remembering
A canvas for myriad generations
Qurratulain Hyder was the leading exponent of Urdu novel as the repository of a civilisation's conscience
By Sarwat Ali
If the novel as a literary genre can be distinguished from other forms like the short story and the long poem as being the repository of a civilisation's conscience then surely Qurratulain Hyder was its leading exponent in Urdu.

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Abie laughs but with serious intent
Meet Abie Philbin Bowman a.k.a. Jesus returned to earth in his controversial, provocatively titled one-man political satire 'Jesus:The Guantanamo Years'
By Beena Sarwar
It's a bit of an absurd sight. A bearded man in an orange jumpsuit (badge no. 727), with a circle of thorns on his head, sits on a stool at a low stage. By the end of the show, he promises, we will understand how Jesus, a brown-skinned Palestinian, ended up as a white guy with a middle-class Dublin accent (with a slight lisp). His delivery is low-key and deadpan, his comic timing impeccable. Even the brief introduction has the audience laughing.

The arthouse legend
Antonioni created a landscape and screen language where subtext, symbol and enigma reigned
By Aasim Akhtar
Michelangelo Antonioni, who died aged 94, was a glacial anatomist of love, despair and the alienating tropes of modern life. The least Italianate of great Italian filmmakers, he seemed to come from another country and culture than the one inhabited by Fellini, de Sica, Visconti, Pasolini and Bertolucci.

The VIP Jam
Dear all,
It is with some interest I read about the Supreme Court taking notice of traffic conditions in Karachi caused most by road and utility works. Among the people summoned by the court, to be chided were the city nazim and various traffic police officials. However, I still maintain that the main cause of traffic obstruction in every city is the VIP motorcade.

 

If the novel as a literary genre can be distinguished from other forms like the short story and the long poem as being the repository of a civilisation's conscience then surely Qurratulain Hyder was its leading exponent in Urdu.

The civilisation's conscience can be caught in a number of formalistic designs but it were the Russian and French novelists of the nineteen century who showed the world a better way of doing so. They stretched their canvas externally and internally, making it huge to create space for a large number of characters over myriad generations.

Qurratulain Hyder grew up in an environment that resonated a dying culture. The Awadhi lifestyle, which had epitomised the Muslim civilisational sophistication in India, was fast losing out as the underpinnings that supported it after rusting for a while had started to corrode. The colonial impact had created a culture where the minority's cultural dominance over a vast majority was not only under threat but its demise could be foreseen. The best solution that was arrived at politically was the partition of the subcontinent but that did not solve the problem of the big swathes of the Muslims living in an independent India. Qurratulain Hyder's family like the hundreds of thousands others was also divided between the two new nations, and Qurratulain too had problems coagulating all her aspirations to one centre alone. The demands of her heritage and the vision of the future did not end in a happy coincidence.

She moved to Pakistan, the homeland of the Muslims but realised that the synthesis which had sustained the Indo-Muslim culture was under attack. This was inspiration enough for her to launch into her greatest work, probably the greatest work in fiction in Urdu, and in the late 1950s was able to write 'Aag Ka Darya.'

The Urdu novel has a relatively short history compared to other genres of literature. Its antecedents, though quite impressive, went back to the medieval age -- the dastaans and romances in Persian and Sanskrit along with numerous dialects that filled the artistic landscape of the region. In the post independence era 'Aag Ka Darya' shook the literary world. Its sweep was very broad as it travelled through significant phases of North Indian civilisation. It also went back into prehistory to trace the source of the river of historical consciousness from the perennial reservoir of mythology. The same characters made many appearances but under different names and in different phases of the civilisation -- emphasising the symbiotic relationship of change and continuity.

The most impressive part of the novel was the ancient period where Gotham Neelumbur and Champak explored the various facets of their relationship in the perspective of the intellectual ethos of the times. The characters in the novel were from the upper crust of society, educated and involved in a world bigger than were "dreamt of in Horatio's philosophy". The female characters belonged to the mainstream social order and were not courtesans as had been the trend till then. The novel for once did not have a didactic intent, indeed a departure from the tendency to package the novel in a moral wrapping.

The novel instantly became controversial because it was being seen in the context of the divide that had taken place in the subcontinent. Many in Pakistan were of the opinion that it went against the ideological basis on which the division of South Asia had taken place.

