Stories we need to tell

The Friday Times: August 27- September 2, 2010

Stories we need to tell

Sanam Maher takes a tour through the bittersweet memories of Pakistan’s birth

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When Asif Noorani was a young boy in Bombay in 1947, a number of bullies in his school dared him to raise the slogan, “Down with the Union Jack!” The young Asif obliged, chanting the slogan in his school. When asked if he knew what the slogan meant or what the Union Jack was, he recited, “Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water…” Mr. Noorani related this incident to a packed room of children this Independence Day at the Mohatta Palace Museum at an event organized by The Citizens Archive of Pakistan (CAP), in collaboration with Radio 1 FM 91 and Kifayat Academy. “I was 5 years old when Pakistan was created,” Mr. Noorani, a well-known author, told the children, drawing them in closer to narrate the story of his two-day journey to Karachi from Bombay by ship. While some of these children (aged 6 to 11 years) may have been held hostage by grandparents with similar tales, none complained or fidgeted as I had been expecting. Radio 1 FM 91’s RJ Rabiah Ahmed had spent the previous hour entertaining them with stories from a number of Suntra magazine issues (a children’s magazine published by Kifayat Academy), jokes, poetry recitals and raucous bursts of ‘Dil, Dil Pakistan’ and other songs.

The Citizens Archive of Pakistan, a not-for-profit education and heritage institute, organized the event in tandem with their interactive exhibition for children, ‘The Birth of Pakistan’. The event promised to ‘bring stories of sacrifice from 1947 to children’ and ‘to make history come alive for them in a unique way’. Featuring Kahani Corner, ‘a unique and interactive story-telling session’ with Rabiah Ahmed and Meri Kahani Meri Zabani, a highlight from past CAP events such as the bi-annual Shanaakht Festival, whereby members of Pakistan’s Partition Generation recount their memories of Pakistan’s early years.

Held at the Mohatta Palace Museum, ‘The Birth of Pakistan’ explores the struggle for an independent Pakistan and the challenges the fledgling state faced in its early years – while parents can enjoy hundreds of archival photographs, documents and oral histories that are part of the exhibition, their children are invited to hop on board a train to experience a refugee family’s harrowing journey to Pakistan, explore the lives of migrants who sought shelter in tents and even pick up their copy of Pakistan’s first passport from a passport office. The exhibition opened on March 23rd earlier this year and has welcomed at least 9,000 school children from across Karachi. Parents are encouraged to discuss facets of Pakistan’s history and identity through the exhibition with their children – during Kahani Corner as Rabiah entertained the children with stories, she asked parents in the room to read aloud with her to their children and subsequently explore the exhibition. A face-painting booth situated near exhibits about migration and settlements in Pakistan in 1947 was added incentive for the younger or more hesitant children to dive into the exhibition. Children were encouraged to approach the day as ‘Pakistan’s Birthday’ – green and white balloons crowded the ceiling of the room and every child was given party favours, including several issues of Suntra magazine.

Despite the festive atmosphere, the organisers acknowledged that ‘this year 14th August will be celebrated differently in the country – with so many displaced…and others mourning, many will wonder what there is to celebrate.’ Rabiah made sure to address the recent crisis facing Pakistan due to the floods. “Even though you’re young,” she said, “you can affect change.” She reminded children to donate toys or clothes or encourage their parents to donate to victims of the flood. “Remember what its like when you’re fasting?” she said to a sea of somber faces. “Imagine if you didn’t have access to food or clean water even though you were that hungry.”

As Rabiah left the children pondering their role as Pakistanis, Asif Noorani asked, “What does the white line on the Pakistani flag represent?” Mr. Noorani explained to the children that they must always be cognizant of the fact that though the country was made for the Muslims, “it was not only for the Muslims” but for thousands of members of other religious groups as well. Discussing violence that occurred at the time of Partition, he mentioned that “the killing was not one-sided”, a fact that perhaps mystified several children in the room. “Tell the children what Karachi used to be like!” called out one mother. “The first thing I saw in Pakistan,” Mr. Noorani replied, “was the Manora lighthouse in Karachi, when my ship from Bombay arrived in the city.” He fondly described the camels he saw at the port, the call of bus conductors and the web of trams in Karachi.

As far as I can remember, 14th August has been marked by the sputter of gunfire at midnight, sleepy school mornings spent singing the national anthem and hundreds of crescents and stars. But it was a silent night at midnight this 13th August, and Independence Day celebrations were muted by the stories of thousands who have lost their homes and families in one fell swoop. The sadness was eased as I stood with a room full of children, as a bust of Mohammed Ali Jinnah and Mohandas Gandhi arm in arm looked on, as we sang the Pakistani national anthem.

The Birth of Pakistan exhibition continues at The Mohatta Palace Museum until September

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The common thread of genius at TEDx

The Express Tribune: August 6, 2010

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The common thread of genius at TEDx

This week, the city of Lahore got under my skin. It wasn’t just the idiosyncrasies and beauty of the city that crept into my resolutely Karachi-heart, but the people that I was able to meet. I was attending TEDxLahore, and in the lead up to the conference on July 31, I tagged the team for three days, meeting a rag-tag group of individuals from various backgrounds who had little in common besides their unwavering belief in the ideas they wanted to present to Lahoris (and Pakistanis) via the TEDx platform.

In the absence of local arenas to showcase developing research, social or philanthropic projects, burgeoning talent or the work of individuals making a difference in their respective fields, TEDx provided the perfect platform to celebrate and honour the work of Pakistanis who, as the team put it, “are the silent movers and shakers who may not have always been in the spotlight but who haven’t stopped working for what they believe in nonetheless.”

Ideas worth spreading

The first TEDx conference in Pakistan was held in Lahore in 2009 and this year, curator Asim Fayaz (its rather befitting that he’s a mere 21 years old) and his team were determined to bring the TED mantra of ‘ideas worth spreading’ back to the city in an even bigger way.

Fourteen speakers came together in acknowledgement of ‘collective genius’ – ranging from a musician (the inimitable Noor Zehra, who stunned the audience with the sagar veena or ‘ocean of sound’), economist, linguist, two digital cartographers and an urban planner to an architect, a cycling fanatic, corruption buster, a former-extremist-turned-peaceful-activist and a man who models suicide bomb blasts. The common thread? These men and women have consistently plugged away at their ideas, despite the manifold challenges facing them as Pakistanis.

Not all of them are the ‘usual suspects’ (as Khurram Siddiqi, in charge of Speaker Facilitation, put it) who’s talks can pull in the crowds (such as, for example, Mr. Arif Hasan) or who’s work has been lauded at international conferences. While some speakers enjoyed the benefits of local and international organizational or government support, others, such as Mudasir Zia, a graduate of the University of Engineering and Technology Lahore, struck out alone. Mr Zia, with a little help from his friends, founded and now teaches at an English medium free school, organises blood-donor drives, solid waste management projects and financial aid and education for girls amongst many other projects.

A blast of inspiration

The speaker who undeniably stole the show, Dr Zeeshan Usmani, works on the ‘simulation and modeling of blast waves in open and confined spaces.’ The audience was not prepared for a highly energetic man who stumbled over his words in a frenetic effort to present as much of his remarkable project as possible within the 12 minute timeslot. Dr Usmani has meticulously researched and analysed the detritus (including stacks of government records and testimonies) from suicide blasts in order to create a software that can simulate suicide attacks while also forensically mapping out an intricate web of the attacker’s fingerprints all over the scene.

Pulling up a blue-print of Ali Auditorium, the venue of the conference, Dr Usmani’s programme drew grimaces from the audience as he showed us what a potential attack at the venue could look like, complete with a photograph of a victim based on his proximity to the hypothetical bomber. While this may sound morbid, it is important to consider the impact of such research on emergency planning, disaster management and relief efforts in the wake of a bombing, not to mention investigative efforts.

A sign of things to come

During a quick break between speakers, many in the audience commented on the glitches the organizers were facing with the audio system and the inability of certain speakers to grip the audience. This is not a reflection on their work or ideas, but speaks of the high level of regard and expectation the audience had for an event of this nature and one with a rigorous application process for attendees. What we need is a busy calendar of such events in order to create not just appreciative audiences but platforms for the thousands of Pakistanis who continue to forge paths in their fields despite the myriad challenges facing them.

Kudos to the organisers for giving each attendee a tree sapling in their goodie-bags – I’ll never forget walking back into the auditorium to see a swathe of green dotting the red and blue seats. Lahore is all the more rich with gulmohars and rose trees this week – and I hope I’m able to return soon to see how my tree, planted in my aunt’s garden, is growing.

Vincere

The Herald: August 2010

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Vincere

(Italian with English subtitles)

Directed by Marco Bellocchio

Starring: Filippo Timi, Giovanna Mezzogiorno, Michela Cescon, Fabrizio Costella, Fausto Russo Alesi, Pier Giorgio Bellocchio, Corrado Invernizzi

Director Marco Bellocchio encountered the story of Ida Dalser, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s alleged wife and the mother of his first-born son, through a documentary for Italian television. While no official documentation of the marriage exists, Dalser vehemently maintained (even through numerous incarcerations in mental institutions and rejections by Il Duce himself) that she was the Italian leader’s wife. Vincere (meaning, To Win) views the story of Mussolini and Dalser’s love affair through the prism of the rise of Fascism in Italy while also questioning the methods by which historical records represent, remember or obscure.

Benito Mussolini (Filippo Timi) and Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) meet in Trent in 1907, as Benito is fleeing police. He pulls Dalser into a shadowy corner and, pretending to be an amorous couple, escapes the police. Dalser closely follows the brazen young leader, shadowing him at Socialist Party meetings. At one such meeting, Mussolini causes an uproar when he pulls out a watch and declares that God has five minutes to strike him dead in order to prove His existence. While the men in the room scramble to grab Mussolini by the collar, Ida smiles beatifically at him – she sells her shop, jewelry and apartment to bankroll his newspaper Il Popolo di Italia.

The first half of the film is non-linear, presenting a series of moments between the two lovers. The narrative skips back and forth somewhat confusingly, with Bellochio acknowledging certain historical markers, such as Mussolini’s expulsion from the Socialist Party and World War 1.

As Mussolini progresses on the path to power, Ida finds herself abandoned with a young son – she refuses to disappear into obscurity like the many women in Mussolini’s past and her insistence makes her an embarrassing element from the leader’s past. By 1922, Mussolini is dictator of Italy and has taken an official first wife, Rachele (Michela Cescon). Ida and her son, Benito Albino (Fabrizio Costella), are conveniently dispatched to the countryside where she continues to wait for summons to return to Il Duce’s life.

Bellochio’s film does not minutely trace Mussolini’s rise to power nor does the director explore the elements of the Fascist regime in Italy – he is more interested in the tenacity of a woman who lost her son and spent a significant part of her life in brutal mental institutions through her insistence on a relationship which those around her believe to be the figment of a schizophrenic imagination. Giovanna Mezzogiorno is gripping as Ida Dalser, perfectly matched by the brooding Filippo Timi as Benito Mussolini (who also strikingly resembles Il Duce).

Vincere manipulates and appropriates a great deal of archival footage to personalize Ida’s story – footage of Mussolini’s speeches or parades was speeded up, enlarged or slowed down, in order to enhance the narrative. ‘To my mind simply recreating all the characters and events through fiction and performances only would have been unsatisfactory,’ Bellochio explains.

The film is ultimately a gripping exploration of memory and the influence of power on remembrance. As Ida says to her psychiatrist, ‘If I do not continue to shout, to rebel, nobody will remember me.’