May 20, 2015

Pakistan: With Friends Like These…

Seymour Hersh’s LRB scoop on the execution of Osama bin Laden – too hot, apparently, for the New Yorker to handle – is a persuasive and unnerving re-write of the Obama White House account. It ...

Seymour Hersh’s LRB scoop on the execution of Osama bin Laden – too hot, apparently, for the New Yorker to handle – is a persuasive and unnerving re-write of the Obama White House account. It was Pakistani spooks, not our CIA, who ran Osama to ground – more than five years before American intelligence learned he was under a comfortable sort of house arrest in Abbottabad. The Navy Seals who carried out the raid that killed Osama in 2011 probably didn’t know that Pakistan’s top brass and spymasters were helping in the shadows, to the extent of dropping their usual air alert against swooping US helicopters.

The sharpest point of the Hersh account comes in the demonstration of Pakistan’s “double game”– which must always be “plausibly deniable”– with its US patron. Pakistan’s army intelligence was in effect holding Osama bin Laden for trade with the Americans when the price was right and the politics was urgent. But what a strange stink comes off this misalliance – this miserable marriage – between the US and Pakistan.

1203342641_8919“This is an absurd relationship on both sides,” says our in-studio authority, Adil Najam, trained in Lahore, now dean of Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Affairs. “The Sy Hersh story is the perfect metaphor for the US-Pakistan relationship and the absurdity of it. Why? Because nothing that can be said or heard about it can or should be believed… It’s not about the details. What he’s really pointing out in stark ways…is: This is not a friendship. It is not an alliance…”

I would question whether any of [the US’s anti-terror partnerships] are alliances. The real imperialist powers – the British! – never called India their ally… They were much more honest about it. They said, “you’re a dominion.” And in some ways, I think maybe we need a little more honesty in this….

carlottaCarlotta Gall, the long-time New York Times correspondent between Kabul and Islamabad, is telling us that much of Hersh’s alternative history checks outs. Osama bin Laden regarded Pakistan as friendly territory and, in Abbottabad, a safe haven. He had to beware of official betrayal sooner or later, but admonished his followers not to attack “the mother ship.” Pakistan’s military returned the courtesy, Ms. Gall observed on our air:

One intelligence officer, years ago, told me [bin Laden] was a protege of Pakistan….I think the Pakistanis perhaps didn’t mind that he was always aiming his attacks to America. They saw him as something useful for their own reasons. And that’s what’s astonishing, that they could be an ally — a major non-NATO ally after all — winning billions of dollars over this last decade from America and yet they could be hiding the top target of the American war.

…America knew Pakistan was playing a double game… And at what cost? Thousands of Western soldiers died, over 2,000 American soldiers died there, and, by my count, tens of thousands of Afghans have died since 2001. The length and the horror of this war in Afghanistan was not necessary, and I think a lot of that happened on America’s watch when they knowingly were not confronting Pakistan about its involvement and stopping it and, meanwhile, were funding billions to the Pakistani military. And that very strange double-handed policy is very weird and to be condemned.

Fawaz Gerges, our biographer of terrorism, says that drawing American military forces into the back of beyond was the core of Al Qaeda’s strategy and its incredible success:

When the history of the global wars on terror is written…the question is not going to be why the United States invaded Iraq, why the United States invaded Afghanistan. The question that will basically fascinate historians is why the American system of checks and balances failed after 9/11? Why? Because the American perspective was blinded by dust, by pain, by fear, by pride, and by revenge. And you have a small group of ideologues…hijack American foreign policy that basically brought us to today.

There’s more here from our friend Muhammad Idrees Ahmad on the pain for Pakistan, which has taken more casualties from the war for Afghanistan than any other nation. Also, from Ayesha Jalal of Tufts University, the master historian of the India-Pakistan partition. She joins us from her hometown Lahore to speak of an almost empty “operational relationship” between the US and Pakistan. The better future for Pakistan, she suggests, will be with investment-ready China.

Leave a comment and let us know what you think.