If 'Aag ka Darya' was about the collective consciousness that has moulded our character Qurratulain Hyder's 'Akhir-e-Shab Ke Hamsafar' had a smaller canvas and traced the lives of the characters associated with freedom struggles. This was the second option that was being entertained to keep the unity of the civilisation intact. The upsurge of the exploited and the injured was to upturn the country's soil and make it fertile and productive again but it so appeared that the across the broad effort was again defeated by national and class divisions. This division which was meant to be destroyed was reinforced by the failure -- this division actually took over and started to colour the struggle that had been launched to end them. The end was a subversive reversal.

Despite their sincere efforts nothing much came of it and the end was a defeatist compromise with the forces that they had opposed once.

And she looked at another option -- that of the mystical existence away from the centres of power, wanting to rule mankind through the heart, synching in with a long and fulfilling tradition of tareeqat as it flourished in lands which were non-Arab and where the majority of the Muslims were converts. 'Gardish-Rung-e-Chaman' was one such novel which analysed, looked at the prospect of the thousand year civilisational model settling into a comfortable home, where the opportunity to flourish and be nurtured was safe.

But the entire novel was a contrast in cultures, the streams which were meant to flow into one another did not really form one current. The old values and the associated references grated against the demands and accessories of modern life and exigencies. The hero of the novel sat uncomfortably as he was not able to make a unified expression representing the past and present.

And then the last recourse was the courtesan -- who sang, danced and appeared beautiful under public eye but grieved in private. The lustre and the glamour was on the outside, inside was the archetypal woman. In Chandani Begum she relapsed into the mode that she has fervently rejected in the past, particularly in Aag Ka Darya. There were strong indications of this relapse in Gardish-e-rang-e-chaman also where she found difficult to separate blue blood from that which was not. It so happened that all the families of Awadh and Lucknow carried the blood of the courtesan, making it impossible to champion anyone.

This desire to map the evolution of the society's conscience also led her to write about her family in voluminous Kar-e-Jahan Daraz. This was again a saga of a family hailing from outside the shores of India making a home after centuries of adjustments. The stress on the book was on the women and how those strong women were able to break some of the shackles synonymous with honour and shame. They were successful and valiant till a point and then the same disconnect between heritage and vision of the future started to get wider.

Her depiction of the ladies and gentlemen, the 'ashraaf',.was masterly and what most of them did in their ennui and boredom, endless rounds of socialising and coffee parties, switching their commitments and lapsing into the decadence of a secure lifestyle even if it did not exist. This ennui, boredom and frivolous chit chat alienated her from those writers who wrote about the wretched of the earth and wanted to create awareness about change and its advantages. She did not follow that path and was happy to capture the soul of the middle and upper classes, perhaps more acutely conscious of a deeper reality embedded in behavioral pattern. She did not want to be despond about truth but as she progressed in life she realised the tragic reality of a passing civilisation.

 

Qurratulain Hyder born January 20, 1927 died August 21, 2007

 

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Abie laughs but with serious intent

  By Beena Sarwar

It's a bit of an absurd sight. A bearded man in an orange jumpsuit (badge no. 727), with a circle of thorns on his head, sits on a stool at a low stage. By the end of the show, he promises, we will understand how Jesus, a brown-skinned Palestinian, ended up as a white guy with a middle-class Dublin accent (with a slight lisp). His delivery is low-key and deadpan, his comic timing impeccable. Even the brief introduction has the audience laughing.

Meet Abie Philbin Bowman a.k.a. Jesus returned to earth in his controversial, provocatively titled one-man political satire 'Jesus: The Guantanamo Years', which made its American debut recently at the Boston comedian Jimmy Tingle's Off Broadway Theatre at Davis Square in Somerville, north Boston. The show is based on the simple premise that if Jesus were to return to earth, he wouldn't stand a chance. When He lands in New York, the immigration authorities are immediately suspicious -- after all, he's a bearded Palestinian with a penchant for being a martyr. He's sent off to Guantanamo. And Guantanamo, for Abie, is a "symbol of everything that's wrong with the 'war on terror', the one issue that the US could use to win over the world community, the first easy step, the slam dunk in winning hearts and minds."

