Tuesday, 28 June 2011

My art is not for you Prime Minister Gilani!

Originally Published in The Express Tribune
My friend stood painting something abstract, holding a cigarette  in a manner that complimented her artistic persona. She probably noticed my sarcastic smile and said, ‘Hey Ammar! I know you criticize abstract art, but you see artists are free souls. We don’t believe in any rules, regulations and boundaries. We choose to be apolitical and are not disciplined folks at all. Discipline and art do not go along.”
I remained silent looking at something black lying next to her bag. She continued, “What are you looking at? The graduation gown? That’s for the convocation dress rehearsal. Everything has to be perfect for the honorable Prime Minister!”
I’ve decided that I am not going to attend the 12th convocation of the National College of Arts, from where I graduated last year. I am not going to be a part of this celebration. Despite being a distinction holder and the fact that my parents have waited for this moment I graduated – I refuse to attend. This should be taken as a small form of resistance over an event where artists rush to offer protocol to bureaucrats.


You spend four years at an art school while learning about the art of resistance. Your film thesis depicts the class struggle in an obscure area of Pakistan. You graduate  with distinction with an emphasis on Marxist Film Theory and finally you receive your graduation degree, with a fake smile on your face, while wearing a stupid black gown and cap, from Mr. Yousaf Raza Gillani!   

Sorry, It doesn’t make any sense.  You may think that I am being ultra leftist but I cannot participate. You can either be Darbaari or Awaami.

Many consider our academic artists as some sort of rebels who oppose the bourgeoisie and bureaucracy.
A majority of them have a love affair with the establishment. I find it ironic that some ‘liberal artists’, who claim to be the intellectual vanguard of the country, are so pro-establishment. This doesn’t just include the fresh art graduates but also academics who romanticize their ‘artistic freedom’ and have illusion of being liberators. These people feel pride in the fact that  a feudal cum Prime Minister of a chaotic country would spend a few minutes in their ceremony. The “free souls” are so afraid of committing any mistake that they organize rehearsals to make sure everything remains ‘disciplined.’
Mr Gilani hasn’t played any slightest role in shaping my artistic abilities. He probably doesn’t even know what art is. He has no right to preside the convocation ceremony of an art school. I can’t pretend to have any respect when I don’t have that for him.

I don’t have any illusions regarding People’s Party being ‘comparatively a progressive party’ of Pakistan. All the main leadership come from a feudal background, something that can never be ignored. Moreover, during their regime we have witnessed the brutal killings of their senior and outspoken members likeSalmaan Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti. Mr Gilani , being the Prime Minister of Pakistan, has failed to punish their murderers.
He has failed to find the people responsible for the killing of Benazir Bhutto. He has failed to provide people with the basic necessities of life. And I can’t receive my graduation degree from a failure, no matter how respectable he is in the eyes of these ‘art bureaucrats’.
Lets replace him with those architects of society who have been suffering since ever in this land of the pure.
Where are those blood-spitting artists? I want them to award me the degree.
Where are those hunger-stricken poets? I want them to award me the degree.
Where are those revolutionaries who got tortured in Zia’s era? I want them to award me the degree.
My art is dedicated to the people’s cause and I don’t need any Prime Minister to prove my art.
I would rather choose what Faiz said once:
My heart, my fellow traveller
It has been decreed again
That you and I be exiled

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

When they declared me a heretic...

Originally Published in The Express Tribune

It was like a nightmare. Dark shadows, mysterious phone calls, dreaming of death and seeing your corpse with your own eyes. It was such a nightmare.  There should have been a reason for all of this, but there was none. I had been declared an accursed heretic.
I could feel them chasing me down, chopping me into pieces and celebrating wildly afterwards. I could sense the happiness they would gain from spilling my blood. The days were getting darker.
I was alive but there was a deadly silence around me.

Suddenly, my friends had stopped talking to me and so called 'moderate' art teachers started discriminating against me. My once so 'liberal' social circle suddenly found some strange love for conservatism.
People stopped answering my phone calls. The threatening messages kept increasing every day. I felt isolated. They were getting closer. That was the time when I realised how it feels to be dead when you're alive!
I’m a documentary filmmaker and my sin had been to document some mohawked guys with tattoos and body piercings, playing loud riffs, singing Sufi poetry, and (also) offering prayers!
Ring any bells? They were the Taqwacores!

When we filmed Taqwacore – the birth of Punk Islam in Pakistan, things were peaceful. It was a spiritual journey of an American convert who presented the concept of a new subculture in his novel.  After his fictional writing, people from real life started following the idea that, more precisely, synthesised Islamic concepts with Punk subculture, which ended up as a new genre of Punk Rock music.
The Kominas were one of the pioneering Taqwacore bands. It was their story, a story of harmonising peace, a story of rebelling against both US imperialism and Islamic fundamentalism, and finding a new voice, that was so radical in nature. Taqwacore reflected the identity crisis the Muslim youth is facing in the post 9/11 West. It challenged both, western stereotypes about Islam and the clichéd interpretation of violent Islam that is based on their preconceived notions.

But the clerics who declared me a heretic never watched that film.
They never witnessed the spiritual transformation of an American who rediscovered Islam in this land.
They never watched him going to the Sufi shrines in search of the missing essence of peace.
They were not there when the punks were shown walking on the American flag.
I am not being defensive here. All I’m saying is that rationality requires at least knowing about something before opposing it. Sadly, they don’t understand that.
They can impose a fatwa on anything that doesn’t fit in their narrow framework. They can kill anyone by assuming that they have a religious right to do so.
When young girls are forced to marry the Holy Quran for the sake of property, they remain silent.
When feudals continue their inhuman patriarchal norms, they remain silent.
When children are abused at madrassas, they remain silent.
When workers and peasants die due to oppression, they remain silent.
But if you play musical notes, they scream.
If you paint the beauty of life, they scream.
If you write songs of love, they scream.
They scream and we keep quiet. They scream and start killing us but we keep quiet.
They continue to kill with sinister smiles on their faces, and we keep quiet.
They wanted to kill me.
What difference would it have made? They have killed people earlier, and they will continue to kill – until we come forward and break the vicious circle of ignorance.
What really and most tragically matters is our silence – the haunting silence of the people.
We were silent when they killed Benazir Bhutto.
We were silent when they killed Salmaan Taseer.
We did not speak up when they killed Shahbaz Bhatti.
Though I remain alive, the tragic ignorance of my own people has killed me. They started feeling like sinners just for being around me.
This assassination of Osama bin Laden is meaningless unless each one of us kills the Osama within. Otherwise they will keep killing you, me and all of us.