Beggar at Ghazi Chowk


Tuesday, 29 March 2011

War Minus The Shooting.

Published in the Daily Princetonian, 29 March 2011.

By the time you read this, there will be about 20 hours before the start of what is arguably the most explosive cricket game in years.

Pakistan and India face off at Mohali, India in the semifinal of the Cricket World Cup, the third largest sporting event in the world behind the FIFA World Cup and the Olympics. Any World Cup semifinal is historic, and any India-Pakistan game is brimming with emotion and spirit, but this particular combination is something else.

Pakistan has reached the knockout stage of the World Cup for the first time in 12 years after a heartbreaking loss to Australia in the 1999 final. The country has not played a home cricket game for two years, after gunmen attacked the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team. Pakistan was then stripped of rights to host the World Cup this spring, along with India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Being hit by a betting scandal last summer also damaged the team, and it was said that Pakistan went into the tournament as a non-contender for the first time in decades. But after all the drama, the team has held its own against cricketing giants, ending Australia’s 12-year unbeaten streak in World Cup matches that began in 1999 and then marching into the semifinals.

In Pakistan, what was a tentative hopefulness before the World Cup has changed back into the fervor of old. Thousands are on the streets; cricket fever is back. Win or lose, for once, the polarization typical of Pakistani society has given way to just plain craziness over a cricket game, and it’s amazing.

India is no different. Unlike Pakistan, however, the Indian team went into the tournament as favorites, faltered a bit, and then found its footing again. Recently buoyed by handing the final knockout to the mighty Australians, the Indians have burst the World Cup wide open once again.

Remixed anthems, posters and calls for prayer have all made their way over the Internet, and for once I feel less bubbled at Princeton. It’s hard to keep this energy out of your feed if you know anyone from South Asia.

Hotels within 25 kilometers of the venue in Mohali are full, there is no more space in the airport for private planes, ad rates are at an all time high and an Indian parrot that predicted a Pakistani win has been killed. For humans, though, cricket can have an unusually reconciliatory power. On more than one occasion, traveling across the border to watch cricket games has sparked great inroads into citizen diplomacy between the two countries. And even within these countries, cast, creed, religion — all are forgotten for a game.

I find it very difficult to explain cricket to my friends here. “It’s not really a sport, it’s just a bunch of people standing around in the sun, talking politics, mostly.” The tea breaks help, too. But come Wednesday morning at 5 a.m., viewing parties shall commence in many places all over campus. There will be swearing, there will be screaming and there might be the odd fistfight. We’re already wondering how to minimize tensions between the Indians and Pakistanis on campus. Judging by the Facebook banter, things might get tense. If any of us wake you up, our apologies in advance, but we have little control over our emotions in this terribly volatile situation. And in our defense, we’re not alone: We’re a small subset of about a billion and a half people who are also going crazy.

An effort was made to formally bring this fervor to campus in the form of Princeton Club Cricket. I’ve been an officer for the club since it was reintroduced, and we’ve slowly gathered a following that often joins us on the Dillon Gymnasium floor at 11 p.m. for two hours of cricket. As the winter ends, the challenge of finding a field is renewed, and hopefully we can get practice up and running as soon as possible.

Cricket has in fact been a part of Princeton’s heritage. The first collegiate football game between Harvard and Princeton was played on a cricket field in Hoboken, N.J., as my friend and I found out while aimlessly staring at the pictures in the Whitman Common Room in an attempt to avoid writing code. I hope that one day Princeton will resume playing cricket on cricket fields.

For many of us in Princeton Club Cricket, our membership is partly about the sport (if we agree to call it that), and partly about reliving the childhood memories associated with a sense of national pride. In many ways, South Asian cricket is our little rebellion against the world, a show of strength and an exhibition of technical prowess that can match that of anyone else in the world.

Here’s to some more interest in this historic sport, a peaceful Wednesday morning and a win for Pakistan. (May I also point out that tensions have already escalated, as this piece made its way through an Indian executive editor for opinion).

Friday, 18 March 2011

A New Generation of Rock.

Article originally published on Koolmuzone on March 18, 2011.

The rise of Bilal Khan, the Aunty Disco Project & Uth records has signaled the coming of a new generation of rock music from Pakistan’s renewed underground scene. After the rise of Noori and eP, along with Indus Music, the VJ generation and a post Junoon revelation, it seems that generation of rockers will take a new place in Pakistan’s rock industry.

The energetic rock anthems have since become somewhat hollow, and as Pakistan’s politics and society have hit new rock bottoms, rock has had to find new issues, new emotions to deal with. It seems the big guns have had to deal with social issues, and bringing audiences back together. Strings, Atif, Ali Zafar and then Noori to some degree have tried to mature their pop acts into deeper, more relevant offerings.

Some may say however, that this generation did not live up to its promise. Despite the phenonmenal rise of 2003’s musicians, many have released only a handful of songs, let alone albums. Atif has been an exception, and his work with Bollywood’s music directors has probably helped there. But many other musicians have released only two albums and some singles over this last decade.

Despite some disappointments however, we have found some heroes that will guide a new generation of musicians. Uth Records’ Gumby and Omran Shafique have taken the mantle as producers, their work with Coke Studio has been the subject of much praise anyway. And besides their individual acts, they continue to play for other musicians as well, and their work continues to reach us in many ways. Similarly Salman Ahmed, Rohail Hyatt and Shazi Hasan from the Vital Signs and Junoon era continue to experiment and find new identity.

After the boom in 2003, and Pepsi’s Battle of the Bands, some thought Lahore’s underground scene was dead. They moaned the loss of the connections bands had to make with fans, and rued the flooding of bad songs with expensive videos on television.