Podcast • July 1, 2013

Qais Akbar Omar: What We Owe the Afghans

Qais Akbar Omar might persuade you that “poetry is the essence of Afghanistan,” and that story telling is still the soul of the place. He is giving us a young Afghan writer’s impressions of boyhood ...
Qais Akbar Omar's view of the Bamyan plain in Central Afghanistan, from one of the caves behind the ancient Buddha statutes.  The author and his family took refuge here for a couple of months in 2006, in flight from the fighting in Kabul.

Qais Akbar Omar’s view of the Bamyan plain in Central Afghanistan, from one of the caves behind the ancient Buddha statutes. The author and his family took refuge here for a couple of months in 1993 When he went back and took this photo in 2006, the Buddhas were gone.

qais omar akbar

Qais Akbar Omar might persuade you that “poetry is the essence of Afghanistan,” and that story telling is still the soul of the place. He is giving us a young Afghan writer’s impressions of boyhood in Heaven and a civil war in Hell. In the most exciting days of his life, we’re sharing his idyllic view of the Bamyan valley from the eyes of the giant Buddha statues, before the Taliban blew them up. Then come the breakdown years of holy gangsterism and grotesque cruelty. Alongside young Qais, we’re staring down mad dogs who mean to tear him apart — and a man, believe it or not, making ready to bite him to death.

Qais Akbar Omar was studying business at Brandeis University when we started our conversations a year ago. Since then he has entered Leslie Epstein’s graduate program in novel writing at Boston University. Rug making is the link, as it also underlies the “strategic patience” he is recommending to Americans in the world. His grandfather was a rug trader, but young Qais was the first in his line to learn the rug-maker’s knots. When he started writing his personal history, he started noticing “how words are like knots in a carpet. One connects to the next until several make a thought, the way knots make a pattern.” He speaks now of this first book, A Fort of Nine Towers, as “the most complex and difficult carpet I have ever woven.” Of the post-American Afghanistan emerging, he says: “I know it will take a long time. I am a carpet weaver. I know how, slowly, one knot follows another until a pattern appears.”

In all his adventures and in his cathartic recounting of horrific fear, pain and loss, Qais has absorbed and adopted the stoic voice of his beloved grandfather. Old man and teenager are held together at one point in a ditch filled with dead bodies, under a sign promising “you will not walk out alive.” His grandfather tells Qais to write an answer in charcoal on their cell wall: “Death only breaks the cage, but it does not hurt the bird.”

There’s a challenge in this tempered memoir of a people, a culture and a U.S. warzone we barely got to know: “I have long carried this load of griefs in the cage of my heart,” Qais writes. “Now I have given them to you. I hope you are strong enough to hold them.” For American readers the particular challenge, as I take it, is to look inward at the presumption and folly of our faraway military interventions. In this case: our appropriation of Afghanistan as a key battlefield of the Cold War.

Of the Americans’ long half-trillion-dollar engagement, direct and covert, for 30 years (his own lifetime) Qais Akbar Omar writes scathingly: “We are waiting to see what they will build, besides their military bases.” What Americans have not helped Afghans build is sewers, a electrical grid or clean-water systems. What we have not learned is the double lesson dealt to Alexander the Great in the 4th Century B.C.: that the Pushtun tribesmen of the Central Asian mountains are not to be dominated by outsiders; and that they have their own venerable shuras and the loya jirga, or grand council, for managing their many differences.

“One thing Afghans talk about,” Omar is saying, “is that Europeans and Americans owe Afghanistan this much — to bring peace to this country for defeating the Soviets and ending the Cold War.”

The way it works in Afghanistan is that with the local shura or jirga you invite the head of the town or the heads of each tribe and you sit together in a big mosque. Whether it takes one day or one month you talk about things and you come to solutions, and go on to the next thing… Militarily you fight with them for centuries. And they fight back. Afghanistan is 75 percent mountain, and every Afghan who fights back believes he is a child of the mountain. How do you fight the mountain and its children? It just doesn’t work that way. The best way is the tradition of the jirga or shura. Where is the problem? Where is the solution everyone benefits from? And then let’s go for that.

Qais Akbar Omar in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, June 2013.

Podcast • May 12, 2013

William Dalrymple: Lessons Too Late on Afghanistan

For President Obama, William Dalrymple inscribed his history of Britain’s First Afghan War (1839 – 42), “I wish I’d written this ten years ago.” In truth it might have made no difference at all in ...

