Podcast • September 7, 2011

Salima Hashmi: in the worst of times, the alchemy of art

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Salima Hashmi (34 minutes, 17 mb mp3) Salima Hashmi with her father, the poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz Speak Speak, your lips are free. Speak, it is your own ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Salima Hashmi (34 minutes, 17 mb mp3)

Salima Hashmi with her father, the poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz

Speak

Speak, your lips are free.
Speak, it is your own tongue.
Speak, it is your own body.
Speak, your life is still yours.

See how in the blacksmith’s shop
The flame burns wild, the iron glows red;
The locks open their jaws,
And every chain begins to break.

Speak, this brief hour is long enough
Before the death of body and tongue:
Speak, ’cause the truth is not dead yet,
Speak, speak, whatever you must speak.

Faiz Ahmed Faiz, trans. by Azfar Hussain

LAHORE — Salima Hashmi is the vital link between Pakistan’s greatest poet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz (1911 – 1984), who was her father, and a “resilience” that you’d feel in the air even if Pakistanis weren’t invoking it so urgently and so often. You’d be aware of an edgy, “on” air of pleasure in life — very particularly this life of everyday risk and uncertainty — underlying a typical conversation in Lahore; an almost reckless intensity that I’ve heard young Pakistanis in America say they miss. You can hear it, I’m pretty sure, in Salima Hashmi’s linking of the Beaconhouse arts university she founded in Lahore seven years ago and the poetic vision of her father.

Faiz is remembered (and celebrated in many languages and far corners of the world on the eve of his centennial year) as an iconoclast and oppositionist, but equally for his own serenity and gentleness. He was a communist who liked to say that “the Sufi saints are the real comrades.” He asked to speak, he daughter says, for “the weaker voice” in the square, for religious minorities and the unorthodox, as in his prayer:

Let us too lift our hands,
We who do not remember the customary prayer,
We who do not remember any idol or God except love.

Salima Hashmi is well known as a television comedienne, but equally for her public protests against nuclear testing in Pakistan as in India. These days she paints, she writes, and she oversees the teaching of art and design — all with a certain imperturbable enthusiasm.

It’s odd that the worse things are, the better the art becomes. I suppose that is also something noticeable elsewhere. We are told that in very difficult times of war, the human spirit or the resilience of creative people is challenged and comes to the fore. That’s happening here too. I curated this show of contemporary art at the Asia Society museum two years ago in New York and people were talking about how unusual the work was, how vibrant it was, how vigorous it was… there were 15 artists in the show and I said I could have brought 50, because that’s how many I can look upon and say they’re doing something rooted and yet it takes into fact the very difficult conditions that they work in. And their work is important to them. Sometimes they get an audience and sometimes they don’t. Very often their economic situation is precarious, but they manage: some of them teach in schools, in colleges, some of them have galleries who can market their work — not always — and occasionally they’ll get a showing in Fukuoka or Delhi, New York or San Francisco, that will tide them over for a while.

It’s very diverse because there are very many different kinds of crises in Pakistan. There is the crisis of the terrorist, there is the crisis which encroaches on a woman’s right to be herself and to choose what she wants to do with her life, with her body, with her future. There is the crisis which hits people who belong to a minority religion or a sect. There is the urban-rural clash, there is the devastation of large parts of Pakistan by environmental change. I think that you find that artists and their work can reflect some of these, but it is also about the celebration of survival, and the fact that you are living to tell the tale everyday…

After we’d said our thank-yous, she added: “Please take back the message from Pakistan to friends everywhere that we live a life which is a hard life, but it is still full of hope and we are maybe not the people you see painted and dehumanized every day in the media. We’re really okay and we have fun and make nice paintings, and we sing wonderful songs, and we make poetry… In the worst of times in Pakistan, there is always a joke, dark humor and irony… We all have feet of clay. And the emperor never has any clothes on.”

