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DAWN - Features; 20 April 2005

April 20, 2005

A long-running serial

KARACHI seems to be under siege by poets. Each day dawns with the prospect of at least two mushairas to be held somewhere in the city.

Karachiites are known for their indulgence for poetry. However, what has set the scene on fire is the presence of several poets from India and other places abroad who came to attend the recent ‘international’ mushaira, held annually by the Sakinan-i-Shehr-i-Quaid. The poets’ presence has provided mileage to other cultural bodies, social clubs, colleges and universities to hold their own mushairas.

All this proves the point that poetry continues to be popular among city dwellers and thousands are prepared to sit through the night to listen to the poets. This contrasts with the fact that poetry collections have been registering poor sales. Perhaps this can be explained by the fact that direct access to the poet has a different flavour and people like to hear, rather than read, poetry. This inevitably has introduced a commercial element in mushairas. Organizers are known to be particularly keen to invite poets who have a ‘box-office appeal’ so that the maximum number of tickets can be sold. Such poets are selected after watching videos of successful mushairas held in the recent past.

Among those who came for the big international mushaira and stayed on to attend other, lesser mushairas was a woman poet from India with a melodious voice. At one mushaira the other day, she had just finished reciting her poem when the compere blurted out that in India most poets were groomed to render their poetry musically, although the literary quality of their poetry was often not up to the mark. The lady must have felt embarrassed by the remark, and some other poets too did not like that left- handed compliment to a member of their tribe, even if the remark was not totally off the mark.

Looking back some 50 years, we had mushairas with such stalwarts as Josh Malihabadi, Z.A. Bokhari, Nasim Amrohvi, Seemab Akbarabadi and Taabish Dehlavi, closely followed by Mujtaba Hussain, Salim Ahmed and many others. Their presence had a civilizing and an overpowering effect on the audience. Their poetry also enlightened listeners about the appropriate use of idioms, images and turns of language. With the passage of time, mushairas have just become a forum for entertainment.

We have some highly accomplished poets in our midst. In India, too, there are reputed Urdu scholars and a promising crop of good poets. What is disturbing is the rising tide of non-poets, with little consciousness of the realities of the present times, and inadequate knowledge of poetry and culture. Promoting bad “poetry” is no service to literature and surely a disservice to the listener who might mistake the spurious for the real. Some of Urdu’s detractors argue that the language exists in a limited area, having no contact with modern knowledge, the physical or social sciences, international relations, and economic realities. Now we have an Urdu university to find answers to some of these questions.

To return to our poets, the last episode of the ‘aalmi’ mushaira serial, which began on April 9, was perhaps the mushaira held at the Karachi Gymkhana on Sunday night. Presided over by Peerzada Qasim Raza, it started two hours late and concluded at 3am on Monday, barely a couple of hours before the start of the working day. This was most unkind for many in the audience.

This was despite the sensible advice given by the president of the Gymkahan right at the outset when he said that given the city’s long distances and transport problems, mushairas should not go beyond 11pm. He also said that sitting on the floor for long hours could be painful for the elderly, and arrangements should be made for chairs to be placed at all such gatherings.

Touching words: an Indian viewpoint

By Mahesh Bhatt


HE HAD tasted death — I could see that. It’s not what he said, but how he said what he said that demolished my preconceived notions about him. I was watching President Musharraf interacting with Indian editors at a breakfast meeting on television, while oscillating between dread and hope.

“We need to find solutions for our problems now,” he said, or words to that effect. “We need to do so now because tomorrow, India and Pakistan will be there, but Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pervez Musharraf may not be... and these unresolved problems will resurface... we owe this to posterity.”

His words touched me and broke through my self-imposed barricade of suspicion. The prism of the past through which my blinkered vision was being filtered just dissolved. Suddenly this image that we all have of a blood-thirsty general out to destroy India evaporated. The dastardly assassination attempts on the president of Pakistan had obviously brought him face to face with his own mortality, perhaps more than his life in the army had.

He had the sanity to know that he was not immortal, that he was just a speck of dust in the beam of the light of history. Behind him was all that had passed, and what lay ahead was endless. He knew that he was sitting on a ticking time bomb and that is why he seemed to be consumed by urgency and the passion to alter the blood-soaked destiny of this region.

“You are a story teller and so you believe in ‘transformation’ stories of killers turning into saints,” said a friend from Pakistan sarcastically. “But the humanity that you superimpose on Musharraf doesn’t seem to operate in his policies in Pakistan.” I could see that he was also stirred, but being a journalist, did not want to allow that to affect him. His words set me thinking but his cynicism refused to weigh me down. I could see that he wanted to stay in the comfort zone of his old beliefs.

We have come to a crossroad and need to head down a new path. It would be pathetic if we understood this and did not make the shift and realign ourselves with the changing landscape of Indo-Pakistan relations which has been transformed by the general and the Indian prime minister. Sometimes we do not realize that failing to make a shift can be riskier than making one. It is safer to deal with the idea of this ‘humanized general’ than to hold on to his tainted image of the past. Everything in life constantly needs to be revised, particularly hate.

