Monday, December 2, 2013

Pakistan: a story in pixels

The Mohatta Palace, Karachi. © Shafiq Morton    
IT was already hot when we passed through the gates of Muhammad ‘Ali Jinnah’s memorial in Karachi. Jinnah’s massive domed tomb towered over a marble platform, the centrepiece of a sprawling urban park. The fountains approaching his tomb were not working, and its fetid pools were lined with algae.
In the sky above, flocks of kites soared in the morning thermals, their sharp eyesight capable of spotting rodents on the ground with pinpoint accuracy.  At least there would be no collateral damage when the kites swooped into the urban shadows.
Qaid-i-Azam (Great Leader) Mohammed Ali Jinnah is the founding father of Pakistan. A dapper legal man of Gujarati origins, Jinnah became the figurehead of an ideal expressed by the famous poet, Muhammad Iqbal. For a viable future, Hindu-dominated India needed a separate Islamic state.
The Muslim Mughal rulers of old India, descendants of Genghis Khan, had embraced religious and social diversity from the 16th to the 18th centuries, but this had dissipated with the arrival of the British, whose imperialism had become characterised by divide-and-rule.
Mahatma Ghandi, who found his civil rights voice in South Africa, was against the idea of the post-colonial partition of India. Jinnah felt that it was the road to disaster, and that as painful as it was, secession was the only route to social and political stability in the region.
Of great interest, and unknown to most, is that Ghandi received correspondence from Jinnah when he was in South Africa. As I watched the ceremonial guard inside the cool interior of the tomb, I wondered what would have happened to our history had Jinnah and Ghandi joined forces in KwaZulu Natal all those years ago.
Jinnah is indubitably an under-appreciated visionary, his legacy jaundiced by India’s nationalist perspective.  For Jinnah the Muslim enclave of Pakistan would not be a crude Shari’ah-centric state, but one of social inclusivity, tolerance and religious freedom. For Jinnah, Pakistan had to become a player in the market place.
Something of a social paradox, the somewhat Anglophile Jinnah smoked and drank alcohol, but his early speeches are firmly centred against corruption, nepotism, racism and extremism – all curses of 21st century Pakistan.
Jinnah would pass away a year after independence in 1948, his vision unfulfilled. The assassination of Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan in 1951 by an Islamic extremist, would see Pakistan descend into a spiral of nervous political uncertainty.
I walked through Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s  air-conditioned museum, a moment frozen in time down to his car and curious walking stick that could double as a revolver. The neglected gardens made me wonder whether they embodied Pakistan today – a country so distracted by its troubled past that it had no time to ponder its future.  
However, that is not to say Pakistan has forgotten itself, or lost hope. Extremism and fear have not  managed to stifle the diverse, creative and pioneering voices within Pakistan society, all clamouring for expression in a riot of colour, a colour typified by the richly ornate art seen on its trucks and scooters.
A tour of an exhibition entitled the “Labyrinth of Expressions” by artist Rashid Rana at the Mohatta Palace Museum, kindled much thought in this respect.  Rana, who is probably Pakistan’s most celebrated living artist, profoundly reflected all the conflicts and contrasts inherent in society in a very unique way.
When I first saw his wall-size canvases I believed I was looking at a repetitive, impressionistic style in which he’d used uniform brush strokes to create a stippled, Monet-like effect. So what, I thought.
But on closer examination I found my prejudice being confounded. Each of these “brush strokes” was a colour photo placed in the picture like a pixel – a square unit of colour that characterises digital photography. Each work consisted of thousands of images, and how he’d managed to co-ordinate them to reflect a larger image was beyond me.
His piece “Desperately Seeking Paradise” spoke to a condition prevalent in societies characterised by rich-poor divides such as South Africa and Pakistan. A three-dimensional cube, it lures the viewer into walking around it like the Ka’bah.
From the first angle one sees the mirrored facades of skyscrapers, and as one moves, each mirror becomes the micro-image of a slum. Rana’s reference, according to the exhibition catalogue, was that rich and poor alike sought Paradise.
Another piece, the “Red Carpet”, was a reaction to a suicide attack on the convoy of Benazir Bhutto in 2007. From afar, the “Red Carpet” appears to be a symmetric, if not pleasing wall hanging. However, closer examination reveals that each pixel is a bloody photo. One’s sense of initial well-being at the overall image is sharply challenged by its details.
Perhaps what I’m trying to say is that the story of Pakistan is not in the big picture à la Rashid Rana, but in its intricate pixellation. For behind the caricatures of corrupt cricketers, genuinely sinister religious extremists and bloated overlords is a society that has endured more slings and arrows than most – from earthquakes and floods to political meddling.
Not least was a US drone attack in the picturesque Swat Valley last month. With Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s new government focused on peace with the Taliban, negotiators were en-route for talks when they received the news that Taliban leader, Hikmatullah Mehsud, had been killed by a drone.
This shattering news hardly made a ripple in the global pond and led to the question whether Pakistan, a nuclear power, would ever be allowed to be at peace with itself. But in spite of this, traditional humanity prevails – in the most unexpected quarters and in the most moving of ways.

For this I go back to the 2010 floods, an event of Biblical proportions that displaced 20 million people. An old man is sitting in an empty tent in the Sindh province. He has lost everything and has not eaten for days. An aid agency worker offers him food and water.

“No thanks,” he says, much to the aid-worker’s surprise, “my brother in the tent next door to me is in much greater need. Let him eat and drink first.”


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