Omar A Khan
Every conversation ends with a sigh and a feeble offering of “Chalo, Allah behtar kare-ga,” which more and more appears as a polite habit rather than a phrase borne of conviction.
Hope has taken another severe battering in the last few days and the thought of slipping away somewhere else is an increasingly tempting one. But the question is, where do we go from here? Have we reached the bottom of the pit with the sickening video images on our TV screens, or is there still some distance to fall?
Many people’s misplaced optimism is based upon the “progress” that the nation has made over the last few years. Art and literature, they claim, are flourishing like never before with Pakistani writers making a splash worldwide. Theatre appears to be making a faltering comeback and then there is the thriving music scene. There’s supposedly a revival of cinema in Pakistan to celebrate, and what of the burgeoning fashion and catwalk scene. The Kara Film Festival made a welcome return while there was no stopping those puppets which is in no way a reference to the Q-League. Currently we have a glut of International luxury brands arriving in Pakistan such as Jaguar motor cars and now there is a private jet rental service for the masses that may have the odd gazillion lying about. Medicine for the people has also seen dramatic progress; all you have to do is open any magazine to find advertisements of scores offering tummy tucks, liposuction, stomach stapling, buttock lifting, wrinkle treatment, anti-ageing injections, forehead lifting, nose reshaping, and once in a while, the odd polio drop.
The attack on the Sri Lankan cricketers in Lahore has almost faded into oblivion, because so many further horrors have occurred since then, and in increasingly rapid succession. The dust from the ghastly attacks on the young trainees had barely settled, indeed the dust from the suicide blast at Pir Wadhai had barely settled, when a few of us depression-hardened souls headed out for a trip to assess the progress of one of Islamabad’s dream projects intended at making the capital a major player on the Art and Culture scene. You know, one of those noble plans intended to project the “civilised” side of Pakistan, to ourselves and to the rest of the world. “Dream” and “civilised” according to whom, and culture determined by what? Culture and civilisation are judged by quite a different yardstick in Pakistan, depending largely on which side of the economic spectrum you happen to be. Most Pakistanis are too busy struggling with the burden of poverty to be able to spare a moment for culture or art — strictly the domain of the privileged few.
Ostensibly The Potohar Project is a spectacular and ambitious 20–odd-acre plan intended to provide Islamabad, rich and poor, with a site that promotes art and culture on a scale that has not yet been experienced in the capital. The optimism of our hosts was commendable, and indeed honest, as they explained the purpose of each structure as we ambled along. To the right a dorm to house artists from around the world, to the left an amphitheatre for performing arts and, behind that, galleries to display the work of art students. As we walked on further, more kiosks and stalls and enclaves intended to create an atmosphere of thriving diversity, learning, debate and, most of all, respect. Perhaps this project was the piece of positive news that one subconsciously yearned for. One of our hosts, a media personality and model/actor, with his future lying ahead of him, was upbeat and enthusiastic about the future, and perhaps rightly so. As we walked around the acres of land we managed to allow ourselves to be lulled into a sense of optimism by the project that surrounded us, the recent restoration of the judiciary and the positive role of the media and a bright and tranquil spring day in Islamabad.
As we walked by one of the freshly completed structures the ears suddenly perked up to zero in on one specific sound – the barely discernable sound of a human voice, a very angry human voice. Our gracious hosts, not hardened cynics as yet, had already strolled ahead, oblivious to the strains emanating from within; they were concentrating on where the paintings would hang, where the plays and dances would be staged and where the concerts and recitals would be most suitable. Inside, the actual builders of this cultural utopia huddled together hunched over listening in rapt silence to a CD of a Maulana’s thundering tirade against the “kafirs.” The impoverished labourers nodded affirmatively to one another as the bellowing voice implored them to “undertake whatever measures that it needs” to save Islam from the infidels and their agents. The words spoke of Islam, but between the lines the kafirs are those who live in castle-like mansions, six cars in the driveway — one for each family member — amidst manicured lush, sprawling lawns impeccably maintained by modern-day slaves. The bellowing voice rising to a crescendo demands its listeners to recognise that they are the only true torchbearers of Islam; the disenfranchised and miserable masses, those who have almost nothing but their faith. How suitably ironic that the planned culture and art hub of the city is being constructed by those bare hands which will be the first to rip it to shreds? There is also an irony in that the instrument of delivering the fiery hate-filled rhetoric should be the despised ungodly audio CD. It was a telling moment.
A day or so later we were confronted with that enlightening video which left millions of Pakistani’s reeling in horror and disgust. What next? Videos of children having their tongues ripped out for telling a white lie maybe? As if the flogging wasn’t horrifying enough, the attempted Sunday morning snooze was aborted due to vivid nightmares of discovering body parts that had flown into the garden as a result of the F-7 suicide attack the night before. The explosion had taken place just a hundred or so yards down the road and thus much of what had been planned as a quiet night at home was spent with the lights out, cowering on the floor listening to the crack-crack-crack of bullets on the street outside. However, to put things in perspective, at least some of us could dream that night while many of the young men posted at the top of the street, each one a beloved son and brother were not so fortunate. Some of them will never dream again.
We had a guest from the UAE over the weekend trying to decide in light of the recession if she would prefer to return to Pakistan or carry on in crumbling Dubai or elsewhere. At least that issue was sorted out conclusively by the end of her trip. Assurances that things will get better (Allah behtar kare-ga’s failed to make an impact and she left her beloved homeland in the morning in haste. The same morning the Taliban reaffirmed that they will soon be in total control of Islamabad and with, disrespect to none, you would imagine the leadership of a besieged, crumbling, poverty- stricken and war-torn nation would have more pressing issues on its agenda than harkening back 30 years to matters that will be of no benefit to any living Pakistani today. Could it be that the Pakistani style of crisis-management has been devised by an ostrich?
The writer is a filmmaker and entrepreneur. Email: omar@bubonicfilms .com