Beggar at Ghazi Chowk


Getting in from abroad

26 Apr 2012

Published in the Daily Princetonian on April 26, 2012.

For many years, students at my high school have been puzzled by their low rate of admission into top U.S. schools. On academic and extracurricular grounds the students are on par with other applicants, so the lack of success with American college applications does not add up. This winter I got the chance to work at my school’s counseling office. Seizing this opportunity, I went back to figure out an explanation. Of course I am no admission officer, and I am no college counselor. I looked at the situation only as a former student and as someone trying to understand the dynamics underlying international admissions to top U.S. schools.

The problem, however, is about more than school pride. For me, the experience was more about understanding the systematic problems of international applications to American colleges from the perspective of a former international applicant.

Two things had changed at my high school since I graduated. First, after years of disappointing results for applications to the U.S. schools, morale about admissions was low. The best were still encouraged to apply and were hoping to get in, but stories of rejections and wait lists had left the students wondering whether they had any chance at all. Second, my high school had worked hard to make college applications a central part of the last year or two on campus. A counseling office was set up, and teachers were consistently trying to write recommendations that better addressed the issues that admission offices were interested in. This was a change that I read as a conscious effort to inculcate a stronger association with the American college application culture.

I name the American college application process a “culture” because that is how I feel many international students need to approach it. It is not just about reading the prompts on an application, filling forms and answering questions. Applying to school in America is about understanding the spirit of the American liberal arts education — something that applicants show they have done through their essays. College essays are, to me, a small glimpse into how students think, how they view the world around them and how they situate themselves in it.

This is a challenge that is not simply procedural. Most Pakistani applicants apply after completing O and A Levels, administered by the University of Cambridge. In my observation of the system, it produces individuals with diverse skill sets that will make great members to any team. But the A Levels do not teach students to formulate perceptions of the world around them. Its exam-centric nature forces students to master subject matter for the big day, but it offers little guidance on how to create your own views and present unique ideas. This holds true most for science and engineering curriculums, on which many schools I came across tend to focus.

Pakistani students often find writing the personal statement on applications to the United Kingdom much easier to fathom than writing essays for the American application system. This could be just about prompts, but it also highlights the differing attitudes of American and British education systems.

For purposes of a rather simplistic portrayal, if we take the idea of American universities to be the production of university professors (as Sir Ken Robinson puts it in his famed TED talk), then the idea of British universities seems to be to produce highly skilled individuals that can be critical members of industrial, commercial or even academic teams. The British system seems to focus less on fostering individual thought as opposed to mastery of systems on which the world is run.

I am in no position to make a value judgment on either system, and I accept that this is an incomplete picture of both systems. These are merely possible conclusions that provide some sort of explanation to my school’s dilemma. Despite their effort to focus on the American application culture, students still find it hard to place themselves in the American essay mindset through no fault of their own; they are just not prepared to do so.

The questions I answered back home were mostly of this nature: “What SAT score do I need to get to Princeton? How many A Level subjects must I get A’s in?” These are indicative of a systemic failure to understand the holistic nature of the American application process. Students are trained to fulfill milestones, not to be bigger thinkers, and are therefore shortchanged when applying to U.S. universities.

Of course, exceptions exist, and some schools do better than others. The only explanation I could fathom was that successful students are more able to place themselves in the American essay mindset because they have had wider exposure than other students. Experiences with certain activities or people both allow and force successful candidates to form their own perceptions of the world. This exposure comes from social and economic background, some extracurricular activities or direct reach to American universities.

If this is in fact the case, then the American college application is biased in favor of students that for any reason have had a chance to get this exposure. This is a problem that schools must work to correct, but there is also the option to reach out to such students from American institutions. Even if they don’t make it here, it would still be valuable exposure that would add to the service these institutions provide to the world.

On social entrepreneurship

12 Apr 2012

Published in the Daily Princetonian on 12 April 2012.

This year’s introduction of the Keller Center’s eLab incubator program as well as HackPrinceton and the recent creation of the Development Design Initiative have all brought much needed attention to Princeton’s entrepreneurial culture. The annual TigerLaunch — supplemented by the independent TigerLabs 3-month incubator program for startups and the healthy activities of the Princeton Entrepreneurship Club — are steadily beginning to showcase the university’s entreprenurial potential to larger and larger audiences.

Princeton is not the first name that comes to mind when we think of startups and entrepreneurship at American colleges. We are largely entrenched as a prime school of social sciences, but despite the stellar reputation and standing of our engineering school, have not been at the forefront of producing leaders in the entrepreneurial space.

But for anyone who witnessed or took part in TigerLaunch last weekend, it is clear that Princeton is bustling with smart, useful ideas and great people willing to do great things with them. Take the case of Pasand,  a social enterprise putting a low-cost, environmentally sustainable sanitary pad on a market of 87.5 million girls in India between the ages of 11-18. They took the prize at TigerLaunch and have made the news multiple times. What is impressive is the sheer dedication with which the team of undergrads continues to run the company and their ability to become part of a larger solution to a complex sociocultural problem.

