THERE is despondency in the air in Karachi. The violence in the city that has resulted in almost 3,000 deaths so far this year has left the youth brutalised.
Many are desensitised and the unnatural degree of violence and terrorism has become something normal for them. Too many will imbibe the criminality they witness around them — unless, of course, something happens to pre-empt this possibility. Others are so terrorised that it is doubtful whether they will ever be able to lead a normal and well-adjusted life.
Mercifully, there are people who have not abandoned children. One of them is Sheema Kermani who is trying to bring normality into the lives of the youth of Karachi. The well known founder of Tehreek-i-Niswan has refused to submit to the dark clouds of despair. She has skilfully used the medium of the street theatre — the naatak — to show the young the way out of an oppressive environment. Hundreds of youngsters from different localities of Karachi, including the worst-hit ones such as Lyari, have been trained by Sheema to create plays to articulate their fears, hopes and anxieties concerning issues that are affecting their lives. These plays require no props or expensive sets and are easy to perform on street corners. They serve a triple purpose. While they entertain the audience, they also convey a profound social message to the community and are good therapy for the cast, many of whom have been victims of violence.
Last week, Sheema Kermani’s troupe staged Yeh Basti Meri Basti Hai (This settlement is my own settlement) and it resonated with the lively audience of nearly 500 who assembled in a Korangi school to watch the performance. They roared with laughter when a girl was kidnapped, or a boy was beaten up or the policeman bullied the public or collected bribes — all that they are witness to in real life. It was vividly portrayed and these happenings are not new to them. But as the play progressed, the gravity of the theme began sinking into their psyche.
What stood out was the constant sobbing of a little girl who couldn’t contain her fear when the screaming and violence depicted by the actors picked up. She was too young to understand what was happening and had been brought along by her sibling against the advice of the organisers.
So familiar has this generation become with the evils of extortion, sycophancy and the brutality of the police, the use of weapons by all and sundry, the sexual harassment of women, mullah-rule, gender discrimination and violence even in their homes that they could laugh it off.
But when they realised that this was not a laughing matter, they became serious. The powerful message of the play didn’t escape them. The backdrop banner described the aim of the play: “Amn o ashti ke liyay, barabri ke liyay, rawadari ke liyay” (For peace, equality and tolerance). The closing song demanded, “In ke hathon mein hon kitab-o-qalam” (They should carry books and pens in their hands).
The cast sang in chorus, “Yeh jo phirtay hein galyon mein bandhay kafan/In ki jaibon mein pistol, haathon mein gun/Haath se apnay ye aslaha phaink dein/saaray hathyar behray khuda phaink dein.” (They roam the streets in shrouds/ With pistols in their pockets and guns in their hands/ May they throw away their weapons/ For God’s sake may they discard their guns).
The change in the perception of the audience was almost palpable. When Sheema interacted with them when the play ended, it was clear that they were thinking differently after watching the performance. They wanted more such plays. The older and more active of them will form a new core group who will be trained at Tehreek-i-Niswan. There will be workshops; new themes will be thought out. A script will have to be drafted and songs written which Anwar Jaffri with his language skills will do. It is a participatory process which involves the youth who for the first time are speaking out.
Some of them have suffered at the hands of the gangsters. Their involvement in theatre has helped them pull themselves out of their trauma. Adnan, who is from Lyari, was kidnapped and tortured. He was quiet when I met him but he felt strong enough to present an excellent performance.
Zahra Batool, a charming young law student who has been performing in Tehreek-i-Niswan’s street theatre for five years, says she is disgusted at what is happening in the city and how young people are affected. She joined Sheema’s Tehreek because she feels that thus she could turn around the lives of the young. “Better to work proactively to counter violence than just indulge in lament,” she says.
In fact Dostain Baloch and Abdus Samad from Lyari have been inspired enough to set up a group called YELL (Youth for Education, Learning and Leadership) which now has about 35 young people (including 10 girls) as its members. They mobilise the young to bring about peace.
Sheema feels these plays are an important source of art, culture and drama which involves the young in something that is positive and distracts them from destructive activities. Sheema thus hopes to start a movement for art and culture.
Given her commitment and dedication, Sheema will succeed. I want her to succeed. I would love to see the young dancing and singing in the streets of Karachi rather than shooting and killing people.