Warp and weft:tales from the Pakistani blogosphere

May 6, 2012

I am going to break a self-imposed rule and recount my latest conversation with a Pakistani taxi driver.  His parents live in Lahore, so we got talking about his main worries about Pakistan. The answer - lack of clean water and dengue fever. I am  somewhat parodying the tired journalistic device of “my taxi driver said” here (I promise not to do it again) – since you can quote a Pakistani taxi driver without even going to Pakistan (London minus the extra airfare) – but here’s my point.  People don’t always,  or even often, talk about the stuff that makes headline news – like relations with the United States, the war in Afghanistan, Islamist militancy, drones, civilian-military competition and political confrontation. Pakistan (190 million people or more) is also cultural, social, economic and historical; it is religious but not only religious, traditional and urbanising; it is the most parochial country to be obsessed with the outside world; the most feudal to be driven by a web-savvy and growing youth; its issues include music and education, the price of onions and the fear of dengue.

To capture some of that, I have decided to start, on an experimental basis, a round-up of some of the latest articles in the Pakistani blogosphere. Apologies to anyone who feels they were unfairly ignored this time around but 1) I notice more those on my Twitter timeline (@myraemacdonald), 2) I am looking at themes that would be worth exploring further 3) I have tried to exclude those about The Big Political and Geopolitical Issues and 4) This is a personal choice rather than a scorecard.  I have, however, included blogs from the diaspora with some reservations  - inside the space created by the internet, and particularly on Twitter, diaspora/Pakistan conversations appear seamless (especially, for reasons I have never understood, when Manchester United is playing);   outside the internet, real world  influences are different in ways that are not always obvious.

I shall refine/amend/drop this series depending on what people have to say. But to get started, here are a few blogs/themes that caught my eye. 

First up, urbanisation. This is important since much of the support for Islamist groups and for the kind of “stability” which some think can best be provided by the army has come from the urban middle and lower-middle classes. As has been the case in India, anger against corruption has also been driven by the urban middle classes who want a bigger share of the pie, while being presented rather disingenuously as concern for the rural poor.  And urbanisation is an essential subject to master for anyone who wants to invest in Pakistan.

In the blogosphere, Umair Javed at Recycled Thought has been making much of the running, writing not just about urbanisation, but suburbanisation. For background, read his column in Pakistan Today about how suburbanisation and gated communities are transforming Punjab province, with garish consumerist adverts, fast-food restaurants, new colleges for the growing youth population, and changing land use. “Population pressures, urbanisation, and its accompanying features all have very real consequences in terms of the politics it breeds, the developmental questions it poses, and the impact these have on society at large,” he writes. “So while the world places its focus on Islamism, radicalisation, and state collapse, society in some parts of the country is humming along, forging a unique relationship with modernity in the process.”  The next step, as described this month at Recycled Thought,  is to try to map those changes, for example by looking at how the urban middle classes in Lahore are moving into the suburbs in pursuit of better education for their children:  “…a specific class, the middle to upper middle one in this case, can be spatially identified by mapping out desired commodities – like private education,” he says. “Can’t say for sure, but I suspect if one were to mark out growth in mid-range food outlets, the results would be quite similar.”

The line, “it’s the economy, stupid”, never seems to wear thin, probably because we keep forgetting it. So read his posts and consider that rather than anguishing about state failure/not state failure in Pakistan, someone ought to be running the numbers on urbanisation/suburbanisation, population growth, youth as a percentage of the population, income and income disparity, political views, educational standards, use of English versus Urdu/Punjabi, and indeed according to Umair Javed, purchasing power for Toyotas, Hondas, take-away food and burgers.

(And on the subject of urban development, do please also catch up on Manan Ahmed’s elegaic series on Lahore, of which the latest is here at Chapati Mystery.)

My second choice is entirely partial, in Ahsan Butt’s discussion of how nationalism is created - a subject which only just scrapes under the barrier of Big Political Issue.  I say partial because growing up in Scotland I had no awareness of how our history and tradition were manufactured – we studied the 18th century Jacobite rebellions against “English” rule;  learned how to dance an Eightsome Reel and memorise our gloriously yearning folk songs.  I realised only after I had left Scotland how much of our history had been romanticised. I realised it all the more while helping my daughter with her history homework progressively through French, American and British school systems, where each one claimed to have won World War Two (yes, virtually single-handed.)  And only by studying nationalism in South Asia, as seen from both India and Pakistan, could I begin to look more objectively at my own national history.

Ahsan Butt, who tweets as @fiverupees, is rather more clear-eyed about how national myths are created and questions the usefulness of flags, anthems and statues. It is an unusual approach to Pakistan where nationalism still runs strong, and where the European constructions needed to create a nation state have found uncomfortable, and sometimes excessive, form. ”The bottom line, for me anyway, is that the rise of nationalism in the modern world is no accident,” he writes. “States have learned that few things are more useful than a sense of nationhood when attempting to inculcate loyalty and obedience amongst its citizens. And I don’t know about you, but I hate being treated like a puppet.”

The third choice of the week is a blog written in response to Pakistan’s mostly celebratory yet ambivalent response to it winning its first Oscar for the documentary “Saving Face” about survivors of acid attacks.  Acid attacks are a painful subject which cannot and should not be glamorised into celebrations of Oscar success;  nor one where the elite background of the film-maker should overshadow the more tawdry histories of her subjects; nor indeed, as has been debated ferociously, should they become an issue where Pakistan would be somehow defined by western endorsement of the documentary. Yet to criticise the documentary  also risks losing sight of the boundaries between the appropriate social/legal response to acid attacks and the requirements of making films. 

So I liked the way this blog cut through the many tortured views by arguing that the discomfort is not about the documentary at all, but rather a sign that Pakistanis have grown unaccustomed to responding to film after the post-1947 decline of its film industry. They are more at home with music.  “Because you see, music has existed as a uniquely and distinctly knowable Pakistani art form through out our lives. We’ve grown up with it, we’ve loved it and hated it, we’ve felt embarrassed by it and we’ve felt it was the only thing that made us proud. And we know about it. We know it. We know which artists we like, who we revere, who reminds us of him and who is copying her. We know who we want to be when we sing in the shower and who we wish to be with when we daydream. It is an entire cultural cosmos that we are familiar with. And that’s what Pakistani films don’t have – for our generation at least.”

Food for thought. 

Finally, a shout-out to qissa-khawni, a new blog on Pashtun culture named after the old story-tellers bazaar of Peshawar.

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Spent Christmas break in India. I always tip the rickshaw wallahs proportionally to their conversation. A buck for me is 50 for them. I get to feel generous. They get to buy their kids a treat.

I wouldn’t trust investment advice from a taxi driver. But if you want to know the best places to eat, the best bars, the place where all the cool kids hang out or what the common man finds most troubling, the taxi driver is the best intelligence source you’ll ever have.

Our resident Pakistani blog dog here (Umair) goes on and on about nuclear weapons. That taxi driver gives not a wit. He cares about clean water and dengue fever. Guess he didn’t get the memo. He’s supposed to tell everybody that he’s proud to eat grass and that all is well since Pakistan has nukes. How dare he talk about clean water and dengue fever.

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