Friday, December 26, 2014

Pakistan: Litfests and Bookfairs – Two Worlds? by Ajmal Kamal

The following is a note from Ajmal Kamal (who edits the Urdu literary magazine Aaj, runs City Press in Karachi, and is an institution in his own right). Comments welcome. My own first thought (reflective of my current obsessions) is at the end of this note...

If you have attended this year the two events that mark the pinnacle of Karachi’s book culture – the Karachi Literature Festival and the Karachi International Book Fair – you may have noticed that these two well-attended public events are not looking at each other at all. In fact, the situation may seem to mirror the split in our country’s social fabric that is becoming more brutally evident by the day.

The KLF enthusiastically promotes books and authors from Pakistan that link the national literary activity with the international book trade scene, a la the pioneering Jaipur Literature Festival on the other side of the border. Both the KLF and JLF are commonly criticized for the fact that they are rather unfairly tilted towards the desi literature produced in English at the cost of the literature of ‘local’ languages. To be fair, KLF, being sensitive to the accusation of being elitist, has strived to give a gradually increasing exposure to Urdu literature, even if the languages relegated to ‘regional’ status – Sindhi, Punjabi, Saraiki, Balochi and Pushto - still get only a token representation. However, the primary concern of such events remains the English language writing.

Similar is the case, for example, of the weekly review magazine Books and Authors, brought out by the prime national English daily Dawn. Till some time ago, it reserved two pages exclusively for reviewing local language publications (including, mainly, Urdu books); now one of the two pages has been taken away as the weekly column by Intizar Husain has been shifted from the main newspaper to the B&A.

The Book Fair, on the other hand – despite the prefix ‘international’ with its name – may be taken to present a more realistic picture of what is actually going on in the national market of reading material. Provided, of course, someone bothers to look and ponder.  The fair is an annual event organized by the country’s publishers and booksellers, driven by their legitimate commercial interest. Anyone visiting the fair at Expo Centre on the University Road can notice one basic fact: Urdu books promoting a delusional political ideology – flaunting an unmistakably religious-sectarian colour – dominate the printed material displayed, bought and sold here. As for the ‘regional’ languages, they are conspicuous by their near absence at the fair – they seem to have little market, maybe because they have failed to become efficient vehicles for the seemingly dominant ideology mentioned above. But that is just a guess.

We, the common consumers of reading material, have little option except to make guesses. Because our infinitely creative writers represented and privileged in the events like the literature festivals  – using English, Urdu or any other language – appear to be as clueless as their readers about this intriguing phenomenon, aptly named ‘English-Urdu Bipolarity  Syndrome in Pakistan’ by C. M. Naim, Professor Emeritus of the University of Chicago. (

Incidentally, it was Prof. Naim who wrote an enlightening piece (‘Mothers of the Lashkar’, included in his book A Killing in Ferozewala: Essays/Polemics/Reviews; 2013, Karachi, City Press) about a book called Ham Ma’en Lashkar-e Taiba ki (We, the Mothers of the Lashkar-e Taiba). The three-volume Urdu book was brought out by Dar-ul Andulus, Lahore, presumably the publications wing of the jihadi outfit; many portions of this book also appeared in the Lashkar’s journal called Mujalla Al-Da’wa. Containing accounts of the young men (narrated by their mothers) who sacrificed their lives in the Qital fi sabeelillah, several editions of the three volumes (each printing consisting of 1100 copies) came out between 1998 and 2003 and reached their enthusiastic buyers.

How many of the established and upcoming writers – custodians of literature in Pakistan – have cared to know about this and – trust me, countless – other such publications? How many have dared to make sense of what is going on outside their ivory towers for the benefit of their readers or listeners at the well-attended festivals? Hardly anyone. I think they prefer to ignore the whole damn thing.
Ignorance, as they say, is a choice.

Be that as it may, the fact is that, even before the true stories of the jihadi martyrs and their proud mothers came out and were read with interest, literature with this kind of worldview has been attracting a large number of writers ever since the printing press was introduced in the northern Subcontinent. It has consistently increased and influenced its readership among the literate adults and minors in our country. What seems entirely logical is that, hand in hand with the much talked about school and college textbooks, it has managed to define and shape the way an average Pakistani Urdu reader looks at the world around him.

