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History of our times

December 09, 2013

THOSE who remember it — and there should be many — do so with unalloyed fondness.

The year was 1984 and in much of the West, it was a time of prosperity. In other parts of the world, the news was not so good. Ethiopia, for one, had been hit by a famine; images from those dark years in this part of Africa still do not cease to haunt.

They certainly caught the imagination/compassion of Irish singer-songwriter Bob Geldof, who together with Midge Ure of the band Ultravox, co-wrote the song Do they know it’s Christmas? to raise money for the famine victims.

Grouped under the label of Band Aid, many of the biggest music industry icons of the time participated in the recording of the song, or the B-side ‘Feed the World’ compilation.

The reason I take the opportunity to dwell upon this heart-warming moment from the past is that Band Aid, and the Live Aid concert that followed a year later, became the face in popular Western imagination of a massive push to donate funds to famine relief efforts.

The West, both private citizens and governments, sent millions of dollars in aid.

(Of course nothing in this world happens without political motivations. For instance, at the time the famine struck, the Ethiopian government was fighting rebellions in two of its northern provinces.

The Cold War was ongoing, and the Soviet Union had invested billions in the country, providing its own officers to support the government. In January 1983, Ronald Reagan issued a national security directive that aimed to confront growing Red influence in the developing world.)

In March, 2010, the BBC broke the story that much of the Ethiopian famine aid money had unbeknownst gone to the rebels and been spent on huge weapons purchases. But that does not take away from the fact that nearly 30 years on, in popular imagination, the Ethiopian famine stands out as a series of tragedies, a time of stark misery and deprivation.

As always, though, there are other sides to the picture. As this country’s citizens know all too well, tragedy can abound and yet there can be pockets of prosperity; death may haunt each step and yet a more or less credible semblance of ‘normal’ life can go on.

What Ethiopia went through in the ’80s was one of the worst famines in history, a brutal civil war. And yet, there are ‘other’ stories, and this month saw the launch of an art project, Injera Westerns, to document what it was like growing up in the country back then.

To quote the website, “Yes, this was a time of great famine, civil war, Red terror, and a Stalinist dictatorship and other not-so-nice things. But, as importantly, this was also a time of growing up, lasting friendship, first kisses, heartbreaks, wild parties and other such life-changing events. ‘Time to put down our soul roots,’ as one participant put it.”

The aim is to produce “an experimental art book that combines fictionalised coming-of-age stories of children and young people with the more sinister political backdrop of this turbulent period in Ethiopian history … to shatter some of the simplistic clichés and stereotypes that still plague Western representations of countries such as Ethiopia.”

Many of the stories and material uploaded on the website will be received as eerily familiar by Pakistanis, many of whom wonder how it is possible to grow up compassionate in circumstances that dictate callousness, and where the enormity of need precludes any ideas of the equality of man.

Here’s what’s been on my mind since the Injera Westerns project was brought to my attention. Despite the unprecedented turmoil the country has experienced at various levels for well over a decade now, there appear few signs — other than in the fine arts community, notably — to document this fast-paced descent into madness.

We aren’t telling our own stories, not recording them as they happen. In the future, we’ll have tomes of history books analysing what happened to/in Pakistan in the first part of the new millennium, but will we also have the living and breathing experiences of those that made their way through these treacherous waters?

Given the available literature and cultural output such as film, theatre or television, apart from the sporadic exception, it seems unlikely on current evidence. That makes it likely that in future, our awareness of our experiences now, will be coloured — distorted, perhaps.

The importance of documenting the experiences of those that saw history firsthand is hardly a novel idea. In the subcontinent, groups of researchers, some academic, some people-powered, have over the years initiated projects to record the stories and experiences of the fast-fading generation that witnessed the partition.

Some of them are available on the web, others are in private libraries and collections. Wherever I have come across them, these stories have wielded immense power and emotion — because they are personal accounts of ordinary people to whom history, in a way, happened to happen (as opposed to also the haunting but, crucially, different, accounts such as those penned by Manto).

In the future, newspaper columns and blogspots will provide some idea of how dark the night felt on Dec 27, 2007 after Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, or when the Peshawar church was bombed, or how gut-wrenching the sight was of Quetta’s Hazaras alongside the coffins of their dead that they refused to bury.

But in the future, Pakistanis and the world will need more, much more, about the here and now, and its personal dimensions, to develop any meaningful understanding.

And in such a project, perhaps, of the people’s stories, could lie the seeds of a cohesive, strong and agreed-upon-by-all counter-narrative that this country so desperately needs to turn the tide.

The writer is a member of staff.