For President Obama, William Dalrymple inscribed his history of Britain’s First Afghan War (1839 – 42), “I wish I’d written this ten years ago.” In truth it might have made no difference at all in 2003 to the Bush team, then diverting its military fire to Iraq. But for the rest of us this gruesome tale, Return of a King, might have clarified the clichés about Afghanistan the graveyard of empires — and the abounding cruelties, waste, hatred and blowback that come with invading it.

For American readers, Dalrymple’s bloody, brilliant narrative of Britain’s greatest imperial catastrophe asks anew why our governments have followed the same arrogant course — how Britain can still be used to represent the lure of empire, not the sorrows and the price of empire. What if the rule had been: “wherever the US finds itself embroiled in a place with an English cemetery: go home!”

Podcast • December 1, 2011

Anatol Lieven: how to end the US dust-up with Pakistan

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Anatol Lieven (35 min, 17 meg) Anatol Lieven is explaining how the so-called allies in the so-called War on Terror have come to pot-shotting each other on the ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Anatol Lieven (35 min, 17 meg)

Anatol Lieven is explaining how the so-called allies in the so-called War on Terror have come to pot-shotting each other on the Pakistani side of the border with Afghanistan. In the Financial Times last May (“How American folly could destroy Pakistan“) Lieven was warning of the perverse logic of confrontation in US policy. The killing last weekend of 24 Pakistani soldiers in a NATO air strike for which President Obama is refusing to apologize can be taken as confirmation of the hazard. Ever since the US Navy swoop on OBL early in May, the risk in Lieven’s eyes was that the US would overplay its hand with demands on the thoroughly alienated Pakistani Army. The American demand-too-far (Lieven is saying emphatically today) is that the Pakistani Army go to war on the Taliban home bases in the Pashtun tribal wilderness. That demand cannot, will not, be met: (a) because the Taliban is a big part of the network that Pakistan counts on to protect and project its interest in Afghanistan when the US forces shrivel, then leave; and (b) because the big majority of Pakistanis — army, elite and masses — see the Taliban in Afghanistan as a legitimate resistance force fighting foreign occupation, like the mujahedeen who fought the Soviets, or Communist guerillas who fought Nazis in Europe. When Pakistan under Pres / Gen Musharraf undertook a half-way offensive against the Taliban in the border wilderness, “they set off an Islamist rebellion inside Pakistan which continues to this day… The Pakistanis do have a case: thanks to the U.S., they have a civil war inside Pakistan which has claimed far more Pakistani lives than Americans killed on 9.11. … We keep talking about wanting to support democracy. Well, the democratic majority in Pakistan wants us to go to hell.”

Anatol Lieven — among the earliest, clearest, scathingest dissenters on the “profoundly reckless” Iraq War — is by now the author of the solid new manual on Pakistan: A Hard Country, from which he’s been reporting for the London press since 1988. He is walking us around a few of the paradoxes that abound around Pakistan: the “strong society” with the “weak state,” for starters; the corruptions of feudal political culture and power that block all the obvious routes to economic reform and growth; the risk in American policy of “losing” Pakistan (6th largest population in the world) to save the unsaveable in Afghanistan; and always the missing page in the story: India. Anatol Lieven is confirming my guess that “Af-Pak” is a deceptive mis-“branding” of the mess we’re in. As we kept hearing in our travels last summer, “Indo-Pak,” embracing the Kashmir nettle and the tragedy of Partition in 1947, more nearly suggests the sub-continental shape of the problem.

October 25, 2011

Pakistan Aslant: the two-hour version

Here’s the short form, as we say: nearly a month of strong conversation in Pakistan this past summer, distilled to two radio hours. The first hour explores the living history and dynamic present of “the ...
Here’s the short form, as we say: nearly a month of strong conversation in Pakistan this past summer, distilled to two radio hours.