Duma, another Princeton start-up, is working to target income inequality by making it easy to find jobs and hire people over the widely used SMS network in Kenya. Collections — winner of TigerLaunch 2012’s entrepreneurship track — is reinventing the OS X Finder by allowing access to files stored in the cloud in a native interface, an endeavor that it convincingly argues is actually fulfilling Steve Jobs’ vision in a way that Apple is failing to do.

These are only some of the great ideas at Princeton. I would love to help get Duma working or just get my hands on Collections because it’s so useful. The immediate question, for me at least, is how we can turn Princeton into an entrepreneurial leader.

There are great opportunities to do so. Princeton has many things going for it to qualify as a great place to start a business. The massive support and resources available at the University are invaluable. Our team found our first customers in another company at TigerLaunch, and we found invaluable advice from judges, mentors and audience members that seemed as interested as us in turning Princeton into a start-up hub.

In fact, Princeton’s lack of a strong entrepreneurial past gives new companies that start off at Princeton a sort of de-facto first mover advantage in attracting attention from investors, press and customers on the East Coast. Arguably what we need is one success story: one company that can provide the tipping point for a talented student body to take up the risk of starting companies at Princeton.

The founders of Tussle, a Princeton start-up that has grown in Tigerlabs, hold this exact opinion. In my conversations with them, it was evident that there was a great need for talent to help get these companies off the ground.

Some say that venture capitalists are interested in investing in people not just ideas or companies. There is no shortage of bright, driven people at Princeton. And, as we saw at TigerLaunch, students in nontechnical majors formed a large fraction of the teams. How can Princeton best harness this “people-power”?

If more Princeton classes worked to address external, societal problems, we might be able to do great things to help New Jersey, as was an idea floated in a recent discussion. And as a school with a strong grounding in the liberal arts, Princeton is at a great place to make this dream a reality because it gives its students a substantial grounding in the workings of the society around them.

And work on it has already begun. Every year many great projects from COS 333: Advanced Programming Techniques are marketed directly to customers or deployed at Princeton. The engineering department’s popular class EGR 495: Social Entrepreneurship has become a seed for many great companies that are out there solving real world problems and empowering the people with whom they do business. These problems go far beyond the Orange Bubble and even American shores.

Perhaps that is where our current competitive advantage lies: social entrepreneurship. The term on its own is vague, but has taken on the meaning of businesses that take on the initiative of creating social returns — as opposed to simply financial ones — or addressing issues of social change. Princeton has great potential to continue working in the service of all societies and entrepreneurship is one great way to do it. As we build on our collective resources, like we do at TigerLaunch, it will become clear that these new companies can operate as part of a large collaborative network. There is a lot more that a successful network of companies can tackle together than just start-ups in isolation.

Part of the reason why Princeton isn’t more renowned for its entrepreneurship has been the lack of a culture that fosters entrepreneurial initiatives. If this year’s developments are anything to go by, we might be on the right track to address this. Harnessing this Princeton power can only bring us closer to our communities and our larger goals as an institution.

The curse of liberal arts

29 Mar 2012

Published in the Daily Princetonian on 29 March 2012.

They say college is a time to find yourself. I feel like I’ve done the exact opposite. Almost three years in at Princeton, and I seem to have slowly lost strands of what I once thought defined me. Everything I believe has been laid open by the challenges, ideas and thoughts of this great institution.

Not long after I got here I realized that I would have to question everything I believed myself to be, everything I thought I had concluded to be true. Slowly but surely all that we stand for becomes open to question. Our goals, our belief in ourselves, others, the education system, the economy, even our belief in religion and God — everything is challenged.

Perhaps that is the beauty of being around some of the best minds in the world and their eager pupils: the vulnerability of asking questions about yourself and trying to find answers and accepting that many times the answer is simply, “I don’t know.”

That’s the point, isn’t it? To let go of what we came here with and slowly begin to answer the questions that our parents, our teachers and our communities once answered for us. The first step in letting yourself go, leaving your mind bare and impressionable, is to accept that we don’t have answers to everything. It is from there that we truly begin to look.

In that process we begin to lose our old selves, losing the clarity that we so doggedly believed we had. I was talking to a friend when we were abroad last year, and both of us realized that in some ways we now had more connections with this campus than we did with our homes. Old friends and old memories become exactly that: old. We work and try to search for the new: the paths we might take and the turns that might present themselves.

In a fearfully real sense, our identities have a whole new context. Suddenly I’m studying things that I never thought I’d study and working on projects I had never envisioned. Why? I’m not quite sure. Where will they lead me? Not a clue. In the grand image of Steve Jobs’ famous Stanford address, I’m trying to find what I love to do. I have ideas, but I’m not sure, so I plan to continue looking. I expect to come to conclusions, rethink them and change my mind repeatedly until I’m content.