Podcast • September 1, 2011

Zeb and Haniya: the healing charm of “Urdu blues”

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Zeb Bangash and Haniya Aslam (40 minutes, 20 mb mp3) LAHORE — Zeb and Haniya could set you to wondering all over again why musicians aren’t asked to ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Zeb Bangash and Haniya Aslam (40 minutes, 20 mb mp3)

LAHORE — Zeb and Haniya could set you to wondering all over again why musicians aren’t asked to run the world. In their studio in Lahore, we are puzzling how they make it look so easy to teach us new songs to call fresh tunes on stage — as so few can do off-stage? It’s a version of the question you ask yourself watching the Ramallah Concert by the fusion orchestra of young Arab and Israeli virtuosos that Edward Said and Daniel Barenboim assembled. How is it that musicians win our hearts leaping boundaries that our political and religious “leaders” are bent on reinforcing?

Zebunnisa Humayun Bangash and Haniya Aslam, as you’ve probably heard on NPR by now, are the Pakistani first cousins, ethnic Pashtuns, who went off to college in New England (Smith and Mount Holyoke) and got so homesick that they took to writing and recording songs to ease the pain of being stranded and broke in Western Massachusetts. Inadvertently they found themselves a network of passionate fans on the Web — first of mostly South Asian students all over North America, then of Pakistanis and Indians back home, then in the Gulf, and then in America and the online and record-buying universe.

They were drawing on a wide spectrum of live music they’d absorbed in their grandmother’s house: the songs of the Afghan diaspora through the 1980s, Persian and Pashto repertoires, ghazals in Urdu, pre-Partition movie music from Bombay, Sufi songs. And they were liberated by an enthusiastic performance culture that did not distinguish between high and low, or pop and serious music. Elvis Presley and the Beatles must have been Pakistanis at heart, they were so good. “Until I went to the States,” Haniya is saying, “I didn’t know what a ‘genre’ was.”

Suddenly it was said that Zeb and Haniya had invented a genre of their own, under the umbrella of “world music.” Call theirs “Urdu Blues,” or “Lahore Hip-Hop.” Part of the miracle here is that they could take so much, so fast from American rhythms, chords and forms and produce a song sound that is received back home as “authentic” fruit of Pakistani tradition. So what, I am asking, allows “fusion” to work so well in music, when it’s so hard to imitate in other public spaces?

Haniya: Sincerity. There’s sincerity in music. There’s very little ulterior motive. There’s just appreciation for everything: that you’re drawing everything in, you’re giving it back… There’s mutual respect. I don’t find any of these things in politics.

Zeb: Any cultural form has all of one’s values in it. All of that is latent within any kind of real cultural expression. And so I think when one can connect to each other’s cultures, one can actually connect to each other. For instance if you look at India and Pakistan, despite the fact that the two countries, you know, are daggers-drawn and then sometimes are trying to get together… [But] whatever the politics of the region might be, you cannot run away from the fact that you know anytime there is any musician that comes out in the Pakistani market, millions of Indians across the border will not only find out about them but will appreciate them, go out of the way to come onto their Facebook pages and appreciate them, and connect with them. Similarly, even in the worst of times: there’s a film that comes out in Bollywood and Pakistanis will be out in throngs buying that DVD. Whether it’s pirated, whether they have to go watch it in cinemas, they want to connect.

Haniya: I really do believe that culture and art and music specifically are the solution to the mess politics is creating. Where politics dehumanizes, art has the opposite effect. I think by virtue of being onstage, by doing what we do, even if we don’t address those questions that are on people’s minds, we can help bring a little bit of change.

Podcast • August 31, 2011

Nadeem ul Haque: “the country that can kill the world”

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Nadeem ul Haque (15 minutes, 8 mb mp3) Nadeem ul Haque giving a talk at TedxLahore Nadeem ul Haque introduced himself with a bit of bluster as Pakistan’s ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Nadeem ul Haque (15 minutes, 8 mb mp3)

Nadeem ul Haque giving a talk at TedxLahore

Nadeem ul Haque introduced himself with a bit of bluster as Pakistan’s official “growth” strategist, then began blurting out his frustrations. There’s no growth to speak of in Pakistan, he said — less than inflation anyway, and nothing like India’s 8-percent boom. The government he came home to serve in Pakistan is going nowhere. And then the line that spun my head around: “This is the country that can kill the world,” he said. “And your country hasn’t the foggiest idea what you’re doing here. Find a way to educate youth in Pakistan — 90 million under 20 — or don’t sleep at night. You haven’t got enough bullets to kill them… We can do without the Beltway Bandits and even the billions of dollars in what they call aid. What America should be sending Pakistan is C-SPAN and National Public Radio, and then reopen the USIA libraries… What you send is Raymond Davis and Blackwater… Are you out of your …. minds?”