The first hour explores the living history and dynamic present of “the country that could kill the world …”:

In hour two, we’re probing the “Roots of Resilience”:

Both hours are illuminating the judgment that (1) Pakistan is not about to destroy itself, much less go away and (2) that Pakistan’s mutually-abusive marriage with the United States is not about to end, either.  When our Pentagon accuses the Pakistan’s army intelligence of targeting American troops, and when Secretary of State Clinton says we’re not going to take it anymore, count on it that the Pakistan story is with us for a while.  But what’s the history unfolding here?  How did it come to this? What do Pakistanis say?

What I didn’t know, going in, was the deep old under-layer of tribulation in Pakistan. I wasn’t prepared for the edgy energy of Pakistan either, the confidence of tough people, and much beauty, too. Among the contradictory truths that we Americans barely know about Pakistan are (1) that it’s a cultural powerhouse (in poetry, fiction, and especially music) in South Asia and beyond; (2) it’s been a resentful and prickly junior partner in our US-sponsored proxy wars for thirty-plus years — first (embracing terrorism) against the Soviets and later against the terrorist groups and ideologies we promoted; (3) the troubles of Pakistan can be (and in conversation often are) traced back before the Cold War and the Islamic revolution to the moment of birth in 1947, the Partition of British India that created two unequal sibling rivals in 1947; and (4) that thoughtful Pakistanis talk not only of the rising trend of estrangement from the US but also of a convergent trend toward inequality and the over-reach of elites in both countries.

Program directors: access broadcast-ready versions of these hours for no charge at PRX.
Email: info (at) radioopensource (dot) com with any production questions, or to request CDs in the mail.

Podcast • September 21, 2011

Ashis Nandy: on Pakistan’s latent “potentialities”

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Ashis Nandy (38 minutes, 19 mb mp3) Ashis Nandy, our sparkling Sage of New Delhi, is in effect a psycho-analyst of post-colonial South Asia. On the way home ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Ashis Nandy (38 minutes, 19 mb mp3)

Ashis Nandy, our sparkling Sage of New Delhi, is in effect a psycho-analyst of post-colonial South Asia. On the way home from Lahore, we stopped to ask the great man about Pakistan — and the “myth of Pakistan” which, he has written, “originates in India and dominates India’s public life,” too. “Pakistan is what India does not want to be… both a double and the final rejected self… the ultimate symbol of irrationality and fanaticism.”

Such is the myth. The reality and the possibility of Pakistan, and Ashis Nandy’s feeling about India’s neighbor come out very differently in conversation. “I feel at home in Pakistan,” said the poster version of the Bengali intellectual. “I miss only the vibrancy, the stridency of the political opinions that are articulated against fundamentalism and the state.” Pakistan is “a troubled country,” he is saying, “but not moribund, not a failed state” and not about to become one.

Ashis Nandy has just made his own study, in 1500 interviews, of the wounds of the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan — among the searing and decisive memories of his own boyhood in Calcutta. The snippet that leaps out at him now is that 40 percent of his sample called up stories of themselves and others being helped through that orgy of blood and death by “somebody from other side.” In no other genocide, Nandy says, can he find a comparable measure of mercy. “There is that part of the story, too,” he is saying. “That is South Asia.”

I have seen other faces of Pakistan too, other faces of the Pashtuns who have supplied us with the Taliban and hosted Osama Bin Laden. Gandhi called them the finest non-violent freedom fighters of India. Not once, more than once. So there is another story, which is no longer told, which seems very old-fashioned, which doesn’t seem to have a place in contemporary statecraft and contemporary political culture. I find that very odd. Human potentialities are not adequately recognized. I think we live with stereotypes, and once a stereotype becomes unfashionable, then pick up another stereotype. But there is another way of looking at it: the potentialities that are inherent in some of the cultures in this part of the world have never been fully explored. People are afraid of them, they become so nervous about the darker side of human nature that they do not like to know of them; they think this would be a compromise with realism, a compromise with statecraft. …

What we saw during the Partition was ultimately not only the pathology of rural India and urban India, but also the forces that can be mobilized for a different kind of effort, to fight the violence… I think my study of partition violence has made me more respectful towards ordinary Indians and Pakistanis, and I would in the future be more open to the multilayered selves of people in this part of the world, perhaps people everywhere.

Ashis Nandy with Chris Lydon, at home in New Delhi, mid-summer 2011.

