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Inspired by Pakistan

Updated Nov 11, 2014 02:28pm

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Photo courtesy: Iara Lee Facebook page
Photo courtesy: Iara Lee Facebook page

Born to Korean parents and raised in Brazil, activist and film maker Iara Lee has a love affair with Pakistan — in part because Pakistan provoked her to channel her passions of art and culture into “something beyond art and culture.”

“I used to run an international film festival in Brazil,” says Lee. “Then somewhere along the way, I realised that it wasn’t enough. Art and culture has always been an essential part of me, but as I grew up, I realised we need to utilise art and culture for something ‘beyond’ art and culture.”

Lee left Brazil in 1989 for the United States (US) to pursue further studies and with a penchant to ‘see and explore the world at large’. In America, Lee ran Caipirinha Productions, a media company to explore how different art forms could better synergise for the purposes of storytelling and social justice.

In 2000 Lee landed in Pakistan to visit and film an Afghan refugee camp in Peshawar. She had been to the region before for other projects, but this visit turned into a life-changing trip.


Activist and film-maker Iara Lee found her calling while visiting a refugee camp in Peshawar


“We were in this refugee camp where I wanted to focus on the plight of Afghan women and children when people started pelting stones at us and shouting. I heard an old man cry that every day, scores of media personnel arrive to cover them but nothing changes.”

At Hopper  Glacier, Hunza
At Hopper Glacier, Hunza

Lee realised that the man was right.

“I felt that more needed to be done; something beyond merely reporting corruption, oppression and injustice; to report the plight in such a manner so as to bring about a positive change in the life of sufferers. I felt we needed to bring about a change, make a difference and so the documentary Cultures of Resistance was transformed into an organisation, the Cultures of Resistance Network.”

In Lee’s words, the Cultures of Resistance Network is all about ‘creativity with a cause.’ The organisation “endeavours to raise a voice, condemn and inspire people to fight against corruption, oppression and injustice in all its forms and to promote peace and justice through non-violent action and the creative dimension of cultures. To this end, CoR connects and supports activists, agitators, educators and artists all across the globe. In Pakistan, CoR has been actively pursuing its cause through Khubaib Foundation, Kalash People’s Development Network, Muhammad Ibrahim Memorial Society and Dawood Global Foundation.

“I especially like to focus on young people, who I feel are the future. I like to engage them, encourage them to step forward and take the command of their life in their own hands,” Lee says.

Much of the idea for the organisation, as Lee confesses, initially began as the documentary film: Cultures of Resistance was meant to explore the contours of how creative action contributes to conflict prevention and resolution around the world. The documentary was to encompass injustice inflicted in different parts of the world, from Iraq to Iran to Tunisia to Syria to Africa to Gaza to Lebanon and other places.

But as things progressed, Lee realised how other people and humanitarian organisations (Amnesty International, Green Peace) merged together in a global network and pursued the same cause. The commitment is endless; and not without its toll undoubtedly. This was a workable blueprint.

“My biggest concern regarding the Cultures of Resistance Network is its finances, of course, since we do not collect monetary donations. I have to keep the resources flowing by working all year long as well as investing in technology and renewable energy,” she says.

Iara with a group of children at Shigar Fort
Iara with a group of children at Shigar Fort

Though Lee confesses to really putting her head down and generating enough resources to run the Cultures of Resistance Network, she loves the independence it brings: “I am my own boss and it’s a wonderful feeling of creative independence! There’s no one to tell me to make a film with a certain perspective or edit it down with a specific slant.”

But besides the flow of finances, Lee also concedes there are other impediments along the way; and of a much graver nature! “I’ve been detained in the ‘terrorist room’ by the US authorities who came up with all sorts of stupid questions like ‘What’s your religion?’ etc. I told them that I am not a Muslim but I do have a lot of Muslims friends, and no I am not with al-Qaeda, but yes, I am dead against Israeli occupation and aggression in Gaza. The main reason I left the US was when they invaded Iraq and then left the country wounded and bleeding; in a much worse state.

“I have also met with a lot of resistance from other governments as well like when I was working for the poor people of Sahara Desert in Western Morocco. I have been physically present in a ship which was attacked by Israel and I thought to myself: ‘maybe this is the end for me.’

“I had been through a lot of tough situations, and my work does involve a lot of stress and struggle, but nothing would stop me from being curious, getting to the core of things first hand, being active and contributing in my own humble way to make this world a better place; even if it is in a very small ratio.”

