The Question of Culture in Pakistan
By Samier Saeed Westminster, CA

I reject the idea I often find being bandied about that a few prominent musical events, a couple of goofy, brainless comedy shows, and clusters of teenagers playing guitars in basements in Islamabad represent the preservation of Pakistani culture
Pakistan isn't a country with much cultural currency in the West. When most Americans think of the culture of the Indian subcontinent they think of the culture of, well, India. In ignoring Pakistan, isn't America missing out on surprisingly sophisticated and enjoyable works of art? Well, maybe.
Pakistan's exportable cultural output is quite the mixed bag; gems are buried underneath pathetic attempts to copy Indian and/or American artists. Thanks to religious fanaticism and financial issues, Pakistani culture is sliding down the slippery slope to destruction. The country isn't completely devoid of an arts scene, but it is, unfortunately, a very small one. Can it survive as the country inches further away from stability daily?
The film industry is virtually non-existent, largely because it is overshadowed, even in its own country, by Bollywood. But it still manages some output, notably the 2007 film Khuda Kay Liye , which won the silver Pyramid Award at the Cairo International Film Festival, and was also awarded the Roberto Rossellini Award, an Italian film award. The film, which was made with Western audiences in mind and is available on Netflix, is a good one by Pakistani standards, but a mediocre one in general, largely because it is weak in message. Though it is meant, in a way, to be the artist's response to Islamic extremism, the film in the end is a pulled punch, somewhat illustrative of the fact that religious polemicists are more powerful than artists and other liberals in Pakistan's public space.Pakistan's music industry fares better, but only slightly so. As a Third World country, and a particularly corrupt and lawless one at that, the Pure Land is awash with pirated films, music, and even video games.
Pirating is a much more widespread phenomenon in Pakistan than in the West, and the concept that it's "right" to buy the proper version of a music album is alien to many. Therefore the financial problems posed by the phenomenon of music pirating are even greater. Naturally, then, the Pakistani music industry is incapable of significantly large output, but this lack of quantity doesn't necessarily entail a lack of quality. Junoon, a Sufi rock band the New York Times dubbed "the U2 of Pakistan", was appreciated in the West, and even in India, in the late1990s and early part of this century, before its untimely demise. Today, its music is sold along side Bollywood soundtracks in Indian music shops. One of its guitarists, by the way, was an American named Brian O'Connell. The unexpected success of Junoon set a precedent, and there are quite a few rock acts in Pakistan today, such as Noori, and the more openly liberal CoVen (yes, I believe they stole an American rock band's name. So much for creativity) .Though music continues to survive in Pakistan, Pakistani musicians have shied away from directly condemning and attacking retrogressivism. Fortunately, this mantle has been adopted by the drama community in Pakistan. A play called Burqavaganza is a heartening example of how art can comment effectively on taboo subjects; perhaps more heartening is the fact that the play is popular. Written by Shahid Nadeem, the play follows two young lovers who are harassed and out of place in Pakistan's ultra-conservative society.
The burqa here is used as a metaphor for how religious fanaticism casts a veil over people's minds as well as their bodies. It was first performed in 2007, and was subjected to a ban one month later. But the staging of the play has continued since then, in defiance of the ban, as well as death threats. Burqavaganza is not the only play which seeks to comment on contemporary Pakistani society and its many ills, but it is one of the most popular and famous to do so in open defiance of Pakistani society's conservativism.Despite the heroic efforts of people like Shahid Nadeem, and the many entertainment-seekers who risk suicide bombings and religiously zealous mobs to attend public gatherings such as concerts and plays, Pakistani culture is unlikely to shake off the religious fanaticism introduced during the 1970s. With the increased attention to conservative religious values, things deeply rooted in South Asian Muslim culture, such as music, have become slightly reviled, or dismissed as tolerable only as a casual pastime. Almost every Pakistani channel has religiously oriented programs, which is not necessarily problem, except that almost all of them are hosted by distinctly conservative individuals. Liberal interpretations of Islam are presented on only one show, "The First Blast" on the English language channel DawnNews, a channel which caters to foreigners and Pakistan's English-speaking elite.
And herein lies the major problem: the divide between Pakistan's rock, theatre, and Hollywood movie-consuming elite, and the masses. The lack of ability to speak English does not in itself mean that there is a lack of entertainment, or that one will become an extremist, but the nonEnglish speakers do not have access to global culture and new ideas like the English speakers do. The abovementioned Noori sings songs in Urdu (the national language) but not against extremism or in favor of progressivism, and the same goes for the rest of the most popular musicians in Pakistan, as well as many popular Urdu television programs. Extremists distribute their literature in all of Pakistan's languages, including English, while the liberals remain meek and unorganized.The question of culture in Pakistan, or rather, the lack thereof, cannot be divorced from discussions of politics and religion. And it's not a topic, in this writer's opinion, that can be given proper attention in a newspaper article.I reject the idea I often find being bandied about that a few prominent musical events, a couple of goofy, brainless comedy shows, and clusters of teenagers playing guitars in basements in Islamabad represent the preservation of Pakistani culture in the face of extremism as much as I reject the idea that groups of bearded scoundrels hanging around upscale clothing shops pestering unveiled Pakistani women about dressing modestly represents the Talibanization of Pakistani society. Pakistan's art/culture scene will improve when it becomes less of an almost exclusively elite pastime and can penetrate the masses, when there's money in it, when religious attitudes adapt themselves to modernity, and when Pakistanis can freely examine their history and forge for themselves a distinct identity. In other words: likely never.There is one interesting film set to come out of Pakistan in the future: Slackistan. It aims to show the side of Pakistan with which Western audiences are unfamiliar; it concerns itself not with terrorists, but spoiled teenagers. It looks like fun. Watch the trailer here:


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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