A former Tribune staffer’s first visit to the Karachi office, after 3 attacks

It had been barely a week since I started my two-month training at The Express Tribune – then not known as such. The newspaper hadn’t yet launched and we were a group of 30-something people, handpicked by the publisher and the editor, who would go on to become sub-editors for desks in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad.

The International Islamic University (IIU) in Islamabad had been attacked, and we were discussing the story with our editor Kamal Siddiqi. Many of us, particularly those from Islamabad, took the view that cosmetic steps such as security checkpoints sprinkled over roads helped make us safer. Kamal sahib disagreed, using the example of the lone metal detector being installed outside the Tribune office. These things can’t secure us, he said, unless we take real measures like putting terrorists and criminals behind bars.

His words stuck with me and, as time went by, I began to subscribe to that view. That is why, when the story about The Express Tribune deciding to censor itself was published in The Guardian, it came as a sad shock to me. It quoted my former editor, and an email he had sent to the staff, confirming that indeed such a decision had been taken following two gun attacks at the Tribune office and a shooting – and the deaths of 3 Express Group staffers – in Karachi. I recalled what Kamal sahib had said to us during training, so I knew how tough a decision it must have been for him and the entire editorial team at Tribune.

But it hadn’t prepared me for what I was about to see when I went back to visit friends at the Tribune office. I left Pakistan in August 2013, a few days after Tribune’s Karachi office was attacked for the first time, and was not present when the second and third attacks took place. So I was expecting some changes – a larger number of security guards, more vigilant use of metal detectors, etc. – but what I saw deeply depressed me. Having worked there for 3 years, some of the best of my life, it was like seeing my home transform into a fortified bunker.

For security reasons, I will not divulge any information about the inside layout of the office, but I will say that the openness that I most enjoyed at Tribune is no longer there. I remember when, during the earlier months when the newsroom was in total chaos, many of us would routinely barge into Kamal sahib’s office with complaints about the large, communal newsroom being too difficult a place to concentrate on work with dozens of young, loud, and active people in there. The editor refused to make it a quieter place, letting the energetic debates rage on about topics from what would be the lede on the front page to which restaurant would deliver us dinner at 1 AM.

When some of the launch team members started leaving Tribune, those of us who were left behind started to feel stressed out, worrying how we would continue to work without the friends we were so used to leaning on. Kamal sahib would then tell us that the nature of the news business is such that the newspaper will come out the next day regardless of how many people leave and how that changes the newsroom. After working there for so many years, I could see how true that was.

But the Tribune newsroom has redefined this Darwinian view of newsrooms – that newsroom has carried on, though it has changed so irreconcilably that the newspaper that comes out the next day has to tone itself down. The newsroom, and consequently the newspaper, has veered off far from the idealism that it had started off with. As a former Tribunian, one of the people who launched this fine product and helped make it the voice of the ignored, it is deeply, deeply saddening.


PTI’s online supporter base: hypocrisy, stupidity or blindness?

A few days ago, I wrote this blog for The Express Tribune Blogs section about Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Chief Minister Parvez Khattak’s utterly misogynistic comments to women lawmakers in that province. It was based on this story: http://tribune.com.pk/story/683708/its-a-mans-world-women-lawmakers-asked-to-avoid-suggesting-development-schemes/.

Not unexpectedly at all, the PTI online machinery was set into motion and people started commenting and tweeting to me that Tribune had misreported the story here. They sent me this link which was Business Recorder’s version of the same story, as triumphant proof of Tribune’s “yellow journalism”. One person claimed the address was to both men and women lawmakers, as if somehow that made it any less offensive and derogatory. (Turns out that claim was absolutely wrong too.)

Since some of them were polite, I responded to them saying that I will get to the bottom of whether Tribune had misreported the story. I got in touch with my former colleagues at the Tribune Peshawar desk and asked them provide me with a copy of the press release. They did, but it was in English.

I thought of putting that up online, but I realized that some of the trolls might say: “But it’s in English, Tribune journalists probably included the line themselves.” Believe me, it is not beyond PTI trolls to actually say, and believe, that.

