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Friday, July 27, 2007

Dunno why ... but I feel like sharing this today!

"The Appointment in Samarra"
[As retold * by W. Somerset Maugham]

The speaker is Death:
"There was a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, 'Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture. Now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me.'"

"The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, 'Why did you make a threating gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning?' 'That was not a threatening gesture,' I said, 'it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.'"
* ORIGIN: I read in an article on the Web that "When Death Came to Baghdad" is in the 'Hikayaat-I-Naqshia' of Fudail ibn Ayad, a ninth century reformed bandit, turned Sufi sage. Although some details differ from the version most widely told today, it is considered to be the 'same' story as "The Appointment in Samarra".
BTW, "Appointment In Samarra" is also the basis of a Novel of this name by John O'Hara. It is one of 'The 100 Greatest English Novels of All Times', selected by a panel at TIME magazine.

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Saturday, July 14, 2007

Zakhm kay bharnay talak naakhün nah ba∂h aaengay kyaa?

The tragedy, the confusion, the lies, the deceit, the unanswered questions ..... so much has been said everywhere about the Lal Masjid saga that it seems pointless to add anything. Except that there's this alternating mind-pounding and numbing that makes me want to blog about it.

Sorry, folks. This is just cathartic. So skip it.

Even in its wake, the major discussions - be they from the Rulers trying desperately to not let this mar their image any further, or the Opposition trying equally hard to make political capital out of what is a far bigger matter than their rumblings dare touch upon - detract from the fact that all this was merely a symptom of the much greater malaise we are suffering.

When the dust settles (if anyone will let it, for, after all, it does provide a 'smoke-screen'), the REAL questions will need to be asked: Has the majority tacitly chosen this path but is too ashamed to admit it, openly? Or does it really oppose this path but is merely afraid to say so? After all, for the (wise or otherwise) course to be set for the ship of this state we need to ascertain the destination. But, unteven before the dust settles, will not fresh waves of Lal Masjid supporters - and the various groups that preach hatred and violence for everyone they disagree with - not sprout all over the country with renewed vigour, spouting greater cries of revenge?

There is, I notice, a strange co-existence and accomodation of both views - the liberal/secular and the fundamentalist - in many more minds than is openly admitted. And it shows itself in the ridiculous embracing of an odd neutrality that ails the bulk of the small educated society. Enlightened Moderation, too, is just a classy name for it. The bizarre demand for a peculiar kind of tolerance - to tolerate the intolerant - is yet another manifestation of the same thing. No on dares, anymore, to call a Spade a Spade. 'Political correctness', another US import we could do without, is one more nail in the coffin of decency: Let's face it, you are hardly worthy of respect if the 'correctness' you are indulging in is spurred by 'policy'.

The electronic media covered the event 24/7 ... Given the lack of training (or preparation for such an eventuality) and the mushrooming of channels that has made announcers and analysers of everyone and his sister-in-law, they did more than a fairly ok job. But, there too, Neutrality was the word of the day. Barring the performance of one specific channel on May 12 that gave the media some courage for a while, "Let's not annoy anyone, lest the side that turns out to be the eventual winner screws us over" is what seemed to be going through the media's minds (and the minds of the 'experts' and 'analysts') during this episode.

One example - but it typifies much that I witnessed.

Maulana As'ad, who represents the organization which looks after the various madaaris (Aside: Given the way some of these people behave, I often wonder if this word is the plural of madressah or of madaari), sounded schizophrenic on a Talk Show when he stated that "Rashid Ghazi Shaheed" acted wrongly by taking the law into his own hands, that Malana As'ad's organization and many other ulema were opposing Ghazi's stand because, although his demands for enforcement of Shariah were justified, such unilateral actions were not Islamic.

So why the eff, in the same breath, was Ghazi being referred to as Shaheeed by him, then? Surely one cannot be a martyr by dying while trying to kill others in a Jihad that is not a Jihad.

