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The privatisation of culture

After the slow and reluctant realisation that neither Islam nor the Army are likely to save Pakistan from itself, many from our elite class now invest hope in this abstraction called ‘culture’

The privatisation of culture
Money defines culture and associated class interests.

An editorial in a self-acclaimed liberal newspaper celebrates the start of the 5th Karachi Literature Festival. It claims that the KLF revives the dying cultural habits of middle class Pakistanis. It laments how in the absence of Pakistani state support, this free-to-all, (predominantly English language, exclusive hotel and text-based) peoples’ event has to be rescued by corporate and foreign embassy sponsorship. On the back page of the same paper, the ongoing Sindh Festival is advertised as a public event to revive pride in our culture. Both festivals promote the idea of public culture as a political instrument and yet, are defined according to a certain market logic.

Clearly, money defines culture and associated class interests. Under the Sindh Festival, the Mohatta mushaira, fashion festival, ghazal night, film festival are priced events. Free access to the beach that we fought for some years ago, is now the venue for a paid Basant event, as is the Baradari for a paid sufi music event a site for which conservationists fought so as to prevent private functions, such as weddings, from being held there.

Then there are the left-over cultural events. Free, low culture events for the masses and priced, high culture ones for the privileged fewer. Art, music, donkey derby, fishing and cricket tournaments may be observed for free. But public sites may be privatised and monetised if done for a ‘higher’ cultural purpose and if organised by the right member of the elite.

Public culture is very different from the privatised lens through which festival organisers in Pakistan see it. That is why the main bent of these events is really a continuation of the latest trend — to privatise everything, including culture. Then it is masked as for the benefit of the people — as if we are all equal consumers.

This notion that all cultural activity is a symbol of a progressive vanguard that resists a barbaric rearguard was a theme mastered by the Musharraf regime. Urban elite latched on to this willingly. 

In our current environment, with the virtual death of the social sciences or academic events, in the flood of repeat development conferences and in the successful replacement of a reading culture with a talk show culture, the Karachi Literature Festival makes perfect sense. This is because it masquerades as the intellectual panacea for the cultural ennui Pakistanis are suffering due to the ‘social and security situation’. It is apt that the KLF has become the meta-narrative of ‘literature for a cause’, as it merges several disciplines and lumps them together in this postmodernist merger called the Karachi Literature Festival.

There is nothing wrong with having a big party of intellectuals that is the envy of the collective Defense and Cliftonian drawing rooms but to pretend that this is to promote something called culture, peace or development is to be delusional. It is essentially a corporate event that promotes its multinational sponsors and whose target audience is the bourgeois elite of a city. Make no mistake, this class needs the education (and the capitalist logic of peace to safeguard their interests) but why does such an event pretend to be anything more than that?

Culture as Resistance

After the slow and reluctant realisation that neither Islam nor the Army are likely to save Pakistan from itself, many from our elite class now invest hope in this abstraction called ‘culture’. This is meant to serve as the shield that will protect us from the capture of public, intellectual and economic spaces by the counter-cultural forces represented by an amorphous thing called, ‘Talibanisation’.

This notion of all cultural activity as a symbol of a progressive vanguard resisting a barbaric rearguard was a theme mastered by the Musharraf regime. Pakistan’s urban elite latched on to this willingly. Whenever this myth is challenged, it is dismissed as negativism. In reality, the idea that high culture is political resistance is simply a ploy, to deflect the guilt of the liberals who like to believe they are solving socio-political problems through charity, entertainment or consumerism. This is like the Paris Hilton alternative to solving an economic crisis by shopping even more. This delusion is amplified even more by that oxymoron which multinationals use to bluff local elites all the time — corporate responsibility.