Her love affair with Pakistan has brought her to the country several times now. This particular visit of hers involved making a documentary on the K2 and the amazing Kalash people. Speaking of her ventures and experiences in the country, she says, “For a person like me, who has been travelling across the globe, Pakistan is one fascinating country. The cultural diversity in this country is mind boggling; from the traditional to the contemporary to the different linguistic and ethnic sects, it really is wide-ranged. Yes, with time things may have become a bit more complicated, especially for foreigners, but I definitely don’t think it is a monster country, full of terrorists, as projected by the Western media — a crazy country where nothing works.

“What has really captured me about Pakistan is the kindness of the people here; really they are so generous and hospitable with such magnanimous hearts which is even beyond the Arab world.

“My experience of Pakistani hospitality deepened even more when I went up north for my documentary on K2. People there are so pure and innocent and so helpful to tourists.

“I would also like to comment on the expertise and skill of the local trekkers who provide guidance to the foreign mountaineers: They are incredible people in an amazing place; they are so under privileged and underpaid but the risks they take in their profession, brace the impacts and with such genuine passion that it is really commendable.”

And what about some of the problems she might have faced here, I ask.

“I wouldn’t call them problems really; they are more like challenges,” says Lee. “One thing that I could not help but notice is the deep rooted family traditions which even the modern new generation adhere to still. I mean I cannot understand how young people can get married in an arranged way and not out of love!

“Also the political situation here is so unpredictable. There’s a palpable tension in the air — what’s going to happen? When? How? I call it nonstop excitement in Pakistan, for better or worse, I can’t say, but it is undeniably exciting! I think it is one of the most happening places in the world!”

Before we wrap up, I have two more questions for her. Lee has Korean lineage, was raised in Brazil, then studied and worked in the United States, and then trotted the globe on her journey for social justice. But which nationality or country does she really identify with as her native own?

“Yes all that is true; maybe I am a Palestinian woman at heart, but gradually becoming very Pakistani, as I spend more time here in your lovely country.”

Finally, my last question: How is it possible for a woman to trek such an absorbing pursuit and have a normal family life too? She takes a moment to let the words absorb but then answers simply yet very conclusively.

“You and many people around the world noticed I have no conventional family comprising husband, children, time to chit chat with friends and regular leisure time. But a life can take on other dimensions and I have consciously chosen a rather unconventional path.

“Many years ago I, realised we can only do so much and in life we need to make choices as there is no such a thing as ‘having it all’. So I decided that instead of having biological children, I would devote time to orphans from war-torn countries, youth from refugee camps or IDPs, kids from underprivileged societies.

“Children are so defenceless, they come to this world many times as product of parents’ irresponsibility or lack of planning and they suffer the consequences of being neglected or exploited. I feel for these children and truly resent that they become victims of abusive adults.

“For now, and forever, this is it for me. The Cultures of Resistance Network is my whole life and I intend to live it till the last of my breath.”

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, November 9th, 2014

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Comments (44) Closed



weq Nov 11, 2014 02:40pm

She is inspired by that part of Pakistan where there are no real Pakistanis, if she would come spend some time inside Pakistan she would rather expire.

Sunil Nov 11, 2014 02:56pm

Pakistan no doubt has beautiful mountains, plains, scenes, still have to be careful, cautious, alert, vigilant.

N.Sid Nov 11, 2014 03:05pm

@weq Your negative comments in many forums shows you are suffering from xenophobia, a curable disease. Get over with it ASAP.

edwardian Nov 11, 2014 03:07pm

@weq = (when excluded & quarantined) by society, ends up with saddest behaviour

S. Ahmed. Nov 11, 2014 03:09pm

Pakistan is ranked in one of the ten countries of the world with the most diverse terrain, topography, and weather system in the world. Northern areas of Pakistan is truly a mountaineers and adventurist dream destination, with the most hospitable people on the face of the earth.

K.Ali Nov 11, 2014 03:11pm

Lara lee you are most welcome to the best kept secret of northern Pakistan.

SHR Nov 11, 2014 03:14pm

Good read. Pakistan and its natural beauty has much more to offer to tourist from the highest peaks to the lush green valleys, only if we start highlighting the brighter side of Pakistan also instead of just bashing the minor countable issues all the time and stereotyping/tagging all Pakistanis and Pakistan on the basis of that Every country has issues, problems, fanatics, violence and things like that, but there are ways to report it to the right authority. Always being negative and portraying the little dark side as a major problem affects the whole country and demoralizes the nation.

Thanks Maliha for this wonderful piece.