A new generation of underground rock has given us hope however. Just as we see ADP lead the charge of Karachi’s rock, Bilal Khan rejuvenates Lahore’s scene and other acts pop up all over. Thankfully underground rock from outside Lahore and Karachi has hit the mainstream. Islamabad’s Bumbu Sauce, Peshawar’s Yasir & Jawad, Jamshoro’s Sketches and more.

And this new rise can teach new rockers many things.

First, good production values are important. Many a listener may not be able to pinpoint what exact differences exist between a well produced song and a cheap one, but many will often define it as ‘better quality’. It seems audiences only pay attention to songs that bands feel is worth investing in as well. Take ADP for example. Despite a healthy following of a talented live set available online, it was only after a mainstream release of ‘better quality’ sounding singles that they hit mainstream. But as they have also taught, money is not all you need. As OBA’s blog posts recount, they don’t spend money on expensive studios, but continue to perfect the recording themselves. They don’t make huge budget videos, and have acknowledged the lackluster jobs TV channels are doing.

Similar appreciation for produciton values can also be seen through Coke Studio, Uth Records, and even the initial rise of Noori and eP, who were produced by acclaimed producers such as Mekaal Hasan. Similarly Junoon used Salman Ahmad’s roots in New York to use the facilities in America, Ali Zafar used studios in India and even London, and Bumbu Sauce too recorded in Quebec.

Second, it is important for bands to create a connection with audiences. An expensive video will only last so long. It is important for bands to hit common ground with everybody else. And ADP’s strong live performances are as important to me as their blog posts, which connect us with the band. OBA recounts how he wanted to be part of a Zeppelin like mysterious band, but perhaps the fact that he’s not is what makes the band so appealing.

Similarly Bilal Khan’s immediate interaction with fans tells a similar story, not unlike Yasir & Jawad (feat. Wali)’s cult following.

And as the Sketches have shown, there is more to our heritage than Junoon found. We loved Junoon for finding something unique about ourselves, but it is tiring to hear the same things again. The Sketches have dug deeper, into their own influences and into our heritage, and found the work of Allan Faqir again. Even the Sufi image is maturing, and this is all good news.

One hopes that many of these part time musicians get through their struggles with TV channels, record labels and security issues to actually make some money and get some appreciation for their work. Hopefully they won’t go unnoticed like Pakistani rock from the 70s.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Starbucks and Foreign Policy.

Published in the Daily Princetonian’s Opinion Section Friday March 11, 2011.

The protests in the Middle East and the United States government’s tentative initial response to them have allowed critics once again to criticize America’s contradictory policies.
To many, America’s support of dictators in the Middle East is evidence of the United States’ self-preserving policy of making inroads into global politics completely on the grounds of what is good for itself. Of course, the legitimate counterargument is that nearly every country in the world is probably acting this way and probably ought to be. Who is even directly responsible for the dictators’ power is a question unto itself.

While this criticism of a self-preserving government might be valid, it tends to not hold ground on its own. But an additional premise solidifies the argument— that is, many find America’s dual role as a self-preserving country and the self-proclaimed global police contradictory. Critics find efforts to spread democracy inconsistent with a long support of dictators that benefit America politically and economically.

There is a somewhat baseless anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world — hence the old idea that all things American have an immoral aspect. But as many immigrants return from an America that attracted them with its educational and economic institutions, there is hope that such baseless disapproval will be ameliorated, making critiques of American policy more objective, accepting and sound in their approach compared to previous outright rejection.

And there is already some criticism of America that is sound. Because of this criticism, it is in the interest of both Americans and critics of America to distinguish between sound and baseless criticism, while many international students such as myself go back to their home countries with visions of America that are less than optimistic. To many critics, and to many of us, America is still the superpower (with conflicting interests) that should not be meddling with others’ affairs.

Simultaneously however, these individuals who have spent time in America happily take on American cultural tradition, follow the Oscars and “How I Met Your Mother” and may even make English music with American accents. They hang around in jeans, take their morning coffee and work with American software, often selling to American markets or even working for American firms from abroad. Isn’t that contradictory?

To most of the press in the United States, it seems to be so. A few months ago, The New York Times highlighted the irony of a Pakistani alternative rock song that criticized American policy that did so with an American accent. But the U.S. press is unfortunately looking over the fact that, just as large diasporas from the Middle East or South Asia bring their culture with them as they immigrate to America, similar diasporas are now taking American culture with them back to their home countries. And American culture continues to makes headway with a culture industry that is popular everywhere.

Slowly but surely, people from all over the world, including those from the Middle East and South Asia, are taking American culture and assimilating it into their own. This process has become ridiculously easier with the advent of first the Internet, then “Web 2.0” and now even smartphones, allowing the global world to connect whenever, wherever.

As American culture spreads, we realize that the discourse of cultures is becoming something that can travel. Culture is no longer locked to a certain geographical area and neither is national identity nor political allegiance. The number of Pakistani bloggers and Twitter users that critique both U.S. and Pakistani policy on the War on Terror from inside America is slowly rising. Needless to say, they will do this with acquired American accents, wearing jeans, sipping some Starbucks coffee as they type on their MacBooks. This example illustrates that new technology and an increasing rate of immigration are bringing global populations closer together than ever; the technology has more far-reaching effects than international students’ being able to call their parents for free any time they want.

America’s role as a self-interested actor, then, thanks to technology, is more easily critiqued than ever before. And as an increased worldwide adoption of American culture shows, there is little inherent issue with the American image that remains outside of policy. Fortunately, now is the best time ever for both America and the international students who forge a bridge between the United States and their home counties to take advantage of this cultural mixing to educate foreign policy.

Here’s to the hope that we can quit playing games and that a global political police should now consist of individuals from all over the world who can collectively act in self-interest, as we realize that both our cultures, as well as our political actions, are now global commodities.