One can make a list of names by visiting any big bookshop in Karachi’s Urdu Bazar, or even a roadside newspaper stand in the Saddar area. Names made prominent by the numerous editions of their books picked up by their fans. Nasim Hijazi, Tariq Ismail Saagar, Inayatullah (of the BRB Behti Rahe Gi fame), Ishfaq Ahmed, Bano Qudsia, Mohammad Ilyas, Umaira Ahmed – the list cannot hope to be exhaustive. What do their books say to their readers? Let me make an awkward attempt at summarizing the worldview that they sincerely believe in, inculcate and promote. Here goes.

Muslims came to the Subcontinent (from Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan, Central Asia, Andalusia, the Balkans, wherever) to spread Islam in this infidel region and rule here. They (we) ruled Hindustan for a glorious thousand years, after which – because we had become deficient in our religious piety and jihad – we were thrown out of power by the imperialist British. When it was time for the White colonialists to return the lost thrown to us, the wicked non-Muslims (comprising more than 75 percent in the subcontinent, mind it) tried to impose democratic politics to keep us Muslims – born to dominate the world in the name of Allah – deprived of our right to rule India permanently. We defeated them by dividing India and making Pakistan – the fortress of Islam – from where we’ll carry on the jihad to rule not only the entire South Asia but also Afghanistan, Central Asia and beyond. Meanwhile, the foreign enemies (others) are conspiring – with connivance of the enemies inside us (internal others such as our religious and sectarian minorities and their misguided sympathizers) – to defeat our sacred struggle. But we’ll continue to make ourselves (and our women, especially) religiously purer, stronger in faith and sensitive to the conspiracies around us. Once we overcome our enemies, after killing them in large numbers and sacrificing many of our own, we will impose the will of Allah on our land and beyond.

Mad dream? Maybe. But this is what is reflected in our national goals and policies, not to mention our textbooks, quite matter-of-factly. And our popular literature. Take Ishtiaq Ahmed, for example. He is the celebrated author of hundreds of novels for our Urdu-reading adolescents. This may be news to some that the last page of his typical novel is reserved for creating ‘awareness’ among its young readers about the existential threat the non-Muslim citizens of our country – Christians, Hindus, Shias and Ahmadis (‘Qadianis’) – pose to our religious-nationalist cause.

Our creative writers have as much right as we, their readers, do to be surprised at the direction our country’s politics has taken, and to mourn the fact that their sincere voice of sanity has been reduced to look like a lunatic fringe in today’s Pakistan. This is precisely what they – and their readers – look like from the opposite angle. Our writers have, collectively, failed to challenge what has now developed into our national narrative, and in turn, have been reduced to an ineffective minority voice.

What is even worse, we find echoes of support in our literature – especially Urdu literature – for parts of this dangerous narrative. After all, this mad dream was sold, in the first place, to popular writers – and our political and military leaders – by this very elite class that prides itself at being our intelligentsia. The idea that Muslims came to India from some foreign land, purposefully promoted by our cultural leaders, created an attitude of looking with contempt at everything that was local: literary forms and critical standards, cultural norms, festivals, modes of being, and, above all, languages.

The drift of the established literary criticism, for instance, has been to advise the creative writer to avoid the local and the ordinary, and focus on the so-called universal and international, which would get him a place in the sun. Lately, the dastan fiction has received a lot of uncritical admiration – even glorification –despite the fact that the dastan narrative typically revolves around Muslim conquests of infidel lands, massacre and forced conversion of non-Muslims, and the deft use of the converted Muslims against the infidels as killers, spies and terrorists. Let’s not mention the sickening misogyny of the dastanshere. All this campaign to glorify dastans bypasses the fact that this kind of worldview has provided meat to, for example, Nasim Hijazi’s novels that have, in turn, been a great inspiration (besides Allama Iqbal) for characters like Zaid Hamid who can be seen promoting Ghazwa-e Hind and worse on Pakistani TV channels.

Even in the Muslim journalism and politics in the Subcontinent, imported issues were actively promoted to suppress the real issues of real people here. I’d mention just one example: Maulana Abul Kalam Azad (1888-1958) started to publish his weekly Al-Hilal from Calcutta in 1912, using the state-of-the-art printing technology of those days, to make people aware of the wars in the Balkans and North Africa that the dying Muslim imperial power – the Ottoman Empire – was fighting and losing. Let alone Calcutta and Bengal, even the entire colonized India found no mention in the celebrated magazine except as a bastion of support for the Muslim conquerors of European and African lands! (The weeklyZamindar of Lahore followed the same line.) This ‘media campaign’ later resulted in the huge Khilafat Movement (1919-1922) just before Turkey itself decided to formally end the Ottoman Empire. However, the energy generated among Muslims by the movement was duly channelized during the next two decades in favour of the Partition of the Subcontinent and the establishment of Pakistan – which, as you know, would one day re-conquer India, fly the green flag on Delhi’s Red Fort, and, God-willing, rule the world.

