Sunday, February 21, 2010

Karachi Scene – The Musical World of Saffia Beyg

"Pakistan Paindabad has set others a model of what a blog/site should be."
Late Khalid Hasan, US correspondent for the Lahore-based Daily Times and The Friday Times

Karachi Scene – The Musical World of Saffia Beyg

A Karachite’s passion for Hindustani classical.

[By Junaid Zuberi]

For the last few years, Pakistan's name has become synonymous with fanaticism, religiosity, Taliban and terrorism. To outsiders, the country may appear as a haven of hate-mongers and terrorists. But all is not wrong.

Amidst the mayhem, some people are trying to keep the colors of life bright and shiny. One such person is Saffia Beyg, affectionately called Saffia Apa. Her sole mission in life is to promote classical music as our cultural and musical heritage.

At 77, Saffia Apa is single-handedly doing what many deem unthinkable. But before I delve into her current passion - Sampurna - let me give you her brief background. Born and brought up in Burma, Saffia was 20 when she married Sa chemical engineer in Bombay. After a few years, the couple moved to Karachi. Saffia Apa's husband joined a private enterprise and she too started working to help the family settle down in the new city. With her Burmese upbringing, Saffia Apa was totally alien to Urdu and Hindustani classical music. However, music was a part and parcel of her life. Heavily into western music, she played guitar and often sang.

It was when Saffia Apa was 40 that she met Ustad Hamid Husain, a well-known sarangi nawaz. His music changed her life. She said adios to western music and started learning Indian classical from her Ustad. Barely three years after she had begun, her Ustad died. However, he had given Saffia Apa enough taste of Hindustani classical for her to find her own way into the world of tals and ragas. Saffia Apa began listening to the great maestros such as Ustad Amir Khan, Parveen Sultana and Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and improvised her singing on her own. All throughout this period, she kept her search for an Ustad but to no avail.

During Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government in the 1970s, Saffia Apa was made in charge of Pakistan Academy of Performing Arts in Karachi that she ran successfully for six to seven years till the Islamist government of General Zia disbanded it. She continued her musical pursuit nevertheless.

In 1999, Saffia Apa formed an organization - Sampurna (seven notes that completes a raaga) - at her home. The idea behind Sampurna was to introduce classical music to Karachi, promote and preserve classical music, musicians and instruments as our artistic heritage and save this art from dying. Quite an uphill task! But Saffia apa is one person who doesn’t believe in giving up.

Since inception, Sampurna has been organizing monthly programs based on classical music. These include vocal recitals, instrumental performances, video presentations, lecture demonstrations, ghazal and qawwali singing and classical dance etc. Through Sampurna, Saffia Apa not only promoted established musicians from Pakistan and India but also gave a platform to lesser-known but talented local musicians whose bread and butter is their music.

Since Sampurna aims at promoting classical music and musicians, Saffia Apa made it a policy to pay every artist well. Using Sampurna's platform, she embarked upon a program of providing sustainable financial aid to deserving artists and their families, focusing specially on the education and health of musicians' children. She coordinated with other organizations like the Infaq Foundation and SAARC Womens Association to help in this program of economic sustenance for the musicians.

Till date, Sampurna has hosted over 120 programs in Karachi, all based on Hindustani classical music. In its eleventh year, the organization is carrying on without any financial help from any government or private enterprises. Contributions from members form the only source of finance that helps Sampurna move from one event to the other.

Saffia Apa’s friends had told her that she was flogging a dead horse, but that did not deter her. Thank God for that. It is because of people like her that our musical heritage is alive still. But Sampurna needs active support from all those who believe in the cause to continue. Saffia Beyg and Sampurna can be contacted through the website

[This appreciation was exclusive written for Pakistan Paindabad.]

A Sampurna concert

Karachi Scene – The Musical World of Saffia Beyg

A Sampurna concert

Karachi Scene – The Musical World of Saffia Beyg

Saffia Apa

Karachi Scene – The Musical World of Saffia Beyg

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Dateline Karachi - Pakistan's First Literature Festival

"Pakistan Paindabad has set others a model of what a blog/site should be."
Late Khalid Hasan, US correspondent for the Lahore-based Daily Times and The Friday Times


Three cheers for Pak-lit.

[First reported by UK's The Independent newspaper Asia correspondent Andrew Buncombe, it first appeared here; picture is of the Pakistani writer Nadeem Aslam]

Amid a booming interest in Pakistani writing, the sprawling and often chaotic city of Karachi is poised to host its first literary festival.

Just months after the city held its first fashion show – an event at which the organisers spoke of their desire to cock a thumb to the fundamentalists who more often dominate Pakistan's headlines – Mohammed Hanif, the author of the critically acclaimed A Case of Exploding Mangoes, will headline an international festival showcasing Urdu and English writers.