The writer is one of India’s leading film-makers

Not so fast out of Gaza

By Ferry Biedermann


GAZA: Two dates in the Middle East that once seemed set in stone are now being challenged as Israel considers delaying its Gaza disengagement and Palestinians mull over postponing their elections. Israel is considering at least a three-week delay in the implementation of its Gaza ‘disengagement plan’, and Palestinians may have to postpone their elections due to legislative wrangling. Both are slated to take place mid-July.

Gaza has been under Israeli occupation, and an Israeli pullout would be an important landmark in the Palestinian quest for a homeland.

The possible delays show up the political difficulties that both Israeli Prime Minister Sharon and the Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas are facing. After a brief honeymoon following the ceasefire declared in February, both face increased opposition in their own circles. This is also putting a strain on relations between the two sides.

The Israeli withdrawal seems set to take place anyway, and the possible change in dates is said to be only a tactical matter. The operation is expected to be controversial at home, possibly even violent, and the government was loath to have it coincide with the annual period of mourning for the destruction of a Jewish temple.

“We need to make an effort to ease their (settlers) suffering to get through the difficult crisis,” Sharon said at a political meeting on Monday.

Opposition leader Yosef Lapid of the secular Shinui party said he feared that if the pullout did not go ahead in July, it would “not take place at all.”

Postponing the operation may just be a prudent step but it also shows the government’s apprehension over the settlers’ ability to mobilise Israeli society. A delay will create other problems that are also emotionally charged. August is uncomfortably close to the beginning of the school year in September, and nobody wants settler children to suffer because of a political process.

The wrangling over Palestinian elections seems to pose even more of a challenge to Mahmoud Abbas than the disengagement saga does to Ariel Sharon. The fundamentalist Hamas movement, the largest militant and opposition group, wants elections as scheduled on July 17. But Abbas’ own Fatah movement is pushing hard for a delay because it fears defeat. Fatah controls the current Legislative Council.

Both in Gaza and in Ramallah, the Palestinian seat of government, the tensions are palpable. Support for Abbas is said to be crumbling fast because he is seen as incapable both of putting his own house in order and of making Israel live up to its commitments under the ceasefire, and improve the daily lives of Palestinians.

The one notable success of Abbas, the period of calm that the militant factions all agreed to vis-à-vis attacks on Israel, seems to be holding for now. But Hamas has threatened to drop out of the agreement if elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) do not go ahead as planned.

Abbas has reassured Hamas that this was not his intention. “We have no desire to delay these elections,” he told reporters at his West Bank headquarters in Ramallah.

Hamas will be participating in national Palestinian elections for the first time. The last and only time the PLC elections were held, in 1996, it boycotted the polls. Since then the second Intifadah (militant Palestinian uprising) has dramatically increased the Islamists’ popularity.

At the same time Fatah’s grip on power has severely weakened because of the long string of allegations of corruption, because it is identified with the ineffective and corrupt Palestinian Authority, and because of the death of its main asset, Yasser Arafat.

The old guard among the Fatah leaders in particular are said to fear a defeat at the polls because this may then be used by a younger generation of Fatah politicians waiting in the wings to force them out in internal Fatah elections scheduled in August.

Nabil Shaath, long-time cabinet member and a representative of the old guard denies this. “The question really has to do with the Israeli pullout of Gaza during that time, and our fear that the Israelis might make it difficult for people to do real election campaigns and have real freedom of movement,” he told reporters.

In the Bene Suheila neighbourhood of Khan Younis town in the Gaza Strip, the mood is decidedly pro-Hamas. Until recently this was known as ‘Fatah-land’.

Hamas decided to participate in municipal elections at the beginning of this year, and Fatah was swept aside. “We changed Fatah-land into Islam-land,” a Hamas voter boasted in the dusty market in Bene Suheila’s main street.

Voters are clear why the change took place. “The Hamas candidates were trustworthy, not corrupt, they don’t only look after their own friends and family members, and they are competent,” said Muhammed Abu Arian, owner of a bicycle repair shop.

Fatah was also internally divided, with candidates running on independent tickets if they failed to be nominated by the Fatah branch in a district. And there has been a lot of acrimony between the different Fatah power brokers in Gaza.

Fatah leaders in Gaza seem incapable of addressing the crisis. One of them, who is also a leader of the militant al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades in the Khan Younis area, continues to blame Israel for all the troubles of Fatah.

“We are the party of peace, but Israel blew up the peace and now they are not sticking to their commitments under the cease-fire, to release prisoners and to withdraw from Palestinian cities on the West Bank,” he said. “And they keep expanding their settlements. We look weak to the people.”

Hamas is aware that its militant image and the attacks it staged against Israel still play well with the population, which is weary after more than four years of violence, but also still angry.

“We will not become a political movement,” Hamas spokesman Moshir al-Masri told IPS. “We will keep resisting Israel until all our demands are met.”

At the same time al-Masri did acknowledge that Hamas was trying to take part in the political process on the Palestinian side, even claiming they could win the elections. “We believe in democracy and we think the voice of the people who support us should be heard.”

Hamas is profiting from a focused message in relation both to religion and Israel, and from a disciplined cadre with a clean image.—Dawn/The InterPress News Service.