At one point in the show, I called in (a first for me, but I could not take it much longer!) after 4 panelists and the compere began sounding perplexed about whether the buildings really had 75 rooms and basements, whether there really were hundreds of women trapped (dead?) in there. The host asked Maulan As'ad, who said that since it was a female institution, he had never inspected the premises and had no knowledge. Fair enuff.

"Ask Ummé Hassan," I advised them on the phone. "She's out - 'saved by the army', as the newsbytes proclaimed - and could certainly give us the exact number of rooms and the approximate number of students trapped until she was there." ..... Not too difficult to do, IMHO, I thought --- unless we are not supposed to know! - (Anyone for launching an Access to Information Movement here?) - The host repeated my question to the panel. No one answered in the microsecond before the host moved on, mumbling something inane like "She's in police custody, so we cannot ask her." Oops. Only minutes earlier, the same channel had announced that madam had been 'released on parole' and was on her way to take part in her illustrious brother-in-law's funeral.

Double Wow!!! In a culture where I have witnessed arguments over whether a wife can see the body of her deceased husband: "They are no longer mahram", a recently-bearded uncle had shouted at a relative's funeral. "Marriage is a contract that ends with death," he had said in support, adding "and wives are not even allowed to accompany their husband's bodies to the graveyard." But, of course, this particular lady - indirectly, at the very least, responsible for many of the deaths in this sad saga - had to be flown, at state expense, to attend the funeral of a renegade in-law. Yes, the vote-bank has to remain intact.

I wondered, as I heard the news of her paroled trip, if all people in custody are allowed the facility of attending funerals of anyone they wish to. Or even the funerals of immediate family members. Hmmm...

A few words to our young electronic media and its talk-show guests:

"The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of great moral crises maintain their neutrality." So said Dante Alighieri ... but I guess he was not in your Media & Journalism courses.

So, c'mon guys/gals. Speak your mind. We don't want mere reportage from you in the media, except during the news hour. On talk shows and other analytical programs we want your opinions. Radical. Right. Left. Anarchic. Religious. And, if you tread really carefully, even sacrilegous! We need to hear a variety of views and then make our own informed judgements.

There was other confusion, too.

While, traditionally, Shahaadat has been held in high esteem among Muslims, surely it wasn't always the only thing worth striving for, as it now seems. While the maulanas and their followers were proclaiming wilingness to die for their noble (though often contradictory) causes, the army, the ministers, the media and others were busy extolling the shahaadats of their personnel and personal favourites. Mothers recounted happily about how their child, now sadly gone, was always - from age 7(!) - wanting nothing else but to be a Ghazi or a Shaheed. What had she been mixing in his cereal, I wondered. A child wept at his uncle's sad death, citing - in an innocent way - the continued bleeding of the dead man's wound during the burial ceremony as proof of the fact that Shaheeds are alive and do not die. While there was obviously no occasion for correcting this misconception at that time - it could have been edited out by the channel. Instead, it went out to hundreds of thousands, strengthening their belief via a wrong childish assumption. The word, Shaheed - (a word that, btw, does not appear in the context of Martyrdom in the Qurãn) - seems to have become a mockery, now, with everyone killed in accidents, epidemics, natural disasters, genocides, language riots, plus collateral damage victims and those in the rather confusing situation of "dying before their time" (whatever one is to make of that!) swelling their ranks.

The conclusions I reached about our society, our nation, our community that day were/are scary. Escapism seemed the right thing to do ... at least for a while. For me, that means Music (generally Alfred Brendel's rendition of the Moonlight Sonata or Zia Mohiuddin Dagar's Yaman, played in the Dhrupad ang on the Rudra Veena). Or, sometimes, Urdu Poetry. If the latter, it needs to be the art-for-arts-sake kind: lilting old-time ghazals, with delightful plays on words, a romantic lyricism. You know ... the kind that good old ustaads, like Qamar Jalaalvi, used to thrill mushaerah audiences with. So, I slipped in the hour-long CD of Qamar (available at T2F as part of a double-volume, with Iram Lakhnavi on the other disc), hit the random-play button and closed my eyes ... only to open them with a start as I heard shayrs that seemed, suddenly, too apt.

