Rock and roll memories of a theocracy
Granta, the British magazine of new writing, has recently published a special issue on Pakistan. The whole issue is worth reading (as is the case for most issues of Granta). But here I am going to talk particularly about Kamila Shamsie’s essay.
Shamsie talks about rock and pop music in her country, and what happened to it under Gen Zia-ul-Huq’s Islamising regime. She begins with Nazia and Zoheb Hassan’s Disco Deewane — Pakistan’s first pop video, before ‘Zia’s soulless rule sucked the life out of Pakistan’s youth culture’. Then, as the Zia era was coming to an end, she tells us about Vital Sign’s Dil Dil Pakistan, and the promise of Benazir Bhutto. Of course, Benazir’s promise was never realised, and Pakistan continued on the path set by Zia throughout the 1990s. And in the world saw Junoon’s Sufi Rock.
Shamsie goes on to say what has happened to Pakistan’s pop idols: Salman Ahmad ‘writes of receiving messages and signs from God, and of his certainty that he is doing God’s work through his music’; Junaid Jamshed ‘joined the Tablighi Jamaat’; and Ali Azmat is railing against ‘all sorts of Zionists … Hindu Zionists, Muslim Zionists, Christian and Jewish Zionists’.
That is what happens to rock gods in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan — a state that has been trying to become a theocracy for decades.
Shamsie isn’t the first to describe Zia’s Pakistan in Granta. Hanif Kureishi did that in Erotic politicians and Mullahs a quarter century ago:
The exhibition was full of Pakistani imitations of Western goods: bathrooms in chocolate and strawberry, TVs with stereos attached; fans, air conditioners, heaters; and an arcade full of Space Invaders. The lawyer got agitated.
These were Western things, of no use to the masses. The masses wanted Islam, not strawberry bathrooms or…or elections. Are elections a Western thing? I asked. Don’t they have them in India too? No—they’re a Western thing, the lawyer said. How could they be required under Islam? There need be only one party—the party of the righteous.
But Kureishi is of a different generation, whereas Shamsie and I were both born in the mid-1970s, after our countries had parted ways. And like her, I grew up in that tiny section of my society that had the means to experience rock and roll — by which of course I mean listening to the music.
And my memories of my country in that era is quite different from hers.
We lived in the mofussil Bangladesh when Zia ruled Pakistan. My father was a district engineer, and my parents’ social circle involved other civil and military bureaucrats, lawyers, and doctors. I recall evenings in the district club, where there were mixed double tennis tournaments, uncles playing card games in smoke-filled rooms usually off limits to kids, and aunties having their own soirees. And in the cantonment, alcohol was available.
When Zia was Islamising Pakistan, similar effects were completely absent in my world.
In my world, music continued to play on the television. Boney M, ABBA, Bee Gees were all regulars — disco continued into the 1980s for us. Never mind the bare shoulders, didn’t anyone in BTV know that rivers of Babylon is a proto-Zionist anthem?
Not just foreign stuff, BTV also played homegrown videos. The one that ought to be etched in the mind of anyone old enough to remember would Runa Laila frolicking around in a sari and ghoti-sleeved blouse singing Bari’r manush koy — remarkably, I couldn’t find a video for that song online!
Shamsie describes the beginning of a theocracy when a general named Zia ruled Pakistan. Of course, another general also called Zia emerged as the strongman in Bangladesh around the same time. According to Bangladesh’s current Chief Justice, Ziaur Rahman turned Bangladesh into a theocracy:
But by the Proclamations etc., the Martial Law Authorities, specially Major General Ziaur Rahman B.U. psc., changed the basic feature and structure of the Constitution so much so that secular Bangladesh had been deformed into a theocratic State.
Could it be that Khairul Haque doesn’t know what a theocracy is?
Or perhaps it’s just my privileged, cocooned, life. Perhaps outside the safety of my home, Ziaur Rahman’s Bangladesh was a theocracy.
After all, Khairul Haque is the Chief Justice of Bangladesh, and I am just a lowly blogger whose first political memory is the assassination of Ziaur Rahman.
But let me produce some evidence (not my faulty memory) in support of the proposition that Zia’s Bangladesh was no theocracy.
Exhibit one: what was on screen. Not just music videos, there were other stuff in our TV that had been banished from a theocratising Pakistan. Much like the ‘free world’, we too wondered who shot JR. And in Shokal Shondhya, we had our own Dallas. Meanwhile, three decades before Mostafa Farooqui, we had Salahuddin Zaki’s Ghuddi (shockingly, no video) and Alamgir Kabir’s Shimana Periye.