The conversation we recorded a few days later is a slightly tempered version of that first burst at a farewell party in Islamabad for an American aid official. We’re getting Nadeem ul Haque’s heartfelt version of the Post-Colonial Blues. First, fond memories of the British and American cultural centers and mentors in the 1950s and 60s who propelled him to the London School of Economics, the University of Chicago and a career at the World Bank. Second comes the the appalled realization that a new native elite had slipped into the palaces, polo grounds and clubs of the old colonialists with, if anything, less interest in the mass of the population. And third, a rough critique of a distant and disdainful American connection with Pakistan: bullet proof cars for aid workers when they get out of the office at all; “they don’t use our toilet paper,” he says; and nobody, but nobody, knows where the other-than-military money goes.

Podcast • August 30, 2011

Salman Rashid: a Pakistani Travelogue, with Tears

Salman Rashid, adventurer and prolific author, had offered to guide our discovery tour of Pakistan — in the spirit of Kipling’s Kim and his lama, or earlier of the Victorian genius and spy Richard Burton. ...


Salman Rashid, adventurer and prolific author, had offered to guide our discovery tour of Pakistan — in the spirit of Kipling’s Kim and his lama, or earlier of the Victorian genius and spy Richard Burton. Our terrain would run from Karachi — from the mouth of the Indus River, that is — through deserts and lush fruitlands to Kashmir and then to K2, the second highest mountain peak on Earth.

But then, unexpectedly, blessedly, our trip with this soulful Punjabi gentleman broke down in tears in the village near Jalandhar (now India) where Salman Rashid’s father’s Muslim family was massacred at the moment of Pakistan’s birth, by Partition, in August, 1947.

Salman Rashid’s grandfather was the prized doctor in that village, and he had doubtless treated the frenzied man who killed him with a shotgun blast through the eye and then lashed up the mob that dispatched the great aunts and cousins, as he says, “with swords.”

This was the story that Salman Rashid heard first-hand for the first time three years ago, from the son of the man who led the riot of killing. The story does more than overtake the travelogue. It fortifies the impression that “Af-Pak” is the wrong name for what afflicts this part of the world, and the rest of us. The real name of the root cause of so much injury and anger out of South Asia is more nearly “Indo-Pak.” As Salman Rashid recounts, it is a traceable and perhaps even a treatable source of misery when people are given the chance to absorb the whole awful history.

“I think the time to forgive has come,” Salman Rashid is saying. “The people are ready. The people are for reconciliation.”

Podcast • August 25, 2011

Mohsin Hamid: on a “Pakistan-like” trend in America

LAHORE — Mohsin Hamid wrote the hair-raising novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist that will soon be a major motion picture directed by Mira Nair of “Monsoon Wedding” fame. The character in the title is a young Pakistani ...

LAHORE — Mohsin Hamid wrote the hair-raising novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist that will soon be a major motion picture directed by Mira Nair of “Monsoon Wedding” fame. The character in the title is a young Pakistani with a resumé a lot like Mohsin Hamid’s in America: he was a star on the Princeton campus, a cinch in the US business world. But 9.11 spins the fictional hero 180 degrees. Watching the Twin Towers burn up on television, he is intrigued to find himself smiling spontaneously at the symbolism of “this powerful country being humbled, slapped, paid back.” He decides after all that he’d been enlisted in a failing empire as it enters a tailspin of “crippling nostalgia” and self-pity. So the character, called Changez, soon comes to replant himself in native soil and political resistance.

Both Mohsin Hamid and his invention Changez have inhabited the American scene at its “best and brightest,” most competitive, most self-regarding pinnacle — and then left it all, without remorse. What was it for Changez, I am asking, or even for Mohsin Hamid himself, that isn’t working in the American elite?