"Karachi is a huge city. It probably needs a dozen literary festivals and although there are lots of poetry readings, book launches and an annual Urdu literary conference, it's about time it had an international literary festival," said Mr Hanif. "We want to tell the world that Karachi is not just about what you read in the headlines, there are people here who read and write books."

Karachi is Pakistan's largest and most diverse city, frequently plagued by religious and political turmoil, and those headlines will not go away. This week it was in the spotlight when it was revealed that the Taliban's military leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, had been seized by Pakistani and US operatives in a slum on the city's edge.

But Hanif and his collaborators have a different vision of the city. Their venture means Karachi will become the latest in a number of Asian cities that host increasingly high-profile festivals, with best-selling authors participating in talks and discussions at locations ranging from Shanghai to the Sri Lankan port of Galle. One of the best known, held every January in Jaipur, is organised by the British historian William Dalrymple.

Indeed, the organisers of next month's event in Karachi hit upon the idea after attending last year's festival in Jaipur, which has itself highlighted a number of Pakistani writers. While the programme has not yet been finalised it is understood that Ali Sethi, Mohsin Hamid and the British-based Pakistani writers Nadeem Aslam and Aamer Hussein are to take part.

Raheela Fahim Baqai of the Oxford University Press in Karachi, which is putting on the event with the support of the British Council, said: "We have got international recognition for some of our writers writing in English, but the Urdu tradition also has such rich literature. A number of our sessions will be in Urdu. In the future, it could be that we are also looking at Sindhi and Punjabi writing."

News of the festival comes at a time of mounting interest in Pakistani literature. The trend was perhaps sparked by the publication in 2007 of Hamid's novella, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. That was followed by Hanif's dark A Case of Exploding Mangoes and a collection of short stories, In Other Rooms, Other Worlds, by Daniyal Mueenuddin. A copy of the latter was given to the US President, Barack Obama, by his regional envoy Richard Holbrooke, who said of the collection of interwoven stories: "It's beautiful." Meanwhile, Kamila Shamsie, whose fifth novel, Burnt Shadows, was published last year, has also received international acclaim.

For a long time, Pakistani literature was overshadowed by that produced by Indian writers such as Vikram Seth, Salman Rushdie and Amitav Ghosh. But regional publishers say the current buzz in regard to the new crop of Pakistani authors is similar to that about Indian writing a decade ago.

Ravi Singh, head of Penguin India, which also distributes in Pakistan, said: "I think it is just one of those things. I think that it has acquired a critical mass. This has been the buzz for a year now." Some say the explosion in writing may have been helped by the growth in media in Pakistan that has taken place as a result of liberalisation after 2002. But Hanif disagrees.

"I don't think lack of freedom ever stopped writers and other creative artists in Pakistan. In fact, some of the best literature in Pakistan has been produced during the worst military dictatorships," he said. "The boom... is basically half a dozen writers getting published worldwide, winning awards and getting good reviews. And because they write in English, in a globalised world they get much more attention than their counterparts writing in Urdu or Punjabi or Pashto. But I do hope they are getting this attention, because they are telling some good stories."

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Blog Review – Two Indians in Isloo

"Pakistan Paindabad has set others a model of what a blog/site should be."
Late Khalid Hasan, US correspondent for the Lahore-based Daily Times and The Friday Times

Two Indians in Isloo

They are blogging on life in Pakistan.

[Text by Mayank Austen Soofi]

When London-based writer Peter Mayle rented a cottage in the south of France, he came out with a passionate memoir full of wine, cheese, truffles and the mistral. In October, 2007, two Delhi-based writers rented a house in the north of Pakistan. They have come out with a passionate blogsite that is… not full of Kashmir, Taliban, Zardari or anything else that you read on Pakistan in most websites and blogs.

Set up in February, 2010, by an Indian couple in Islamabad, The Life and Times of Two Indians in Pakistan is a diary of how two intelligent and sensitive people – in possession of some gentle humor – are making sense of a country, which many of their countrymen think is the root cause of all evil. The bloggers – Lamat and Rezaul Hasan – have no agenda to propose except to share the little nuggets of daily life in Pakistan’s capital. One of them is the Pakistan correspondent of an Indian news agency.

In an e-mail interview with Pakistan Paindabad, Lamat said, “We started this blog because we wanted to document our experiences which we think are unique. It's also a fun way to connect with friends and family, who always worry about us having to "live in (arguably) the most dangerous part of the world". We also want to shatter stereotypes about Pakistanis, their lives, and fill them in on the pluses and minuses of being Indian in Pakistan.”

