View Full Version : Not so soft - HAJRAH MUMTAZ - 8th June 2015

8th June 2015, 01:10 PM
IN Morocco, the annual Gnawa music festival is held every year in the fishing port of Essaouira. When it was first initiated some 18 years ago, it was criticised on the basis that it featured trashy ‘slave’ music, while the country’s Islamists slammed it for the singing and the dancing. Today, not just is the music widely accepted, it is also viewed as a bulwark against religious extremism and resistance against the influence of the self-styled Islamic State.

This richly colourful festival starts with a procession of Gnawa musicians in elaborate robes winding its way, singing and whirling, through the narrow streets. The concerts start in the evening, at five locations around the town, and stretch well into the small hours of the morning. The Gnawa are Muslims whose traditions in some ways remind one of the Sufi order’s practices.

Some 250,000 people are estimated to have visited the four-day event this year. A BBC article recently quoted participants who pointed out that what the festival was doing was showing that Islam and music can coexist. It is not insignificant that nearly one-third of the funding for the free event comes from the government.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban regime banned music. In 2008, then Australia-based musicology professor Ahmad Sarmast returned to his country to work on the Revival of Afghan Music project and set up the country’s first institute for classical music. He created a symphony orchestra that has played, amongst other places, in Washington’s Kennedy Centre and London’s Royal Festival Hall. He reserved slots in the institute for girls, orphans and street children. Amongst the work he does is the preservation of Afghanistan’s mainly oral music tradition by writing it down in Western notation.

Issue threats and empty out public places, and half the job is done.
Did this matter to the Taliban forces? On Dec 11, the orchestra was performing at Kabul’s French cultural centre when it was hit by a suicide bomber who had been sitting just a few seats away from Sarmast. A German man was killed, and Sarmast lost his hearing which, even now, after successive surgeries abroad, is severely damaged. A statement put out by the Taliban after the attack accused him specifically of corrupting the country’s youth. Afghanistan can only be grateful that Sarmast has taken the bombing as a reason to redouble his efforts rather than be deterred.

Some argue that this is paradoxical, and choose to look for conspiracies: what possible threat could a teenaged schoolgirl pose to the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, they say, or some shrines to the IS, or the Bamiyan Buddhas to the Afghan Taliban, all of them groups whose daily business is savage violence and whose ranks are peopled with big men with fearsome arsenals?

But to wonder this is to entirely miss the most basic and important fact: that the wars these groups are waging are over the control of narrative, and the public spaces where such narratives and discourses are shaped — and where they are put into practice. Threaten people out of public spaces, empty out the streets and parks and museums, frighten them into staying within their homes, and in terms of this battle in the larger war under way, half the job is done.

Once their presence is erased from where it can be seen and from where it can influence others — the streets and parks and museums where alternate, pluralistic narratives are put into practice — the slate is, so to speak, wiped clean, ready to be imprinted with the ultra-conservative narrative peddled by the extremists. And, obviously, this hegemony cannot be complete until everything symbolising that alternative narrative is also erased. It’s an all or nothing bid.

Which is why avenues of resisting the black tide that on the surface feel too soft to have an effect are actually of vital, seminal, importance. Artwork replac*ing graffiti on the streets of Karachi isn’t going to deter the bombers, but it does raise a shout of defiance that the streets aren’t theirs yet. Every visitor at Data Darbar or Manghopir counts. A music or theatre festival might not change societal perceptions, but it does say that normality is still reclaimable. Last week, the University of Agriculture, Faisalabad distributed 100 bicycles to women as part of a plan to give out 500. That’s not going to achieve women’s emancipation overnight, but as one of the recipients said, a woman on a bike is an anomaly in our country. She added that for her, it symbolised freedom.

Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, some still persist in seeing groups such as the IS or the TTP as undereducated, ragtag armies with no cohesive vision. In fact, they are increasingly demonstrating their ability to think imaginatively and adapt to emerging realities. Those that stand for sanity must be commended for doing what they are; but unfortunately, more has to be done, and there’s little doubt that much more blood remains to be spilled.

The writer is a member of staff.