SHR Nov 11, 2014 03:14pm

Good read. Pakistan and its natural beauty has much more to offer to tourist from the highest peaks to the lush green valleys, only if we start highlighting the brighter side of Pakistan also instead of just bashing the minor countable issues all the time and stereotyping/tagging all Pakistanis and Pakistan on the basis of that Every country has issues, problems, fanatics, violence and things like that, but there are ways to report it to the right authority. Always being negative and portraying the little dark side as a major problem affects the whole country and demoralizes the nation.

Thanks Maliha for this wonderful piece.

1947 ka Pakistani Nov 11, 2014 03:14pm

She has seen Pakistan, the real Pakistan. but we Pakistani have ruined our country.

Sohail Nov 11, 2014 03:27pm

@weq How can you say that people of northern part of Pakistan are not real Pakistanis? Because they are peaceful...? Despite being underdeveloped in terms of infrastructure and facilities, these regions have higher literacy rate and more peaceful.

Aziz Nov 11, 2014 03:32pm

I feel sorry that some people feel disappointed by this article The advice given to her looks out of place because she is widely travelled and can make up her own mind because of her extensive experience and sharp intellect.

Thank you Dawn for publishing it.

Ali Nov 11, 2014 03:40pm

Sohail we haven't ruined Pakistan, infect all the so call leader of this part of subcontinent played with the life of the poor people, plus we have one dilemma and that is Brothory system, which don't allow the poor people to act rightly. Enough is enough if the people will not rethink for their future, then there will be no live for their children.

Tony Jboye Nov 11, 2014 03:42pm

@S. Ahmed. Northern areas of Pakistan is actually a disputed territory and not truly part of Pakistan as we know.

Ganga Din Nov 11, 2014 03:45pm

She is not inspired by Pakistan. She is a crook. Let's find out who she is actually working for.

Nasir Ali Nov 11, 2014 03:48pm

@Tony Jboye: Keep dreaming...

goldconsumer Nov 11, 2014 04:01pm

@Tony Jboye Dreaming.. Go to these northern areas and have a check. Doordarshan will tell you, whole Pakistan is a disputed territory!

Abu Nov 11, 2014 04:13pm

What a wonderful article! Ms. Lee is leading an inspirational life dedicated to service of the underprivileged while satisfying her thirst for art and culture. It takes courage to follow a path of the beaten track, and, many folks(including myself) give up things for financial stability (cos as she puts it "you can't have it all").

I think that people who are less exposed to consumerism and materialism, which is the order of the day in the modern world tend to be more tender, generous and helpful. I just hope these people continue to stay and lead such a life..Thank you DAWN for publishing such wonderful piece. Really appreciate such gems who work behind the scenes..

rasheed Nov 11, 2014 04:16pm

@N.Sid nice comment... his comment exploited my mood... Love Pakistan...

Suhail Yusuf Nov 11, 2014 05:10pm

When I distributed some Pakistani post card with Northern Areas images, My US friends were stunned to see the beauty of my country. ' Pakistan is a home of the largest ever land mammal named Baluchitherium. It holds sixth largest river delta. There are 3000 glaciers in Pakistan. It is the first place were most ancient dentists were discovered in Mehrgarh. It is the only place in Asia where first ever cotton were produced.

At Kohistan Arc you can see another amazing geological feature called Kohistan Arc, which is a transition between Earth's crust and mental which is the only place on the planet.

Above all, the people of Northern areas are so hospitable and caring and which is the beautiful part of northern areas.

Sunil USA Nov 11, 2014 05:55pm

It is indeed beautiful , but alas the people of Pak does not know or care about it. Just imagine the tourist it can bring ?

Not-a-Proud-Pakistani Nov 11, 2014 06:06pm

@1947 ka Pakistani - So many pakistani will hate you for this. Yes we ruined our own homeland.

N. Siddiqui Nov 11, 2014 06:11pm

'What has really captured me about Pakistan is the kindness of the people here; really they are so generous and hospitable with such magnanimous hearts which is even beyond the Arab world'.

“My experience of Pakistani hospitality deepened even more when I went up north for my documentary on K2. People there are so pure and innocent and so helpful to tourists'. Sounds good to all people in Pakistan. To break the stereotype and hackneyed vision about the country, more such portrayal and articles are needed in international forums. Thanks Lara lee and Dawn for the good read.

shafeeq Nov 11, 2014 06:30pm

Lara lee good job but must do the visit of kpk district Battagram bilandkot and I am assure you will find another real part of Pakistan.

Anonymous who left Pakistan to study abroad Nov 11, 2014 06:44pm

You are so inspiring. Thank you.

