Musings of a Reader: New Trends in Contemporary Pakistani Fiction in English

Published in the 15th issue of Zau magazine in May 2016

Before I came to the US to study Comparative Literature, I was sure that I would not be focusing on Pakistani literature in English as my academic area of research. Sure, I liked most of the novels I read, but I didn’t feel like they compared to the other great works of World Literature that I read and enjoyed and that blew my mind so much more than the Pakistani novels. Since I came here, however, I’ve been rethinking this. Because, regardless of literary merit, it is still important to study the literature being produced in English in Pakistan and to figure out how we can think of them in a broader world literary system, how they might fit into our conceptions of postcolonial or even transnational literature, and what it can tell us about Pakistan as a society in all its complexity.

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Musings of a Reader: On Amitav Ghosh and the Importance of Historical Fiction

Published in the 14th issue of Zau magazine in February 2016

I’ve been a fan of historical fiction since long before I knew what the term meant. When I was ten years old I read Patricia Reilly Giff’s middle-grade novel Nory Ryan’s Song, which is set in Ireland during the Great Potato Famine of 1845. At that time, I was, of course, completely unaware of Irish history and of the mass level of destruction that this watershed event caused for Ireland – what I cared about was the story of Nory, a young girl trying to help her family survive the famine and the cruelties of their English landlord while having adventures in her coastal hometown of western Ireland. The historical setting of the novel was superfluous to ten-year-old me, apart from creating the very specific circumstances that Nory’s story grows out of – how she and her friend Sean try to prevent their neighbor from being evicted when she can’t pay rent, how she sings to her little brother to distract him from his hunger, her dream of one day reuniting with her older sister in Brooklyn.

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Musings of a Reader: What Happened to Pakistani Television?

Published in Zau magazine in August 2015

As a principle, I am against the whole “things were so much better in the olden days” line of argument. I think it’s a lazy argument to make, and that nostalgia and distance inevitably make us believe that the past was better than it actually was. I usually roll my eyes when this line is thrown around during discussions of technology (“You kids with your smartphones and your Facebook – in MY day, we used to play out in the streets”) or the state of contemporary literature (“In the past, people read TRUE literature, not the Fifty Shades junk of today”). But just like rules are made to be broken, principles are made to have exceptions, and I, too, have an exception to my general aversion to romanticizing the past: I genuinely believe that the Pakistani dramas of the ‘70s and ‘80s are eons better than the crappy shows of today, with their one-note characters and their weepiness and their constant need to make a virtue out of suffering.

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Sexism in Literature

Quick, off the top of your head, name five books that have gotten critical acclaim recently. Chances are the books you’ve named are mostly those written by a male author. ‘But that’s just because I read genres that are more male-dominated,’ you might argue.

Or, ‘Well, men write better books than women.’ Such arguments are overly simplistic (not to mention misogynistic, in the case of the latter) and ignore the deep-rooted sexism that is prevalent in the world of literature today.

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Creating a Safe Haven for Pakistan’s Youth

Published in Truthdig in October 2014:

Editor’s note: This piece by Nudrat Kamal is the last in a three-part series about the unique challenges and opportunities that Pakistani youth are facing that were written for the Global Voices: Truthdig Women Reporting project (click here for more information about Global Voices). The other two stories, by Zubeida Mustafa and by Kamal, can be found here and here, respectively. Click here for a photo album featuring images of people mentioned in this interview, or view them in the slide show below.

Sohail Rahi, 44, and Nadeem Baig, 45, the duo who established the Lyari Youth Cafe in Karachi, Pakistan in 2012, were in their twenties when they first took up the cause of the youth in their neighborhood. In 1990, they began organizing street schools to make education accessible to the underprivileged boys and girls of Lyari. Two years ago, the idea of the street schools was developed further, and the Youth Café was launched.

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How Young Pakistanis Help Themselves

Published in Truthdig in October 2014:

Editor’s note: This piece by Nudrat Kamal is the second in a three-part series about the unique challenges and opportunities that Pakistani youth are facing that were written for the Global Voices: Truthdig Women Reporting project (click here for more information about Global Voices). The other two stories, an article by Zubeida Mustafa and an interview by Kamal, can be found here and here, respectively. Click here for a photo album featuring images of people mentioned in this story, or view them in the slide show on Page 2.

The challenges that Pakistan’s young people face today are significant and pervasive, and can be addressed only through sweeping systemic changes. Notwithstanding these challenges, many young people are defying great odds to become conscientious and engaged members of society. They are innovative in devising activities for themselves.

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Watch and Learn: Learning Through YouTube

Published in Newsline magazine in October 2013:

For Amna Khan, an undergraduate student of Karachi University, academic learning does not stop once she steps out of her classroom. Back at home, she regularly attends a class halfway across the world in one of the top universities, via YouTube – or at least she did before YouTube was banned in Pakistan.

“I was making my way through Yale University’s online courses on political philosophy and literary theory,” she tells Newsline. “Some of these courses helped me better understand the topics I was learning in my classes, and some I took just because I don’t get to study them in my own university.” Yale University – along with other universities such as Harvard, Standford and MIT – has its own channel on YouTube, where videos of entire courses are uploaded for the benefit of students all around the globe.

