Tag Archives: Pakistan

Analysing the Desi Popular

From Prince Biscuits to Dalda to Surf Excel, our minds and childhoods echo with TV jingles, nationalistic pop anthems from the 90s and snippets of jokes from 50-50. Pop culture is always musical. Ask someone about their favourite bit of Pakistani pop culture, and invariably the answer is Nazia Hassan, “Purani jeans aur guitar”, Vital Signs and Junoon. But a deeper look brings back heart wrenching nostalgia, like watching Thundercats on STN at 7 pm as a kid, or trips to Bata before every new school year, or laughing at Moin Ahktar on PTV. Popular culture by no means is something that can be concretely measured or defined. In Pakistan such frivolity is often sidelined, but by nature of being uncontrolled and spontaneous, pop culture crawls through the cracks to become part of the national psyche.

Popular culture is a different creature from the national phenomenon of culture. It only comes into being when it has mass effect and acceptance, but with no direct control of the creator or of any form of authority. The actors of the legendary TV show 50-50 have long disappeared from the airwaves, yet the comedy skits are still part of beloved pop culture. Massive aid by the Internet, like YouTube, have ensured that such chapters in our popular history can survive. Most of quality TV from before the 80’s was produced by PTV, and the state enterprise has either lost this content or has been unable to digitize obsolete mediums of film. This compounds one of the problems of popular culture in Pakistan, that it doesn’t last long.

Quality makes for good popularity, but popular culture is often absolutely frivolous (like the popularity of Annie’s Mahiya, or Mathira’s antics on cable TV). It does not have to be art; it just has to be catchy. It is forever changing and evolving, and mostly comedic, artistic or musical. To give a very simple example, the shalwar kameez is culture; the Pierre Cardin twist to the outfit for PIA air hostesses in the 1970’s is pop culture.

Dr Aur Billa

The problem with popular culture in Pakistan, as mentioned earlier is its extremely short lifespan. Even though pop culture is transient, Britney Spears head shaving shenanigans have lasted longer in our public memory than Dr aur Billa’s hilarious take on pop music. This is probably due to the nature of our media and how it is controlled. Virtually all the fodder for pop culture in the last ten years has come not from art and music but from 24 hour news channels, like Amir Liaqat’s “Ghalib film dekhi hai aap neh?”, and Maya Khan’s “Apnay maan baap ko dhoka mat dain” (about sitting with a member of the opposite sex in a park). In a country obsessed with national security and political drama, it is not hard to see why high culture (like fine art) and low culture (like Pushto films with buxom dancing lasses) have a minimal role in discourse. Even when high art and popular culture are as important to the construction of Pakistani identity as religion, ethnicity or politics.

"Ghalib Film Dekhi Hai Aap Neh???"
“Ghalib Film Dekhi Hai Aap Neh???”

In the 1990s, the heyday of pop music in Pakistan, these 24 hour news channels did not exist. In fact, it can be argued that news channels like Geo and Dunya were the death of entertainment channels like Indus music that, for a few years had captured the attention of teens across urban Pakistan (for one, it propelled Jal’s Aadat into Pakistani music’s Hall of Fame). It is only in the last two to four years that we have seen the beginnings of a renaissance of entertainment channels with Hum Tv.

General Zia’s years were a blur of state censorship and state controlled television to the extent that even female actors sleeping in bed on TV had to have a veil on their heads. The state does have a role in creating what is popular culture, but this is hardly equal to the state controlling it. The most popular example of this from outside Pakistan was propaganda posters during World War 2. The most wonderful art and design was combined with government messages across the world including the US, Great Britain, Soviet Russia, Japan and China. One of the most popular posters was the red British “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster. Today these posters have survived because to the masses, they represent an instantly recognizable version of history, not because of state control of history.

pyari <3
pyari ❤

Pakistan has never had a tradition of propaganda posters but one of the bastions of national television (and even a mouthpiece for state propaganda), Shaista Zaid, is an icon today. She is instantly recognizable, and even beloved by her long-standing presence on PTV, with her perfectly pinned dupatta and impeccable English accent. Again, her figure is not created by any authority, it is rather how she has been perceived and received by the masses that fixes her in our memories. Her retirement thus spawned long bouts of reminiscing about the lives and times of General Zia.
It can be argued that Humsafar was the first drama to break the stereotyping of Pakistani TV as being dull and uncreative plot wise. Other popular shows on TV like Jutt and Bond, Shashlik and Teen bata teen, were different in the sense that they targeted a young population with comedy. Interestingly, Jawad Bashir’s hand was behind all three of these comedies. Including the music of Dr aur Billa, well produced music videos like Abrar-ul-Haq’s Preeto, and Ufone GSM’s riotous adverts, Bashir may be the single biggest contributor to Pakistani pop culture since the 90s with honorable mentions to partners-in-crime, Adeel Hashmi, Vasay Chaudhry and Faisal Qureshi. Good comedy was always popular (whether Moin Akhtar cross-dressing in Rozi in the 90s or the inane hilarity of the sitcom Bulbulay today), but quality dramas were few and far between.

