Book review: Making a case for the Presidency – Hillary Clinton’s ‘Hard Choices’

Before saying more about Hillary Clinton’s recently published memoir Hard Choices, I want to begin by admitting that it will come as a huge surprise for me if she decides not to contest the 2016 US Presidential Election. That will not just be the case because of the momentum around Hillary and the Democrats’ optimism that they will return to office in 2016, but also because of the entire tone of this book.

Hard Choices, which narrates the story of Hillary Clinton’s tenure as the US Secretary of State, quickly climbed the best seller list of The New York Times, and only fell to second place once a book revealing the rumored tensions between the Clintons and the Obamas hit the market. It seems that the only thing readers are more interested in than Hillary is Hillary herself.

All autobiographies, including this one, are meant to portray authors as heroes and are thus written with the intention of telling the story of the author’s life with as much nobility as is plausible. Naturally then, after reading this book you may catch yourself wondering why all the problems in the world hadn’t gone away by 2013 when she ended her tenure as Secretary of State.

But what makes this book somewhat different is that it is less about Hillary herself but more about being the chief diplomat of a global superpower that is insecure about its influence in the world and fears that it is on the decline. Hard Choices is worth reading because of the insights it provides into the strength of American democracy and two of the greatest moments in America’s recent history – the humiliation that America felt on the world stage after the 2008 financial crisis and the taking out of America’s Enemy Number One Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in May 2011.

One of the most interesting parts of the book is when Hillary describes in detail, and with some thinly-veiled amusement, how she was poached for the position of Secretary of State by the Obama Administration – the same campaign staff that had left no stone unturned in the previous two years to highlight her unsuitability for public office. After conceding the Democratic presidential nomination to Obama, she was fairly adamant to return to her job as Senator of the New York State. What changed her mind, however, was a “sense of duty and service” inculcated in her by her parents and “a simple idea: When your President asks you to serve, you should say yes.” Yes, reading this book is a little like watching “The West Wing”, a romanticized American television series about the White House.

The book again adopts a diplomatic, humdrum tone, with Hillary detailing how the White House was supportive of almost every decision she made on who she wanted on her State Department team. That’s a little hard to accept on face value for someone familiar with the age-old wariness that characterizes the relationship between the State Department and the White House, both of which share much-guarded territory as representatives of the US President on the global stage.

Eventually, though, Hillary bounces back to her rather undiplomatic self in part, talking about the difficult things about the job more candidly. “I had logged in more miles and sat through more awkwardly translated diplomatic speeches than I imagined possible,” she writes at one point, in a line that perfectly captures the essence of her time as Secretary of State. In the short span of four years, she travelled to 112 countries, including China and Japan whose emergence as global business centers was adding to the anxiety that the US was feeling with regards to its own financial health. In many of these meetings, the leaders of the newly-confident economic powers never missed an opportunity to lecture her on how the United States was doing it all wrong. She makes it obvious that those were not her most comfortable or cherished moments from those meetings, even though a number of them ended in successful outcomes.

Her sharpest criticism, however, is reserved for the leadership of Afghanistan and Pakistan. This section, I believe, is the actual test of the book’s objective: be a feel-good story for America and Americans or have a serious discussion on American diplomatic history. No points for guessing which way the book tilts (it’s the former). For example, while she clearly mentions the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Agency’s links with the Afghan Taliban from the 1980s struggle against the Soviets, she fails to mention the American role in the conflict that is a well-documented part of history. Although I had little expectations, this omission was still a slight disappointment for me since, for the most part of the book, she doesn’t shy away from pointing out bad decisions made by American diplomats that have led to some of the deadlocks she tried to break.

Interestingly, though, she only mentions those mistakes in the context of events that she considers her diplomatic victories, such as Myanmar and China, or when there is an opportunity to blame others for their behavior. For instance, she accepts that complications were created by America’s quick and irresponsible exit from Afghanistan in 1989, but only to chastise Pakistan on what she calls irresponsible behavior towards its counterterrorism policies. She also takes no clear position on drones, insisting that the Obama Administration does everything it can to prevent civilian casualties and hides behind the fact that the program is classified information.

More diplomatically, the book is planned such that while the chapter on Pakistan begins with the Bin Laden raid, it carefully moves on to say nicer things about the two countries’ strained relationship.

Her description of the OBL raid is another part of the book that convinces me of Hillary’s ambitions to announce her intention to run for president. She makes it clear that during deliberations about whether America risked irreparably damaging Pakistani national honor by sending in US Navy SEALs, her priority for American honor. “What about our national honor? What about our losses? What about going after a man who killed three thousand innocent people?” she asks an official who brings up the question about Pakistan. It is clear that in Hillary Clinton’s mind, Pakistan was less a partner and more a threat in America’s quest for fighting militancy and militants. And that view of Pakistan is shared by her compatriots, many of whom see Democrats as soft on Pakistan and other countries that harm US interests. By emphasizing Pakistan’s role towards securing America while also clearly mentioning her frustration from “too much double-talk from certain quarters in Pakistan or the still-searing memories of the smoking pile in Lower Manhattan” as the reasons for her support to the Bin Laden operation, Hillary appears to have the intention to ensure that the American public knows her strong position on the matter as well as understands the need to continue US engagement with Pakistan.

