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Bands that play on

March 18, 2013

MORE than 15 years ago, I met a theatre actor from Bosnia; the years during which he made the transition from amateur to professional overlapped with the Bosnian war in the early 1990s.

At the time I met him, Pakistani theatre persons still vividly remembered the Zia era, when political dissent on the stage led to the state actively trying to suppress it and the resultant rise of the so-called parallel theatre. Everyone with an interest in theatre had a story to tell. As such, I thought, we were hardly strangers to theatre in an inhospitable climate.

But what this actor had to share was something altogether different. He talked about being on-stage during the siege of Sarajevo in the background noise of bombs and bullets, rehearsing as the war unfolded around them, script sessions in darkened rooms with blacked-out windows, cast and crew working their way around barricades and security cordons, curfews and strikes.

Why? I asked him. And more importantly, how? How and why was it possible or even necessary to keep the show going in the middle of a war zone?

Consider where Pakistan was then, when this conversation was taking place — Nawaz Sharif was still prime minister, we had yet to embark on a new iteration of dictatorship, and the world, and particularly Pakistan, had yet to embroil itself in the “war on terror”. I didn’t then have the experience to fully understand the implications of this man’s answer. But in the Pakistan of 2013, I’m beginning to get it.

He told us that they kept the theatre going “because it was the only thing we knew how to do”.

As the city and region descended into chaos, he said they (actors, directors, etc) faced a choice: join in, or keep things going to whatever extent was possible in the hope that this would, in some way, count as resistance against the forces of darkness.

They hoped that keeping up the appearance of normality would strengthen normality, keep it familiar and close at hand, ready to reinstate at the first opportunity — and to whatever little extent, help keep the anarchy at bay. “We’re theatre professionals,” he said, “so in that spirit we carried on doing what we knew how to do. What else could we have done?”

In the here and now of Pakistan, I know someone who was kidnapped and spent several days in the custody of a radical group. It proved possible, thankfully, to secure his release.

A couple of days later, he was back at work at commitments that had been set up before his abduction. Should he have allowed himself to lie low?

The worst had already happened, he said, the best one could hope for was that it wouldn’t happen again. He had to do what he had to do. Life didn’t stop, and if he stopped doing his thing, it would mean that they — the kidnappers, the country, the security situation — had broken him.

He is far from the only one. In fact, we appear to have towns and cities and villages full of people who are carrying on, like the actors in Sarajevo, because that is the only thing we know how to do.

The crops must be tended to, the businesses kept going, the traffic kept sorted, the children dropped to school and so on — the massive enterprise that is the progress of a country has a lot of heavy, ponderous momentum. Personal tragedy occurs and public outrage may erupt; but having sung a requiem for the fallen, what is there for everybody else to do but to carry on?

Do we realise, though, that it’s a choice we make everyday, a tiny matchstick pinprick of defiance in the face of an inferno of madness?

I suspect many of us do.

Certainly, Parween Rahman did. As did Bashir Bilour. And Salmaan Taseer. And Benazir Bhutto. And a host of courageous people whose names are less familiar who kept doing what they did in the very face of the furies.

Consider the men and women who were killed for their participation in the polio vaccination programme. And the tribal elders who announced their allegiance to the government, to end up as targets in the militant/terrorists’ cross-hairs. And the policemen and soldiers who continue to hold the line even though every instinct of self-preservation must inevitably conflict with the obedience to orders.

If people were finally too fearful or too hopeless to keep up the semblance of normality — which, for all of Pakistan’s very grim realities is still the baseline, though of course for a relative value of normality — then it would mean that “they” had won.

Every act of keeping things going as they have always gone is an act of defiance, and this transforms all such acts into something that is of inestimably greater value — and courage — than they intrinsically merit.

Taking the bus to work or going to the shops or not covering your head are not in themselves acts of any particular bravery. But in Pakistan’s particular landscape, they have been rendered so.

When the awareness is alive in your mind that the bus may well be looted, the shop blown up, or your appearance murderously condemned, then everyday, a choice is being made and that choice aligns itself with normalcy, civilisation and hope. That is why Malala Yousafzai and her two friends — and their families — are rendered heroic and iconic.

This realisation, though, constitutes a double-edged sword. It’s hope-enkindling that everyday acts of life signal a refusal to bow before the wrath of savages. But on the other hand, that is how far beyond the pale the ‘new normal’ in Pakistan is. Glass half full or half empty? The choice is yours.

The writer is a member of staff.