Posts Tagged ‘Society’

Reflections on Eid

August 6, 2014

By Anjum Altaf

It was fall last year that I was teaching the introductory course in economics and had drawn four concentric circles on the board to illustrate how the market was embedded in the economy which was embedded in society which, in turn, was embedded in the extra-terrestrial outerworld.  The objective was to spark a conversation about how the outer spheres limited what could or could not take place in the inner ones as also to point out the fact that while the economy and society had always existed, the market as an institution was a relatively recent phenomenon.

From there we moved on to discuss how the reach of the market was expanding and its ambit growing to include aspects that were previously never within its domain to the extent that reading the standard textbooks one could well believe that the market economy was all one needed to consider to understand everything that needed to be understood including births, deaths, marriages, crime, you name it – everything that mattered was the ‘Economy of Something’ and subject to the calculus of supply, demand, prices, and ability to pay.

It was in that context that it occurred to me to remark on the fact that all of the past Ramadan the Pakistan cricket team had been somewhere or the other playing a series of international matches. Only a few decades earlier this would have been unthinkable but now the market had engulfed the game and the governing body had laid down the schedule – defy it and lose millions of dollars. And dollars had won. So the direction of influence that used to be from considerations of afterlife to the economy was now clearly running the other way.

I thought we had laid this to rest when lo and behold the big Eid arrived during the semester and now the Pakistani cricket team was elsewhere and Eid was on the third or fourth day of the test match and, to my horror, it was not a rest day – the Pakistan cricket team was actually playing on Eid day.

Well, well! The ICC was clearly not foostering around with solemn looking men sighting the moon with naked eyes. Rot-in-Hell, they were saying – play or be damned which in our time is nothing more than being out of cash. And these fellows were playing – the same fellows who started every conversation with thanks be to Almighty Allah, the boys played very well but Allah did not want us to win while under the breath wondering if they could have made more if they had arranged for another no-ball on the fifth ball of the third over.

Clearly the market had triumphed and trampled Eid underfoot. All that came back to me as I woke up this Eid day to the incessant buzzing of my cell phone with waves of inane messages from people I had had the misfortune of having my trousers stitched or my head massaged years ago. It took me considerable time deleting the felicitations most of them without reading. It was then that I found that the same ladies and gentlemen had been ardent enough to make doubly sure they reached me by forwarding the same messages to my email account. Another round of feverish deletions ensued in the midst of which a truly determined soul decided to actually call to make sure his messages had been registered. It was then that I lost my cool.

Just about then a dozen mosques burst alive at the same time competing with each other in the true spirit of the market economy. I should have thought what a wonderful gift competition is and how blessed we are to be showered with it but by this time I had a terrible headache and felt deeply desirous of a dose of creative destruction. I decided that if the shaking of my hands could be stopped, some of the fragments of the afternoon might be collected, and I concentrated my attention with resigned despair to that end.

Readers interested in more on the embedded nature of the economy in society should refer to Part I (Economy and Society) of Primitive, Archaic and Modern Economies: Essays of Karl Polanyi (George Dalton, ed. 1968). Note the following comment on page 3: “No society could, naturally, live for any length of time unless it possessed an economy of some sort; but prior to our time no economy has ever existed that, even in principle, was controlled by markets.” The debt to Eliot is also acknowledged.

Anjum Altaf is dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

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Theater as a Matter of Life and Death

March 31, 2014

By Kabir Altaf

In the US and in other developed countries, theater is often seen as a leisure activity, engaged in primarily by those with disposable income and enough time to spend two hours watching a play.  However, in many countries around the world, the importance of theater goes beyond entertainment. Rather, theater is a matter of life and death.

As part of its “World Stages” festival, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts recently hosted a panel discussion entitled Recasting Home: Conflict, Refugees, and Theater”. Moderated by Ambassador Cynthia Schneider, a professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and the co-founder of the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics, the panel featured artists from Syria, Pakistan, Palestine, and the US.  All the panelists discussed the ways in which theater was essential to helping individuals cope with extremely difficult situations, including occupation and civil war. As Derek Goldman, a professor of theater and performance studies at Georgetown, commented, “In the US, ‘home’ is seen as a safe space, a haven. In contexts in which home is fraught and chaotic, theater becomes a kind of home.”  Theater provides a platform in which “the unspeakable becomes spoken”.

