Day 3: Kissa Khwani by The Citizens Archive of Pakistan – “Evolution of Cities”

Source: Kuch Khaas/Muhammad Waheed Photography

Source: Kuch Khaas/Muhammad Waheed Photography

The Citizens Archive of Pakistan, a platform dedicated to documenting oral history, organized a three day event called “Kissa Khwani” in Islamabad, named after the famous Kissa Khwani Bazaar in Peshawar, which was meant to promote the tradition of preserving oral historical accounts and storytelling. On June 22, 2013, the third and final episode of the three day event, “Evolution of Cities” was held in Islamabad.

The panelists of the Islamabad event included columnist Ishrat Hyatt, renowned award winning photgrapher Syed Javed Kazi, Shafiq Siddiqui, urban town planner and senior director of CDA and Fauzia Minallah, nature conservation and peace activist and founder of Funkor Child Art Foundation. The event was moderated by Parveen Malik, the President of Asian Study Group.

I am sure a lot more significant sister event was held in Lahore with the same topic, where panelists included one of my favorite speakers and writers about history, travel and archeology, Salman Rashid. The Lahore event also included urban town planning expert Imrana Tiwana, artist and preservationist Dr. Ajaz Anwer, journalist Nusrat Jamil and architect Nayyar Ali Dada.

The event started with the moderator Parveen Malik recalling her early days in the twin cities when she moved in here with her husband in the ’60s. She talked about hanging out at the Shezan Restaurant, at the London Book Store and spending New Year eves at the famous Flashmann’s Hotel. She also talked about the covered market in Islamabad, which was sold off to everyone’s shock, apart from one of the Nafdec theatres in Islamabad, which was temporarily closed after a bureaucrat’s wife was bitten there by a rat.

She also mentioned a discotheque, aptly named “Disaster”, in the early days of the Islamabad Club where families used to hang out and dance. The discotheque was shut down after one Saturday night, a couple of MNAs demanded entry into the club and jumped into the swimming pool after stripping when denied. The membership fee was a few hundred rupees in those days, which is now up in hundred thousands.

Ishrat Hyatt talked about the peaceful environment in Rawalpindi and Islamabad in the 60s. She recalled how parents had complete faith that their children would return home safely each time they went out. She mentioned the unforgettable sight of fireflies in Rawalpindi, which gradually disappeared as the city expanded. She mourned the loss of a bunch of beautiful cottages that made way for the construction of a cricket stadium.

Photographer Javed Kazi painted a picture of his pleasant walks across Rawalpindi, from the Charing Cross all the way up to Topi Rakh, the location of the Ayub National Park. Kazi observed that the natural beauty of the city offered numerous photo opportunities. Structures such as Flashmann’s Hotel and the 1907 built St. Paul’s Church are located on the same road, known as the Mall. A 30 feet high statue of Queen Victoria also stood at the square by the St. Paul’s Church, which was later uprooted.

According to Kazi, one of the most remarkable structures in Rawalpindi from the colonial times is the Rawalpindi Cathedral, which was built around 1852. Another significant building of the period was the Presidency, which was actually the palace of Sikhs related to the legendary Sujan Singh of Rawalpindi. The building now serves as the campus of Fatima Jinnah Women’s University.

Other structures by the Mall Road included the Odeon and the Plaza theatres, which were surrounded by gardens at the time. Freemason’s Hall was one of the little known structures of the city on the way to Florence Road. Rawalpindi also housed religious structures of Hindu and Sikh communities. There used to be a major Hindu temple in Bagh Sardaraan, while there was a Gurdwara of Narankari Sikhs in the Narankari Bazaar located in Rawalpindi city center.

Shafik Siddiqui of CDA commenced a long account laying out the history of the creation of Islamabad with the mention of the formulation of the Federal Capital Commission under President Ayub Khan. The commission selected a territory of approximately 350 square miles spanning an area from Kohala to Hassan Abdal and from Rawat to the location of Khanpur Dam, beyond the Margallas. The commission ruled out the idea of moving the federal capital to East Pakistan.

The Greek architects of Islamabad, Konstantinos Apostolos Doxiadis, chose to plan the city in a grid iron pattern. This was a feat in its own right, since the grid pattern is suited for planes, instead of plateaus and hills that make up the territory of Islamabad. To the astonishment of the audiences, he mentioned that the notorious Nullah Lai, used to be a source of fresh water supply for the residents of Rawalpindi and Islamabad, which was discontinued after an epidemic broke out in the 1990s. The rest is history.

