The Pakistan Pavilion at the Dubai Expo 2020 held in 2021, is a watershed moment in the presentation of Pakistan’s global image. Called ‘Hidden Treasures’, the two messages that stand out are Rashid Rana’s design of the pavilion, made up of 24,000 pieces, each slightly different from the other, celebrating diversity, and the exhibits and films that give prominence to the many religions practised in a predominantly Muslim country.
This may be the first time there has been a government policy to celebrate the religious and cultural diversity of Pakistan since the 1960s, when Aslam Azhar was commissioned to make a series of documentaries called Colours of a Culture that included the Kalash community, and when Sohail Rana composed Moonlight in the Sunderbans and the Indus Valley Cha Cha Cha. Today, ministers attend Diwali and Christmas celebrations. And the government has constructed the Kartarpur corridor between India and Pakistan for Sikh devotees.
This comes on the back of three decades of endorsing a monolithic ideology for a pluralistic society that increasingly narrowed the cultural space for non-Muslims. Ironically, at the height of its expansion across ethnically, culturally and religiously diverse regions, Islam had no reservations about engaging the best minds regardless of their religion. Even today, most Muslim countries from Palestine, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria to Indonesia have thriving non-Muslims communities.
A large proportion of Pakistan’s Goanese Christian community, its Parsis, and even Muslims who felt at odds with the growing religious rigidity, have migrated. Although many have done so for better economic opportunities rather than any religious persecution, we have to ask the question: would it be possible in the Pakistan of today for the Christian community to stage Jesus Christ Superstar at the Ali Bhai Auditorium on Karachi’s Nishtar Road, as they did in 1976 to packed audiences? Can there be another Justice Cornelius? Can Karachi elect a mayor called Jamshed Nusserwanji Mehta?
The history of humanity is the history of migration from the earliest migration out of Africa 40 million years ago. The cross fertilisation of ideas occurs when different cultures interact, whether through migration, conquest, or trade.
Today, Europe is anxious about migration, yet the largest migration in history was that of Europeans to the Americas, not counting the forced migration of 20 million slaves across the Atlantic. Perhaps that is the basis of their fear, since migrations of some 60 million Europeans to USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand made indigenous inhabitants an insignificant minority.
Sociologist Augusto De Venanzi, believes the issue is less about migration of communities and more about their exclusion from the mainstream. Typically, migrants are placed in designated areas, face a loss of social rights, are treated disrespectfully and have limited opportunities.
Social exclusion has been called the enemy of change. Before state borders were demarcated, the ebb and flow of traders, craftsmen, and even soldiers, contributed a social liveliness and introduced new ideas, skills, products and cultures in a natural symbiosis.
A closer look at societies today that believe they are racially monolithic, reveal a history of settlers and migrants who have become assimilated over time. Britain has its Viking, Norman and Germanic roots and the USA has its Irish, Scottish, Swedish, Slavic and Germanic roots. India is struggling with a desire for a Hindu identity, denying its complex history of settlers from Greece to China and all that lies between.
The reality is that countries that are pluralistic thrive. When marginalised communities such as the Afro-Americans and the Rastafarians extract a cultural space through subversion, they enrich the societies they live in. Exclusion creates intellectual and cultural impoverishment, such as the end of the glory of Andalucia after the Reconquista of 1492, with the forced expulsion of Muslims and Jews.
Farid al-Din ‘Attar, in his 12th century poem Mantiq ut-Tair [The Conference of the Birds], reveals that the birds themselves are collectively the Simurgh they are searching for, representing plurality, shared humanity and a common spiritual bond.
Durriya Kazi is a Karachi-based artist. She may be reached at email@example.com
Published in Dawn, EOS, November 14th, 2021