Podcast • September 19, 2011

Rashid Rana’s Pakistan: a mini-version of the globe

LAHORE — Rashid Rana is Pakistan’s prize entry in the global art scene.Images that contradict themselves on closer inspection are his signature work. In his “Veil” series, for example, what look like stylized impressions of ...

LAHORE — Rashid Rana is Pakistan’s prize entry in the global art scene.

Images that contradict themselves on closer inspection are his signature work. In his “Veil” series, for example, what look like stylized impressions of shrouded Muslim women turn out to be composed of innumerable tiny frames of white European and American women from hard-core Internet pornography. So, in effect, two pretty gross distortions of womanhood East and West, two over-familiar sides of the same debased coin, are addressed in a one composite image.

Stunning at a formal level, the work is idea-driven, too. We are talking about some of the “historical and political connotations,” as he calls them. Overall in his work, and in conversation in his Lahore studio, Rashid Rana seems to be saying: Look again at Pakistan! It’s not freakish or a world apart. It may in truth be a fair sample of turmoil and transition almost anywhere in this 21st Century. And of course we may all be involved in what it is going through.

I don’t think of Pakistan in isolation… Pakistan is a mini-globe, a mini-world. Whatever exists in the world today — the polarity, the polarization of the extremely rich and extremely poor and all the diversity and variety that exist are encapsulated in this place called Pakistan. It’s a mini-version of the entire globe.

Rashid Rana in his Lahore studio with Chris Lydon at mid-summer, 2011.

I Love Miniatures” was Rashid Rana’s breakthrough piece almost ten years ago, born in a spirit of mischief and light mockery. What appears across the gallery to be his version of a Mughal emperor’s miniature portrait turns out to be a digital montage of tiny photo images of advertising billboards in Lahore. This was Rana’s cheeky response to a ‘neo-miniaturist’ vogue in the 90’s — a revival of tradition that caught on in London as well as in Pakistan. “My whole issue,” he’s remembering, “was that only something with an ethnic label was going to be recognized as Pakistani. I thought: if this is the way it’s going to be I’m going to subvert the idea with what I want to say and do. So I showed them a miniature painting they wanted to see, and made it with the immediate visual culture of my city today. And that’s how a journey of documenting paradoxes and dealing with duality started in this formal and conceptual device.”

In Rana’s “Red Carpet” series, rugs that look first like the familiar icons of Eastern craft and beauty reveal on a closer look the artist’s own photographs of animal blood and gore in a Lahore slaughterhouse. So he is playing with a pixielated pointillism that declares he has taken membership in the digital age and a global conversation — but mainly to talk back with these stylish and intellectually challenging spoofs of media, pop culture, mass marketing, headlines, first impressions and common talk.

Podcast • September 14, 2011

Shafqat Amanat Ali: local, global, classical, pop

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Shafqat Amanat Ali Khan (26 minutes, 13 mb mp3) Shafqat Amanat Ali Khan is one of Pakistan’s superstar singers, an embodiment of the dynamism inside South Asian music. ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Shafqat Amanat Ali Khan (26 minutes, 13 mb mp3)

Shafqat Amanat Ali Khan is one of Pakistan’s superstar singers, an embodiment of the dynamism inside South Asian music. The mix is full of contradictions and surprises, starting with the rule of thumb that — for all the agonies associated with the border between them — India’s Bollywood leans heavily on Pakistani musicians, and Pakistani audiences can’t get enough of movies from Mumbai. Add to the ironies of the partitioned Punjab that Shafqat, a Pakistani, is extending a family song tradition, the “Patiala gharana,” rooted in the town of Patiala, which is now in India. He is singing village music that’s gone global, “classical” music gone wildly popular.

In his studio in Lahore, Shafqat is walking me through other nice juxtapositions: in his family the men do the singing in public, but it was his grandmother and the women at home who trained him and his brothers — with a stick — to get it right. His standards are traditional and classical, but the art is highly improvisational. “We’re open to all sorts of ideas and experiments and all good things being done by musicians all over the world,” he’s telling me. The singers he loves most these days? John Denver! Michael Jackson! “The Michael Jackson,” as he says. Lionel Ritchie. Whitney Houston. Stevie Wonder…

Shafqat Amanat is no relation by blood, and only a cousin musically, of the immortal Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who sang the devotional Qawwali music of the mystical Sufi tradition. Shafqat has invested his own heavenly voice in a Sufi spirit that is, and isn’t, explicitly religious. “We believe in Sufism,” he put it. “It’s about humanity, and not fundamentalism.” His daily warm-up routine includes singing the name of Allah “to get that perfect round ‘aaaaah’ sound,” he smiles. “In God We Trust.”

