Cartographers of a Volcanic Ground: Pakistani Literature Now

Anja Kampmann is a Berlin-based poet and novelist. She has published short stories and poems in many anthologies and magazines including Akzente  and Neue Rundschau, and is working on a novel. In spring of 2011 she participated in the Karachi Literary Festival.



Cartographers of a Volcanic Ground: Pakistani Writers Take  Stock of Their Country’s Political Developments 

 Early this year two high-ranking politicians were killed in Pakistan because they made a case for religious tolerance. The Karachi Literary Festival offered an opportunity for well-known writers to discuss the direction in which their country is moving.

 It isn’t easy to assess the political situation in Pakistan these days. With the massive transformations going on in the Arabic countries, the government of Pakistan seems more and more intimidated by the growing extremist violence. The second Karachi Literary Festival, which took place earlier this year, brought together over a hundred writers, most of them from Pakistan. And while the event was taken to signal the strength of Pakistani literature, it was also possible to see it as an exception [a suspended state] in a context where the freedom of movement and speech of intellectuals is threatened by ever growing constraints.


                                             Triumph of Fanaticism

 The killing of the Punjab province’s governor Salman Taseer on Jan 4, 2011 cast a frightening light on the country’s power apparatus. Taseer had spoken openly against the blasphemy laws, and against the death penalty for the Christian Aasia Bibi, who had been accused of insulting Islam under questionable circumstances; in retaliation he was killed by his 26-year-old bodyguard. The masses celebrated the killer as a hero, and hundreds gathered in front of the Islamabad court building to demand that his trial be cancelled.

 In the intellectual circles the killing came as a shock. The political scientist and renowned Pakistan-expert Ahmed Rashid takes the public reaction to Taseer’s killing as a proof of a “massive penetration of our society by extremist modes of thinking.” Especially alarming was the silent acceptance of the killing by the population at large. Not a single politician dared to speak out loud against the killing. Not even the republic’s president, Asif Ali Zardari dared to attend Taseer’s funeral out of fear for his own safety. Two months later, on March 2, 2011, came the shooting of Shabhaz Bhatti while riding in his car. He had been the only Christian Minister in Pakistan’s parliament. Like Salim Taseer he too fought against the blasphemy laws installed by President Zia Ul-Haq and demanding the death penalty for anyone insulting the prophet Mohammed. Sara Suleri Goodyear, writer and professor at Yale University, had already stressed at the literary festival in Karachi how important it was in such situations to keep up the discourse, to make of these problems a central theme.” Above all I worry that we’ll get accustomed to these horrible assassinations. Of course it’s possible to say that the western media shouldn’t fixate on catastrophes whenever they write about Pakistan, but let’s be honest: the catastrophe is here. We just mustn’t get used to it.  


                                      The City and the Countryside

 For Suleri the fear of extremists is quite real. What once seemed self-evident is now out of the question. This means little things, like going alone to the market, or walking home alone in the evening. Edda Khan, a German who has lived in Karachi for 40 years, notes these changes too: “We used to drive to the Indus for a Sunday outing but not any more. And when we drive to the countryside, we now hardly ever leave the main roads. Out there one can’t really speak of freedom of movement, and not only in the political sense.”

 The huge difference between social structures in the cities and in the countryside is something Danyall Muenuddin also attests to. He returned home a few years ago to take care of a large country estate, and in his story collection Other Rooms, Other Wonders draws a meticulous picture of rural Pakistan. “You can’t speak about Pakistan without speaking about power structures, because it is so hierarchically organized, especially in the countryside,“ comments Muenuddin. “So it is usually those with the least power that keep finding new ways of sneaking around these structures — women especially.”

 Also the novelist H.M. Naqvi, born in 1974, thinks it’s essential to take the country’s voices very seriously. “In public discourse Pakistan appears to be defined by the upper middle class, but it is also important to read the Sufi poetry from Sindh and the Punjab. To understand this country you must take into account other ways of telling stories than what appears in the newspapers.” And this is in particular the assignment of Pakistani literature, which has lately been receiving increased international attention.

 Most of the writers are keenly conscious of how dire the political situation is. Yet H. M. Naqvi doesn’t believe an extremist takeover of the country is imminent. He has confidence in the many independent initiatives that underscore people’s engagement, such as the proliferation of schools in private homes. In his opinion, the country’s mixed demography makes it simply too difficult to steer it in one direction only. And yet one hears both anger and disappointment in his voice: in his view, the consequence of the terrorist activities is not only that Pakistan has been reduced in the eyes of the West to a place of extremist violence; from a religious point of view they have also turned Islam itself into a monolith.

 The writer Mohsin Hamid, three years older than Naqvi, makes another observation: a growing fear in the public domain leads to ongoing self-censorship of the press and the media, as well as in the way people comport themselves in public. Even if this censorship is unconscious, the presence of a “pervasive pressure” that seems to rest on everything is an alarming signal. Civic courage and the strength to hold up one’s own position in public are being replaced by meandering and verbose discussions.


