From the unique national program to the 18th Amendment, from Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan to the makeup of its cricket team – every issue that arises plunges Pakistan into an existential crisis, sparking fundamental debates about national identity, teleology and trajectory: who are we? Who do we want to be?
In this context, Pakistan Here and Now: Insights into Society, Culture, Identity and Diaspora – an essay volume edited by poet and essayist Harris Khalique and development practitioner Irfan Ahmad Khan – is a welcome arrival. With its self-describing subtitle, the volume includes seven essays on topics ranging from film, censorship, programming, music, history and poetry that collectively have a long-term view to understand how historical and political developments – and accidents – have shaped Pakistani culture.
Contributors come from a variety of disciplines – media, academia, development, gender studies – and each essay has a vibrant and distinct voice. Essays move from academic theory to anecdote, from historical storytelling to personal reflection, and readers would be better off abandoning the expectations of a traditional edited volume. Instead, the book should be seen as an opportunity to join a conversation, as writers seem to talk to each other through their contributions, from like-minded friends looking to provoke each other.
Despite this fluidity, the collection has a clear mission statement, with editors describing it as an attempt to “[problematise] the subjects of society, culture, identity and the diaspora from a progressive perspective. Although this is a volume on culture, the political flag is raised early and flies high through all contributions. Indeed, given Pakistan’s disappearance of space for dialogue or critical thinking, and the lack of cultural introspection, the volume looks like more than an intervention – it is a political challenge.
Accessible essay volume collectively takes a long-term view to understand how historical and political developments – and accidents – have shaped Pakistani culture
Read together, the essays begin to address questions of who we are and how we came to be that way. Journalist and filmmaker Hasan Zaidi’s opening essay, “Some Uncertainties: Pakistan’s Cultural Confusions,” lays the groundwork by examining efforts to define Pakistani culture. It recounts the 1968 Faiz Culture report, highlighting the strained relationship between art and state throughout our country’s history – and rightly concludes that the go-to binaries for cultural categorization are inadequate.
The volume’s blend of perspectives helps broaden the definition of culture and serves as a reminder that cultural formation is not a purely organic process. Instead, he is informed by the politics and constraints of creative economies. Author and cultural critic Salman Asif’s essay on The Portrayal of Religious Minorities in Pakistani Cinema is a great read, showing how inclusive and exclusive portrayals echo the challenges facing the industry itself and are guided by historical and political events. For example, Asif effectively demonstrates the impact of the Khalistan movement on celluloid representations of the Sikh community.
Khalique’s own essay on the role of the diaspora in shaping Pakistani politics and culture is an interesting angle to include. His mapping of the Pakistani diaspora and its relationship with Pakistan is a useful diagram, but one would have liked him to explore further how – what he calls – the “influential” diaspora’s experience of social exclusion in Western countries, ultimately leads to nostalgic political activism – for example, support for the current ruling party – which, in turn, fuels other forms of exclusion in Pakistan.
And while educator Dr Naazir Mahmood’s essay “Discrimination and Exclusion in Pakistan’s Education System” initially seems out of place in this volume, it does make it clear that a progressive and inclusive culture is taught and organized – or not, as is unfortunately the case. the case in Pakistan. Mahmood’s essay, in fact, anchors the book by directly calling out how “ideological ostracization” works in Pakistan, and explains why the state places drastic restrictions on academia and debates that require such a book. The essay would undoubtedly have been better placed at the beginning of the volume to contextualize other contributions.
A notable feature of this collection is the frequent recourse by writers to anecdote, memories and reverie, and repeated mentions of love. For example, the lyrical essay by Fatimah Ihsan, assistant professor of gender studies, “The Raag of Inclusion and the Level of Love” is a personal, poetic and metaphorical journey through the tradition of Sufi music. , who succeeds in arguing that pluralism and inclusion – especially gender inclusion – have a deep tradition in Pakistan. The depth of sentiment in such essays highlights how truly political the staff is in Pakistan, and that efforts to preserve a progressive vision – like this volume – are in fact acts of self-preservation.
Several essays called for more rigorous editing, mainly in the form of clearer framing and argumentation. Academic and actor Navid Shahzad’s ‘Language of the Heart’, who juxtaposes Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet with Faiz Ahmed Faiz and examines their use of their native languages in their poetry, begins with a historical sweep – from Adam and Eve! The essay then winds through ruminations on language, exile, dislocation, post-coloniality and religion. One appreciates the biographical details and powerful verses of these poetic giants, but one wonders what Shahzad’s argument is.
Likewise, writer Zahida Hina’s chronology of how religion came to play a central conceptual and operational role in the Pakistani state, starting in the 7th century with the birth of Islam, is a review useful for those who lack historical context, but requires clearer analysis. thesis to guide the reader through the timeline.
That said, the mix of personal experiences and spiritual observations, and the chunks of timeline that confuse the analysis, are essential for readers unfamiliar with these debates and hopefully will make the volume more accessible. and informative. After all, it would defeat the purpose of the collection if it were consumed only by progressive scholars. In fact, a version of this book is also available in Urdu translation under the title Pakistan Ehd-i-Haazir Mein.
As it stands, the book itself becomes an indicator of the vernacular or contemporary cultural zeitgeist of Pakistan. The need to mix politics and artistic and cultural criticism; the diversity of contributors, including practitioners; the support of a think tank based in the United States; the urge to capture this content in an edited volume, pulling ideas from urban living rooms and Twitter feeds and giving them form and substance in book form – all of these are a poignant commentary on the state of the cultural discourse and debate in Pakistan, surviving through thick and thin, and not in isolation or as upheaval, but as part of an evolving tradition.
It’s also an interesting commentary on our current cultural crisis that several essays – for example, Shahzad’s on Faiz and Asif’s on Minorities in Cinema – list the international awards and global recognition that Pakistani cultural artefacts and their producers have received.
An effort to reclaim and articulate our culture always compares cultural production to externalities and implicitly seeks validation, rather than articulating a vernacular within which Pakistan’s cultural production can be assessed. It would be wonderful to see a successor volume of Khalique and Khan take on this challenge.
The examiner is a political risk and integrity analyst. She tweet @humayusuf
Posted in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 19, 2021