The freedom of being able to doubt and rethink everything myself is often what I relish most about my time here. It seems right, almost, to not settle, but to keep moving and looking for better answers. But the ‘real’ world beyond Fitz-Randolph seems to think otherwise, and it bugs me.

I stroll on to the job fair and try to get a couple of interviews. “Why are you studying what you’re studying?” they’d ask. Honestly, I really don’t know. But as the gods of technical interviews have taught me, “I don’t know” seems to be the dreaded answer. I don’t want to tell them I have no idea what I’m doing. But I don’t. But I need to show I can think well. But that doesn’t imply I have answers, it should only mean that I ask the right questions. Right?

To be fair, I’m not as stumped as I seem, but I wish everything were clearer. I wish it were acceptable that I do not consider myself smart enough to have the correct answers and that I might, faced with something that is obviously an improvement over what I doing, change my mind.

I hope to learn — by getting as many different experiences as possible — to grow as a person and to contribute to whatever group I am a part of. Sometimes this just seems impossible. At every stage of this process, there are always people who look better prepared. They came to a decision about what they wanted to do and stuck to it.

And that’s great. Quite frankly, I understand why companies or graduate schools may choose someone with a sense of direction as opposed to someone without one. But in the spirit of a liberal arts education, what of those who change their minds? Is that the death sentence of a well-defined path to a great career?

One of my closest friends decided to change majors in the middle of his fourth semester here. It was a great decision, but it was much harder than, in all fairness, it seems like it should have been. It is almost as if choices like these are between giving up all you have worked for and the chance to find something new.

Should it be that hard? Should we have to decide that we will in all likelihood never want to return to what we originally thought was right for us just to see if something else makes more sense? The freedom to question yourself that this great institution presents, and the demand of direction at so many stages after, just does not add up.

The Pequod is still too damn high

1 Mar 2012

Originally Published in the Daily Princetonian on 1 March, 2012.

Three years ago, the USG and its Undergraduate Life Committee began to look at ways to reduce costs for students. The Pequod became an important subject, one which students then indicated was high on the list of issues they wanted addressed. As part of the USG’s push in 2009-10, Dean of the College Nancy Malkiel and Deputy Dean of the College Peter Quimby wrote to the faculty to encourage a push toward e-reserves in the face of rising textbook costs. Today, the Pequod is still alive and kicking, however, albeit in the face of some movement toward e-reserves.

The question that still  seems to be perplexing is why Pequod packets must exist in the first place. Some professors still prefer to teach with Pequods, as the ULC report highlights. In the case of language classes, having a bound packet that the class can work on together can be useful to ensure that progress is smooth. The Pequod is then a premium distribution network for photocopied readings.

There is then the issue of getting around copyright strangleholds when readings cannot be posted online. There is some confusion as to what these copyright limitations are exactly. The library is allowed to publish excerpts of works for educational use as long as they are within ‘fair-use’ guidelines, i.e., shorter than a certain length in most cases.

How the Pequod addresses this issue is not quite clear. There is likely some duplication of fair-use content that could have just as easily been put up as an e-reserve. Even when readings exceed fair-use guidelines, the library has the option to seek permission from publishers. With some classes that have both Pequods and e-reserves, it seems that Pequods can get around copyright issues when the library cannot.

There is also the possibility that documents in packets simply have not been scanned and Pequod provides a convenient service to turn documents into class readings.

The placement of Pequod in the University’s distribution system is also puzzling. Pequod printing is an independent for-profit business that does not maintain regular contact with the University, unlike Labyrinth Books. This was true at least until the time of the last USG study. The Pequod retains monopoly control over the distribution of photocopied readings in Princeton. The ULC’s study has indicated that packet’s are ‘vastly’ overpriced, but in another communication also notes that the monopoly is maintained via low profit margins. So there is some lack of clarity there. But interestingly, the Pequod enterprise caters only to a select group of schools around the area. Other major schools do seem to offer a mix of e-reserves and free photocopied readings where possible.

All this leaves us with the conclusion that an overpriced paper distribution mechanism presents an antiquated mechanism to distribute readings. E-reserves, on the other hand, presents a fast, flexible, sustainable solution compared to mounds of Pequods. If most readings are made available online under fair-use guidelines, or with explicit permission of publishers, the University community is saving on paper and profits paid to middlemen and getting the added benefit of choosing which readings to selectively print out if students or faculty members choose to do so. Despite OIT’s introduction of print quotas, there is little to suggest that a large number of students require extensions on their quotas, giving room for readings to be printed on student accounts.

