Understanding جہالت (Jahalat) as incivility, rather than illiteracy

What are some of the things that come to your mind when you hear the word ‘China’?

1- Large population

2- CPEC

3- Chaptay (‘flat faced’, in local parlance)

4- Godless

5- Food (more specifically, Chicken corn soup and Chinese rice)

6- Weirdos?

Do any of these responses sound familiar? There is probably a lot more to the only sophisticated ancient civilisation that has resisted the throes of Western modernity than a chicken corn soup recipe.

Indeed this is but one instance of our stereotype towards people of other nationalities. And, it should be of concern to any rational Pakistani why he/she has such a limited understanding of a country that they believe is an all weather ally.

But this post is not about clarifying stereotypes.

The responses above also say a lot about our media diet; a healthy doze of local television and newspapers and a large platter of heresay (word of mouth on WhatsApp or face-to-face conversations with others like us). It shows how what we have seen, read and heard about China has shaped our views, attitudes and behaviour towards it. You can do a similar mental exercise for any other country, object or individual.

The information we consume shapes our reality.

See there is nothing inherently wrong with consuming the local media content (which will gradually mature). Living on Pakistani soil we are dependent on it and have entrusted it with the sacred duty to provide credible information and serve the public.

As do citizens of other nations on the content of their media industry.

After all, Chinese people may have similar misgivings about Pakistanis; ‘brothers of the Chinese people’, ‘unsafe’, ‘supporters of Islam’, ‘women and hijab’, ‘terrorist’, etc. going by the typical comments of Chinese tourists on their travel websites.

Nor is there anything inherently wrong with our local media system. It gives us a sense of identity and projects a point of view that is typically Pakistani in the global market place of ideas.

However when we become dependent on this media diet it becomes a problem. Or in other words when what we see, read or hear comes mostly from our local media.

Now despite this seemingly common sensical explanation the ignorance in our society (myself included) about the media never ceases to amaze me. For instance, we blame television channels for broadcasting junk but conveniently forget that it is our tastes that it cater. And by the way, I have lived in Hong Kong for four years where the Chinese chicken soup looks and tastes nothing like you would imagine. Hint: they don’t ever add cornflour!

Last Monday I led a workshop titled “Thinking beyond professionalism: the role of journalism outside the newsroom”, at the Centre for Excellence in Journalism (CEJ) at IBA in Karachi, where I elaborated on this point.

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Participants were masters students of the journalism program at CEJ-IBA. Image: author

The problems of the media industry are manifold but a crucial part is our lack of basic media literacy. It’s important to understand the distinction between ‘literacy’ and ‘media literacy’ here. Although I suspect we are implicitly aware of it when we use the cheeky phrase paray likhay jahil (Roman Urdu transliteration for: a countryside bumpkin who has acquired formal education).

Typically it is assumed that the rote learning centred public education system is the root cause of our jahalat جہالت  (‘iliteracy’ – if transliterated from Urdu; ‘incivility’ – more accurately as I will now argue). This argument doesn’t explain the many foreign educated Pakistanis who return to their home towns with the same attitudes towards women, religion, family ties, tribalism etc., they took with them.

That we must ‘do as the Romans when in Rome’ is a bit off-mark as well; many of us think it is justified to break laws because of circumstances. Although there are those who break laws as a natural right or a force of habit. Similarly, many educated Pakistani expats seem to share the same tribal mindset with those of us back home.

Conversely, many graduates of local public schooling  have a mature understanding of modern collective co-existence, respect for rule of law and empathy with the disenfranchised such as minorities and women.

It is becoming apparent that our formal education, public or private, foreign or domestic, doesn’t have a strong correlation with our jahalat. This is a unique Pakistani problem.

While I’m not an expert on education psychology the need for ‘civic education’ for Pakistanis of all colour, age, creed, class and education is abundantly clear. Have a look at this TedxLahore talk by Usama Khilji, director of Bolo Bhi on the issue for further clarity.