She then moves on to describing her first trip to Pakistan in 2009, where she was famously likened to an angry mother-in-law by the Pakistani media, and was a “punching bag” particularly over the Kerry-Lugar Bill. She bravely tackles the failure of America’s approach to development aid for Pakistan, admitting that the “toxic politics” of US-Pakistan ties have become a huge hindrance in addressing Pakistani peoples’ anti-American sentiments.

While Hard Choices is not the most engrossing read, and tends to be almost tedious at some points, it is worth a read to understand the persona of Hillary Clinton – the first woman to have generated the sort of respect that even conservative America is waiting with bated breath for her to announce her intention for 2016. In May, I attended a Ready for Hillary event in Chicago. For a Thursday evening, technically still a weeknight, it was packed. Speaker after speaker, including the mayor of Chicago Rahm Emanuel who is close to both Hillary and Bill Clinton, stressed that it was time for a woman in the White House. Clearly, if Chicago is any indication, America is ready to elect Hillary Clinton as its next president. Hard Choices will give you the clearest glimpse into why. Hillary Clinton is a seasoned policy wonk, one who knows the world and who the world knows. As America begins its economic and diplomatic rise, an event it has been craving for since the financial crisis of 2008, Hillary Clinton may just be its best bet.

A shorter version of this review was printed in Dawn’s Books and Authors magazine here:


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:

Movie Review: Dhoom 3 from the eyes of a Chicagoan

Should you choose to watch Dhoom 3, you will find yourself asking “How is that even possible?” at least once every three scenes. But the biggest, most mystifying question is this: How is it even possible to create a worse film every time???

You know the film has almost nothing by way of a script when you can write out its entire plot in 50 words. Aamir Khan plays a circus artist/thief who wants to destroy the bank that caused his father to commit suicide after defaulting on a loan taken out to run their circus. When Chicago Police fails to crack the case, Inspector Jai and sidekick Ali are called in to do the job.

The saving grace of the film is unsurprisingly Aamir Khan, and of course the absolutely beautiful city of Chicago (yay, my city!). Shot rather nicely, the makers make full use of the city’s unique attractions – a lake in the middle of a city, a bridge that moves and the fact that a circus is something you can expect Chicagoans to actually care about. Khan is brilliant in everything he does in the film, although the dancing seems a little contrived. The Khans are not superstars for their dance moves, and perhaps Bollywood would be better off not trying to reinvent them into something they aren’t particularly known for. The rope work is also absolutely stunning, done seamlessly, and a treat to watch.

Uday Chopra’s character Ali is as superfluous as it was in the two previous Dhoom films. Katrina Kaif’s character Aliya serves the same purpose as that of Aishwarya Rai Bachchan’s in Dhoom 2, except that Kaif’s dances are marvelous, which may have been made possible by the fact that since she didn’t have many lines to deliver, she could spend all her energy on perfecting the dancing. Sadly, even Abhishek Bachchan has little to do in the film, though I was hoping this would serve as something of a comeback for him.

If one is to go by the film, it is easy to see why Chicago is as crime-infested as it is: its cops are incredibly stupid who don’t seem to know the city whose protection is their life’s work. By that same logic, Mumbai should be the safest city in the world! It would serve Dhoom makers well to put in a little more thought into making the criminals smarter rather than showing the cops as dumber.

All in all, the film isn’t particularly worse than the other two. If anything, Khan’s presence makes it more watchable than the earlier films. The film isn’t so long that it will feel like an absolute waste of time. I say GO.

Related reading:


Movie review: There’s no limit to how much a film can move you

It’s a very sensitive topic handled just as sensitively. And all credit for that goes to [ad] filmmaker Asim Raza.

Behadd (Limitless), a romcom telefilm by Hum TV, was premiered at Karachi’s brand new monument Cinepax (at Ocean Mall, Clifton) on Saturday. There was barely anyone in the audience who wasn’t moved by the nicely written script and the brilliant performances.

The plot is incredibly easy to predict, but the beauty of the film is that you still want to watch it. Masooma (Nadia Jamil) is a doting single mother who practically lives for her 15-year-old daughter Maha (Sajjal Ali). Through her job, she is reunited with Jamal (Fawad Khan) the younger brother of her bachpan ki dost and they are both overjoyed. As they catch up over a cup of coffee, Masooma tells Jamal about her husband’s death and Jamal tells her about his failed marriage with an American girl. Masooma takes it upon herself to find a girl for Jamal but eventually he ends up proposing to her. Masooma speaks to Maha, who on the face of it says yes but is deeply distressed by her mother’s decision and, in her insecurity, destroys Masooma and Jamal’s relationship. However, the ending is a happy one – predictably, again – but it is so sweet and so well-executed that even the most cynical audience member cannot help but cheer.

Nadia Jamil is, as expected, excellent in her role. She looks lovely and is perfectly natural as a mother. Her role in Behadd is quite similar to the character she played in Meray Paas Paas (a play by Hum TV circa 2005) but it is a testament to her versatility how differently she has done this role compared to that one. Fawad Khan is about as good and has truly, truly grown as an actor, which we saw in Humsafar and the recently concluded Zindagi Gulzar Hai. It is such a wonderful experience, seeing him on the big screen even if it is not a feature film. I seriously hope that he has some feature films coming up in the pipeline – and hopefully one where he plays the quintessential romantic that he does so well.

While Nadia Jamil is the star of the film, kudos to Sajjal who has done a very nice job as the somewhat spoilt yet perceptive young girl who has grown up having her mother as her one-and-only. Nadia Afgan is also great as Shafaq, Masooma’s best friend from work, and adds a lot of colour with her natural flamboyant style.

