacher – until recently – could be seen as a worker in three parts: a researcher and generator of knowledge, an instructor and, lastly, a facilitator for real-world application of that knowledge. Of late, however, books and online resources have assumed the position of knowledge generators and instructors, while teachers have taken on the role of facilitators, making sure that the students are both independent, learned and able to apply their skills in the real world. Dr Iqbal also spoke of the unwillingness to move forward in this new dynamic, and how suppressing this evolution will only place a financial strain – as teachers will have to be adequately compensated for the additional roles they continue to assume but for which they are no longer needed.

Azra Naseem — whose specialty is blended and digital learning — highlighted the importance of evaluating the interpersonal relations between students and teachers, as well as the use of technology to pursue a more in-depth study that enables students to critically think and articulate, and move away from surface learning. The issue of the Pakistani education system favouring STEM fields was addressed, with an emphasis on making education more holistic, to generate more well-rounded individuals who are exposed to art, literature and history in their education.

Baela Jamil also spoke of the Children’s Literature Festival, which she founded, and how it has helped students with learning disabilities and incorporated technology from robotics design to digital resources, using this modern equipment as a soft skill to facilitate transformative thinking.

– Mahnoor Farooqui