As for languages, Persian was considered the symbol of Muslim culture in the Subcontinent until the British colonialists replaced it, during 1860s, with English at higher levels of education and administration and with local vernaculars at the lower levels. The Muslim elites did not hesitate before abandoning Persian and adopting English, within a space of merely two generations. Even Urdu was ‘created’ out of its local origin – Hindi – to look like an imported language with its Perso-Arabic script, a profusion of Persian and Arabic expressions, and an active campaign to ‘exclude’ – declaring matrook – a large number of local words and expressions. Then this specially crafted Urdu was handed over to the lower classes to keep alive and teach their children in, making them less employable in the process. Meanwhile, you can come across any number of people from this elite or even nouveau riche class who would gladly inform you that their children can neither speak nor read Urdu (let alone Punjabi, Sindhi and other local languages). So, the only language they can use now is English in which, no doubt, they can talk to their ilk, but it is equally certain that they can neither talk to those common people of Pakistan who have been made hostage to the mad dream, nor understand the starry-eyed lunatic fringe that has come to dominate the mainstream of our culture and politics.

They can, however, express their shock – mostly in English – at the proliferation of madrassas and horrendous terrorist crimes against modern schools, their teachers and students, and citizens of this country. Nobody in his right mind expects our writers to come up with a ‘counter-narrative’ – since they have not only ignored the development of the dominant narrative but have been ambivalent about – even supportive to –parts of the mad dream that has come to obsess us.

Comment (from Omar Ali): Outstanding! 
I think it is worth noting that this "mainstream narrative" is not (or was not) mainstream in the sense of "common current thought of the majority". The majority of the population in Punjab, Sindh etc lives (or lived until very recently) in a very different universe. But a section of the relatively narrow Indian Muslim elite had a certain notion of themselves as the descendants of the Turko-Afghan ruling class. Within this (frequently illusory ) notion were embedded other ideas of intrinsic superiority and Islamic solidarity. These notions interacted with (or led to) events like the Khilafat movement and the rise of Allama Iqbal style delusions about the Muslim Ummah and it's historic role and destiny on the one hand, and the rise of Hindu identity politics on the other, to create the idea of Pakistan. This in turn got enmeshed in the political twists and turns of the Muslim League and it's supremely egotistical "great leader" and somehow we stumbled into Pakistan. 
What that all means and where it should go is not fully settled even now, but in West Pakistan at least, the ruling elite promoted (or acquisced in) this "Delhi Sultanate as our charter state" narrative fairly early, and it is now the narrative that rules the textbooks and the official "Paknationalist" ideological current. At the same time, highly Westernized sections of this already narrow elite have also acquired new Western concepts (post-Marxist Western "Left", Postmodernism, Postcolonial theory, etc) that are completely disconnected from this whole shebang but sit on top of it in a weird (and often surreal) dysequilibrium. It is this Eurocentric section that mostly runs the book festivals. It is the larger (but also relatively recent) Paknationalist current that dominates the textbooks and the world of popular Urdu writing, and then there is the even larger majority of ordinary western Indian (as in people of the Western parts of India) peasants and tribal people who are only now assimilating this historical and cultural framework into their daily life and in whom it may be skin deep, but (thanks to modern factory education and media) is Pakistan-wide. 
And let us not forget another VERY tiny but previously influential section: the "traditional" Urdu literati, some of whom created or nurtured the Delhi-Sultanate narrative while others enthusiastically adopted the last Western import to become popular among newly Western educated Afro-Asian elites (i.e. "classical" Marxism); but all of whom were also based within a Persian-literate (and Arabic literate for that matter) classical Hindustani elite culture whose intellectual world may have had some role in the creation of Pakistaniat but who are so far from it's current popular and/or military manifestations that the connection no longer evokes strong loyalty from either party. Their sad tale of decay and woe is a sub-genre all it's own. 
Interesting times.  

To see what this moronic narrative looks like, here is Pakistan's premier TV channel (GEO) , Mashallah, shameless morons 

Once Again Invitation To Sectarian Violence In... by ak472522

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