March Issue 2010

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 10 years ago

It is easy to be cynical about Salman Ahmad. Not satisfied with being a global rock star, he sees himself as a visionary, as a prophet of peace and a warrior for Sufism. Much like U2’s Bono, another pop star with similar pretensions, Ahmad’s constant self-promotion and lofty rhetoric can be grating, so much so that you wish he would just shut up and focus on his music. It is no surprise, then, that the best parts of his uneven autobiography, Rock & Roll Jihad, are those that deal with the nitty-gritty of his musical career. Unfortunately, one also has to wade through a lot of political pamphleteering and supposedly spiritual asides.

Ahmad devotes considerable space to his childhood, which was divided between Lahore, the US and, for a short time, the Middle East. Although Ahmad tries to mine greater meaning out of every experience, his adolescence seems no different to that of countless others. What is remarkable is that Ahmad broke away from the mould and pursued his unorthodox dream. The chapters on his childhood also introduce the many pop-culture references that pepper the book: John Lennon, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones.

Surprisingly, Ahmad gives short shrift to his time in Vital Signs, Pakistan’s first mainstream pop group. In just a half-dozen pages, he breezes through the experience and explains that he quit the group because he wanted Vital Signs to take on a harder edge and be more willing to make a political statement with their music. It is typical, not just of Ahmad, but of all writers, to portray themselves in the most flattering light, so it is to be expected that Ahmad would blame the other members of the group for his departure. What is disappointing, though, is that he didn’t explain the acrimonious split in greater detail.

The bulk of Rock & Roll Jihad deals with Junoon and Salman Ahmad’s rise to mega stardom. Unlike most rock stars, refreshingly, Ahmad isn’t afraid of the spotlight or bothered by it. Instead, he embraces it. While the tone is often shrill and self-righteous, there is no doubting his good intentions. Salman Ahmad wants to be a force of good in the world, whether it is railing against repressive governments, seeking peace with India or striving to create a moderate image of Muslims after 9/11. This may seem like an absurdly impossible task for a rock star, but Ahmad gives it his all, using the stage as a platform for his proselytising. Ahmed’s efforts to reclaim words like ‘jihad’ and ‘taliban’ may seem futile but the gusto with which he embraces them should be admired. In his eagerness to expound his political philosophy, though, Ahmad marginalises the other members of Junoon, making them little more than bit players in the grand drama that it is the life and thoughts of Salman Ahmad.

It is not the lofty rhetoric of Rock & Roll Jihad that makes it an interesting read. Rather it is in telling anecdotes from his life as a rock star, that Ahmad’s gift for telling a tale shines through. Thus we learn that Nawaz Sharif instructed umpires to favour him and bowlers were too afraid to try and get him out. When he came up against quality international bowling, however, Sharif was forced to learn the harsh lesson that he may not have been the second coming of Don Bradman. He even ended up blaming Ahmad for one of his dismissals. Then, there are tales of Mick Jagger — one of Ahmad’s childhood idols — cavorting and dancing with the girls of Heera Mandi. Such stories pepper the latter half of the book and serve to humanise Ahmad, who sometimes seems to be in awe of his good fortune at meeting people he once worshipped.

At a time when his former bandmate Ali Azmat has channeled his political energies into conspiracy theorising, Salman Ahmad’s autobiography is a timely reminder that rock stars can be a force of good. Ahmad is often ham-handed in his analogies and certainly has a high opinion of himself. But his story is a remarkable one and shows that dreams indeed can come true.

Nadir Hassan is a Pakistan-based journalist and assistant editor at Newsline.