Shafqat’s commercial career took off with a fusion band, called Fuzon, and then with a Bollywood song, “Mitwa,” that went high on the charts in India. He tours the world now, but the pleasure of his work — and his company –comes still from the sense of a man spinning songs without words, “straight from the heart,” jamming with a friend or two on guitar and bass, listening for what they like. That was the experience, he says, that “made me what I am.” The best night of his musical life, he recounts, was in Italy not long ago, on a stage with seven musicians he’d never met before — an Armenian Jew, a Buddhist, a Hindu, a Muslim, a Christian, a Parsi and maybe an atheist. “It became a very powerful piece. I can’t explain. Maybe some power that was unseen was just standing there and conducting the whole thing.”

Podcast • September 13, 2011

Imtiaz Alam: So you want to be a journalist in Pakistan…

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Imtiaz Alam (14 minutes, 7 mb mp3) Saleem Shahzad on the cover of a report edited by Imtiaz AlamImtiaz Alam has the gruff manner of your classic, chain-smoking, ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Imtiaz Alam (14 minutes, 7 mb mp3)

Saleem Shahzad on the cover of a report edited by Imtiaz Alam

Imtiaz Alam has the gruff manner of your classic, chain-smoking, get-to-the-point “Front Page” news editor. He seems a Chicago sort of newspaper guy, except that he works and represents the profession in Pakistan, “the deadliest place in the world to be a journalist,” as all now agree. First point in our conversation is to register some constructive horror at the murder last May of Saleem Shahzad — a reporter of Sy Hersh’s or David Halberstam’s hyper-adrenal zeal for the ugly facts. As Dexter Filkins details in this week’s New Yorker (September 19, 2011), Saleem Shahzad had pushed his many cloaked sources in Al Qaeda, the Taliban and the Pakistan Army and the CIA to establish the working (but deniable) links among the official and opposition gangs. For telling the story in Asia Times Online after he was warned off it by Army Intelligence, Shahzad was tortured, killed and dumped in a farm ditch. His was the 28th “target killing” of a Pakistani journalist in the last five years — the first to be investigated seriously. None has been prosecuted, and nobody’s betting that Shahzad’s killer will be. But it’s time, Imtiaz Alam is saying, to write a few groundrules of news reporting on the rough crossfire of Pakistan. For example: journalists should get risk and life insurance from their employers and the government; the Army and its media handlers should lay out its practice of “embedding” and often paying reporters; “all cases of the target killings of journalists should be investigated and the culprits brought to justice.”

Imtiaz Alam is also giving us one rough-and-ready newspaper man’s take on Pakistan in general: “a horrifyingly difficult situation,” he says. “We are sitting on a big bomb, and it’s ticking.” The extremists are not the majority or even the mainstream, but they are powerfully organized, and there’s been no leader around since Benazir Bhutto to say no to them. Imtiaz Alam admits a certain nostalgia for British rule, which he is not old enough to have experienced. “They learned about our culture, our ethos… they are to blame for divide-and-rule — typical colonial methods. But they brought good things” — railroads, law, the liberal constitutional tradition. Even now, he says with a guffaw, “the Americans should hand over the job to the Britishers.” The problem with you Americans, he says, is not just inattention and tactlessness. It’s that the US armed the Taliban in the first place, to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. “That was the original sin. You made these people… your president even brought them to the White House — so disappointing! — and compared them to the founders of your country… So now when they turn their guns against Washington, you are saying they’re terrorists. I considered them terrorists then, and I consider them terrorists now.” The US handed Pakistan a bigger problem than Pakistan can handle, he is saying. My question: But can the US undo the damage. His answer: “The Urdu couplet says: “you gave the pain, you find the medicine.”