On stage, the witty, the intelligent monologue takes the audience through an imaginary but plausible journey, rich with ironic possibilities. The naivete of the mostly teenage guards at Guantanamo is illustrated by their relief when Jesus accepts the (inedible) breakfast... hmm, perhaps this being Ramadan has something to do with the others refusing to eat.... But food is the least of the prisoners' worries. They face all kinds of interrogation, including the notorious 'water boarding' -- but the captors are so solicitous of religious freedoms that they allow prayer breaks. During one such break, Jesus falls to his knees, pushed beyond endurance, and for once finds it difficult to get 'Dad' to forgive them. But then, He reflects, when He asked his followers to "turn the other cheek", He did not mean putting up with abuse -- but turning around and 'mooning' the abuser. Those indulging in violence, on either side, are misguided youngsters. Instead of taking them seriously, "make them see the absurdity..."

At the end of the riveting 90-minute show, Abie, still in his orange jumpsuit, stands outside the hall, cradling a small video camera as people leave, to record responses that he often works into the evolving piece. An Israeli couple greets him in Hebrew, thinking he's Jewish (he's not, although "Abie" is derived from "Abraham"). There are no negative reactions.

When we meet for an interview a few days later outside the theatre, he is in baggy shorts, hair in a ponytail, reflector sunglasses warding off the bright sunshine. At a tree-dappled, brick-paved square where he can soak up the sun and I can sit in the shade, Abie's varied background emerges. Performing arts (drama at school and college, song-writing); prize-winning debater at school; an intellectual approach to political activism (History and English at Trinity College, Dublin with a thesis on Gandhi's 'Individual Satyagraha', 1940-41); journalism (a monthly column in the Dubliner magazine since 2001; participation in regular television and radio talk show discussions); writing (wrote comedy for his school newspaper at age 16); could have become a novelist ("but tragically, I had a happy childhood"); exposure to politics (growing up in Ireland in a political family). His mother Eimer Philbin Bowman is a psychiatrist, father John Bowman a well known historian and television journalist -- "they both talk rubbish for a living, where I got it from".

The humour, combined with a basic serious mindedness (underlined by his refusal to drink, smoke or do drugs) pulled him back from the Masters degree in international relations and peace studies he was heading towards. That's when he was sidetracked by Jesus.

It started in Paris three years ago. People on the streets constantly yelled out to this long-haired, bearded songwriter, "Hey Jesus!" With enough of a sense of history to retort that "Jesus wasn't white!" Abie wondered how it would be for Jesus today. The thought incorporated into his songs was lost in the music, so he worked it into a one-man stand-up act. Originally performed before an audience of seven at Trinity College, the show attracted twenty the next night; double that at the next. The Masters degree could wait: the world's largest performing arts festival, the Edinburgh Fringe, beckoned. JTGY was a runaway success, won an award, and has drawn packed houses and rave reviews since.

How was the American premier received, compared to Ireland and Britain? "One of the criticisms in Britain was using religion in comedy was old hat, they wanted more politics. Americans take religion far more seriously than the British. Mocking religion in Britain is not particularly edgy. But for Americans, it's still breaking a taboo, so they find it funnier." For Americans concerned about the 'war on terror', Abie has a simple solution: "Treat criminals like criminals; don't stoop to their level; don't elevate their violence to a 'war'."

With his Irish background, coupled with his interest in history, he notes interesting, perhaps superficial, parallels between Daniel O'Connell, the Irish rights activist in the 1820s and '30s and Gandhi a century later, both lawyers who led non-violent movements for independence from the British. The Irish rebellion of 1916, led by a group of idealists and rebels (like Subhas Chandra Bose later -- one of whose heroes was Michael Collins from the Irish uprising), saw England's crisis as Ireland's opportunity to strike. Seeing them as collaborators with the Germans, the British brutally suppressed the uprising. Executing the rebels turned them into martyrs and turned the fringe insurgency into a popular one. "The British soldiers sent in to suppress the rebels would open machine gun fire in football stadiums because, despite their shared language, culture, and ethnicity, they had no idea how to tell the difference between an insurgent and a civilian. If British soldiers can't recognise an Irish insurgent, what chance does a kid from Iowa have in Baghdad?"

The violence ended after the Irish Republican Army destroyed its weapons and renounced violence, and its political arm, Sinn Fein, entered mainstream politics. "The British treated the IRA like criminals and ten Irish prisoners died on hunger strike, demanding to be treated as political prisoners. In the 'war on terror', the US has given al-Qaeda this status without their even trying."

Abie's involvement in the issue leads him to people like Joshua Casteel of the Iraq Veterans Against War (http://www.ivaw.org/), who was honorably discharged from Active Duty as a conscientious objector. Casteel told Abie that he believes 90 per cent of the people he met in US custody were guilty of nothing more than being Arab in Iraq. Most Guantanamo prisoners would be found innocent of terrorism if put on trial, says Abie, which "would be very embarrassing for the US. So they're letting them out in dribs and drabs."