What was a surprise for me though is the progressive message of the plot. Behadd is written by Umera Ahmed, of the Shehr-e-Zaat and Zindagi Gulzar Hai fame. I am not a fan of her writing, because I feel that it is full of regressive ideas and sweeping statements, like the girl who wears jeans is the evil one and the one who wraps a dupatta round her head is the good one. In this telefilm, however, she has taken a position in favour of a woman, a mother, marrying again and that too a man younger than her.

All in all, I have little bad to say about the film other than the fact that the plot is utterly predictable. It is heartening to see managers of Hum TV, the television channel that singlehandedly steered us out of the reign of awful Indian [and Pakistani] soaps, taking such an initiative. Moomal Productions’ choice of plots is always interesting, and I think it is great that people with artistic sensibilities like that are now looking towards entering cinema. I am hopeful that the revival of Pakistani cinema is nigh if media professionals like these continue to produce film after feature film.

Verdict: Watch out for it on TV and don’t miss! It’s a really sweet film, which is also very well made. An evening well-spent! 


The Qawwal also rises

The newest voice from the oldest tradition tests the waters. PHOTO ATHAR HUSSAIN

The newest voice from the oldest tradition tests the waters. PHOTO ATHAR HUSSAIN

Qawwali has been around longer than rock but these two genres share so much verve. You could feel the head-banging come on to the guy with the extended bootlegged version of Jimi Hendrix’s hair in the front row. That was when everyone knew Hamza Akram had hit the sweet spot.

The 21-year-old delivered a blood-thumping performance with his ‘party’ at the Pakistan American Cultural Centre in Karachi on April 30 to test the waters with their ‘Sufystical’ blend of Qawwali and rock. The new-fangled name for their interpretation of fusion is too clever to stick but its sound is dead on.

Anyone who was in that auditorium that night knew this young man had quickened their pulse in the way that only one other had done before. But if you mentioned that name to Hamza Akram he would likely blush. The weight of his musical lineage is four generations heavy and he is only too aware of it.

But in the body-still preparatory pause before he opens his mouth, you can tell Hamza is finally getting his groove on. He is the face of the next generation of shudh traditional Qawwali and is being trained by none other than his uncles Fareed Ayaz and Ustaad Naseeruddin Saami.

Cradle to chord

All your stereotypes about the homes of qawwals are correct. From the day they are born, their children eat, sleep, breathe music. Any other profession is unthinkable.

But even in a household whose bread and butter is about the other world, Darwinian evolution rings as true as it does in ‘normal’ ones. It is the ‘fittest’ child who is chosen to lead the pack.

“Whenever he was teaching his students, my grandfather Munshi Raziuddin would single me out and make me sit there if only to observe,” says Hamza. “Sometimes I would go to sleep listening to them perfect that one note for hours.”

Today his party consists of eight young scions of the Qavvaal Bachon ka Gharana of Delhi, including Hamza’s own brothers and the sons of his uncles, the famed qawwals Fareed Ayaz and Abu Mohammad.

“I was selected to lead the group by Fareed Ayaz,” he says. Just Fareed Ayaz, no chachatayaor other deferential references, because the great qawwal is now his teacher and there is no space to invoke a family connection. It’s all about the hours of hard work required to masterthe art that has been handed down 750 years, and is considered almost sacred.

Practice, practice

Hamza wasn’t always a clear choice though. “Everyone would make fun of me whenever I tried to sing,” he says. “My brothers and uncles were capable of creating such a powerful sound. I, on the other hand, had a terrible voice.”

It didn’t help that Fareed Ayaz would make it a point to chastise Hamza every time he made even the slightest mistake during a performance. “Sometimes I would be really embarrassed because I felt the audience could see him scolding me,” he adds.

But his father Ghulam Akram, who is also part of the Fareed Ayaz & Abu Mohammad group, would pacify him. He would tell the dejected young man to consider himself lucky that Fareed Ayaz was paying such special attention to him.

But it would take much more to convince Hamza that he was going to be able to make the grade. His confidence level was at an all-time low in 2005, following what he calls his worst performance ever. The All Pakistan Music Conference in Karachi had organised a competition for about 350 child musicians. Given his lineage, Hamza was asked to come for an audition.

Hamza went running in a panic to his uncle Ustaad Naseeruddin Saami who taught himJaagi main teray kaaran saari saari ratian in a Raag called Kalavati. Jaan, as Saami’s pupils refer to him, broke it down for him note by note.

Unfortunately, the 13-year-old did little to squawk out the number. “I was selected only because there were others who were worse than me!” Hamza says candidly. After the audition, one of the musicians beckoned to him. He asked him if he was really Munshi Raziuddin’s grandson. When Hamza said he was, the musician replied: ‘Woh to kabhi aisa na gaatay’ (He would never sing like that). “I wanted to die and I cried inconsolably when I got home,” says Hamza. “My father kept asking me what on earth had happened. And I told him I was a complete failure.”

It was only two years later, by 2007, when Hamza hit 15 that he began to receive formal training in both qawwali, under Fareed Ayaz, and eastern classical music, under Saami. In a small ceremony Hamza became the ganda bandh pupil of the two ustads who tied a red thread around his wrist which he continues to proudly wear today.