The sad thing is that such changes in local culture are not given importance in dominant narratives. With a threadbare film and music industry, break throughs like Jutt and Bond or Humsafar open us to local art but are often not capitalized on because they do not feature into the power structures of society. It is sometimes argued that during Zia’s time, there was a cap put on creativity, that due to government censorship and control, the quality of national TV fell. Yet there are short-lived blips of renaissance here and there, for example shows like Chand Grehn in the 90s. Today the problem is not state control but societal encouragement of such projects and the people behind them.

(In The Nation, a few weeks ago. Leave a comment?)

Pakistan meme

I’m doing some research on memes and internet culture in Pakistan, so if you are here and reading this click this and help me by filling out this survey if you are a young Pakistani (and tweet/Facebook it too if you like it). Will post findings here soon.

Survey: http://memecloud.treebark.org/64147

And here’s a hilarious image from the Facebook page Sarcasmistan

NGOs and development in Pakistan

An interesting article on Pakistan has been posted at Global Dashboard (a knowledge hub for issues in international affairs and foreign policy) by Seth Kaplan “Why do some countries have so few NGOs?“, a policy consultant on state instability, governance and development based in New York. The thesis of it is as follows:

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are significant for service delivery to the poor, they hold governments accountable and are a positive impact on development. However, in Pakistan there is a very small number of NGOs, and as thus development Pakistan has suffered. Additionally respectable think tanks, and independent monitoring organizations (IMOs) are also few and far between.

Kaplan goes on to say that this lack of independent organizations extend to politics with political parties structures on kinship ties. However philanthropic contributions are huge (1% of GDP) but “a relatively small share of this money is going to build institutions that contribute to state building and social development. The poor may be gaining adequate relief from destitution—the streets of Pakistan have far fewer beggars than India—in ways that did little to change the situations.”

Firstly, the blame according to Kaplan falls on the Pakistani society dominated by kinship relationship that distrusts externally developed institutions. Secondly, institutions are not run by consensus but by cults of personality.

The arguments are not without merits but Kaplan forgets some of the subtleties of the cases of India and Bangladesh that have a proliferation of NGOs. Most NGOs start off providing a specific serves in a specific policy areas and this hold true for India and Bangladesh as well. In India much of the drive behind NGOs and independent service delivery is entrepreneurship and a good business environment. In Pakistan the economic environment is too complex to such NGO growth. It is not kinship and ethnic ties that doesn’t let NGOs proliferate, its taxation, security, terrorism, inflation, transportation costs, road infrastructures etc., that make wide scale operations too risky or too costly. With many NGOs in Pakistan trying to works as self sustaining non-profit organizations, much of the activity is constrained because of economic reasons rather than the frailty of trust networks.

Kaplans second point on institutions being hijacked by the people who are running them is also flawed because assuming NGOs to be independent ventures, initially NGOs are the effort of a few people but there is no evidence to suggest that these people are corrupt or grossly inefficient. Personal power in government institutions is a different matter and it is too much of a generalization to bunch NGOs with all other institutions and say that these are run on personal agendas.

Kaplan’s broad-brushed analysis then jumps to the weakness of civil society being weak and only advocating specific issues. But is that not how civil society and lobbying groups work?

Accepting that Pakistan has fewer NGOs, can we even say that NGO’s cause development? NGOs are small scale service provides where the state cannot reach, they fill in the gaps in development and give signals to the state and civil society highlighting vulnerabilities. Development has always been the job of the state. The weakness of civil society advocacy and participation is key to this. NGOs do have a role in this, however the case of Pakistan is different from that of Bangladesh and India. We have vast networks of charity based on societal trust (that Kaplan says is weak in Pakistan). Even NGOs like SOS Children’s Villages and CARE in Pakistan operate on these donations. Just because Pakistan does not have an NGO titan like Grameen, does not mean that philanthropy and non-state service delivery are not present. Additionally there is a large growing criticism of microfinance and its actual impact on development due to high interest rates and defaults with loans. The problem with too many NGOs is that the governments starts relying on these NGOs for development, and this is not a sustainable solution for long term economic and social development and it de-links civils society from the state.