So then, I set out to find the original press release in Urdu, to make sure that it had exactly the words that Tribune had used. And voila, I found it on Parvez Khattak’s official Facebook page here. To quote: “khawateen arkan-e-assembly ka taraqiati schemon aur gali koonchon ke marammat se koi sar-o-kar nahin aur na hi woh aise kaam karein jo mard arkan-e-assembly aur mehkmom ke faraiz main aata ho”.

I then went back to the PTI people on Twitter who I had promised to figure out why Tribune’s report was so different from the Business Recorder report. I shared the link with them and asked them to retweet it, accepting that they were wrong and that Tribune hadn’t misreported (and consequently, my blog was not erroneous). In response, I got: “first you admit you’re a liberal fascist” and “if I admit I’m wrong, will you go on a date with me?” What the hell happened to rational argument?

One idiot retweeted the tweet with the false allegation right after I had tweeted my response to it – clearly, selective retweeting. When I called him out on it, I got “I can make my own judgment, I don’t need your help.” Wah, what an attitude towards learning.

And it got me thinking. Are these people hypocrites or just plain stupid? Even in the face of clear evidence, these people just cannot accept that they are wrong, that the party they so vehemently support is misogynistic and that no newspaper is out to destroy the PTI.

I wish more authors would call them out on their bullshit, but then again maybe they shouldn’t. Like all stupid people, the PTI trolls drag you down to their level and then beat you because they are experts at being stupid. It’s just not worth it. I did my job as a journalist, going back to check if the story was in fact accurate, and I expected them to do their job as responsible, politically-inclined citizens. Obviously, only I played my part.

I realize it may seem like I have some sort of a vendetta against the PTI that I’m writing and tweeting about them so much, but as a voter I feel it is my job and my responsibility to at least try to bring them to task.

I used to tell people not to judge the party by its supporters, rather base opinions on its leaders and actual policy people. Clearly, Khattak has shown that PTI’s leaders are just as bad as the supporters.

Very disappointing. Shame on PTI.

Mr. CM, that wasn’t insulting enough

If one more person tells me that Pakistan has a better record on women’s political representation than the “developed nations” (meaning the US) because we have twice had a female head of state, I will use my very female and very strong hand to slap them across the face.

The Women in Politics Maps 2014 released by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) and UN Women recently ranked Pakistan 72nd among 189 countries in terms of female representation in the parliament. We could have been ranked even lower – there is no woman on Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s handpicked cabinet, for instance.

But one does not even need the IPU and UN Women to corroborate the claim of women’s pathetic representation in Pakistani politics. All we need to do is look north to Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa where Chief Minister Pervaiz Khattak just today told women lawmakers to refrain from suggesting development schemes and avoid doing tasks that fall under the duties of male members of parliament. Since when has development been gender-specific, Mr. CM?

Furthermore, in case his statement wasn’t patronizing and misogynistic enough, he also asked women legislators to concentrate on policies regarding women’s welfare. I mean, seriously, if women have such an itch to do something with the opportunity that’s been handed to them by their benevolent male counterparts in parliament, they can stay in their “zenankhana” and discuss their women problems. Why do they have to distract the alpha men from their noble jobs as saviors of the nation, including women?

So yes, what was it that you were saying about women’s representation in Pakistani politics?

The truth is that Pakistani women parliamentarians have almost always run second-fiddle to men, which is why the findings of the Women in Politics report and the KP CM’s comments shouldn’t come as a surprise at all. In the May 2013 election, for example, an overwhelming majority of election rallies were addressed strictly by men. In none of the mainstream political parties is a woman in charge of anything remotely important, and a large majority of the women who are now members of Pakistan’s National Assembly have made it there on the reserved seats for women, not the competitive ones that are open for contest among genders. The female head of government we talk of, Benazir Bhutto, was only able to become the prime minister because she was her father’s daughter. The reason she was nominated for prime ministership was because she was the chairperson of a national party that swept the elections, a party also inherited from her father.

Perhaps it is because of this perceived “privilege” that women parliamentarians are barely ever taken seriously, a rather laughable assumption to make if one were to spend a few minutes looking at how much Pakistani legislators have contributed. I would like to draw Mr. Khattak’s attention, and that of every man who holds the same view as him, to a report by non-profit legislative watchdog The Free and Fair Election Network, which found women parliamentarians in the outgoing National Assembly were a lot more attentive than their male counterparts. Despite being only 76 out of 350, women members asked 1,826 questions out of a total of 3,314 questions that were posed. For some clear perspective, read it like this: while women made up only 22% of the Lower House membership, they asked 55% of the total questions asked while the assembly was in session.