What shocks me about America, about the way America is headed, is that in some ways it’s becoming increasingly Pakistan-like — in the sense that the American elite is becoming much, much richer compared to the rest of the population; and America’s great success, which was this enormous middle that had the bulk of political power, the bulk of economic resources, and the rest, is being crushed. This America where there were relatively high tax rates and there was a notion of shared service in the form of military service, for example — the draft in its way is a deeply socialistic notion, yet America bore that for decades; and in this time built up a system of very good public high schools and primary schools and very good infrastructure and excellent colleges, and you could see this evolution where every generation was better off than the previous. In my time in elite America, in the course of the last decade and a half, what I was struck by was how that system was basically collapsing. Friends of mine are earning insane amounts of money — those who stayed in the hedge fund world. Oftentimes it’s unclear what they’re actually contributing to society. And meanwhile the school system is collapsing, and the American middle class is being eviscerated. And all of this being done on the back of a certain demagogic tribalism. Here in Pakistan we’ve seen many of the same sorts of things — this combination of xenophobia, unwillingness to pay taxes, comfort with a powerful and entrenched elite that coopts the democratic process. I mean, that’s what we have here, and it isn’t great! I felt very comfortable in elite American circles because the same notions of hierarchy, of how an elite functions, were very easy for me as a Pakistani to understand. Some of my American friends when we first started out had more difficulty dealing with the corporate context than I did, because in Pakistan you learn very early, from infancy, how hierarchy works, and how you modulate the way you deal with people based on their relationship in the hierarchy — with somebody a bit older than you, a wealthy person, a poor person, a family elder, a this or that. And I think that is much better preparation for an American corporate elite social milieu than a liberal arts education which teaches you that everybody’s equal and you call everybody by their first names and just hang out… Underneath all that are millions of gradations of hierarchy which exist in American society, just as in Pakistani society. Except here the elite embraces that, uses it to oppress everybody and says: that is the expectation. In America the pretense is: it doesn’t exist, which makes it maybe even more effective, because people don’t see it.

Mohsin Hamid at home in Lahore with Chris Lydon, mid-summer 2011.

Podcast • August 24, 2011

Ali Dayan Hasan: “… the rule of law is non-negotiable.”

Ali Dayan Hasan polices the shaky, wavy line of free speech and civil rights in Pakistan with iron conviction, a booming parliamentary baritone, and not much else. He was the first to sound the alarm ...

Ali Dayan Hasan polices the shaky, wavy line of free speech and civil rights in Pakistan with iron conviction, a booming parliamentary baritone, and not much else. He was the first to sound the alarm last May at the abduction of the journalist Saleem Shahzad, and then to charge the Army’s dreaded ISI (for Inter-Services-Intelligence) with Shahzad’s murder. But he’s reminding us in conversation that the ISI — “the principal human rights abuser in this country” — has never been held to account for scores of such disappearances and deaths, and probably won’t be nailed in the Shahzad case either. As Pakistan director of Human Rights Watch, Ali Dayan Hasan is the man who gets away somehow with asking persistently how the ISI gets away with it. He is speaking of a mutually abusive marriage of American and Pakistani secret agencies and political elites — a marriage from which there may be no way out. The even longer history — the “multi-generational fight for the soul of the country” — is “this ongoing standoff” between the “praetorian” politics of military intervention and an apparently unsinkable tradition of law and rights. In all the uncertainties of 2011, he is not discouraged: “We’re going through another one of those phases where it seems there is space for civilian rule.”

Podcast • August 23, 2011

Ayesha Jalal, Part 2: What Would Manto Say?

Click to listen to Chris’ second conversation with Ayesha Jalal (23 minutes, 12 mb mp3) … One inmate had got so badly caught up in this India-Pakistan-Pakistan-India rigmarole that one day, while sweeping the floor, ...

Click to listen to Chris’ second conversation with Ayesha Jalal (23 minutes, 12 mb mp3)

… One inmate had got so badly caught up in this India-Pakistan-Pakistan-India rigmarole that one day, while sweeping the floor, he dropped everything, climbed the nearest tree and installed himself on a branch, from which vantage point he spoke for two hours on the delicate problem of India and Pakistan. The guards asked him to get down; instead he went a branch higher, and when threatened with punishment, declared, ‘I wish to live neither in India nor in Pakistan. I wish to live in this tree.’

