My personal journey with CAP’s Oral History Project

People do internships to make contacts. In my internship, I literally made history.

On August 14, 2008, I was manning a stall in Karachi’s Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, one of the country’s best art schools. It was an “Azadi Mela” organized by IVS, and the stall I was a part of had been put up by a tiny non-profit organization called “The Citizens Archive of Pakistan” (CAP) for which I was volunteering that summer.

“The Citizens Foundation?” asked a rather confused middle-aged woman as she walked past us, really only stopping because of the hyper enthusiastic way we were calling out to people. “No,” all of us responded, almost in unison. She smiled at us, and then walked along.

Her confusion was understandable, though: TCF is one of the most well-known Pakistani non-governmental organizations for its stellar work in education and our name did sound similar. Our work, however, was completely different. We were trying to talk about the history of Pakistan – oral history, to be more specific, which made it even tougher to tell people exactly what we were trying to achieve.

That also explained our enthusiasm: history is a tough topic to sell to Pakistanis, who’d much rather spend hours watching inconclusive television “talk” shows than listen to short clips that may give them a better sense of our identity as Pakistanis and how the country came into being.

But the aim of CAP was not to be some sort of self-righteous, nationalistic organization inculcating in Pakistanis the belief that we are the greatest nation on earth. We were there to make no declarations, and CAP’s founders – all in their late 20s in many diverse professions – were very clear on that. All we were after was exploration – what was it like when Pakistan was made and we wanted to hear it from the mouth of those who had lived through the partition, who we called “first-generation” Pakistanis. All of us, the founders as well as the 15-odd volunteers, were skeptical of the information provided to us in our substandard history books. The objective was to present an alternative view of history that may allow us, and other Pakistanis and non-Pakistanis who interacted with our work, to trace back to the earliest days of Pakistan through as many unbiased accounts as we could find.

The organization barely had anything by way of a budget, so it was hardly any surprise for me when we were asked to bring our own laptops to work and to donate if we had any old ones lying around. The internship was unpaid and all volunteers for college students and later high-schoolers.

The “office” was located first in the drawing room of one of the founders’ parents’ house and then in the backyard of that same house. I remember being fed Indus Biryani the first day, while listening wide-eyed to Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, the founding President of CAP (yes, the same incredible woman who has since gone on to win Pakistan’s first Oscar award). Then, we were bundled up into rented cars and sent off on our assignments with a recorder and a short questionnaire.

Those 10 weeks changed my life, as I met one inspiring person after another. I had walked in as a rather clueless 19-year-old, fed on a steady diet of lies that pass in the name of history curriculum in Pakistan. The Oral History Project taught me to think about Pakistan more critically than I used to – or perhaps was even comfortable with – while also instilling in me a sort of pride that comes from feeling part of a nation as opposed to the member of a state. It taught me to look at history without any political angle, and let the stories tell the story.

Since that very first one to this day, my love affair with CAP has only grown. I love that in 6 years it has evolved into an organization running several programs simultaneously from actual offices in 3 cities, and employing over 70 people (and paying them, always on time mind you!). But I also hate (ok, don’t like) that it has grown so much – there’s more to be protective and defensive of now than there was in 2008!

CAP used one of our culture’s most favorite pastimes – sharing stories – and converted it into a project that has become a collage of all things Pakistan. And what is invaluable to me is that I am both one of the makers and a part of that collage. Now, there are at least two more oral history projects in Pakistan, studying the partition just as CAP started out doing. We are still asked that question that the lady asked us at our stall, but we can now respond with a clear answer: No, we are The Citizens Archive of Pakistan, the leading repository of audio-visual sources of Pakistan’s history.

They say you can’t look to its future unless you know the history of a country. On this Independence Day, while there are marches and politics and debates, I am spending my day going through OHP clips that I and my fellow interns had manually transcribed for hours on end. Sometimes, I would wake up in the middle of the night with a better idea to translate a quote I had heard from one of our interviewees. It wasn’t annoying then, and it isn’t annoying now. As Swaleha Alam Shahzada, then project coordinator and now Executive Director of CAP, says “once a Cappie, always a Cappie.” I live with that line, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

To learn more about the process of OHP, please read:


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