Rather than just looking at the number of NGOs in Pakistan as a problem, a better question would be to see how significant NGOs actually are for development in Pakistn and what are the conditions that are inhibiting development as compared to India and Bangladesh? NGOs is probably not the answer.

Pakistan Policy Group 2012. 

Corruption and fundamentalist movements-Discussions from Africa

Published at Pakistan Policy Group

Lets start off by looking at the logic of corruption in society. This ‘logic’ come outs of experiences of systemic corruption, and is not just visible in Africa.

1.    Corruption is wide ranging, affecting many types of transaction;
2.    Corruption has become the norm;
3.    Everybody hates corruption; Nobody will denounce the corrupt;
4.    Corruption corrupts, and once the rot sets in little can be done to stop it;
5.    All political systems are prone to corruption (democracy offers no easy cure);
6.    Corruption is considered “fair” by its perpetrators, but not by its victims.

We have taken this description of corruption from a paper titled, “A moral economy of corruption in Africa” (De Sardan, 1999). The general conclusion drawn by the author  is that the most likely outcome of conscious and generalized corruption is a fundamentalist revolution. The description of corrupt practices, and our discussion to follow, is very relevant to the case of Pakistan.

Pakistans Corruption Rankings, Transparency International

Corruption is diverse in practice and is not marginal or sectoral  and ranges from petty corruption to major (state elite corruption). It is generalized and banalised, and a central part of civil discourse. However, everybody knows who is corrupt, but it would be unthinkable to denounce a relative or acquaintance to the police. Similarly, “Important individuals” are all compromised and dare not denounce each other, giving rise to a loose network of solidarity. Corruption is expanding, and seems to be irreversible due to its pervasiveness and “normalisation”. In the case of Africa this inability to regress comes from state failure, massive unemployment, unproductive civil servants, an irresponsible ruling elite and underpaid civil servants. Additionally development aid and income from illegal drugs trade and demands has caused clientelism favorable to corruption.

Single institution/sector perceived to be most affected by corruption, overall results. Source: Transparency International Global Corruption Barometer 2009. Percentages are weighted.

Such a situation offers dismal prospects for political solutions. De Sardan writes that, “There is no obvious correlation between the extent of corruption, on the one hand, and the types of political regime, their degree of despotism and their economic effectiveness, on the other.” Thus the type of government may affect the type of corruption in vogue, but not its scale. Secondly, corrupt practices are consider legitimate by perpetuators, it may sometimes only be exclusion from the gains of corruption that causes criticism and awareness- “A minister may think it fair to use government resources to build a villa, because he is far from being properly recompensed for his services.” Predatory authorities may even consider these gains a right of office- a mindset modeled on colonial relationships. Corruption is also necessary for social acceptance and the logic of solidarity requires linkages from school or family or middlemen, and bargaining patters or gift giving between them, to get things done.

What facilitates the acceptance and fuels the banality or ‘everyday-ness’ of corruption? Within traditional cultures there exists a practice of over-monetarisation. By over-monetarisation De Sadan means the social pressure to give gifts, especially in cash (e.g. marriage gifts, birth announcements, religious holiday gifts etc.) These social relations can form an “excuse”, or a vehicle, for corruption practices like bribery, concessions etc. Shame or guilt of not helping and acquaintance with the manipulation of the system is also a reason for acceptance of corruption and a legitimization of ones own actions. A study of civil servant corruption from Malawi says that three sets of rules intertwined- official rules, kinship rules and the unofficial code of conduct, are what encourage corrupt behavior (Anders, 2002).

Coming to the issue of a “fundamentalist revolution”, a major proposition in anthropological studies of corruption say that it is not realistic to combat corrupt practices as long as the people who take part in them view them as acceptable, thus systemic reform will be difficult. For success an almost utopian change at the administrative level will be needed. As long as political elites are unwilling to give up some of their privileges and to reform, changing the general public’s attitudes may ultimately take the form of ‘puritanical’ or ‘fundamentalist’ movements based in the ‘grassroots’ (Fjeldstad, Kolstad and Lange, 2003).

References
Anders, G, “Like Chameleons: Civil servants and corruption in Malawi”, 2002, La gouvernance au quitidien en Afrique, 23-24.
De Sardan, J P Olivier,  “A moral economy of corruption in Africa?, Journal of Modern African Studies”, 37, 1, 1999, pp 25 – 52
Fjeldstad, O, Ivar Kolstad and Siri Lange, “Autonomy incentives and patronage: A study of corruption in the Tanzania and Uganda revenue authority”, 2003, CMI: Norway.

