Poet and journalist Haris Khalique, author Raza Rumi and poet Kishwar Naheed are among the guests sitting on the stage. — Dawn
Poet and journalist Haris Khalique, author Raza Rumi and poet Kishwar Naheed are among the guests sitting on the stage. — Dawn

ISLAMABAD: A new book of essays, titled Being Pakistani: Society, Culture and the Arts, by policy analyst, journalist and author Raza Rumi was launched on Thursday.

The book launch was hosted by Kuch Khaas at Sattarbuksh.

Being Pakistani is a collection of essays drawn from Mr Rumi’s articles on art, culture and literature for various publications for the past several years. The book explores various aspects of Pakistani art, literature and heritage, which Mr Rumi argues that Pakistani culture is not particularly unique but a part of the greater and incredibly diverse culture of South Asia.

Mr Rumi, who left Pakistan in 2014 after surviving an assassination attempt, said he began writing these essays in the last 12 to 13 years.

“I used to write features and as few people write on art and culture, I had numerous demands. Some of these appeared across the border. As I researched, I learned more about myself. What we have is a singular version of history and I was trying to learn and unlearn. When I travelled through Sindh, I was searching for Kali temples and discovered numerous functional temples. Then I discovered the Sufi traditions that built upon that past. This was a journey and I was extremely lucky.”

“These essays explore aspects of our lived realities and lived faiths,” he said. “I write of Mustafa Zaidi who was a leading Urdu poet and a civil servant. I was a civil servant and I lived in the same house he lived in, in Murree. I used to think about where Mustafa would sit. He was a complete misfit because in the civil service he was seen as a poet and the poets saw him as an oppressive establishment figure.

“The essays look at different aspects of Pakistani culture and identity through the lens of art, music and literature and how common they are to those of our South Asian compatriots. There is a shared pluralistic history – we cannot ignore the multiple layers of history.”

The book launch was moderated by poet and journalist Harris Khalique, who also spoke briefly about Mr Rumi and his work.

Calling the book a “fascinating read”, Mr Khalique said: “All the essays are linked. The book gives you an understanding of the tensions in society, culture and the overall art scene in the subcontinent. There are very few in Raza’s generation who have wide interests that straddle the expanse of interests. Raza has a desire to share with us. I believe he has de-classed and de-ethnicised himself – he is a member of a larger community.”

“Almost four years ago, Raza left Pakistan under very unfortunate circumstances. He miraculously lived, and all our lives were poorer for his having left,” said Human Rights Watch Pakistan head Ali Dayan Hasan.

He added: “This book shows us what Raza is – he is one of those great medieval intellectuals who no longer exist. He has a world view informed by a breadth and depth of knowledge. In this age of compartmentalisation this is both rare and essential.”

“This book demonstrates that; he is not an artist or an art historian but he writes on art, and who says that commenting on art is the preserve of artists and art historians? He has great class mobility – he can traverse classes quite easily. He believes in a South Asian identity and the power of syncretism. The book focuses on artists who are outsiders – there is a democratic spirit in Raza’s inquiry. He has a holistic, inclusive view of us as part of moments in history and part of a rich mosaic of culture.”

“It looks like a book written by me,” said celebrated poet Kishwar Naheed.

“It contains Lahore, Mehdi Hasan, Shazia Sikander – Kabir lives in this. What he writes about East Pakistan – he must have been for the first time and he saw Bangladesh and was happy. I have been many times and I am distressed by that chapter in our past,” she said. “In the essay on Habib Jalib, many of the atrocities of our history are shared. What is especially beautiful in this book are the three essays on Qurratulain Hyder, Intizar Hussain and Fehmida Riaz. I think this book is a cultural montage of Pakistan.”

Published in Dawn, July 20th, 2018

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