From “Toba Tek Singh,” Manto’s masterpiece on the separation of lunatics — Hindus from Muslims — after Partition in 1947. In Bitter Fruit: The Very Best of Saadat Hasan Manto. Translated by Khalid Hasan. Penguin, 2008.
Ayesha Jalal, the historian, with Iqbal Hussain‘s painting of two ladies of the night in Lahore, cover art on a Penguin edition of Manto’s stories

LAHORE — Pakistan’s greatest prose writer, Saadat Hasan Manto, set his most famous story in the Lahore lunatic asylum, to render an immortal judgment on the Partition of India and Pakistan. As Ayesha Jalal (who chances to be Manto’s great-grand-niece) sums it up in conversation: to Manto it was clear that “the madness outside is greater than the madness within the asylum.”

The Partititon had in fact two still-astonishing chroniclers of the horror that displaced nearly 15 million people and killed about a million. One was Margaret Bourke-White, whose black-and-white photographs for LIFE magazine stared into the shrouded eyes of the living dead on the march. The other was Manto, whose stories don’t just drip with the cold sweat of rape, murder and unspeakable loss along the way; they also drill far into the absurdity of that vast project of separating neighbors. I am thinking of a Manto story, “The Last Salute,” about Rab Nawaz and Rab Singh — two soldiers who’d gone to the same primary school in a Punjab village, who’d joined the army on the same day and fought for the British 6/9 Jat Regiment in Italy, and in their final, fatal encounter are fighting for Pakistan and India in Kashmir — “the friends of yesterday… transformed into the enemies of today.” Manto writes realistic tales that brim with his own generous, forgiving embrace of sinners and saints, but incomprehension is the telling note of his Partition stories. As Ayesha Jalal is noting for us: “… he cannot understand why India is partitioned. He cannot understand the logic of it.” These are notes of incomprehension and absurdity that recur spontaneously to a visitor in Pakistan even now, 64 summers later.

Ayesha Jalal is writing a biographical and literary reflection on Manto, to be published on the centennial of his birth in March, 2012. She is reminding us that in his short career, abbreviated by alcoholism and death at 42, Manto wrote brilliant sketches, successful screenplays and radio scripts, and essays as well as fiction. His nine “Letters to Uncle Sam” from the early 1950s stand up as playful, pungent and prophetic.

For example:

21 February 1954

Dear Uncle,

I wrote to you only a few days ago and here I am writing again. My admiration and respect for you are going up at about the same rate as your progress towards a decision to grant military aid to Pakistan. I tell you I feel like writing a letter a day to you.

Regardless of India and the fuss it is making, you must sign a military pact with Pakistan because you are seriously concerned about the stability of the world’s largest Islamic state since our mullah is the best antidote to Russian communism. Once military aid starts flowing, the first people you should arm are these mullahs. They would also need American-made rosaries and prayer-mats, not to forget small stones that they used to soak up the after-drops following a call of nature. Cut-throat razors and scissors should be top of the list, as well as American hair-colour lotions. That should keep these fellows happy and in business…

I think the only purpose of military aid is to arm these mullahs. I am your Pakistani nephew and I know your moves. Everyone can now become a smart ass, thanks to your style of playing politics.

If this gang of mullahs is armed in the American style, the Soviet Union that hawks communism and socialism in our country will have to shut shop. I can visualize the mullahs, their hair trimmed with American scissors and their pajamas stitched by American machines in strict conformity with the Sharia. The stones they use for their after-drops of you-know-what will be American, untouched by human hand, and their prayer-mats would be American, too. Everyone will then become your camp follower, owing allegiance to you and no one else…

Your obedient nephew,

Saadat Hasan Manto

From “Letters to Uncle Sam,” No. 4. In Bitter Fruit. Penguin, 2008.

Podcast • August 22, 2011

Ayesha Jalal: Pakistan’s Revenge of the ’40s, then the ’80s

It takes a historian of Ayesha Jalal‘s power to crystallize an awkward truth: that the agony of Pakistan today is inseparable from the tragedy of Pakistan’s birth in 1947. Still more bluntly, that Pakistan as ...