Podcast • September 8, 2011

Kamil Khan Mumtaz: back from a modernist Hell

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Kamil Khan Mumtaz (30 minutes, 15 mb mp3) Kamil Khan Mumtaz, at home in LahoreLAHORE — Kamil Khan Mumtaz, an eminence in Pakistani architecture, is giving us the ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Kamil Khan Mumtaz (30 minutes, 15 mb mp3)

Kamil Khan Mumtaz, at home in Lahore

LAHORE — Kamil Khan Mumtaz, an eminence in Pakistani architecture, is giving us the gentlest of introductions to a revival in Pakistan of Islamic thinking about art and design and meaning in life. He’s tracking two West-to-East journeys of his own over the last 50-plus years: one professional and artistic, the other personal and spiritual, and of course they’re roughly parallel. In his student days in London in the 1950s, he was a modernist after the examples of Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright. LeCorbusier, a heroic model at the time, had the dream assignment of designing Chandigarh, the new capital of the Indian Punjab, at Nehru’s personal invitation. But what impressed young Mumtaz even more back home was how little he knew of the native tradition and the depths of the difference with the new: “really a difference in world view,” he tells me — between the materialist modernism and the traditional ease with metaphysical and spiritual planes. What he learned over a hard journey writing the comprehensive history of Architecture in Pakistan was the radical value of proportion and ideal forms, and the importance of copying the classical exemplars — as imperative as innovation and invention. The message in modern buildings is man’s technological prowess, he says; the highest praise is “how exciting!” “It’s all excitement… They’re like huge billboards saying: ‘go for it,’ or ‘you deserve it.’ It’s consumerism. Whereas traditional buildings set you in a different dimension: suddenly there’s a hush and quiet… Modern architecture titillates the senses; traditional art moves us to contemplation. That’s the difference.”

The inner man was in transition, too, if only because “you cannot practice traditional art without a conviction in the truth of what it’s based on… That cannot fail to affect literally your whole life, and it has transformed mine.” The core of his Islamic belief and practice is the Sufi tradition. He can laugh at the notion that the West toys with Sufism as a sort of “Islam Lite.” In the Mumtaz scheme of things Sufism is about a profound searching for the truth… The truth more and more becomes the unity of all creation and the oneness of all mankind. That is its most important aspect. I would say the two distinctive and distinguishing things about Islam are tolerance and beauty. No other religion to my knowledge makes it an article of faith to recognize the truth of all religions,” and most explicitly of the Hebrew Bible and the Gospels of Jesus.

Of the present day in general, he says, with half a laugh, “We’re all going to hell. We’re destroying ourselves.” We have the power to blow up the planet, and a post-modernist outlook that there is no truth, no right or wrong. “Combine these and you’ve got a real killer.” Modernism turns up as the villain again when I ask for his “capsule understanding” of Pakistan at the age of 64. The extremism in so many dimensions of Pakistani life today, he said, “is nothing but the flip side of modernity.”

Pakistan was a modernizing project. It begins with the deluge, the road-roller that went over us that is Western Colonialism. We were just knocked out of our senses: ‘What hit us?’ And so there is anger in the street, anger against the West, which just bulldozed us. Remember, we, the Muslims, identified ourselves as one people, and we were the superpower. So there is anger against the Western modernizing forces for having replaced us as the dominant power; anger against our own brother Muslims for having strayed from the true path; anger at our state for having lied to us and not delivered what it promised to do. So there are all of these angers, rages which are now finding expression…

I was happy to tell Kamil Khan Mumtaz, after two long conversations in his verdant second-floor porch and his library study, that any visitor might find in the spaces he created, if not proof of his doctrines, at least a warm, peaceful, comfortable confirmation in the harmony of many rectangles, of rose-colored rugs and “burnt Siena” bricks, of low cushions and seats and books to the ceiling. Immediately on entering it felt like a space I’d been trying to imagine, or maybe dreamt. He’d conceived that library in his “modern” days long ago, but it had evolved continuously, he said. It has “a certain presence and timelessness,” he admitted. “Those are qualities that will strike even the least spiritual of person, only because the spirit is in all of us.”

A private house in Lahore (2001)