As the CM of the province, it is indeed Mr. Khattak’s prerogative to delegate legislative topics to his subordinates. However, I wonder if he was just as concerned about the overstepping of gender boundaries when a bunch of men decided to usurp a woman’s right to decide who represents her in the Provincial Assembly that he was himself the head of?

On May 13, 2013, I had travelled to Lahore just to be able to vote – and vote for PTI. I was then out in the street in Karachi, demanding re-election in NA-250. But the party just keeps disappointing me again and again. I know that many PTI supporters, some genuinely well-meaning and respectful men, will respond to my tweets about this statement and this blog with some sort of opaque explanations, but the message is clear: the one certain change that is coming is that women can talk, until they decide to challenge men on topics of consequence. Thank you PTI for that reminder.

Published in The Express Tribune Blogs here: http://blogs.tribune.com.pk/story/21477/pti-just-keeps-disappointing-mr-cm-that-wasnt-insulting-enough/

Malala Yousufzai and the league of extraordinary Pakistani women

There was the face of one woman in that room that could quash all the misgivings that one has about Malala Yousufzai’s “backstory”. No, it wasn’t 16-year-old Malala’s herself, it was her mother’s.

Minutes after Malala began her magnificent speech at the United Nations General Assembly this Friday, the camera cut to the face of her proud parents. Her father smiled like a man who had won a battle he had fought his entire life. Her mother, in her plain white dupatta and light green shalwar qameez, sat next to him wiping a tear that fell out of her right eye.

Since October 9, 2012, one of the many dark days in Pakistani history, we have heard as many views on Malala as we have avenues of information – newspapers, television shows, social media etc. The dominant view seems to be “she’s too confident to be doing this on her own, somebody must be supporting her.” I tried hard to understand that viewpoint, even though what matters most to me is not the agenda of those supposedly “propping” her up but the fact that that agenda is the right one.

On July 12, 2013, when a young Pakistani woman wowed the entire world by her simple yet powerful views, I let go of trying to look logically at the other view – I saw that tear that fell out of Malala’s mother’s eye and I felt what had caused it, and everything fell into place. Malala’s mother, purported to be a CIA agent, was crying because the little girl who she had carried in her womb for 9 months and nurtured for 15 years was finally able to speak with her characteristic vigour after surviving a bullet to her head. Ask a mother what that must feel like. Ask her if she would still care for a damned foreign agency when her own flesh and blood is battling for life.

Why is it so difficult for us to believe that one of our own, somebody from a small town in Swat, can be so eloquent and incredibly intelligent? Why can’t a 16-year-old, whose father trained her her entire life to be a fighter for education, be that fantastic a speaker? Why can’t a little girl who has spent her entire life under the shadow of crushing militancy have the undeterred spirit that Malala has? Why is that so impossible for us to fathom?

My question to all those conspiracy theorists is this: if not her, then who? If not the girl who was named after Malalai of Maiwand, then who? If not the little child who was deprived of an education she so dearly loved, then who?

It wouldn’t be so hard for us to believe in Malala’s magnificence if we were a nation of people who stood up when it felt the pain of being snatched of something it holds in high esteem. A nation that read national poet Iqbal’s verse beyond those that exalt Islam: “Zara namm ho yeh mitti, bari zarkhez hai saaqi”. A nation that isn’t so suspicious of its female population that it cannot process the idea of a strong woman without an “evil, western” agenda.

There is a lot to be taken away from Malala’s story – from the day she spoke out, to the day she was shot until the day she told the UNGA what a simple Pakistani woman can achieve given some confidence by her near and dear ones. Yes, a key takeaway is that Malala and her family has been maligned because she was attacked by the militants we so love to please. But here is another deeper problem that it points to: the bias against women so strongly ingrained in our heads that our nation can hardly believe in a confident woman who actually wants the best for this country. In Pakistan, you cannot be a well-wishing female citizen until you’re acquiescent and respectful of “social norms” no matter how much they pull you down.