It takes a historian of Ayesha Jalal‘s power to crystallize an awkward truth: that the agony of Pakistan today is inseparable from the tragedy of Pakistan’s birth in 1947. Still more bluntly, that Pakistan as we know it is not at all the country that its sainted founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, had in mind. As she puts it in conversation, “Complete partition was the last thing he wanted…”

It is an argument that made her famous in her first book: The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, the Muslim League and the Demand for Pakistan (1985). The Muslim nation that Jinnah championed was a state of mind more than a nation state. Separation from India was a bargaining ploy more than it was a demand in principle. What Jinnah wanted was a power-sharing arrangement at the all-India level, between his own Muslim League and the mostly Hindu Congress Party. He wanted equal standing, that is, in a pluralistic Union of India, but never a bordered nation, and still less an arbitrary dismemberment of the Muslims’ two great regional powerbases: the Punjab in the northwest of India and Bengal in the East. She is speaking of the history that stalks Pakistan and the wider world: Partition in the 1940s, and then the Cold War in the 1980s.

If you’re talking about Pakistan as it stands today — Pakistan with its bouts of unreasonableness, its treatment of minorities, the killing of minorities, the blasphemy laws, a whole succession of things — it’s clearly not the Pakistan that the founder of Pakistan imagined. The founder of Pakistan was first and foremost a constitutional lawyer, who believed in the supremacy of the law — something that has never somehow caught the imagination of Pakistanis. They may talk about it, but there is no law. Each man is a law unto himself. Whoever can grab it, that’s it. So that’s a fundamental departure. Second, when Jinnah spoke of Pakistan as a Muslim state, he envisioned a democratic, enlightened Pakistan. So what I’m saying is that there are many levels at which this country departs from Jinnah’s ideals. But the most interesting thing I’ve discovered is that by the same token, everyone or most people do hark back to Jinnah’s Pakistan. So while they have moved away from Jinnah’s Pakistan as an ideal, it remains as a main point of discussion. That is something hopeful, I think…

Pakistan’s problems go back to the moment of its creation. But there’s no denying that changes in the strategic situation post the Soviet invasion [Christmas eve, 1979] were a watershed. The military regime was not simply ridding the region of the Soviet presence, but was using that threat to Pakistan’s existence to solidify its own rule within Pakistan. The Soviet invasion came as a great boost to General Zia’s regime. It brought him lots of greenbacks. It was a period of prosperity. And it was a decisive step not only because of the uses made of militant Islam to allow the war against the Soviets, but also because the infusion of US dollars (matched dollar for dollar by Saudi money) resulted in a scenario where the society was up for sale. It was a transformative process. It saw the further entrenchment of the military’s role in Pakistan. It resulted in a further fragmentation and polarization of civil society. There is no question that a three-decade-long policy has taken a very heavy toll on Pakistan: the arms and drugs economy, the weapons that made their way into Pakistan — they didn’t all go to Afghanistan; a lot of money came to Pakistan as well. That is where the qualitative changes take place… The 80s are crucial in Pakistan’s history, and I think in global history.

Ayesha Jalal at home in Lahore with Chris Lydon, mid-summer 2011.

Podcast • August 18, 2011

Adil Omar: “Paki Rambo,” dropping beats in Islamabad

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Adil Omar (23 minutes, 12 mb mp3) I-S-L-A-M-A-B-A-D, baby. Let’s play Wii: Crash into each other till we have to sleep. There’s no other place I’d rather be… ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Adil Omar (23 minutes, 12 mb mp3)

I-S-L-A-M-A-B-A-D, baby.
Let’s play Wii: Crash into each other till we have to sleep. There’s no other place I’d rather be…

I-S-L-A-M-A-B-A-D, baby.
Get caught up in this motha fuckin cycle of life,
And we’re all just having fun…

… from Adil Omar’s Islamabad and Islamabad II

ISLAMABAD — Adil Omar — referring to himself here as “Paki Rambo” — is working the entertainment value of social and personal anger, as rappers do. The twist that surprised me in conversation with Islamabad’s 20-year-old hip-hop star is that he also sees himself offering the world a light and cool side of Pakistan that the West doesn’t know. “I mean as soon as you hear Pakistan, all you think about is target killings and bombings and heroin and acid burning, and … It’s just really ugly. And that is a reality as well, but there are a lot of levelheaded, rational people who live here as well and I’d just like to represent those people.”

Adil Omar is a child of the Pakistani elite in an unhappy outpost of American empire; and he’s a player in a global entertainment world that the Internet has created. It’s a mix of roles that puts him closer to the beats of the South Bronx and the recording industry in Los Angeles than he is to the hometown neighbors. Pakistan, as he says, is just a fraction of his fan base, which runs from the States to Europe to South Africa to Japan. But he’s telling us a lot about the tensions that many Pakistanis live with.