Nabil Al-Raee, the artistic director of The Freedom Theatre in Jenin, a city in the West Bank, described the role of theater as a means for Palestinians to resist the Israeli Occupation.   The theater is located in Jenin refugee camp, which dates from 1948, soon after the creation of Israel. 17,000 people live in one square kilometer.  The theater draws its inspiration from the work of Arna Mer Khamis, a woman of Jewish origin who devoted her life to campaigning for freedom and human rights, particularly in Palestine.  During the First Intifada, Arna developed a project called “Care and Learning”, which used theater and art to address the fear, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder experienced by children in the refugee camp. In 1993, Arna won the Right Livelihood Award for her work and used the award money to build The Stone Theatre, which was destroyed in 2002 during the Israeli invasion of the refugee camp.   The Freedom Theater was founded in 2006 by Juliano Mer Khamis, Arna’s son, who had returned to Jenin during the Second Intifada to continue his mother’s work.  Juliano was the General Director of the theatre until 2011, when he was assassinated.  The theatre continues to carry forward Juliano’s legacy and aims to promote freedom—not only for Palestinians but for all human beings.

Nabil commented that theater and other performing arts serve as a very important tool to help people understand themselves and to resist their situation in a non-violent manner, through art.  He recounted a remark made by an audience member in Gaza at a performance by the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, founded by Israeli musician Daniel Barenboim and Palestinian academic Edward Said as a collaboration between Israeli and Arab musicians.  The audience member noted that “People provide us food and shelter but you would do that for animals. By bringing us music, you have treated us like human beings.”

Just as theater plays a role in helping Palestinians cope with the Israeli Occupation, it is important in helping Syrian refugees confront the violent conflict in their country.  Liwaa Yazji, a Syrian playwright and filmmaker, described the situation facing her countrymen, both in the areas controlled by the Assad government and in those that are “free”.  She noted that in areas controlled by the regime, artists cannot depict war or revolution on stage.  In areas in the north of the country, which are outside of regime control, artists often come under threat from Islamists.  Liwaa described how activists and professionals are conducting workshops with Syrian youth to help them cope with their experiences during the war.  She described how during a performance of “Little Red Riding Hood”, a child asked her “Who is the wolf? Is it Bashar Assad or the Islamists?” Clearly, the arts have a role to play in helping refugee children confront what is happening to them.

Though the situation in Pakistan cannot be compared to that in Palestine or Syria, artists are still playing an important role in a society confronted with rising levels of extremism. Shahid Nadeem, one of the country’s leading playwrights and the founder of Ajoka Theatre, described how Pakistanis have become “cultural refugees”, forced to disassociate themselves from much of their traditional culture, because it is “tainted” by association with India and Hinduism.  He recalled that when he was growing up, he was told that the arts are un-Islamic and have no place in Pakistan.  Through its plays, Ajoka has been striving to reclaim Pakistan’s traditional heritage.  By using humor and music to keep audiences engaged, the plays address serious issues such as women’s rights and the rise of fundamentalism.  Because they often deal with controversial issues, the group’s performances have at times been banned by the Pakistani government as well as received threats from religious extremists. Theater thus serves as an important platform in the fight for greater social justice and for progressive values.

Overall, the discussion highlighted the relevance of theater in extremely difficult contexts, not usually associated with the arts.   Far from being merely entertainment for the well-to-do, theatre is vital for helping individuals across the world cope with violence, war, and conflict.

Kabir Altaf attended the Lahore University of Management Sciences and graduated magna cum laude from George Washington University with a major in Dramatic Literature and a minor in Music.

