Two years ago, I found myself watching television and flicking through the channels when I realized something; our prime time is filled with clerics and politicians facing off with each other. You can change the logos of the news channels, but night after night the faces and the issues they discuss remain the same.
With a 24 hour news cycle, we have become accustomed to receiving big news in small ways; a fleeting clip played on loop, a flashing headline and a variety of experts and commentators who talk at each other, rather than to each other.
Our voices and our issues had been relegated to the sidelines and it reminded me of the famous film Wag the dog in which a war was fabricated to divert the public from the real news. In our case it was the politicians and their bickering that was diverting the public from issues that truly affected them.
I am a story teller, I have travelled around the world documenting issues by shedding a light on the people who tackle those issues. So what was stopping me from doing this in Pakistan for a Pakistani audience? It was time to hit the pause button, and to examine the stories beyond the headlines, and to retell the current story of Pakistan through the voices of Pakistanis. Thus began, Aghaz-i-Safar, a two year journey across the country.
When news becomes noise, there rises a need to redefine what passes for content on our TV channels
My team traveled in search of narratives that went against the grain. From Karachi to Kashmir, they returned with stories that revealed an abundance of individuals who had been carrying on thankless jobs and risking their lives to better their communities. Some of their findings revealed a side of Pakistan that most people shy away from; stories of unwarranted tragedy were mirrored with tales of the failing justice system, and corruption within the system. We heard from individuals like Ayesha, whose father was tortured and killed because he took a stand against land grabbers who were destroying the mangrove forests of Karachi. Certain themes emerged — Ayesha’s inability to seek justice was echoed in Asif’s story, who went into a government hospital for a simple appendix surgery, and was subjected to an anesthesiologist who left the surgery midway to attend a private call. A victim of medical malpractice, Asif remains in a deep coma, with his brother fighting his case in the courts. Similar stories emerged from other parts of Pakistan, from the Hazaras of Balochistan, to small villages in Punjab in which more than half of the children born suffered from a physical disability.
For every story of darkness, we were met with a story of light; Ayesha continues to fight her father’s battle, Asif’s brother continues to fight for changes in the health sector, and the Hazaras of Balochistan have responded to their enemies by creating organisations that offer free emergency care to all of Quetta. Similarly, we found survivors of child sexual abuse and domestic violence who were willing to share their story on national television in the hopes of inspiring others to come forward and speak out.
We unearthed villages where one woman single handedly trained and coached men and women to take a stand against domestic violence by placing placards that read, ‘This house is violence free’, outside their homes. In the north, we found communities, which used rainwater harvesting to reduce the workload on the women of the household, thereby enabling them to return to school. In the south we found a man who is creating low income housing to combat the housing crisis, and dozens of smaller organisations determined to tackle issues that put them in danger every single day.
For every story of darkness, we were met with a story of light; Ayesha continues to fight her father’s battle, Asif’s brother continues to fight for changes in the health sector, and the Hazaras of Balochistan have responded to their enemies by creating organisations that offer free emergency care to all of Quetta.
We found a narrative missing on television in Pakistan and came away with a realization that while we are replete with examples of the “system” not working, from a broken education system to a regressive legal mechanism there are numerous examples of when the system does work, or of people who work despite the system.
Pakistan is not a nation of revolutions; we take our protests to social media, rather than the streets. My aim was to counter this by shaking audiences to the core; first-hand narratives and stories that are difficult to ignore. Our plan is an interactive one; we share stories and solutions and the audience responds with action. Change begins when people come together, and Aghaz-i-Safar intends to be that platform for active dialogue, communication and action.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, June 8th, 2014