The Turkish television series, Diliris: Ertugrul, has taken Pakistan by storm. Setting aside the impact of a gripping script, which is the staple of all TV series, what impresses is the meticulous research that would have gone into creating the sets, costumes and cultural etiquette of the times. Feridun Emecan, a historical consultant, whose area of expertise is the Ottoman period, was engaged. There has been talk of Mehmet Bozdag, the scriptwriter of Ertugrul, wanting to do a project in Pakistan. But where are the cultural references, the images, the artefacts to be found? Our history is almost exclusively the history of war and politics and sceptics would agree with Napoleon Bonaparte who said, “History is a set of lies agreed upon.”

We see Pakistan as a static society divided into provinces and tribes, shaken by the two-way migrations in 1947. We forget that, since 2000 BC, this region has seen wave after wave of invasions and settlers from north of the Caspian sea, from Persia, China , Central Asia , Greece, the rest of India and Arabia. The last invasion this region saw was that of Babar in 1525. We have had almost 500 years to establish impermeable tribal identities, since the next invaders, the British, entered India through Calcutta in the East. It is difficult to imagine that Bactrians, Sakas, Achaemenids, Persians, Huns, Sogdians, Yeuchi, Ionians andMacedonians crossed our rivers, and travellers from distant countries, traded here, made their homes here, intermarried here and added their culture, art and genetics here. These unfamiliar names do not make it into our history books.

We live in the present to escape the past because the past is always presented in political terms and is always contentious. Geneticist David Reich says that in contrast to India, which is under the spell of Hindutva passion, Pakistan doesn’t seem to care very much about the ancient past.

There is no equivalent of R.C. Majumdar’s 11-volume The History and Culture of the Indian People. There are no museums like Germany’s Museum of Everyday Culture. Art and coinage are the only two sources that offer some documentation of what people wore and their surroundings and the objects they used.

Histories were written to preserve the adventures of heroes, kings, wars, and broad social, political or economic movements. As societies became more egalitarian, social and cultural histories gained momentum, especially after the ’60s. Letters, objects of everyday use, advertising, posters, postcards, cartoons, folk songs and oral histories, family photographs or scrapbooks became sources for piecing together past eras.

Antoinetta Procura, a tobacco worker, forced to evacuate during WWI, wrote her life story by pencil on the inside of the wooden trunk she escaped with. It is preserved in an Italian Historical War Museum. In July 1917, a French railway inspector at Paris’s Gare du Nord station, recorded 189 despairing messages scribbled on 43 trains by troops returning  from the western front. 

A handful of scholars have documented everyday rural and urban Pakistani culture. We remain ignorant of the many styles in which pagrris are wrapped, the varying wedding customs, harvesting rituals, the styles of boat construction, how mithai and achar is made. Old PTV programmes were mostly recorded over. Urban slang dictionaries need to be compiled and wall-chalking should be documented. There is a growing nostalgia for the recent past, shared on social media by individuals, but no organised compilations. It is time to revisit the purpose of Pakistan’s museums, adding everyday artefacts, clothing and ephemeral popular culture. Shared cultural memories create a more authentic sense of who we are and create opportunities to reconnect, with and re-interpret, our past.

As Mark Twain said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but sometimes it rhymes.”

Durriya Kazi is a Karachi-based artist and heads the department of visual studies at the University of Karachi Email: durriyakazi1918@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, July 19th, 2020

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