Each blog post (the blogsite shows ten at the time of writing this review) is deceptive simple: taking out the little nieces of domestic helps to Pizza Hut; bringing home a cat (and asking her if she is an Indian or a Pakistani); riding a scooty; spotting the bootleggers. Chattily written, these posts provide a peek into the Other Pakistan, a land where real people tumble through joys and concerns that won’t be out of place in Delhi, Dallas, Dublin or Durban.

This must not be misunderstood as if the bloggers are inside a steel bubble. They are not out of touch with certain realities that unfortunately makes Pakistan unique in the community of nations. Scroll down the site and you would discover that these Indians are regularly followed by “shalwar-kurta clad, Yamaha-riding shadows”. Once a musical soiree in a diplomat’s drawing room was interrupted by a bomb blast that took place not far away in the town.

Such cheerless affairs are not ignored. These expats don’t crib, don’t complain – they cope with it, like the Pakistanis. The dismal facets are presented the way in which people experience them in real life. Almost all the followers of this site are Pakistanis.

With a photo gallery on the right-side bar, the blogsite offers a visual sense of the place. If the images focus less on sunsets and countryside and more on streets and people, the browsing experience would be richer. The absence of picture captions is felt. But this is a minor squabble. A few more months, or even weeks, and may emerge as one of the must-read blogs on the Alternative Pakistan. Pakistan Paindabad is already smelling a book deal.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Viewpoint - “And How are Things For You as a Woman?”

"Pakistan Paindabad has set others a model of what a blog/site should be."
Late Khalid Hasan, US correspondent for the Lahore-based Daily Times and The Friday Times

Viewpoint - “And How are Things For You as a Woman?”

Novelist Sehba Sarwar in a round table conversation.

[This discussion is a part of virtual round table discussion between three writers from Pakistan, Nigeria and Philippines that is taking place on the webforum, The Mantle. Click here for more meat; picture by Partylicious]

“A woman’s body is no longer her own after she becomes pregnant,” says the protestor as she pickets outside the Planned Parenthood headquarters in Houston, USA. “It’s our job to give women other options.” She looks straight in my eyes. “I know a girl who went into Planned Parenthood for a pregnancy test, and she was forced to have an abortion.”

The woman pauses. When she speaks again, her voice is lower. “I mean, we’re here to tell women there are other choices. If they choose to go with us, we take them to get tested. We walk them through their pregnancy. Once the child is born, we make sure that a healthy family adopts the child. And the woman can go on with her own life. That’s our duty. And that’s the duty of the mother who bears a fetus.”

“And what if the woman was raped?” I ask.

The protestor widens her eyes: “Like I said, we promise to look after the woman until the child is born. After that, she can carry on with whatever she was doing before. Just because wrong was done to her doesn’t mean that she takes another life.”

The protester is part of a group of Christian extremists who gather each year for 40 days prior to Easter to protest against Planned Parenthood. On this particular Tuesday morning, there are only a dozen or so men and women holding up posters and walking the sidewalk outside Planned Parenthood’s fenced entrance on Fannin Street. Most Saturday mornings—when many of the abortion services are provided—the protestors assemble in large droves, and patients have to be escorted through epithets and rants before they can reach the building safely. Planned Parenthood is one of the few health agencies that provides not only abortion services (which comprise only five percent of their overall health services), but also affordable health care for everyone. All Planned Parenthood clinics, however, are subjected to extremist protestors.

Almost 40 years ago, a landmark ruling was issued by the U.S. Supreme Court; it gave women in this country the right to choose to bear a child. Today, the battle is still not over, as each year more doctors who provide abortion services have either been killed, threatened to be killed, or have simply been pushed out of communities. Over the last decade—nearly all of which was presided over by former President George W. Bush—providing abortion services became an increasing challenge. In Texas, abortion services are only available in seven percent of the state’s 254 counties. Each year, across the U.S., abortion laws are getting increasingly tighter, and slowly, the battle won in 1973 is losing ground, as has been seen in recent months with the so-called Stupak “amendment.”1

This past fall, I was invited to serve on the Board of Planned Parenthood of Houston and Southeast Texas. It was a difficult decision to make, mostly because my life is very full: I have an active writing career; I serve as Founding Director for Voices Breaking Boundaries (VBB), an activist arts organization in Houston for which I create multidisciplinary arts productions, fundraise, and do everything else that goes with running a non-profit; I maintain strong roots in my home country, Pakistan where I was born and raised, and where I spend several months each year; and I have a demanding family life with a five-year old daughter. I am also involved with Houston’s Pacifica Radio Station where I host monthly programs. After deeply weighing the decision, I chose to accept the invitation. My choice rested heavily on my commitment to fight for women’s rights wherever I happen to be, and because I believe that women’s sexual and reproductive issues are at the heart of women’s struggles around the world.

