WHEN I first touched down in a foreign land for university, I came across a beautiful grand piano at a train station. A stranger was playing Bohemian Rhapsody, and travellers passing through London’s St Pancras took a moment to stop, enjoy the music, and at times, sing along.
When I was due to leave from that same station three years later, I’d grown, and somewhere along the way, learnt to play myself. The moment was relived. A new group of strangers crowded around, united by nothing more than the sound of a young Pakistani’s fingers on the keys. And as the song neared its end, I noticed an inscription in gold marker against the piano’s glossy black. A handwritten note, signed by the government and a private donor: “This is a gift from us to you. Enjoy it.”
One of the Western world’s greatest statesmen, John Adams said: “I have to study politics and war so that my sons can study mathematics, commerce, and agriculture, so their sons can study poetry, painting, and music.” As the crowd in that station joyfully reached a crescendo, it occurred to me that I was surrounded by some of the sons Adams had been talking about. This moment was what the British had fought and died for. Gone through successive world wars for, shamelessly looted the subcontinent for. Struggles and subjugations of centuries had allowed for the children of Empire to enjoy simple moments of leisure and prosperity without the fear of invading armies at their shores. And now the music flowed.
But it doesn’t have to be the last we hear.
A few thousand miles east of that grand piano, the last members of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music left the country this month. It had been a symbol of growing cultural identity, including an internationally acclaimed all-female orchestra. In the preceding weeks, every instrument was either destroyed or abandoned. The vast majority of Afghan girls now cannot go to the school down the street, let alone the orchestra across the globe. My country tells me this is a victory. I’ll take its word for it.
One late Pakistani leader famously went on a late-night talk show to state a dialogue for the books: “When history is written, it will say that Pakistan, with the help of America, defeated Russia in Afghanistan”. He straightened up to try and conceal his excitement before he continued, but the glint in his eyes betrayed him.
“And then another line will be added: Pakistan, with the help of America, defeated America in Afghanistan.” The crowd bursts into applause, and for a moment it feels like the world is cheering along too.
Just a few years later, the fall of Kabul seemed to fulfil the late-night prophecy. The degenerate West got what was coming to it. Afghans had “broken the shackles of slavery” by kicking out the world’s strongest army. And Pakistan looked back at the rest of world with a loud ‘I told you so’, a softer ‘but I had nothing to do with it’ and a sly grin that cast some doubt on the latter statement. This might sound like a lovely success story, but when your children are starving you can’t feed them stories of grand Muslim triumph. Then again, it’s not our children most deeply impacted. Symbolic victories are much easier to celebrate when it’s your neighbour’s daughter who can’t go to school anymore.
What this music’s end inevitably brings to focus is the smokescreen covering our foreign policy. Because of course, how will we be honest to the world if we aren’t honest with ourselves? In failing to make public distinction between enemies and friends, it often seems that all we want is for people to sit around wondering what we want. Let their imaginations run wild about the extent of our duplicity. For every action we take, there will be a statement that we didn’t take it. We’ll compete amongst ourselves to see who can play the greatest latter-day Machiavelli — double games will turn to triple and quadruple, and at the end of it all we will wonder why presidents don’t pick up the phone and scheduled cricket matches slip through our fingers.
This is not to undermine Pakistan’s immense sacrifices in the war on terror, nor the efforts of those working tirelessly for peace. It’s fair to say that unlike the West, we haven’t yet reached the position to study art and poetry, so politics and war must persist. That’s fair, so long as the endgame is kept in mind.
A principled stance on female education, rule of law, and counterterrorism would go a long way in strengthening international credibility. Aug 15, 2021, might have been the day the music died for Afghanistan, but it doesn’t have to be the last we hear. After all, when history is written I wouldn’t want it to say that my country gave its neighbours nothing but regression. I’d much rather have it say that we sent beautiful grand pianos for their train stations. That they were inscribed with handwritten notes letting them know it was a gift, from us to them. May the sons and daughters of a prosperous nation enjoy it.
The writer is a lawyer and columnist from Okara.
Published in Dawn, October 17th, 2021