Media literacy continues in this tradition of raising standards of civility in a society. It aims to inculcate critical and clear thinking about the messages we receive. But at it’s core is the creation of an informed society. Where civic values, fact based reasoning and consensus building are cherished and go-to method to solve problems.

Learning about media is thus necessary for everyone. Not only for quality television content that will be needed for an informed public unwilling to accept junk but also for a public that must learn to co-exist with mutual respect and harmony in practice, rather than paying lip service to these values.

Media discourses after all occupy our public airwaves similar to what we do in our public squares, D-Chowks, roads, malls etc.

 

 

 

A resource for humanitarian reporting in Pakistan

Aerial view of a destroyed bridge in Upper Swat valley during floods in 2010. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Most of us have travelled by road to Northern Areas alongside the twists and turns that characterise the spectacular banks of the river Indus. The lush scenery was not so pleasant in the aftermath of flooding in Pakistan.

“When we visited Swat (a popular destination along the route) in 2010, most bridges connecting the valley were found destroyed,” says Arif Bilgaumi, a well-regarded architect and urban planner based in Karachi.

Arif was alluding to the risk of debris from illegal construction such as dhabas, hotels and restaurants, along the river banks which gets dislodged during natural calamities and destroys everything in its wake. He was talking to reporters from a wide array of news organisations across the country attending a workshop on humanitarian reporting recently organised by the Centre of Excellence in Journalism at IBA in Karachi.

I was auditing the workshop for a day and found it personally exciting for two reasons. It brought me back to the ‘roots’, or a professional teaching environment in Pakistan, since I haven’t stepped foot in a local classroom in nearly ten years. Secondly, the training program was well thought out between experts who kept the sessions engaging and informative. Mind you I was not appraising the workshop for which I’m neither qualified or inclined. Think of my role as a participating observer.

Workshop participants. Photo: author.

It was refreshing to interact with marginalised media workers; a reporter from Quetta, the capital city of the restive Balochistan province, for instance told me how their head office in Karachi is often not interested in anything but terrorism and crisis related stories. As if people in Balochistan have no other life. Pakistanis of all shades and colours complain about similar treatment by the Western media.

The combination of expert knowledge and its professional delivery came in to stark focus on the issue of crisis reporting in areas where the state lacks infrastructure. A senior member of a development organisations talked about their role in creating national awareness. Aid is often the first organised collective response in such areas. Reporters of resource constrained media organisations often rely on ‘aid vehicles’ to reach effected areas.

Understandably, this part of the session was off record. Often these areas consists of non-state actors engaged in their own development efforts and agendas. The remaining session was on nurturing a ‘situational awareness’, safety, strategies to negotiate the demands of various stakeholders, traveling to and across the terrain and of course reporting in those conditions.

It was a welcome change to be in my country and talk constructively in Urdu on sensitive issues. It reminded me of a sharing session on the controversial Tiananmen Square Protest I attended in Hong Kong few years back.

The workshop program, classroom facilities and visiting experts wouldn’t be out of place in any of the conferences or universities outside Pakistan that I have had the pleasure of attending. Near the end instructors sneaked in an ‘anonymous questionnaire’ that was in fact a psychological well-being test presumably for reporters often working under stressful conditions.

By the end of the day I was nostalgic of my time as a sub-editor at The News. There is after all a charm and a sense of purpose when doing good old fashioned journalism; a powerful method of storytelling in the service of the public.

Some resources recommended by Arif Bilgaumi for reporting on natural disasters in Pakistan.

How Buddhist practice revealed a fresh perspective on Islam for me

“Happiness is here and now

I have dropped my worries

Somewhere to go – something to do

But no longer in a hurry”

– A monastic song

Recently I attended several mindfulness camps with monastics in Hong Kong. Now beyond the awe a newbie might associate with Zen – not least a chance for something experiential. What struck me was the potency of guided meditative exercises that were practiced to, ‘center’ the participants, decompress, or simply put, relax the mind. My limited exposure to Buddhism can be summarized in the following key words (phrases):

  • A hour long 8th grade, opinionated history lesson about Ashoka, Nirvana, and Enlightenment.
  • A very popular religion.
  • A colleague who once said he is a Buddhist.
  • Militant Buddhists in Burma and plight of the Rohingya Muslims.
  • The Dalai Lama.
  • Jeff Bridges characters in Hollywood films.