One such prisoner was the British citizen of Pakistani origin, Moazzam Begg, an educator and social worker who had moved to Afghanistan from England along with his family (pregnant wife and children), for humanitarian work which he had also done in Bosnia. Arrested in Pakistan in 2002, he endured over three years of solitary confinement and torture. After being released in 2005, he wrote "Enemy Combatant: My Imprisonment at Guantanamo, Bagram, and Kandahar" (The New Press, 2006). His experiences provide much material for Abie's show and the Irish comedian clearly admires him. During our discussion, Abie calls him "the most Christian man I ever met," fully conscious of the irony of himself, an avowed atheist, referring to this devout Muslim in such terms. "But he enshrines the Christian values of forgiveness and compassion more completely than anyone else I know. He is determined not to let the experience change his humanity, to forgive his captors and not allow himself to be used by al-Qaeda".

To undermine 'terrorism', Abie believes it is necessary to address the underlying political issues. But the US, governed by short term interests, continues to support dictators over elected leaders. "We'll never have peace in the Middle East until they stop supporting the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and rulers like Musharraf... I have no problem with the US working for their interests but in the end, such policies end up working against them. Israel has been fighting a 'war on terror' for the past 60 years with America's help. It has won every battle but there are no prospects for peace because the underlying problems are not addressed."

At a radio talk show with Israeli press officer Daniel Seaman and a Palestinian diplomat, Abie confronted them with the BBC report survey according to which 75 per cent of Palestinian youth want to be suicide bombers. "Even if that figure is exaggerated, no Palestinian wants that for their kids. And guess what, nor do the Israelis. Most just want to get on with their lives. But when you talk to officials on either side, they start 'whataboutery' - what about this, what about that... These are two societies with siege mentalities. When people are trapped like that they both do cruel things to each other."

Talking about the home-grown suicide bombers in the UK, Abie is aware that Pakistanis in Britain tend to come from rural backgrounds and live in 'clumps', alienated from the mainstream. "The message to them should be, yes, you can be angry about Afghanistan or Iraq, your anger is valid. But blowing yourself up isn't going to help them or the Palestinians."

Beena Sarwar < [email protected]> is a freelance journalist, currently a Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University

 
The arthouse legend

By Aasim Akhtar

Michelangelo Antonioni, who died aged 94, was a glacial anatomist of love, despair and the alienating tropes of modern life. The least Italianate of great Italian filmmakers, he seemed to come from another country and culture than the one inhabited by Fellini, de Sica, Visconti, Pasolini and Bertolucci.

Where they coloured their movies with human passion and extremes of style or emotional expression, Antonioni created a landscape and screen language where subtext, symbol and enigma reigned. His stories, from a girl disappearing on a volcanic island through a permissive age's bequest of disillusionment to the semi-surreal blends of drama and mime, were mysteries wrapped in mazy narratives. His protagonists, epitomized in the beautiful 'blankness' of his longtime leading lady and one-time wife Monica Vitti, were seekers who did not know quite what they were seeking.

Exactness in Antonioni was confined to the frame itself: precise, unsettling images of a world, natural or man-created, in which abstract forces declare their independence of, or hostility to, human beings. Trees sigh and sough outside a picture window while Vitti curls foetus-like on a sofa. Street stalls share the same colours of industrial age decay as the earth and buildings. And in his late Identification of a Woman a foggy road closes in womb-like around a car driver, to become a dream of annihilation at once beguiling and frightening.

In his most creative decade, the 1960s, Antonioni's sensibility as an artist seemed closer to Camus, Sartre, and existentialism. Born into a well-off family in Ferrara in 1912, he wrote film criticism and screen plays and worked on documentaries before, aged 38, he made his first feature film. Over the next decade, he developed his style of oblique narrative, locating characters in a landscape, using long takes, picking up on old puzzling details. His films exuded an atmosphere of despair and world weariness. In the specifically left-wing Il Grido (1957), this haut-bourgeois Marxist dealt for the only time with blue-collar characters.

But it was L'Avventura that made his name and that of Vitti, who plays an outsider on a sailing holiday with rich bored socialites in the Tyrrhenian Sea. A girl disappears leaving a Bible and a copy of 'Tender is the Night'. Booed at the Cannes Film Festival premiere, it was soon esteemed a masterpiece by an international critics' poll. In the next two films he forced audiences to look even deeper into cinema's expressive possibilities.