Hamza loves AR Rehman and was greatly disappointed that he couldn’t go with Fareed Ayaz to Stanford University where the qawwal was collaborating with the Indian artist. PHOTO ATHAR HUSSAIN

Saami would make him work on sustaining one note for three, sometimes even four, hours. Practice involved making a sound like gargling and holding it for even longer.

While Fareed Ayaz, in a typical otherworldly fashion, would dismiss all talk of dietary restrictions, Saami told Hamza to stop eating rice and drinking cold water and soft drinks. “One day, I went over for practice after having cheated the night before,” recalls Hamza. Saami spotted it immediately and Hamza had to confess he had been unable to resist his mother’s biryani for dinner. But instead of chastising the young singer, Saami told him to know when to break the rules. For what if he went to a performance where they were serving nothing but rice? He could never become too choosy.

The qawwal boot camp involved two hours with Saami every day and then performing and training for four hours during performances every night with Fareed Ayaz. “Since Qawwali is such an energetic form of music, it would wear my throat muscles out. When I would wake up in the morning and try to speak, my voice would be unrecognizable,” Hamza says. Saami advised him that in order to counter this he should start each day before breakfast by practicing his root note — the one most natural to his voice — with the harmonium for half an hour.

Saami then increased his training to five hours a day that was supplemented by four in performances in the evening with the rest of the party. Eventually his vocal chords strengthened enough to do the heavy-duty lifting needed every night. “It is true that when he came to me, he had no knowledge,” Ustad Naseeruddin Saami told The Express Tribune. “But in our world, we judge a potential student not on his current ability but on his potential.” In Hamza, he spotted that and courage to pursue his passion. “I have high hopes from him. I see him as becoming a force in both classical music and Qawwali.”

The past and future

In 2011, Hamza performed himself for the first time in a qawwali to commemorate the death anniversary of Munshi Raziuddin. Everyone in the audience knew that a star was born, but what made Hamza’s day was Fareed Ayaz’s succinct but all-encompassing acknowledgment of his grit, determination and talent. “Thank God for this performance. Tumhein ghairat aagayi,” Hamza quotes Ayaz as telling him that night.

For Fareed Ayaz, the rules are simple: the more you learn, the more you get. “I chose Hamza because he is capable of achieving it,” he told The Express Tribune. “I know that he has both the passion and the ability to take our legacy forward. He has my full blessing.”

Like other families organise barbeque dinners, Hamza’s family holds the Khandani Jalsa three to four times every year. Every man performs a pure classical solo, starting from the youngest all the way to the eldest. On the 29th of Ramazan, the family organises the jalsa to pay tribute to Ustad Tanras Khan, the fountainhead of the family, on his death anniversary. PHOTO ATHAR HUSSAIN

Since then, Hamza has matured   (exponentially). But he has learnt well at the feet of his masters and is devoid of hubris. For example, he admits that he continues to find it difficult to perform Man Kunto Maula. “It has a specific flavour of Raag Bhopali and that has to be delivered the way it needs to be done,” he explains. “And I am sure you will agree that no Qawwali is complete until Man Kunto Maula is performed well!”

While he knows he will be a qawwal all his life, Hamza isn’t one to stick to tradition so religiously that he forgets to stay in tune with changing times. Two years ago, he enrolled to study Western Theory with keyboardist Leonard Massey at the National Academy of Performing Arts in Karachi to learn the Western equivalent of Eastern musical notes.

“Hamza spent little time with me, but it is amazing how much he was able to learn because of his will to absorb as much knowledge as he can,” Massey says. “He coped quickly, and even learnt how to read and write Western musical notes. I feel that Qawwali is in his blood, and it is his strength.”

Hamza feels this training gives him an advantage when performing internationally with foreign musicians. “My ancestors did not know what World Music was,” he humbly explains. “All they ever did was Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni Sa. Now is the time to move beyond that.”

As Hamza’s PACC performance of his blend of fusion ‘Sufystical’ proved, he has the found the beginnings of a formula which was popularized by the great Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. “But it was never considered a genre,” says Hamza. “I want to establish it as one.”

If anything, it will be a spiritual and worldly journey in which this young qawwal will have to learn to walk the middle ground that straddles experiment and tradition. In order to remain grounded, though, he carries with him a couplet Fareed Ayaz gave him:

Apni mitti pe hi chalne ka saleeqa seekho

Sang-e-mar mar par chalo ge to phisal jao gay

From Amir Khusrau to Hamza Akram

Once upon a time, three notes led to embarrassment in the darbar of Allauddin Khilji (1296–1316), the second ruler of the Turko-Afghan Khilji dynasty in India.

A performer from Karnataka by the name of Gopal Naik had come to the court with 900 pupils and sang a 28-line song in Sanskrit for Khilji. He then asked the ruler if there was a Muslim cultural equivalent.

Khilji was embarrassed. The Muslims had only three notes at that time. A meeting was called, and someone suggested that help be sought from Abul Hassan Jameeluddin Amir Khusrau, a special mureed of Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia who was a musical genius. The king approached Aulia, seeking Khusrau’s help in the matter.

Aulia ordered Khusrau to create a response to Naik’s incredible music. Khusrau, unable to say no to his pir, asked for six months. He then selected 12 men who were known to have beautiful voices and called this team the ‘Qawwal Bachon ka Gharana’. It was led by Saamat bin Ibrahim, a physically impaired man who is said to have begun to hear and speak after a miracle performed by Aulia.

After listening to the response that the Qawwal Bachon ka Gharana presented, Gopal Naik was so impressed that he declared he wanted to become a Muslim. He was converted by Saamat, who became the founder of the Qawwal Bachon ka Gharana.

Saamat’s family continued to work in music, but it was only in the 1800s that the next big name of the lineage, Ustaad Tanras Khan, emerged. He was asked to teach music to Bahadur Shah Zafar and was gifted the Chandni Mahal on Tanras Street, that continues to stand in Old Delhi today. With Tanras Khan, the family’s name was changed to Qawwal Bachon ka Dilli Gharana. Tanras Khan was Hamza Akram’s great, great, great grandfather (see family tree).

The agony and the ecstasy

The Way of the Sufi

The late Idries Shah’s 1970 follow-up to his book The Sufis has been hailed by the New York Times and is considered an excellent introduction to the subject. It contains the biographies of the Sufis and has extensive notes at the back.  New York: E. P. Dutton, 1970

Sufi Music of India and Pakistan: Sound, Context, and Meaning in Qawwali

Regula Burckhardt Qureshi walks you through all aspects of qawwali, from the textual message to the proper procedure and setting. It contains the helpful transliteration of verse and their English translations and is full of photographs. Considered a classic. Unfortunately out of print, according to OUP.

London: Cambridge University Press, 1986

Khayal Darpan – A Mirror of Imagination

Delhi-based filmmaker Yousuf Saeed explores the impact of India’s Partition on the classical music traditions of Pakistan in his musical documentary film, Khayal Darpan. He travels across the country to interview musicians and scholars, attend music concerts and to observe the teaching of this beautiful art.

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, May 12th, 2013.

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Movie review: Go watch Chambaili

Spoiler Alert!

Just when I was ready to give up on the Pakistani entertainment industry for constantly insulting its audience’s intelligence by producing sub-par content under the justification of “log yehi dekhna chahtay hain” comes Chambaili. It entertains and educates with equal ease.

With Ehteshamuddin, Shahzad Nawaz and Ali Tahir in lead roles, Chambaili is a political thriller that has its finger firmly on the pulse of the public. Set in a Pakistan-like country called Mulk-e-Khudadad (Country given by God), the film revolves around an average urban middle-class family which is torn between staying in and helping things improve in their country or simply giving in and moving out.

They unwittingly end up embroiled in a land dispute in Yaadgaar Colony, a heritage area where a company owned by an influential politician’s son Sultan (Humayun Naz) wants to build Taj Mahal Hotel.  The property that is the bone of contention is the ancestral home of Sarmad (Ali Tahir), who lives in Toronto and has come to Falakabad to attend the engagement of his sister Kiran (Maira Khan). The company, called Shaadbaad Developers, has harassed other neighbors into selling off their homes and Sarmad’s home is the only one standing in their way.

Following the family’s refusal to vacate the house in favor of Shaadbaad Developers, Sultan’s thugs forcibly enter the house, breaking furniture and creating a general ruckus in order to pressurize the family into giving in to their demand. Sarmad decides to let go of the house, but his idealistic poet-journalist friend Musa (Ehteshamuddin), semi-idealist friend Saif (Shahzad Nawaz) and courageous sister Kiran refuse to give in and decide to protest the political party’s pressure tactics.

Thus begins the story of how a small protest and hunger strike by a handful of people outside the Falakabad Press Club spirals into a counter political movement against dynastic politics that fails miserably at representing the people who have supposedly voted in these politicians.

While Chambaili will undoubtedly remind you of Rakeysh Mehra’s Aamir Khan-starrer Rang De Basanti (2006), it certainly manages to hold its own. The music, done by veteran Najam Sheraz, is pretty good and camera-work by Kamran Khan is superb. For a film that touches upon such a vast number of issues, Chambaili is very well-paced and all the issues weave in coherently to form a strong plot. Ehteshamuddin is undoubtedly the star of the show, with his brilliant rendition of some really fantastic lines. The unexpected heroes of the film are Mehreen Syed and Humayun Naz, while Maira Khan has probably also given the best performance of her career so far.

The film is also very pluralistic, with the main analogy being Prophet Moses and Pharoah and one of the main characters being Shia. In the end, the new president specifically addresses all Pakistanis, who are shown praying in a church, a gurudwara as well as a Hindu temple. Secondly, on the wall where Maira’s character has put up framed pictures of all the revolutionaries of the world, Gandhi’s photograph is prominently displayed.

Although the film isn’t without its weaknesses, they aren’t so big that they can’t be overlooked. The second half is a little weaker than the first half, because the focus moves on to actors who are admittedly not the strongest. There are two big questions that I was left with at the end of the film. First, who was the politician, played quite well by Salmaan Peerzada? Was he a chief minister, a governor, the prime minister, who?! Second, how does the Chambaili Party candidate become head of state, when they are only shown campaigning in one city (Falakabad)?

Overall, Chambaili is a great, great film that successful transmits a very strong message without being preachy. The film manages to be patriotic without being jingoistic, urging the viewers to do nothing more than exercise a civic duty: vote. And I, for one, am sure that a majority of the audience left the theatre teary-eyed but more keen than ever to do just that.

Verdict: Chambaili is a must, must watch. Take one, take all!!

Entertainment media and tunnel vision

Which is the worst show airing on Pakistani television right now? Main Gunahgaar Nahin.

I have finally found the answer to that question. Believe me it was not easy because of the wide array of choices to pick from. It seems as if most TV shows are competing with each other not for the award for “Best TV show” but for “Worst TV show”.

MGN revolves around a young girl who was happily engaged to a spineless young man, as ubiquitous on television as in real life, until one fateful night robbers come to loot her parents’ house and, in the process, rape her. Her engagement breaks off, with her to-be mother-in-law taking the lead and her “obedient” son following in tow.

Of course, every terrible thing that can happen then happens to the girl and she cries and weeps her way through the next five episodes. Her brother tries to support her but his wife does not (obviously) because really when in the world have bhabis ever been supportive of nands?

No points for guessing what happens next. Our “heroine” is then married off by her family to a man who is a rich, spoilt brat. The makers drive that point home through an asinine scene where the girl is shown sitting on a praying mat when her newly-wed husband walks in drunk. Our heroine obviously decides to resign to her husband’s failings and begins to mould herself into her unhappy new life.

Meanwhile, “justice” is served to the person she was supposed to marry originally. The woman he ends up marrying is in an extra-marital relationship and leaves him high and dry, wanting to return to our heroine.

Just when I thought there was no cliché left to be introduced into this already third-rate plot, the writer goes beyond my expectation. In triumphant poetic justice, robbers (not the same as the earlier ones, thankfully) then come to the house of her brother and threaten to assault his wife if he does not empty his coffers for them. This episode hasn’t aired yet, but I am fairly certain that this should bring about a change of heart in the bhabi for her wronged nand and we will be treated to yet another cliché happy ending.

I do not blame the show for depicting exactly how rape survivors are treated in our society. I understand that one of the purposes of media is to entertain while informing people of what actually happens in a society. But it is important to understand that entertainment media can also be a very powerful tool towards defining social norms. If that were not the case, there wouldn’t be such a furor over television shows perceived as “threatening” to our social fabric.

But here’s what I blame the makers for: having tunnel vision. Why is there only one future course of action that any woman can take in life, following a rape, a divorce or the death of her parents? Why can there be no other outcome of such an event? Why can’t a woman be an agent instead of a subject of destiny?

All I am urging makers to do is to try to find newer plots, even if they are based on the usual girl-meets-boy-falls-in-love type trite plot. Yes, things happen in society a certain way and it is okay to depict them as such but things can happen a certain other way too, and I assure you it will be just as entertaining to show that. Last time I checked, people do like watching plays that show lives that they aspire to have.

I present to you the example of Fatima Gul, a Turkish play currently playing on Urdu One that includes many cliche ideas but still manages to be a much more thorough and enjoyable a plot than the sickeningly boring MGN. The heroine, Fatima Gul, is a rape survivor just like the protagonist from MGN. Her fiance also ditches her and her bhabi is a pain in the neck. She is also forced to marry – in this case, the plot is even more offensive as she is married off to her alleged rapist!! At least MGN wins on that count.

But here’s where the difference lies: in Fatima Gul, the protagonist – a girl who has never been to school as opposed to the MGN protagonist who is said to have a college degree – decides to rebuild her life and sets up a restaurant. She does end up making something of her life, instead of constantly wailing and crying over her ‘fate’. As the show is progressing, Fatima Gul is continuing to fight her alleged rapists in court and is shown to be becoming a symbol of defiance in Turkish society.

Why don’t our writers create stories like that? Why couldn’t the protagonist from MGN stand her ground against a forced marriage, use her college degree to get a decent job and eventually make herself a good life? Why couldn’t she be shown as someone who decides to teach at a girls’ school, encouraging young women to be strong people who take charge of their lives?

Yes, writers like to work with the truth but as far as I can tell, Fatima Gul is based on just as much truth as MGN is. Rape is a reality everywhere in the world and women, let alone rape survivors, are treated unkindly everywhere in the world. Then why can mainstream television series from elsewhere show a protagonist’s life taking a different, more happy path than ours?

Media is but a product of society. The reason we do not see women fighting back on TV and are bombarded with half-baked plots with weeping heroines is because we do not see women like those as models that other women should aspire to. Taking rape as an example, the reason our protagonist is such a doormat is because a woman like Mukhtaran Mai who fought her rapists tooth and nail is not considered a role model for other young women to follow.

There needs to be a balance between entertainment and socially-responsive programming. Currently, a brilliant television series by the name of Rihaai is being telecast on Hum TV. Funded by Kashf Foundation, the play explores the very pertinent and shameful issue of child brides, and is being watched very widely. I hope that it acts as a catalyst of change, encouraging other producers, directors and writers to at least try to come up with newer plots that support modern thought.

Eventually, this bubble will burst and the crying leading ladies will have to go. The smarter television whiz can spot this business opportunity now.  The only question is, are those smart television wizards willing to take the risk?

Movie review: Keep your eyes away from this one

Perhaps the most apt thing about Chashme Baddoor is its name – not because it does justice to the original but because it uses the words “bad” and “door”. It is so bad, it may be best to stay door from it.

Chashme Baddoor, directed by David Dhawan of the hilarious No.1 film series fame, is unremarkable at best. It is astonishing that a film with people like Rishi Kapoor and Anupam Kher can be such a tedious experience.

The only good part about the film is perhaps the threesome formed by Ali Zafar as Siddharth, Siddharth as Jai and Divyendu Sharma as Omi. The plot, even though borrowed from the 1981 classic of the same name, is quite weak, leaving a number of unanswered questions. You will never be able to tell, for instance, how the three guys manage to get by and how Sid pays for college without anyone ever going to work or even mentioning having a profession.