Aap bhee suniyay...

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Friday, July 06, 2007

A T2F Events recap (as promised/threatened)

Don't blame me. YOU asked for it!

The Second Floor began its Events run with the first of its Mixed Bag series, hosting Saad Haroon's "Open Mic Night", an amalgam of standup-comedy, music, reading, music, and more music. It brought in an energetic young crowd for the most part, mainly friends and fans of Saad and the others who were performing. That's certainly more than T2F can seat. There were 90+ people at one point --- more than double its café style seating capacity --- which made the event more intimate and fun, as concerts should be. Some sat on the floor, some on hastily added chairs pulled in from neighbouring b.i.t.s., while some remained standing. A fun evening, for young and old alike, it opened with Saad's own hilariouspiece, Welcome to Dubai. He really is a brilliant performer and has a great presence. Here's the opening verse that should ensure your requesting him to perform it the next time you catch him onstage.

The crowd enjoyed every bit of the evening that featured a whole lot of young artists: Hassan Fancy, Khizer Diwan & Saad Choudhry, Maaz, Ali Alam & Miqdad Mohammad (from names list provided by Saad). Here are brief snatches from Auntie Disco Project and Humaira & Kenan, my favourites from that evening.

And then there was Bina Shah. There were doubts in some minds whether (because of the otherwise heavily music-laden evening) people would enjoy listening to a piece of prose. But, wow! She brought the house down with an excellent piece on getting a US Visa, written specially for the event. Her funny-dramatic delivery - she's a natural - added to the pleasure. In fact, T2F immediately decided to book her for an event of her own.

Following this kind of evening, what was planned next - an Urdu poetry reading in the series In Their Own Voice - raised several questions. Who would come to this venue for such an event? Is Urdu poetry (and, specifically, our first guest Zeeshan Sahil's) popular in the areas from where T2F is more easily accessible? Would people travel from the remoter parts of Karachi to attend this, something those associated with T2F really wanted to encourage?

We were sure that we'd get 40, anyway ... so packing in close to 75 on the actual day was a really pleasant surprise, as was the rapid sale of Zeeshan's books at the signing session that followed. Surprisingly delightful, too, was the fact that more Urdu editions were sold than the bi-lingual one with Tehmina's Ahmad's translations. Many buyers commented that they were glad to see the Urdu books section at T2F's small but thoughtfully stocked bookshop, without having to go all the way to Urdu Bazaar. The Urdu pre-selections, mainly by writers Asif Farrukhi and Ajmal Kamal, have helped a lot, as have later suggestions from visitors.

What can one say of Zeeshan and his poetry? Both exude sensitivity, affection, warmth. His poem, Jahaaz, as one member of the audience said, "imbues a machine with human emotions in an age where humans are becoming more like machines." For those who missed out on the evening: Do get a copy of one of his many books on your next visit to T2F. You'll love it. My recommendation: Try Email Aur Doosree Nazmayñ or Karachi Aur Doosree Nazmayñ for starters. We cannot thank him enough to travel so far and sit through such a long evening, in his wheelchair-ridden condition. He closed with a poem called Taliban.

In a complete shift of mood and tempo once again, T2F hosted an evening of Tee-M (Tariq Mirza) on tour of his hometown all the way from the USA. Held - coincidentally - on his birthday, it was nostalgic fun for me and a joy to meet a couple of old friends who turned up and thoroughly enjoyed the music. I discovered, too, that Tariq was the younger brother of two very old friends/classmates of mine: Farhat & Shahid - the latter, sadly, no longer with us. Obviously, Tariq was so much younger - he was probably born when I had nearly left school - that I have no recollection of him from back then. This discovery, in turn, led to a further interesting twist for me: Shahid's son, Taymur - who runs an IB school in Karachi - has been interacting with me without either of us being aware of our 'connection'. Only the most common of all clichés comes to mind, so I won't repeat it.