The contrast between realizing the potential application of a philosophy new to me and my rudimentary knowledge of it was humbling. Moreover so as the communitarian, harmonious and meditative underpinnings can be only understood properly through experience and practice.

And more practice.

I also couldn’t help but wonder whether Islam, my religion of birth, operated in a similar fashion. Does increasing the frequency of practices and rituals prescribed in the Islamic school of thought lead to a greater understanding of Islam? I remember my childhood when I would make conscientious effort to pray and how on most occasions my mind would constantly drift around mundane everyday tasks. As I have reached 30, I barely practice. Reverence to God and death aside there is little actual relevance of the Holy in my life.

These are just some reflections. Muslim faith and understanding of life and Islam I suppose does increase as time passes. Perhaps the issue I’m really raising here is the practicality of theistic as opposed to non-theistic religions in present times. Or is it the virtue of practicing multiple religions?

Whatever debate I’ve stumbled upon today and however strong the potency of mindfulness exercises one thing is abundantly clear; practicing Buddhism showed me a fresh perspective on Islam. It compelled me to give new meaning to old Islamic practices I’m familiar with and that I usually find confounding. For someone who often questions the value of ‘being a Muslim’ this is important.

I’m not advocating Buddhist practice over Islam here. But of why fresh and comparative perspectives are necessary. Perhaps for you it would be some other religion, person, ideology or life choice. As long as effort is made to open up to others. Searching for similarities rather than differences with it or them.

For it gives us a chance to better understand our own selves and our role in this World.

What sets Logan apart from X-Men?

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Watching the film with some fusion spicy dumplings.

I’ve always enjoyed the thought the provoking stories of X-men franchise that brings it closer to science fiction novels than comic books. But Logan set’s itself apart from the usual plot; it’s not the exceptionally violent and gritty feel of the film, although that plays to the unsettling aura, rather a fresh take on the story of ‘good mutants’.

Set in the near future where mutants in their quest to live harmoniously alongside non-mutants have actually struggled to survive. As if the picture that Charles Xavier had imagined and the course his followers took ultimately backfired, after the events of ‘X3: The Last Stand’.

At first this alternative story line may not seem surprising. After all, this scenario is quite close to what Magneto had been fighting to prevent all along. Although, I imagine that in his version of the clash of species, there would have been a ‘battle of all battles’, where if mutants lost they would be exterminated.

But Logan hints of a fate far worse; new mutant babies are no longer born, those considered too dangerous are hunted down, and the remaining ones face every day struggles of ordinary living outside the usual comic book fantasy.

At the same time, mutant genes are harvested to enhance ordinary people, especially for military purpose. In this reality, mutation is merrily a tool, to be exploited by those in power. Although this theme of absolute power is a bit clichéd, the story keeps it fresh by demystifying superheroes and subjecting them to travails of life. No one is above the government and the corporations.

I suspect that in the future we might see ‘bad mutants’ working alongside government mercenaries to hunt down ‘good mutants’ and dissidents. Speaking of such new directions, the installment paves a very flexible way ahead for the franchise. A drama? A TV series? I won’t be surprised.

For now we can be assured that the series has complicated its usual good vs evil vision of reality, thereby also catering to a mature audience.

Goodbye to an era of resolutions

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Fireworks over a mosque around the Seaview area on 1st January 2017, DHA Karachi.

A warm welcome to an era of discipline!

It is not in my nature to be morose about what lies ahead. So in a typical fashion my New Year’s Eve was spent among good company. Both of friends and hooch. Now, that the fire works (and the fire arms), the tributes and the visceral high of celebrating together with millions around the world start to fade, things that made last year so difficult begin to dawn.