Sid, Jai and Omi are three best friends and apartment-mates in Goa. Sid is still a student in college, studying Physics or Chemistry or something like that, while Jai harbors dreams of becoming a film actor/producer and Omi wants to be a poet. In actuality, Jai and Omi are good-for-nothing troublemakers who can think of nothing but girls.

Enter Seema (Taapsee Pannu, an actor from the South Indian film industry) who has run away from her home where her father, an army man (Kher), insists that she will marry an army man. She has come to live with her vivacious grandmother and uncle (also Kher), who encourage and support her in her adventure to finding the man of her dreams. Both Jai and Omi try to hit on her unsuccessfully but when Sid and Seema fall in love, they first try to break the couple apart for quite an asinine reason and then try to bring them back together.

Zafar looks every bit the goodie-two-shoes his part required of him. Although the music score is pretty average, he has also done a good job on the singing front too. However, I think that Zafar is a lot more talented than this and is capable of producing much better work. Siddharth is quite impressive in this role, which shows his versatility given that the last commercial Bollywood film he did was Rang De Basanti in which he played a very, very serious role. Divyendu is very cute as the politically incorrect poet and a dimwit. Between Siddharth and Divyendu, there are some truly funny moments such as the one where they go buy a gift for Seema on behalf of Sid.

Verdict: You wouldn’t really miss out on much if you decide to pass Chashme Baddoor. The funny lines are really too far and few between and Dhawan’s comedy, always crass, is particularly lame in this one.


What is the worth of 60 seconds?

How much can you say in one minute? Apparently, quite a lot.

This was proved by a group of very talented young Pakistanis who participated in a delightfully innovative and completely indigenous film festival named the ‘60 Second Film Festival’, contributing films made via professional cameras as well as mobile phone cameras. Films were sent in from across the country, and as many as 200 submissions were received according to organizers, of which 24 were selected to be screened throughout Pakistan. The team has already conducted screenings in Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi and plans to take the festival to smaller cities, particularly ones from where the winning films have come.

Interested “filmmakers” were given a host of categories, ranging from environment and HIV to peace, conflict (not the war kind) and democracy. Needless to say, the largest number of films that were screened fell under the topic of peace and terrorism, but a surprisingly large number of well-made films were part of the tolerance category. Although I enjoyed almost all of the films, some of which moved me to tears (because they were so good or so bad), I will go ahead and challenge myself by trying to select five of my favourite films out of the 24 that were screened in Karachi on March 10, 2013:

1. ‘Broken’ by Usama Nasir

The film, categorized under peace, opens with a young kid badgering his father, who is trying to study from a book, to get him a PSP, a helicopter and a plane. The father agrees in an effort to make the kid leave him alone, but he is not to be pacified. Eventually, the father tears apart a map of Pakistan and tells his son to tape it back together. The child comes back, holding up the repaired map and triumphantly exclaiming in all his innocence: “Maine Pakistan ko theek kar diya!” The father asks him how he managed to do that so quickly. The kid replies there was a man’s photograph at the reverse of the map, he taped it back together and the map was fixed.

What a beautiful message – fix yourself to fix the country – and presented in such a beautiful way. This was a film that got me all teary!

2. ‘Tolerance’ by Ali Raza

This film, categorized under tolerance, would remind one of many a Mobilink Jazba ads. The difference? It was short and comes with a brilliant message. We see a young boy walking out to the pitch in test match attire. The voiceover tells the audience that the problem with us Pakistanis is that we try to hit a sixer on every ball and nobody is prepared to let go of even one tricky ball which eventually bowls them out as they try to hit it across the park. “Pitch pe rehna seekho. Apne aap main sabr-o-tahammul paida karo,” the voiceover tells us at the end.

Now that’s what I call a powerful message in a small package.

3. ‘We are not terrorists’ by Sanwal Chishti

This film, categorized under peace, opens with a one-minute digital timer. The audience can hear each second ticking by, creating an uncomfortable feeling that something horrible is about to happen. A man’s eyes are shown as he suspiciously looks into the camera. The camera then zooms out, and we see a microwave oven and hear a ringing sound. The man is question pulls out his food. The end.

Hilarious! The entire hall chuckled at the end of the film, which in one minute, trashed stereotypes and goaded everyone into wondering how little time we take to judge other people.

4. ‘Think’ by Adnan Nawaz

The film, categorized under democracy, shows a box for each party. A man picks up every box and empties it out, showing the votes each party got. The last box says ‘Pakistan’, and when it is emptied out, all that comes out of it is soil.

Don’t vote for the party, vote for the country. Vote wisely, and I can think of no wiser and less-judgmental way of sending that idea across.

5. ‘Personality conflicts’ by Shahzad Rashdi

The film, categorized under conflict, shows a woman putting on perfect make-up while the Bollywood song ‘Sajna hai mujhe sajna ke liye’ plays in the background. And then, she dons on a full niqab hiding everything except for her eyes, and leaves the house.

Although I sensed a few people in the auditorium did not appreciate the humour in the film, given that religion is a holy cow in our society and all things niqabified are beyond reproach, many people laughed and clapped. I was one of them. That is a point that is to be made – these “pious” people with holier-than-thou attitudes who think nothing of pointing fingers at women who do not subscribe to their warped belief system are the actual confused ones. If you’re so religious and believe that women should not “show” their beauty, then why are you using make-up at all? Last time I checked, the purpose of make-up is to enhance the beauty of a woman. Conflicted minds, much?

