Children of the Kalash valley gather round the ceremonial fire marking the beginning of the Chowmos winter festival | Photos from the book
Children of the Kalash valley gather round the ceremonial fire marking the beginning of the Chowmos winter festival | Photos from the book

On Aug 11, 1947, Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah stated, “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in the State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed — that has nothing to do with the business of the State.”

This promise and declaration made at the outset of the nation found symbolic representation in Pakistan’s flag: the green represents Islam, the majority religion, while the white stripe represents minorities and minority religions. The crescent and star symbolise progress and light.

While the Quaid’s message seems to have been forgotten by the people — certainly in light of the devastating violence against and mistreatment of so many minorities today — it provides the inspiration and backdrop behind photojournalist Mobeen Ansari’s The White in the Flag: A Promise Forgotten.

A pictorial of the multiple religions practiced in Pakistan is a reminder of how far we’ve strayed from our founder’s philosophy

In the introduction to this Markings publication, Ansari shares a story of his father needing blood and receiving it from his best friend, who was Christian. His life was saved and, years later, Ansari was born, something he believes would not have been possible but for this blood donation. Ansari also quotes the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH): “Beware! Whoever is cruel and hard on a non-Muslim minority, or curtails their rights, or burdens them with more than they can bear, or takes anything from them against their free will; I (Prophet Muhammad) will complain against that person on the Day of Judgement.”

This basic premise of equality, equal citizenship, as well as protection of one another so fundamental to the foundation of this nation — one that was created in part because of the mistreatment or second class treatment of Muslims in India at that time — led Ansari to create an organic composition of mixed media taken over seven years, depicting every community that is part of Pakistan’s tapestry. With him behind the camera snapping photos, Saima Fatima created the layout and design and Raisa Vayani edited the text.

The idea was not to make chapters based on every community individually, but to mix images of all communities and build on the elements they share with one another. To this end, Ansari places on one page a photograph of Parsis celebrating Ava Roj (birthday of the water) by giving offerings to the sea, and on the next page puts a photograph of Hindu devotees praying to the sea right outside a mandir and also giving offerings. The two locations are not far from each other, which only underscores the similarities rather than differences between faiths. The photographer does the same thing with themes of food and even the colours of clothes being worn. There is both a symbolic philosophy behind the sequence of the photographs, as well as fluidity and a sense of continuity to the pages. 

Written above the entrance of the Baha’i Hall in Karachi are the words “The foundation of all religions is one”
Written above the entrance of the Baha’i Hall in Karachi are the words “The foundation of all religions is one”

The charm of each picture is that it embodies the purpose of the book, which is to showcase the religious diversity of Pakistan. In doing so, Ansari captures not just the appearances of the people of each faith — a woman sitting devout in prayer after Sunday Mass at Saint Andrew’s Church in Karachi, a vibrant Holi celebration in Sindh, young Kalash girls gathered to build a fire to mark the Chowmos winter festival, a Parsi priest tending to the ceremonial fire while conducting a Jashan [thanksgiving] — but also the peace and joy that comes from being in communion with the Divine. This is evident in the serenity of the woman, the laughter of the children, the gentleness of the priest — things that all of us, regardless of faith, have experienced at one time or the other.

The photographer also shows the external manifestations of religion: mosques, temples and various communal gathering spaces. In one profound image, he captures the words “The foundation of all religions is one” inscribed on the walls of the Baha’i Hall in Karachi. Ansari has sought out gems hidden in plain sight; it was eye-opening to see a Star of David on a building in Rawalpindi, a symbol that still exists on structures in other cities as well and reminds us that there was once a considerable Jewish population in Pakistan years ago. This only reinforces how truly multi-faith Pakistan was at one time and how tolerant we were of each other.

A woman has a moment of solitude as she kneels in prayer after Sunday Mass at St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Karachi
A woman has a moment of solitude as she kneels in prayer after Sunday Mass at St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Karachi

As a photographer, Ansari is conscious of the play of light and shadow, and uses this interaction to elevate buildings from mere structures to objects of art. The mandir of Jhoolay Lal Zinda Pir in Sukkur — representing a belief that the mystic figure is immortal and responsible for guiding those who are lost in their paths, or thoughts — is a beautiful composition of geometric patterns, which is all the more interesting because such designs are usually the forte of Muslim architecture.

In a sense, the book serves an additional purpose as a visual guide to the country. Several of the monuments are ones we see every day without ever really noticing them, others are far-off structures. The mood of the book is emotional, with high and low points, but most of all, it encapsulates the very real human emotions of our people. Flipping through the pages does make one feel a little morose, however, as it is a bittersweet collection of so many communities that we do not appreciate and celebrate within our nation. That’s a pity, because while we may not necessarily participate in all festivals, it can be fun to watch them!

One thing sorely missing in this collection is the stories behind each picture. There is a hint of the background, but it only serves to entice the reader to want to learn more about the context. In using one picture to present one aspect of each religion, Ansari is able to stay in the limited space available in a book, but in today’s day and age it would have been good to include a linkable smartphone code that the reader could scan to watch a video, Instagram or Snapchat about the experience, or even more pictures of the site or event.

The White in the Flag is not only a tribute to the diverse communities and faiths existent in Pakistan, but is also symbolic of our nation’s very foundation. The rare and exclusive glimpses of some private moments of each faith, as well as reflections of some very public and joyous times of celebration, are a beautiful showcase of the multiple religions being practiced in Pakistan. It is an ideal coffee-table book and in addition to being well-made and well-presented, it serves as a great reminder of who we really are.

The reviewer is a social entrepreneurship specialist

The White in The Flag
By Mobeen Ansari
Markings, Karachi
ISBN: 978-9699251931
150pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 8th, 2017

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