While I enjoyed Tee-M's evening overall, for me the peak fun moment was seeing Tee-M's elder cousin, Naeem Mirza, join in for an informal and rendition of Jamaica Farewell.
Read only if you're past 60:

Naeem - an old schoolmate - used to be among the best voices of our younger days and I still recall him and Adlynne Afzal's duet of A- You're Adorable on a Radio Pakistan(!) Show, where another friend, Ifti, also sang Granada in his beautiful baritone the same evening. (Bet you, Naeem, that you'd forgotten this yourself!).

Those were the days of Western Music programmes on Radio Pakistan! Hit Parades in the afternoons. Music Requests at night, with 'dedications' that often led to disasters - as Dr Irfan Mirza would know if he reads this. Still ringing in my mind are the popular voices of announcers-cum-newsreaders, Edward Carapiett and Khadija Naqvi.

Wonder if we can get some of the old folks together at T2F: Louis D'Cruz - known for his Country & Western bits - and Austin Freitas for some Operatic arias. Can anyone recall others and help?
Tammy Haq of Business Plus was, obviously, bowled over by Tee-M's performance (which, by the way, is part of T2F's Visitor's Nights, an occasional event that will host interesting people dropping into Karachi). So, Tammy decided to hold a TV Special that was shot at T2F, soon after. Sabeen was interviewed on the program, too. While the evening was enjoyable, the 'shoot' certainly took away from the spontaneity of Tee-M's first performance and those who only caught the latter on TV have no idea what fun his first T2F night was like.

Bina Shah's session was held next and drew a good-sized audience. She read out a poignant tale about the evil practice of Kari from her latest book - Blessings - a collection of short stories. The reading had a couple of members of the audience in near-tears.
Following up on the story, someone has suggested a whole evening dedicated to discussing the Kari scourge, its origins, and what can be done to stop it. Is anyone interested in taking this up and organising it at T2F???
On request, Bina next read her recent US Visa piece and, once again, had the audience in stitches. There's a review on KMB of her evening by Jamash (whose lovely photo of Bina is worth a dekko).

Oh ... I plead guilty to the less-than-great sound quality that evening. Sorry Bina. The usuual music system is not wired for mics and live feed, and the lo-fi PA equipment - obviously designed for roadside weddings, as we learnt the hard way - was hastily borrowed from (wait for it... ) Kauser Tent House, whom people now mockingly refer to as Zak's Media Partners. Alas, it did not do too well :-( but, I am afraid, it was all that a poor NGO could be expected to afford and muster in a last minute rush. T2F's own PA system was delayed and arrived just a day later. That's life! A simple but more than adequate dedicated sound system - put together by an old friend and hi-fi service wiz, Mohd. Mamsa* - worked very well at Pervez's event! So, folks, the next time Bina reads, she'll sound even better!

Pervez Hoodbhoy's presentation at the first Science Ka Adda has already been covered in the previous post, so there's no need to go into it, except to note that it has led to some exciting debates currently raging at T2F.

*Tracking Mamsa down on 92-320-509-4651 is a chore-&-a-half, but he certainly knows his onions (and Quads, Revoxes, Thorens and other esoteric equipment). So if you want to get that old turntable out of the dusty cupboard and revive it for the sudden resurrecton of vinyl we are witnessing, he's your man. Now THIS is what I call a PLUG!

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Abro & Attiya

Abro is one of the most amazing people I've encountered. A prolific artist, photographer, illustrator, graphics designer, calligrapher, cartoonist, and comic strip author, he had held several exhibitions even before he joined the NCA, in Lahore. Many of you may be more familiar with his works that appear in the magazine section of DAWN on Sunday, where he often illustrates articles.

Most of Abro's works are strongly political and his intent has always been to get the message out, with little interest in commercial successes. He even prices his works far more affordably than other, lesser-known artists so that the messages can be seen in more spaces. In the Zia period and, again, under the present regime, Abro has developed a large collection of works, in a variety of art forms, that depict the army's rule and rulers. His sensitivity to the plight of women, his desire for regional peace, all come across strongly. His eye for vibrant colours is as apparent in his photos as in his paintings.

