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Review: Granta, The Magazine of New Writing, Issue 112: Pakistan, 2010

It is difficult, if not outright impossible, to talk about Pakistan without also talking about the politics of the region. As such Granta Magazine's latest issue, Pakistan, is perhaps the magazine's most political work to date. openDemocracy's Luke Heighton responds to the issue's highly political short fiction, art and essay.
Luke Heighton
17 November 2010
Granta%20Cover.jpeg

Granta, The Magazine of New Writing, Issue 112: Pakistan, 2010

For Kamila Shamsie, growing up at the more privileged end of the spectrum in 1980s Karachi, ‘youth culture’ was primarily a foreign affair – Morten Harkett and Madonna, Top of the Pops and Coca Cola. Not only that but it was also a relatively clandestine affair: pirate music cassettes and videos consumed by those who could afford to holiday in London, or with relatives in the US.  ‘Kalashnikov culture’, on the other hand, was a more local affair. What united the two, Shamsie argues, connecting John Hughes to the street kids selling paper John Rambo masks, was the point at which East met West in their shared adulation of the gun, and their shared hatred of the Soviet Union. In this context, to cosmopolitan Karachis like Shamsie the culturally and religiously prescriptive regime of General Zia ul-Haq, President from 1977 to 1988, seemed no less foreign.Things appeared to have changed for the better a little when in 1981 brother and sister duo Nazia and Zoheb Hassan released the single ‘Disco Deewane’ (‘Disco Crazy’), their slightly lame combination of winsome romanticism and short-skirted dancers superseded six years later by the then 14 year-old Shamsie’s discovery of four young Pakistani men in black leather jackets strumming their guitars as they rode through the mountains singing “Dil Dil Pakistan” (Heart, Heart, Pakistan).

Today, Shamsie says, she is “struck by the void that must have existed to make pretty boys singing patriotic pop appear subversive”. But in 1987 Vital Signs represented something far more significant that Nazia and Zoheb – despite Wahabist injunctions against their dancing together. Even so, it was a time when to call someone a ‘fundo’ – a fundamentalist – was still considered one of the gravest insults imaginable. By way of an illustration as to the scene and the country’s subsequent development, two figures from Shamsie’s musical youth prove striking. Junaid Jamshed, Vital Sign’s former frontman, who once upon a time implored teenage listeners to “pour some sugar” on him, joined the Tablighi Jamaat group in the early 2000s – the prince of Pakistani pop (and engineering graduate), had become a fundo. But Jamshed is a fundo with a difference. He has in past negotiated a lucrative contract with Pepsi, runs a highly successful designer clothes label, and is the face of Lay’s potato chips. Meanwhile, Jamshed’s former Vital Signs colleague, Salman Ahmad, has taken a different, albeit a related route. As guitarist and a leading member of his new group, Junoon, Ahmad sought an alternative to both Wahhabism and Western rock conventions in Sufi Islam – in the process informally allying himself with a musical-philosophical perhaps best known in the West through the work of the great Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

As someone who had never previously heard of with Ahmad or his work before, I have to say the impression that Shamsie conveys appears remarkably close to that of a Pakistani Bono - though it is of course hard to image Ahmad could possibly be either as personally and politically mendacious or as wretched a musician Dublin’s most famous, expensively-trousered, tax-exile hobgoblin lord of MOR pap. To those of us unfortunate enough as to have spent the last 20 years or more being subjected to the erstwhile Paul Hewson’s inchoate pontifications on God, the Devil, the Church of Johnny Cash and the life-enhancing qualities of certain brands of mobile phone, its not easy to take at face value Shamsie’s claim that Ahmad has succeeded in creating a blend of the “deep-rooted mystical side of subcontinental Islam and contemporary, cutting edge, rocking youth culture”. To a cynical atheist his performances at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony and for the UN, his promotion of HIV/AIDS awareness and talking-up of India-Pakistan friendship, and Junoon’s own sponsorship deal with Coca-Cola seem wearily familiar, suggesting above all that corporate cant and raging egomania have always found special satisfaction in dipping their toes into the muddied waters of piss-weak spiritualism.