Tariq, Lahore Nov 11, 2014 07:14pm

@weq Sorry but Pakistan's border stretches from the Northern Gilgit to Karachi in the South and Queta in the West to Sialkot in the East, and ALL that are born and bred are the sons and daughters of the soil of Pakistan regardless of race, religion and creed!

Amjad Wyne Nov 11, 2014 08:08pm

@Ganga Din

Ganga Din, you should have provided some reference or some basis for your assertion. Otherwise who knows where are you coming from! The description of Ms Lee in the article is very much similar to may others that find inspiration and change the lives of others. She is very accomplished in her own right.

M1968 Nov 11, 2014 08:12pm

I just hope she is safe out there in Pakistan as the militants will try to get her. They have done it to many foreigners includes tourists, social workers and reporters

Conservative Nov 11, 2014 08:35pm

@weq I have worked for the European missions for a very long time. Development workers and diplomats who are posted Ist time to Islamabad come with a lot if apprehensions but once they are here they apply for second and third posting. They all praise the hospitality and openness of people and beautiy of our country.

Pragmatist Nov 11, 2014 08:48pm

She is out of her mind. May God Almighty save her from the taliban thugs.

N. Sid Nov 11, 2014 09:16pm

@Conservative True, you can add 'Great tasting food' which is an integral part of hospitality to the things which can attract a lot of people, apart from openness of the people. Very few people realize that the food, including fruits, vegetables tastes different with very strong aroma due to the fact that they are not as yet genetically modified, and is organic. GM(genetically modified) food has destroyed, to a large extent the actual variety of crops, fruits and vegetables(they taste bland). The country should be saved from this onslaught from GM crops, just read about farmers suicide due to GM crops in India, which ran into several thousands.

Zak Nov 11, 2014 09:46pm

Those who come to Pakistan see it's great qualities of people, culture , history and geography. Those who can't come, have a falsified western media perception, which is deliberately built with an agenda.

sunny Nov 11, 2014 09:53pm

Welcome to Pakistan Iara Lee .Thank you for loving Pakistan.

John Nov 11, 2014 09:58pm

@Zak Few Lucky ones who survive attempts on their lives, see the generosity of Pakistani land others have real Pakistan phobia promoted by western media.

Musafir Nov 11, 2014 10:09pm

Why s much negativity about such a non-provocative article. Can we not admire nature and God's Creation which Pakistan has been bestowed with. Can we not admire a good soul like Lara Lee who has found inspiration in Pakistan? Why link warts and wounds of a country with this article. Do any of us as individuals are perfect and is any country of the world a paradise, literally speaking and not metaphorically?

AYZA Nov 11, 2014 11:29pm

“What has really captured me about Pakistan is the kindness of the people here; really they are so generous and hospitable with such magnanimous hearts which is even beyond the Arab world."

Many thanks to Iara Lee for going beyond the superficial smoke and mirrors re Pakistan .. and mostly gratitude from all who know this to be true about the depth and breadth of Pakistanis genuine heart and soul which many have tried to unfairly malign.

Bilal Shafiq Nov 12, 2014 12:17am

@goldconsumer I completely disagree with your views about Pakistan. Only a certain areas like waziristan and Kashmir are disputed , Pakistan is an independent state.

Tahir Chaudhry Nov 12, 2014 12:24am

Thanks, Dawn for the article. She is really dedicated.

Khalida Khurshid Nov 12, 2014 12:55am

Great story. I am a Pakistani living in Canada. I find I am very drawn to Korean people here. They are smart but not cunning. Kind and interesting.

Sonny Afridi Nov 12, 2014 12:57am

A smart courageous person and a fiend of Pakistan. How nice she also went to Hunza. One of many paradises of earth in our great nation.

Maqsood Nov 12, 2014 03:38am

@Tony Jboye Really Tony? I though they were called the Northern areas of Pakistan

Hoodwink Nov 12, 2014 06:05am

The hospitality only extends to whites/ Asians in Northern Areas . If you are African forget about it.

Taj Wazir Nov 12, 2014 10:45am

@1947 ka Pakistani ....... Let me correct you and shake your senses. " We Pakistani did not ruine the country politicians did"

Taj Wazir Nov 12, 2014 10:59am

@Tony Jboye ...... Entire India thinks that Entire Pakistan is their territory, you must read Henery Kessinger book . He wrote " Pakistan is a constant thorn in India's rib"

Ali Vazir Nov 12, 2014 12:55pm

if we could exploit these wonderful gifts of God. But we are thankless people. So paying the price.