There is room, however, to make e-reserves more useful and easier to adapt. Professors should not be expected to let go of inertia and swiftly shift to e-reserves. The library’s reserve request system is helpful but not the most intuitive at this point, perhaps prompting the need for bettering the system and reaching out to specific teachers directly.

From the students’ point of view, many scanned readings do not undergo Optical Character Recognition, meaning that students without expensive OCR software will not be able to highlight or annotate text conveniently electronically, in which case they must print the readings out and annotate by hand.

Changes, such as improving the interface to get reserves and using smarter OCR before putting up readings, can vastly improve student and faculty experiences. These may not even be recurring expenses. Other initiatives can include targeting classes with high Pequod prices, say over $250, and helping professors move as much material online as possible instead of waiting for them to catch on voluntarily. This effort can double as training so that professors are familiar with the system in the future as well.

But on a larger scale, moving toward free, easily distributed readings is an opportunity for the University to become a leader in promoting free knowledge and information as far as possible. An effort toward increasing sustainability has led to print quotas and even experimenting with Kindles in class. We can take all of that further by pushing for freer, easier and faster access to information when and where possible. There is no shortage of material generated on this campus, and leading the drive toward making research and readings more accessible can position Princeton to be one of the pioneers of accessible information in education.

Culture and Athletics

8 Feb 2012

Originally published in the Daily Princetonian on 8 February 2012.

In the past two years, I have raised funds extensively for both cultural events and to set up a club sport. My personal experience has suggested that finding cash for cultural events is easier than finding resources to buy sports equipment. This bias raises interesting questions about event funding on campus.

Of course I understand that other people in similar positions may not have had the same experience I did and that my analysis is made more difficult by the differences in financial requirements, the number of possible funders and also the fundraisers’ knowledge of the systems they are navigating.

My general interactions with funding applications have suggested that it is not terribly hard to find financial support from the University to sponsor cultural events, at least if you look in the right places. Since events that spread awareness about cultural diversity (or even simply provide entertainment) often target a greater audience than most sports clubs, it is perhaps understandable that this is so. In addition to the USG Projects Board, various administrative bodies (and their associated awareness campaigns such as Alcohol Initiative), the residential colleges, as well as academic departments can provide funding for cultural events.

In contrast, Princeton athletics remains the primary funder of sporting activities. As such, annual funding requests for athletics are more regimented, formal and more heavily scrutinized. Consequently, it is much more difficult to set up a sporting organization than to plan a cultural event. In this light, it seems that we are undervaluing sporting events in comparison to our overly abundant free-food supply.

It is harder to prove to authorities that a sports club is established and running with a mandatory one-year trial period for all new club sports, during which no funding is provided. Other student organizations appear to have it much easier in terms of proving that a devoted membership exists and that interest has reached critical mass. In fact, most organizations can get by without doing this at all. Take, for example, the extensive list of dormant cultural organizations that may theoretically receive funding for occasional events.

Curiously, there is a greater range of metrics for what athletic groups have accomplished than for cultural groups, which would suggest that funding opportunities might be easier to come by. Counterintuitively, this results in an environment where funding becomes harder to find for club sports that need initial support to get them off the ground. This is not a criticism of the athletics department but an interesting distinction that prompts the question of what campus funding is for.

Campus athletics does a good job of accommodating club sports where possible. Makeshift practice space in Dillon is arranged; storage and transport facilities are catered for as well. There are limited fundraising activities available, too: The rugby team, for example, referees at the annual dodgeball tournament to support its annual needs.

But it is almost impossible to buy sporting equipment, make coaches available and create a more permanent practice and playing space without funding and renewed infrastructural support. Club sports are hence disadvantaged, especially when compared to other student groups.

Perhaps the goal of campus funding is, broadly, to enrich the student experience, as well as to add to the lives of other University members and the surrounding community. Indeed, cultural groups also cater to the broader Princeton community. Campus athletics, on the other hand, are restricted largely to students, but they nonetheless have the ability to add to the student experience as much as other campus activities.

The nature of this funding disparity is such, however, that nothing but a top-level administrative decision is likely to change the availability of funds direct to athletic organizations. Considering that sporting needs also encompass fields and storage space, sports without mass support will find it very hard to get adequate support at all. The result is that a sporting organization with a similar membership to that of non-athletic student groups will find it much harder to get off the ground.

Of course, it is difficult to regulate support to capital-intensive student interests such as club sports. The question then becomes about the fairness of potentially disadvantaging students for wanting to play a sport for which there is not a mass campus interest and hence no prior organization.

Club sports and cultural groups can add to campus life in similar ways. Clubs already contribute to events such as Cane Spree, and the international nature of some niche sports can be further used to spread cultural awareness. Additionally, sports have the added benefit of improving student health and fitness. Extending opportunities for club sports to work with initiatives that work toward these goals, and rewarding clubs with infrastructural support can help correct this structural disadvantage. Club sports are great additions to campus and can become much more given a bit of support. A look at the funding structure is probably a good start.

