Letter from Lahore: Reinventing Pakistan

Welcome to Lahore, where an explosion of art and media is offering a vibrant alternative to the strictures of religious conservatives and is transforming one of America’s most important and most ambivalent allies

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One night, as troops from Pakistan’s army massed 300 miles away to hunt for remnants of Al Qaeda in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, I went to a concert in my hometown of Lahore. It was a pleasant evening, warm, with a light breeze carrying the smell of April flowers: flame trees, magnolias, jasmine. We sat outside on carpets spread across the lawn of a white bungalow, the audience ranging from teenagers with soul patches and ponytails to elegant matrons in saris. My back ached slightly, and I mentioned this to a friend as I reached for the only available cushion I could see.

“Don’t even think about it,” she said, patting her very pregnant belly. “It’s mine.”

The music we had come to hear was a fusion of modern and traditional percussion. There were seven musicians, all Pakistani. Three wore Western clothes and played Western instruments: keyboards, drum set and trumpet. Three wore loose-fitting, traditional Pakistani dress and played the dhol: a heavy, two-sided barrel of a drum hung from the shoulders on a thick leather strap. The seventh played a slender Egyptian drum held between the knees. The performance was a work in progress, an experiment that the group hoped to refine and take on tour to Europe and the United States in the summer.

For all their individual talents, the musicians had trouble finding a groove. But at times the audience could sense the potential of what was struggling to emerge, and in those moments I could see the excitement on people’s faces.

The words “explosion” and “revolution” are often applied to Pakistan, a nuclear power contending with a tangle of domestic and geopolitical challenges, but the words should also be applied to the cultural life of the nation. Pakistan is witnessing an explosion of music, part of a revolution in art and media with potentially far greater appeal to its young people than the sermons of religious conservatives urging them to abandon modernity and confront perceived threats to Islam. Over the past three years, a dozen independent television channels have sprung up, from general networks to specialized news, fashion and music stations. Combined with a boom in advertising, increasing economic growth and rapid cable and satellite penetration, these outlets are fueling not only a new industry, but also a new culture—one not limited to a narrow Westernized elite.

True, Pakistan is desperately poor, with half the population of 150 million illiterate and many subsisting on less than a dollar a day. But between 30 and 40 percent live in cities, and that percentage rises to more than 50 percent when one includes settlements within commuting distance of urban centers. For this half of Pakistan’s population, electricity, telephones and television have become a part of ordinary life. Even in rural villages, TV can be found in restaurants and tea shops that are often as crowded with viewers as movie theaters. Last year, when members of the Pakistani rock band Junoon visited some of the country’s most destitute and isolated regions, they found themselves mobbed by fans who knew their songs by heart.

This budding mass culture, virtually unknown to the West, is being created in cities like Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore. Karachi, home to 13 million people, is Pakistan’s commercial capital, an enormous, humming metropolis whose occasional spasms of sectarian and criminal violence make for international headlines. Islamabad is Pakistan’s political capital, small and quiet, with fewer than a million inhabitants and yet the most international of Pakistan’s cities. But Lahore occupies a special place in the new mass culture. Aprosperous city of seven million, Pakistan’s cultural capital has long been a bastion of liberalism, hedonism and easy living, where late-night partying, open-air dining and colorful festivals, such as the kite-flying extravaganza of Basant every spring, draw visitors from all over the country and beyond.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, the Mogul rulers of what was then India left Lahore a magnificent fort with an entrance ramp wide enough for elephants, a royal mosque among the largest in the world when it was built, and a palace with a mirrored ceiling that reflects candlelight like the flickering of stars. More recently, the British Empire built universities, clubs, courts of law and military quarters, or cantonments, in Lahore. The young protagonist in resident Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim told “tales of the size and beauty of Lahore”; a visiting Mark Twain came to the conclusion that he “could easily learn to prefer an elephant to any other vehicle.” Famous for producing poets and artists and writers, the city is now also becoming known for its newscasters, actors, fashion models and pop stars.

And not a moment too soon, because Pakistan needs symbols of openness, debate and the potential for progress and prosperity in times that many Pakistanis find dangerous and deeply unsettling, as I was reminded by my parents’ night watchman when I went to their house after the concert. Rahim Khan is from Pakistan’s North-West Frontier province, from the mountains near the tribal areas where recent fighting has taken place. He looked worried, so I asked him what was the matter.

“Have you heard that the army is going back into Waziristan?” he said, referring to a region that has seen heavy casualties among both soldiers and civilians in operations to hunt down foreign militants belonging to Al Qaeda, the Taliban and other groups.


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