ARTSPEAK: THE GREAT WITHDRAWAL

In his article ‘The Roots of Elite Alienation’, Arif Hasan gives a compelling account of the sequence of events that led to the disengagement of the elite of Pakistan with the progress of the country. From 1972 to 1976, ZA Bhutto nationalised private educational institutions and industries and then, in 1977, banned leisure and entertainment activities that were deemed to be un-Islamic. This was followed by 11 lean years of Gen Zia-ul-Haq’s consolidation of his version of an Islamic state, which filtered down to the street, dictating suitable clothing, greetings and punishment for transgressions.

Arif Hasan examines the social and economic implications of these changes as factors for, what one can call, the ‘Great Withdrawal’ of the elite. Young people were sent abroad for higher education rather than to state universities and many were encouraged to remain there. Educators left as classroom discussions became restricted and proscribed. Family vacations were no longer within Pakistan. The elite stopped using railways to travel, patronising tea shops or local cinemas. Entertainment became private instead of public and multiclass.

Arif Hasan quotes a senior lawyer who said that, with the closing of public gathering spaces, “All discussions on politics, international affairs, culture and especially poetry came to an end. We ceased to exchange views and, in the process, ceased to relate to Pakistani society as a whole.”

There was no longer any motivation to maintain standards of railways, museums and other public spaces. Add to this, the exodus of high-quality engineers, medical practitioners, town planners, economists and potential civil servants, which has contributed to the deteriorating livability levels in Pakistan. With diminishing numbers of the cultural and intellectual elite in Pakistan, accumulation of wealth has become the marker for climbing the social ladder.

This loss of faith has infiltrated the psyche of subsequent generations, reinforced by accounts of transfer of wealth abroad by the country’s most privileged and powerful.

While Pakistani labourers — and now white-collar workers — have been seeking better incomes outside Pakistan since the 1950s, they did send back remittances amounting to almost 30 billion dollars in 2021, which benefited the country.

There is a counter-development of social mobility in Pakistan, where the son of a mason becomes an architect, the son of a sweeper becomes a filmmaker, or the daughter of a cook becomes a lawyer. However, growing up with the mantra of an ‘unlivable’ Pakistan, drummed in by parents as well as the larger community, those that can, plan to emigrate. Those who cannot, feel trapped and survive as best as they can. In the words of the famous song, mein doob raha hoon, abhi dooba tau nahin [I am drowning but I have not drowned yet].

Migration can be a mixed experience. While valuable personal freedoms are gained, there is a loss of mohallaydari or neighbourhood. Many head to the local masjid to find a sense of belonging, or watch Pakistani TV channels. There is anxiety and guilt about those left behind, especially ageing parents. There is concern that children should not get too assimilated into the host society. Within Pakistan, villages have children growing up without fathers, placing extraordinary burdens on the women. Each visit to the home country, challenges idealised memories of home, that Malcolm Bradbury has called “the problem of the lost centre.”

Artists and writers living in self-exile choose to express memories of their home country, some expatriates form Pakistani or South Asian societies and send funds for digging wells in Pakistani villages and reassure themselves they made the right decision as they hear dismal news of Pakistan. Poet and lyricist Shakeel Badayuni wrote, “It was my fate to go to a distant land, I leave, leaving behind my father’s courtyard.” But have they, in fact, “left home”? Or do they carry home with them like the Palestinian Poet Mahmoud Darwish, or the Irish Americans who, generations later, celebrate St Patrick’s Day with nostalgic songs of Ireland?

It is tempting to speculate that if Pakistanis who panicked and left, would have stayed, like Arif Hasan, to fight the good fight, they could have made it the country of their dreams. Some have returned to contribute the skills they have acquired. Some because they feel more at home, like a friend who said he felt like a mango tree trying to grow in a temperate forest.

Durriya Kazi is a Karachi-based artist.

She may be reached at durriyakazi1918@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, By Burriya Kazi July 24th, 2022

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