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Theater and Social Change in Pakistan: The Plays of Shahid Nadeem

July 1, 2012

By Kabir Altaf

Art does not exist in a vacuum. The artist lives in a particular social context and his or her work reflects the era in which it was created. Artists have long been concerned with exploitation and injustice. Rather than have their work simply reflect the society around them, many artists wish to use their work to change conditions on the ground. For example, Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) believed that plays should not cause spectators to identify emotionally with the characters on stage but should rather provoke rational self-reflection and a critical view of the onstage action. Thus, Brecht used techniques that would remind the audience that the play was a reflection of reality and not reality itself. By highlighting the constructed nature of the theatrical event, Brecht hoped to communicate to the audience that their reality was equally constructed, and thus changeable.

Two of Brecht’s most famous plays are The Threepenny Opera and The Good Person of Szechwan. Both these works reflect Brecht’s concerns with the exploitative nature of capitalism. (more…)

Some Thoughts on Patriarchy

May 9, 2011

By Anjum Altaf

Patriarchy is the name given to social arrangements that privilege men and subordinate women. The desired end for many is an egalitarian structure that does away with gender bias. There are some obvious and some not-so-obvious facets of patriarchy and its contestation. In this article I will explore some of these with reference to Pakistan. I hope readers from other countries in South Asia would add to the discussion with observations rooted in their own realities.

The most obvious point is that patriarchy is real. Its forms cover the entire range of gender relations. There are still places in Pakistan, I am told though I cannot vouch for it personally, where women are treated as property and bartered for various purposes. (more…)

Pakistan: Falling Off a Cliff

October 7, 2010

By Anjum Altaf


At the conclusion of the 2006 Asian Games I had written an article (Pakistan: A Downward Spiral) using performance in sports as an objective indicator of the structural changes that could have been taking place over the years in China, India, and Pakistan, respectively. The indicator pointed to a stunning improvement in China, an upward trend in India after a period of stagnation, and a steep decline in Pakistan.

Readers questioned the validity of the indicator but offered nothing better as an alternative. Given how cavalier people are in their comparisons between India and Pakistan, using broad generalizations of poverty and corruption to dismiss the diverging trends in the two countries, I continue to believe the indicator yields valuable insights to those who wish to face facts rather than deny reality. (more…)

An Idiot’s Guide to Music – 3

August 21, 2009

By Anjum Altaf 

In the second post in this series I had proposed looking at the organization of music to see what it revealed about the organization of society. This enquiry was motivated by the very stark differences in the organization of classical music in the Western and Hindustani traditions that are immediately obvious on attending concerts in the two traditions.

I am going to rely almost entirely on the description provided by Yehudi Menuhin in his autobiography Unfinished Journey (Chapter 12) because being a musician he has a deep insight into the subject. Later I will come back to the issues that Menuhin does not address. (more…)

An Idiot’s Guide to Music – 2

August 7, 2009

By Anjum Altaf

Is architecture frozen music?

I asked this question because it consumed many years of my life and in arriving at an answer I discovered things about myself that I now wish to explore because they have a bearing on who we are, where we come from, and how we see the world.

Think back to Macaulay’s child, the babu-in-the-making, desperately looking for architecture in music. Taught only reading, writing and arithmetic (in English) with a polishing of calculus and Fourier transforms, it was natural to assume that music was music was music and it was only a matter of diligent search that would reveal to me the architecture that Goethe had seen.

And so it was a blinding (to an idiot) flash that opened up the possibility that there could be music and there could be music and that the two could differ and therefore the metaphor that applied to one need not apply to the other. (more…)

Ghalib – 22: Against Indifference

February 5, 2009


The beauty of language and the art of wordplay determine this week’s selection from Ghalib:


laag ho to us ko ham samjheN lagaao

jab nah ho kuchh bhii to dhokaa khaaeN kyaa


if enmity would exist, then we would consider it affection

when nothing at all would exist, then how would we deceive ourselves?


In last week’s selection (Heaven Unto Hell), the word laag had appeared in one guise. This week Ghalib uses it in a completely contrary meaning and then pairs it with lagaao to create the beauty of opposites. One can’t resist the temptation to say: lage raho Munnabhai!


Mehr-i-Niimroz will delve further into this intricate facility with words. The meaning, on the other hand, is quite clear: any kind of relationship is better than indifference; even enmity from the beloved is preferable to no relationship at all.


What interpretation can one extract from this in the social context?