Indeed, 2016 has been rather poignant for me. The PhD program ‘came of age’, meaning that the course requirement and comprehensive exams were completed, a prospectus was negotiated with an advisory committee and field work was conducted in Karachi and Islamabad. Also, around summer time I attended a themed poster session @ the ICA in Japan.

It was a ridiculously packed agenda. One that raised the bar, set new standards and pushed me to stop complaining and get shit done. To put no-so-subtly.

The costs are high ladies and gentleman of stumbling along new pastures.

But the rewards are… oh so satisfying.

I’m surprised how clear I am about my plans for 2017 at a moment when many are celebrating the uncertainty or bemoaning what has passed. Much credit is due, among other things, to the rigorous requirements of the program that has instilled a measure of discipline. To be sure, the plan requires considerable rework. But I understand that is just part of the game.

Key learning here is that some form of structure no matter how rudimentary is crucial. For me the myth of having no rules as the driving engine was busted in 2016. Working in academia as with everything else worth pursuing requires a certain mindset, not least the ability to work alone for extended periods. A certain discipline which takes time and training. Rules make things simpler.

So in celebrating New Year’s Eve in my home town after four years I say goodbye to uncertainty, lack of discipline or an era of half-baked resolutions. I welcome 2017 and many more to come, hopefully, with a new found appreciation for responsibility and structure in life.

 

 

Just like how our life advances

So here I am once again, amidst the familiar cacophony of unintelligible voices on the streets. Cantonese can sound soft, delicate, at times even comical, but always beautiful. Which is amazing because I hardly understand it. The accent though for me was a delight when I first heard it. I used to find it difficult to take locals ‘seriously’ when conversing as I would often get mesmerised by the cadence and lose track of the words. Women seem to be masters of this dark art. When I complained about this to some friends from the Mainland and other parts of the world, they usually dismissed it or at best cited Japanese influence among the mannerisms, clothing and speaking styles of the locals. I always thought that there is a grander explanation for the language’s appeal than mere ‘Japanese influence’. In fact I always thought there is a grander explanation for all the little things that excite me every time I step in this wonderful city called Hong Kong.

I’ve spent considerable time thinking and discussing what it would be like to make Hong Kong a second home. ‘Home away from home,’ as they say. How does one even make such a decision?

The usual way of doing this is to unpack the ‘grander explanation’ in to possible constituent units;  what kind of jobs will I be eligible for? How will my PhD thesis and career trajectory in general be effected? How long to become functionally proficient in the mesmerising language? What avenues for permanent residence does the government provide? Then there are teething questions related to assimilation; how open am I to marrying a local? How high will be the social cost for this action? Most important, how far will I be able to focus on Pakistan in a career based on research?

But then I wonder whether such rigorous planning will in due course dilute, or at worse erode the magical feelings I have nurtured about the place. Quite like the way we start losing interest in things the moment we start taking them seriously. Like how those same beautiful voices can get extremely annoying on hot summer Sundays when malls are packed with families and infants, and you must get in queues at restaurants when all you want is to fill your stomach in peace.

There wont be any quick conclusions here. One can only speculate, prepare and hope for the best. Quite like the research process; as I wander around news archives and harass journalist for comments in Karachi these days I am often disappointed when the findings do not fit initial ideas. But time and again new themes emerge and highlight patterns that never occurred to me earlier. And that is how knowledge is created. Perhaps just the way our life advances.

On weddings and familial ties

Prologue: In the past five years I’ve transitioned through various levels of financial independence as I have studied and worked abroad and lived as a single male. Interestingly, childhood lessons continue to stick with me and seem to follow me around as I make my yearly trips back home. These lessons manifest most profoundly during those so-called ‘wedding seasons’ (a misnomer I might add for every season seems to be a wedding season in Karachi). Where the most contentious issue often boils down to marriage with an ‘outsider’ a.k.a a gory or gweilo. 

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On weddings and familial ties

In this post I will highlight two popular arguments desi-families make to dissuade marriages with foreigners. I want to understand whether these are sound arguments or personal choices disguised as such. I hope readers will see that this reasoning can be generalised to many other factors, particular those based around age, sect, baradari (community), culture (favoured in Pakistan) that influence decisions to tie the knot.