Please Go Away

16 Dec 2011

Originally published in the Daily Princetonian on 16 December 2011.

The semester has finally ended, and my decision to study abroad in the fall is bearing many rewards — not the least of which is a two-month long winter break. In retrospect, I’m glad that I made that decision.

Studying abroad allowed me to take classes on subject matter that I couldn’t have studied at Princeton in my position, including a computer animation class that we don’t offer at the moment. I was able to take an ethnomusicology course that I couldn’t take at Princeton as an undergraduate and am now considering graduate options in music that seemed impossible three months ago. I made new friends — students from Princeton that I traveled with, as well as students in England that I’ll keep in touch with. Oxford’s tutorial system and its one-on-one attention helped me find a mentor in one of my professors.

But the decision to study abroad still wasn’t easy. So for freshmen, or sophomores, or others still who have the option to study abroad, here are a few recollections that might help contextualize that decision.

The Office of International Programs’ Guide to International Programs calls a semester abroad a “critical complement” to your time at Princeton. Study abroad offers the opportunity to engage with international issues and broaden your intellectual capability. Even though I traveled to an English-speaking country and didn’t learn a new language, I still found great academic opportunities in a different cultural and academic tradition.

I got a chance to engage with a radically different education system, allowing me to look at our system at Princeton more critically. One of our professors, for example, always criticized the American system’s emphasis on original thought in a student’s writing. “No one cares what you think,” he said, “and no one cares what I think.” It allowed me to look at some of my own academic work in more realistic terms; often, the insertion of my own opinions was just an assessment technique and not really a pure furthering of academic thought.

Going to England was also a nice break from Princeton’s cutthroat stress, the race to find a career and the constant feeling of being surrounded by amazing and talented friends who seem to have already figured it out. I feel our minds are forced to think in new ways when we’re in new settings. As we learn to adapt and accept different social norms, our minds take different intellectual paths, too. A semester away from Princeton got me out of the intellectual rut of not being able to find an internship and gave me some ideas for a way forward after graduation.

Of course, this divergence from a regular Princeton class schedule makes it difficult to fulfill departmental requirements, especially for students pursuing certificates. Luckily, I was able to go to a program sponsored by the Wilson School — my certificate program — while the computer science department  — my major — was flexible in its own requirements. It’s also worth mentioning the engineering department’s opinion that certificates don’t matter in the end in its FAQ for study abroad: “It will be clear to anyone reading your transcript that you have done significant work in that area, even if you don’t get the certificate.” I was actually in a position where it was my major that I wouldn’t be getting, so I think I might have been pushing it a little. But it’s nice to know the freedom exists.

There are other aspects to deciding to go abroad as well. We are only at Princeton for eight semesters, and the prospect of losing one or two, especially if you value the Princeton community, is definitely worth considering. The engineering department’s FAQ is a bit dismissive of this concern, too. It says, “Many of your friends will probably come to visit you when you’re abroad and wish they took the opportunity themselves. With email and Facebook you certainly won’t be out of touch, and if you keep a blog while you’re away, your friends will know what you’re doing all the time.”

This I find harder to buy. Yes, you keep in touch with friends, but it’s a fundamentally different experience. I think realizing it will be different before you make the decision is important. The blog never seems to work out, and there’s only so much friends will say over wall posts. Keeping up with viral videos, however, will not be a problem; procrastination is a transnational concern.

Ultimately, Princeton has a dedicated staff working to get you to leave this place and have a satisfying experience wherever you go. As Dean Bogucki said poignantly in one of his emails, “Please go away.”

Rethinking Our Ideals: Multiculturalism

22 Nov 2011

Originally published in the Daily Princetonian November 22, 2011 as Thoughts from abroad: Rethinking our ideals.

Europe seems confused about multiculturalism. David Cameron and Angela Merkel have both proclaimed in the last 12 months that multiculturalism is dead. This is the same David Cameron that four years ago was celebrating how much immigrants had given the UK. His rationalization now is not that multiculturalism was wrong all along or that a European identity in the 21st century does not include immigrants. In fact, if predictions of population demographics in the coming years are to be trusted Europe needs immigrants now more than ever.

So what is Europe’s argument for letting multiculturalism go? For the most part politicians seem to highlight continued segregation in communities, a lack of cultural integration, tensions between state and nongovernmental community groups — especially Muslim ones. European governments feel they have failed to realize and promote a vision of multiculturalism that is accepted and embraced by all stakeholders.

