Old men’s tales

Dr Ayesha Siddiqa discusses how General Zia's regime constructed a nationalist narrative through Urdu literature

Old men’s tales
People are usually amazed when they hear that Imran Khan’s third wife Bushra Maneka alias Pinki Pirni speaks about conversations with the walls of her new abode, the Bani Gala residency. Notwithstanding that many would like to be a fly on these ‘talking’ walls, the fact that she sacrifices an animal every day to keep the jinns (spirits) away speaks a lot about the world that she has brought with her. Her predictions, through the alleged conference with jinns and hidden powers will endear her to her new spouse, who, like many powerful people in the country, turns to pirs and shrines to guide them on their way through the corridors of power. It is just that we do not make fun of such activities when the rich and powerful do it, as opposed to when the poor go to shrines.

Indeed, in Pakistan there is a difference when poor people go to shrines, as opposed to the rich and middle class. The poor need solace to fight hunger, poverty and delusions. They have little option but to believe in stories of jinns and the supernatural that the pirs can summon to redress their grievances. But we look down upon their devotion as a sign of their ignorance and backwardness. In more recent times, many of the mureed (followers) have grown intelligent and they know that besides spiritual intervention from the pir, which is part of their faith, they need worldly intervention. I am quite sure that Bushra Maneka’s value as pirni in her area will now be proportional to her ability to intervene on behalf of people from villages around Pakpattan.

Her influence will also among with literate and powerful people who are also in search of spiritual advisers. Like shrines play a role for the poor as community centers, they are also beneficial for the rich that go in search of meeting the equally powerful, or more, to help them solve their bigger problems. A shrine’s significance multiplies as the number and nature of important people that visit it is publicised. However, this is not the only reason that the elite go to shrines. You realize that powerful are even more obsessed with the threat of black magic or someone spiritually blocking their way to success. I remember as a teenager telling someone from my village about why they should not believe in this “mumbo jumbo.” “Have you ever seen anything happening to Imran Khan? He is so successful and I am sure people must be jealous of him but have you seen him running after pirs?” It took years for me to get disappointed.
The state, during the 1980s, was in desperate need to create a nationalist narrative that it had failed to do under the earlier leadership. Although Pakistan was created for Muslims of Northern India and East Bengal, it lacked a strong driving narrative. The dismemberment of East Pakistan in 1971 drove the lesson home that nationalism had to be converted into a faith itself

Over years I learnt that literacy has nothing to do with rationality. People tend to get attracted towards one form of religion or the other depending on their sociological, economic and political needs. Some of the educated middle class of the 1960s and the 1970s questioned pirs like Mushtaq Gazdar’s film They are Killing the Horse. The film highlighted how General Zia encouraged all forms of faith to play with people’s minds, and in the process, allowing various forms of exploitation of the ordinary folk. While the modern-day English-speaking crowd may get familiarised more with the world of pirs and shrines thanks to the corporatisation of Sufi music or the likes of Bushra Maneka, the Urdu-reading middle class was sold re-packaged Sufism from the early 1980s.

Television played a major part in creating the modern popular Urdu fiction and in making fiction with original plots disappear

Wise men, great power

In modern times that literature evolved into works represented by the likes of Baba Yahya, Abu Yahya and Hashim Nadeem.

This literature constructs a post-modernist reality that checkmates all forms of scientific reasoning. In fact, it molds rationality to create a totally unscientific world. The reader is made to believe in a world dominated by wise men, the pirs or babas (both terms are used in reference to spiritual men of great wisdom), who have knowledge of the supernatural, can converse with jinns, can tame the snakes, speak language of the animal, search for dwarfs, and possess an inner eye – all packaged as Sufism. Such literature goes well with present times where Sufism is imagined from the lens of esoterism, which is what Islamic mysticism evolved into primarily due to interaction with other cultural influences of the region. Hence, Sufism is mainly understood by the public as a commitment to pirs, centrality of shrines, dance and music when in reality the real waliallah (friends of God/saints) were mindful of Sharia.

