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The Other Pakistan

Sep 17, 2009

Salman Ahmad, Pakistani rock musician and founder of the popular band Junoon (as well as doctor, author, and film maker) explained last Saturday night to the standing room only crowd in the General Assembly of the United Nations that it was the video which pushed him into action. The video, of two men holding down a teenage girl while another beat her, sent by a friend from Pakistan, prompted Ahmad to fly to Pakistan from New York, his adopted home, to find the answer to the question that was tormenting him: "Which was the real Pakistan?"

Was it the country steeped in Sufi traditions of poetry, art, and culture? The country whose verse had cried out for freedom of expression for over one thousand years? Or the country where teenage girls are beaten publicly for alleged crimes of improper behavior?

Fueled by the horrific story of Daniel Pearl’s tragic death and videos of Taliban brutality, Americans tend to associate Pakistan more with extremism and random violence than with poetry, music, and culture. But the media paints a distorted picture of Pakistan, as audiences of the Asia Society's current exhibition, Hanging Fire: Contemporary Art of Pakistan and of Salman Ahmad's Concert for Pakistan can attest.

At the historic event sponsored by the Pakistani Mission to the United Nations and held in the General Assembly hall, Salman Ahmad brought musicians from Ireland to Iran (including Irish sensation Gavin Rossdale and the Danish hip hop group Outlandish) together to raise awareness and funds for the three million displaced persons from the Swat Valley. Sting sent a special song and message, and guests including Nobel Laureate R.K. Pachauri spoke on behalf of Pakistan and its people. The hospitable, vibrant, and intellectual Pakistan they described clashed with the media's drumbeat of extremism. Likewise, the moderate, tolerant version of Islam presented at the Concert on Saturday by Naïf al Matawan (creator of The 99 comic book series with superheroes based on the 99 characteristics of Allah) differed from the doctrinaire ideologies that claim more air time.

Both Salman Ahmad and Naïf al Mutawa belong to the Brookings Institution's Creative Network, a group of 200 plus leaders in arts and culture from the U.S. and the Muslim world who mingle with policymakers at the annual U.S. Islamic World Forum in Doha. They and others like them offer an opening into Arab and Muslim societies, if diplomats and policymakers are willing to do something that does not come easily -- take arts and culture seriously.

In countries such as Pakistan (or Iran, for that matter), where poets have played significant roles in shaping the national narrative, arts, culture, and media regularly engage with politics. And I don't just mean Twitter. The words of Rumi and other poets, whether in verse or set to rock music, inspire the citizens of today's Pakistan, as well as its large diaspora. Poetry and art in all its forms are simply part of the fabric of life, and often can convey ideas that might not be acceptable in political forums. The curator of the current exhibition of contemporary Pakistani art at the Asia Society, Salima Hashmi, noted, "When political parties are silenced, there is room for poets and artists."

Whether through works of art, poetry, rock music, or soap operas on TV, arts, culture, and media provide a means and a medium to reach broad swaths of the population 'under the political radar' with ideas about society, politics, and religion. Through narratives in which, for example, women assume significant roles in the family and society, they question extremist ideologies. Songs set to a traditional, rock, or hip hop beat remind academics, teenagers, and tea servers alike of the richness of Pakistani culture, and of its integral role in Pakistani identity.

For Salman Ahmad, his wife Samina, and their NGO (ssgwi.org), this concert was the beginning of a broader campaign to harness the power of arts, culture and media to strengthen civil society within Pakistan. The lawyers' movement already demonstrated the willingness of Pakistanis to defend their rights. A strong civil society movement will not solve all Pakistan's problems, but it could provide a bulwark against extremism. Increasingly, the U.S. seems to be moving away from imposing its own values abroad to empowering local voices. Salman Ahmad's concert, his broader movement, and the Asia Society's exhibition offer openings for pursuing this strategy in Pakistan.

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Comments

Salman represents the side of Pakistan which shuns violence and has rejected hatred, bigotry and has welcomed the era of peace that is to come with open arms. Kudos to him and his team for this amazing gig at the UN General Assembly Hall.

Concert for Pakistan-An Eye Opener!

When I first met Salman Ahmad I knew him as a rockstar from the band Junoon in Pakistan. After becoming his student I was lucky to know what a gem of a person he is, so humble and so generous. His presence is extremely motivating! I am proud to have him as my profesor and hope to learn more from him in the future.

There was no question about whether the concert is going to be great or not but it was a belief that its going to rock! and I just wanted to be there to experience the magic taking place on Sept,13 at the United Nations, General Assembly Hall.

I could not stop my tears after listening to all the heart touching speeches which left me wondering that what are we really doing with our lives.

Its painful to see what is happening with the Pakistani Refugees who have being dislocated from their homes and being deprived from basic necessities of life. What wrong have they done? Its not a "personal problem" limited to a region but its a global problem which we all have to solve together with our effort, prayers and commitment.

The evening for me was all about love, unity, peace,and realization! The lines of "ALLah Hoo" still echos in my ears where everyone regardles of there background were chanting together. The music was connecting all of us. It was a "sama" where people of all religions, colors, and reigions were standing together for one cause. There was no discrimination whatsoever because human was praying for human. And thats the spirit we need today in this world full of sufferings where we might be next, who knows.

"Kusht-o-khoon se bhari Sar zameen per.Haq-o-Insaf se door.
Musibaton main mubtala.Har Lamha Nigahen Amn ki Muntazir hain..."

"On this earth full of bloodshedding.Away from rights and justice.Struck by calamities..
every moment my eyes are waiting for Peace..."

The concert of Pakistan was an eye opener as well as a reminder and I cant thank enough Salman Ahmad for putting it all together so beautifully!

Having visited Pakistan, and being a huge Junoon fan, I can attest that the country is very different than image most Westerners have. There is a real cosmopolitan side to Pakistan, and Lahore has a great coffee culture. The Pakistani music scene is vibrant. Salman Ahmed is a wonderful ambassador for Pakistan, and it is through the cultural diplomacy (and maybe gastro diplomacy b/c Pakistani food is AMAZING!) that Pakistan can begin to change its PD image.

I agree with Cynthia Schneider's comments - all very true. The challenge is that the Pakistan which she describes has been hamstrung not only by external violence and pressure but a high degree of self-censorship that may be even more difficult to overcome than the current troubles. The challenge for outsiders is how to empower and encourage these rich voices of Pakistan without putting them at risk.

I would say the problem is India and the Hindu mentality. I know that sounds like a typically Pakistani thing to say, but my reasons for saying this are somewhat different. India is a massive neighbour for Pakistan. It has always leaned rather heavily on its smaller neighbour, and even was instrumental in its dismembermant in 1971. At the time of Partition, the only thing Pakistan got was a functional Army. Is it any surprise that the Army has ruled over Pakistan for most of its 60 years? The Army is an organ of offence, and so they went about turning Pakistan into a Military Camp. A new experiment was tried of transposing Arab Islam on the population, which has taken it up. So, now we have a country with illiterate people, with violent Arab Islam on their mind, and its going to be very hard to put the genie back in the bottle. The problem with India has not been solved. There is no Government and civil society, and the economy is going down. What happens if a country with a population of 170 million goes under? A massive headache for the world. Pakistan needs help, there is no doubt about that. India must be coerced to back off; civil society in Pakistan must be encourged, and lots of maney must go into education. As an urgent means, good governance must be provided to avert a catastrophe.

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