Sure enough, Shamsie is quick to point out that much of Ahmad’s schtick has a ring of mild hypocrisy and canny publicity about it; it is hard, she says, “to separate sense of mission from marketing in all this”.  But that’s hardly the point. Rather, these two seminal figures in Pakistani pop go some way to embodying many of the continuities, the discordances, and the potential “opportunities to harmonize” in a young nation with an ever-younger population. And should politics and religion fail to bridge the divide, you can bet your bottom dollar Coke and Pepsi will stride fearlessly into the breach. A small man trails dutifully, piously, in their wake. He quotes indiscriminately lines from the Book of Revelation, a recent Hollywood film starring Reese Witherspoon and Jake Gyllenhaal, and a copy of the UK’s latest corporate tax legislation. His trousers are amazing. They are, he earnestly hopes, a portent of a better future for us all.

Paradoxical as it may seem, Shamsie argues, one of the reason’s why Pakistan’s cities have historically proven less resistant to the siren song of Islamic fundamentalism is that they were so enormously diverse – ethnically, religiously, and economically. This diversity, and indeed this disparity between the violent heterogeneity of the city (a heterogeneity which, as many of this collection’s authors make clear, is at the same time something that must celebrated and defended), is the subject of Fatima Bhutto’s Mangho Pir, a fascinating study of Karachi’s “invisible community” of Sheedi, ethnically African Pakistanis whose ancestors, Bhutto tells us, settled on the Balochistan coast and the Sindhi shores around 628 CE. Today their continued presence stands as a reminder that such things as tolerance and diversity are very much alive in Pakistan, even if it is sometimes convenient for the West and Pakistanis themselves to believe otherwise. It is also a reminder that the places in which conflict is most evidence can also be those where freedom – a highly qualified, continually threatened, an indeed scarcely detectable version of freedom, at least – can and does exist. Like Kamila Shamsie, the girl at the centre of Nadeem Aslam’s short story, Leila in the Wilderness, is fourteen years old. Unlike her, her freedom is limited to the house in which she is kept by her much older husband, Timur, and his mother, Razia. Timur, it transpires, is a wealthy man, the scion of a long line of local landowners, his control over the villages and their inhabitants he effectively owns both indisputable and indisputably brutal. When Timur builds a mosque on the one piece of nearby land he does own, and when Leila fails repeatedly to give him the son he craves, a series of events is kicked off involving the wanton killing of Leila’s children, the exploitation of the mosque for political and financial gain, all-out gang warfare between Timur and his greatest rival, the appearance of foreigners “preaching vulgarity in the name of liberation”, and the arrival of a mysterious boy with a magnetic heart and distaste for Western legware. If that last sounds an unduly fripparous thing to say, this is in part because Alsam’s tale deals also in a voice which veers from the profoundly affecting to   from the stark portrayal of harsh social realities to twee, rather unsuccessful attempts to emulate something of the tome and temper of Borges, and what may well be much more successful attempts to recreate something of the sensibility and the dialogue of Beverley Hills Cop.

This is not by any means to say that Leila in the Wilderness isn’t successful in other ways. As a portrayal of the mendacity, the sheer self-regard of those who have power in contemporary Pakistan – whether they are born into power, as Timur is; seek to consecrate what economic and political power they have been able to grab; or, like the Jihadists who lurk in the background, actively pursue power from below with the help of their wealthy supporters at home and abroad. This is a story of, in the expat Alam’s words, his former home’s heartbreaking beauty and its laughter; the “unforgivable cruelty” and “unforgivable dishonesty” which, it is suggested, may have something to do with his own decision not to stay. 