He also mentioned that four major highways were planned to be built around the city, namely, the Kashmir Highway, Islamabad Highway, Capital Highway and finally the never-built Sawan Highway, which was meant to replace the GT Road. He observed that the CDA plans to remove encroachments around the city were badly affected by corruption and lack of law and order, apart from fear of certain religious groups.

Fauzia Minallah began her account by expressing her attachment to the natural beauty of Islamabad. She recalled that she instantly fell in love with the place when she moved there. She passionately talked about the pleasures of exploring the Margallas and the Saidpur village. She spoke fondly of her experience of interacting with the natives of the village and especially with the village potter Rahim Dad, who had a pottery workshop in the village.

She mourned the loss of tolerance in the society, apart from the gradually diminishing natural beauty. She told the story of the chopping down of the “Buddhist Tree” in the E7 sector at the hands of religious fundamentalists for being sacreligious, where her Japanese friend Tajima Shinji used to meditate. I found this rather ironical because I once tweeted that maybe the only way people in our culture could preserve trees was declaring them sacred.

She also noted that Saidpur used to be a pilgrimage site for Hindus but they cannot dare visit the place anymore out of fear of extremists. She observed that the fundamentalist Muslims were narrowing down the living space for people from other communities, giving them an impression that they are not welcome here. Perhaps it was her, or Parveen Malik, who mentioned that the very name of the city, Islamabad, was like a warning to people following other faiths.

She also attacked people who called Islamabad a “dead city” due to the lack of social activities. She said that Islamabad was never a dead city to her because of its immense natural beauty and for being very habitable. She said that people should understand that every city has its own mood and this is how Islamabad is meant to be. It is not supposed to look like a city with high rise buildings.

According to Minallah, the construction of high rise buildings in Islamabad has been disastrous to its appearance and environment. She warned that unusually high structures are not meant to be built in Islamabad due to its high earthquake risk for being located on a fault line. She also criticized the “so-called developmental projects” from the CDA which were a threat to the trees of the city and which polluted the then pristine fresh water streams of Saidpur village. The stream now pretty much looks like an open sewer.

Minallah mourned the insensitivity of the town planners regarding ancient and heritage structures, as well as precious trees. She mentioned that most of the urban development of the city was misguided. She insisted that people would rather have cinemas instead of shopping malls. Answering one question she rejected the notion that people do not have a good sense of their connection with nature and their heritage. She insisted that the results of the 2013 elections confirmed that the people of Pakistan were aware.

On my question about the pathetic transport system in Islamabad, which was particularly unfriendly to anyone who dared to commute to the Capital from Rawalpindi, Mr. Siddiki admitted that it has been a problem area. He said that much had been planned to develop the transportation system of the twin cities, but out of lack of funds and sincere will,  no such projects materialized the way they should have. He also blamed the local tranporter’s unions for the problem.

Siddiki also mentioned that religious extremism and blackmailing have been on the rise in Islamabad for years and it has been a major hurdle for the CDA to carry out disciplinary measures. Parveen Malik noted that mosques in Islamabad were not allowed to build madrassahs, but just about every mosque had been violating the law, without attracting the attention of the CDA. She mentioned that President Musharraf wanted to take action against the madrassahs but Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman intervened and convinced him not to.

The panelists and participants seemed to agree that the newly constructed high rise buildings looked ugly and out of the place in Islamabad. Many raised the point that the rusty water supply pipes in the city should be fixed, which were getting mixed up with sewage at places.

But as a citizen of Rawalpindi and Islamabad, the cause that appealed to me the most was the preservation of trees. Fauzia Minallah deserves applause for raising the issue. I wish there were ways we could help people who stand up for nature for a change.

In the end, I found the Kissa Khwani event a very fulfilling experience as far as interacting people was concerned. I congratulate the Citizens Archive of Pakistan for organizing the event.

I really hope this town sees another one of these events.

Note: This is not a paid post.

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The Destruction of Ziarat Residency and Rational Criticism

Source: AP/Express Tribune

Source: AP/Express Tribune

It takes the simplest of incidents to illustrate the most obnoxious behaviors and opinions. There could not have been a better one than the destruction of the Ziarat Residency at the hands of the Baluchistan Liberation Army.

