Nov 1, 2009

The show must go on

Once again, our urban elite are perched uncomfortably on the proverbial fence. Is it politically correct to organise and participate in fashion shows and knock-off Broadway shows while the country is at a self-proclaimed war on itself? The old school is attempting to rouse patriotism through the obsolete tactic of playing nationalist songs and videos on TV. Meanwhile, a new generation believes that if the show goes on, it will send a resounding message that the average Pakistani is resilient despite threats and actual bombings. The average Pakistani is resilient because his/her livelihood depends on it. On the other hand, the elite worry whether high cultural activity will be perceived as playing the fiddle while South Waziristan burns?

The notion that all cultural activity is a symbol of a progressive vanguard resisting a barbaric rearguard was a theme mastered by the Musharraf regime. The urban elite latched on to this willingly. Whenever this myth is challenged, it is dismissed as ‘intellectual adventurism’. In reality, the idea that high culture is political resistance is simply a ploy to deflect the guilt of the liberals who like to believe they are solving socio-political problems through charity, entertainment or consumerism. This is akin to the Paris Hilton alternative to solving the economic crisis by shopping even more. This delusion is exemplified even more in that oxymoron which multinationals use to bluff local elites all the time — corporate responsibility.

Consider a recent political challenge that the cultural advocates of Karachi faced and completely failed to deal with. Some Pakistani liberals have always defended Salman Rushdie’s literary right to caricaturise religious figures and, in the same way, supported the publication of the Danish cartoons under the banner of the freedom of expression. Then, earlier this year, an art exhibition was held in Karachi that displayed a painting mocking the late Benazir Bhutto’s person and politics. At this, the same defenders of freedom balked in horror, remained silent on its forced removal from public viewing and some even termed it, political blasphemy. The conspiracy of hypocrisy was sealed when progressive journalists, moral commentators or indeed, members of the women’s movement were silent about the self-censorship that in theory they preach against and accuse dictators of practising.

In stark contrast, there are some political activists who have challenged the specific attack of the rearguard on cultural expression in Pakistan. They have done so by actually locating the resistance within the hostile context itself. This includes the holding of mushaairaas when curfews lift and protecting the shrines in Swat and the NWFP as a means of reclaiming the people’s right to cultural expression. Political resistance is only so if the environment is hostile, otherwise it’s an expression of collaboration. So for example, the young designers who hold exhibitions to raise money for the IDPs are not political activists even if they are doing the ‘responsible’ thing.

Do such intellectual terms and differentiations matter? Yes, actually. Pakistanis are desperate to resume normalcy. Today, this simply means returning to a time when suicide bombings weren’t taking place with such routine precision – nothing more ambitious. Fashion shows, cultural activity and the regular running of the Karachi Stock Exchange (KSE) falsely suggest that we are at peace and that normalcy has been restored. Perhaps for a certain class, these are significant symbols. However, since stability guarantees no structural, substantive change, this means little for those who live in precarious conditions, even when there are no bombs blowing up. Stable or not, change will come. Ironically, there are more chances of change coming from destablising the existing unjust and oppressive status quo.

To ensure that the quality of change is based on a just social order, the voices of the people are imperative and need to be reflected and representative at all levels. Instead, we continue to follow top-down, de-contextualised policy prescribed by international agencies. This simply lands us with high-sounding, vague goals like education for all, health for all and access to justice for all.

At the same time, we have the liberals insisting that this is an existential war against the extremists. This gets loosely translated into symbolic measures such as the need to promote moderation and modernise education – whatever these mean. Neither approach enlightens us about how the defeat of militancy will guarantee justice and equality. So, the absence of an alternative social contract or intellectual exercise that demand more from us – more debate, more views and more thinking through is brushed aside. Why do we need the state to start a truth and reconciliation process; why must we wait for someone else to dialogue for peace; why do we accept military action as the final solution? Why do we continue to depend on aid and loans as an economic plan? Why do we keep on repeating the same projects, policies and methods when it’s not the same Pakistan? Do we want it to go back to being the same anyway?

And while we look for new thinking from within our citizenry, universities and communities, under the circumstances, should fashion shows, sports and leisure go on? Certainly. Should we pretend this is important because it is a means to improve our image, encourage investment or instil positivism in our people? Not unless we want to further contribute to false and misplaced nationalism. Can we pacify ourselves that any cultural activity anywhere in Pakistan for any audience is a form of our patriotic duty and resistance to Talibanisation? Let’s not kid ourselves anymore than we already have. Every little bit doesn’t count anymore; we need deep, meaningful change and it’s not going to come down any fashion ramp.
By Afiya Shehrbano

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