As a teenager growing up in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, I marched on the streets with the then fledgling Women’s Action Forum—or WAF as it is known—which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, WAF was one of the grassroots organizations that spoke up against the dictatorship of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq (supported by the Reagan administration, which was also engaged in a covert war in Afghanistan—the impact of which continues to have global ramifications thirty years later). In 1979, General Zia succeeded in passing the Shari’a law-inspired Hudood Ordinance, under which many women were falsely imprisoned for adultery and faced the punishment of death by stoning.2 In cases of rape, women had to produce four male witnesses who were willing to testify on their behalf.

During that time (and after completing my secondary education), I interned for nine months at a radical, now defunct, English evening newspaper, The Star. Much of my political writing emerged during those months. All publications were subject to government overview prior to going to press, and often censors removed entire sections. There was a sense of danger, and even at a young age, I learned how important it was to strategize when speaking out. I also learned the urgency and importance of using one’s words to express protest and to share information.

I was raised in a home that was the hub of much literary activity. Many prominent Urdu poets of our time—Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Fehmida Riaz, Ahmed Faraz to name just three—visited our home to give readings, or simply dropped by for a visit. Most of those same poets and writers spent time in prison or in exile for speaking out against military dictatorships. My models for living were also forged by my mother, an educator, who founded her own non-profit organization to train teachers; my aunts and cousins who pursued higher education and professional careers; my sister, a recognized journalist; and my father, who spent a year in a Karachi jail during the 1950s for leading a student movement.

After completing my internship in Karachi, I arrived in the United States to obtain a bachelor’s degree from Mount Holyoke College, one of the first women’s higher education institutions in the U.S. It did not take me long to join an international community of women activists. Together, we participated in anti-apartheid protests and were able to push our college to divest funds from South Africa. I remember intense 4:00 a.m. conversations when we debated whether those of us with international visas should step back if police were to arrive, or risk deportation by remaining on the frontline. That fear did not stop us from participating in Take Back the Night rallies in New York City, or picketing in Springfield, Massachusetts against President George H.W. Bush’s bombings of Libya.

Since graduating more than two decades ago, I have been moving back and forth between the U.S. and Pakistan. In recent years, I have noticed that every time I return from Pakistan to the U.S, I am asked the same question: “How is everything over there?” And the follow-up question is usually: “And how are things for you as a woman?”

While I appreciate people’s concern and interest, I find it draining to explain that Pakistan is a large country. My home, Karachi, is on the coast, 800 miles away from the Pakistan-Afghanistan border where most of the violence is erupting. Today, insurgencies are penetrating deeper into the country, and there is a larger sense of fear. In Karachi there was a major suicide attack on December 28, 2009, where more than 35 people were killed, and hundreds of shops burned. At the same time, it is critical to recall that Karachi has endured enormous turmoil: During the 1990s, the city was torn apart by a civil war between the Muhajirs, who relocated to Pakistan after the 1947 splintering of the subcontinent, and the indigenous Sindhis, but that information went unreported by international media.

And when it comes to freedom for women, again, it is exhausting to explain that just as in the U.S. where gender equity remains a struggle, in Pakistan there is a continuous struggle. But there are also many progressive women—Anita Ghulam Ali, Rehana Hakim, Salima Hashmi, Asma Jahangir, Sheema Kirmani, Mukhtar Mai, to name just a few—who have paved the path for future generations in the judiciary, education, government, arts, media, social services, and activist communities. This said, it is important to recognize that educated women move through society without experiencing the same limitations that affect those from lower-socio economic brackets. In Pakistan, just as in other countries, the struggles for class, gender, and ethnic equity are multi-layered and there are no simple solutions. For example, abortion is illegal in Pakistan, and it is reported to be widely practiced in back alleys. But the issue is not on the front burner, since other struggles take priority. (Across the border in India, abortion is legal, and ultrasounds are banned because families were choosing to abort female fetuses—but families with wealth continue to have access to illegal gender screenings.)

Today, however, because Pakistan is at the frontline of conflict, there is much interest focused on events unfolding in the country. The country is projected onto the world through a Western lens, one that expresses fear that the country will be overtaken by “terrorists” and that all women are oppressed. What is not reported in the media is that Pakistan is largely a secular country, with only a small percentage of followers of extremist Wahhabi Islamic practices. The general public, especially as suicide bombings and violence increase, largely supports the elected government’s actions against the Taliban, and believes in education for men and for women.

Early in our lives, my parents made sure that my siblings and I understood that conflict is a part of life, emphasizing that no matter where one lives, there are issues to expose, address, and a need to organize. I choose to engage with the world around me, and I choose to recognize that there is conflict no matter where I am based. And ultimately, I choose to tackle women’s issues, no matter where I am—Karachi and Houston where I have already lived and worked, or Palestine, or the Juarez-El Paso border where I hope to take VBB productions—through my art and my writing.