La Notte was a slow, enthralling mourning song for a marriage, starring Jeanne Moreau and Mastroianni as a couple drifting apart while the sights and sounds of the hedonistic 1960s form a mocking backdrop. And in L'Eclisse the love story between Alain Delon and Vitti freezes more than once as character interaction gives way to abstract collages of sound and picture, commenting on the theme of emotional impasse. The ending, 10 minutes of wordless imagery, from livid skies to the pitiless glare of a street lamp, as a world bows to a bleak new twilight, is the director's greatest single sequence.

Antonioni created haunting moments in Blow Up and pushed at the limits of visual vocabulary by surreally rearranging whole landscapes in The Red Desert, a co-production starring Richard Harris. But his rapprochement with Western mainstream cinema ended with Profession: Reporter (1975). The cryptic tale of switched identities starring Jack Nicholson as a man drifting through Europe and North Africa had notable scenes. By the 1980s, Antonioni began to seem like yesterday's modernist in a world moving towards dinosaurs and cyberspace. After a feature-length experiment with video and a couple of aborted projects, including a documentary on China, he collaborated with Wim Wenders in a strange, visually stunning multi-episode film, Beyond the Clouds.

By then he had been rendered partially immobile by a stroke, and produced his last work for the large screen, an episode in the three-story film Eros (2004), made with Wong Kar-Wai and Steven Soderbergh, an enigma without heart or energy, tough as ever with some beautiful frames.

Michelangelo Antonioni, film director, born September 29, 1912; died July 30 2007

 


The VIP Jam

Dear all,

It is with some interest I read about the Supreme Court taking notice of traffic conditions in Karachi caused most by road and utility works. Among the people summoned by the court, to be chided were the city nazim and various traffic police officials. However, I still maintain that the main cause of traffic obstruction in every city is the VIP motorcade.

Just last week my aunt in Lahore had bitter things to say about the heavy traffic jams caused by Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz's visit to the city. She was completely outraged as she (rightly) pointed out that the halting of traffic for the passage of one person caused people of all age groups immense discomfort. After all, there are routines people follow: children need to go to and from school, people go to work, old people may need to get from one place to the other and many of us, for various reasons, may be on our way to hospital. We might also be working within certain deadlines: somebody might have to get a document attested in order to file it the next day, somebody might have to go to the bank to get money for a payment that evening etc etc.

For completing these sorts of everyday tasks we all rely on some sort of predictability in city life and routines. But then, in breezes a so-called VIP and blocks the traffic for miles just so his cavalcade can whizz by on a clear road. And meanwhile the rest of us sweat it out stuck in a maddening traffic jam. Pretty disgusting really. We then try to vent our anger by screaming at the scrawny police men who have to stand along the 'VIP route' for hours, and who are absolutely not responsible for the situation. Sad.

The thing is that these so-called VIPs were once regular citizens. Shaukat Aziz, for example, was a normal, urban, law-abiding, educated, banking professional. Now he is the prime minister, belongs to the King's Party and thinks nothing of stopping traffic for hours on end.

Last year I almost missed my flight out of Karachi airport thanks to a traffic jam caused by our very considerate and civic minded president. The city's main artery Shahrae Faisal aka Drigh Road was closed off, the traffic backlog went on for miles. We had no choice but to sit around waiting -- and cursing.

Of course we know that all this is done in the name of 'security', but shouldn't this bedone keeping the needs of citizens in mind?? Okay, so both the PM and the president have been targets of assassination attempts, but all the security in the world won't save you if it's your time to go -- at least that's what a lot of us believe. Really, we need to have some faith in God or fate or whatever. Barricading yourself off from the people around you is an artificial way to hang on to dear life. And if the excuse is that they have to get to some important engagement on time -- well so do the rest of us.

I remember that many years ago I was on Shahrae Faisal in Karachi and in the car next to us was none other that the city mayor, Dr Farooq Sattar. So close, I could have rolled down my window and chatted with him if I'd wanted. I found this really civilised and quite endearing really as it showed that just because the chap was in charge of running the city, he wasn't 'above' all us other citizens. And if there was a traffic jam -- well he'd have to suffer it too and therefore might have an incentive to fix the situation.

So here's my message to our great so-called VIPS: to rephrase the poet -- 'insanon say dartay ho? Insan tow khud bhi ho'.

Best wishes, and good luck on the road.

 Umber Khairi

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