From the Single National Curriculum to the 18th Amendment, Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan to the composition of its cricket team — each issue that arises throws Pakistan into an existential crisis, stirring fundamental debates about national identity, teleology and trajectory: Who are we? Who do we want to be?

In this context, Pakistan Here and Now: Insights into Society, Culture, Identity and Diaspora — a volume of essays edited by poet and essayist Harris Khalique and development practitioner Irfan Ahmad Khan — is a welcome arrival. With its self-describing subtitle, the volume comprises seven essays on topics ranging from cinema, censorship, curriculum, music, history and poetry that collectively take a long view to understand how historical and political developments — and accidents — have shaped Pakistan’s culture.

The contributors hail from various disciplines — media, academia, development, gender studies — and each essay has a lively, distinct voice. The essays leap from academic theorising to anecdote, historical narration to personal reflection, and readers are better off abandoning expectations of a traditional edited volume. Instead, the book should be thought of as an opportunity to join a conversation, as the writers seem to speak to each other across their contributions, common-minded friends seeking to provoke each other.

Despite this fluidity, the collection has a clear mission statement, with the editors describing it as an attempt to “[problematise] the subjects of society, culture, identity and diaspora from a progressive perspective.” Although this is a volume on culture, the political flag is raised early, and flies high through all the contributions. Indeed, given the vanishing space in Pakistan for dialogue or critical thought, and the paucity of cultural introspection, the volume feels like more than an intervention — it is a political gauntlet.

A volume of accessible essays collectively takes a long view to understand how historical and political developments — and accidents — have shaped Pakistan’s culture

Read together, the essays start to tackle questions of who we are and how we got to be this way. Journalist and filmmaker Hasan Zaidi’s opening essay, ‘Certain Uncertainties: The Cultural Confusions of Pakistan’, lays the ground well by examining the effort to define Pakistani culture. He recounts the 1968 Faiz Culture Report, highlighting the tense relationship between art and the state throughout our country’s history — and rightly concludes that go-to binaries for cultural categorisation are inadequate.

The volume’s mix of perspectives helps to broaden the definition of culture, and serves as a reminder that cultural formation is not a purely organic process. Instead, it is informed by policy and the constraints of creative economies. Author and cultural critic Salman Asif’s essay on the representation of religious minorities in Pakistani cinema is an excellent read, showing how inclusive and exclusive depictions echo the challenges faced by the industry itself, and are steered by historical and political events. For example, Asif effectively demonstrates the impact of the Khalistan movement on celluloid representations of the Sikh community.

Khalique’s own essay on the diaspora’s role in shaping Pakistani politics and culture is an interesting angle to include. His mapping of the Pakistani diaspora and its relation to Pakistan is a useful schematic, but one wishes he had further explored how — what he terms — the “influential” diaspora’s experience of social exclusion in Western countries, ultimately leads to nostalgic political activism — for example, support for the current ruling party — that, in turn, fuels other forms of exclusion within Pakistan.

And while educationist Dr Naazir Mahmood’s essay titled ‘Discrimination and Exclusion in Educational System of Pakistan’ initially seems out of place in this volume, it effectively drives home the idea that a progressive and inclusive culture is taught and curated — or not, as is sadly the case in Pakistan. Mahmood’s essay, in fact, anchors the book by directly calling out how “ideological ostracisation” works in Pakistan, and explains why the state places draconian curbs on academia and debate that necessitate such a book. The essay would have been, arguably, better placed at the start of the volume to contextualise other contributions.

One notable feature of this collection is the writers’ frequent recourse to anecdote, memories and musing, and repeated mentions of love. For example, assistant professor of gender studies Fatimah Ihsan’s lyrical essay ‘The Raag of Inclusion and the Ras of Love’ is a personal, poetic and metaphorical journey through the tradition of Sufi music, which succeeds in making the point that pluralism and inclusion — particularly gender inclusivity — have a deep tradition in Pakistan. The depth of feeling in such essays highlights how the personal is truly political in Pakistan, and that efforts to preserve a progressive vision — such as this volume — are actually acts of self-preservation.

Several essays did want for more rigorous editing, primarily in the form of clearer framing and argumentation. Academic and actor Navid Shahzad’s ‘The Language of the Heart’, which juxtaposes the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet with Faiz Ahmed Faiz and examines their use of their native languages in their poetry, begins with a historical sweep — starting from Adam and Eve! The essay then meanders through ruminations on language, exile, dislocation, post-coloniality and religion. One enjoys the biographic detail on, and powerful verse of, these poetic giants, but is left wondering what Shahzad’s argument is.

Similarly, writer Zahida Hina’s chronology of how religion came to play a central conceptual and operational role in the Pakistani state, starting in the seventh century with the birth of Islam, is a useful review for those lacking historical context, but is begging for a clearer thesis to guide the reader through the chronology.

That said, the mix of personal experience and witty observations, and the chunks of chronology disrupting analysis, are essential for those readers who are not au fait with these debates, and will hopefully make the volume seem more accessible and informative. It would, after all, defy the purpose of the collection if it were only consumed by the progressive literati. In fact, a version of this book is also available in Urdu translation under the title Pakistan Ehd-i-Haazir Mein.

As it stands, the book itself becomes an indicator of Pakistan’s contemporary cultural vernacular or zeitgeist. The need to mix politics with artistic and cultural critique; the diversity of contributors, including practitioners; the support from a United States-based think tank; the urge to capture this content in an edited volume, pulling ideas out of urban drawing rooms and Twitter feeds and giving them shape and substance in the form of a book — all these factors are a poignant comment on the state of cultural discourse and debate in Pakistan, surviving against all odds, and not in isolation or as a disruption, but as part of an evolving tradition.

It is also an interesting comment on our current cultural crisis that several essays — for example, Shahzad’s on Faiz and Asif’s on minorities in film — list international awards and global recognition that Pakistani cultural artefacts and their producers have received.

An effort to reclaim and articulate our culture still benchmarks cultural production against externalities and implicitly seeks validation, rather than articulating a vernacular within which Pakistan’s cultural production can be evaluated. It would be wonderful to see a successor volume from Khalique and Khan taking up this challenge.

The reviewer is a political and integrity risk analyst. She tweets @humayusuf

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 19th, 2021

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