This is the same attitude that a whole line of amazing Pakistani women have had to battle, from Benazir Bhutto to Asma Jahangir to Sherry Rehman to Mukhtaran Mai to Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy to name a few. Each one of these educated, empowered and accomplished women have at one point or the other been named an agent for a random but ill-meaning cause, agents who are out to destabilize Pakistan for money. In actuality, all they were/are out to do is to destabilize the ridiculously skewed representation for men compared to women in Pakistan. They are such evil “ladies” because they refuse to silently obey and follow the patriarchy that continues to grip our society.

Dear Pakistanis, for a change, believe in one of your own. Accept her as the extraordinary Pakistani that she is. Love her and respect her. Don’t let her gender get in the way of that. Don’t translate her message of peace as “western”, it is universal.

You can hear her brilliant speech here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-23291897

This blog also appeared here: http://blogs.tribune.com.pk/story/18149/malala-yousufzai-and-the-league-of-extraordinary-pakistani-women/ and http://tribune.com.pk/story/576526/malala-and-the-league-of-extraordinary-pakistani-women/


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.

Like Express Tribune Magazine on Facebook to stay informed and join the conversation.

Karachi Literature Festival: Jaun Elia may have been known for his verse, but compilation now gives fans prose to adore

KARACHI: So you think you have read everything ever written by Jaun Elia? Think again. And you think he never sought anyone’s approval? Think again!

In a small room, perhaps the smallest of all of Beach Luxury Hotel’s convention rooms, enthusiasts and fans of Jaun’s poetry were introduced to his prose work on the second day of the fourth Karachi Literature Festival Saturday.

A compilation of his prose, titled ‘Farnood’, was launched on Saturday in a session moderated by poet Shahida Hassan.

The book has been painstakingly compiled by Khalid Ahmed Ansari, a devoted Jaun fan, from various sources and includes essays and editorials written by Jaun since 1958, the year he moved to Pakistan.

Hassan recited a few couplets from Jaun’s first anthology ‘Shayad’, to an audience that hung on to her every word and sometimes finished her sentence for her. The most popular couplet it seemed was this damning satire that is as true for this day as it was for when he wrote it:

Yeh basti hai musalmanon ki basti; Yahan kaar-e-maseeha kyun karein hum?

(In this area, only Muslims live. Why should we do here as messiahs do?)

Journalist and writer Shakeel Adilzada, who was very close to Jaun as well as his older brothers Raees Amrohvi and Syed Muhammad Taqi, introduced the book and spoke at length about his association with Jaun.

“He was my brother, my mentor and my teacher. Everything that I have learnt is through being in his, and his brothers’ company,” he said. “The writings in this book date to 1958 when he was writing for ‘Insha’, a magazine edited by his brother Raees which is why Jaun agreed to write editorials for it. He was but a poet and all the prose he had ever written was in his love letters! So when he finally managed to write his first editorial with much difficulty, he showed to everyone for approval. It was much appreciated, and from then on he became comfortable with prose.”

“A lot of this work comes from ‘Suspense’ digest, where it became very popular because of how different a tone it took from the rest of the digest,” said Adilzada.

What set Jaun’s editorials and other prose apart, just like his poetry, was his incessant need to experiment with thoughts and with words. “He always liked to experiment with names and liked ones that sounded different. For instance, Hammorabi,” he said, pointing to Jaun’s nephew who sat in the audience.

“Jaun would often create very strange new names. Even my name is one of his creations,” he said, chuckling. “My name was plain and simple Mohammad Shakeel. He wouldn’t hear any of it and changed it to Shakeel Adilzada (Shakeel, the son of Adil). Since then, it has stuck.”

He said a special thank you to Ansari, saying that the compilation of such a book would not have been possible had it not been for him. “I would like to appreciate Ansari for his diligence and perseverance. All this work of Jaun was scattered and it took two to three years to compile it all. We are fortunate that he decided, and managed, to do it.”

Published in The Express Tribune, February 18th, 2013.

The Shah Rukh Khan controversy: Hype and hypocrisy

As anything Shah Rukh Khan would, the Bollywood megastar’s recent article in an Indian magazine, where he admits to having felt discriminated against in constitutionally-secular India for his Muslim identity, has gone viral.

Everyone and their khala has read the interview, sympathising and basing their entire critique of India’s treatment of ‘minorities’ on this one man’s one statement that’s hardly any different from his previous statements on the matter.