Some years ago, a critic took exception to my critique of the celebration of any cultural activity no matter how elite and narrow as, “intellectual adventurism” on my part. Admittedly, this is the most polite crime one could be accused of and somehow not quite the insult it may have been meant to be. In any case, in the form of a letter to the editor, this is what she wrote in response to my article; “Your whole premise is that KARA [film festival] is a mere cultural activity and has no political resonance. Cultural practices, however trivial, traverse into the political realm…”

I have no idea what that means. Dancing at a private wedding in Karachi is ‘trivial’ but does not “traverse into” and has absolutely nothing to do with the political realm. However, dancing at a private wedding in Kohistan, if captured on video and made public, has deadly political implications. In between these instances, dancing at the Arts Council or at a demonstration at a press club while celebrating women’s day, is an act of political subversion and is not trivial, either in intent or in political terms. Similarly, the holding of a mushaaira or even a book launch in Peshawar is political because of the specific context, site, location and background. Also because of the controversy associated with the author. These are not trivial in intent or goal — they are distinctly political, unlike apolitical cultural activities.

So the letter writer goes on to admit, in a sort of contradictory manner that, “Any cultural acts of resistance are a contextual affair. The context, however, cannot be narrowly defined.” Say what? The context of Kohistan is very specific — can we really compare dancing in Karachi, Kohistan and Swat and argue that we cannot narrow down and distinguish between each context? What qualifies as political resistance in one context does not translate into the same in another. This kind of limited thinking is unfortunately, common. One Pakistani English language novelist spent an evening arguing with me over how drinking alcohol in a defense society drawing room qualified as ‘liberalism’ because of the ‘context’ — that is, given that we are all such prisoners of forced State abstinence.

Ultimately, the letter writer reduced the entire argument down to our intellectuals’ favourite resort — personalisation. She suggested outright that mine was “a personal feud” with the organisers of the film festival and this became the topic of much drawing room gossip thereafter. Death of ideas by Social Exclusion rather than exhausting intellectual engagement is a game that the upper classes excel at. The KLF is the perfect venue for social inclusion of the literary upper class where we surround ourselves with self-congratulations, applause and class camaraderie — maybe some disparagement of state and government but no self-irony, introspection nor debate.

Maybe there is some irony in a festival that is for social butterflies which features a The Diary of a Social Butterfly but that’s probably about the extent of it. There is always some token Indian author but no recollection or representation of our Persian nor Bengali literary historicism.

The public event of Faiz mela struggles for contributions from us, the film festival collapses after Musharraf’s enlightened moderation is replaced by a democratic civilian governance but the literature festivals thrive with considerable foreign investment and multinational sponsorship.

Ironically, many of the moderators and speakers are self-avowed anti-imperialists and critics of such high brow culture yet, they lend legitimacy to such activity that masks itself as progressive activism. On the one hand, Pakistani activists and NGOs are targeted by ‘radical’ commentators and left sympathisers for being collaborators of imperialism because they have transnational linkages and/or, depend on donor funds, yet they are silent over the upright left leaders who actively participate at and lend political legitimacy to such corporate events.

This year the KLF has announced three prizes — the Coca-Cola Best Non-Fiction Book Prize; the Embassy of France Prize for the best English fiction and; a Peace Prize for the book that best promotes peace, regardless of literary worth.

Sufism — The Mickey Mouse Fight Against Taliban

In 2009, Aaker Patel writing for The News wrote this; “The BBC carried a report last month titled ‘Can Pakistan’s Sufi tradition resist the Taliban?’ No, it can’t. Sufism can no more fight the Taliban than Mickey Mouse. Sufism is flight. It is escape. Those of us who have watched the ecstasy unfold at Nizamuddin Awliya and Baba Shah Jamal and a million heretical shrines in India, Hindu and Muslim, know that most of us can only be weekend Sufis. Sufism’s message of wahdat ul-wajood leads us away from doctrine, and that is an intellectual journey.

Sufism cannot fight because it makes no demands, and it has no daily ritual. It also respects Sharia, and can live besides it quite comfortably. The great Chishti Sufis of Delhi were namazis.”

Farooq Sulehria in his excellent article makes a similar argument against the misplaced notion of pluralistic Sufiism and Sufi festivals as the antidote to religious militancy.

In addition to agreeing with Sulehria and Patel, I’ve also maintained that there is no evidence that sufi Islam as coopted by the state, the corporate sector or peaceniks will be any less patriarchal than any other branch of Islam. What is the material base of Sufiism?

Not a member of this club

Sulehria also makes the point that when dictators become discredited, so does the culture that they patronised and this is the process of de-authenticating some cultural expressions.