Though it is of course nothing peculiar to Pakistan, dishonesty is, we feel, is at the heart of the problems Aslam identifies, and perhaps it’s most potent manifestation is in Pakistani men’s appalling treatment of women. This is a subject it might seem unfair and sanctimonious to harp on about, were it not for the fact that it recurs again and again throughout the collection. It is there in Timur’s treatment of both his wife and his daughter, of course, as well as in the attitude shown by Teddy Butt to the nurse he believes he is in love with, and to whose head he holds a gun, in Mohammed Hanif’s Butt and Bhatti. Nadia, it should also be mentioned, is shockingly – or perhaps not so shockingly – complicit in her daughter-in-law’s abuse, despite having lived a life of constant subjection; first to her husband, then to her son. In White Girls, by Luton-born Sarfraz Mansour (familiar to many through this work for the Guardian) we encounter Tariq, a serial seducer and former Manchester University friend of Mansour’s. Tariq is skilled in the use of Khalil Gibran, Ghandi and the Raj to sleep with girls all too eager to “fuck a Paki and tell themselves they’re doing it for political reasons”. Whether this is true – that there were/are ‘girls’ too consumed by their own orientalism to know when someone was taking the piss – is a moot point, lurking behind which is the suggestion of an even more subtle form of misogyny that, however, well-meant, grows in the telling.  After all, who among us has not fucked someone for political reasons of one sort or another? Is it even possible, let alone desirable, to do otherwise? For Tariq, however, the issue is far simpler: “Take my advice,” he says, “have your fun with the white girls and then marry someone from back home. You know what you’re getting from them.”

Fortunately a hopeful, if actually corrective perspective is also at hand. It is not the foreigners preaching vulgarity as liberation who first attempt to liberate Leila but the midwife who has delivered all her (murdered, female) children. Similarly, for all the disappointment that the authors gathered here express in Benazir Bhutto’s government, even lovelorn Teddy Butt, the police thug, can admit that women might be suited to government, if only because they are less monomaniacal than men – though it follows that for a man prepared to violently assault the very person on whom he is fixated this is not necessarily a recommendation of their fitness for office. Resisting the monomaniacal male tendency to lump women together (though not forgetting Mansour’s own mother’s warning against “white girls”), we need also to acknowledge that Fatimo Butto in Pakistan and Arundhati Roy in India are attempting not just to speak for women in their respective countries, but the dispossessed everywhere: figures like Leila, who subjectivity and autonomy we cannot allow to be reduced to the conditions of their oppression.

It is Hari Kunru, writing on the work of the London-based not-for-profit organization and gallery, whose photo essay HIGH NOON is included here, who asks one of the biggest questions this collection throws up and can be applied beyond the confines of the visual art his essay directly deals with: do we hear enough about ‘identity’ in relation to South Asian art, or do we hear too much? His sort-of-answer is that whether or not Pakistani artists like it, it doesn’t really matter: the question which precedes his – the one which attempts to ask what it means to be a Pakistani artist, or indeed just a Pakistani – is the one on everyone else’s lips. It is up to the artists themselves how and whether to answer such questions, just as it is up to the rest of the world to actually listen to and look at their responses. “It may be that it’s only possible to wage war”, Kunzru writes, “on those whom we don’t see fully”, and who are, consequently, inadequately represented. If this is true, then his assertion that now more than ever we require more than news images gains added force: “Even the failure to represent oneself authentically, the impossibility of seeing oneself except as belated, constructed, supplicatory, is significant”. We cannot afford to overlook or to underestimate the importance of this inauthenticity, for without it we do those of whom we ask the question a disservice, while squeamishly reinforcing our own mistaken sense of who we are. 

If there is a tragic element to which all of the writing in this collection appeals, either directly or indirectly, it not so much men and women are unable to exercise their autonomy to the extent they should be. Rather it is the fact that the gap created between power’s active objectification of those over whom it is exercised, and the ability of those over whom power is exercised to express their own subjective autonomy within existing power structures, continues to grow.  From the moment of India’s partition and Pakistan’s birth several alternative solutions have been proposed albeit haphazardly, half-heartedly, and necessarily in thrall to colonial masters new and old. As Jane Perlez makes clear in her Portrait of Jinnah, save for a gradual (and, in terms of regional security, extremely dangerous) drift into religious extremism which began, ironically enough, with Pakistan’s avowedly secular founding father, no single doctrine has succeeded in binding the hopes of this enormous and enormously diverse country’s people to the fate of the nation as a whole. This in turn has led many to question whether it is possible to do, let alone whether it is desirable or if anyone has ever really tried to enunciate a doctrine that avoids the pitfalls of sectarian politics.

As this collection makes clear however, Pakistan exists – a nation and as idea – for those who live or were born there and for those who do not. It is a country and an idea worth fighting for and which is being fought for. It remains to be seen, however, whether a battle between competing extremist groups, be they corporate, religious, financial or political can ever be won, or whether we will end up having to count our small victories over them in literature.

Now, what’s Bono up to?

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