Enter our very own Hafiz Saeed, the noble chief of UN-blacklisted charity organisation Jamaatud Dawa. Unable to bear the injustice being meted out to a Muslim brother in (horror of horrors) India, he jumped in with a hospitable suggestion to Khan: move to Pakistan where he will be secure.

As hilarious as that suggestion is, given the kind of security we provide to our own people and how we have historically treated immigrants from India, it points to deep hypocrisy and confusion among the ranks of proponents of anti-India rhetoric in Pakistan.

Before this article, if you had asked these same people about Khan’s Muslim credentials, they would have launched into a diatribe about how he is a shame to the Muslim ummah and destined for hell for his ‘irreligious actions’.

Invariably, his perfectly harmonious marriage to a Hindu woman would have been cited as un-Islamic and a “gunah-e-kabira” (the greatest sin). His children, whose safety they now care for more than that of at-risk Pakistani children, would have been christened as illegitimate progeny. His work and entire career, from which he derives his rozi, would have been termed haraam because his films have music and women in revealing clothing.

So what has changed now? Have his secular beliefs and choices suddenly become acceptable to pious people like Hafiz Saeed? If it really is all about his Muslim identity, why wasn’t Khan hailed as a hero for his work when he co-produced and acted in a film which spoke out against stereotyping of Muslims as terrorists? Didn’t the film give a voice to Muslim men and women, the world over, who are regularly seen with suspicion simply on the basis of faith?

My hope is that in the middle of all this hysteria, somebody will pay attention to the real problem that Khan was trying to point to in his article: our intolerant and jingoistic attitudes that keep us from achieving bigger and better things in life, as people, as a society and as a country.

And that is something that people like Hafiz Saeed can never, ever let nations achieve.

This blog post also appeared on The Express Tribune Blogs’ website here: http://blogs.tribune.com.pk/story/15859/shahrukh-khan-controversy-hype-and-hypocrisy/


Obama’s Pakistani Connection

US President Obama’s electoral victory in 2012 marks the first time that a political campaign has made extensive use of data mining and analysis techniques that are used in only the most sophisticated corners of Corporate America.

Team Obama revolutionised political interaction on social media by creating tools enabling supporters to take twitter and Facebook by storm. There were hashtags, updates on Tumblr, photos on Instagram, videos on YouTube, pinboards on Pintrest and even playlists on Spotify.

Few people know that, Rayid Ghani, a Pakistani formerly working at Chicago’s Accenture Technology Labs, was the brains behind this operation. In the ‘tech cave’ at the Chicago headquarters of the Obama Campaign, Ghani designed an entire programme based on data mining, analytics and reporting. The goal: Obama’s Presidential Re-election.


As Obama begins his second term, we speak to Ghani about his work for the campaign, the strategy he followed and what we in Pakistan, a nascent democracy, can learn from it.

“I had just decided to leave my previous job and was looking to get more involved with non-profits. The campaign approached me before I even had time to look for something else. I knew I could have more of an impact by working with the campaign for 18 months than on anything else during the time,” says Ghani, who graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in 2001 and has since worked extensively in analytics and data mining.

Ghani joined the Obama campaign in July 2011, when the US economy was tanking and most political analysts believed that the White House was the Republicans’ for the taking.

The pressure was on from day one. The campaign was already making phone calls and sending emails to people who had signed up as volunteers and donors. They were pulling up data from Obama’s first election campaign back in 2008, including several kinds of data sources which were to form the backbone of Ghani and his team’s work.

obama 1

“We had a number of lists — donors, volunteers, registered voters, email addresses, Facebook likes, Twitter followers etc. The idea was to connect all this [data about people] so that we could do more effective campaigning,” he explains.

The team then organised the lists so as to spot patterns that would help them better communicate with people and, if need be, win them over to their side. “The challenge was that if I know something about a person as a volunteer, I would want to use it when talking to him or her about voting,” Ghani explains.

For instance, if the compiled data showed that a person is both a volunteer and a donor, the team would communicate with them keeping both those facts in mind and give them information relevant to both volunteering and donating.

As fascinated as I was with the idea, given my love for organisation techniques that enhance efficiency, this sounded like really intense work. “It is,” he confirms. “Towards the end, he says, the team would often spend 18 to 20 hours per day at the campaign office, including weekends.”