We can do no better than to urge the reader to listen to the first few minutes of this interview with Noam Chomsky, one of the leading intellectuals on the left side of the political spectrum.


For those who are unable to view the video, here is a summary of Chomsky’s observation. Chomsky is commenting on the remarkable occurrence in American politics whereby the two leading presidential candidates of the Democratic Party were a non-white male and a woman – an occurrence that would have been unthinkable 50 years ago.


And here is Chomsky’s explanation: it was the activism of the young in the 1960s that changed and civilized America – the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, the environmental movement, the anti-war movement; all were the products of that activism.


Chomsky notes that the conservative forces of today portray that generation of activists in a negative light – as immoral hippies and irresponsible dropouts – to preclude any recurrence. But he warns that without a resumption of that activism, very few of the dreams associated with the election of Obama would come to pass.


And from this we derive the political lesson that goes with Ghalib’s she’r: love your society or be deeply angry with it; either way, be involved. Praise where praise is due and raise your voice where it needs to be raised especially when the rights of the weakest sections in society are trampled and violated. The worst thing you can do is to remain uninvolved when human beings, all human beings not just those that look like you, are treated as less than humans.


Let us civilize South Asia.


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The Politics of Identity in Pakistan

March 1, 2008

This is a companion piece to The Politics of Identity in which we outlined the views of Professor Stanley Fish on identity politics. In this post we present a critique of Professor Fish’s analysis, apply his framework to politics in Pakistan, and try to demonstrate the importance of context in such matters. 

Professor Fish’s articulation of identity politics is most easily understood in the concrete context of the contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for the presidential candidate of the Democratic Party. An ideal non-identity voter would be one who behaves as if he or she is completely unaware of the “skin color, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or any other marker [of identity]” of the two candidates. The voter (visualized as an abstract “citizen”) selects the candidate best qualified to lead the country and advance the policies (say on the war in Iraq, the Middle East, immigration, free trade, abortion, same-sex marriage, etc.) compatible with the citizen’s judgment of what is best for the future of the country. 

On the other hand, there can be two types of identity voters. To simplify, if a black voter votes for Obama or a female voter votes for Clinton, independently of any consideration of their leadership ability or position on issues, the voter is practicing “tribal” identity politics. However, if a female voter votes for Clinton because she feels the interests of women have been neglected in American politics and a female President would best redress the imbalance, the voter is practicing “interest” identity politics. 

Professor Fish argues that “interest” identity politics is acceptable because it is based on a process of reasoning (“that because of his or her race or ethnicity or gender a candidate might pursue an agenda that would advance the interests a voter is committed to”). The crux of his argument is contained in the following paragraph:

[Your vote] will always be in the service of some set of policies you either favor or reject. It is those policies, not the probity of their proposer, that you will be voting for. (If your candidate is also a good person, that’s a nice bonus, but it isn’t the essential thing.) You will be voting, in short, for interests, and those who do not have an investment in those interests will be voting for someone else…. And that is why identity interests, as long as they are ideological and not merely tribal, constitute a perfectly respectable reason for awarding your vote.

This provides us the opening to question Professor Fish’s analysis. If a voter always votes “in the service of some set of policies you either favor or reject,” what is the set of policies that the “tribal” voter is voting for? The “tribal” voter is really a straw woman because it is hard to argue that a female candidate would advance a female voter’s “interests” even if the candidate’s positions on the interests were diametrically opposed to those of the voter. The argument can only hold with a very unnatural, tortured and irrational definition of “interests” which contradicts Professor Fish’s own model of the voter.

The starting point in this analysis has to be the conceptualization of the voter and the only one that can be supported (at least till it is disproved) is that the voter is rational and votes to advance his or her interests. From such a starting point, there can be no such thing as the purely “tribal” voter. 

Now let us apply this framework to Pakistan and we would be able to see the importance of the context immediately. Professor Fish equates a voter’s “interests” with the set of policies that the voter favors. This is perfectly correct in the context of American politics but very debatable in the Pakistani one. (This is not a critique of Professor Fish who was writing about the American context.) The Pakistani reader would not need much convincing on this observation but may still benefit from a discussion of the reasons for the divergence.