Point taken. But ground reality suggests the situation might not be as bleak. Ignore for the sake of argument the violent, at times racist, rhetoric that European politicians have employed. In Britain at least that leaves a society with a heavy immigrant population that oft lives in its own areas, keeps its own systems and inhabits little cocoons in larger England. It’s not integrated in the traditional sense, but it’s not hostile in the traditional sense either. You don’t walk into these communities fearing covert political action or underlying violent sentiment. As a South Asian visitor from America studying abroad in England, I feel both immigrants and hosts seem to realize that they are dependent on each other and so both live their lives and do their jobs. You have a pleasant conversation, exchange business, and that’s all.

There are differences in how immigrants and hosts relate to national identity. But it is no longer black and white. Second- and third-generation immigrants are now trying to forge new collective identities for themselves. They see both their own cultural past and Britain’s heritage as things they derive from but don’t belong to. Their identity is fluid and in a process of major reimagination. And the question is: Are they still immigrants? In fact, this question is pertinent to all sorts of individuals who have claim to broadly transnational identities — such as international students, who often integrate into larger societies as part of an academic culture but still aren’t naturalized.

New reports from America have revealed that the NYPD is spying on Muslim students and even on Muslim partners in the community. There is mistrust everywhere, and ethnic and racial profiling is rampant as ever. The new government line for security procedures says that flags are raised not because of ethnicity but because of activity that fits certain patterns. There is little clarification on what that means, but it seems like it could mean this: We don’t target you for a security check because you’re from the Middle East and Muslim; we do it because you take frequent trips to the Middle East and because you have activity with Muslim communities.

That is twisty logic that might work in courtrooms but shouldn’t work in moral debate. For some reason security policies are no longer about protecting fundamental rights — they are targeted solely at combating terrorism. There is a subtle but important difference there. If the moral justification for security policy is to protect human rights — specifically the right to life and protection from external aggression — then racial profiling would be unacceptable, itself being an infringement on equal treatment and non-discrimination policies. But when we make security policy just about anti-terrorism it is easy to fall into the trap of accepting anything that might be politically correct at the time.

Compared to America spying on even its own Muslim citizens, multiculturalism hardly seems as big a problem in Europe. But then I have to stop in my tracks and think of how I answer the question: “How are things in America? Have you ever felt targeted?” I always answer: “Not outside of airports, no.”

That makes me question my viewpoint as a student in both America and Europe. Politicians have made strong statements, governments have taken Islamophobic positions, but I don’t feel targeted in everyday life. I assume that debates about immigrants would be as explosive in regions other than the West if they were important political issues there. I understand that xenophobia is not unique to the West.

But aiding that xenophobia with charged political rhetoric is unique to the West, and it is this that turns xenophobia into racism. It is the difference between an uneasy query into understanding other cultures and specifically targeting them because we are afraid. Somewhere along the line a knee-jerk uneasiness with immigrants has become a more organized, structurally racist viewpoint of national identity.

My question to policymakers is simple: If multiculturalism is dead, what do we replace it with? My claim to a transnational identity is motivated by the feeling that I have learned more and furthered a stronger human understanding by living in different cultures. For me multiculturalism is a romantic idealization of all our principles about human rights and equality coming to fruition. It is not just demographics but something much bigger. I hope others too see reason to protect it.

Review: Pakistan – Folk and Pop Instrumentals

6 Nov 2011

This is a review I wrote over the summer for a blog that still hasn’t materialized. So I thought I’d put it on here before it dies in the depths of my soon to be obsolete file system. I shouldn’t really call it a review as much as my thoughts aloud.

A ghazal-like alaap is interrupted by an excited call of ‘Take over Panthers’, and the rush of a slightly ear-splitting powerful guitar sound very like the 60s rock that the world has heard. The first few seconds of the Pakistan: Folk and Pop Instrumentals (1966-1976) LP are a signal of something challenging, perhaps powerful, perhaps revolutionary, but who knows whether it ever got there. It takes only a few more minutes to realize that the interruption is not meant to be a call to reject the East and embrace the West, but a mere reinterpretation of both. It’s quite shocking how little we know about Pakistani rock from the time, and one wonders if it suffered the consequences of being misinterpreted itself; an energetic call to enjoy ourselves being heard as the revolutionary twangs of violence and immorality.

The album is a compilation put together by Stuart Ellis of Radiodiffusion International, and both his blog posts on the Radiodiffusion website and the album itself reflects his fascination with this genre of South Asian experimentation from the ‘swinging 70s’, a title celebrating Karachi’s avid night life before the Zia regime had its ways. As much as the album is a signal to Pakistan’s famed and fabled ‘other side’, it is also a look into the music that film industries from both Pakistan and India did not care about. The Zia regime’s views and the film industries disinterest seem to have completely removed record of this music from our cultural history. As rock re-emerged post Zia, there is little reference to this material, but what is interesting is how similar trends seem to have popped up again. In many ways then, perhaps little has changed from the time.