                                     The Silence of the Majority

 The few cases where Islamic authorities are challenged head-on have gained cult status. One example is the case of Veena Malik. In the fall of 2010, while participating in “Big Boss,” the Indian version of the reality show “Big Brother,” the Pakistani actress started a very public affair with the Indian actor Ashmit Patel. On her return to Pakistan the Mufti Abdul Muhammad Qawi accused her on TV of offending “Pakistan and Islam” by her behavior. Malik’s irate response was followed, and euphorically commented on, on Twitter and Facebook by hundreds of thousands of viewers: Veena Malik positioned herself against Muhammad Qawi as at once a self-confident woman and a devout Muslim. She had read the Koran and knew the limits it sets: thus, she said, she never for example kissed Patel in public. “Mufti Sahib!,” her outraged retort to the cleric, is cited as exemplary. But Veena Malik remains an exception.

 Mohsin Hamid describes the current public discourse as an “empty arena.” With the exception of the 50-60 million daily users of the Internet: free information and the many aspects of civil society can indeed survive in the virtual space. Yet, as the writer says, the most important voices are those that are barely heard. “People must again find courage to take a stand for their opinions and to make Pakistan into a country that reflects their preferences.” A retreat into the virtual space is not a solution. Literature, too, must deal with the questions otherwise asked only too rarely in the open debates—such as whether the intense politicization of religion leads at the same time to its hollowing-out. “The essential questions—around end-of-life matters, or those addressing one’s place in a complex world—which have traditionally belonged to the sphere of religion, are now being pushed to the side, something that unsettles people deeply.” Much talk today is still about the grand design of Pakistan in 1947. “This dream has a reality of its own, and it now requires new responses.” The country’s development is only possible if these contradictions are acknowledged and addressed.

 Kamila Shamsie, whose novel Burned Shadow appeared last year, also refuses to recognize one-sided perspectives. “Half of my family lives in India, while I was raised in Pakistan, where we were taught to see India as the enemy.” Her novels set out to outline, in order to dissolve, the polarizations arising out of wars and extremist movements. “My characters never fit inside one group only; the inevitable question become, what is then left for them?” Shamsie’s figures are caught in the wheels of history, driven by decisions others have made for them, forced to break up and leave their lives behind—“always, of course, a deeply painful process.” Showing individual complicated stories in the midst of universal events, such as the atom bomb over Nagasaki, the founding of Pakistan, or America’s deployment in Iraq—this is Shamsie’s countermove against the simplification of history.

 Irony is instead the preferred mode of Mohammed Hanif as he responds to the system that shaped the world of his childhood. In the 1980s, under the totalitarian regime of the military dictator Zia Ul-Haq, Hanif observed how people mimicked the dictator’s speech, his weaknesses, his body language: in this way satire made the despot into a person with the same petty needs as everybody else. Though he was for years a correspondent for CNN, the author prefers comedy shows over news: “They are becoming more and more popular, because they are more tuned in to the pressures in society than other shows.” His novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes is precisely a satire, describing with bitter fury the corrupt system under Zia ul-Haq, and his end in a plane crash on August 17, 1988.


                             Optimism as a Show of Strength

I follow along with H.M. Naqvi while he does research for his new novel. He is looking at minority communities: we visit a Hindu temple close to the harbor, then the ancient Zoroastrian neighborhood, and finally the Catholic seminary St. Pius X Minor, directed by Father Benjamin Shahzad. Under his supervision, ten young men have started their training for Catholic priesthood in the heart of Karachi. There is a small prayer room; a statue of Virgin Mary, lit blue, stands among the flower pots in the garden. Father Shahzad seems happy about his task. His communities are small but strong, he has barely any problems with Muslim groups. Of course, one must be cautious. The young men whom he instructs come from Karachi or smaller villages in the countryside. The optimism he exudes does not seem staged. Yet the assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti, barely two weeks after our conversation, makes his attitude seem something of a feat, if an honest and well-intentioned one. Threatened by extremists, Bhatti had shortly before his death requested a bulletproof car.

 “I'm beyond the point where I'm simply enraged,” says Sara Suleri Goodyear. “But I know many who have been overcome by a deep tiredness. The fact that we have begun to be blunted into indifference by these events really is not good at all.” In her stories she summons the Lahore of her childhood, the ties to her family and to the places where she grew up, but also her incomprehension in the face of the murder of her sister Ifat.  “I write about the women who I have loved. In literature we must move beyond the point when death is only followed by grief. No. We must celebrate, must remember, convert elegy into something affirmative.”  Daniyal Mueenuddin, on the other hand, points to the fragile ground, on which rests this celebration of literature—and thus also the Karachi festival, comparing the subliminal tension in Pakistan with that of the Weimar Republic: “We dance and dance, yet feel it might come to an end at any moment.”


   This piece appeared originally in Neue Zürcher Zeitung on 4. April, 2011.  

                                   Translated from the German by Nataša Ďurovičová