Right up until the Lawyers’ Movement, collaboration rather than resistance was the liberals’ agenda under Musharraf’s dictatorship. Festivals under his regime were symbolic and literal historical examples of this trend. Of course, they were always cultural activities but not acts of political resistance. Why try to put this false mantle on and redefine them?

The trouble with expanding the realm of politics to include all ‘trivial’ expressions of culture is that it falls to this level then. It dilutes politics itself.

Those who despair of critique and call upon a united stand against the “barbarians at the gate”, like my letter writing critic, have this to say;

“During the Zia era, a political culture gained momentum when like minded people had the clarity of purpose. I’d rather that you use your gift of expression and intellect in a manner that contributes to what I presume to be a common cause.”

This is what our elite dream of — commonality, consensus, conformity, conservatism and a whipped up dollop of cultural cream to top it off. Under the Zia era, culture did not ‘gain momentum’ at all — it was crushed, retarded and buried under censorship and vigilantism. That cultural activities became a vehicle for women to reclaim public space and expression, was because they were motivated by and used it as an act of political resistance.

Despite the courage and contributions of that generation of resistance activists, I maintain that we have not recovered nor expanded our victories. Instead, we have privatised these on every level. Gender rights, cultural activities, intellectual dialogue — all of these have retreated into published reports, conference rooms, drawing rooms, chat rooms, twitter, facebook, private screenings and now, literature festivals by the sea. The hallmark of these events is limited audiences, limited themes, self-appeasement, applause and an insular feel-good sense that we are doing something.

Sure, it’s something. But for whom and what ‘common cause’? The upper class Pakistani public intellectual is really most comfortable in the private sanctuaries of like-minded gatherings. Challenge them to a debate, disagree, critique or ask thorny questions and you are disrupting, being adventurous, deliberately provocative or just plain difficult.

No wonder the KLF has nominated a peace prize for the book that promotes peace. This despite the fact that the most successful revolutions in history have been inspired by revolutionary, not peaceful literature.

Afiya Shehrbano Zia

aafiya sheharbano
The writer is the author of 'Faith and Feminism in Pakistan; Religious Agency or Secular Autonomy.


  • ASZ is provocative as usual, refreshingly — some I agree with and some I dont, but perhaps reflection will reduce the latter even as it challenges the agreements. It is probably blasphemous in the KarLitFest culture to suggest that ASZ and others should have been invited to an open debate at the Fest itself — the organisers respond any dissent to ask why does the critic not do what it asks of the organisers. I am a beneficiary of the Fest, so it would be uncouth to be dismissive of the Fest. But maybe ASZ will agree that anything in Karachi that reduces despondency at the violence in the city is to be welcomed, even if it is semi-private. I am also more inclusive than ASZ in defining ‘political’ action, including rebellion at home that has public consequences, such as the ‘trivial’ ones of dress and hair style and even painted toenails :) Without apology I remain a liberal, smug even if anxious that my personal conduct is not a contribution to the collective struggle for emancipation of the hordes. I hope that ASZ has fewer nightmares than I do :)

  • excellent piece ASZ, nothing could be better.

  • Thanks Ms Afiya for saying this at just the right time. I hope this will initiate a debate and lead to some betterment because having stated what the problem is, we must move on to solutions which in this case mean more inclusive manifestations of culture. There are a few more things that I would like to add here. One, with reference to literary festivals, it has been argued by those who attend that literature is in essence an elite activity and would never attract masses. We need to do some introspection here. Are the middle classes reading literature in Urdu and regional languages and teaching it to their children or questioning the private schools for not teaching them. Two, cultural activity of any kind will need sponsorship of some kind (Faiz mela of yesteryear and other events which cut across classes being exceptions). So if we are asking for government sponsorship instead of corporate sponsorship, how do we ensure that the quality does not suffer. In the case of Sindh Cultural Festival, there is still criticism that it became an exclusive kids’ party. Why? The thekedars of culture must think about these things. When Faiz Ghar invites Naseeruddin Shah for doing a play, why are the students getting cheap tickets made to sit in aisles when this can be a security hazard in, say, case of a fire. Faiz would not have approved of it. Would he?

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