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July 22, 2018


Co-ordination: Madeeha Syed | Photography: Fayyaz Ahmed
Co-ordination: Madeeha Syed | Photography: Fayyaz Ahmed

“No one used to notice my shirt before,” said Arieb Azhar, referring to his signature red-and-white chequered shirt of the Croatian national football team. “They used to think it was a wacky-coloured shirt. Today was different — people at the airport were looking at me. A couple of them smiled. The guy at the cab counter saw me and said ‘Sir haar gaye!’” he laughs. We are meeting the day after the FIFA World Cup final and the ‘haar gaye’ refers to Croatia’s loss to France.

It was the first time the little Balkan state had even made it that far. And it seemed everyone was rooting for them. “Because Croatia was the underdog,” says Arieb. “And for the first time people are actually looking up Croatia on the internet. [Previously] people only knew about it as a tourist destination.” Because King’s Landing is in Croatia, I responded, referring to the capital of the Seven Kingdoms from the hit television series, Game of Thrones. The Old City in the coastal city of Dubrovnik, a UN World Heritage Site, is the setting for King’s Landing and is swarmed by tourists every year.

The singer, musician, festival director (Art Langar) and now the newly-appointed Executive Director at The Second Floor (T2F) in Karachi, has a strong association with Croatia. “I was a teenager when I moved there,” he says. “And 10 months after I landed in Zagreb — it was still a part of Yugoslavia then — the war started. I was there throughout the four-year war. The first two years were terrible.” The Yugoslav Wars were a series of conflicts by nationalist groups in the former Yugoslavia that sought the independence of Croatia, Slovenia and later, Bosnia. It resulted in the breaking up of the entire country.

Although Zagreb, where Arieb was based, was not on the frontlines, residents could see shelling in the distance and Serbian planes would often fly over them. Most of the other foreign students who had been studying along with Azhar had already left by then. “The few of us who stayed became integrated into society,” he had once told me earlier during one of his trips to Karachi.

Musician, activist and, now, the new director of T2F, Arieb Azhar talks about his passions, what his vision is for arts and culture, and his link to the Croatian football team

The nearest bomb shelter was a 10-minute walk away and so instead, he and the others would huddle in the basement of the closest building whenever the sirens went off. These shelters or basements were completely plunged in darkness. “At times there were 20 of us cramped in a room. You could make as much noise as you wanted and so we sang songs. That’s how I learned a lot of the region’s folk songs and music.” Arieb would stay in Croatia for 13 years before moving back to Islamabad, Pakistan in 2003.

A lot has happened since his return. “We used to host these Sweet Leaf City Jams all over the city,” relates Arieb. “Then a bunch of us set up the Rock Musicarium [a venue for live music performances] in Islamabad.” He released his debut album Wajj in 2006, he was featured in Coke Studio several times (Season 2, 3, Season 10), and other than touring both locally and internationally, he launched the Music Mela festival in Islamabad in 2014. Folk, classical, mainstream and underground musicians from around the country would gather together to perform at this three-day event.

“It was the first festival of its kind,” he relates. “Before the first Music Mela, the only music festival that was happening was in Lahore — the Rafi Peer World Performing Arts Festival and then the Sufi Festival. I then joined forces with my ex-partner Zeejah Fazli, who has an organisation called Face [Foundation for Arts, Culture, Education]. In 2015 and 2016, we did the Music Mela together through the Face platform.”

In 2017, he launched the first Art Langar — a two-day festival that brought together musicians from across the country, had art installations but also hoped to make a difference to the lives of the lesser privileged. “In Islamabad we worked with Mashal Model School for street children and brought around 350 students and did some music and art activities with them. And we shared meals, which was the langar aspect of the festival,” he relates. “The point was to connect music, art, culture with community building and some very basic human values. Like looking after the poor, feeding the hungry and just looking after each other.”

One gets the impression that he believes there is a disconnect between these basic human values in people. “I do,” says Arieb. “I feel that the music industry across the world, ever since pop music started thriving, sort of lost touch with what real street or folk music was about. It was about the word on the street, talking about peoples’ problems, dealing with human issues and now largely it’s become about fame and fortune.

