Feb 15, 2009

Culture: a symbol of defiance

There is something beautiful about that which is literal becoming metaphorical. These days, some Karachiites will attest that film, which literally comprises intense light projections in a darkened room, has been metaphorically elevated it is a lone ray of light in dark times.
For those attending the ongoing KaraFilm Festival in its seventh incarnation after a hiatus of two years the sheer enjoyment of film is now accompanied by a sense of relief, resilience and normalcy.
And how can it not be? As festival organiser Hasan Zaidi pointed out on opening night, this year’s KaraFilm Festival is taking place at a time when CD and DVD shops across the country have been burnt or coerced shut, satellite and cable television have been banned by the Taliban in Swat, and the rants of FM mullahs have drowned out folk songs and disco beats in the northern and tribal areas.
Suddenly, attending the film festival, which previously seemed an artsy diversion for the chattering classes of Karachi, has become a political act of resistance. If that seems like an overstatement, consider the findings of a recent survey conducted in the tribal areas by the Centre for Research and Security Studies (CRSS), an independent think tank based in Islamabad. Eighty-six per cent of the all-male respondents did not approve of the blowing up of CD/DVD shops while 91 per cent said the ‘Taliban way was the wrong way’.
In an environment where people have been deprived of their ability to purchase and consume media against their wishes, our option of viewing a Bulgarian short, Pakistani documentary or Italian feature film is necessarily political. It is our right, after all, to engage in cultural activities without feeling threatened or being coerced to do otherwise.
Indeed, ensuring that cultural activities continue apace is one of the few ways in which the government can conduct its fight against spreading militancy without having to resort to battle. We have repeatedly seen how the extremist crackdown on media is often the first step on a slippery slope towards militancy what begins with a few burnt CDs or blocked FM broadcasts ends with the beheading of innocents.
By defending cultural practices and media broadcasts, the government can give early warnings to extremists that their decrees will be resisted. In this context, it is notable that the KaraFilm Festival has the support of the Government of Sindh and the City District Government of Karachi. But such shows of support must extend beyond the dream bubble of urbanity and modernity that is Karachi’s Arts Council.
Recently, in Peshawar, I met several Afghan musicians who have received threats from extremists and been prevented from performing or even advertising their trade. Most of them are refugees from Kabul who clearly recall how the reign of the Taliban there began with the smashing of a rubab and the stowing away of a tabla. As Frontier Corps personnel line the highways to protect Nato supply vehicles in Khyber Agency, perhaps a few troops can be spared to escort Afghan musicians as they defiantly perform in public, thereby reminding the residents of Peshawar that their lifestyles are theirs alone to shape.
And why stop there? Similar security and support could be offered to theatre troupes in the Punjab, folk singers and poets in Fata, traditional dancers in Balochistan and DVD shops and Sufi shrines across the country. By expending resources to promote and preserve local culture and cultural practices, the government and army may earn the respect and not the ire of citizens who find themselves caught between the militants and the military (it is telling that 77 per cent of respondents in the same CRSS survey did not welcome the presence of the Pakistan Army in their villages).
An official decision to prioritise the safeguarding of culture in the broadest sense of the word may inspire the private sector to do the same. This year, the KaraFilm Festival was almost scuttled again when its corporate sponsors withdrew financial support at the last minute, citing the global economic recession. Kudos to the festival organisers for charging ahead nonetheless, with a pared down schedule and simpler events. It would have been a real tragedy if, in a time when social control, censorship and conflict threaten culture in so many corners of our nation, corporate funding had been the ultimate downfall of the festival.
No doubt, there are many people out there who might dismiss the defence of cultural activities as petty symbolism and argue that the true gains in the war against terror must be tangible. But symbolic acts by dedicated and determined governments have been known to shape history.
For example, in 1957, a US federal court ordered the desegregation of public schools in Little Rock, Arkansas. The state’s governor ordered the Arkansas National Guard to prevent nine black children from attending the Central High School. Moreover, a crowd of angry people gathered at the school’s entrance to insult and intimidate the children on their first day.
Not to be deterred in the task of desegregation, President Eisenhower sent 1,000 paratroopers of the US Army to Little Rock to protect the nine black children and escort them into school. Although the school was not functioning as normal, the children’s successful foray past the doors of a segregated school announced the beginning of a new era. Today, just over 50 years later, America is led by its first black president.
Of course, the irony of this example cannot be lost on anyone. In Swat, our government has been unable to prevent the destruction of hundreds of schools and army deployment on campuses has resulted in more conflict than calm (indeed, many schools have been reduced to barracks). So why bother arguing for the defence of movies and minstrels in this manner? Because chances are that if the authorities had prevented militants from blowing up DVD shops and shutting down media outlets in the first place, there would have been no need to deploy the army in Swat’s schools today.
The fact is, symbolic gestures such as supporting the arts drive home the message that extremists will not be permitted to dictate any facet of our lives, no matter how seemingly superficial or extraneous. Allowing militants any concessions indicates a tolerance for their methods and mission that we can no longer afford. In this context, Karachiites should realise that by attending the KaraFilm Festival, they’re putting up the good fight for their basic rights.

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