I have used the words of rational criticism in the title, because this post would mainly address the otherwise rational critics who think that the loss of Ziarat residency is some kind of a heroic act, or perhaps one that must not be condemned because some people are not condemning worse incidents, such as loss of human lives, since people in our country are always so concerned about who is condemning and not condemning something.

A lot of interesting comments about the destruction of Ziarat Residency have been appearing. The likes of, people are worried about that building and not worried about the deaths of the Balochs. People are worried about a colonial building in which Mr. Jinnah was held under “house arrest”. Why the hell are you upset about a destroyed building. There is no mention of the other terrorist attack killing college going girls in Quetta.

First of all, it is unfortunate that political ideology prevents people from seeing things the way they are. This is why I am sickened by jingoistic ideologues on both sides of the fence as far as the matter of the Ziarat Residency attack is concerned, that is, the Pakistani nationalists and anti-Pakistan nationalists.

To me, this is not a matter of patriotism at all, unlike most Pakistanis. But I must observe that the stance of anti-Pakistan nationalists defending the destruction of the Ziarat Residency is ridiculous when compared to that of their counterparts.

The prime logical fallacy in their arguments is that they think that one wrong act should be ignored just because other greater evils are taking place or, in other words, the appeal to worse problems. This deserves a round of applause.

I personally see the Ziarat Residency as a historical colonial building that stood there way before Mr. Jinnah ever set foot in it and before his belongings were ever placed there. And its destruction is an irreparable and irreversible loss.

The point is that Ziarat Residency is just a building, and that too, a historical one. So what if it is colonial? And so what if Mr. Jinnah stayed here during his last days?

The general secretary, that is the mouthpiece, of the Baluchistan based Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party, Akram Shah made a statement that the Ziarat Residency is nothing more than a colonial structure and a symbol of slavery.

You know what, I agree with him. But the impression that Mr. Shah is trying to create over here is that the loss of Ziarat Residency does not matter.

Now isn’t that charming? I have a huge list of symbols of slavery all over India and the world to be burned down for that matter. Because such structures are so evil that the world would be a better place without them.

My problem with his statement is not that he rejects the connection of the building with the Pakistani national heritage and Jinnah, unlike most Pakistanis, but that he thinks that the loss of a colonial structure does not matter at all. Instead of apologizing the failure of his coalition government’s failure to save this historical landmark, he is offering excuses for the attack.

So the historical heritage of the building makes it important, whether or not it had anything to do with Mr. Jinnah or anyone else. And even if it was about Jinnah, so what? Have the citizens of Mumbai destroyed Jinnah’s residence, Jinnah House, at Malabar Hill? No. Can’t figure it out? Because they are apparently not stupid.

Historical structures, whether secular or religious, are important because these are not only important landmarks and sources of wonder and inspiration for generations, but also a record of human civilization. Therefore, to me, the destruction of the Bamyan Buddha statues is as painful an incident as the looting of the Baghdad National Museum, or the damage to the heritage structures in Aleppo, Syria, or the rioting inside the Egyptian Antiquities Museum in Cairo or even the destruction of the Ziarat Residency.

And destruction of such structures in troubled states where people are dying only adds insult to injury. It would not offer any solace to the mourning.

I detest people justifying these stupid acts in the name of politics, religion and freedom.

Ziarat Residency Before Destruction  Source: Express Tribune

Ziarat Residency Before Destruction
Source: Express Tribune

The Baluchistan Liberation Army destroying this building is certainly a sign of defiance of the state. It’s probably good for them as a statement, but it really proves their stupidity to me, now that they are targeting historic landmarks of Baluchistan instead of focusing attacks on the Pakistani military. So this is what it has come down to? For a neutral observer, this rather unnecessary act of terrorism damages the image of their campaign.

Indeed, I am guilty over here of claiming to have a more superior opinion to my critics in this post, but not a moral or a righteous one please, just objective and common sense. I am prepared to be declared an immoral man for holding this opinion. Because it is the people I am criticizing who bring morality into it, not me.

I am least concerned with the jingoistic political morality surrounding this incident, which is just another case of criminal arson. The loss of a historical structure is the loss of the entire humanity, not a loss of any particular people or state.

The argument over here is not left versus right, Pakistani colonial rule versus liberation fighters and state nationalists versus ethnic nationalists. The argument over here is common sense versus nonsense.

For those considering  the destruction of Ziarat Residency a heroic act, this post is not an apology for ambiguous ideals such as Pakistani nationalism and patriotism. It is just to explain why you are stupid.