Literature in the time of terror in Pakistan

Since the invasion of Afghanistan by the United States and the global hysteria about ‘terror’ and ‘terrorism’, Pakistan has faced the greatest of existential challenges after its dismemberment in 1971. As a frontline ally of the US in the war on terror, Pakistani society and polity have been engulfed by growing militancy and acts of violence. Whilst there is no single definition of ‘terrorism’, the mainstream media and policymakers – in the service of imperial rhetoric aimed to justify and perpetuate the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq – have established terrorism as the major threat to domestic and regional peace in South Asia. Acts of premeditated and organised violence in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have thus assumed a central place in discourse on regional co-operation or its converse: the rivalries between the constructed nation states and their irresponsible power-elites.

Uniforms don't stop you from crying

Uniforms don't stop you from crying

In this milieu, South Asian citizens have been the victims of violence, uncertainty and acrimony that have only led to the exacerbation of poverty, inequality, ascendancy of militarism and the war-mantra. All of this is taking place when globalization is relentlessly seeping into domestic economies, cultures and social systems. Where does this leave the writers and poets of the region who grapple with complex, confusing and fast-changing social and political realities? Whilst the community of South Asian writers – traditionally the forbearers of intellectual and political movements – is beleaguered by the corporate media industry, it has struggled to respond to challenges that events have created.

Pakistani literature in Urdu, English and some regional languages is interacting with the new reality of ‘terror’, violence and suicide bombing. The kaleidoscope of Pakistani writing is varied and presents a mixed view. If on the one hand, the writers’ creativity is strangulated by ‘ideology’ and anti-Americanism, the sheer scale of violence and its direct impact on human lives and social structures is a central issue faced by the writers, poets and intellectuals of Pakistan.
The current political and social milieu has created deep contradictions for Pakistani writers and poets. They are bruised by the widespread violence and desecration of humanity, but they are equally aware of the public mood about the way imperial powers are playing another great game in their neighbourhood. This is what makes the task of poets and writers extremely difficult.

The last decade, and the growing incidence of militant extremism have placed Pakistani writers in a tight corner. But the earlier, eerie silence is now breaking. In this context, it should be noted that there has been a revival of the literary language of political resistance in Pakistan since 2007 due to anti-dictatorship movements.

During this time, Gen Musharraf’s increasingly brazen power- sustaining tactics led to the widespread withdrawal of support for him among the Pakistani intelligentsia. The March 2007 dismissal of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry was probably the most important turning point, as the images of an evidently beleaguered Chaudhry saying ‘no’ to the all-powerful army chief evolved into an improbable but indisputably dynamic symbol of resistance.

A poem by a Punjabi poet composed in the folk tradition, proved to be a popular charm. “Chacha wardi laanda kyon naee” (Uncle, why don’t you doff your uniform?) gave voice to the Pakistani weariness at having to put up with military rulers. One of the most amusing of the poem’s lines urged Gen Musharraf to “draw a pension”, and take a good rest at home. This notwithstanding, the poem was hardly offensive, and perhaps gained popularity because it was more playful than solemn:

You rush to Washington all the time
And please Bush again and again
Beg at his feet all the time
And threaten the oppressed of your country
Why don’t you confront the oppressors?
(translated by the author)

During the last decade, despite the biased coverage of Pakistan in the international media, Pakistani writers in English have made their presence felt at the global level. Three novels – The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Mohsin Hamid); No Space for Further Burials (Feryal Ali Gauhar); and A Case of Exploding Mangoes (Mohammad Hanif) – are examples of the newly emerging voices of Pakistani literature in English. More importantly, these novels bring forth the critical issues of war, violence, terror, identity and the workings of the Pakistani military that are central to global debates on South[west]Asian peace.

The literary renaissance comes as Pakistan struggles to contain the militant Taliban, as well as political instability. What we find in common with the above stated examples is that their medium of expression finds a larger audience abroad and provides an international perspective to a problem that is perhaps transnational in nature.

As mentioned earlier, the taboos that had inhibited writers in national languages have started to break. Of late, more and more writers, especially the younger ones, are writing on issues of violence and terrorism. Scores of short stories and a few novellas are talking of the impact of terrorism and the futility of war and violence in a direct manner. In his short story Tales scripted in blood , Asim Butt writes from the mind of a misled jihadi:

“…this experience (of violence) had left indelible marks on the inner layers of his mind – the sounds of bullets, the bomb explosions and human cries – such noises kept on blaring cruelly inside him…”
(translated by the author)

In poetry too, this trend is evident where poems are now reiterating humanism and its threatened status in this age of militancy and war. I will quote the powerful poem called A Mourning poem for Bajaur by Pakistan’s eminent poet Kishwar Naheed:

We have the same courtyards, the same threshers
But bullets jump through them,
Riddle holes in my fields
and in the bodies of my children

(translated by Asif Farrukhi)

Increasingly, regional writings are also making powerful statements of rejection of the culture of violence. For instance, Pashto literature has undergone several changes since the advent of violence and fundamentalism to the region especially after the Afghan War and the ensuing crisis of nationhood in Afghanistan. Traditional Pashto literature has been nationalist and based on glorification of the past by invoking traditions and folklore. This new dimension within Pashto literature is reflective of the changing nature of Pakhtoon society especially in the context of the NWFP and its surrounding regions.

Notwithstanding this growing body of literature, Pakistani writers face a herculean challenge today. The larger questions on the marginalization of folklore and the decreasing accessibility of literature and writing in the age of the mass electronic media and corporate hegemony on ideas and expression are shared threats.

Like other art forms and mediums of social expression, literature is also a dynamic, evolving collation of human and societal experiences. The very fact that there are Pakistani poets and writers challenging the rising tide of extremism and violence – regardless of who the originator of such crises may be – is a welcome shift and a testament to the rich heritage of Pakistan’s literary history and its alive present. n

[Published in The Friday Times – Extracted from a paper presented at the SAARC Writers’ Conference held in Agra, India / March 2009]

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