Exhibit two: tales from the underground. Pakistan had sufi rock, we had bauliana, whose pioneer Feedback‘s Mac talk about the era half way through here.
Exhibit three: Bichtira. Look up the issues from the 1970s if you can. Shahadat Chowdhury and the team produced a world class magazine (after accounting for the severe resource constraint) week in week out. Check out the subject matters, or the art in its advertisement. And oh, Bichitra was government owned, and Sha Chow was a cautious supporter of Zia.
Exhibit four: Shafiq Rehman’s Jai Jai Din the novel — cautiously opposing Zia’s politics, but the description of the life in affluent Dhaka is unthinkable in a theocracy.
Exhibit five: contemporaneous criticism of cultural changes under Zia. There are half a dozen essays in the era’s Eid special Bichitra, centre-left Shondhani and centre-right Robbar about the challenge faced by Bangla culture from creeping westernisation — morning visits (probhat feri) relegated in favour of midnight laying of wreaths on 21 February, new year’s eve parties becoming bigger than Pohela Boishakh, Bangla music under threat from the vulgar pop — and not Islamisation.
I believe this would suffice in Judge Khairul’s court, the standards are so low — contempt alert, comment at your own peril. Anyway, let me return to my memories, which are far clearer for the 1980s, when Michael Jackson thrilled even mofussil Bangladesh through the VCR. By then Zia was dead, and the new strongman in town was HM Ershad.
The 1980s did see an Islamising wave. The weekend was changed from Sunday to Friday. The Red Cross Society became the Red Crescent Society. And Ershad had a knack for dreaming on Thursday nights about attending the jumma prayer in a particular mosque that would have been cleaned up months earlier for the presidential visit. And Ershad believed laying flower at the Shaheed Minar — at dawn or midnight — was un-Islamic, he wanted to have a milad mehfil on 21 February.
But in my sheltered existence, there was hardly any impact of this theocracy. By the middle of the decade, we returned to Dhaka. I attended the Air Force’s Shaheen School. Many of my friends were military kids, who always seemed to have the latest videos or albums (and by the end of the decade, CDs).
Meanwhile, in my heavily politicised family, there were always talks of the struggle — the struggle to unseat the dictator, the struggle for democracy. My older cousins were involved with various student factions, and I’d hear about gun fights to chase out Ershad’s goons from Dhaka University halls. But when they were not struggling, my rebel cousins listened to the same stuff — Bon Jovi, Poison, the more serious ones U2 and Smiths — as the army kids.
I left Bangladesh with my family well before the end of the decade. But I was in Dhaka when Ershad was overthrown in December 1990. A few days later, Dhaka University’s student union organised an open air concert in the campus — the first of its kind. I wish I could say ‘I was there’, but the truth is, we couldn’t make it beyond Charu Kala, while the stage was near TSC.
I doubt Khairul Haque was there either, but I’d be surprised if he doesn’t know that the DU student union was dominated by the student wing of Zia’s party in 1990-91.
In fact, BNP’s victory in the first free election of the post-Ershad era owes a good deal to its student wing. In our constituency of the then Dhaka-10, AL was represented by the party chief, and an unknown major called Mannan defeated her handily. The local campaign office of BNP regularly played the latest hits, and before the BNP chief’s speech in the area, they even got one of the Different Touch members to play for them. Compared with that, AL’s broken record (literally) of Joy Bangla Bangla’r Joy (again, no video!) was b-o-r-i-n-g.
Of course, history doesn’t end in 1991. Eighteen years later, I was back in Dhaka witnessing another election, this time as an adult political analyst. In December 2008, it was AL camps and offices where the latest hits like Jatrabala played. This time, BNP played the broken record (figuratively) of Islam-in-danger. But then again, by this time, BNP believed:
The party believes that Islam is an integral part of the socio-cultural life of Bangladesh, and favors Islamic principles, as well as cultural views together. This is particularly seen through its alliance with the Islamic party of Jamaat.
May be Judge Khairul was right after all. Maybe there is some complicated theory of justice whereby Zia’s insertion of Bismillah inevitably led to the transmogrification of his heirs and the country three decades later. If so, someone should warn the Prime Minister to not re-insert those things into the constitution. Future of rock and roll in Bangladesh depends on it.