Natural and economic disasters, wars, revolutions and genocides have dotted the timeline of history leading to the collapse of countries and sometimes whole civilisations. At a personal level, people hit rock bottom with life-altering injuries, loss of loved ones, collapse of business ventures, loss of home and community due to wars, natural disasters or even bad personal decisions.

People need hope to pick themselves up and carry on. One of the most revisited images through the ages is that of a mythical bird, the phoenix, rising from the ashes of its own destruction. The phoenix builds a nest of scented wood and resin. The sun’s rays burn the bird and the nest to ashes, as it emerges once again in a new form. Something old needs to be let go to make space for the new.

There is much talk of the downward spiral of the economy of Pakistan and its institutions. A country that already rose once out of the trauma of Partition, Pakistan has been dogged by nay-sayers who devised terms for it such as “failed state”.

In his article, Failed States are a Western Myth, Elliot Ross records that the term was first used in 1992 in an article in the US Foreign Policy journal “as a rationale to impose US interests on less powerful nations.”

A tapestry in the United Nations Security Council depicts a phoenix, symbolising renewal after the Second World War. All of Europe had to rise from the ashes of two deadly world wars with a combined death toll of almost 100 million and many million wounded. Entire cities were reduced to rubble. There were food shortages and a shattered economy. The year 1945 was called Year Zero.

Britain faced the destruction of its capital city, its economy, and the loss of many lives, as well as control of its colonial Empire. The government prioritised the emotional restoration of its people. Britain became a welfare state, with a free National Health Service. Women, who played a crucial role during the war, were given the right to vote. The 1951 Festival of Britain displayed British achievements in science, technology and the arts to bring back a sense of pride and take away attention from the long process of recovery.

Unlike Britain, Germany was not a free state in the aftermath of the war. Occupied by the Allies, its currency was worthless and 70 percent of housing was destroyed. The economist Walter Eucken authored the “German economic miracle”. His radical plan included a free market, a strong welfare system, an independent central bank and a new currency.

Despite criticism, it worked and change was visible almost immediately. People had an incentive to work. Industrial production was four times higher than it was just one decade earlier.

The Miracle on the Han River, a period of rapid growth in South Korea after the Korean war (1950-53), was achieved by a strong government that rejected aid, swept away corruption, limited farm holdings to 7.5 acres and spread education on a war footing in every available space from abandoned factories to tents.

Dispossessed landlords put their wealth into business and educational institutions. An Ease of Doing business environment attracted investors. Family-based companies or chaebls were encouraged, emerging as Hyundai, LG and Samsung. South Korea spends more of its GDP on Research and Development than the US or Japan.

It has not been a smooth journey for these nations. Their art, music and literature reflected the anxiety of the times — the ashes of transformation. The tug of hope and despair is expressed by singer Sajjad Ali, “Mein doob raha hoon abhi dooba tau nahi hoon” [I’m drowning right now, but I haven’t drowned yet].

Durriya Kazi is a Karachi-based artist.
She may be reached at durriyakazi1918@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, January 22nd, 2023

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