Fusion goes back farther than Coke Studio and Junoon, and the message hits home with the Panthers’ electric sitar, that is supported by a pronounced bass in a sound that always gives the feeling that it wants to move forwards, expand. The Mods go beyond instrumentation, recording folk melodies with western instrumentation, not without a twist or two. It is suspected that record labels perhaps only let them use limited recording facilities to record folk tunes, not more experimental stuff. The Blue Birds again extend a playful flirtation with folk melodies, and like most modern Pakistani rock, there’s something very local, very obviously desi about their sound even as they take on a ride with less traditional parts to their music. A slightly more hummable electric guitar takes over as you delve into The Bugs.

Interestingly these are not unfamiliar techniques for fusion. Adding an eastern instrument to a guitar, bass and drum sound or playing an eastern melody on western instruments, both have been rediscovered this decade.

Renowned film composers Sohail Rana and Nisar Bazmi are also featured on the album but in a slightly different persona than expected. Sohail Rana’s sound could be an electric rock anthem from Liverpool but happens to be Lahori, and features some truly psychedelic sitar work. An acoustic guitar finally makes its way through courtesy Nisar Bazmi, and it seems like there’s some Zeb and Haniya in there. Perhaps fitting considering his affiliation with new talent. And then there’s some mad bass again. There’s nothing quite like the way the sitar fits in with everything else here.

It’s funny perhaps that we might look at this music in reverse, trying to find references to modern music in sounds from the 60s and 70s, a handicap arguably the result of our cultural ignorance and hysteria. Our lack of connection to any of this music is a signal of the drain the Zia era seems to have given us, and like the songs on this album, have rendered us voiceless, merely instruments of the many battles we face.

Slightly less depressing however, are the songs by The Aay Jays, The Abstract and The Fore Thoughts, that round off the album. There is the slight familiarity of shaadi or ‘function’ music in all three, perhaps because of the powerful organ sound, which is powerful because of its mere presence and the slight drain it might give your ears. The instruments themselves take you back to the PTV days (where in this case, back is forwards), but the function sound masks a strong groove, played on bass and an ensemble of percussion instruments that vary in most songs. It’s a different sort of mood setting sound, a conversation, a suggestion and a celebration all at once.

Many western reviewers have highlighted the bands’ nightclub audiences, but whether they actually played at raving dance parties or as polite entertainment at tamer diner parties is not completely clear. Perhaps both are true. For now however, their sound is conveniently classified into garage rock, surf rock, fusion rock, or folk rock, whichever you may find easier to push into your listening vocabulary.

Hearing the album is bittersweet, in some ways. There is more to us than we thought, more to us than anyone may still think. Yet our voices remain under threat as they were forty years ago, and like the musical traditions that we rediscovered, we’ve rediscovered other, less pleasant things too. Ellis dug up old records and found the original masters that have been featured on this album. He also tracked many of the musicians down, along with many others that seemed to have never recorded at all. The musicians all relocated to the West, leaving what appears as no trail behind.

But, if things haven’t changed much at all, than we can be happy that things haven’t taken as bad a down turn as we think they might have, and there’s less to worry about. Like always, let the shaadi music ensue.

Coke Studio’s Possible Timelessness.

5 Nov 2011


To Kia Hua played on shuffle on Monday and got me thinking on the levels of interaction in Coke Studio. I thought I’d write a short post before I forget what I was thinking.

The process represented by To Kia Hua epitomizes what makes the Coke Studio discourse compelling and revolutionary.  It’s perhaps best to point out here that this is not my favorite Coke Studio song, not from this season, certainly not from the ones past but the process was illustrative.

Here’s a look at the levels of interpretation in the song:

  • Bilal Khan takes emotional sentiment from college-aged fellows around him and writes a song of lost love and discovering your way. He said once that this was perhaps the one song he wrote about general feelings not necessary those of his own.
  • The original underground aesthetic of the song is presented in a bootleg video of trademark Khan on acoustic guitar. It’s a style to me, made necessary by expensive studio time, lack of studio space, perhaps even lack of electricity to plug an amp (although that’s stretching it I admit)
  • Rohail Hyatt listens to presumably a slightly more semi-professional recording of the song, and his head starts whirring with ideas
  • Khan plays it live for Hyatt, Hyatt brings in Babar Khanna
  • Babar Khanna formulates a dhol groove to accompany the song, this becomes it’s new centre. So the process thus far has changed the focus from Khan’s guitar to Khanna’s percussions, orchestrated by Hyatt.
  • The House Band builds off of Khanna’s dhol groove. The more I listen to it the more I realize what Rohail Hyatt said in an interview. The entire song is based not on a reworking of Khan’s underground recording, but on Khanna’s improvised dhol groove. Sure, Khan’s song remains, but it is Khanna that runs it now.
  • Hyatt then reinterprets the whole process in his own vision, mastering and producing to a final version, emphasizing the dhol groove, creating strong emotional starts and stops. It is the flamingly progressive look to Khan’s original which was deep but stationary.