He is extremely quiet, in contrast to his laughing and talkative wife. Which may be another reason (apart from their politics) why they are a perfect match. The story of their marriage, as retold by Attiya, never fails to drive audiences to fits of laughter. We captured it on video at T2F and will share it with all of you via a DVD that contains all the readings from that unforgettable evening. The DVD will initially only be sold at the T2F, since we currently lack modalities for international distribution, but I will work on that, too.

Here's Abro's depiction of Karachi - May 12, 2007

What's next? He spoke of his plans to launch his calligraphic series of Ghalib soon and was quick to add: "Real calligraphy, not what the Zia era turned it into!"

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Monday, July 02, 2007

Attiya & Abro

The rains, the roads, the warning messages running on the strips that now take up more space than the video on TV screens, all made it difficult for many people to reach T2F for the event. Several phoned to ask for postponement, but there were enough in the audience and it would have been ridiculous to send back those who came despite the conditions. So we struck a deal with Attiya Dawood, who promised us another session very soon. Within the next 3-4 weeks, in fact. (Which is how long Abro's excellent canvases that complement Attiya;s poems, will also be on exhibit. (More about him in my next post as soon as I return from the SOL/YLC in Lahore).

A session with Attiya is always a treat. For first-timers, it holds a bundle of surprises. An outspoken and very powerful feminist poet, in Sindhi and Urdu, she is also a great raconteur and, unlike her passionate, fiercely sad poems, her retelling of her life is full of wit and an honest humour that is hard to capture in a report to those not present ... although the rebelliousness comes through in everthing she writes, says and does. Suffice to say, if you missed this time, do make it the next.

The multifaceted Asif Farrukhi, writer of stories and poems in English and Urdu, has translated Attiya's Book, now sadly out of print --- (Good News: OUP will soon be releasing her autobiography. How soon? "As soon as it is released from Abro's clutches, " says Attiya.) --- Her recitations were occasionally followed by Asif reading from his wonderful translations.

Her personal favourite among her own poems is "To My Daughter" - which she recited in Urdu and Sindhi (at the request of Babar Ayaz). It is reproduced here, with Abro's painting that accompanied it in in the original publication. Click on the image to make it more readable. And here's Asif reading his own translation of the poem.}

Attiya's blood-curdling poem on the rape of a 2-year old child - "Baykaar Khilaunay" - is offered here in translation:

Today in my courtyard
The setting sun is a spear’s distance away.
The earth, like my heart, is brandished metal.
Snatching the soother from my baby daughter’s lips,
Some monster has poured all the world’s horror into her life.

I had never waged battles against anybody:
Then why was the Karbala re-enacted for me?

The court is in session and the judge is
Listening to everybody’s statement.
A beast stands in the place marked for the accused,
I have cut my breasts and fed them to this beast.
All of you good souls who offer me sympathy,
Give me but a handful of words
So that my lips may utter a lullaby
To make this suckling infant wounded by the arrow of lust
Smile in her sleep once again.

When I kiss her as she lays asleep
She wakes up screaming.
What Hell has been unleashed on this innocent one
That even on her father’s chest,
In her mother’s arms,
She writhes like a chicken with its neck sliced?

Can the counterfeit coin of this country’s law
Ever buy for me a toy
Which I can use to appease
My little daughter
As she sleeps on the red-hot coals of pain?

O God of mine ...
When I will come to face you,
Holding my daughter’s discarded toys
And blood soaked underthings,
Tell me,
To balance the Scales of Justice
What will YOU put on the other side?
Is there anyone who is not struck numb by the power of her words?

Had it not been for the conversation that followed the readings, with Abro joining in and being his strong silent self except for a sentence or two that required industrial-strength coaxing (his view: "I speak only through my work."), we'd have gone back shaken to the core. Attiya's arrows hit home, everytime!

All of Attiya's writings, in Sindhi and Urdu, with English translations, are now on the Web.

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