For people like Amna, and many others, YouTube is not a place where they can merely watch videos of cats or, contrary to popular belief, the blasphemous Innocence of Muslims video over and over again. It offers access to a wide variety of educational tools, religious content and tutorial videos, and serves as a platform for different forms of creative expression. Banning it has deprived the people of Pakistan of opportunities to learn and interact with the world.

All around the world, YouTube is revolutionising the way knowledge is shared and acquired, and its effects have only now begun to be felt in Pakistan. According to a survey conducted in July 2013 by Bolo Bhi (an organisation geared towards advocacy, policy and research in the areas of internet access, digital security and privacy), 74% of Pakistanis who use YouTube access videos of academic tutorials and lectures. And with good reason, since YouTube offers a wide variety of educational tools, ranging from university courses to TedTalks, where professionals from different fields give lectures, and vlogs such as Crash Course and Minute Physics, which offer short lessons on physics, biology, history and literature in engaging and entertaining ways. Everything is just a click away, whether it is a talk on the latest innovation in neuroscience, an animated lecture on organic chemistry or a literary analysis of The Great Gatsby delivered in hip-hop style rap (the YouTube channel ThugNotes presents classic literature summary and analysis in the language of hip-hop).

Various Pakistani universities, such as IBA, LUMS and NUST also maintain their own YouTube channels, where they upload videos of the conferences and seminars they host on campus. These videos benefit not just students enrolled in one specific institute, but anyone with access to YouTube. The Virtual University (VU) of Pakistan also post videos on a wide range of subjects – business and finance, law and psychology, among others.

It is not just university-level students who are benefiting – YouTube hosts numerous educational channels aimed at young children, which can be used effectively by parents and teachers as teaching tools for pre-schoolers or kindergarteners. Maheen Ibrahim, a mother of three primary school-going children, says she often uses videos on YouTube to better explain basic concepts such as alphabets and phonics to them. “It is not an easy task, making a child learn the alphabet or numbers. YouTube videos such as those by Sesame Street and BabyTV, with their songs and bright colours and animated characters, played an important role in my children’s pre-school learning.”

The best thing about YouTube is that there is content available in every language. In 2011, Google (which owns YouTube) announced that 60% of its users are non-English speakers, and this number will surely have increased in the ensuing years. There is a plethora of Urdu language videos for children: Urdu nursery rhymes, lullabies, cartoons and stories. Khan Academy, a virtual library consisting of lessons on all subjects, has a separate YouTube channel for lessons given in Urdu. Along with Urdu-language videos, there are also videos in every regional language of Pakistan – a Sindhi tutorial on how to monetise your blog and website, a Pashto video lesson on Adobe Photoshop, a Balochi video teaching embroidery design, you name it. This, coupled with the fact that YouTube itself is user-friendly even for those not fluent in English, means that it can serve as a great tool for the empowerment of people who may not have had a formal education. Skills pertaining to their respective fields can be honed and new skills can be learnt, paving the way for greater employment opportunities. For instance, instead of signing up for expensive courses at IT training centres such as Arena, you can learn graphic design and multimedia software for free via YouTube tutorials, in your preferred language.

When Asma Shafiq, a housewife with a knack for embroidery and jewellery-making, decided to turn her hobby into a home-run business, she turned to YouTube for inspiration. “It gave me an idea of the latest trends in jewellery-making around the world,” she says. “I learnt new designs and techniques I didn’t know before.” For people like Asma, YouTube offers a chance to keep up with the world of art and crafts, and to use this knowledge to create new avenues of employment for themselves.

Many people, especially the youth, also turn to YouTube for religious knowledge. With channels such as QuranWeekly and Organisation for Islamic Learning offering short videos on different aspects of Islamic knowledge and sermons given by scholars who speak in an open and engaging manner, many young people prefer YouTube to more traditional means of gaining religious knowledge. According to the Bolo Bhi survey, 27% of people who frequent YouTube use it to access religious content. “It’s more convenient watching religious videos online than reading long-winding religious sermons which are difficult to understand anyway,” says Anum Shaharyar, a frequent visitor of the QuranWeekly channel.

Besides the acquisition of different forms of knowledge, YouTube is increasingly serving as a platform on which Pakistani artists can showcase their talent and interact with audiences directly, without the need of intermediaries such as recording companies and mainstream television channels. In recent years, several musicians and comedians have emerged through YouTube, such as musicians Ali Gul Pir and Bilal Khan, as well as the comedian Osman Khalid Butt. In each of these artists’ cases, YouTube was instrumental in launching their careers.

In a country where the performing arts industry is just beginning to develop, YouTube levels the playing field by making sure that everyone has the opportunity to share their work.

Regarding the ban on YouTube, Ali Gul Pir tells Newsline, “YouTube is a wonderful place where artists get to express themselves. It is a medium without any boundaries and people should not be denied the opportunities it provides.”

Read this on Newsline’s website: