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Monthly Archives: October 2017

Karachi – Cultured Once More

Reclaiming life

Some diehard Karachiites have taken it upon themselves to own and revitalise the city in more ways than one. This is how they go about it

Reclaiming life

Karachi’s population in the latest census may be debatable but its status as a megacity remains undisputed. Matching the size, Karachi’s problems have been equally gigantic and complicated — ethnic clashes, gang wars, conflict, governance issues, a decaying infrastructure and a population size that has the city bursting at the seams.

In all of this, Karachi’s diverse and vibrant culture seemed as if dying out. Till some diehard Karachiites took it upon themselves to own and revitalise the city in more ways than one. This has all happened in the last decade or so.

“For almost three decades, Karachi has suffered unmitigated violence,” says Ambareen Main Thompson, Executive Director Society of I AM KARACHI (IAK). “A breakdown of law and order and the brutality of political and commercial mafias meant that both public spaces were lost and the public narrative was taken over by hate, divisiveness and intolerance.”

Karachi may well have another long lease of vibrancy that it used to have till the late 1970s when its populace lived without fear and enjoyed a vivacious and dazzling cultural scene.

“There’s also this culture of disconnect with the past that some of the organisations and movements are attempting to bridge,” says Rumana Husain who has authored two books on Karachi and is one of the people on the forefront of the present cultural revitalisation.

It was almost one hundred and fifty years ago that the British made Karachi the centre of military, administration, trade and culture, she says. “The city has continued to be competitive and dynamic, and there are many-layered cultures within it, which emanate from its multi-cultural population.”

As someone who has been part of cultural initiatives like IAK, Children’s Literature Festival, Badal Do! Movement and Citizens Against Weapons, Husain acknowledges the surge in Karachi’s cultural activities. “One of the most significant initiatives in this regard was taken by the government, when General Pervez Musharraf established the National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA) in 2005 and appointed the legendary Zia Mohyeddin to head it. A number of actors, director and musicians have been trained by NAPA, and they have fed the burgeoning entertainment industry of Karachi.”

Thompson recalls that in 2013, when the situation in the city improved somewhat, the Karachi Youth Initiative (KYI) was launched which sought to engage the youth in more constructive and healthy activities as an alternate to violence and extremism. “It was from this that IAK was born in 2015 where civil society stalwarts like Jamil Yousuf, Amin Hashwani , Shahid Firoz, Sheema Kirmani, Ghazi Salahuddin, Rumana Hussain, Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy and others came together to take ownership of this platform as its founding members.”

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IAK is a city-wide collaborative movement initiated by concerned citizens and civil society organisations of Karachi. It has provided a hub to promote socio-cultural activities and uses arts, culture, sports and dialogue as tools for conflict resolution and peace-building. “IAK works to change hate narratives, to reclaim public spaces, to build peace and tolerance and, most importantly, to channel youth to alternate narratives,” says Thompson. “Its programmes are all apolitical, areligious neutral forums where excellence and personal initiative and interest are the only criteria for inclusion.”

One of IAK’s most prominent initiatives has been the Walls of Peace initiative that worked on replacing negative graffiti-covered walls with visual images and messages that illustrate positive values, such as peace, tolerance and diversity. This was done in partnership with Vasl Artists Collective. Some 2000 walls across Karachi were cleaned and painted, engaging with 30,000 children to produce artwork for the walls of 2017.

One of the initiatives that served to resuscitate Karachi’s cultural activities is, no doubt, the Karachi Literature Festival (KLF) that was launched in 2010. While in the beginning, it was more limited to the literati, it is now a more mainstream event and many Karachiites see this as a positive sign. Forums like The 2nd Floor (T2F), among others, have given Karachiites spaces to talk, reflect and connect.

Read also: An ode to Lyari 

“Cultural activities, historically, required patronage of the elite — the rulers, the royalty, the nobles and the rich. Only in recent years, and especially after the industrial revolution, has culture become more democratic,” says Roland De Souza of Shehri-Citizens for a Better Environment. The organisation was formed in 1988 by concerned citizens to create a platform where Karachiites could come together and raise their voices regarding the city’s neglected living environment and ways to improve the same.

While Shehri has focused more on Karachi’s environment, its aims include creating a healthy and secure physical and social environment for the citizens. “The proliferation of cultural activities needs a certain amount of quiet and peace,” adds de Souza.

While an improvement in the general security conditions may have helped these initiatives, private initiatives can only go so far. “Despite every effort, none of the aforementioned initiatives can come close to what the government machinery can do in this regard. The funds, the resources, the (wo)man-power that the government has at its disposal isn’t comparable to any of the private initiatives,” says Husain. “Nevertheless, all those act as balm for the wounded soul of this blemished city.”

Much needs to be done despite so many efforts by the civil society. “Since green spaces are now less than 3 per cent of Karachi, community centres, such as T2F, Pakistan Chowk, the Grid and the TDF Ghar are all havens. In a city of 27 million, there is but one arts council and three theatre stages today compared to 11 in 1991. Of the parks that exist, many are locked and out of reach for the general public,” says Thompson.

Masuma Halai Khwaja of Karachi Biennale (KB) says that while the KB has had logistic support from the bureaucracy, the police and the LEAs (law enforcement agencies), they didn’t have any financial support. Also, the ‘go aheads’ are tough, she says, “sometimes due to red-tapism, and at other times because exhibiting certain art exhibits at public spaces is an expensive proposition and is not an opportunity these initiatives get for free.

“But it is very true that Karachi’s overall security situation has helped in this resurge as people are finding it safer to work on the streets.”

The KB17 programme is currently underway and Khwaja says the response from the public has been phenomenal. Seeing artists, and Karachiites in general reclaim public spaces, “I am very hopeful about the future”.

In Husain’s opinion, “if the Sindh government could inject life in the few existing libraries in the city, set up small reading rooms and lending libraries, raise a few cinema houses on the ashes of the old ones, the masses could also enjoy some cheap but quality entertainment, as the multiplexes in shopping malls are an expensive outlet, only suited for the moneyed minority.

“Karachi may well have another long lease of vibrancy that it used to have till the late 1970s when its populace lived without fear and enjoyed a vivacious and dazzling cultural scene.”

For Karachiites, that is the hope they cling on to.

http://tns.thenews.com.pk/reclaiming-life/#.Wfgx-WiCzIV

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CULTURE: REUNIFYING RUMI

September 17, 2017
Photos by the writer
Photos by the writer

There are many versions of the legendary first encounter between Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi and his spiritual mentor Shams of Tabriz. Most describe the moment as Rumi, the religious scholar, sitting by a pond, immersed in his scholarly reading, when Shams, a stranger to him, comes by and asks him what he is doing. “You will not understand,” Rumi is reported to have replied, upon which Shams throws all of Rumi’s books in the pond. But the books spring back up dry, defying the laws of physics. At this point, Shams is reported to have said, “But you do not understand.”

This was the moment, then, when Rumi began fathoming Allah not just with the mind but also with the heart. In a world of sharp binaries, Rumi’s admirers seem bent upon separating Rumi the man of knowledge, from Rumi the mystic poet. In reality, the two are not mutually exclusive; in reality, both are the same person.

As I recently travelled by bus in Turkey from Antalya to Konya, the city of the 13th-century Sufi scholar, its unusual and diverse landscape reminded me of his message that is so universally appealing — to the rich and the poor, the pious and the sinner, the scholar and the unlettered. While the pluralism in his message is prominent, one thing becomes clearer than ever when you visit Konya — that Rumi was not just a Sufi, he was also a Muslim scholar, and taking that away from Rumi is telling half the truth.

Maulana Jalaludin Rumi’s Islamic scholarship is often forgotten by those extolling the universality of his message although it is an essential part of his work

Konya has distinct old-world charm. The people are kind and the roses are abundant. But the highlight of a visit to Konya is the Mevlevi Sema, a mystic religious rite practiced by dervishes, who emulate the whirling of Rumi, lost in ecstasy. It is an enchanting experience, the kind that leaves you with goose bumps. In the courtyard of the Mevlâna Museum that houses Rumi’s shrine, a common sight is a teacher with a flowing beard, a rosary in hand and a smile on his lips, sitting under the shade of a tree, surrounded by students learning about Islam. Calligraphy from Quranic verses are put up alongside verses from his extensive, famous poem, Masnavi. The sound of the azaan is loud and clear in Konya. Imprints of traditional Islam in the district where Rumi rests do not seem to disagree with imprints of Sufism.

The exterior view of the Mevlana Museum
The exterior view of the Mevlana Museum

There is an honorary grave of the Poet of the East, Allama Iqbal, near Rumi’s grave. Iqbal is often called a spiritual protégé of Rumi, and is reported to have had a metaphysical experience when he felt Rumi’s presence.

In his book Stray Reflections: The Private Notebook of Muhammad Iqbal, Allama Iqbal observes that “To explain the deepest truths of life in the form of homely parables requires extraordinary genius. Shakespeare, Maulana Rum (Jalaluddin) and Jesus Christ are probably the only illustrations of this rare type of genius.”

The popular interpretation of Rumi does not do justice to where he came from. Rumi is a mystic all right, but he is more than just mystic pulp fiction, and the Masnavi is more than just couplets that can be used to soothe the after-effects of a lovers’ brawl. Yet, few of those smitten by the universality of Rumi’s poetry recognise the visible imprints of verses of the Quran. The popular reductionist approach towards Rumi has reduced his poetry to memes, and selected couplets with aphorisms that are easy to quote.

The Mevlevis greet each other as the Sema begins
The Mevlevis greet each other as the Sema begins

“Modernity has an allergy to religion. They have pushed religion into a private space, saying ‘religion is just between man and God’ and not collective,” says Abbas Husain, educationist and Islamic scholar known for teaching the nuances of Tasawwuf and Ishq. In Husain’s opinion, a fine parallel can be drawn between Rumi and the likes of Socrates and Plato. “The latter two were religious but have been reduced to being just philosophers. Rumi and his poetry have been exoticised, and there has been an erasure of the religious in him.”

There is religion and there is religion, he says, and to Husain, the distinction is clear. “Religion puts before us deeper questions like ‘why are you here’, whereas religion also is focused more on rituals and minor details. We can’t see the wood for the trees,” he says.

The pull of Rumi is that his words are relatable. “He strikes a resonance with the inward level of man in any era,” says Husain. Scholars have pondered on the various meanings of his work since long. “Rumi is not new; he has been around. The first translation of Rumi’s Masnavi came from R.A. Nicholson, between 1925 and 1940.”

A teacher imparts spiritual wisdom to youth, under a tree near Mevlana Rumi’s sarcophagus
A teacher imparts spiritual wisdom to youth, under a tree near Mevlana Rumi’s sarcophagus

But there is no denying that Rumi has been re-popularised. And his fandom is not limited to Muslims, because his message was and is universal. “I love that Rumi sees Divine beauty in all aspects of creation and speaks to people of all cultural tastes and perspectives. I love that he uses bawdy tales in his poetry,” says Laury Silvers, a lecturer at the University of Toronto’s Department for the Study of Religion.

According to Silvers, Rumi explains the most difficult of concepts by translating them into easily understood simpler concepts that help everyone own him. “Early on when Rumi was translated into English, these parts were translated into Latin so that only the most elite, scholarly fellows could enjoy them — exactly the opposite of Rumi’s intention in composing these verses,” she says.

Silvers further explains how these bawdy tales not only bring Divine truths to those who are best reached with rough and tumble talk. “They teach all of us that God is fully present and calling to us in every moment and through all things, not just that which we deem socially acceptable or ‘pretty’.”

A depiction of the members of the Mevlevi order inside the Mevlana Museum
A depiction of the members of the Mevlevi order inside the Mevlana Museum

For some today, their first exposure to Rumi has been through the Turkish writer Elif Shafak’s book Forty Rules of Love. In a sense, Shafak did a service by producing an easy version of the often complex themes of Tasawwuf for her readers. Although Husain sees this as positive, he recommends graduating to books such as Me and Rumi: The Autobiography of Shams-i-Tabrizi by William C. Chittick for those interested in understanding Rumi better.

Whether represented in a complex or an easy manner, Rumi remains the bridge we need today — he bridges the gaps polarisation has created. Those who cling to the more comfortable and less demanding interpretation of the spiritual path of love for God and those who hold on to the path of adherence to Islamic jurisprudence or Sharia as the road to Paradise — both can find something to guide them. In a world torn apart by extremes, Rumi’s message of love of God can be a meeting-point.

“Rumi invites us to become whole,” says Husain. “But to become whole, we would first have to accept that we are incomplete.”

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 17th, 2017

https://www.dawn.com/news/1358182

No woman no water: empowering women to be water and sanitation decision-makers

They carry water home, store it, keep it as clean as possible. Yet women are kept out of major decisions around water supply.

During this year’s World Water Week in Stockholm, experts focused on an age-old problem: how to recognise and value the central role women play in solving water-related issues.

Tracing the recent history of this attempt, Ankur Gupta of the Global Water Programmetold thethirdpole.net: “You can look back at the Dublin 1992 principles that state clearly [the need for] the involvement of women in water management. There is a lot of evidence coming up pointing in the direction that exclusion of women is harmful, especially in Wash (water, sanitation and hygiene).”

Particularly in South Asia, Gupta commented, it is necessary to involve women in decision-making about water supply, starting at the household level. “To fall back on clichés, this helps women in terms of self-esteem and confidence; better water management gives them more free time to engage in other activities. Most importantly, Wash and water management activities need to be monetised and recognised. But for that, the required political will is missing.”

Gupta suggested specific remedies: providing scholarships for women to study water related professions, quotas for women to take up roles on boards and committees, and the provision of menstrual hygiene management facilities.

Read more: Open defecation ends in Bangladesh – almost

Wherever women have been empowered to decide on issues of water, sanitation and hygiene, the results have been excellent. This is how Bangladesh has recently succeeded in controlling open defecation, said Akramul Islam, director of the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee‘s (Brac) Wash programme.

“Women in rural areas are vulnerable when it comes to the use of latrines,” said Islam. “Brac’s participatory rural appraisal started including both men and women. This helped us know for sure where new latrines are needed and what their design should be [according to gender-specific needs], because it is often unsafe for women to walk far to use the toilet.”

In this programme, Brac gives leadership training to one male and one female from each community. “Slowly, women have started voicing their opinions and that is very encouraging,” said Islam.

Who carries water home

Brac has another big first: working on making water carrying a shared responsibility of men and women. Women carrying water is a practice so ingrained in South Asia that it is almost a taboo to think otherwise. But Brac is doing just that.

“We are motivating men to collect water so that it is no longer seen just as a woman’s responsibility,” Islam told thethirdpole.net. “To counsel the communities [especially the men], we have brought the village Imams on board. We counsel them and give them small booklets with information they can disseminate through Khutbas (sermons).” And attitudes are slowly changing, Islam said.

“Urban women are some of the greatest water wasters,” said Muhammad Ashraf, chairman, Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources. “They should be involved in the Wash sector and water conservation at the domestic level.” If women are included in decisions pertaining to Wash, they and their children would be the first to benefit from it, Ashraf pointed out.

The level of education and awareness among women has a direct impact on Wash, said Pervaiz Amir, director of the Pakistan Water Partnership. “Women in Kashmir’s rural areas are [relatively] educated; they give high priority to investment in toilets. On the other hand, the situation in Tharparkar and Cholistan is bad due to a lack of education. Engaging women in public services and increasing their job opportunities can have a direct impact on sanitation and hygiene services.”

Pointing to the link between sanitation and nutrition, Amir also emphasised the need to have women “closely tied to all household-related water decisions. They collect water and regulate the level of usage. When women are excluded, the results are poor, leading to social disharmony and even conflict”.

Positively, there is an overall increase in attention to gender gaps in many spheres, said Maitreyi B. Das, global lead for social inclusion at the World Bank. “This year, World Water Week in Stockholm has made a concerted effort to have more sessions on gender issues. I think there is a greater realisation that SDG6 will not be met unless we focus on men and women separately and together,” said Das referring to the UN’s sustainable development goal to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all by 2030.

After talking about the particular need for inclusion of women in water management in South Asia, Das added: “As our recent report notes, overall gender inequalities are mirrored in water related domains. We will neither achieve our water-related goals nor our goals for gender equality unless we address gender in everything we do, in every sector.”

https://www.thethirdpole.net/2017/09/07/no-woman-no-water-so-women-must-decide/

Also published here: https://www.dawn.com/news/1357427/no-woman-no-water-empowering-women-to-be-water-and-sanitation-decision-makers