Dying cities: decline, tragedy and new horizons

Our land lays plundered by the slow dance of elite power and our neo-colonial economic system


Abdullah Naveed November 30, 2021
Abdullah Naveed is a researcher and writer working on Islam in South Asia and is a graduate of the University of Chicago. He tweets @anaveed__ and can be reached at [email protected]

17th century. The Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan (d. 1666), reigns supreme in South Asia. Lahore, no longer the capital, still looms large in the minds of residents and travelers. Under Vazir Khan, the city continues being adorned. Munir, a munshi, Persian poet, and native of Lahore, sings praises of the city. He deems it more beautiful than Kashmir, knowing all too well of the latter’s status as Paradise on Earth in the Mughal imagination.

Scarred by generations of apathy, now devoured by its ever-grey skies, would Munir recognise his beloved? A stroll through Lahore today should sicken a heart that still feels. Our land lays plundered by the slow dance of elite power and our neo-colonial economic system, unholy lovers united by purpose. Meanwhile, a psychological callousness continues to aggressively metastasise within the citizenry. Decline is not the cessation of human flourishing, rather it is the dissolution of structural ramparts that aide the blossoming of human creativity and beauty. It is the state wherein individuals, despite structural impediments curtailing the vibrancy of their imaginative potential, continue struggling to eke out a life amenable to human well-being. Valiant as it may be, this resilience ought not be romanticised or instrumentalised as a rhetorical anesthetic to soothe our consciences, which tug and pull at our hearts. This is not a polemic against the inevitability of change. Yet, change and desecration are not the same. Is this an obsession with space, you ask? It is not, at least, not a romantic one. It is the sum of our lives; it is everything we have. Then, we must ask: What could have we been? What can we still be?

As competence dies a slow death, conspiratorial thinking looms large; institutes justify overreaching their jurisdictions by ensnaring the citizenry into an anesthetised state of fear, civil society remains suppressed, and religious classes remain confined to an increasingly narrowed ethical sphere, one used to instrumentalise frustration into violence while being largely concerned with shallow moral policing. Why would the common man own, protect or beautify this land when those with power use it as their private dominion for extraction? Prosaic, disingenuous and romanticised promises of progress are deployed to simmer down the citizenry’s rage. Wishing for those in power, and those who whisper in their ears, to relieve us of our trials is ill-founded, for any authentic change challenges the internal logic of their rule.

Our fate cannot be disentangled from how we imagine our cities, for they are the sites where our competing histories, politics and theologies interlock. In their design, and public arenas, is where we loosen the shackles of an emaciated imagination of what our nation is, of what it can be. We can be more than an elite dominated state, left at the mercy of an asinine developmentalism with its endless loop of self-serving politics. We can be more than subservient objects of a system that seeks to deracinate us from nature, our families, and friends. We can be more than a land occupied by people, with skins like ours, ones who make grandiose assertions about preserving the country while facilitating its constant plunder. Our need is not saviours; our need is dignity. We cannot afford to be practical anymore. It is in our childlike naivety, in all its wonder and curiosity, where we find redemption, where we build new lives. It is where we aim wonderfully high. It is where we find our City of God.

Could we arrive at a mutual understanding, one which respects difference but also elevates the public good? Could we, in German philosopher Gadamer’s vocabulary, arrive at a ‘fusion of horizons’, wherein our variegated contexts, ways of perceiving, and modes of being amalgamate into a new cultural formation, one where the strange becomes familiar and the familiar strange? If so, the process of this mutual exercise can never cease to exist for there is no utopic final line; at this confluence of hearts, an understanding of ourselves and those who share lives with us continues to evolve, requiring a constant reappraisal of our actions.

But what do we do? Firstly, we grieve. Then, we invent a new vocabulary of emancipation. If David Scott is right that ‘tragedy may be the price of freedom’, then we must very well see ourselves as actors in a tragedy, rather than in a heroic narrative. The freedom we yearn for is not some paradisical state of being unfettered. Rather, it is a reckoning of how we facilitate our own subjugation. Mere recognition is insufficient; we must hold Frantz Fanon’s message in our hearts as we try setting ‘afoot a new man’, and move forward, not in the company of masters, but in the company of our fellow man.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 30th, 2021.

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