The emphasis on men with spiritual powers gained through secrets or techniques is not even remotely linked with Sufism. It builds on traditional myths of the land. Being part of a shrine family, I remember stories I heard in my childhood about women that had their feat turned the other way. Then there were stories of jinns falling in love and possessing souls of men and women they captured in solitary paths or corners in the village. Later, as I grew up, I noticed that the myths had special emphasis on the aura of a pir and a shrine. The entire meaning of Sufi message of oneness with the creator or discovery of infinity was long lost. The lesser a pir, the more jinns or special powers he/she needed to attract mureeds (followers). These powers were certainly required to intervene on behalf of the poor mureed in a court case, a problem at the police station or some serious ailment. Many years later, these jinns converted into actual intervention with the state by a powerful pir depending on his influence and importance of the mureed in eyes of the former. The lowly ones were usually left to amulets and blessings.

As I grew up and away from this mythology, it seems to have come to haunt me in the form of this modern popular fiction that tends to endorse esoterism. Baba Yahya’s tale of how a bald gypsy girl got beautiful hair is both fascinating and send shudders down one’s spine. The girl’s father begs a baba to help his daughter get her hair as “what is a woman without it?” The baba’s warning is that the cure for baldness would come at a high cost, as the girl would never be able to marry any man. Whoever would marry her would die on the first night. On continued insistence, the gypsy is told a recipe. He was instructed to get a black snake with his fangs removed and feed it opium that would kill it. The gypsy then buries the snake on which he plants a bush that is then used to make the oil to be applied on the girl’s head. Soon she gets long, wild, beautiful and scented hair. Careful of the baba’s warning, her father keeps traveling, never settling at one place to avoid his daughter meeting any one until one day, she does. The first night of mating is also the last night, as the next day the couple is found dead with a snake guarding their bodies. Didn’t the baba warn against this? Shouldn’t we all listen to babas, Muhammad Yahya being one himself?

Yahya is the protagonist of his stories, who zips around the globe – from Gujranwala to Spain and from Lahore to the US

Reading this tale and many more in his books, I was reminded of Isabel Allende’s Eva Luna novels, except that Yahya’s pen lacks Allende’s magic. The difference may not be in imagination as Yahya’s is quite rich; it is in the quality of artistry and intent. Allende, a Chilean-American writer, is a master storyteller, who spins magical tales, not to convert to any ideology but simply to entertain her readers as a storyteller. Yahya, and other writers of his category, use their pen like a loaded gun aimed at converting readers to developing faith in presence of special men, who have immense power to communicate with the supernatural.

Yahya indeed is very slippery. He presents himself as a man of great knowledge that we are inspired to respect also because he paints himself as almost like waliaalah (friends of God), a category for holy men that are lesser than prophets but higher than ordinary human beings in their knowledge of religion and closeness to God. At the same time, he depicts himself as a dervish, almost in sense of self-abnegation, while all he does is build his own icon. In his books, he appears as the most capable and grounded in understanding mysteries like the Hakeem sahib in Kajul Kottha, who marries off his daughter to a being that is half-jinn, half-human. The only thing is that the jinn is told not to consummate the marriage, which he accidentally does, creating a child that is a story unto itself.

Baba Yahya’s works are different from his other contemporaries like Abu Yahya or the bureaucrat-turned-writer Hashim Nadeem. Yahya is the protagonist of his stories, who zips around the globe – from Gujranwala to Spain and from Lahore to the US, taking the reader along on a journey in which the readers are almost blindfolded into believing tales that are partly sold in the name of religious belief. He walks carefully, arguing that: “Islam rejects all knowledge that is against human safety and tenets of religion.” Such guarantee probably helps him sleep-walk his audience through his web of deceit and constructing himself as bigger than any other religious salesman. So, he alone survives the story in his book in which Satan, who takes his students on a study tour, manages to fool even a mullah into believing that he is Angel Gabriel.

Baba Yahya successfully markets a post-modernist Sufi Islam that in Pakistan was created during the 1980s and represents the legacy of writers like Qudratullah Shahab, Mumtaz Mufti, Ashfaq Ahmed and Bano Qudsia. In fact, reading through this literature we realise that Baba Yahya is to Ashfaq Ahmed what Mumtaz Mufti was to Qudratullah Shahab – intellectual peasants that meticulously constructed images of their intellectual feudal masters. Besides his own image, Yahya builds that of his proclaimed intellectual mentors, Ashfaq Ahmed and Bano Qudsia. In fact, much of his writing style reminded me of Ashfaq Ahmed’s baithaks (sittings) at his house in Model Town, Lahore, where he would introduce one baba after another to his colleagues and contemporaries. Yahya was certainly Ahmed’s find the same way as Mumtaz Mufti was Qudratullah Shahab’s. There are many parallels in the relationship between the two sets of men, especially after we read Mufti’s hajj travelogue Labbaik. As we read about the writer’s visit to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, and numerous sites therein, the attention gets constantly diverted from the pilgrimage to Shahab, who is presented as an ultimate holy man. We are presented with Shahab’s imagined purity as we realise how he alone was conscious of the sacrifices made by the martyrs of the battle of Ahad, who left their graves to come and fight alongside Pakistani soldiers in the war of 1965. Shahab, we are told in this book, warned Ayub against signing the Tashkent Declaration or even agreeing to a ceasefire in 1965. It was shameful for the Pakistani state to let down martyrs of Islam and angels that were fighting side by side with the soldiers against a Hindu military. This mythology was ingrained in the thinking of the army, forcing them to believe that one Muslim was equal to a dozen Hindus until at least the Kargil War.


Constructing a narrative

Literature that sold esoterism dressed as Sufism started to sell in Pakistan much before Elif Shafak or Paulo Coelho thought of it. In Pakistan’s case, it was more than an individual effort. This was an issue of individual writers colluding with the state to develop a peculiar narrative in which nationalism and religion appeared side by side. General Ziaul Haq’s military regime needed to take all sects, particularly, Sunni schools, on board. While the Deobandi and Ahl-Hadith were provided the shoulder of the state to grow, recruit men and fight its wars, the Barelvis and those subscribing to Sufi Islam were also kept close to the bossom. This was the period when the state discovered men like Tahirul Qadri. Intellectually, Zia encouraged the Qudratullah Shahab-Ashfaq Ahmed-Mumtaz Mufti gang to turn into vendors of a specific narrative. Ashfaq Ahmed, the writer of love stories turned into a guru, wrote about how “leaders, even though seemingly bad, must be tolerated as we cannot do without them.” Perhaps, this was the only way to make ordinary folk stomach the fact that Zia’s populism had devoured a helpless and blind 13-years old girl, Safiya Bibi, who was raped by her employer and his son but sentenced by the court to three years in prison and 15 lashes under the famous Hudood Ordinance. The state and its machinery created intellectual tools to justify its violence sold in the name of Islamisation of society. Ashfaq Ahmed told his audience how women had greater power at home so there was no issue of mistreatment. Moreover, he was given a regular program on television preaching youth about his sci-fi Islamic Sufism.

The state, during the 1980s, was in desperate need to create a nationalist narrative that it had failed to do under the earlier leadership. Although Pakistan was created for Muslims of Northern India and East Bengal, it lacked a strong driving narrative. The dismemberment of East Pakistan in 1971 drove the lesson home that nationalism had to be converted into a faith itself. Bulk of the post-1947 literature was about making sense of the Partition. People being made to abandon homes, loved ones killed in their journey to new homelands, questioning the politics of Partition, and longing for what was left behind were some of the key themes. When Quratulaim Hyder, a prominent Urdu novelist, wrote her Aag ka Dareya (River of Fire) questioning the myth of the Partition, she was attacked and criticised to the degree that she had to then abandon Pakistan and return to India.

From the state’s perspective, the problem with Urdu literature after 1947 was that the most revered names like Munshi Prem Chand, Ismat Chughtai, Quratulain Hyder or even the literary critics were from across the border. This dominance was later maintained through decades until present times for deeply political reasons. However, the larger politics of Pakistan during the 1960s, 1970s and much of 1980s was different. Urdu writers from India attracted counterparts in Pakistan not just for what they wrote but the larger fascination with the neighbour’s capacity of remaining a democracy that Pakistan lacked. The state, which was also pressured by political compulsions of the Zia regime, earnestly needed to create a Pakistani intellectual narrative that emerged in the form of grooming the writers mentioned above, and numerous other names.

This was nothing new, as others in the past have experimented most successfully with narrative creation. For example, French historian Christian Ingrao wrote a book about 80 intellectuals – sociologists, political scientists, historians, artists and more –raised by the Nazi state to undertake “organisation and codification of the practices of violence, conceiving and developing the techniques of extermination, managing the transgressive nature of violence and legitimating the acts of genocide.” After 1933, Reinhard Heydrich, a German military official and an architect of the holocaust, created a branch to ensure Nazification of academic disciplines.

During the 1980s, General Zia’s information secretary Lt. General Mujeebur Rehman acted as the Joseph Goebbels to alter the intellectual discourse into developing its distinctive Islamic and nationalist character. This was a period when the stock of not just the Qudratullah Shahab gang rose but also that of fiction writers like Sharif Husain alias Naseem Hijazi and Inayatullah Altamash. While Altamash was an ex-air force officer, both him and Hijazi created a set of historical novels that were regarded as actual histories by an entire generation of Urdu-reading youth. This literature went into manufacturing present day state-sponsored public intellectuals like Orya Maqbool Jan and a few others. These novels fictionalised Islamic wars and commanders, and influenced the evolution of a second generation of writers like Tariq Ismail Saghar. The latter eulogised the jihadis of the 1980s and later, even writing for jihadi publications.

But it was not just the right wing, the religious-minded or the jihadis that adopted the new tone. Others that looked liberal picked up on the narrative while carving a niche for themselves. For instance, Mustansar Hussain Tarrar’s fictionalised travelogues had the flavour of English romance for teenage girls such as Mills&Boons but equally bore the stamp of a distinct national identity. Taking his readers through various countries of the East and West, we are reminded of who he is. So, the protagonist of his Paris travelogue cosies up to foreign women but constantly refers to things that he ought not do because he is Muslim and Pakistani. Similarly, in his visit to the northern areas, Tarrar agrees to be photographed with his young female friends “that do not smell awkward like non-Muslim foreign women.”

The access to technology helped immensely in the case of Ashfaq Ahmed and Mustansar Hussain Tarrar. Ahmed’s radio and television programs propagating his brand of Sufism and Tarrar’s appearance in a matchmaking program on television made them even more popular. The television and cinema screen played a major part in creating the modern popular Urdu fiction and in making fiction with original plots disappear. Publishers tend to print books that have either been televised as serials or are likely to become one. However, television also opened doors for writers from other national languages of the country to become household names. Noorul Huda Shah, Abdul Qadir Junejo, Amjad Islam Amjad and others managed to break monopoly of ethnic Urdu-speaking writers from national television. This intricate ethnic divide seems to have continued to haunt writings in Urdu even with corporatisation of literature since the late 2000s. The international festivals held in the country have limited display of literature in Urdu and other national languages of the country. Whatever is shown reflects a political bias. This peculiar politics pushed a lot of good literature produced in the past from sight of the younger generation. The national festivals have their own problems.

The two key factors that seem to have influenced growth of literature in Pakistan is state intervention and technology dependence. Over years, it forced fiction writers to ignore major happenings in the country because they were too sensitive to write about. Resultantly, what has emerged is fiction that is either laced in religion or a certain formula of patriotism.

The issue here is not with patriotism or religion but putting barriers on thought and its impact on growth of literature. Like Russian literature is known for a dominant tragic tone, and the Latin and South American for both magic and rebellion, Pakistan’s literature has limited itself to a superficial romanticism. The tragedies, the pain, the suffering and longing are almost missing. The powerful stories and storytellers lie buried under heaps of mediocrity and burden of the state. Wonder what it will take to unearth our best?

This article is part of a special TFT series on the construction of contemporary political attitudes through literature. The first part of this series was published on June 29, 2018.

The writer is a civilian military scientist, author, former bureaucrat and political commentator. She tweets as @iamthedrifter