A good explanation could rely on the articulation of the hierarchy of needs by Abraham Maslow in 1943. To simplify, Maslow postulated that human beings had a hierarchy of needs – at the bottom were the needs of survival (physiological and security needs) and at the top were the needs of esteem and self-actualization. The important point in the hypothesis was that lower order needs had to be satisfied first before an individual could devote attention to higher order needs.

Now, in the case of the typical American voter, the lower order needs have long been met and he or she is operating at the level where “interests” can rightly be equated with self-actualization and thus with the choice of policies. In the Pakistani case, the majority of voters are still grappling with issues of survival (food, housing, jobs, security, justice) and their “interests” are quite naturally concerned with these issues. 

In such a situation the rational voter is seeking a representative who would best ensure his or her survival needs. And it often turns out to be the case that the representative who shares an identity with the voters (usually in terms of clan or caste) is most empathetic to their needs. A winning candidate in the recent Pakistani elections articulated this best when he said that his unwavering support rests on the fact that he shares the “joys and sorrows” of his constituents. 

This “joy and sorrow” model represents a completely different political context. Note that the candidate doesn’t attribute his strength to how well he represents the political choices of his constituents. Indeed, the candidate has no consistent set of policy positions – he continuously shifts his party loyalties to be on the winning team. And this too makes sense because he can deliver most to his constituents (in terms of jobs, justice, security, etc.) when he is a part of the ruling group. And his constituents admire his political skill in always being able to guess right or to work his way into the right camp. 

So, the bottom line is that in the Pakistani context the voter remains very rational and practices “interest” identity politics except that the “interests” are not related to policies. Looking at it from another perspective, it explains the virtually complete absence of the politics of ideas or policies in Pakistan. Neither the candidates nor the voters (nor indeed the parties) have policies as the principal focus of their “interests.” 

In fact, in a socioeconomic situation like that of Pakistan, electoral politics repeatedly morphs into a variant of patron-client politics. Constituents seek the strongest local patron aligned to the ruling coalition they can elect (which is where choosing right matters since a patron aligned with the opposition has diminished powers of patronage) to serve their “interests” that are dominated by the needs of survival. In such a situation, it is not possible to separate the role of the patron from the role of the political representative. Only when survival needs are satisfied, and a patron becomes redundant, does the realm of ideas assume an independent identity and rational voters vote for candidates who best represent their policy preferences.

We end with the following bottom line: Voters are rational everywhere; interests are contextual everywhere; the nature of interests drives the nature of politics; and Professor Fish has been unfair to tribes — the tribal is not irrational.

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Ah, New York Times…

January 7, 2008

“Already, more than 300 Kenyans are dead, 70,000 have been driven from their homes and thousands have fled to neighboring countries.” This is part of an editorial in the New York Times entitled Ambition and Horror in Kenya (January 3, 2008).

First, some hand wringing: “It is particularly tragic to see this happening in a country that seemed finally to be on the path to a democratic and economically sound future.”

Then some advice: “Mr. Kibaki should renounce that official declaration and the embarrassingly swift swearing in that followed. He should then meet with his principal challenger, Raila Odinga, to discuss a possible vote recount, election re-run or other reasonable compromise.”

Followed by a suggestion for some “outside prodding.” “Urgent mediation by the leader of the African Union, John Kufuor, could help bring the two together before the violence gets worse.” 

And finally, a hopeful conclusion: “Mr. Kibaki and Mr. Odinga cannot ignore the chaos around them. No matter their personal ambitions and resentments, they must be brought together and pushed to come up with a solution that will calm their followers and restore Kenyans’ faith in their democratic system — before the damage becomes irreversible.”

Just a nod in passing to a troublesome detail: “Tribal resentments have long played a role in Kenyan politics.”

But that is a minor inconvenience in the NYT’s view of the world from very far away. Mr. Kibaki and Mr. Odinga are two bad boys who must be made to shake hands and persuaded to be reasonable by Mr. Kufuor before some more people die in the “vast and tribally mixed urban slums of Nairobi” where “rival militias have been waging open warfare.” 

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