AO: There are certain things you can’t say in this country… I mean, if I said certain things I’d probably get killed. The fact that there’s no freedom of thought and freedom of speech in this country is offensive to me. You can’t talk about political systems. You can’t talk about religion. I mean it’s not open to discussion at all, it’s just too dangerous. I wish I did have the balls to put myself at risk but I don’t. I would like to live longer.

CL: People don’t seem to hesitate to say they live in a dysfunctional state. That’s a kind of freedom. Sometimes it seems like a chirping, cheerful little prison colony you’ve got here… but it is chirping.

AO: I mean it depends… Obviously if you know what’s going on you have to admit that this is a really dysfunctional place. But sadly a lot of people are either apathetic or in complete denial about their surroundings. It’s just that peoples’ priorities are completely messed up. I mean I have a friend for example who’s a totally normal rational guy and with pride he was saying ‘You know Pakistan’s the second fastest growing nuclear nation in the world, isn’t that amazing?’ and I was, like, no that’s not amazing. I mean we don’t have any money for education and healthcare; why is that amazing? And he was saying it with pride, so I mean it’s just people love the idea that we’re some big bad fighting nation with awesome weapons and awesome this and awesome that. You know? I think it’s absurd. It’s like an ego thing. I think people have their priorities wrong.

Podcast • August 16, 2011

Alia Amirali: Change Agent in a Stuck Society

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Alia Amirali (27 minutes, 14 mb mp3) ISLAMABAD — Alia Amirali is a second-generation change agent in a society that’s stuck — or maybe worse: scared, confused, depressed, ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Alia Amirali (27 minutes, 14 mb mp3)

ISLAMABAD — Alia Amirali is a second-generation change agent in a society that’s stuck — or maybe worse: scared, confused, depressed, afraid it might be sinking. Her project, she begins, is to “rebuild the left” in Pakistan. She is giving us just a hint of a program, and finally a sort of plea to her alienated family and friends: go out and meet a real Pakistani for a change. As if to say: let’s find in each other the land of milk and honey that our parents remember before the mosque and the military seized the country 30 years ago.

Alia Amirali is the general secretary of the Student Federation in the Punjab. She’s also a daughter with a very different spin on creative dissent from her eminent father Pervez Hoodbhoy. Most usefully for me, Alia Amirali is short-listing the obstacles the rising generation sees between here and a society you’d want to live in.

(1) the Post-Colonial State. The machinery of statehood was built by the British to administer a colony. So the “state” in Pakistan is older than the 64-year-old “nation,” and still a bad fit with a patchwork of Sindhis, Punjabis, Balochis and many more language and faith minorities that might likely choose a looser federation of provinces if they had the choice.

(2) Islamism. Mohammed Ali Jinnah‘s founding dream was of a homeland for India’s Muslims that would also be a secular state and a pluralistic society, but he died scarcely a year after Pakistan’s birth, leaving a “conceptual orphan,” as it’s been called. “Being Muslim,” Alia Amirali is saying gently, “is not enough to keep us all together as a nation.”

(3) The assassination habit. The most exalted powers in Pakistan, like Benazir Bhutto, and the humblest Balochi separatists face the same grim equalizers: torture, disappearance and/or death. The rule of the Army and the “deep state” in Pakistan, as Alia Amirali puts it, is: “if they cannot control it, they will crush it,” and they will not be held accountable.

(4) The void. Since the military outster and execution of the charismatic populist President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1979, Pakistani politics has been a mostly closed brokerage of favors and commercial deals — proof against debatable national “issues,” proof against fresh talent, too.

(5) The USA. “The American presence,” which feels like “occupation” to Alia Amirali, “is the biggest contributor to this chaos, this back-to-the-cave situation that Pakistan is in.” For 30 years the United States has been at war in, through or around Pakistan; we embraced and enabled the Islamist martial-law President Zia-ul-Haq through the 1980s. It is this American imperial record that lends legitimacy to the Taliban, in Alia Amirali’s view, and more than anything else separates Alia Amirali from her father. “He is hoping somehow that this very same character who created this monster will do away with it.”