The hiring was done with a lot of care. “Because it was such intense work, we hired people who would be able to handle the stress. We hired a mix of people — professionals who had been working in the industry for several years, PhDs who had just finished their degrees, graduate students who were still in PhD programs. Many of the people on the team had a graduate degree in some quantitative field,” says Ghani. “One of the challenges in this situation is that you’re not paying people as much as they would get in a company. On top of that, you’re asking them to drop their lives, and move to Chicago for a short time. That’s why a lot of people who applied for these positions and got hired were younger people.”

There was plenty of work for everyone. Data was coming in by the minute, sometimes even the second, as people signed up to volunteer or donate and an automated system would add the name to the existing list. This updated information would then be used by the team that was in-charge of sending out email messages and making phone calls on behalf of the campaign. The latter was the tricky part, because this is where the campaign actually went out to interact with the people. Campaign workers and volunteers were given a pre-written script to use as a guide to make a phone call.

While those outside the campaign were following every news item on the election, the ones inside tried to ignore it as much as they could. “Obviously inside the campaign, you have better information about the state of the elections, and if you’re doing your job, you’re actually changing those numbers,” he says. “The news was often more entertaining than anything else. Every time the media would report on something our team was supposedly working on, we would chuckle because none of us were talking to the media and these articles would often just be conjecture!”

Come Election Day, every single person in the campaign office felt a level of stress that could drive a cucumber crazy! “We were trying to predict things on an individual level ie which way a person will vote and then aggregate up to the electorate. And even though we had confidence in our results, we couldn’t be 100% sure. Our work was all based on probabilities which meant that there was uncertainty in our predictions. We were hopeful that we would win but you can’t be 100% sure until it’s over,” says Ghani.

Then came the morning after and it was surreal — not least because the president himself was overcome with emotion while thanking the campaign team and the volunteers. “I was there, yes. After his speech, he walked around the office thanking people, shaking hands, and hugging the staff,” says Ghani, fondly. He pauses and I ask him how he celebrated the victory. “We all just went home and slept because we hadn’t done that in days!” he says, laughing.

Whether or not Pakistanis like to admit this, Obama is a figure who has had a lasting impact on election campaigns both in his own country and abroad, including Pakistan. For example, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf often uses the slogan “Yes We Khan”, a slightly modified version of the “Yes We Can” slogan from Obama’s 2008 election campaign. Another innovative aspect of the ’08 campaign that caught on was intelligent usage of social media, which was followed first by the PTI and then by almost all other rival political parties. I ask Ghani if he thinks data mining will catch on too.

“Efficiency is even more important in countries where money is scarce and this model is certainly applicable in ways more than one,” he says. “Every campaign has resources [money and people] and figuring out how to most efficiently allocate these is critical to winning.”

When I point out to the lack of data-driven research in Pakistan, he agrees that that makes it a little more difficult for Pakistan. “Campaign workers might have to go out and get their own data. The data is better in the US than in other countries. But everything we did from fundraising to recruiting and mobilising volunteers, to assessing voter behaviour to what ads to buy, all of that is almost equally applicable in other countries.”

In the end, he says what matters is the candidate and no amount of effort or level of efficiency can help a bad candidate win. “A candidate who doesn’t appeal to the voters of a country can’t win using all the data and analytics in the world. This type of technology only helps at the margins. A lot of the work we did eventually was successful because we had large numbers of motivated and energised volunteers who were taking our message and talking to voters and they were there because they believed in the message and in the candidate himself.”

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, January 20th, 2013.

Movie review: It takes more than an odd name to make a film entertaining

Just when I was convinced that there is nothing that the supremely talented Vishal Bhardwaj can’t do well, he co-writes Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola.

The film, a romantic comedy, has a trite plot with an equally trite leftist message jammed in where something fresher could have made MKBKM a much more enjoyable experience. Matru (Imran Khan) is a law graduate from Delhi University who, like his father before him, works as an all-purpose servant for the wealthy Mandola family, Harry Mandola (Pankaj Kapur) and the apple of his eye his daughter Bijlee Mandola (Anushka Sharma). Although Matru is supposed to be Harry’s driver, what he really is is Harry’s Man Friday, and Kapur and Khan are fantastic as that pair. Matru is also in love with Bijlee but she is engaged to Baadal (Arya Babbar), son of the state’s chief minister Chaudhari Devi (Shabana Azmi), who she met while studying at Oxford.