I must make an honourable mention to Taha Kirmani’s ‘Diya Jalaye Rakhna‘, categorized under peace, that totally crushed my heart. I work for The Citizens Archive of Pakistan (CAP), a Karachi-based non-profit that is going to great pains to collect the oral histories of the generation of Pakistanis who saw partition first-hand. Through my work with CAP, I have met people who tell me stories of their strong faith and belief in the promise of Pakistan. Pakistan, in 1947, was truly the promised land for these young people. And this film shows just that.

So here’s wishing the 60 Second Film Festival team many, many more. I must especially mention that the team totally won my heart by using a video to accompany Pakistan’s national anthem (played before the screening) which did not focus on our army strength and on top of that, showed Pakistanis in a mosque, a church, a temple and a gurudwara. Well done, you guys! You have your hearts in the right place, and that alone will guide you to immense success.

NOTE: This post earlier stated that the film ‘Think’ did not show a box representing MQM when in fact it does. The correction has been made. 


Lahore Literary Festival: Remembering Benazir Bhutto

In the stronghold of their biggest rival, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, the Lahore Literary Festival’s Sunday session on Benazir Bhutto’s biography Daughter of the East was a resounding hit.

The session, although not very well-attended, was brilliantly planned and one could tell that a lot of thought and discussion had gone into organizing it. While moderator Victoria Schofield, a British biographer, and the book’s author Linda Bird Francke had a conversation about the writing process of the book, audio and video clips of Benazir were played that moved the audience to tears.

Schofield began the session by asking Francke what her first impression of Benazir was. “I hadn’t known her before [writing the book]. She would take me everywhere and she did not hold back. She was emotional and angry, and was honest and forthright with me.”

Francke was of the view that writing the book was a cathartic process for her. “She was in perilous position when we did this book. She did it to keep herself alive – by keeping her story alive in the US, we were keeping her alive in Pakistan,” she said, mentioning all Benazir’s friends from Harvard and her social circle in America that was working to make sure she stays relevant to politics even when she was not in Pakistan.

They then cut to a short audio clip of Benazir talking about the death of her brother Shahnawaz. The audio wasn’t clear, but everyone could feel the pain in her voice.

Realizing that the session had become too serious, Schofield switched the conversation to lighter moments and Francke’s sense of humor did the trick. “There were plenty of light moments. The first rally I went to with her, the crowd was so dense that I lost a shoe. I was also told to get off the stage.”

Benazir was very particular about her appearance, it seems, as Francke narrated tales of her love for exercise and make-up. In the mornings, Francke said, she would march up and down her garden for 20 minutes because she had read about its benefits in some ladies journal. “I would be running alongside her!”

Once, she even gave Francke a makeover who she always used to describe as a “women’s lib type”. “She pulled a miracle morning. She did my nails and my hair, and she thought I looked much better after that.” All this was happening while the Pakistan Army’s soldiers stood guard outside and Benazir’s life was in considerable danger.

Schofield then asked Francke if she ever felt insecure when she was with Benazir. “I never felt endangered when I was with her because she didn’t. The only time I did was when I was leaving Pakistan after 6 weeks following my first visit to the country. She called me and told me, you are red-listed which means that you’re an unwelcome foreigner here and they will thoroughly search you at the airport.”

PPP guards were sent to escort Francke to the airport, who accompanied her throughout the process and took her to the first class lounge, waiting outside until she had boarded her plane. “It was like a scene from Argo. Once I was in the plane, I handed my work to the stewardess with my sister’s address written on it, and told her that if anything happened to me, this was to be shipped to my sister in London. The only reason of my fear was that I had her diaries which were clearly not too flattering for Zia.”

So how long did the first draft take to write such an all-encompassing book, Schofield asked Francke.  “It took me six months, but this book never ended. I finished it four times!”

Francke then listed each time when she felt she was finally done with the book but something would come up and she would have to update the book again.

The first time that she thought the manuscript was complete, Benazir announced that she was having an arranged marriage. “Then, we met in London. Her fiancé Asif was there and her mother was there too who was very happy that Benazir was finally getting married,” she said. “The night before her wedding, she was still working and we were recording. The lights were flickering and she was furious, claiming that Zia was trying to destroy her wedding.”

The second time was when she met in a restaurant in Long Island, US. “The idea of the meeting was for her and Sanam to read through and sign off the book. They ordered potato skins and realized that there was bacon in it. So they are sitting there with a candle, picking it out. Benazir had ordered skimmed milk with ice!” This was in 1989 and just a few months later, in May, Zia ordered elections and the book went back into the writing phase.

The third time was in August 1989, when Zia died. “I was going on vacation and I am greeted at my resort by the manager who has a huge pile of messages for me. And I find out that Zia is dead. I go back on the plane and the book starts again!”

The last and final time that the book had to be updated was during the November elections. “I am in Larkana in Sindh and the women have camped out, singing and dancing. Then we went to Naudero. And then miracle of miracles, she wins! December of that year, she was named the prime minister and the book finally ended.”

The session then closed with the clip of her last rally in Rawalpindi, from December 27, 2007. There was loud clapping when her voice was heard and she was shown making a speech, and then there was pin drop silence as the sound of the bullets and bomb that killed her boomed through the room. The impact was huge – many in the audience left the hall teary-eyed.

This article was written for Dawn Books & Authors and originally appeared here in edited form: