In recent years, the news coming out of Pakistan has all too often been inflected by the ongoing war in Afghanistan, tinged with political instability and bearing the taint of repressive social practices and Islamic extremism. In choosing Pakistan as its theme, Granta 112 challenges this perception of a country whose history and culture has been closely associated with our own, drawing our gaze away from Pakistan’s fraught politics, and towards a more panoramic sense of its culture, society and history, viewed through the eyes of writers who have experienced Pakistan as both distant homeland and place of return. Joining Granta deputy editor Ellah Allfrey to discuss Pakistan as both “here” and “there”, and to share their experience of reconciling contrasting cultural identities, were Nadeem Aslam, Kamila Shamsie, Aamer Hussein and Sarfraz Manzoor.
Nadeem Aslam was born in Pakistan but moved to Huddersfield at a young age. His novella, Leila in the Wilderness, excerpted in Granta 112, is a reworking of the classic story of star-crossed lovers kept apart by social convention. Is it a story that could be set in any time? Is Pakistan a place which changes much? Answering these questions, Aslam asserted that he wanted to ‘push aside the immediate discourse about Pakistan, and see what else is there’ – to ask deeper questions about society, most particularly, ‘what is this land? How are the weak treated?’. Instead of addressing contemporary issues such as jihadism, the novella takes as its central preoccupation the social stigma which attaches to a woman if she only has female children. According to Aslam, it is ‘such an obvious subject’, and yet one which he has been afraid of tackling for years – finding it overwhelming in its very pervasiveness. Indeed, the first day he arrived back in Pakistan, he saw a news story about a woman who tried to disown a newborn daughter; the second day, likening his books to his children in conversation with an educated friend, he was shocked to hear him conclude that “the successful books will be your boys, and the unsuccessful books will be your girls”. Fearing the book would be ‘too much’, Aslam sent it to David Mitchell and A S Byatt for their thoughts and was given their blessing, concluding that it was ‘neither bloody nor bloodless’. When asked how he feels about Pakistan today, he describes himself as ‘made in Pakistan, assembled in England’, adding, ‘I haven’t left – I talk to my mother everyday’.
Kamila Shamsie was 13 when Benazir Bhutto returned from exile, and 15 when Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq died. The weeks afterwards were’ a period of great uncertainty’, but also great energy, she remembers. Zia had been ‘synonymous with the absence of pop culture, and the leeching away of all that was youthful and fun’, and suddenly ‘the city had a different soundtrack’, as political parties adopted catchy dance songs as part of their campaigns. ‘It was music, it was life’, Shamsie recalls. ‘Today there are many soundtracks,’ she goes on – first democracy, and then dictatorship, have left behind their musical legacies. It’s much more violent today, she thinks, ‘in Karachi now a lot of things feel more extreme one way or the other’, and yet the sense of excitement and possibility she felt in those early days is strangely absent – reflecting on Pakistan’s younger generation now, she comments, ‘I don’t think any 15 year old can have the kind of hope that was possible then’. In her memoir Pop Idols, Shamsie describes the illicit thrill of going to her first pop concert in the plush function room of a Karachi hotel – dancing on the neatly arranged chairs in a first, tentative expression of Pakistani ‘youth culture’. The lead singer of the group she saw perform later became a radical fundamentalist, but the guitarist went on to form Junoon, one of the biggest names in Pakistani pop. Searching for a sound that wasn’t simply derivative of Western rock, Junoon turned to Sufi Islam, which Shamsie studied briefly in the US, and which, in its intensely personal conception of the relationship between God and believer, forms the main counterweight to the prevailing Wahabism in Pakistan.
By contrast, Aamer Hussein’s account of his early life focuses on his first 2 years in England, aged 15 to 17. ‘England was always meant to be a home away from home’, he recalls, and he threw himself into the study of films and the foreign language library. He studied Urdu and Persian at university and grew up with Pakistani music, but concluded that Pakistani culture wasn’t as close for his generation then as it is for Pakistanis in the UK today.
Sarfraz Manzoor’s memoir White Girls explores his pre-adolescent infatuation with a white girl, Bo, and amusedly recalls the loaded cautionary tales his parents told him, implying that such things could come to no good. Was he afraid to write the piece? Yes, a little – though the dark humour of arranged marriages didn’t escape him, and he was always aware of the suppressed hilarity of the situation.
Returning to the question of what it means to write about nationality and national identity, Nadeem Aslam commented that his aim is not to write about Pakistanis themselves – ‘I have no idea of what a Pakistani is. It’s like a prism – white light goes in and seven colours come out’. In his own family, one female cousin is a flight instructor in the Pakistani army, and one has adopted traditional Islamic dress. For him, it is more a case of asking ‘what a human being is – last time we looked, Pakistan was full of human beings’. The more Pakistani writers there are, he adds, the more they ‘counter the common narrative – everyone adds to and complicates the portrait’. Moving the conversation on to the issue of migration, Sarfraz Manzoor commented that it was generally working class people who left Pakistan to go to England – seeking opportunities that did not exist in the home land. Nadeem Aslam agreed. ‘I would not have been a writer if I had stayed’, he admits, ‘I would have had to pay my sister’s dowry and look after my parents’. Turning to the other members of the panel, he acknowledges that, had it not been for their shared exile, he certainly wouldn’t have met Kamila Shamsie, as the class structures in Pakistan are still too rigid for them to have encountered each other socially. He is frank in his admission that, had it not been for his decision to leave Pakistan, ‘I would have sunk – I’m not strong enough’. Indeed, Aslam’s own father once nursed dreams of being a poet, but had to let them go to provide for his family.
It was only after the discussion had drawn to a close that word began to filter in that a leading Pakistani politician, Imran Farooq, had been assassinated that night at his North London home. It was a sobering reminder of the violence that still permeates the politics of the contributors’ homeland, and revealed a darker aspect to the relationship between Pakistan and the UK. Nadeem Aslam’s first comments seem all the more important in this context – making it all the more necessary to resist the ‘immediate discourse’ of political turmoil, and to reveal the complex, rich and subtle panorama of the country these writers know as home.
Report by Lettie Ransley
Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/events/reportsonrecentevents/crossingthelineexpressingpakistan/