I neither condone nor condemn a particular choice. I quite respect choice and right of opinion what I do not approve of is when people collate matters of choice with their supposedly reasonable arguments. Because when we mix arguments with value systems, we tend to defy rationalisation; we refuse to change our arguments even when underlying assumptions change.  We mistakenly assume that our argument is sound when actually we are imposing our belief and tailoring the arguments to fit those beliefs. For instance,

1- When we say that familial ties trump all other: 

Most of us born-raised in the subcontinent are taught to view family relations through the assumption that material benefits of maintaining strong extended familial ties inherently trump all other ties. Through this assumption we argue that marrying a Pakistani is more beneficial then a non-Pakistani since same nationality makes it easier to find mutually beneficial relationship when two families come together.

However, when this assumption is challenged; like when one family is more upwardly mobile or there is mistrust between the two or any other reason, it becomes logical, even necessary to modify our argument. Logical people maintain and strengthen ties with those who they trust or see some form of a benefit. Not necessarily monetary, many times it is an emotional benefit when a couple can sustain each other through thick and thin. Now it may be that we find many such trust worthy people in extended families but is that necessarily so? Many times we have such amazing relationships at various levels with our friends, coworkers, bosses, subordinates, mentors etc. Why should then when it comes to choosing potential partners must we restrict to certain families, sects or nationalities?

2- Social cost of marrying a foreigner will always be higher – Loag kya kahiengay? (what will people think?)

Social cost is a qualitatively complex phenomenon so its difficult to reduce it simply to defying ones societal norms. Over here I’ll just take one aspect of the cost; the communal shamming or loss of our gayrat (honour) when knots are tied outside established beliefs. The assumption here is that family decision/wisdom is superior to individual life choices since the former is more accordance with Muslim, Pakistani or Asian values.

This assumption is already problematic on two levels; first, is what your family decides for you always more Islamic than your own decisions? Now I am positive that no sane parent or saviour of family traditions will ever admit to this with a straight face. So if we understand this is a flawed assumption why do we take shamming so seriously?

Secondly, what do we mean by Islamic, Pakistani and Asian values to begin with? Are they written somewhere to be followed in letter or spirit or a combination of both? And who decides such combinations and on what authority? This is an old issue. What we can say with certainty about value judgements is that they continuously evolve parallel to socio-economic changes in society, among other things.

So no matter what the arguments we will (and rightly so) cherry pick those that best serve our interests. So why is it so difficult to call a spade a spade and blame socio-economic conditions rather than ‘values’ for marriage decisions?

Resources are better managed in an extended family structure 

In a similar vein, a partner with the same passport as yourself is assumed by default to bring greater accountability.

True, accountability could be higher but is this always the case? Yes having the blessings of a rich father in-law who is childhood friends with your father is good, but does this fact alone guarantee that shenanigans in business and work will not occur? I think at best it merely hints it. Hard work, mutual respect, planning and sacrifice still play a crucial role. And this applies to relationships and work ethics generally and is certainly not restricted to familial ties. Even business decisions that centre around leveraging patronage networks are not made by default. They are based on practical and strategic concerns of the parties involve.

A messy middle-ground

Some men of noble origins, faced with such dilemmas took a bold step.  They reconciled with the contradictions in arguments of their elders by getting conveniently married with foreigners for better economic and future prospects. At the same time they conveniently also ‘kept’ local wives. One to fulfil their duty and one to fulfil other appetites.

It is interesting how making personal marriage choices is not socially acceptable but what is acceptable though, albeit in hushed tones, is to ruin the life of a women or keep them dependent on the husbands good grace. And in my experience this applies to many patriarchal societies.

My point is not to argue for the irrelevance of family structure or the supremacy of one model of marriage over other. Partner selection, just like many other important decisions in life, is based on individual circumstances and contexts. Indeed most marriages every where in the world, including Pakistan, are based on strategic decisions.

So why do we continue to adhere with this facade of rule of thumbs?