Turning a corner

We need to end the ghetto-isation of Urdu literature, recovering it from the other side of the invisible Berlin Wall

Taha Najeeb March 18, 2016
The writer is a freelance contributor based in New Jersey. He works in the technology sector

The Senate has finally passed a bill that criminalises sexual assault on minors. Just a few days ago, the Punjab Assembly passed a bill that gives women protection from domestic abuse and harassment. Around the same time, Salman Taseer’s murderer was hanged, following which his son was recovered after being abducted five years ago. Good things are happening in Pakistan, and in rapid succession too. But if all this could be achieved so quickly, what took its leaders so long?

Were they, like scientists in lab-coats, waiting for a large enough sample size to confirm their hypothesis that the battering of housewives by their misogynistic, often inebriated husbands, is categorically bad? Were they credulously scratching their heads, all this while, deliberating the moral intricacies of child abuse? This express metamorphosis of a state, which couldn’t care less about human rights until recently, to one that’s increasingly looking more like the extended wing of Human Rights Watch, is a little odd. But it couldn’t have been any other way. To expect so would be to not understand Pakistan at all. Because Pakistan, you see, is not some meticulous, calculating entity that moves forward with measured poise, it’s a country quite like its cricket team — a fast-moving whirlwind of uncertainty and entropy, completely and utterly out of whack, and as impossible to predict as the New York Stock Exchange.

But all this change is good nevertheless; Pakistan requires nothing less than a moral surgery to be a functional state. And not because it’s a failed state. It’s always been clear to even its most strident detractors, that Pakistan has pockets of exceptionalism across its sociological landscape. It is a story rich with narratives of extraordinary resilience against adversity. A country that, in spite of its male supremacist tendencies, produced incredible women who’ve performed amazing feats: winning the Oscars, receiving the Nobel Prize, scaling Everest, and even running the country as its elected prime minister. Female participation in politics and the legislative branch remains higher in Pakistan than even some of the more developed countries. But most impressive are those unsung mothers, daughters, and sisters who go about their day as usual, braving silently a landscape stacked against them, defying the gravitational tug of patriarchy to become teachers, nurturers, doctors, social workers, journalists, thought leaders and entrepreneurs.

Pakistan surprises everywhere. For instance, how is it that a country with no music academies came to produce something like Coke Studio music — a delicious fusion of East and West? Or managed, in the absence of any viable domestic infrastructure, to dominate sports like field hockey, squash, snooker, and cricket for as long as it did? A country with limited academic resources whose universities and colleges just recently won international delegation awards at HMUN and US state department competitions? Even in arts and literature, it’s no less impressive; from short feature films/documentaries to theatre, stand-up comedy, novels, etc — Pakistanis are making waves both at home and abroad.

Why, though, has this country failed to thread these pockets of exceptionalism into a unified whole? The reasons are, of course, many, but perhaps most salient is that Pakistan lacks a story — a binding national narrative. A country racked by divisions, success only comes in silos. There is not a single thread that binds everyone together. Conservatives on the far right have long attached nationalism to an abstract pan-Islamic conception. And liberals, on the far left, increasingly view nationalism as a parochial, tribalistic tendency that should be done away with altogether (though they are far fewer in number). Jonathan Haidt ,in his book The Righteous Mind, captures this theme — the conservative and liberal divide — but more in the context of America, though his observations are quite generalisable. He explains how people are ruled by different principles/tendencies that generally determine if they’re conservative or liberal. Conservatives typically favour the principles of sanctity, authority and loyalty over concerns of care, fairness and liberty, and vice-versa for liberals. It follows then, that societies with diminishing empathy, where people are increasingly unsympathetic to the other side’s underlying concerns, become more polarised with time. Case in point: America, where a capitalist, war-mongering Trump and an anti-capitalist, anti-war libertarian, Bernie Sanders, both enjoy a massive following. In fact, America offers other lessons too; after all, this is a country that’s all about ‘exceptionalism’, yet a quick review of its Republican nomination candidates makes one wonder if pointed hats and burning crosses are all that remain between these gents and the KKK. “Islam hates America”, Trump said the other day. Take a few seconds to appreciate how impressively absurd this statement is. This is like saying Marxism hates doubled-tusked walruses and mint speckled donuts.

Going back to the divisions in Pakistan, it took generations for the Pan-Islamic construct to take root, it’ll take at least a few years to deracinate. But to dismiss nationalism altogether, isn’t wise either.  According to Jonathan Haidt, evolution runs on group selection, which favours nested structures or communities in place of isolated individualism. In other words, humans are wired to function in communities and in most cases, even thrive in them. So those who view nationalism as some sort of anachronism awaiting its own extinction — well, keep waiting.

Building a national narrative is a difficult task though, and will require exercising an array of instruments – cultural, academic, intellectual, and media. It would mean a series of initiatives like cultural awareness campaigns, community-building exercises in schools, inter/intra faith harmony forums across the country, and the watering down of the phantasmagoria of ancient and recent wars by constructing and projecting a softer image of the country which stands on its own merits, without the prop of a militaristic ‘us versus them’ mindset. What will also need to end is the ghetto-isation of Urdu literature, recovering it from the other side of the invisible Berlin Wall which separates Pakistan’s elites from its masses, and exposing the youth to the works of Faiz, Iqbal, Manto and the like, in a way that’s more intellectually sophisticated and stimulating than just the rote parroting of their dates of birth and cities they were born. Furthermore, Pakistan’s South Asian roots will need to be explored more deeply and its artificially grown Arab branches trimmed to a maximum. Textbooks and pop culture should be refined to popularise thought and wonder, so they may smudge the bold contours of regimented thinking. Pakistanis, and the Muslim World in general, needs more Rumis than Al-Baghdadis.

On balance, Pakistan is surely turning a corner. And make no mistake, this turning will be bumpy and dangerous, we’re not talking about a sleek aerodynamic F1 race car, we’re talking of a clunky, rusty, heavy armoured truck lurching sideways as it defies the heavy inertia of a weighty past.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 19th, 2016.

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