The return of the comic book hero

Pakistani artists are channeling the aftermath of the Peshawar attack. Zareen Muzaffar reports

The return of the comic book hero
Paasban is a story of disillusioned youth: of the shades of intolerance and the fading distinction between good and evil that we see. Written by Gauher Aftab, this three-issue graphic novel is the brainchild of his collaboration with Mustafa Hasnain and Yahya Ehsan of Creative Frontiers, a multimedia agency. Renowned Urdu writer, Amjad Islam Amjad, has translated the story from the English. It begins with the nostalgia of a childhood remembered, travels through present-day challenges and extends an opportunity for the future: will we let our youth continue to suffer or will we guide them to a better future? The choice is ours.

Aftab had been working on the story for two years, but the catalyst that accelerated the process was the Peshawar school siege that killed more than 140 children during a terrorist attack in December 2014. Given Pakistan’s smartphone explosion, Aftab believes that the graphic novel (digital and print) was a natural choice of medium to create and spread the message to eradicate violent extremism.

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"This generation is adrift without a purpose"

Pasbaan’s story revolves around four college friends, each with a distinct personality and purpose in life, with the exception of Asim, whose empathetic nature leads him to a group of hostile recruiters who train young blood for jihad. The story is strongly intertwined with the author’s personal journey. Aftab came to Pakistan from Saudi Arabia at the curious age of 12 and found himself at Aitchison College in Lahore. Living in a hostel left him feeling isolated and confused. “I felt I was surrounded by a very feudal, elitist and industrial crowd. The experience was pretty baffling as I was simultaneously trying to overcome the language, cultural and societal barriers,” he recalls.

Aftab remembers his ninth-grade Islamic studies teacher as being “less of a teacher and more of a preacher.” One of the novel’s characters, Khurram, strongly resembles the teacher in question who, Aftab says, would tell his students stories of how he had fought the Soviets in Afghanistan. “The lectures he used to give were less about Islam and more about his propagation and ideology of Islam. He followed a very convincing pattern that I feel the extremists have perfected over the span of 30 years. The extremists narrative first delegitimizes the family or societal authority, negates Sufism, encourages followers to think outside the box and then victimizes Muslims,” says Aftab. Such preachers inculcate the ‘kill or be killed’ sentiment and create a convincing narrative to defend Muslims by opposing ‘non-believers’. If this is happening in a reputable college, asks Aftab, what must be happening in the local madrassa?

As you read Paasban, you sense a strong resemblance between Aftab and one of the main characters, Asim. The story emphasizes that even those with good intentions can be misdirected and pulled into the dark abyss of extremism. The other protagonists in the story, Saad, Zara, and Irfan, don’t try and create an identity by falling for a manufactured narrative that glorifies martyrdom. Someone like Asim tends to feel more connected to the recruiter’s preaching due to his isolation and confusion.

Amjad Islam Amjad, the translator
Amjad Islam Amjad, the translator

"You can't fight by becoming your enemy"

However, Aftab doesn’t feel that Paasban is merely an autobiographical account, rather that the characters are archetypes of different personalities we find in society. “Khurram tries to avenge the pain caused to him by killing others. In Pakistan, I feel we are becoming like Khurram; our ability to think has been blocked out. We are at a watershed point where the distinction between good and evil is being blurred. You can’t fight by becoming your enemy: the keyword is empathy. We have created this situation by killing in return. Such people are victims as much as we are at a national scale. We need to help them. The writing is on the wall now,” he says emphatically.

I ask Aftab about the fine line that Asim crosses when he translates social good into religious extremism. How does it happen? He offers this perspective. While running an agency called the Publicis Groupe in Islamabad, a particular project entailed carrying out research in 14 rural districts for a development program. Their work unearthed some hard-hitting facts on how jihadi camps attempt to recruit young people at religious festivals and Friday sermons, or by distributing leaflets, brochures, posters and other mediums. They discovered that many children and young boys entered the jihadi camps under duress or for ideological reasons often imposed on them by their parents. Those who run away from home due to abuse, unfortunately, end up at such camps where they are fed, sheltered and supported. In some areas, child trade is a method of monetization with the going rate of Rs 200,000 to 500,000 per child ‘offered’ for jihad. According to Aftab, the small groups that recruit these children are so insidious that one cannot even call them ‘organizations’: they don’t exist on paper and are dispersed throughout the cities.

The author depicts these gruesome realities in Paasban because the narrative widespread among extremists is that, as the Muslim ummah, they are the ‘paasban’ of the future generation. Aftab wants to turn this narrative around. The first issue tells us about Asim’s recruitment, but the haunting question is why he falls into this extremist trap.

“There are lots of cases where a person feels helpless and gravitates naturally towards power. Religion is also power: you are embraced by a group; they encourage you, make you feel responsible. They preach that, for good, some evil has to be done in the name of religion,” explains Aftab. The dichotomy between rationality and conditioning is what makes Asim oscillate between his friends at college and the militant group in which he gets swept up at the end of the first issue. But Asim doesn’t know that his friends are worried about him or that they have promised to bring him back from the abyss. How different might things be if we began to speak up, to propagate neutrality and to try and understand the confusion today’s youth is facing.

Speaking about the genre of graphic novels as a means to communicate this message, Aftab says, “When one talks about media, the written word has value only if society can consume that media. The written word alone is not enough. In our society, a lot of people can’t afford to be connected to print. There’s illiteracy, there’s no publishing industry, no local mechanism available to publish. If we are to send out this message to the youth, we must start at the middle of spectrum. From here, we can turn a graphic novel into animated series for youngsters,” says Aftab.

Mustafa Hasnain explained the innovative strategies used for the digital issues. “We have made accessibility our priority, so it’s easy for an audience to download, read, and enjoy the experience of a graphic novel. We wanted to create and share content for inexpensive smartphones because our target audience includes the masses. CFx comics is a huge platform; the app is free and the content has been created to run on a 5,000-rupee smart phone as well.”

The panels come to life
The panels come to life

"The written word alone is not enough"

Creative Frontiers has decided to distribute 5,000 copies of all three issues to public schools in Punjab, especially in Multan, Lahore and Lodhran (southern Punjab), which are considered hotbeds for extremist recruiting groups.

“This story is about all of us, our next generation, those who are being recruited and used as tools of war. Amjad sahib was our mentor and guide when it came to adapting the story into Urdu. He was in India when we were busy with the production and hadn’t thought of a title till the last moment. When he came back, he said we needed to think of the right title for our work. Aap paasban tayyar kar rahe hain (you are creating the next generation of guardians), and so we had to name the novel Paasban,” recalls Aftab.

Indeed, it is a fitting title for a story that tackles the sensitive issues of extremism and lack of direction among Pakistan’s youth. Paasban is a reminder for all of us – not just our youth – that we must steer away from lethal indoctrination and the sheer horror of being abandoned. And that it is far better to bring back those who have wandered off onto a path of loneliness and grief.

Zareen Muzaffar is a freelance journalist based in Toronto