Harry loves his drink as much as his daughter and is said to have two different personalities when intoxicated and when not. When sober, and a heartless construction contractor, Harry intends to build a Special Economic Zone in place of wheat farms tended by residents of a village nearby who are led to resistance by a man who calls himself Mao (dear lord!) and communicates with the villagers only through letters written in red (dear, dear lord!). When drunk, Harry transforms into an irreverent Sikh whose takyakalaam is a gaali that involves sisters. Not fully aware of it, he sides with the farmers, leading a movement against his own project while singing a song against capitalists at large. Matru, his faithful servant, is of course right next to him. The film is really all about which version of Harry Mandola overcomes the other and there are no points for guessing which side wins.

Kapur is an absolute delight as Harry Mandola – both of them. It is safe to say that he is the star of the show and, with some help from Babbar, pretty much shoulders the entire responsibility of entertaining the audience. Although they are very convincing in their respective roles, Khan is Khan and Sharma is Sharma from any other film. For me, that was disappointing to say the least because as an avid Vishal Bhardwaj fan, I had expected that he would have been able to help them bring out a hidden actor inside them.

Full points to Bhardwaj for maintaining his signature rustic style and for keeping the film crisp and short; a minute longer and it could have been a disaster like his last film Saat Khoon Maaf. The music, like the dialogue (both done by Bhardwaj), is fun and quirky and songs are very nicely picturised without wasting precious film time. However, it would have been nice if he had not tried to force his wife Rekha Bhardwaj’s voice on Sharma. Also, why the African Zulu tribe was needed in the film is beyond me.

Verdict: The film reminds one of Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Delhi 6 with a message that is lost on the audience. Not impressed overall but Pankaj Kapur’s performance is not to be missed.

This blog also appeared on The Express Tribune Blogs here: http://blogs.tribune.com.pk/story/15686/matru-ki-bijlee-ka-mandola-im-not-impressed/


Why I observed Muharram this year

Ninety-three of us perished yesterday. I don’t mean Pakistanis, I mean Shias. And as much as it pains me to identify myself as something before a Pakistani, this state seems to have left little choice for us.

Since the age of 15, when my parents decided to let me be and decide for myself how far I wanted my religious identity to go, I have been attending fewer and fewer majaalis every year. In some part it has to do with the fact that I got busy building a career for myself, but in some part it was also because I started wondering if the philosophy of marking Muharram as a way of protest really was relevant today. I was always aware that Shias were held as kafirs in many households in my own city and perhaps neighborhood. I also knew that they were being target killed in this country we call home, and I have lost family to it, but I still thought that we may have moved past it.

That was the time when Musharraf was in power. In the haze of his enlightened moderation, my teenage self felt safe. So I stopped going to the juloos as regularly. I also stopped taking Muharram so seriously.

Then, in 2009, the juloos was attacked. Instead of commiserating with us, many of our friends started blaming us for the violence against us. The juloos should be moved out of the city, they suggested. While I gingerly considered the idea, my parents and many other Shias I knew were vehemently opposed to it. I thought they were clinging to tradition.

Three years later, after spending a terror-filled Muharram each year and losing thousands of more Shias to brutal targeted attacks, I realized that what I had earlier dismissed as “tradition” was as relevant as ever. So then, I questioned, why shouldn’t the protest continue? And that is why I, a latent member of the Shia community, decided to observe Muharram this year. This was my way of saying no to the terrorists, of supporting religious diversity in this country. I have no intention of ever trying to convince anyone that my belief is more pure than theirs, but I have every intention to tell everyone that my belief never has and never will let the Yazeedi armies take over.

The protest is still alive, and we are still living what we have been mourning for hundreds of years. Imam Hussain’s followers, in principle or even just in ritual, are out on the streets even today to fight against fellow Muslims the way Imam Hussain did. And they are dying for it just as Imam Hussain did.

I never really needed a reason to become sure of my belief, but now I have found one. I only wish it didn’t have to be so violent.

Save us. Save religious diversity in this country. Save your right to dissent from the majority. Save your country from soaking in the blood of genocide of its own people.

This blog also appeared on The Express Tribune Blogs here: http://blogs.tribune.com.pk/story/15595/why-i-observed-muharram-this-year/