The past is another country (Part I)

The past is another country, they say. In Pakistan this is a literal truth. With threats to people’s lives and livelihood steadily escalating from decade to decade since the country’s creation, its citizens have learned to take refuge in the glories of the past – imagined or real – as the reason d’etre for carrying on. In the face of constant violence and an inordinate demand on our empathetic faculties (with its resultant compassion-fatigue), large swathes of the country’s population have started looking to the past to carve out a meaningful Pakistani identity for themselves.
Nostalgia, that affliction of the lonely, exerts the greatest pull on those whose present offers no respite and future little possibility of change, thus becoming an important, almost necessary tool for survival. For individuals, and nations, the way to deal with present trauma is to escape to an idealized version of the past where the rosy glow of childhood and its pre-fall Edenic innocence tosses a cheerful cloak of well-being on all events viewed from the hazy and selective lens of nostalgia. The unconscious, or deliberate, erasure of key traumatic moments from the past provide the impetus to move on, but for both individuals and countries this kind of cosmetic well-being comes at a cost. It band-aids a wound that requires surgical incisions to prevent it from debilitating the entire body.
This nostalgia is indulged in contrasting ways by different groups of Pakistani citizens. There is the aggressive nostalgia of the militant right-winger for whom a return to the age of the khilafat, with its attendant tales of Islamic glory and Shariah law provide the ideological incentive for today’s wars. But the militant is unique in his glorification of the past, for it does not stunt his desire and ability to act in the present. All other groups of nostalgia-hunters seem virtually paralyzed and imprisoned by their romantic imaginings.
The first of these groups is Pakistani liberals in whose nostalgia-ridden imaginations Pakistan was a secular paradise before General Zia took over and radically turned it around. For their particular brand of nostalgia to work selective amnesia about Bhutto’s declaration of Ahmedis as non-Muslims, his hand in dividing the country, the banning of alcohol, the symbolic change of the weekly holiday from Sunday to Friday and grandiose visions of Pan-Islamism (ala the Islamic Summit Conference) are selectively erased from memory to swoop down collectively on (the undoubtedly culpable) Zia, but instead of seeing him as only one catalyst in our steady downward spiral into religious zealotry, he is lumped with the full force of the blame for the country’s current condition. I suspect some of it has to do with Bhutto’s ability to speak to the (largely) liberal elite in their own language. He walked, talked and behaved like them, so they suspected him less. Zia, on the other hand, with his inarticulate mumblings, poor English pronunciation, cartoonish mustache and middle-class ancestry was an easier enemy to latch on to.
For another kind of elite, in their longings for the golden past, Bhutto is replaced by Ayub Khan, whose later incarnation is General Musharraf. This liberal lot belongs largely to the progressive section of the Pakistan army, who dream of the easy authority and progress of dictatorial regimes during whose reign life seems less complicated and uncertain.
But perhaps, our collective nostalgia is, paradoxically, most potent among our youth, where it manifests itself not just politically but culturally. Of late, regular articles have appeared in the English press that extol the virtues of a Pakistan in which song, dance and cabaret bars were the norm. This is a Pakistan where women strolled the streets of Lahore, Karachi and Rawalpindi in bell bottoms, tight shirts and barely-there dupattas, while hippies roamed the length and breadth of the country smoking pot at will. The biggest proponent of this form of nostalgia is Pakistan’s leading culture critic Nadeem Farooq Paracha (I am generally an admirer), the enormous popularity of whose ‘Also Pakistan’ series speaks of our youth’s overwhelming desire to indulge in glossy nostalgia. This vision of the past leaves out a great portion of the population of the time: women in forced purdah belonging to conservative families for whom the cabaret-bar going women were, politely put, ‘ladies of the night’, early marriages (which today’s anecdotal evidence suggests are on the decline in urban environments), lack of university education amongst girls of the middle classes, and sectarian riots (the 1953 Ahmedi riots in Lahore and the recurrent clashes in Jhang). Even then it does justifiably showcase a Pakistan where certain ‘Western’ values could still be openly embraced without fear of death.
(to be continued)

 Sabahat Zakariya is a writer and  editor, interested in exploring the intersection between Pakistani pop culture and feminism.


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