Of course there’s other stuff going on too. Watching the song with the visuals is so much more powerful than the audio. The amount of people and effort (and money) involved shows. The bridge (arguably the most interesting part of Khan’s compostions) is more prominent.

And the simple fact that Coke Studio itself can be so many different things. It is simultaneously a curated look into Pakistani music, a massive Coca-Cola ad, a Rohail Hyatt thought experiment, and a window to Pakistani music for internationals and estranged locals alike. To many others it’s sheer power stalls the music industry by being the centre of attention and grabbing all the big names, and more importantly telling everyone who the big names are and should be. Many are estranged but I tend to take the Studio’s side, not theirs.

What makes Junoon timeless to me is the discourse that goes on there. The east meets west persona is not a reinterpretation of one musical genre, it is many people’s takes on many ideas put together, and packaged with one strong emotion. Similarly Coke Studio, orchestrated by Hyatt is packed with cycles on decoding everything around us and then putting it back together in a nice package that sells ridiculously well.

Sure it’s somewhat formulaic now. Pick new starts, a couple of old timers, put a few together, add traditional elements to Western Rock, package with high quality video and good sound and that good old disclaimer before you download. Part of the charm of Seasons 1 and 2 is gone because the formula appears to be turning static. I’m sure Hyatt himself would disagree. But some greatness remains.(I wrote this Monday but delayed to put it up because I wanted to put up something on Imran Khan’s rally first, too much emotion there to let go with my random Coke Studio analyses)

10 years on from 9/11

15 Sep 2011

Originally published at Next Gen Journal, 12/9/2011.

A break from writing turned rather long, so please excuse the follies in this one. And the few after actually, but you get the idea.

I was out with my grandmother on the streets of Lahore 10 years ago. We walked through the lounge door, and the news was on, the dreadful image that haunts us all today repeating itself behind a numbing barrage of voices and confusion. I sat there writing invitation cards to my 11th birthday, not quite understanding what it meant or what to make of it all.

10 years, and I still don’t. Life has been thrown open by all of this, that awful image defining what we fight for, what we fight against, the battles that our minds stumble through every day, the struggle to find the truth, figure out our identities, understand our beliefs, test our beliefs,  defend our beliefs, then struggle again to figure out what they are.

People often ask me how things are in Pakistan. I’ve live abroad for over two years now, and I still haven’t figured out how to answer that question. On one hand, I’ve lived in Pakistan all my life.   I still live there when I’m not studying or working abroad, and life is good. We go see the new Kung Fu Panda in 3D, and I go visit my old school with nervous high school seniors talking about applying to college in the US. Things are the same. On the other hand, I now prove my identity at a few checkpoints, run through a bunch of body guards with machine guns and then get pat down to do it. And the news is true, factually at least, whatever goes with it is confusing to say the least.

Today, when I’m abroad, I want to not be Pakistani sometimes, just so that I can be who I am without being contained by my nationality, but it’s hard to do. I am very Pakistani. I don’t understand politics.  I’m a geek, and my accent with all its changes is still rather brown. There’s obviously more, but it’s all there. And when I’m abroad I inevitably find myself trying to be a Pakistani ambassador, getting viewpoints across, trying to defend things, accepting the wrongs, standing by the rights. And at home, I’m the American ambassador championing freedom, tolerance and life, but then at a loss at times to defend some foreign policy that scares all of us in Pakistan.

I can’t play blame games, for quite frankly who am I to play the blame game.  I am no policy expert. I like many others am confused about what I want to do, what I believe, who to believe and what I must to do for all of this. All I can tell people is about myself, my life that is Pakistani, now somewhat American and somewhat otherwise. After 9/11, me and my friends are forced to figure out our beliefs, things we perhaps should have done anyway. And while our nature tells us to tread back safely into our cultural and historical set of beliefs when we’re confused, everything around us tells us there’s something wrong.

Slowly some of us make our peace with parts of belief, and begin to stitch it all together. Except now our families are also under threat for wanting to prevent bloodshed, and you’d think wanting to not fight war would help.

Perhaps it does get awkward at times being Muslim on 9/11. Am I expected to be apologetic? It reminds me of the Park 51 scenario. I feel for the families of everyone that lost their lives on 9/11, and for everyone else whose world changed in even the slightest way. I didn’t lose someone close on 9/11 itself, but my world has changed since. I don’t know what to do to try and keep life safe, and I wish I had a remedy, but perhaps everyone is at a loss for one. We have our ways, but the killing continues and at times becoming numb to everything is what results, and one wonders what sort of people that makes us.

10 years on and we’re scared of Friday prayers, we’ve lost loved ones, we’ve lost our integrity and our dignity. And my American self wants to be more American, so I can help, and I wish there was more we could do to ease the pain. May all those we lost rest in peace, and may we all feel the hope for a more peaceful future.