“I’m a full Croatian and I’m a full Pakistani. I don’t like any of this ‘half’ business.” Arieb Azhar’s signature shirt is of the Croatian national football team. According to the him, no one recognised it until the recently-concluded FIFA World Cup final between Croatia and France
“I’m a full Croatian and I’m a full Pakistani. I don’t like any of this ‘half’ business.” Arieb Azhar’s signature shirt is of the Croatian national football team. According to the him, no one recognised it until the recently-concluded FIFA World Cup final between Croatia and France

“I wanted to bridge that,” he elaborates. “Not only for audiences, [but also] for the section of society that thinks that art and culture is haraam. To introduce them to that idea with langar – giving and sharing. But also, for the artists, to make them feel like they are a part of a bigger meaning with their music. To take this to the next level, we needed to hold the second Art Langar in Karachi.”

It was while soliciting support for the festival that he encountered Khalid Mahmood, the CEO of Getz Pharma. “It’s only when I met him to talk about Art Langar that he told me that he’s the chairman of the board of PeaceNiche, which is the parent organisation of T2F,” says Arieb. “And that they’re looking for a director for T2F but they can’t find a suitable person. In our conversations I sort of felt that he was sounding me out and giving me hints. In our next meeting I asked him squarely: ‘Suppose I was to consider shifting here, would you consider me for the job?’ He said that would be beautiful.” Arieb mulled over it for some time and then decided that he was done with Islamabad. It was time to relocate to Karachi.

The musician best known for his simple, yet powerful rendition of Husn-e-Haqiqi (lyrics taken from the kalam of Khawaja Ghulam Farid) is excited about his new role at T2F. It’s been three months since he’s joined and every week is packed with events — music performances and workshops, literary and dance workshops, film screenings, book launches, poster exhibits etc. There is a glass board in his office full of complex permutations of his plans for the place — what has been done, what guests fit where, what has been arranged etc. And he’s revived the some of the old events such as ‘Science Ka Adda’. But there’s one series he’s particularly proud of: ‘The Maa Dharti Project’ with Tofiq Pasha Mooraj.

“The first thing that hit me when I came from Islamabad was the bareness of things,” he says. “No grass, no trees etc. So, I kick-started a project related to the environment.” The Maa Dharti (Mother Earth) Project has Tofiq Pasha Mooraj talking about planting trees and the water situation in the city, and there has also been a conversation about marine conservation with environmentalist and scuba diver Saquib Mehmood. The last event had Ahmad Shabbar (of GarbageCAN) talking about the garbage situation in the city and on recycling waste.

How does it feel to be the first male director of T2F? “Wow. I never thought of that actually!” laughs Arieb. “It feels great to be a male director in a place which has a predominantly feminist spirit about it.”

Did he realise what an impact Sabeen Mahmud, whose brainchild is T2F, had on people? “Not to the extent that she did until I actually came here and saw how emotionally-attached people are to this place,” he says. “I spoke to a couple of people who said they haven’t been here since Sabeen passed on.” And now they have.

With all of this activity, does he even have time for music? “At the moment no,” he responds. “But I told myself when I was shifting that for the first three months I wouldn’t work on my music. I do miss touring but I’ve accepted that right now I’m in charge of a physical space so I need to create those ‘happenings’ around me now.

“We’re also going to revive the Creative Karachi Festival this year which has happened twice before — once Sabeen organised it. That’s a challenge for me. Because I haven’t done something like that before.”

A quick look at the time reveals that it’s only a few minutes till the next event and so we have to wrap our conversation up. Downstairs in the performance area, dancer Suhaee Abro has just finished her dance workshop.

As the audience starts assembling in the chairs, Arieb settles into his space in front of them. Even while sitting, he has somewhat of a towering presence over those around him and soon his strong baritone voice fills the hall. One notices that Arieb is just as comfortable sitting at a café addressing a smaller, more intimate audience as he is performing on stage at a venue for thousands.

The writer is a member of staff.

She tweets @madeehasyed

Published in Dawn, ICON, July 22nd, 2018