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The public image of history

History will remain a tedious and boring subject unless trained historians take charge in order to not only salvage and safeguard their discipline, but also aid in the understanding and development of Pakistan as a country

The public image of history

This semester while teaching Pakistan Studies I have mainly used Professor Ian Talbot’s excellent book on Pakistan’s history, Pakistan: A New History (thankfully published by Oxford University Press Pakistan at an affordable price). However, despite the concise and precise text, many students complained to me that the book was ‘very hard to understand’ ‘used high vocabulary’ and simply was ‘incomprehensible.’ Even though the book is especially written as an introductory text, and the language appropriate for the undergraduate level, the problems several students had with the book made me think about how history, historians and the public interact in Pakistan. Despite the fact that Professor Talbot’s book is superbly written, it is still not having the desired impact on the public as it should. Why? I wonder…

History, as we know, has never been taken very seriously in South Asia. Historians, no matter how distinguished, have never earned the respect and recognition of say, scientists, in their respective fields. For many, history is not a specialised subject at all — everyone and any one can comment on it and hold firm and expert opinions on it.

People in South Asia are able to see the hollowness of a regular person arguing on physics with a PhD professor in physics (though at times even this is not the case), but think that it is completely acceptable that non-specialists in history can pontificate on the subject ad nauseam. This approach towards history has meant that in the public discourse the non-specialists — even populist — writers are the authorities on history.

For example, people like Qudratullah Shahab and Naseem Hijazi are considered authorities on history despite their clear fallacies, while historians like Ian Talbot and Bertrand Lewis, or Ayesha Jalal and Tariq Rahman are almost unheard of in the general public. The result — which is not hard to imagine — is that the general public believes in fantastic stories, embellished events and concocted tales. Since the ‘public historians’ never really quote sources or even engage with them, the importance of sources, archives and the rest, are never impressed upon the general public.

Another impact which these popular ‘historians’ have is that the public perception of history has ended up being that it is a discipline of ‘dates and stories’. Chronological narration of events and hearsay stories therefore are what the public think history is. There is no idea of thematic history, of the history of ideas, or of institutions, for example.

People like Qudratullah Shahab and Naseem Hijazi are considered authorities on history despite their clear fallacies, while historians like Ian Talbot and Bertrand Lewis, or Ayesha Jalal and Tariq Rahman are almost unheard of in the general public.

This skewed idea of history has made history a very tedious and boring subject and therefore it has been relegated to those who cannot get into other supposedly ‘better’ subjects. I do not wish to dwell too much on the problems with the understanding of history as a subject or the discipline, because this has been dealt with by me and others elsewhere; but here I want to focus on what I think trained historians should do in order to not only salvage and safeguard their discipline, but also aid in the understanding and development of Pakistan as a country.

First, historians need to reclaim their public space. For a long time historians have thought it ‘below them’ to write for magazines and newspapers. ‘Others’ do it, they exclaim. But this attitude is exactly which leaves the space for these so-called ‘public historians’ to take over the discourse. If historians do not write for publications which have a wide circulation and which are read by a wide variety of people, then their voice will only be limited to the small specialised audience their particular books cater to. Hence their influence in the public sphere will be very limited and easily contested since the narrative is already being controlled by someone else.

Also read: Academia, society and state

Secondly, historians in Pakistan need to engage with the vernaculars. As far as I know, only one historian in Pakistan, Dr Mubarak Ali, has written extensively in Urdu. Since the vast majority of our public primarily reads texts in either Urdu or one of the other regional languages, there is a critical need for scholars to engage with the vernaculars.

Again, the absence of historians from the local languages lends the space to amateur historians and those with a specific agenda to occupy the space and the narrative. Furthermore, there are very few translations of good texts available in either Urdu or the regional languages. Translations once the staple medium of disseminating knowledge across cultures is now becoming unheard of in Pakistan (The Scientific Society established by Sir Syed Ahmed in 1864 precisely had the purpose to translate Western books into the Indian vernaculars). While their mere presence in the vernacular will not automatically change the narrative, their presence will certainly add another dimension to the discourse and increase the options for the average reader.

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Thirdly, historians in Pakistan need to begin to write history for the general public. Most history books in Pakistan are too dense and specialised to entice the average reader and therefore its already limited audience gets further reduced. When I was at the Oxford University Press Pakistan I remember how hard it was for scholarly books to even sell five hundred copies in a year, while there were some titles which were being reprinted several times a year. There is certainly a need to write ‘highbrow’ academic history, but readable, yet still academic books need to be written.

For example, William Dalrymple writes well researched and archivally focused history, but it is still very accessible and readable. He does not compromise on historical accuracy and depth, but still manages to sell hundreds of thousands of copies of his books simply because his writing entices the reader to engage more with the text and the subject. The same is true for historian Niall Ferguson who writes history books which are cutting edge academic texts, but which are also very readable and thought provoking. We all cannot become as good as Dalrymple or Ferguson perhaps, but we can certainly emulate them in bringing good, well-researched history to the doorstep of a common reader.

It is a real shame that history, which is one of the most interesting dynamic, contested and ever relevant subjects in academia and the public, has such a boring public image in Pakistan. Much of this image has to do with the government and the development of the subject since Pakistan’s inception, but a lot of its lacklustre image has to do with the attitudes of the historians themselves who are shying away from engagement with the public and want to limit themselves to their ivory towers where they can sit and lament the state of the discipline. It is about that the historians in Pakistan take responsibility and charge and enter into the public discourse.

Yaqoob Khan Bangash

Yaqoob Bangash
The writer teaches at the IT University in Lahore. He is the author of ‘A Princely Affair: The Accession and Integration of the Princely States of Pakistan, 1947-55.’ He tweets at @BangashYK.

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