HAZARA singer Abbas Nishat performing at Lok Virsa.—Photo by writer
HAZARA singer Abbas Nishat performing at Lok Virsa.—Photo by writer

SPRING scatters dandelions across Islamabad, tiny yellow suns blooming over grassy greens. On a Sunday after a spell of rain, the air warm and scented with blossoms, Shakarparian is an anthill of human activity. Music greets visitors at Lok Virsa where at the entrance, under a covered area, people take turns to compete in open mic sessions with a band of folk musicians.

A man finishes an off-key rendition of Teray bina youn gharian beeteen. As his voice cracks at a high note, it is easy to imagine Masood Rana turning in his grave. A woman takes over with a boisterous rendition of Sun way balori aakh walia, that makes people sway in their seats. A young boy who knows no song has a poem from school days: Lab pay aati hai dua. It is strangely affecting, this prayer sung atrociously in thick-accented Urdu. Nostalgia for a defunct Lollywood dominates the people’s repertoire. Or is it the longing for a Pakistan long lost?

For others, it is a longing to belong. A little ahead at the media centre, painted with murals of turbaned folk musicians playing traditional instruments, an indoor concert is about to begin. A poster above the stage says Omag-e-Azargi with Abbas Nishat, a young Hazara musician. Fresh-faced Hazara children with intricate Central Asian headpieces of filigreed silver prance about the stage. Young girls beam up at phones for selfies, their dresses of green velveteen and magenta roses like tiny slices of spring brought into the hall’s gloom. But for the crowd gathering here, this concert is as much about identity.

A crisis of identity is the biggest problem facing the Hazaras, says Fatima Atif, a social activist who has been organising events to showcase her Hazara culture for people in the capital, far from her home in Quetta. “We face social isolation that frustrates our efforts at integration,” she explains. “The first thing people ask when they meet us is, ‘Are you Chinese, Japanese, Korean?’ We are mistaken for others as though we don’t have an identity of our own.”

The Mongol features of the Hazara, says Atif, are a threat to their community in Quetta (where the majority live). The number of Hazaras — who belong to the Shia school of Islamic tradition — killed in sectarian violence runs into the thousands, she says. And there is no let-up — the last such targeted killing of a Hazara man in Quetta was reported on March 4. Outside Quetta, their features make them ‘foreigners’.

In the Pakistani imagination, Hazaras are defined by endless mourning, by sectarian and ethnic cleansing, by protests in the freezing winter where men and women keep vigil by the dead they refuse to bury. All that can only change when the threat ends, says Atif, but events such as at Lok Virsa are meant to let people know about the Hazara community and culture. “For us, happy moments have become rare and the impression is we only get together to mourn,” says the activist. “If mourning is our ‘hard side’, this is our ‘soft image’. ”

Through the afternoon, the hall fills up slowly with mostly Hazara families, lending credence to their impression about isolation. Foreigners craving a slice of local culture are few and there is a sprinkling of young people of other ethnicities, friends of Hazaras living and studying in the capital. They jump at the invitation to dance but the event remains largely a community gathering.

Yet Atif is not discouraged. Or perhaps she and others here cannot afford to be, given the grim prospects they face. “It is only when you get a shock, like we did in 2013 [when Hazaras were killed in the hundreds in a wave of suicide attacks and bombings] and the support received from people all over, that we realised we had to reach out to the country.” Her efforts were rewarded when Lok Virsa unveiled a Hazara diorama in May 2017 at its Heritage Museum.

As the concert approaches its end, Aqila Batool, a young Hazara student, tells the participants: “We may be few in number but our contributions to the country are large.” She proceeds to count some: Kulsoom Hazara, the karate champion from Quetta bringing Pakistan laurels in international competitions, Mubarak Ali Shah, the footballer, Haider Ali, the slain boxer who was a Commonwealth gold medallist, Musa Khan, the general, Jalila Haider, the renowned lawyer, Ruqaiya Hashmi, the politician, pilots such as Farhat Shabbir Hussain and Saira Batool, and numerous men in the army.

It is only when she talks about the men in army as shaheed that one realises she is referring to the dead. Whether they died in the line of duty for this country or died as victims of sectarian violence remains a question.

Yet, untroubled, Nishat takes the stage. In his band is a Pakhtun rababist, teasing out strains of Molla Mamad Jaan to warm up for the show. The percussionist on the dholak is Punjabi and a Baloch man plays the accordion. Theirs is a song, a chemistry, that blends our diverse individual cultures seamlessly. And there in the aisle, a little boy dances to it alone.

Published in Dawn, March 25th, 2018

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