Sita’s Story- Sita Sings The Blues

I recently wrote and article on a very interesting film called Sita Sings the Blues. The basic issues I have tackled are culture and culture sharing –Can revered old traditions be reinterpreted? The film is a modern retelling of the Hindu Ramayana and is also a free release. And can a culture become the exclusive right of a specific group? Sita Sings the Blues is a quirky new film retells one of India’s best-loved epics and raises some serious questions.

The discussion in the comments is however highly polarised. Read more here.

After you have read the article, and if your curiosity is sufficiently piqued, you can watch the film here. Or download it. 

If famous books were written by Pakistanis

Begum Chatterjees Whipping

Allah of all things (small and big)

Chanda’s Web

Songs of Blood and Sword ….oh wait Fatima Bhutto already ripped that one off from George RR Martin

Please compare

Bhai Stokers ‘Denguela’
Did anyone know theres a Cambodian-Psychedelic band called 'Dengue Fever'?

Did anyone know theres a
Cambodian-Psychedelic band
called ‘Dengue Fever’?

Puttar Haris and the Search for Halal HamOh God, where do I even dig up these disturbing images from??

            Oh God, where do I even dig up these disturbing images from??

Fahrenheit 404 or How Pakistan shut down its internet, rewrote history textbooks and censored female parts everywhere

The Devil wears Bata

Exploding Mangos of Wrath

Where the Radical Islamists Are

The Kite Ban-ner – and other stuff Shabaz Sharif banned in Punjab

Our apologist athlete and his students

(Published on Pak Tea House on 1st July, 2011)

Last week in class, two of my students were to present the impact of the War on Terror on the Pakistan economy.

My young freshman students missed the point of the presentation, to focus on the economy, and economic policy in light of a war. Rather they delved into Pakistani politics and said that the War on Terror was Americas war, nothing to do with Pakistan and we should have stayed out of it (as if we had a choice or wanted to do that) and the only politician calling this spade a spade was Imran Khan.

They ended their presentation with this video clip, where repeatedly Khan says that the military was wrong to go into Wazistan… the military by attacking its own people had ‘created’ the Taliban said the apologist athlete. The presentation ended with the whole class clapping and nodding in agreement.

Fasi Zaka write for the Express Tribune (June 14, 2011), “Many Pakistanis clamour for an independent Pakistan free of corruption, yet they balk at the idea of supporting Imran Khan.” I find myself among the ‘balkers’ and agree with Mr Zaka. But why so? The man has established himself to be honest, generous and uncorrupt, which is more than we can say for the gahirat brigade or President Zardari. Recently Nadeem Piracha has also written about Imran being a creation of the establishment. And then Raza Habib Raza on PTH has commented that the youth’s love affair with Khan saying it’s all about a lack of other options. I think it runs deeper than that, students like his ‘blame rhetoric’, the idea that he’s the only politician that hasn’t mucked up yet.

After two years of teaching classes in political science and economics, to well near a thousand students in a private sector college, all but a handful actually have a critical understanding of politics. Our youth does not read papers; they read top rated blog posts and top tweeted news stories. They go to the news anchors for their information and none of them know their Islamic history from their political and cultural history. The general sentiments are pro-Imran Khan and either apologetic about terrorism and radicalization or pro-Taliban, views that are hard to change in one semester and that belong to both liberal and conservative students. These are dangerous ideas to adopt and give forces like the Taliban a semblance of legitimacy. For me much of my face-palm reaction at Imran Khan and his student supporters is because his simplistic rhetoric spells trouble in case he ever gets elected.

Fasi Zaka is spot on when he says that Khan is Jamaat-e-Islami 2.0, “Imran blamed the death of Salmaan Taseer on the war on terror. As if blasphemy related murders never happened before 9/11… he suggested a ceasefire, negotiations and compromise. That’s exactly what happened in 2009 in Swat and Malakand, with the government going further and giving the extremists legal cover”… gaping holes in his 2.0 ideology sprinkled with progressiveness.

But we will only know what Imran Khan can actually do if he has political success in elections. His competition has hardly handled the country well. Is there room for optimism that he can whip Pakistan into shape? Many fear he will blunder through foreign policy and make a fool of Pakistan.

Today as well, while debating corruption in class, a student asked what viable political option did we have? ‘Well Tehreek-e-Insaaf of course,’ replied another student. But what must the youth do? Blame the military, USA and the corrupt system of politics? “Yes why of course, Miss Gardezi”. But blame militant groups themselves for turning buildings into rubble and killing Ahmadis, Shias and anyone else who acts different… “Oh no Miss Gardezi, militants only blow up stuff because USA invaded Afghanistan and is now invading Pakistan.”