Pakistan witnessing art explosion, says novelist Mohsin Hamid
By Khalid Hasan
WASHINGTON: Pakistan is witnessing an explosion of music, part of a revolution in art and media with potentially far greater appeal to its young people than the sermons of religious conservatives urging them to abandon modernity and confront perceived threats to Islam, according to Mohsin Hamid, the young Pakistani novelist.
In an article in the Smithsonian, the house journal of the Smithsonian museum system, the author of Moth Smoke points out that in the past three years, a dozen independent television channels have sprung up, from general networks to specialised news, fashion and music stations. Combined with a boom in advertising, increasing economic growth and rapid cable and satellite penetration, these outlets are fuelling not only a new industry, but also a new culture - one not limited to a narrow Westernised elite.
“True, Pakistan is desperately poor, with half the population of 150 million illiterate and many subsisting on less than a dollar a day. But between 30 and 40 percent live in cities, and that percentage rises to more than 50 percent when one includes settlements within commuting distance of urban centres. For this half of Pakistan’s population, electricity, telephones and television have become a part of ordinary life. Even in rural villages, TV can be found in restaurants and tea shops that are often as crowded with viewers as movie theatres.”
Hamid, who comes from Lahore but lives in New York, notes that last year when members of the Pakistani rock band Junoon visited some of the country’s most destitute and isolated regions, they found themselves mobbed by fans who knew their songs by heart.
This budding mass culture, virtually unknown to the West, is being created in Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore. Karachi, home to 13 million people, is Pakistan’s commercial capital, “an enormous, humming metropolis whose occasional spasms of sectarian and criminal violence make for international headlines”. He calls Islamabad “the most international of Pakistan’s cities”. As for Lahore, he adds, “an explosion of art and media is offering a vibrant alternative to the strictures of religious conservatives and is transforming one of America’s most important - and most ambivalent allies.
Lahore, he writes, occupies a special place in the new mass culture. According to Hamid, “Famous for producing poets and artists and writers, the city is now also becoming known for its newscasters, actors, fashion models and pop stars. And not a moment too soon, because Pakistan needs symbols of openness, debate and the potential for progress and prosperity in times that many Pakistanis find dangerous and deeply unsettling. The novelist believes that the overwhelming sentiment among Pakistanis, captured in newspaper editorials and television interviews, is that America’s war in Afghanistan brought enormous suffering to fellow Muslims in one of the poorest countries in the world. He notes that after the defeat of the Taliban in 2002, Pakistan’s role shifted to hunting down Al Qaeda operatives inside Pakistan itself. Some Pakistanis, particularly religious conservatives, sympathised with the goals of Al Qaeda and the Taliban and condemned the Pakistani government’s continued support of the United States. Others saw army operations in the border regions as drawing innocent Pakistanis into America’s fight against Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda. America’s invasion of Iraq, treatment of prisoners in Abu Ghraib and support for the policies of Israel’s prime minister Ariel Sharon have also sparked widespread condemnation in Pakistan. “But although they may not like what America is doing around the world, most Pakistanis are also increasingly fed up with the religious militants in their midst,” he concludes.
Hamid quotes Ejaz Haider of Daily Times, who while commenting on the recent thaw in India-Pakistan relations and the arrival of visitors from across the border said, “The massive outpouring of hospitality and affection was spontaneous and genuine. The Indians were taken aback. The image they had of Pakistan was of a violent, conservative state whose people hated them. Instead, they had a reception more generous than anything they could possibly have imagined. I had Indian journalists telling me that Lahore is cleaner and more beautiful than any city in India.”
Hamid also notes that Pakistan has won praise from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund for its economic turnaround. Pakistan’s stock market was among the world’s top performing last year, up 66 percent, and real estate values are soaring. Although still generated from a tiny base, tax revenues have jumped 40 percent in the past four years, enabling the government to spend more on development, especially on education - a critical investment for Pakistanis under 19, roughly half of its current population.
He quotes Ms Navid Shahzad of the National University in Lahore as saying that, “Three things happened in higher education. First, the government finally understood that it did not have the resources to meet the education needs of the population by itself. Second, they realised that the crumbling public education system - and the religious madrassas that stepped in to fill the gaps - contributed to the problems of unemployment and militancy in our society. Finally, they saw that some private universities in Pakistan were providing qualitatively superior education in a way which was financially self-sustaining.”
The Pakistani novelist, who spent time in the country to finish another book, concludes, “As the city of Lahore, and Pakistan as a whole, leaves behind two decades of repression and violent intimidation by religious militants, more and more people are finding their voices. And much of what they have to say reflects a longing for peace and progress. Even if overshadowed in the news by the explosions of bombs, Pakistan’s other explosions – of music, media and mass culture - are powerful and growing sources of hope.”